Therapy

A Story of Survival and Healing: A Therapists Journey Into Seeing and Being

*This post was originally published on The Practice of Being Seen blog.

Healing begins when you’re seen. Healing deepens when you see yourself.

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Throughout most of my life, anxiety has been a constant companion. As a young child, anxiety was part of my emotional landscape, and it also inflected my physical world. I needed to feel that my body was safe and secure. I’d get my mom to tie the ribbons at the waist of my dresses so tightly that I could feel them cutting into my skin. I couldn’t fall asleep at night unless the covers were tucked so tightly that I felt the pressure of the blankets pushing me into the bed.

As a teenager I often disconnected from my difficult feelings. I wasn’t fully present and it was as if I was in a fog. At other times, it was as if all the wires in my system fired at the same time. When I was stressed and anxious I became hyper aware of my clothes touching my skin. Irritable and angry much of the time, I struggled with depression. All of this confused me. I wasn’t making the connection between the physical sensory discomfort and my emotional discomfort.

I felt like I didn’t fit in. I believed that there was something wrong deep within me and that I was the problem. When I’d try to “fix” that, I’d mold myself to other people’s needs and agree to things I wasn’t sure I wanted. My body would try to get my attention: a heavy tightness would press down on my chest. To this day, that pressure continues to remind me when I’m holding back and not speaking up for my wants and needs.

Surviving Abuse

It’s not easy for me to open up and it takes a lot for me to let down my guard - to be vulnerable, to trust, to be me. So much of that comes back to my childhood. The physical and emotional symptoms that I described didn’t just crop up one day. When we were very young, my sister and I were abused by a powerful man in my family. The abuse was allowed to continue even after my sister and I came forward and told my parents and they consulted with the other adults in the family. It took a huge leap of faith to tell our story, but the adults we relied upon rationalized the abuse. My sister and I were told to figure it out on our own.

We were 4 and 6 years old.

I can picture my younger self in a starchy, smocked calico printed dress. Chubby legs, a smile on my face, wanting to be loved, cared for... I just wanted to be seen, heard, and protected. Instead the message I received was, “Don’t make a fuss! Please, go figure out how to protect yourself.” As we grew older the abuse stopped, but the emotional scars are still present and they show themselves when I’m feeling most vulnerable.

Seeing the Unseen and Hearing the Unheard

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I know what it means to feel like no one sees you and no one hears you.  I know the fear of showing my real self. And this is why I became a therapist, because I care so deeply about those who feel unseen and unheard.

As a therapist, I hold sacred space as I see my clients in their most vulnerable moments. I work with women who have trouble showing up as who they really are. They feel inauthentic in their lives and they struggle with anxiety and depression. As we work together, they experience what it’s like when their voices, their needs, their wants, and their pain are finally seen and heard.

Truly Seeing Myself

My own deep dive into therapy has helped me understand my shame and self-blame. It’s helped me to re-integrate the parts of me that I pushed away. I’m able to feel the power of those voices inside me that long to be heard. I’m able to acknowledge the parts of myself that need to have their stories told, shared, and embraced with compassion. I’ve begun the process of listening, loving, trusting, and seeing all of me.

I’m not sure I’ll ever rid myself of the need to protect myself, or the worry that I’ll show myself and there won’t be anyone to see me, but I’ve learned that I can be there for me. I am the one who will be able to see me, to hear me, to support me, and love me.

The abuse I experienced used to feel like a liability, but now I see it as my strength. I am a better therapist because of my story and I appreciate how it’s shaped me both personally and professionally. My clients feel that I truly understand their pain and trust that I can see their true selves in ways that might be hidden from them. I receive their stories with empathy and I support them with encouragement and compassion. As they reach out, as they explore their experiences and move forward on their journey, I continue to grow and heal right there beside them.

**You can hear me read this story aloud on the Woman Worriers podcast. episode 40.


Elizabeth Cush, LCPC is a therapist, blogger,  creator and host of the Woman Worriers podcast, and the owner of Progression Counseling in Annapolis, Md and she’s been featured in these major publications. Elizabeth helps busy, overwhelmed men and women manage their anxiety and stress so they can live their lives with more ease, contentment and purpose. If you'd like to know more about how individual, online and group therapy can help ease anxiety and stress call me 410-339-1979.  

You can follow me and the Woman Worriers podcast on these social media platforms — Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Twitter

How Trauma Imapcts the Mind and the Body

Traumatic Memories

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Coping with a traumatic event isn’t only about managing what happened at the time, but it’s also a process of managing how it affects you throughout your life. Traumatic memories can be triggered years later or re-experienced through dreams, flashbacks, physical symptoms and emotional overwhelm.

For trauma survivors, traumatic memories can feel very scary. You’re left feeling as if you have no control over your body and mind. The good news is that you can bring some light and healing to the stored trauma by working with a trauma-informed therapist.

