Sexual Trauma, Triggers, & The 24-Hour News Cycle

By Concentric Counselor Katie Ho, LPC, NCC

You can hardly escape today’s current social and political climate - it’s on the news, in your social media, overheard at lunch, and even for therapists, themes in session. For those who have experienced trauma in their lifetime, past or ongoing, navigating topics like sexual assault can be overwhelming, scary, complicated and sometimes even powerful. How we take care of ourselves and the people around us who may be struggling with the complexity of their emotions has to be part of the larger conversation. It’s clear that avoiding or minimizing discussions on sexual violence and quieting the stories of survivors is not the path to atonement and reconciliation. But as we create space and lift up the voices of those who have suffered, we must also take inventory of what comes up in us and tend to those parts with kindness, care and nurturing.

The #MeToo movement, local and national advocacy groups and social justice organizations have been and continue to create a platform for those who have been victim to sexual harassment and assault. While the stories and accounts of these traumas seem to be daunting all of the sudden for those who have been unaware, statistics and experts have known for some time of these experiences. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) estimates that 1 in 5 women will be raped in the United States in their lifetime, and that 1 in 3 women will experience some form of sexual violence. The majority of these acts are committed by acquaintances, partners or people who are known by the victim, and according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), the majority of these events occur at or near the victim’s home. These of course are statistics, data and research gathered through reports from multidisciplinary agencies. There is undeniable value in knowing these numbers. And just as much, there is value in hearing the experiences and seeing the faces of survivors who have chosen to come forward.

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As allegations and reports of sexual assault make the news, we are bombarded with information, opinions, commentary and even jokes on the matter. Survivors are subject to their own re-traumatization, which has an impact on psychological and physical health, triggered by both the details of these publicized allegations of assaults and non-believers who dismiss them.

In knowing that a trigger is a psychological stimulus that can be evoked through anything from sights, smells or sounds, it’s no wonder that the 24-hour news cycle is affecting so many people. Survivors are not alone in their strong reactions to the constant replaying and subsequent criticism, shaming or dismissing of survivor stories. Those who feel a connection or calling to the cause, whether it be through their empathic attunement or knowing a survivor, may also experience the distress and burnout that comes with the current climate.

So how do we take care? How do we balance the righteous anger and complexity of our other emotions, promote advocacy and change, all while healing and taking gentle care of ourselves? In doing this, one of the most important things to know is nothing can replace the support of others. So find someone, or a group of someones, who can help to support, validate and foster a safe environment for processing.

Find a tribe, or maybe even create one. Pay attention to your body, as our physical being can often tell us when stress is increasing and it’s time for tending and healing. Maybe that means physical exercise, movement, touch or a practice of progressive muscle relaxation (a quick YouTube search is all you need!). Set boundaries. Limit your intake of news and dialogue on the topic by knowing how much mental and emotional labor you’re able to give without overextending yourself. And if you find yourself overwhelmed, triggered or lost, use mindful grounding techniques to bring yourself back into your here and now. Feel your feet on the floor, describe and notice something around you, use your five senses to bring a consciousness into your physical environment and current moment in time and add in a quick reminder - “I am safe. I am in control. I am okay.”

A Thoughtfully Designed & Researched Blueprint of Your Relationship & Marriage

By Concentric Counselors Katie Ho, LPC, NCC & Jennifer Larson, LCPC, NCC

A large part of the human experience, including the joys, losses and challenges, gravitate around relationships. In social and cultural regards, finding a partner and committing to a person can be a marker of happiness, success or accomplishment. But like with any experience, obstacles lay ahead. All couples find themselves navigating conflict, life transitions or faced with heavy decisions, and the related stress that comes with these expected issues.

There are some couples, however, which continue to exist in this perpetual conflict - one that doesn’t appear to have any resolution and creates continual gridlock. Or perhaps there has been a significant breach of trust, or betrayal. Maybe communication is poor, and creates dysfunction during arguments or otherwise, or possibly there has been a traumatic event which has challenged the feelings of safety within the relationship. All of these reasons, and those that might even fall in-between, can be indicators that a couple may benefit from entering couples therapy.

