I have come to attend to my trauma – the first session.

It is a big step to come to a counsellor to talk about your traumatic past. Sometimes, having plucked up the courage to take that step, you just want to tell the counsellor the whole story. But that is not the best approach. Before you can tell me about those events when you felt out of control and unsafe, you need to be able to trust me. Trust can only be built by spending time with another person and getting to know them. And that is what you need to do in the counselling session. You need to get to know me and know you can trust me to maintain a safe place for you to talk about those events. So I always say, you can give me the headings, but not the content.

As well as giving you the chance to feel comfortable with me and decide that I can be trusted, you also need to learn some other techniques. Children depend on their caregivers to help them feel safe and learn how to cope with strong emotions. This is known as regulation. If a child does not have that support, or is in a situation where there is no one there to help them regulate the strong emotions, the child does not learn how to regulate on their own. Talking about the traumatic experiences can be very frightening for an adult who has never learned to regulate. So I will teach you techniques to ground yourself in the present before any in depth discussion of your past experiences. These techniques are helpful outside as well as inside the counselling session.

Of course, you do not have to share every event that happened to you, or any for that matter. You share only what you feel is important to share.

Sharing will not happen in the first session. It may take 2 or 3 sessions before you are ready to talk about your past experiences.

Working on your childhood trauma is not a quick process. It can not be attended to in just a few sessions. Anyone who comes to me, thinking they can attend for 3 or 4 sessions, will not be able to attend to their trauma. I will instead focus on teaching you some techniques to help you to self regulate.

Some people work on their trauma for one to two years. Then later they come back to work on more. That is quite normal.

When I work with trauma I always collaborate with you, the client. In trauma you never had any power or control in the situation. Now in therapy you have equal power and you have control of the situation. This is an important part of your recovery. I always teach you about how the trauma has affected you and will answer any questions you may have. I always encourage my clients to ask me about things, no matter how silly they think the questions are. You need to be informed about your therapy.

I have come to attend to my trauma, why do I need to learn breathing?

Trauma is very complex and before starting to work with someone on their trauma, there are a few steps that need to be taken first. Many people who have experienced trauma often feel anxious or find it hard to calm down. While I work through the steps prior to commencing treatment, I find it helpful to teach clients breathing.

The type of breathing I often teach is 4-7-8 breathing. So, what is 4-7-8 breathing? To answer that question, I need to explain a little of how the nervous system works. It was once believed that the brain and the body were completely disconnected. However, recent research has shown that this is not so. In fact, our bodies are where we store a lot of memory and feel our emotions. Research has also shown a link between psychological experiences and the way those experiences manifest in the body. We now know that we have several levels of defence mechanism in our body. Each one is related to a different part of the brain. We share defence mechanisms with reptiles in our most primitive brain, with mammals in our slightly newer brain and so on. Each more advanced defence mechanism can override the lower defence mechanisms to a certain point. Where that point is depends on our childhood experiences. Trauma in childhood lowers the point at which our more primitive defence mechanisms kick in. It is important to know that none of those defence mechanisms is something we can consciously control.

The lower defence mechanisms are the active defence mechanisms of flight or fight and the immobilising lower defence mechanisms of freezing.

Our most advanced defence mechanism involves social behaviour. This behaviour involves what is known as face to heart connection. This means that the muscles of the face and head are linked to the nerves that regulate the heart. Social engagement can be dangerous or safe. We know it is safe by the facial gestures of other people. If the gestures are friendly, we feel safe. If the gestures are unfriendly, we feel unsafe and our defence mechanisms will be activated. How we look, listen and vocalise communicates to others that we are safe to approach. This is why people avoid you when you are angry, because your face communicates danger to them.

Our bodies experience sensations in response to other people and in response to our feelings. If you ask children to colour on a body diagram where they feel anger they will immediately colour in parts of the body. An adult may tell you they “had an uneasy feeling in their stomach” about someone they felt uncomfortable about. These are all ways our bodies experience our emotions and where we store the memory of them.

The quest for safety is the basis of a successful life. Feeling safe depends on the state of your unconscious nervous system. Cues of safety help calm that system. When we don’t feel safe we are vulnerable to physical and mental illness. When we interact positively with other people, we do what is known as co-regulate, which means we help each other regulate our emotions. Coregulating is essential for our own survival.