Storing Traumatic Experiences

Whenever a traumatic event happens, whether in childhood or adulthood, you store the experience two ways. You store visual memories and you store memories in your body. When these traumatic memories are triggered, some survivors report “seeing” the trauma as if it just happened. They can recall places, faces, smells, sounds and tastes.

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Emotions can spring up without prompting, and you can feel as if you’re in a dangerous situation even when the present moment isn’t dangerous or scary. Traumatic memories can also leave you feeling anxious or depressed. It might seem like you’re feeling bad for no reason at all, but when memories that are stored in the subconscious get triggered, intense feelings seem to come out of nowhere.

I know about traumatic memories because I’m a trauma therapist and a trauma survivor. I see my clients struggle in sessions everyday. I also struggled with anxiety for many years without truly understanding the impact my trauma had on me or why I was such an anxious child, teen and young adult.

What I’ve learned as a counseling psychology grad-student, as a therapist and as a client in therapy has helped me understand that you can’t control when your memory is triggered by past events. What you can control is how you react or respond to the feelings and memories as they arise. 

Avoiding the feelings that arise when you’re feeling triggered — pushing feelings away, telling yourself to get over it, using substances, disconnecting from your feelings — might help for a short time, but the feelings are still there, and they want to be heard.  In my interview with Kristen Ulmer, we discuss how to tune into our fear (which is usually the root of anxiety and depression) so it can be heard and honored. Brain research suggests that naming your feelings can diminish the intensity of these feelings.

Trauma, Difficult Feelings And Therapy

The hard part about naming feelings if you’re trauma survivor is that initially you might not know what you’re feeling. Because the traumatic feelings were stored in the unconscious memory and that helped you survive. You might also be worried that your feelings will overwhelm you if you tune in and pay attention. In fact, trying to resist or avoid your feelings can actually increase the intensity of your emotions.

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Working with a counselor who specializes in trauma-informed therapy can help. You learn how to soothe yourself when you’re feeling emotionally overwhelmed. You learn to regulate your emotions as they arise and you learn to honor you story of healing.

Trauma therapy used to mean you had to retell your trauma story in order to heal, but that’s no longer a given. In trauma-focused therapy, you may share the story when you’re ready, but not before you have the skills create a space where your body and mind are ready.

If you’d like to know more about trauma, traumatic memories and healing here are some resources:

I spoke with Laura Reagan and Robert Cox about trauma, the brain and healing. You can find those interviews at WomanWorriers.com.

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk has done some groundbreaking work on the subject of traumatic memories. You can learn about his research in his book , The Body Keeps The Score. Additionally, the Sidran Institute’s article What Arte Traumatic Memories, explains traumatic memories and how they’re stored. 


Elizabeth Cush, LCPC is a therapist, blogger,  creator and host of the Woman Worriers podcast, and the owner of Progression Counseling in Annapolis, Md. She helps busy, overwhelmed men and women manage their anxiety and stress so they can live their lives with more ease, contentment and purpose. If you'd like to know more about how individual and group therapy can help ease anxiety and stress call me 410-339-1979. 

Photos by whoislimos and Anita Jankovic and Michael Browning on Unsplash

What's Your Body Telling You About Anxiety?

When you struggle with anxiety, sometimes you might wonder why you even get anxious in the first place. What purpose does it serve? And why does it make you feel so bad?

Over the years, while struggling to manage my own anxiety, I’ve learned that signs that I’m uncomfortable often show up before the anxiety is running full tilt. It might be a feeling of pressure in my chest. Sometimes my throat feels like it’s full of sand, or my belly feels hollow (like I have a pit in my stomach), depending on what’s making me uncomfortable and anxious.

My mindfulness practice has allowed me to be more aware of my body’s sensations in the moment when stressful things are happening (or I’m interpreting that the events are stressful). My body signals me long before I’m fully aware that the situation is overwhelming or triggering.

Where Do You Feel Anxiety?

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I ask clients to tune into their physical reactions when they’re talking about something stressful or difficult. When I ask, “Where do you feel that in your body?” they can often point or place their hand right where they feel it. Or is I ask, “What physical feelings do you have when your anxiety shows up?” Some clients can identify exactly where anxiety lives in them. For others, it’s a little harder to figure out, but usually clients at least have a general sense of some internal sensations.

Many times the body signals come before the anxiety is fully recognizable. Basically your body is telling you that you’re feeling something, usually something uncomfortable. It’s alerting you, wanting your attention and letting you know it’s time to tune in, it’s time to listen, it’s time to take care of yourself.

Tune Into Your Anxiety Through Your Body

So how do we learn to tune into our body so we can hear what it wants us to know?

Start a mindfulness practice. Mindfulness helps you become more aware of yourself — your reactions, your thoughts, your feelings and what’s happening inside your body. If you haven’t already recognized the patterns, you might begin to notice that when certain thoughts or feelings enter your consciousness, your body reacts to those thoughts and feelings in particular ways.

Practice yoga, tai chi or another form of movement. They help you learn to focus on the different parts of your body.

