Welcome to the Voice of Counseling from the American Counseling Association. I'm Christa Butler from ACA, and joining me today is Esther Scott who is here to talk about wellness practices to reduce holiday grief.
But first we want to share with you about the award-winning Counseling Today magazine, which is the premier source of news and information about professional counseling from the American Counseling Association. It provides coverage of the latest developments, current news, and in-depth futures about counseling techniques, resources, and professional issues, as well as articles written by leading practitioners in the field. Learn more at ct.counseling.org, and don't forget to follow Counseling Today on Twitter @aca_ctonline and on Facebook at facebook.com/counselingtoday.Ether is a licensed professional counselor. She earned a double Bachelor's of Art in Psychology and Business Administration, a master's in mental health, and is a PhD candidate in Marriage and Family Therapy. Esther has dedicated her career to helping others achieve personal growth and has served individuals and families in the United States, Italy, Greece, Bahrain, Japan, and the Dominican Republic. Her areas of expertise include grief, anxiety, and depression. As a mental health advocate, she works to spread the word about the benefits of mental health treatment to improve overall health. She works with the city and business leaders on issues impacting the community, participates in community discussion panels, and is a regular consultant on local TV and radio stations. Esther has served on the Community Relations Committee Kindness Initiative for the city of Arlington in Texas, and as president of the Hispanic American Association in Japan.
Esther, thank you so much for joining us today for this discussion on holiday grief and wellness. Let's start with you sharing with us about your professional background, the populations that you serve, as well as your specialty in grief and bereavement counseling.
Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me on the program. It is a pleasure to be here with you and I'm a licensed professional counselor in Texas and my background education is in solution focused and I enjoy just working with clients, helping them identify the solutions to their problems.
In terms of the population that I serve, I work with a lot of families and because of that, I get to see clients from different range and age. With children, we know that children do not have the ability to express their emotions, so I work with them in the context of the family dynamic. I have teenagers. With teenagers, it's more of just the stress and pressure of all the hormonal changes and mood swings, which is all part of the normal development, but the stress that they're experiencing with peer pressure makes it a little bit more difficult and harder, so with them I focus on kind of helping them understand coping skills and just resilience and of course just kind of expressing their emotions in a healthy way. With the adults, which is what fills my schedule the most, I work with them because adults have a way of experiencing a number of issues all at the same time. That could be a long term illness of a spouse all for themself. It could be just the global and local community issues as we deal with that or taking care of kids, taking care of parents, a romantic relationship involved. They fill most of my schedule, but I work with a number of them.
In terms of a specialty, I have a heart for working with clients who are experiencing grief, stress, anxiety, depression, in couples that are struggling with their relationship issues because we see that the couple is like the tree and the family is the branches. When I work with the couples, I feel that the family improves tremendously.
Thank you so much for sharing that. I imagine that the holiday times for you, I can imagine you'd be pretty busy as far as working with clients and as we know, sometimes the holidays can be really stressful and sometimes they might be met with some holiday blues and so we're going to get into that in a minute.
I know you've also written some articles with CT online, which we we'll list in our show notes, and one of your articles, "Positive Actions to Prevent Holiday Blues," you talked about the causes of holiday blues. Can you summarize for us what are some of those causes and some of the symptoms that one might notice if they're experiencing holiday blues?
Yes, and what we noticed during the holiday is that there's a tendency for this to increase. In fact, we call it SAD, just the short for seasonal affective disorder in some cases as well. Part of what we see, we don't have the specifics of what causes it, but research has found that there is a number of levels where we are impacted. We have, at the biological level, and with that we see just a decrease in sunlight. For instance, we get up but the sun is not out. We go to the office and by the time we come out of the office by 5:00, the sun is gone so we do not get to see the sunlight as much and we believe, according to research, that there is an impact at the biological level because it impacts our serotonin, which is what regulates our mood and then it also has the melatonin, which is what kind of helps us with sleep. We're not getting enough sleep or because we're sleepy earlier because of the dark, then we see that that is an impact.
