This past year presented so many different challenges and obstacles that tested our strength and resiliency. The global pandemic forced us to cope with situations we never even imagined, and a lot of us struggled with our mental health as a result. The good news is that there are tools and resources available that can support the well-being of individuals and communities.
Now, more than ever, we need to combat the stigma surrounding mental health concerns. That’s why this Mental Health Month Ron Huxley is highlighting the TraumaToolbox.com- what individuals can do throughout their daily lives to prioritize mental health, build resiliency, and continue to cope with the obstacles of COVID-19.
Throughout the pandemic, many people who had never experienced mental health challenges found themselves struggling for the first time. During the month of May, we are focusing on different topics that can help process the events of the past year and the feelings that surround them, while also building up skills and supports that extend beyond COVID-19.
We know that the past year forced many to accept tough situations that they had little to no control over. If you found that it impacted your mental health, you aren’t alone. In fact, of the almost half a million individuals that took the anxiety screening at MHAscreening.org, 79% showed symptoms of moderate to severe anxiety. However, there are practical tools that can help improve your mental health. We are focused on managing anger and frustration, recognizing when trauma may be affecting your mental health, challenging negative thinking patterns, and making time to take care of yourself.
It’s important to remember that working on your mental health and finding tools that help you thrive takes time. Change won’t happen overnight. Instead, by focusing on small changes, you can move through the stressors of the past year and develop long-term strategies to support yourself on an ongoing basis.
A great starting point for anyone who is ready to start prioritizing their mental health is to take a mental health screening at MHAscreening.org. It’s a quick, free, and confidential way for someone to assess their mental health and begin finding hope and healing. Ultimately, during this month of May, Ron Huxley wants to remind everyone that mental illnesses are real, and recovery is possible.
Check out the many mental health tools create free at the TraumaToolbox.com.
A common struggle for modern people is a disconnection between the head and heart. We know one thing to be true, in our head, but we don’t feel or experience that truth, in our hearts or lives. We might have “Know-ledge” that someone love us (a partner, family, friend) but we don’t feel or experience the “know-ing.”
The result of this disconnection is a wide rage of negative emotions and physiological reactions. This lack, of knowing in our hearts, is rapidly creating anxiety in the world. The manifestation is broken relationships, depression and suicidal ideations, and addiction to handle pain. A simple remedy is to reconnect the head and heart.
Neuroscience provides the key to reconnecting head and heart through the new science of neuroplasticity. This refers to the brains ability to reorganize into new networks and mental patterns. It used to be believed that the brain and nervous system only grew during childhood and then stopped. All our learned patterns were fixed once we were adults or at least drastically slowed down. We know know that this is not true.
Learning can occur across the lifespan and the brain can reroute circuits, repattern networks, and even create new brain matter in response to new social emotional inputs, environmental influences, repeated practices, and even small amounts of psychological stress (yes, stress). The brain can also relearn skills, like speaking and motor movement, following brain damage.
Because the brain can be redesigned it is called “plastic” or moldable. Children are an example of neuroplasticity. Developmentally, they are “experience-dependent” coming into the world with neuro-hardware possessing basic operating instructions but needing software or experiences from loving caregivers to program the brain and its resulting behaviors or actions.
The infant brain is primed for social contact and seeks healthy attachments. If those attachments are missed or the attachment bond is frightening, as in case of abused and neglected children, the result is a child with severe emotional and behavioral disturbances.
Fortunatley, if a chlid did not “inherit” a healthy attachment, an adult, through deep inner work and repairing with healthy adult partners, can “earn” their lost security.
NOTE: You can learn more about attachment in our free online course at Traumatoolbox.com
Here is a simple two-step practice that has been proven to change the brain in a positive way and connect the head to the heart:
1. Activate your head. What is you WANT to believe but don’t currently feel is true? Write this statement out on a piece of paper and say it outloud. Of course, it will not FEEL true because it is your head that is saying it, not your heart.
2. Activate your heart. Picture this statement “as if” it were true. Hold that image in your heart while you take slow, deep breaths. The breathing will keep the body from overriding the statements as not true. It just wants to protect you from hurt or disappoinment. Ignore it, or better yet, thank it for trying to protect you and continue to picture it.
This is not “whoo-whoo” philosphy. This is science. Research has proven that daily expressions of gratitude create literal changes in brain structure and mental functions. This is measureable change! The brain looks for reasons to validate what it believes. If you believe that you people are rude to you, your reticular activating system (a group of neural connectsion in your brain stem that play a crucial role in maintaining behavioral arousl, direct focus, and conciousness) will filter sensor input to be congruent with the thoughts you think about yourself and your world. The brain validates what you believe! If you think people are rude, you will see rude people everwhere. They are not hard to find…
If you think that people are kind and generous toward you, the reticular activating system will filter out the rude people and notice only kind and generous people. In turn, this will reinforce your knowledge of kind and generous people, and increase your knowing additional kind and generous people, developing new neural pathways in the physical brain so you have new mental capacity and memories, and new moods and behaviors will develop.
