Growing & Learning (a lot)

I started graduate school at the University of Colorado Denver (UCD) about 6 months ago. It is just the beginning of what will be a long (but significant) journey; my schooling (inclusive of practicum and internship) will last over three years, then, for two years I will work under supervision before I can become officially licensed as a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC).

I joined UCD’s Counseling Program specifically because of the program’s multicultural focus, fusing psychological approaches with specific cultural contexts for people of all backgrounds.

Originally, a few years ago, I had thought I had wanted to be a social worker.

Post-Peace Corps, I applied to the University of Denver, got in (twice) and subsequently decided that I didn’t want to fork over that much money simply to be qualified to help people.

There was more too – I realized that while social work is an incredible profession – creating ways for individuals to access important resources – I wanted to help individuals, groups, and communities in a more relationally focused way. I started researching and exploring and found that counseling was a great fit for my interests and skillsets.

Social workers work within systems, usually matching services for the needs of a client.

Counseling, however, provides treatment (often in the realm of mental health) for clients in a setting that prioritizes a professional relationship so that a person can slowly heal, grow, and become fully empowered in their life. I like to think of this more positively; instead of focusing on a person’s shortfalls, a lot of constructive change can occur when a person knows (and uses) the assets and strengths they hold. Leveraging these, I’m learning, is a powerful way to pursue health and wellness.

Upon starting my program, I was ready to learn about the ins and outs of counseling, therapy modalities, and techniques to use when working in therapeutic settings. I had a vision for the kind of therapist/counselor I wanted to be – one that worked with individuals from different trauma backgrounds (like refugees), cultures, and age groups.

As with any formidable learning opportunity, already a lot has changed.

My coursework has challenged me; I have had to confront my own bias’s, beliefs, opinions, assumptions, and understandings about people. In just a handful classes, I have also re-explored some of my own past to understand better why I do what I do. In doing so, I can see where some of my perspectives have come from, and while I can hold onto these, I must also see where my blind-spots exist, too.

You see, what I forgot to consider in starting my path as a counselor-trainee was that I would need to continue to do “work” with myself. After all, without self-awareness and knowledge of self, how can I possibly begin to help the clients I work with in the future? As a result, It feels like the door has opened and that this journey has brought far more emotional healing than I could have otherwise found. That has been a pleasant surprise.

I have also felt overwhelmed at my interest areas, not unlike a child in a store filled with candy:

Do I want to focus on trauma? How can I use narrative therapy? What if I want to work with older adults? Can I specialize in working with LGBTQ+ populations? Do I want to work in an agency or focus on private practice?

 The questions have felt endless, but I do believe this is ultimately a really necessary step within a much larger process. I am beginning to filter through where and how I will work. I mean – how cool is that?

In the meantime, I am learning to be kinder to myself, to let myself dream, to imagine what my profession will be like as I learn, and to enter it all with fearlessness, grace, and patience. It isn’t easy – but it is necessary.

Here’s to growing, learning, and doing it all with some humor, sass, and fun.

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Body, Trauma, & Connection

Over the last month, I have had a book recommended to me, mentioned to me, and shared with me at least four times. The book, The Body Keeps the Score, is a well-known read in the psychology world as the author, Bessel Can der Kolk, is the founder and medical director of the Trauma Center in Massachusetts.

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Blending neuroscience, medicine, psychiatry, and healing, Kolk breaks down what we understand trauma to be and how it shows up and manifests in our bodies. Powerfully, he uses case studies, interviews, and research to push the fact that because trauma is a fact of life, it is also an inherent public health issue.

Though only halfway through the book, I have already learned a lot of new concepts, particularly about our brain systems and how information is processed. Moreover, I have learned how this changes for someone with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and the difference is huge. Traumatization re-wires processing functions and thus, reactions to stress occur even if the trigger or the stimulus does not present a viable threat. Kolk explains this process when he writes,

“While we all want to move beyond trauma, the part of our brain that is devoted to ensuring survival (deep below our rational brain) is not very good at denial. Long after a traumatic experience is over, it may be reactivated at the slightest hint of danger and mobilize disturbed brain circuits and secrete massive amounts of stress hormones. This precipitates unpleasant emotions, intense physical sensations, and impulsive and aggressive actions. These posttraumatic reactions feel incomprehensible and overwhelming. Feeling out of control, survivors of trauma often being to fear that they are damaged to the core and beyond redemption.”[1]

Yeah, I know. Our minds (and bodies) are powerful.

Interestingly, a lot of what I am learning from this book connects to topics, therapies, and theories that I am learning in my coursework in the Counseling Program at University of Colorado Denver. In both of my courses, Counseling Theories and Multicultural Counseling, we have discussed trauma in varying capacities. In Multicultural, we have explored the epigenetics of trauma (intergenerational trauma) when it is passed down and through family lineages. In Theories, we have begun conversations in how to use certain techniques with clients who have experienced trauma, techniques like eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), exposure therapies, or stress inoculation training (SIT).

It is all connecting – and usually that is how I know am on to something meaningful and important in my life.

For most of this year (and last), I have been working on reconnecting with my emotions and body. For a long duration of time, it was hard for me to cry and emote for things that would have previously sparked an emotional response (Moana and Coco not included). This left me feeling disconnected and far from the core of my personal self. This is another aspect of trauma that is just as important, but perhaps, less discussed.

Kolk shares in some of the stories about clients he worked with that some “could not feel whole areas of their bodies.” This happened because in some cases, to cope, people shutdown of parts of their brain, particularly the parts that send out feelings and emotions. This doesn’t only affect the negative emotions, the ones that they want to remove, but all emotions, too.

While my experience in desensitization was not as extreme, I still knew that my brain and body has experienced emotional blockage. Through walks, hikes, rollerblading, writing, counseling, and weightlifting, I have come to understand the weightiness of shame and how it blocks us from our true selves. This has been a major part of the emotional blocks that I have felt in the last year and being able to name that has been an important part of re-orientating my self-awareness.

So, what, in this context does healing look like?

For me, it has been about confronting the pain, sitting in silence, recognizing the hurt (non-judgmentally), and taking power back over it. Just trying to identify what I feel in any given moments has been annoyingly slow (to be honest). But also, as I have been able to do this, I can move closer to a radical acceptance of myself.

This begins in the body, mind, and heart and flows outward.

Like I said, it is a long process. But, I have needed to start it, and I am grateful I have. Plus, it’s pretty wonderful to have good books to help, support, and clarify the process along the way.

Kolk proposes the question that guides his work and his book, “how can people gain control over the residues of past trauma and return to being masters of their own ship?

I am still learning and figuring that out. I think in a large sense, we all are.

[1]Van Der Kolk, Bessel. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score. New York, NY: Penguin Books.