At the emotional level, then we have the stress of family gatherings or just shopping for gifts and organizing and all that pressure that we put on ourselves is difficult. Some of us are going to experience times when we cannot be with our family, so that's going to bring us stress. Or we are having our family come in and there is a particular family member that we don't get along with very well that is going to put in stress. We see different ones.
Then once that we look a little deeper, we get to the heart of things for the holiday blues, especially if we have lost someone and is unrealistic expectations. We may feel or want for the holidays to be the same as they have always been and that creates just an incredible stress in our hearts and in our minds that it's not going to be the same, we all change. Those are the elements that we see that impact part of the holiday blue that we feel around the holidays. It's just that tendency with the biological component, the emotional component, and of course the social expectations of things wanting to be the same as always has been.
Thank you for that summary. Of course, with the normal life stressors and the world current events, of course those symptoms could potentially be exacerbated for some people. It's so important that we find some positive actions for coping to help minimize some of those symptoms of holiday blues. I'm curious if you could also share with us what are some of those positive actions for coping that you suggest?
Yes, and ones that we look at the symptoms. There is going to be irritability just to begin with. One of the symptoms is that we are a little more irritable, even though it's the holidays and it's a time for family reunion and happiness, precisely because of that is that we're going to be more sensitive to those symptoms because even though everyone is celebrating, there are many people that are actually conducting self-reflection and they may be even comparing their situation to other people's situation and so they're going to be a little more irritable. They're going to experience headaches, they're going to have a number of just different levels of happiness. When we look at the positive actions that we can take to increase our joy, it starts with us feeling in control.
One of the things that I recommend is getting organized. Why? Because we cannot control what other families are doing, we cannot control what's going on in the world, but we can control what's going on in my house, what's going on in my closet, what's going on in my life. When we get organized, we see that the brain feels better. The brain is designed to give us what we need and what we want, but it needs to feel in control. In fact, stress and depression comes because we feel that there is nothing we can do.When we change that, and there is a simple way to change that, even just deciding what am I going to wear this holiday season? We have summer clothes because here in the United States we experience the seasonal changes. I'm from the Dominican Republic where it is always summer, so to me it's something new. But here in the States, we have the summer clothes that we have to put away. Get in your closet and just move those things to the back and bring to the front the warmer clothes that you're going to be wearing, that's going to increase your hope. One, because you are projecting into the future so you see yourself through the holidays and that's a good sign, and two, because it's going to make you feel in control of your closet, of those small things that we can do. We call those psychological tricks to change your mood because now that you feel in control, you got a different hormonal flowing through you and that is helpful.
Another one that I always recommend is just letting of the past. I just mentioned, touch a little bit on that and is this expectations that things are going to be the same, is us looking back and imagining or wanting for things to be the same. But when we use rationalization, we find that we change all the time, even today we're changing. Tomorrow I'm not going to be the same because I had the opportunity to share with you and your audience this podcast with the information that we're changing, we're going to be different tomorrow. When we look at it from that perspective, then we can create something new. Again, the brain just likes to know what's going on, to be in charge. It's going, "Give me your order and I will follow." Here what we are saying is we're going to celebrate in a different way.
Perhaps you don't have that significant one that was there with you, so the tendency's going to be to remember that last time he was sitting on this chair or we're doing this activity or when we went out to see this movie and that also, okay, we have a memory, but what we want to do is have a plan with that memory. Yes, last year so and so was here, this year, they're not but this is what I'm going to do. If it's a loved one that we lost because of death, we want to honor them. If it's a significant one that we lost because the relationship didn't work, we want to retain the memories. There's a reason that you guys got together, there was something that you like about that person. We can cherish and honor that without holding onto a past that is not going to come back. We make a new plan, we're going to celebrate in a new way. That's one of the ones that I recommend the most because we change all the time, life changes. Just have a plan and that's going to help us deal with this ups and down of life a little better.