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Start a meditation practice. Body scan meditations guide you from head to toe (or toe to head), gradually moving your non-judgmental awareness from one body part to another. It helps fine-tune your focus as you practice the meditation. It also brings an awareness of how your body holds stress and how the stress might change as you bring a conscious awareness to it.

Take a moment to pause. When you’re anticipating a stressful event or encounter, take a minute to pause. Take a few slow, deep breaths. Check in with yourself and ask “Where am I feeling this in my body right now?” If tuning into your body is something new, you might need to do it a few times before you’re able to pinpoint where you feel the stress. That’s okay. Be patient and keep tuning in.

Work with a therapist. The right therapist — one who’s been trained in somatic, movement or body awareness therapies — can help you work toward a greater understanding of your body and help you learn why it reacts the way it does.

As with all new habits and skills, getting in touch with your physical reactions can take some time and practice. Be gentle and compassionate with yourself on this journey!


Elizabeth Cush, LCPC is a therapist, blogger,  creator and host of the Woman Worriers podcast, and the owner of Progression Counseling in Annapolis, Md. She helps busy, overwhelmed men and women manage their anxiety and stress so they can live their lives with more ease, contentment and purpose. If you'd like to know more about how individual and group therapy can help ease anxiety and stress call me 410-339-1979. 

Photo by Tanja Heffner and by Caique Silva on  Unsplash

 

How Is Feeling Flawed Holding You Back From Being Your True Self?

Many of my clients come to me because they experience a lot of stress and anxiety and want help learning how to manage it more effectively. As therapy progresses, it becomes evident that the deeply held feelings they have about themselves create or trigger their anxiety.

Uncovering these self-perceptions often takes time because they’re usually unconscious, only showing themselves when the anxiety starts to ramp up. As we work together, those buried beliefs begin to appear.

Some of the common themes that I hear from my clients include:

The fatal flaw is just a feeling

The fatal flaw is just a feeling

  • I am not enough.
  • I will always disappoint those who care about me.
  • I am unlovable.
  • There’s something in me that’s broken or flawed.
  • If they knew the real me, they wouldn’t like me.
  • Others will never see me for who I really am.

If You Feel Flawed, You’re Not Alone

My clients are often surprised when I tell them that their experience is not unique. Many of my clients hold similar beliefs about themselves.

In fact, at times in my life I’ve struggled with feeling deeply flawed as well. I used to tell myself that there was something wrong with me. I thought it explained why I had difficulty creating meaningful connections with the people in my life.

Feeling this way can cause a lot of pain. My clients tell me they believe that feeling broken or flawed is just who they are, and that it’s unlikely to ever change. That leaves them feeling sad, lonely and different from others. Therapy helps them better understand what occurred in their life to make them feel that way, and then we work on incorporating strategies in daily life to help them connect to more deeply with their true selves.

How To Handle The Feeling Of Being Flawed

In an article that Dr. Jonice Webb shared with me for this blog, she describes this experience as The Fatal Flaw. She describes “The Fatal Flaw: A deep-seated feeling that something is wrong with you. You are missing something that other people have. You are living life on the outside, looking in. You don’t quite fit in anywhere.”

Dr. Webb shares that “The Fatal Flaw is just a feeling.” In order to manage the feeling, we have to take charge. Here are some steps you can take that can help:

Talking about your feelings can help

Talking about your feelings can help

  • Notice when The Fatal Flaw shows up.
  • Name the feeling when it happens.
  • Talk about it with others. (This can be the hardest part but you might find that others feel the same way.)
  • Be compassionate with yourself when you feel flawed, different or damaged.
  • Seek therapy to help you begin to get more in touch with all of your feelings. Listening and understanding what you’re feeling and why helps to create a deeper connection with yourself. That connection with your self can lessen and often rid you of that fatally flawed feeling.

What I’ve learned in my own work and working with my clients is that learning to name, trust and truly feel your feelings helps you to feel more connected with your Self. If you’re constantly pushing away, ignoring or avoiding your feelings and thoughts, you’re never getting in touch with you, all of you — the good and the bad, the scared and the lonely, the excited or elated, the angry and the hurt — all of your beautifully imperfect parts.


Elizabeth Cush, LCPC is a therapist and the owner of Progression Counseling in Annapolis, Md. She helps busy, overwhelmed men and women manage their anxiety and stress so they can live their lives with more ease, contentment and purpose. If you'd like to know more about how individual and group therapy can help ease anxiety and stress call me 410-339-1979. 

Photo by Naqi Shahid and  Eye for Ebony on Unsplash

 

How To Make Self-Compassion A Part Of The New Year

Self-compassion can help counter self-criticism

Self-compassion can help counter self-criticism

In my Progression Counseling New Year blog  I wrote about creating intentions, instead of resolutions this year. And the practice of self-compassion is one intention that’s really helped me manage my anxiety over the last few years.

In my January blog post for Good Therapy, This Year, Resolve To Be Kinder To Yourself, I review the benefits and myths of self-compassion and I give some guidance on how to start a self-compassion practice.