But what if trauma has lowered your threshold for lower defence mechanisms to kick in? How can you remain calm and start to raise that threshold? 4-7-8 breathing is an effective way to deal with this. It involves sitting comfortably upright on a chair, or lying down on your back, or standing up. You must breathe in through your nose so that your stomach comes out. This means you are breathing properly deep into your lungs, rather than taking shallow breaths into the top of your lungs. Breathe in quickly to the count of 4, then hold your breath for the count of 7 (counting at the same speed as the inbreath). After that you breathe out to the count of 8 through pursed lips. This means your out breath is twice as long as your inbreath. Practice this for 5 minutes at a time. Try to do it at least 3 times a day. It does have long term benefits and in the interim can help you to feel calmer.

In my next blog I will continue to explain the process of trauma counselling.

Equine Therapy

Equine Therapy, using the EAGALA approach with a qualified practitioner can be a useful adjunct to therapy. Recently Kyra attended an equine therapy session. She has been struggling with a childhood where she had never been loved or accepted by her family and had been struggling with the grief over never knowing what it was like to be looked at with love and acceptance. She felt angry, cheated and damaged. She felt she was constantly seeking acceptance through her interactions with other people.

She walked into the therapy area with great trepidation. She was sure the horses would reject her and she would feel even worse. She walked up to a horse and tentatively patted its nose. It turned its head away and she thought it didn’t want her there. Nothing new about that. She was sure the therapy team were judging her, just as her mother would judge her. So she went away. Later she learned the horse had turned its head back but she was gone.

After learning of that she took the opportunity to connect properly with the horse and it was happy to stand there while she stroked its nose. She then felt confident enough to pat the other horses.

Later, in a counselling session, she reflected on this encounter with the horse and realised she was looking at things the wrong way. She felt unloved and rejected, so approached others expecting to be rejected and not liked. At the first hint the other person was not interested she was act to protect herself and run away. What if people were like the horses, just turning away to attend to something then turning back to continue relating to her but she was gone?

She realised her past did not matter. She may have been unacceptable to her parents but people now accepted her. Being unacceptable as a young child did not mean a lifelong unacceptability.

She was pushing people away at the first hint of what she perceived as rejection, when she was not being rejected. How many friendships could she had had if she had realised this?

She realised she wanted others to give her the acceptance her parents never gave her and set high standards on how she expected them to be and rejected them when they failed to live up to those high standards. She realised no one could give her what her parents failed to give her and that was okay. They could give her acceptance in their relationships in a different way.


Losing the beloved trees.

So often in life we become so obsessed about something that we believe is essential for our happiness, that we miss the changes that lead to greater happiness. I was reminded of that a few months ago when I saw Kylie.

Kylie lived in a lovely leafy area. There were several houses nestled into a valley, surrounded by bush that covered the slopes around the houses. She had several beautiful trees in her own back yard. These were supplemented by the beautiful trees on the neighbouring properties.

Kylie could sit in her backyard, or look out the windows, and imagine she lived in the middle of the bush. This was important to her. She considered all the trees to be very precious. They allowed her to think she was living on an acreage somewhere in the bush. Something she could not afford.

One day a neighbour cut down the trees at her back fence. She was devastated. Suddenly she could see not trees, but her neighbour’s house. She was very upset and felt she could never enjoy living in her house again.

As she relayed the story of this devastating loss, she realised that cutting the trees down had opened the view to the wooded slopes behind the houses. This seemingly negative thing had opened a vista of the virgin bush on the slopes.

Kylie realised that she had concentrated so much on the loss that she had forgotten to see what she had gained was more precious.

Often in life we do that. We are so invested in what is there, that we focus on the negatives of losing those things we consider important. Yet, if we stop and consider, sometimes we discover that the new has opened possibilities for growth and greater enjoyment of life.

Sometimes is takes talking about our concerns and disappointments to be able to gain a new perspective. It is helpful to voice our concerns, in the presence of someone who is listening. Someone who will allow us to discuss what we are thinking and feeling. The process of putting our thoughts together and exploring them allows us to view them more objectively. When the listener allows us to explore the thoughts and feelings we will often learn many things about the distressing event. In Kylie’s case, she learned that the events she perceived as devastating actually had a wonderful benefit. She was able to realise the better view she now had. She was able to transform her disappointment and upset to joy and delight.