If this doesn’t convince you, listen to this interesting fact:
The heart is a more power, electrical object than your brain! The heart is about 100,000 times stronger electrically and up to 5000 ties stronger magnetically than the brain. Although imperceptible to us, the heart give off an electromagnetic (EEG) field that can be measured up to three feet away from our bodies. It you are depressed, angry, bitter…can others experience it whether they mentally understand it or not? Of course, they can. Ask any highly sensitive person and they will tell you how challenging it is to be in a room with another sad or angry person. The emotional field will shift their emotional state as well unless they mentally (head and hearts connection again) rehearse this this feeling is not their but belongs to others.
Here’s another fact:
The heart is not just a blood-pumping organ, it is a sensory organ. It acts as a “sophisticated information encoding and processing center that enables it to learn, remember, and make independent functional decisions.”
An emotion is e-motion or energy in motion. It is not just thoughts, in our head, that direct our lives. Our heart is an important area of personal and spiritual growth as well. We need it to have healthy relationships, make successful business decisions, and overcome traumatic events. This latter area is called “neuroresilience” as is a term coined by Ron Huxley in his online course: TraumaToolbox.com
It is really time to stop using our heads without connecting our hearts. Use the two-step practice, allow the principle of neuroplasticity to affect new change, and find more freedom in thoughts and emotions.
The phrase “sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me” is a childish idea that isn’t really true. It is a saying that is designed to be a reply to an insult or ward off bullying and discrimination. Adoptive families know the pain that comes from social stigma and stereotypes that surround adoption. The reality is that words do hurt but they can also heal.
1. the action or process of affirming something or being affirmed.
2. emotional support or encouragement.
Affirmative Adoption Words: to “affirm” is to state that something is true. It is a “higher truth” that helps us be who we were designed to be; face adversities, and aspire to be the best we can be.
The repetition of affirmative words can change habit patterns and attitudes. It isn’t just positive thinking. That implies there is no work involved or no struggle. Affirmations place ourselves into alignment with the best version of ourselves.
The best affirmations start with “I am…” This makes it real and authentic. It establishes our identity based on what we choose to be versus what others say we are or are not.
Affirmations cause us to take responsibility. It voices the belief that I am aware of something that needs to be changed and that I can and will do something about it. We are not victims. We are agents of change and healing to our families.
Beliefs are habitual patterns of thinking. They are often the result of our past experiences and contain old survival ideas that may no longer be needed. If we learned how to survive, we can unlearn any unhealthy patterns, and re-learn new, more powerful ways to think.
List 5 positive “I am…” affirmations:
Positive Adoption Language
The way we talk — and the words we choose — say a lot about what we think and value. When we use positive adoption language, we say that adoption is a way to build a family — just as birth is. Both are important, and neither is more important than the other.
Choose the following, positive adoption language instead of the negative talk that helps perpetuate the myth that adoption is second best. By using positive adoption language, you will reflect the true nature of adoption, free of innuendo.
A lot of people are looking for a therapist that understands their Christian values and beliefs. I offer online therapy for teens and adults who want to deal with anxiety, trauma, and difficult life situations from a faith based perspective. I have dedicated my career to finding practical solutions that combine 30 years of traditional mental health insights and tools with spiritual interventions that integrate the whole person (Body / Mind / and Spirit).
“Trauma can affect our spirit and our spirit can heal our trauma”
Ron Huxley, Faith-Based Family Therapist and Trauma-Informed Trainer
Trauma tells us lies about our identity. It internalizes outer pain into an inner reality. It tells us that we are unsafe, unwanted, unworthy, unloveable. It must be true because we keep getting this message from the world, the universe, from God, right? It must be true because it FEELS so true, right? Fortunately, that is not right.
Faith-Based Trauma Therapy uses trauma-informed, attachment-focused, and faith-based approaches to transform the false narratives written on our hearts.
TRAUMA-INFORMED = BODY
ATTACHMENT-FOCUSED = MIND
FAITH-BASED = SPIRIT
Trauma results in broken-heartedness, people feeling poorly about themselves, being unsafe in the presence of others, and estranged from God.
Trauma dysregulates our body. It impairs the nervous system and alters a child’s development. It hijacks our thinking brains with hyper-vigilance activating the “fight or flight” mechanism God designed within us for protection. But we are not designed for the amount of stress that comes from traumatic events and it overruns our bodies/brain.
