Friday, November 23, 2012

Why Mindfulness??

One of my first clients was a young man, entering his junior year. Slender, wearing glasses, soft-spoken, intelligent, this young man suffered with depression, sometimes with suicidal thoughts, anxiety, and a relatively unusual symptom called trichotillomania; he pulled hair out of his head creating large gaps. He identified depression as part of his experience from about age 12 but I suspected symptoms far earlier based on his history. Because of his depression and anxiety he was unable to achieve a GPA greater than 2.7 during his first two years in college. I listened to his story and quickly concluded that a referral for a medication would be prudent. I surmised that serotonin must be sorely lacking. He, however said, “I don’t want any meds.” To this I replied, “Cool, would you be willing to experiment with me?” He was and we did. I introduced him to what I knew about the practice of mindfulness and the research behind it. I encouraged him to practice mindfulness 30 minutes per day while sitting with his attention focusing and refocusing on the breath (actually a single-pointed meditation exercise and way too much to expect at the beginning). He returned the next week saying that he had only practiced a couple of times for 5-10 minutes. By this time I had learned far more about the practice and showed him how he could use mindfulness at any place, time and activity. He eagerly began to practice while eating, walking, driving, eating, showering, sitting in class, etc. We continued to see each other weekly and sometimes twice weekly for the semester. We saw each other weekly afterwards as well enhancing his meditation practice and using some cognitive therapy interventions and have kept up with each other over the years. What were the results? They were far more than either of us expected as it turned out. The most dramatic result was that his GPA began to climb. That first semester it rose to 3.25, the next, 3.5, the next 3.75, the next 4.0, and his last semester it was 3.75. Furthermore, while the situations about which he reacted with depression and anxiety had not changed he was no longer depressed about them, sad, concerned, and frustrated at times, yes, but not depressed. And he reported that he “hardly ever pulled a hair out of his head.” All of this occurred without medication. The psychological and behavioral changes had apparently resulted in neurophysiological changes as well. These results, as you may expect, aroused my curiosity further so I attended a conference on mindfulness sponsored by Harvard Medical School at which some extraordinary presentations were given by some extraordinary scientists and practitioners. I was sold and now these eight years since, over 1,000 research studies later, and a dozen or so pleased patients I am more "sold" than ever. Submitted by: Kenneth "Neal" Hughes, LPE, practicing at Healthy Mind Counseling Services.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Mind/Body Connection: How Your Emotions Affect Your Health

The health or well being of the body can no longer ignore the impact of the mind, the emotions or the spirit in the process.

As we continue to pour stress into our lives we have to understand the impact that can have on us from a physical and emotional standpoint. Our bodies produce adrenaline in response to our stress as part of our fight or flight response. However, those were times that were supposed to be few and far between. Throughout our busy days we have multiple instances where our adrenaline continues to respond to that stress. This constant flow can take a toll on our physical health. Over a prolonged amount of time, it can wear down the immune system and cause you to frequently become ill.

Let’s look at three stages of pain. The first is the pain that is bad enough to grab your attention. The second is the pain that takes hold of you and the third stage of pain finally compels you to do something. And how do we respond? Many of us reach for some type of over the counter pill, maybe alcohol, or pain medication. Of course the source of the pain remains the same; we just cover up the symptoms that our body is giving us. Here is an example that might make the picture clearer for us.

Let’s say that your smoke detector went off in your home. The first time it would catch your attention. If it went off a second time, it would most likely take hold of your attention. But if it went off a third time it would compel you to do something. Now the question is “Would you take the batteries out so you wouldn’t hear it anymore? Of course not!

Symptoms are your body’s attempt to alert you that something is going on. So, what steps should we take to get our bodies back in balance? There are four steps to regaining that balance.

1) Recognize and Understand the Sources of Stress
2) Identify Opportunities
3) Choose Your Action
4) Review Progress and Make Adjustments.

Look for next week’s blog on step number one!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

What is Your Body Trying to Tell You?