Ask yourself, “Do you extend yourself the same kindness and compassion you would offer a friend? Why not?” You can find out here how self-compassion can help you to counter self-criticism

Here’s the direct link to the article:  https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/this-year-resolve-to-be-kinder-to-yourself-0105184

If you’d like to bring more mindfulness and self-compassion into your daily life please contact me. I offer group and individual therapy in Annapolis, MD.


Elizabeth Cush, LCPC is a therapist and the owner of Progression Counseling in Annapolis, Md. She helps busy, overwhelmed men and women manage their anxiety and stress so they can live their lives with more ease, contentment and purpose. If you'd like to know more about how individual and group therapy can help ease anxiety and stress call me 410-339-1979. 

Photo by Aki Tolentino on Unsplash

What Is A Mindfulness Practice?

Meditation is one part of a daily mindfulness practice

Meditation is one part of a daily mindfulness practice

Meditation and mindful awareness are two components of a mindfulness practice. Both are equally important. Meditation helps you learn how to focus your mind, which in turn helps you focus your attention on the world around you in the moment. Mindful awareness, or focusing your attention on the present moment, can be as simple as paying attention to an activity you do mindlessly everyday, like brushing your teeth.

Because we’re so used to just doing, without thinking, each part of a mindfulness practice really does take practice. We’re so used to going about our day with our mind running in a million different directions that bringing it back to the here and now can seem difficult. For some it can be frustrating, because it doesn’t always come easily. 

What Is Meditation?

Learning to focus your attention is where daily meditation can help. Meditation is sitting quietly and focusing on an anchor. An anchor can be your breath, a mantra or something else you choose to bring your attention back to each time it wanders. And it will wander, because we’re human and we’re wired to be thinking, planning and worrying beings. Each time you bring your attention back to your anchor, you’re being mindful! It’s that easy — or not!

A key component of meditation is being compassionate and non-judgmental with yourself. Some days it might come easily; other days, when you’ve got a lot on your min or you’re easily distracted, it can be harder. What’s important is to enter into the meditation with the intention of being mindfully centered and try not to give yourself a hard time if it feels difficult. You can even say to yourself, “My intention was to meditate mindfully for 10 minutes today. It was very hard for me because my mind was all over the place. My intention is to try it again tomorrow.”

Mindful Meditation: Getting Started

Meditation can be guided or you can guide yourself. I think that when you begin a mindful meditation practice, it’s much easier to have some gentle guidance. A bunch of apps for you phone, websites with free meditations and YouTube videos are available to help you get started. I’ve listed a few resources at the bottom of this post.

Make meditation a part of your daily routine

Make meditation a part of your daily routine

When talking with my clients, I suggest picking a time of day when you won’t be disturbed and finding a place where you can sit quietly. I like to meditate in the morning when I’m at home by myself, or when I’m between clients in my office. To start, try meditating once a day for 3–5 minutes. It’s important to do it everyday, but if you forget, be compassionate with yourself and do it tomorrow.

Once you’ve established a routine, begin increasing the amount of time that you meditate. Ideally doing it for at least 10 minutes a day is a good goal. You’ll probably begin to notice that your thoughts automatically come and go, and it gets easier to come back to your anchor and to be less reactive about the thoughts that do pop up. That’s because you’re learning to let your thoughts pass through, instead of latching on to them.

My Experience

I find that when I take the time to meditate before I start my day, I can approach the day with greater sense of ease and intention. Do I still get stressed out? Of course! But I know that the stress will pass too, much like my thoughts. Meditation allows me to feel stress, but I don’t have to be stressed. If I don’t overly identify with the feeling, then I can acknowledge its presence without it pulling me under.

Do you meditate, or have your tried it? I’d love to know your experience in the comments. If you don’t meditate but would like to start and think having a group to support you would be helpful, I have an eight-week group, beginning later this month, where we will practice meditation and mindful awareness together. You can find out more here.

In my next post, I’ll talk about mindful awareness and how to bring more of it into your life.


Elizabeth Cush, LCPC is a therapist and the owner of Progression Counseling in Annapolis, Md. She helps busy, overwhelmed men and women manage their anxiety and stress so they can live their lives with more ease, contentment and purpose. If you'd like to know more about how individual and group therapy can help ease anxiety and stress call me 410-340-8469.

You can also find me on Twitter, Facebook and Linked In

Photo by Natalia Figueredo and by Ben Blennerhassett on Unsplash

 

 

The Journey Toward Mindfulness

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I’ve written about mindfulness a lot since I began blogging a couple of years ago. As I entered private practice, I became aware of mindfulness as a concept, but I didn’t really appreciate how powerful it could be until I started my own mindful meditation practice and began incorporating mindfulness into my therapy practice.