Mm-hmm, it sounds like focusing on your internal locus of control versus the external locus of control and also creating those new traditions and experiences that can honor those loved ones who may not be with you any longer, but can help you in creating new memories that you'll be able to share with your family and with your loved ones that you have around you during the holiday season.
Yes. We had a client that was struggling with the loss of a very dear person, the center of the family, the mom, and they felt that they were not going to decorate because Mom was gone and Mom was the heart of the family. One of the things that we worked through is could we honor Mom's memory through decorating, since she always did it, since it was her thing? Can we decorate in her memory? Can we make the house as brighter as always, if not more, because we're going to get extra lights to put in the front porch in her memory? We saw that the family became alive just with this concept, just putting a Christmas tree decoration or decor that is especially for her, or set in a little corner in the house that says, "We miss you. We love you."
Because famous people are going to have historians writing about them and there's going to be documentary, all kinds of things is going to be done for them, perhaps even buildings and schools name after them, but a loved ones, we are responsible for keeping them alive in us. We are responsible for honoring them, for let the world know how amazing this person was to me. But in most cases, and even in certain culture, once that we lose somebody, we don't even want to talk about them because we're afraid that we're going to trigger the pain, that we're going to trigger the grief. But the reality is that the grief is always there. Grief is part of life because it means that I lost something that I want. We only grieve the things that we care about. When we turn this loss into something, what made it so special? Why does it hurt so much?
In Spanish, which is my native language, we say [foreign language 00:13:54] and that basically what it means is it hurts. That's our word for grief. It hurts. That's how we say it. Why does it hurt? Because it was a special relationship. During the holidays, this is a great opportunity for us to highlight them and celebrate with them, not stop the celebration because they're not without. We don't need to die with them, but we can keep them alive with us. I think that that's what we want to look at. How do I change this loss into something that I can cherish and let the world know through my appreciation and honoring this memory?
Mm-hmm. Excellent. Thank you, Esther, for sharing that. Such powerful words, honoring and celebrating our loved ones and celebrating the memories that we have with them and creating those new experiences as we honor and celebrate the memories that we've had.
You speak about steps that one can take to rediscover hope, and you've shared a few of them with us already, but I'm curious if there are any additional steps that you are able to share with us. I know you wrote another article with CT online where you outlined some of those steps. We'll share that in our show notes today. What are some steps for rediscovering hope and any suggestions that you have for our counseling community on rediscovering that hope as well?
I think that to rediscover hope, one of the things that I have noticed that helped my clients is go back to the resilience. As a solution focused person I like to ask, "What helped you in the past? How were you successful? How were you able to turn this difficult situation or prevent it from turning into something worse or took this difficult situation and grew from it?" This is what in psychology we call posttraumatic growth. The tendency has been posttraumatic stress. We want to change that and go for the growth. For that, I always recommend put on a detective hat. Let's start asking questions that is going to help you highlight your strength. You have come this far, you are 10, 20, 30, 40, 70, 90, however age you have to fight through life. Life never gets easier. Part of life is growth. Part of life is up and down.
In fact, I joke with my clients because I like to use humor and I draw in my notepad and the monitor when you go to the hospital indicates it's up and down and we have seen this run through social media as well. If at any point that line goes flat is like, "Uh-oh, we have an issue." The doctor gets called in, the nurses come, the family run, because it's not normal to be just flat. We're going to have ups and downs. Now what we want to look for, and what I tell my clients is when we are in the downs, what can I do to come up? The reason is because our brain is designed to give us what we ask, is designed to serve us. If I ask the brain, "Why do I get depressed around this time of the year all the time?" that's a legitimate question, it's a valid question except that unless you are a researcher working for a paper, that answer is going to give us very little. We can do very little with that. In fact, it may even make us feel worse.