Trauma disrupts our minds. Synaptic energy flows through our brains creating thoughts and emotions. Trauma disrupts that flow of energy resulting in modern mental health issues like depression and anxiety. It presents problems in impulse control, emotional management, planning and organizational skills, task completion, memory, motivation, and self-esteem.
Trauma disconnects us from ourselves, others, and God. It brings a dark night over the soul feeling cut off from sources of support. We can’t hear God’s voice, we question his will and we wonder if we ever did know it. Our most basic building block of trust is pulled from our foundations and it feels like we are crashing inward. We isolate, insulate, and avoid others. This wall of isolation makes us feels safe but also prevents others from getting close. Trauma tells us lies about who we are and our purpose in life. It shuts down dreams and destiny.
A powerful practice to engage in each day is to ask ourselves: “How’s my heart today?” This is a common question I ask in the therapy session which makes the inner inquiry of…
How am I feeling about myself?
How are my relationships with family and friends?
What is the level of my relationship with God?
This inquiry of the heart, done daily or maybe hourly, sets the course for healing body, mind, and spirit. We notice the hurts caused by trauma and find ways to engage them instead of avoiding them. The only way out of hurt is through the hurt. On the other side, joy is waiting for us.
This is an inner work frequently neglected in favor of outer behavior management. Outer works are more sanitary and mechanical which makes them easier to manage. Inner work can be messy. Over-focus on outer works causes family members to react versus respond to others trauma/behavior. It views the person as the problem.
The truth is that the person is not the problem. The problem is the problem. Inner work connects with the person against the problem. Together we will think about the problem and work to solve the problems that trauma bring because together there is healing.
The strategy of healing in faith-based trauma therapy includes 1. Calming the body/brain, 2. Elevating the executive functions, 3. Rewrite our life narratives, and 4. Deepen our inner and outer connections. This is a holistic approach to healing that is a “bottom up, top down and spiritual surround” interventions.
In faith-based trauma therapy, traditional interventions blend naturally with spiritual practices to forgive relational wounds, decrease residual trauma from our nervous system, increase attachments, restore emotional balance, reprocess lies, find the new truth, process grief and restart the flow of hope in our lives.
Previously posted on Parenting Toolbox November 2014 by Ron Huxley, LMFT
There are areas in our parenting where we think like princes or princesses. We are fully confident in our abilities to handle a situation. There are also areas where we think like paupers, poor in attitude and low in confidence. A prince is rich in resources and doesn’t worry about a positive future. They know respect and honor from those around them. A pauper lives by survival skills and manipulation and secrecy is the game of life. A prince feels deserving of worthy and is valued and feels valuable. A pauper feels worthlessness, shame, and guilt.
Are you a consciously parenting a prince or a pauper? Do you feel confident and worthy to the task? Are you controlled by guilt, manipulation, and shame? Do you experience respect or disdain from your family members? Is your household ruled by love or fear?
It is possible to think like a prince in some areas of our lives and like a pauper in others at the same time. It may not be all of our parenting that suffers but there may be some key areas that are creating some big trouble. Take time to honestly evaluate where you are thinking like a prince or a pauper. Allow yourself to find new value and think differently about your family relationships. Create a self-care plan. Read, watch, listen or hang out with people who believe they are a prince and princess. They will model how to have a different mindset for parenting and life.
The goal of therapy with traumatized children is to help them learn to regulate and develop the executive functioning skills of the prefrontal center of the brain. I call this the state of being NeuroResilient.
All children are born emotionally impulsive and need to learn how to manage their moods, initiate and stick with tasks, plan and organize, and learn from past mistakes. This is nothing new and neurological studies of the brain suggest that the prefrontal areas of the brain do not completely develop until people are in their mid-twenties.
The challenge with trauma is that it can set a person back socially and emotionally so that while they are 15 years old chronologically, they react to the world as if their were 5 years of age. We call this, in the field of trauma-informed care and attachment-focused research, “age vs stage”. The individual’s chronological age doesn’t line up with their stage of development causing problems in relationships and daily functioning.
Many parents and professionals believe that an emotionally regulated child is a calm child which would be nice, even understandable, but not realistic for a child who has been traumatized. Consequently the goal of therapy is to build resilience, not calmness.
Resilience refers to ability to “spring back, recoil back into shape” or “recover quickly from a difficult situation”. It literally means to “leap back” to a place of safety and security. Who wouldn’t want to have more of that in their lives or the lives of their children?
Children have to build resiliency in their neurology so that behavioral strategies will stick. Parents and teachers get frustrated when their behavior charts and modification tools don’t have any effect on their hurt children.