I’ve Seen Mindfulness At Work

I’ve seen clients take up daily meditation and report that when they’re stressed they can recover a sense of calm much more quickly. I have clients who’ve experienced trauma begin to tune into their bodies so that they can more easily identify what they’re feeling and where, in the moment. I’ve been witness for clients who were voicing their needs for the first time. And I’ve seen the transformation when clients begin to truly see themselves and embrace all of their parts, not just the parts they like, but even their inner critical part that judges and demeans, and all the other imperfect, messy, human parts.

But I never would have encouraged clients to take up mindfulness if I hadn’t experienced myself just how powerful it can be. Being more in tune with who I am, how I feel, how my body reacts and what triggers me makes me a better partner, mother, friend and therapist. And mindfulness helped get me there.

Mindfulness and Managing Anxiety

Do I still have days when being mindful escapes me? Of course! If things are really difficult or stressful, if I get triggered and revert back to my old ways of reacting, or if I’m tired or anxious, it’s easy for me to lose sight of how to be mindful in the moment.

Self-compassion eases anxiety

Self-compassion eases anxiety

But one of the best parts of being mindful is that it helps foster a sense of understanding and compassion for yourself and for others! So on the days when mindfulness has escaped my attention, I’ve learned to be compassionate with myself. I understand that I will have hard days — everyone does. If I didn’t struggle, I wouldn’t be human. It’s just a part of who I am, and I’ve learned that that’s OK.

So, instead of beating myself up and listening attentively to my inner critic, who always wants to point out just how deficient I am, which leaves me feeling anxious and stressed, I can offer myself compassion and love. I can recognize that maybe I had a bad day and I can just be with that, in the moment. I can allow that there will be good and bad days and that one bad day doesn’t make me a bad person. It makes me human.

Mindfulness Group Practice

I know the benefits of making mindfulness a part of my daily routine and I’d like to share them with you. I have mindfulness groups beginning in October 2017 and I am accepting new group members now.

If you would like to:

  • Understand the components and practices of mindfulness
  • Feel more present in your daily life
  • Use breath, body and emotional awareness to calm your mind and connect with yourself in new ways
  • Be more compassionate with yourself and others
  • ·Use grounding techniques when your stress and anxiety show up

Then fill out this form so we can set up a time to see if this is the right group for you.  Discounts are available for early enrollment. Let’s get things started!


Elizabeth Cush, LCPC is a therapist and the owner of Progression Counseling in Annapolis, Md. She helps busy, overwhelmed men and women manage their anxiety and stress so they can live their lives with more ease, contentment and purpose.

Photo by Lua Valentia and by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

 

 

 

 

Knowing Me, Knowing You

Mid-Life Can Be A Time Of Uncertainty And Anxiousness

I thought that once I got past my 40s I’d have it all figured out. I’d feel centered, grounded; I’d be living my life with purpose and intent. For some women that might be true. For others, myself included, not so much. Instead of being a period when you feel like you have it all figured out, mid-life can be a time of uncertainty and anxiousness. 

Not Knowing Yourself Can Make You Anxious

Not knowing  you  can leave you feeling anxious.

I found that once most of my kids left the nest, I was thinking more about me — where I was, who I was and where I wanted to be. The realization that I wasn’t sure of the answers to those questions left me feeling shaken, anxious and without a clear picture of my true self.  I’d played so many roles (daughter, partner, mother, friend, student, coworker, colleague) throughout my life that when the time came to just be me I wasn’t sure who I was. 

When you no longer identify with the various roles that you play, or you feel as though they no longer hold true for where you are in your life, it can be unsettling. You’ve got to figure out what you want and need and you’re not sure what that is. You might be asking yourself, “How did I get to this point in my life and not know what I need?”

Not Knowing How You Feel Can Drive Anxiety

When I was growing up, my family didn’t talk a lot about feelings. If your caregivers didn’t demonstrate how to express and process emotions, it makes it really hard to know how you’re feeling when you’re an adult. The same is true if your family didn’t support your having feelings, or if you were punished for expressing strong, difficult emotions, When I felt vulnerable, or when there was a lot of unpredictability in my life, I got really anxious because I didn’t know how to identify and share those feelings. So when it was time to figure out what I wanted, my anxiety peaked and I was left and wondering why I didn’t have a clearer picture of me. 

I’ve written about the impact of your childhood experiences and your attachment to your parents on how you interact with yourself and others. If you’ve experienced childhood abuse or emotional neglect, or if your emotional, spiritual and physical needs weren’t met as a child, it can leave you feeling:

  • Anxious
  • Disconnected from yourself
  • Untethered
  • Not feeling truly connected in your intimate relationships
  • Wanting more, but unsure how to make it happen

How Therapy Can Help

If this sounds familiar to you, I’d like to share how therapy can help. 

Therapy gives you the time and place to look inward, to explore and process your past in a supportive non-judgmental space. That last sentence might put some people on the defensive: “My parents loved me!” “I’m not going to therapy to tear apart my relationship with my caregivers!” “You can’t make me hate my parents.” 

But therapy isn’t about telling you how to feel about your parents, and it isn’t about painting your parents in an unflattering light. It’s not about laying blame. Therapy is about knowing your true self and how you got there, pimples and all.