But if we ask the brain a different kind of questions, if I ask, "What can I do so that I don't feel the same as I did last year?" Or, "What can I do to make this holiday season better than the one that I had that was so painful?" Or "What can I do that this holiday season doesn't hurt me without what I'm missing, what I lost, what I love?" It could be a job, it could be a romantic relationship. Grief is not just about death. Grief is about losing something that we loved, something that we wanted, and it didn't work or that we cannot have and it was important to us. It could be anything you fill in the blank, what you are missing.
But when we go for that resilience, for us to find out what helped me in the past, that's going to give us hope that, "Hey, I have come this far. I was able to do this." Sometimes we have gone through things that were worse than our current situations. It could be that we are just exhausted emotionally and feel like we don't have energy, but now that we cannot do it. That's what I go for. Let's go into your strength. What worked for you in the past? How do you get out? Some of them may say, "I have never experienced this." Definitely not but you have experienced difficult things, what helped you, and I focus on finding their strength.
Mm-hmm, resiliency and strength and what you were speaking to earlier as far as your solution focused approach as well. I can totally hear how you're tying those in and integrating them so positively to benefit the clients that you're serving.
Lastly, for counselors in particular, the holiday season can also be very stressful. We talked about having intensity of your services that are needed at this time and we're human too and we might also be experiencing grieving loss during the holiday season. I'm hoping that we can end here with a message of hope and encouragement that you might have for counselors and any thoughts that you have for counselors on having self care and self-compassion for themselves during the holiday season.
Yes, I think that because of the example that I provided with the medical community, my sister is a medical doctor. In fact I wanted to be a medical doctor, but I was fearful of blood so I couldn't do it. But in any case, I draw a lot from the medical community. What we see is that because we're in a world that has ups and downs, based on that analogy, counselors experience that too. Just like medical doctors, they get sick too and they know what needs to be done for health. The difference is that the doctor can recognize the symptoms and immediately know what medication or what treatment to apply so they recover a little quicker. It's not that they don't get sick.
The same for us. We are human beings and we're going to experience pain, personal pain. We also experience the pain with our clients, so there's a number of things that is going to impact our hearts because we have a heart as well. In fact, because of the heart is that we are in this profession helping others understand their emotions and deal with it.
One of the things that I do is just understand the purpose of your emotions. Whatever it is that we are experiencing as counselors and that we are helping our clients deal with, if we understand the purpose of the emotions, if we understand the purpose of the grief is going to help us and help them. For instance, one of the things that I like to describe for my clients, I have a number of clients that have never been in counseling because in our Hispanic culture we talk to our cousins, we don't talk to the counselors. Although we are coming more into the counseling field, in general we talk to our cousins or our families. When they come in, they never been and they think that there's something wrong with them because they're coming. Sometimes it's because we don't understand the difference between mental health and mental illness.
What I said is mental health are those warning emotions that are telling me that something is not okay. For instance, if you are being sad for a prolonged period of time, more than two weeks, that could be an indication that you are entering a depression. What is causing that? Once that we understand and we help them see, I say "Imagine your car, the dashboard in your car. When you have low fuel, if your car is working properly, it's going to say, 'Low fuel.' It's giving you a warning so that you know, 'Okay, I need to find a gas station,' especially if you're on the highway, it's giving you a warning." It doesn't mean that the car doesn't work. We could say, "Stupid car, what's wrong with this car?" It's designed to do that.
Our emotions are designed to do that. When you're feeling stressed, when you're feeling sad, when you're feeling angry, most people think that anger is a negative emotion, but the emotions have a function. Anger is just saying, "Something is unjust," and because we perceive an injustice, "We say we got to do something." We say, "Eh, no." We react. What we need to learn is what to do with those emotions. As counselors, we need to identify those symptoms in ourselves as well.