By visiting a counsellor, it is possible to be like Kylie. To be able to talk about the things that concern you. To be given the space to explore your concerns. To be able to see the concerns from a different perspective. And to find a way to move forward.

Nearly one in 10 Australians take antidepressants. Are there other solutions?

This article was written by Johan Hari and printed in the Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Weekend magazine on 2 February 2018.

Popping pills has become a panacea for depression across the Western world, in few countries more so than Australia. But what if the causes are societal rather than in our heads?

In the 1970s, a truth was accidentally discovered about depression – one that was quickly swept aside, because its implications were too inconvenient, and too explosive. American psychiatrists had produced a book that would lay out in detail all the symptoms of different mental illnesses, so that they could be identified and treated in the same way across the country.

It was called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. In the latest edition, they laid out nine different symptoms a patient had to show to be diagnosed with depression – such as decreased interest in pleasure, or persistent low mood. For a doctor to conclude you were depressed, you had to show five of these symptoms over several weeks.

The manual was sent out to doctors across the US, and they began to use it to diagnose people. But after a while, they came back to the authors, and pointed out something that was bothering them. If they followed this guide, psychiatrists would have to diagnose every grieving person who came to them as depressed and start giving them medical treatment. If you lost someone you love, it turned out these symptoms would arise automatically. So, the doctors wanted to know – were they supposed to start drugging all the grieving people in America?

The authors conferred, and decided that there would be a special clause added to the list of symptoms of depression. None of this applied, they said, if you had lost somebody you loved in the past year. In that situation, all these symptoms were natural, and not a disorder. It was called “the grief exception”, and it seemed to resolve the problem. But then, as the years passed, doctors came back with another question. All over the world, they were being encouraged to tell their patients that depression was the result of a spontaneous chemical imbalance in your brain – it was produced by low serotonin, or a natural lack in your brain of some other chemical. It wasn’t caused by your life, but by your broken brain.

Some of the doctors began to ask how this fitted with the grief exception. If the symptoms of depression were a logical and understandable response to one set of life circumstances – losing a loved one – might they not be an understandable response to others? What if you lost your job? If you were stuck in a job you hated? If you were alone and friendless? The grief exception seemed to have blasted a hole in the claim that the causes of depression were sealed away in your skull. It suggested that there were causes out in the world, and that they needed to be investigated and solved out here, in the world.

This was a debate mainstream psychiatry (with some exceptions) did not want to have. So they responded in a simple way – by whittling away the grief exception. With each new edition of the manual, they reduced the period of grief allowed before being labelled mentally ill – down to a few months and then, finally, to nothing. Now, if your baby dies at 10am, your doctor can diagnose you with a mental illness at 10.01am and start drugging you straight away. Some 32 per cent of grieving parents in the US are drugged within the first 48 hours.

Dr Joanne Cacciatore of Arizona State University became a leading expert on the grief exception after her own baby, Cheyenne, died during childbirth. She tells me that this debate reveals a key problem with how we talk about depression, anxiety and other forms of suffering: we don’t, she says, “consider context”. If we start to take people’s actual lives into account when we treat depression and anxiety, she explains, it will require “an entire system overhaul”.

“When you have a person with extreme human distress, [we need to] stop treating the symptoms,” she says. “The symptoms are a messenger of a deeper problem. Let’s get to the deeper problem.”

There is nowhere I went to, in the research for my new book, Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression and the Unexpected Solutions, that needs to think about this more urgently than Australia. On the entire planet, only one country, Iceland, has a higher rate of use of antidepressants. Since 2000, this rate has more than doubled, and nearly one in 10 Australians are taking them. They are even being prescribed to more than 1000 children aged between two and six. It’s a sign of a deep crisis.

When I was a teenager, growing up in London, I went to my doctor and explained that I felt pain was leaking out of me uncontrollably, like a bad smell. He told me a story – the story that has subsequently conquered Australia. He said there is a chemical called serotonin that makes people feel good, and that some people are naturally lacking it. You are clearly one of them. Take these drugs, and you will be normal again.

I believed and preached this story for 13 years – but there was something painful to admit. Apart from short pockets of relief, I remained depressed, no matter how many of these pills I took. I thought I was weird.