When you connect with yourself it's easier to connect with others

When you connect with yourself it's easier to connect with others

Therapy gives you the space to identify your feelings, as they happen, in the moment. You can explore all the parts of you — including the critical, judgmental part; the child parts that get scared easily; the parts that want to withdraw, isolate or disconnect; and the parts that want to fight. When you learn to feel and express your own feelings with compassion, it’s a lot easier to figure out how others are feeling. And that makes you feel more connected to yourself and to those close to you.

If you’re interested in exploring YOU, I would love to talk to you.


Elizabeth Cush, LCPC is a therapist and the owner of Progression Counseling in Annapolis, Md. She helps busy, overwhelmed men and women manage their anxiety and stress so they can live their lives with more ease, contentment and purpose.

Photo by Devan Freeman and Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Managing Anxiety When Things Don’t Go As Planned

When Unplanned Changes Create Stress

I’m not super organized. I don’t have my days planned down to the minute, but I like to know what the day has in store. It brings me comfort and it helps me manage my anxiety. If I know what to expect for the day ahead, I feel more settled. But no matter how organized I am, or how much I plan, things don’t go the way I expect, and that makes me anxious.

I know that life can’t be completely predictable. It would be way to boring if it were. I also know that it’s important to be able to manage change, but anxiety creeps in when you don’t know what happens next. If you’re like me, it’s much harder to manage anxiety in the face of an emergency or even a sudden change of plans.

When your plans do change unexpectedly, you might feel:

unplanned changes can leave you stressed

unplanned changes can leave you stressed

  • Tightness in your chest, or stomach
  • A general sense of foreboding
  • Resistant to doing something else
  • Hyper-focused on how things could have gone differently
  • Worried about the new or changed plans
  • Stuck and unable to “go with the flow”
  • Wary, but unsure as to why
  • Angry about having to make changes
  • Unsettled and upset

Anxiety Builds When We're Not in Control

Many people manage their anxiety by trying to control their environment. Control over your life and environment gives you the sense that things are right with the world. You tell yourself, “I’ve got this, easy-peasy.”

When that sense of control is shaken, it can feel threatening and scary — and that’s a vulnerable place to be. The feeling that the world could turn upside down without warning creates a lot of anxiety and stress. You feel unsafe, sensing that a potential danger lies ahead. Research has shown that being able to recognize and name your fears can calm you more effectively than avoiding or ignoring them.

Here are 5 steps to help you manage your anxiety with self-care:

1.     Check in with yourself with curiosity. Ask yourself, “What’s happening for me right now? What am I worried will happen?”

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2.     Name your fears and worries. Use the list of feeling words I shared in my last post and dive deep to get at the root of those fears. Say it out loud to yourself: “I’m feeling ______ because I don’t feel in control of my world right now.”

3.     Allow the feelings to be present. We’re so used to avoiding difficult emotions, especially if we’ve been traumatized or neglected. And our culture and society reinforces that message. Just watch television for a little while and you’ll get the idea that we’re supposed to move on from difficult feelings. But research has shown that acknowledging how you’re feeling, allowing the feelings to be there, can ease anxiety and depression.

4.     Self-soothe. It’s possible you were never taught how to offer yourself compassion or how to soothe yourself. Placing your hand on your heart and saying a few soothing phrases can help reground you and calm your anxious mind and body. Say to yourself, “I’m struggling right now. We all struggle from time-to-time and this is really hard for me in this moment.” Again with your hand your heart, you can also offer yourself these calming phrases: “May I be safe. May I be peaceful. May I be healthy, and may I live my life with ease.”

5.     Check in with yourself again. With curiosity, ask yourself again how you’re feeling. Check in with your thoughts, feelings and your body. It’s possible that you’re feeling better. If not, ask yourself if you need to repeat the steps again.


Elizabeth Cush, LCPC is a therapist and the owner of Progression Counseling in Annapolis, Md. She helps busy, overwhelmed men and women manage their anxiety and stress so they can live their lives with more ease, contentment and purpose.

Photo courtesy of Nik Shuliahin and Aidan Meyer for Unsplash.

Seeing And Being Seen: My Story Of Survival And Healing

Me as a young girl

Me as a young girl

Earlier this year I decided to write what I thought would be a “how therapy helped me become a better therapist” story. Over the years, I’ve been in and out of therapy to help me manage my anxiety and depression. I created what I thought was a vulnerable, open piece that shared how my own therapy helped me learn to cope with trauma and how each of the therapists I’d worked with led me to insights that help me be a better therapist today.

I submitted the piece to colleagues who have a contributor’s blog on their website, The Practice of Being Seen. Although I felt I’d been open, honest and vulnerable, I was told that the piece didn’t go deep enough into my story. I think one of the comments they had was, “We want to know about you, not your therapists.”