Seeking couples therapy takes courage, as much as it takes hope - hope that the relationship can be repaired or healed, or maybe hope that both individuals can find strength in different directions. Using over 40 years of research, The Gottman Method - developed by Drs. John and Julie Gottman - has helped couples and clinicians create a blueprint of understanding the dysfunction within relationships and the need for building friendship, shared meaning and intimacy. This method was created to serve a deep need in helping find effective intervention for couples looking for repair, healing and happiness. It serves as a theory in which people are able to know both themselves and their partner on a more meaningful level, fostering intimacy, positive affect and skillful conflict management.

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When a couple is seeking therapy, there can sometimes be an already significant level of distress present. In their research, the Gottmans found that on average it can take up to 6 years before a couple will seek therapy! This can mean there is a long history of experiences, life phases or challenges that have a need to be explored and understood. Partners may feel overwhelmed, flooded or unsure of where to even begin the healing journey. This highlights the need for a trained couples therapist, equipped with scientific evidence-based practices and the skills to empathize equally with both individuals to help navigate that process.

In working to repair and strengthen a relationship, much like with building a house, there has to be certain core foundational components. The Sound Relationship House from the Gottman Method explains that at its roots, marriage and relationships need to be built on friendship. The essential components of friendship are described as ‘Building Love Maps’, ‘Sharing Fondness and Admiration’ and ‘Turning Towards’. In the first mentioned, to build a Love Map means to truly understand know your partner’s internal world.

People’s internal world changes over time; who are the current people they are involved with, what are their immediate and long-term hopes and dreams, ambitions, or experiences from childhood that may be playing into their current situations. Asking open-ended questions, remembering the answers and actively listening promotes genuine connectedness and friendship. Sharing fondness and admiration, and turning towards your partner, are other components to strengthening and building the friendship of a marriage or relationship. They focus on scanning the environment for what one’s partner is doing right and engaging in appreciation, affection and respect. Additionally, the last level of foundation in ‘turning towards’ describes opportunities for couples to accept and receive bids from the other partner for emotional connection.

The higher levels of The Sound Relationship House include ‘The Positive Perspective’, ‘Manage Conflict’, ‘Make Life Dreams Come True’ and ‘Create Shared Meaning’. These levels of building a healthy relationship are built upon those above-mentioned ideas of friendship. They encompass skills necessary to navigate conflict and life changes, promoting positive affect and a deeper understanding of their partner’s underlying values and dreams and building a life of meaning together. Couples therapy addresses both the necessity for positive connection and friendship, while also acknowledging the dysfunction which makes that task more challenging.

Construction of homes need to be buttressed and supported by its internal supports otherwise houses would collapse.  The same is true of intimate relationships. Every relationship or marriage needs the supports and pillars of 'Trust' and 'Commitment' for stability, safety, and security.  If the 'Trust' or 'Commitment' reinforcements on The Sound Relationship House have been significantly damaged, the relationship can feel shattered and even decimated requiring much repairing and rebuilding.  Sometimes a relationship can be so damaged so that we tell couples relationship #1 has been damaged as if a hurricane or storm came barreling through wiping out your home.  The devastation and trauma is real, but with hope, commitment, and efforts, we can help you re-build relationship #2 as in the case when people experience great natural disaster in their communities requiring building home #2.  Some feel as though it requires blood, sweat and tears, but building relationship #2 can be done collaboratively with the support and care of a highly, skilled and trained couples therapist.   

Having the skills to identify and change maladaptive communication styles and behaviors that plague relationships is of equal value. In our work at Concentric Counseling & Consulting and using the Gottman Method, we incorporate the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse - which is a metaphor in describing what can be a predictor for the end of a relationship. These include criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. In working with couples to address these maladaptive behaviors, the couples therapist will explain the antidotes, or remedies to address these bad habits in the work towards building healthier ones.

The goal for any couple is to promote understanding, connection, love, growth, and healing. That can look differently for every couple, as every couple experiences their own unique set of challenges and circumstances. The benefit of seeking a therapist trained in a data-driven theory and method such as the Gottman Method is that interventions and treatment plans are tailored to that couples’ needs through the use of thorough assessments and a framework that has been built based on research. The process to having a better, more enjoyable and healthy relationship takes commitment and hard work, but the reward exists within both the outcome and the journey.