But when I spent three years travelling all over the world researching what is really causing this crisis, I learnt something startling. I was totally normal. Between 65 and 80 per cent of people taking chemical antidepressants become depressed again, according to the clinical psychologist Dr Steve Ilardi and research published in the New England Journal of Medicine. There is a real effect – but, alas, for many users, it’s not enough to lift them out of depression. I don’t want to take anything off the menu for depressed people, but it’s clear we need to add far more to it.

Dr Christopher Davey at the University of Melbourne, who has done some of the most interesting Australian research on this question, explains that the story I and millions of others were told by our doctors about why we were depressed is false. “The idea you could reduce it to one neurotransmitter [like serotonin] is obviously, obviously absurd. I don’t think anyone seriously believes that … That’s just absolute nonsense,” he says. “It has much more to do with social connectedness, and social supports.”

There is scientific evidence for nine different causes of depression and anxiety. One thing connects them. We all know human beings have natural physical needs: for food, water, shelter. It turns out human beings have natural psychological needs, too – but Australian society, and the wider Western world, is not meeting those needs for many of us, and that is the primary reason why depression and anxiety are soaring.

For example, there has been an explosion in loneliness. Australian social researcher Hugh Mackay has his own theory. “The biggest contributor is social fragmentation,” he says. “Humans are social animals. We need communities.

“The story of Australia over the past 50 years – accelerating over the past 20 years – has been the story of those traditional groupings coming apart. There’s been much more social fragmentation.”

Why is this causing so much distress?

Human beings evolved to live in closely knit tribes that were constantly co-operating. We only survived as a species because we could work together so tightly, and take down animals bigger and stronger than us. Just as a bee’s instincts are to connect with a hive, a human’s instincts are to connect with a tribe.

But we are the first humans to try to live alone and to imagine we can provide what we need for ourselves, as isolated individuals. In the circumstances where humans evolved, if you were apart from the tribe, you would feel depressed and anxious for a very good reason – you were in terrible danger. “When you have an epidemic of anxiety and depression, that is a societal warning bell,” Mackay says. “If we don’t attend to that warning bell, we’re in for a very difficult future.”

To begin to respond, we need to shift the way we think about this problem. In the early 2000s, South African psychiatrist Derek Summerfeld went to Cambodia, at a time when antidepressants were being introduced there. He began to explain the concept to the doctors he met. They listened patiently and told him they didn’t need these new antidepressants, because they already had some that worked. He assumed they were talking about a herbal remedy.

He asked them to explain, and they told him about a rice farmer they knew whose left leg was blown off by a landmine. He was fitted with a new limb, but he felt constantly anxious about the future, and was filled with despair. The doctors sat with him, and talked through his troubles. They realised that even with his new artificial limb, his old job – working in the rice paddies – was leaving him constantly stressed and in physical pain, and that that was making him want to just stop living.

So they had an idea. They believed that if he became a dairy farmer, he could live differently. They bought him a cow. In the months and years that followed, his life changed. His depression, which had been profound, went away. “You see, doctor,” they told him, the cow was an “antidepressant”. To them, finding an antidepressant didn’t mean merely finding a way to change your brain chemistry. It meant finding a way to solve the problem that was causing the depression in the first place.

I interviewed huge numbers of scientists who were trying to find ways to do that, and learnt about seven antidepressants that really work. For example, in a surgery in east London, a doctor named Sam Everington was becoming uncomfortable. Patients were coming to him depressed because they were lonely – and he was drugging them. So he began an experiment. He “prescribed” for them to take part in a group activity. One patient had been shut away in her home for seven years. He prescribed for her to take part in a gardening group, where she and other depressed people were given a patch of scrubland, and asked to make it into something beautiful. Over the next year, slowly, she began to reconnect with the land, and with the other depressed people in the group. Today, she is free from depression, and running a gardening centre.

That grief and depression have the same symptoms isn’t a coincidence. Depression is a form of grief – for your life not going as it should; for your psychological needs not being met. With grief for somebody who has died, we offer love and support to the people who remain. With grief for our lives going wrong, there’s a different solution – one that is lying there, waiting for us. It is a program of deep reconnection with the things that really matter in life.

Lost Connections: Uncovering The Real Causes of Depression and Anxiety – and the Real Solutions by Johann Hari (Bloomsbury, $28), is out now


Do you want to get better?