I went back to the computer and started again. After multiple edits and rewrites, it turns out that the story I needed to tell was a much different, much more personal story — the story of being the survivor of childhood sexual abuse. You might wonder, “Why anyone would want to share that story? Isn’t that too much to share with the world?” That’s precisely why I needed to tell it.

I recently had the honor and pleasure of attending a talk by author, speaker, researcher, social worker extraordinaire Brené Brown who said, “When we deny our stories, they define us. When we write our own stories, we write the ending.” I knew then it was time for me to write my own ending.

When we hold our stories so close that they rarely see the light of day, the story remains the same. For me, avoiding the story created a negative feedback loop. For years I felt damaged by the abuse, because all I could feel was the shame of what happened. Avoiding what happened, and the feelings associated with it left me feeling disconnected from me and those around me. I needed to retell my story from a place of strength.

Writing my story, A Story of Survival and Healing: A Therapists Journey Into Seeing and Being Seen, has been a difficult, raw and extremely empowering experience. As Anne Lamott writes, “It's good to do uncomfortable things. It's weight training for life.”

Let me know your thoughts and if you’re ready, start writing your own story.

 

How To Put Mindfulness Into Practice

woman on the beach.jpg

I am fortunate to live near the water. When I take a walk, I try to pause for a few moments to take in the sights and sounds. I find that I feel calmer and at peace with myself even if I stop for just a few minutes. It’s not surprising. Studies have shown that just being in nature, especially near water, can have positive mental health benefits, such as reduced feelings of anxiety and depression.

I took a walk the other day. It was such a lovely day, so peaceful, warm and calm. I captured a minute of it on video.

If you’d like to learn how to be more mindful, or you’re already practicing, here’s a quick exercise on being mindful in nature. First, take a moment to read through the guided mindfulness exercise below, and then watch the video, paying attention to what you hear and see.

About Mindfulness

It’s important to know there’s no right or wrong way to be mindful. The purpose of mindfulness is to be present in the moment, with curiosity and without judgment. Some days, it’s harder to be mindful; other days you feel truly present. And that’s OK.

Mindfulness is not about eliminating your thoughts or cares. It’s not about pretending to be happy when you’re not. It’s about allowing yourself to be here, now, for this moment instead of being caught up in thinking, planning and worrying about past and future events.

Mindfulness Exercise

When you watch the video, be in the moment. Here are some ways to do that:

  • Notice the different sizes and shapes of the boats. What colors do you see?
  • Try to pick out the different sounds that you hear. Can you hear the wind, the birds, the sail riggings, someone doing work on a boat or the dock? What else do you hear?
  • Pay attention to movement. What do you notice about how the reflection of the boats and houses move on the water?
  • If you were there, what smells might you notice?
  • Finally, check in with your body. What are you feeling? Pay attention to any tingling, warmth, coolness, numbness, or discomfort. If you’re sitting, notice the contact of your back and bottom with the chair. Whether you’re sitting or standing, focus on your hands and try to soften your hands. Can you feel your feet on the floor? How about your toes? What sensations are you noticing?

Now I want you to click on the video above or watch the video here. Just allow yourself to be present in the moment and observe what arises. What catches your attention? How does your body feel?  What thoughts do you notice? Can you feel your breath?

Coming Back To Presence

When you’re finished watching the video, take a few slow, deep breaths. Take a look around and notice what’s in the room in front of you. You’ve just spent a few minutes being mindful. It was that easy. It’s easy to be so busy, or caught up in thoughts, that you miss the things that are right in front of you.

If you’d like to bring more mindfulness into your daily life, try taking a few minutes each day to stop and notice your sensory input (sight, sound, smell, touch and taste) and your body’s sensations. Leave a comment below and me know how you do.


Elizabeth Cush, LGPC is a therapist and the owner of Progression Counseling in Annapolis, Md. She helps busy, overwhelmed men and women manage their anxiety and stress so they can live their lives with more ease, contentment and purpose.

Cultivate And Grow Self-Compassion This Spring

Crocus in spring

I love seeing the spring flowers break through the ground at this time of year. That first crocus blooming on a chilly day always makes me smile. When I hear the sound of robins chirping in the trees, I think that they, too, are excited for warmer weather and sunnier days.

But, for some people, springtime isn’t always a happy, hopeful time of year. You might feel disconnected from the people in your life and wonder what you’re doing wrong. Maybe you’re feeling that it’s time to make some changes in your life, but you don’t know where to start.

Depression and anxiety make it hard to grow and change

If you feel stuck, the changes spring brings can be a constant reminder of your immobility, which can bring on feelings of intense anxiety and depression.

Maybe you feel stuck because:

  • You lack motivation.
  • Your inner-critic is harsh or demanding
  • The idea of making changes leaves you anxious or scared.
  • You don’t believe that you have much to offer.
  • You get overwhelmed easily.
  • You feel disconnected or numb.
  • You yearn to connect with others but fear rejection.