It’s not too late to sign up for the “Healing the Hurt Child” seminar this coming Monday, October 31 at GraceSLO Church in San Luis Obispo. Perfect for any foster and adoptive parents or professionals working with traumatized children.
Children who no longer live with their birth parents must go through their own version of grief…
by Ron Huxley, LMFT
In 2014, Child Welfare Services checked up on 3.2 million children reported as abused or neglected, in the United States of America*. Many of these children are removed from their birth parents and enter foster care. Some return to their parents while others are adopted by loving families. The goal is always permanency for children but the issues of grief must be addressed regardless of the child’s placement.
What is Grief?
Grief is the state that individuals experience when a significant loss occurs in their life. The loss might occur as a result of death, divorce, and/or abandonment by a family member. It might be said that nontraditional families, like foster and adoptive families, are born out of grief as they are formed as a result of a loss. This is confusing due to this is a time for both celebration and sadness.
Grief is a profound loss for children that is not always recognized by parents and professionals. One reason is that children do not grief in the same way that adults do. Young children often act like nothing happened at all and adults wrongly assume they are not grieving. Later, when they erupt in anger and aggression towards others, adults are surprised by their behavior. Misunderstanding the behavior will lead to incorrectly managing it and parents miss an opportunity to address the loss and create a healing bond.
Stages of Grief
Despite the confusion, grief has predictable stages of development. This is beneficial to the nontraditional parent as they attempt to make sense of their child’s grief experiences. Most importantly they know that the most negative feelings of grief and loss will not last forever, at least not in the same intensity as when it first started.
Perhaps the best known framework for grief and loss are the stages listed in the work of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross who wrote the book On Death and Dying (1969). Her stages of grief include:
Denial Anger Bargaining Depression Acceptance
These stages can manifest differently depending on the child’s developmental stage. As a child matures, their ability to understand themselves and their world changes, allowing for deeper levels of grieving. This is why young children can act like they don’t grief or care about their past. They may not want to talk about their past or have any questions for adults. When they are older, however, they may “suddenly” have questions and this can be perplexing to adults.
Another way grief can affect children is creating a division between “age and stage.” A child may be 16 years of age chronologically but act emotionally and socially like a 6 year old. Would a parent allow a 6 year old to take care of his or her younger siblings? Of course not! A 16 should be responsible to watch their younger siblings for a short time. A 6 year old would not have the cognitive ability. A 10 year discrepancy between age and stage can cause grieving children to look like they are on an emotional roller coaster ride. One minute they are responsible and calm. Then next they are reactive and impulsive. Parents can easily make the mistake of dealing with the child’s age and not their stage.
Close the gap between the child’s emotional and chronological stage by creating a space for them to grief past losses.
Waves of the Ocean
A useful metaphor for understanding grief are the waves of an ocean. When you are way out in the ocean, the waves are large and frightening. They pull you under and twist you about, creating a sense of hopelessness or fear of your future. This is similar to the stage of Denial or shock at the reality of the loss. When the waves pass and the ocean feels momentarily calm, this is called the stage of anger or bargaining. The shore represents the stage of acceptance. As nontraditional parents and children swim for the stage of acceptance, waves continue to crash over them, sometimes threatening to pull them under in denial and shock and at other times settling down and letting anger and bargaining propel them forward to the shore. The closer you come to the shore the less intense the waves. But even small waves, when standing on the edge of the ocean can unsettle and cause you to lose your balance.
Parents can use this metaphor to help themselves and their children find emotional balance. Because they are in the ocean and not on the shore they cannot compare their children’s action to others. In addition, rather than live up to society’s expectation of what an ideal family should look like, parents need to concentrate their energy on helping their child swim for the shore, in their own timeframe, even if it must be developmental stages.
Art and the Heart
Expressive arts can open the heart of the child who is grieving by allowing them to freely process thoughts and feelings that have been trapped in her heart and possibly . Parents have to set an atmosphere of acceptance to help the child “swim to shore”. Parents who avoid talking about sad or angry feelings communicate that it is unsafe or unwise to share. You don’t have to be an art therapist. Just get out the crayons and paper. Pull out paints and use your fingers. Play with legos and dolls. Make believe and role play. As adults we can interject healing ideas and allow grief and loss to work naturally.
Talking about Birth Parents
It can feel rejecting for foster or adoptive parents to talk to their children about birth parents. Ironically, opening up conversation and allowing children to grieve will create a closer, more intimate attachment. Not talking about them will reinforce shame in the child and idealizing birth parents creating a vicious cycle or hurt between parent and child. The loss has already occurred. Avoid it doesn’t make it go away. It stays buried until it comes out in more painful ways.
If parents need help in this area, consult with a child therapy and spend some time working through the age and stage of grief.