Do you want to get better?

It may seem like a no brainer. You decide to see a counsellor. That means you want to get better, right?

Not necessarily.

What is better? What do you consider ‘better’ to be? It is important to have an idea of that. People come to counselling for many reasons that have nothing to do with feeling or getting ‘better’. Getting better does not have to be the end result of counselling.

For some people, the thought of being better is frightening. If you are used to coping with life as someone who is ‘not well’ and receiving a lot of support, then what will ‘better’ with no excuse to get support mean? Getting ‘better’ is not an overnight thing. It takes time and will occur alongside other changes that improve your ability to cope with life. But do you believe that? Do you trust another person well enough to let yourself experience those changes in your life? Are you willing to give up the benefits of not being well? They are important questions to consider.

When I see someone for the first time I often ask what that person would like to see happen in that first session to make him or her feel coming to see me was worthwhile. That question could be repeated every session. Then there is that person’s idea of what counselling would achieve. Sometimes that is not clear or well understood at the first session. It is not unusual for a person to decide after some sessions that he or she wants something different from counselling. Some people never get that clear idea. All those experiences are fine. Counselling is a journey. You may start that journey with a clear idea of where you want to go and may end up somewhere else. And you will realise your destination is the right place to be. As a counsellor, I don’t tell you where to go. I just journey with you, allowing you time to reflect and explore what is on your mind.

In eight years as a counsellor, I have learned that the journey of counselling often has nothing to do with ‘getting better’.

So if your answer to the question is “no I don’t want to get better”, that does not mean you can’t benefit from counselling.

New Year Resolutions

The New Year is a time when many people establish goals for the year ahead. The New Year Resolution. The pursuit of the goal usually starts enthusiastically, but frequently runs out of steam as the year progresses. And that is often accompanied by feelings of failure such as “I can never achieve anything”; “This is hopeless, I will never change” and so on.

What can you do to ensure those goals are achievable?

Goals fall into six areas:

  • Career goals
  • Relationship goals
  • Financial goals
  • Personal goals
  • Health goals
  • Learning/development goals.

It is helpful to know which area your goals fit into, but more about that later.

Before setting goals you need to do three things. The three ‘P’s: Ponder, Project and Plan.


This involves reviewing the past year positively.

  • What went well last year?
  • What am I grateful for?
  • What about the last year do I appreciate?’

This will help you to see the achievements you made in the past year. It will help you to realise how much you achieved. This will help you to be more positive about being successful in fulfilling your New Year goals. It will demonstrate your ability to succeed. You cannot achieve any goals if you do not believe you can achieve them.


Once you have identified and been grateful for all those achievements of the past year, you can identify some goals you hope to achieve in the New Year.

  • Write out what you want to do.
  • Consider the emotions you feel around each goal. It is important to understand the emotional importance of a goal.
  • Look at the goal.
  • What do you want to achieve?
  • Is it achievable?
  • Is there another way to achieve this?
  • What might get in the way of you achieving the goal?
  • How important is it for me to achieve this?
  • What steps are necessary to achieve this goal? Write them out.
  • How do you expect life will be when you achieve your goal?
  • What will your family/friends say is different about you?
  • Who will be the first to notice the changes?
  • How committed are you to achieving this goal?

Once you have considered all the aspects of your goal, then you can move on to the planning stage.


  • It is vital you write your goal down. Also write down the steps you will need to achieve in pursuit of your goal.
  • Put the actions you need to do into your diary.
  • List specific things to do as you plan your week/month/year. Naturally the find details of your goal are things you can only plan in the short term.
  • Make sure you give the goals actions high priority in your diary. There is no use putting down an action to complete ‘if there is no time’. It will never be completed. This is why so many goals fail.

I mentioned earlier there are six areas we set goals in. It can be helpful to understand which area your goal fits into. This helps you decide its importance and to give you the motivation to pursue it. For example: You decide to pay off a credit card debt during the year. You know this is a financial goal. But what is the actual goal. What do you hope to gain from paying off the credit card? Your answer is that you want to put more money into savings. Perhaps you want to save up and visit family. That is a relationship goal. Perhaps you are sick of renting and want to buy a home. That is a personal goal. This deliberation gives you an immediate goal, to pay off that credit card debt and a longer term goal family or home. Now you plan how you are going to pay off that debt and you note actions in your diary. You also note your progress in paying off that debt. You have achievable steps that you can watch and use as encouragement when the goal seems to be so far away. You can also motivate yourself with the thought of what it will be like to be able to save money for the longer term goal.