Often, feelings of inadequacy or inferiority generate fears that keep you stuck. Then you feel bad about yourself because you worry that you won’t ever move forward or make changes. The more you avoid making changes, the worse you feel, and you get caught in a cycle that spirals downward and leaves you feeling anxious and depressed.

Practicing self-compassion can help ease depression and anxiety

Instead of beating ourselves up for not making changes, or telling ourselves we’re lacking in some way, let’s make spring a time to change how we think about ourselves!

If we can learn to see ourselves with compassion, to embrace our imperfections and accept our fears, we can start to embrace differences in others. This opens us up to the possibility of new connections.

When we allow ourselves to be human, to make mistakes and respond with compassion, we begin to understand that we’re not alone in our struggle. Our sense of isolation recedes, the self-judgment softens, and that can ease the anxiety and depression.

What is self-compassion?

Self-compassion sounds like a great idea, but what exactly does it mean? Through extensive research, Dr. Kristin Neff found that self-compassion has three components—self-kindness, common humanity and mindfulness. You can read more about her findings here.

5 steps to help you cultivate self-compassion

What does practicing self-compassion look like in day-to-day life? Here are some things that have worked for me and for my clients:

Woman hugging herself
  1. If you’re always beating yourself up about mistakes or things you wish you’d done differently, remind yourself that we all struggle from time to time. Everyone has challenges. In fact, you probably know someone who’s having hard time right now, and there are probably people in your community you see every day who are struggling, and there are definitely people all over the world who are experiencing their own challenges. So in these difficult moments remind yourself, “This is really hard right now. I’m struggling, and we all struggle at times because we’re human.”
  2. Practice self-compassion and loving kindness meditations.
  3. When you feel anxious or stressed, place your hand on your heart, close your eyes and tell yourself, “I’m here. I will always be here, and I will always love you.” Sometimes making a loving statement to yourself is difficult. If this statement is too hard, instead you can say, “I am here and my intention is to love you.”
  4. Practice mindfulness. This helps you understand that although the present circumstance might be hard, life is full of ups and downs, and things won’t always be as hard as they are right now.
  5. Imagine what someone close to you might say to you if he or she knew you were having a hard time and repeat those words to your self.

If you would like help cultivating and growing your self-compassion and need some guidance for your journey, please email or call me at 410-340-8469.


Elizabeth Cush, MA, LGPC is a therapist and the owner of Progression Counseling in Annapolis, Md. She helps busy, overwhelmed men and women manage their anxiety and stress so they can live their lives with more ease, contentment and purpose.

Photos courtesy of Elizabeth Cush and Brooke Cagle for Unsplash.

New Ideas For A New Year

I’m not a big fan of New Year’s resolutions. They always feel like a “should” list: I should exercise more; I should eat healthier; I should be a better friend, partner, parent or daughter. Later, I usually wind up feeling guilty about my resolutions, because I don’t follow-through with them. The guilty feelings can then easily turn into anxiety and stress.

This year, instead of making resolutions, I’d like to focus on the things I’d like to grow and sustain in my life. Here are my thoughts on ways to make my New Year more fulfilling:

Spend time with people I care about.

connecting with others eases anxiety

I recently had lunch with a colleague and friend. She had encouraged me when I went back to school, told me to apply for a job I didn’t think I was qualified for (but which I got), and gave me support and guidance when I decided to create my own therapy business. We hadn’t seen each other since the summer and it felt so great to connect again with her. In that moment I made myself a promise, and I shared that promise with her: “I will make an effort to spend time with the people in my life whom I care about but don’t see often enough.”

Take more time away from work.

I love my job and my clients, but taking time away from work recharges me. It makes me appreciate the work I do that much more. Taking time off also gives me the opportunity to travel, and I love traveling!

Connect with my kids more regularly.

I LOVE MY KIDS, and now that they’re grown and living in other states, I don’t see them enough. This year I’m going to make the effort to phone, email and see them more often.

Meditate more regularly and maybe attend a retreat.

Meditation helps manage stress

Meditation has been a real asset for me. It calms me when I’m feelings stressed and anxious, it grounds me when my worries are in overdrive, and it creates a space for me to be in touch with myself and my feelings. In 2017 I want to make meditation a part of each day. I also want to go to a retreat to meet people who share my interest.

Make my own therapy a priority.

Therapists need therapy too! My therapist supports, listens, guides and provides the healing space for me to process the difficult experiences that I’ve struggled with in my life. I encourage everyone to be in therapy (and not just because I’m a therapist)!

Create art and journal regularly.

Creating art and writing can be very grounding. Once upon a time I journaled regularly and I created artwork. I’ve been journaling again sporadically and feeling the pull to paint, so I’m going to try it! I’m not sure if I’ll take a class or jump right in, but just thinking about it makes me smile.

I would love to know what you’d like to focus on in 2017. Send me an email or leave a comment below!


Elizabeth Cush, MA, LGPC is a therapist and the owner of Progression Counseling in Annapolis, Md. She helps busy, overwhelmed men and women manage their anxiety and stress so they can live their lives with more ease, contentment and purpose.