Some of them mainly being impatient with your clients or kind of isolating yourself where you don't want to go out or participate with your family because you are exhausted, because you are tired, those are symptoms that indicates you too are struggling with your emotional adjustment and we want to go through that and identify that. Once that we see what's going on, that we can design a plan, always, I'm about plan, I'm a step by step person because I think that the brain works well with structure. Remember, identifying those conditions doesn't mean that I'm a bad counselor, it doesn't mean that I don't have the skills. No, it just means that this is a warning. "Hey, pay attention there, you need fuel."
Let's find activities that we enjoy and try to do those on a weekly basis because we see clients weekly. We see clients every day. In fact, here in my office, I have a jump rope that I use in between clients. I have a certain time when I'm going to take my high heel shoes and just jump here in my office because I want that boost of dopamine because they're coming because they want hope. They want to learn how to deal with their situation and we can help model those for them. Having a balanced life is another way that we can take care of ourselves as clients, especially during this holiday season that we're going to see an increased number of clients coming to see us.
What is the balanced life? A balanced life is not equal. Sometimes we confuse balance with equal. Right now our jobs is going to take at least eight or 10 hours of our days, and we're going to have about four or five hours with our family. That's not balanced, that's not equal, but we can balance it. We can say, "Okay, I'm a 100% with my clients. When I get home, I'm going to be 100% with my family." In fact, my clients know and I tell them from the beginning, "If there is an emergency, please call 911 because I may not be available. I may be with a client and I get to you for an hour or two, or I may be at home and not around my phone for an hour or two until I'm done with my family dinner." They know that and it helps them have a structure as well so they know that if you're done with your job, put it away for two hours to be with your family or for four hours to be with the family.
The same skills that we share with our clients are skills that we can apply to ourselves, knowing that we too are human, that we too are going to have struggles, that we too have families, that we too have health conditions. All those things are real for us. We just need to balance that and know that we can provide the same of the techniques to ourselves.
If you are feeling isolated, connect with your family and friends. Use humor. I love humor. Every weekend, my husband is in the military, and we use the term mandatory fun often on weekends. That's because this says we work hard, we got to have fun so that I'm recharged for Monday. We get silly and we do karaoke, we watch funny videos, we watch stand up comedians, we go dancing, we do all those things that is going to refuel, give you the feel that you need so that you can go back and serve your clients.
Mm-hmm. Thank you so much. There are so many powerful things that you said there. What I heard was being intentional with your self-care, tuning in and listening to your body and setting those boundaries, knowing that it's okay to close the laptop and to, like you said, mandated fun time on the weekends with your family. Thank you so much for being here with us today, Esther. Where can our listeners find you if they'd like to learn more about you and the services that you offer?
Yes, we are on the internet and social media as most of us. Although time with clients keeping me more in the office than out there. But we have a Facebook, which is Positive Actions International at facebook.com. We are on Instagram, same, Positive Actions International, and we have a website, positiveactionsinternational.com. We have a list of resources that we provide and they can get more information, send me a text, send me an email, and get in touch with me that way.
We know that we are in this together and this is something that we talk about during the COVID crisis and we're still in this together. As counselors, we really come into your pain, into your difficulties, and help you see the door, identify what's going to help you, so we're truly in this together. As counselors, as colleagues, as we help one another, some of the things that help me that I want to put out there as a final word of encouragement is have a routine, a healthy routine for you. Maybe it's a quiet morning start, a quiet coffee, or maybe it's meditation or maybe it's prayer. For me, prayer has been very helpful, but everyone finds a way that is going to help them. Just make it on a calendar, you're going to take 10 minutes before you get to the news just to eat something healthy and not just the stress that is going to come to you. We are in this together and we can help one another.
Esther, thank you so much for joining us today. To read the CT articles referenced in today's episode, check out the show notes and to access more from CT online, go to ct.counseling.org. Be sure to subscribe to the Voice of Counseling on Apple and Google podcasts and you can follow ACA on social media. To join ACA and to get exclusive access to all member benefits, checkout counseling.org.
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