Setting New Year goals is a matter of choice, just as setting any goal is a matter of choice. You may want to do this or you may not. But now should you decide to do it, you will have some practical steps you can follow.

How to Handle the Stress of Christmas – The Dreaded Family Get Together.

For a lot of people, Christmas is a time for family get togethers. The popular view is of happy families harmoniously enjoying Christmas.

The reality is often different… That sister in law with the condescending attitude. The cousin with the acid tongue. The catty aunts who make harpies look like angels. The boozy uncle who annoys everyone with his drunken conversation and ability to stick to you like glue no matter what you do to get rid of him. The brother who delights in picking fights with you. The mother who never misses an opportunity to point out your faults. The father who treats you like a nothing.

It can leave you dreading Christmas and finding it hard to keep your cool on the day.

So how do you manage it?

The first thing to consider is “Do I have to go to the family Christmas?”

There are many reasons why you may answer Yes and many reasons why you may answer No. If the answer is No then, you need to consider whether you are going to go or not. If the answer is Yes then you need to work out a strategy to keep yourself calm at the family Christmas get together.

If there are unresolved issues in the family, it can be helpful to see a counsellor. You may be able to identify ways you can discuss these issues with your family at a less stressful time of year. Or you may decide that conversation will never be productive and aim instead to heal yourself from the pain of these issues and identify ways you can let go of the pain and enjoy the day. Or at least not murder someone!

Talking about the pain to a counsellor can be really helpful. It allows you to express your pain and be heard. It allows you to process the pain and find ways to move forward in life. It allows you to identify ways to cope with the family situation.

Good preparation in the lead up to that family get together is also important. Dwelling on the day and imagining all the nasty things that are going to be said and done to you will only serve to increase your stress. And on the day you are more likely to get angry or upset at something someone else does. In a way your thoughts about what you fear happening will become a self-fulfilling prophesy.

A really effective way to divert your attention from dwelling on the day is to practice mindfulness. Ensure you have some time each day to just practice a simple mindfulness meditation. If you practice mindfulness regularly you will find you become a lot calmer and it is easier to cope with the stressful events of life, such as the family get together.

Resolve to stay positive. One practice many use is to find something in the situation to be grateful of. Jamie realised her catty aunts were what kept her from getting caught up in the politics of her workplace. She decided she was grateful for their behaviour because it led to her abhorring such nastiness and meant she was not stressed by events in her workplace. She was able to go to the Christmas event and find her aunts’ behaviour amusing. Before she had discovered the gratitude point she has always become enraged at their behaviour, now it was something to laugh at.

On the day other things you can do to remain calm include:

  • Avoid drinking too much. The more you drink the lower your inhibitions and the more likely you will lose your temper at someone and cause the kind of scene you were hoping to avoid.
  • If there are family members arguing, or that sister in law is out with her comments, stop for a moment. Ask yourself “What is important for me today? Do I want to have a nice day? Will arguing with her achieve that? Is it worthwhile risking the relationship with my brother because of her? Does it matter what she thinks?” I am sure you can think of many more questions to ask. The important thing is to stop. Take a mindful breath. Check in with your feelings and the outcome you want. And, instead of reacting to that person, respond. That response may involve just walking away from them. Dignity intact.
  • If you are caught up with the acid tongued cousin, steer the conversation away from the nastiness towards positive shared experiences. Few people can resist a positive family story. You will all enjoy yourselves more if you are reminiscing about things that grow family bonds.
  • If things are getting too negative take a breather. Remove yourself from the conversation. Look yourself in the mirror. Make eye contact with yourself and acknowledge how you are feeling. Then have compassion on yourself. Try 4-7-8 breathing. If you need to take a long bathroom break to achieve this, then do it. Get involved in another activity at the get together. Some of the more pleasant family members may be heading off on a walk. Join them. Walking is a great stress reliever and anger is dissipated by the movement of walking. You may find making a joke about the negative topic can help.
  • If your mother/father is there causing the pain he/she always causes. Take that breather and tell yourself how it feels. Find someone else to spend time with. Get involved in other activities. Leave the get together at the end of the day and shake off the negative energy left by your parent. Most importantly, don’t give him/her permission to ruin your day. Yes you want his/her acceptance and love but that may never happen. Give yourself the love and acceptance you need. And see a counsellor to work through this.