For more information on The Gottman Method and services offered by Gottman-trained therapists at Concentric Counseling & Consulting, visit https://www.gottman.com/ and www.concentricchicago.com/couples-marriage-counseling.

Adolescents, Teens, Depression & The Warning Signs

By Concentric Counselor Katie Ho, LPC, NCC

At a time in life when the only thing certain is constant change, recognizing and being aware of depression during adolescence can be a challenging feat without the knowledge of warning signs and risk factors. Mental health and the seriousness of depression continue to be topics of conversation following the headlines of national news and tragedies - but an equally, if not more urgent conversation is the one that needs to be started at home. The pressures of adolescence and impact of today’s culture of social media appearances and limited interpersonal connection only reinforce the need for education and awareness on depression. Parents and caregivers can provide their support and intervention through having the skills and knowledge to address their young person’s greatest mental health needs.

The answer to why we should talk about depression with teenagers is becoming more clear as the topic continues to be normalized, de-stigmatized and commonplace in the discussion of healthy emotional development; but the answer of how is where the light could shine a little brighter. How do you initiate a conversation around feelings, emotions and concerns of your child or loved one’s changes in mood and psychological health? How do you create a safe environment that fosters and promotes honest, sometimes uncomfortable dialogue about profound sadness or even thoughts of self-harm or suicide? Many of those answers involve one important action: listening.

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In order to fully understand and be prepared for a conversation around your young person’s mental health, it’s vital to know the warning signs and symptoms involved with depression during adolescence. These characteristics can be different than how they typically manifest in adults, and can oftentimes be mislabeled as expected changes during a new phase of life. It’s important to distinguish between depression and normal sadness. Depression can consume their day-to-day life; interfering with the ability to work, eat, sleep, study and have joy. It can involve feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and worthlessness with little to no relief.

Here are some signs and symptoms of adolescent depression:

● While some individuals may appear sad - many and most appear irritable (unrelenting)
● Negative view of self and/or the world and future
● Withdrawal from family and friends (isolation)
● Anger/Rage
● Overreaction to criticism
● Excessive sleeping
● Significant change in appetite
● Increased reckless or impulsive behaviors
● Substance use or acting out in an attempt to avoid feelings
● Violence
● Running away

If you suspect your teenager is struggling with depression or begins showing signs of concerning behavior, finding the time, the patience and the space is the first step in creating an environment for an honest discussion.

❖ Remember the value in listening over lecturing: initiating a conversation about emotional pain or hardships means being willing to hear their truth without judgment or criticism.
❖ With unconditional love will need to come unconditional support; let them know you’re committed to helping them fully and in a way that respects their experience, choice and voice.
❖ Be gentle, but persistent - if your teenager claims nothing is wrong, but is otherwise unable to explain the concerning observations and behaviors, trust your intuition and consider options for getting them to open up. The most important goal is to get them talking - whether it’s to you or to a reputable third party, give them the resources and options to share with someone they can trust.
❖ Validate their feelings - always. Try to avoid talking them out of their feelings or giving them an alternative perspective in which to view their experience. Acknowledging and communicating that you believe and hear them will foster trust and empathy. In combating adolescent depression, it can be effective to take a holistic approach - making their physical health as much of a priority as their social and emotional health. Encourage movement!

Physical activity can be incorporated in a number of ways, whether it’s a sports team, individual activity, dance class, walking the dog or riding their bike - all movement is good movement! Healthy, balanced eating and limited screen time are essential requirements for anyone’s lifestyle, but particularly those in adolescence. These items can also be partnered with the important aspect of positive interactions with family or loved ones. Sharing a meal or spending quality time can help that young person feel connected and valued.

Should the need for professional help and intervention be determined, be sure to involve your teen in those decisions. Respect their thoughts and opinions, and talk openly about their options for treatment. It may be a struggle for them to feel connected or comfortable talking with a professional, and collaborating with them on identifying someone who could meet their needs may help to bridge that gap. Depression and recovery can feel scary to both parent and child, but having open conversations with clear understandings of love, validation and support can make helping them more manageable so that they can live their most meaningful life.