Have a wonderful Christmas. May you find gratitude, humour, self-compassion, love and acceptance at your family Christmas, even if you give it to yourself.


How to Handle the Stress of Christmas – Family Estrangement

For most people, at some time in their lives, Christmas has been about family. There are often good memories about that time. Being part of a group. Feeling loved. Feeling included. And Christmas is always spoken of as a family time.

If you are estranged from family members, Christmas is a time where you are most likely to remember that estrangement. And it hurts.

Family members usually don’t become estranged in a moment. If you are the one who made the choice to remove yourself from those family members, the hurt that lead to that most likely built up over time. And the decision to cut off contact was most likely not made lightly, but made after a lot of thought over an extended period of time. And the estrangement hurts.

If you have been the one a family member has walked out on, there are often the questions about why this happened. Trying to understand. Trying to make sense of it. Feeling hurt.

No matter what has led to you being here, in the lead up to Christmas, remembering family members you know you can’t talk to or see, it hurts.

So how do you deal with it?

Like any loss, estrangement leads to grief. Grief takes time to process. The pain may seem to diminish with time, but it will never go.

Part of the grieving process is expressing your grief. Allowing it to be spoken of and acknowledged. Allowing time for the healing and accepting the scars.

A caring friend may be willing to listen to you. You may choose to visit a counsellor. You may find expressing yourself with art activities is helpful. Movement may help. Writing poetry or journaling can be helpful as well.

Acknowledge the hurt. Don’t try to hide it. What you express hurts less than what you hide.

Reflect on the relationship and find a symbol to express how you grew through that relationship and how you have grown as a result of the end of that relationship.

The symbol can be anything. Clients of mine have chosen a number of symbols:

  • A colourful spinner for the garden;
  • A butterfly picture;
  • A bird bath;
  • Made a collage of pictures out of magazines;
  • Taken photos; and
  • Collected shells from the beach.

They all found the act of reflection, choosing the symbol and being able to see it helped them learn how to fit the estrangement into their lives.

Christmas will hurt. Acknowledge the pain. Find new meaning in the Christmas you are having now. Talk to someone if you need to. Be compassionate to yourself. Be okay to hurt and be okay to enjoy the Christmas you have.


How to handle the stress of Christmas – The Need to be Perfect.

One of the biggest problems in our society is the need to be perfect. On the television there are advertisements and whole programs on that perfect presentation. And if you open a magazine to escape the pressure, there are likely to be articles about the perfect dinner layout and the perfect Christmas menu. Not surprising that many people feel the pressure to be perfect at Christmas. And that is stressful

If this if your stress this Christmas, there are some helpful things you can do to reduce that stress.

The first is to ask yourself what that need for perfection is all about. Are you trying to prove yourself to someone?

The expectations of others can be very difficult, especially when they are imposed on you by an important relative, such as your mother.

Christmas is such an important family time for many and it is easy to get caught up in the pressures that existed in your childhood. Especially when you are surrounded by messages of perfection.

So how do you deal with that?

That depends on how great the need for that relative’s approval is.

Sometimes being aware of that pressure and making a decision not to be affected by it is enough.

For others, brief mindfulness meditations are really helpful.

One such meditation is known as 4-7-8 breathing. To do this, find somewhere where you will not be disturbed. Sit comfortably but upright. Set a timer for five minutes. Closing your eyes will make it easier to focus. Breathe in so that your tummy rises for the count of four. Hold your breath for the count of seven. Then breathe out through pursed lips for the count of eight. While you do this, focus on your breathing and the counting of that breath. Put other thoughts out of your mind. If thoughts creep back, just gently push them away. Focus on this breathing pattern until the five minutes is completed. Practise this several times a day. Three to five is very effective. Most people find this really calming.

If you find the significant relative has more impact on you and is harder to ignore, then it can be helpful to see a counsellor who specialises in treating adults who have had difficulty in childhood. Seeing a counsellor is, of course, a long term solution. In the interim, try the 4-7-8 breathing meditation to get you through this Christmas as stress free as possible.