"The body says what words cannot." Martha Graham

About this time last year my daughter, Katelyn, was in the hospital for two nights. She got hold of whatever virus was going around Maryville College Campus, and it wouldn’t let go of her. Her wonderful roommates got her to the ER and stayed with her, even after I got there. This turned out to be a learning experience for me about connecting emotional components to physical symptoms (mine, not Katelyn’s). Because it turns out that even though I managed to avoid the gastrointestinal distress that she suffered, once she was feeling better and back at school, my body started talking to me about the experience.

You might call this divine intervention since I had recently restructured my practice to help people look at their health from a holistic perspective that considers mind, body, and spirit to be a unified entity. (Or you might call it God having a good laugh by making me look at my own life first). Whatever we call it, I thought you might be interested in some of the insights I’ve had thrown into my lap by taking this holistic look at myself.

The symptoms I experienced after Katelyn’s hospital stay include dizziness, sadness, and a little bit of muddled thinking (or a lot, depending on whom you listen to). These symptoms make sense in a holistic sense when you consider where I was in my life. I’d been taking care of Katelyn while she healed and really enjoyed having her home. A big part of my identity is as a mother to two of the most wonderful kids on earth. But within a few months of this experience, John would be graduating from high school and leaving for UTC and Katelyn would begin her ‘real’ life as an adult in veterinarian school. Where did that leave me? Dizzy, sad, and muddled.

It would definitely be a time for new beginnings, which can leave us off-balance, shaky, lightheaded, in other words, dizzy. And you want to talk about sad? That one’s a no-brainer. Despite being excited and proud about the new stages of my kids’ lives, knowing that the old stage of dependence was finally ending definitely left me feeling a little poignant. Sadly, the muddled thinking may just be a sign of the stage of life that I’m in myself, not a reflection of where the kids are!

What to do with these holistic connections? Well, obviously they are great real life examples for my clients to learn from. But they also point me to a better understanding of where I am right now in the present, which is all we really have. I’m in the midst of a wonderful transition that leaves me dizzy, sad, and muddled, but also provides new opportunities for me to express myself and my calling in the world. Amen to that!

Contributed by Dr. Annie Wills

Saturday, November 20, 2010


What Are You Grateful For?

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, even though I know that November also heralds cold weather and the possibility of snow-ugh! It’s a real Catch-22 for me. I love the family get togethers and the idea of a special day (or month) set aside to ponder and be grateful for our blessings, yet I hate being cold, wearing coats, and driving in the snow and ice.

I decided this year that my goal will be to stay in the moment as much as possible, being grateful for a wonderful life, without straying into the future, worrying about the temperature, or wishing the sun would stay in the sky longer.

So you’re probably wondering how I intend to accomplish this lofty goal! Well lately I’ve been running into the concept of ‘mindfulness’ everywhere I go. According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of “Full Catastrophe Living”, mindfulness is as simple as being aware of what you’re doing while you’re doing it. He also uses an image that I really like-creating an island of being in the sea of constant doing. But, how do I manage to be instead of do? paying attention to my breath.

Most of you are probably familiar with meditation, and may even have a daily practice. Kabat-Zinn teaches us to meditate by focusing on the breath, noticing how each inhale fills our belly, and how the exhale leaves it. See, I said it was simple, but I didn’t say it was easy! Most of us are very invested in our thoughts. We believe them and become driven by them. In meditation, we learn to observe them and let them go, returning our attention to the breath each time we realize we’ve given the attention to our thoughts.

For the month of November, I plan to take mini breath-breaks throughout the day. Each time I come back to the present moment through my breath, I am prolonging and enhancing the experience of the month of Gratitude. Not to mention that I’m not dwelling on how cold I am or may be soon!

Join me in January for a mindfulness experience at Healthy Mind Counseling Services - details coming soon!

Contributed by Dr. Annie Wills

Thursday, September 23, 2010


One of the key themes with the parents who come to see me is responsibility. I admit as a parent this is also a personal theme in my home. How do we teach our children to be responsible?

I believe we teach responsibility when we can get out of the way, stop owning our children’s problems, and allow consequences to occur in their lives. Of course this is easier said than done sometimes! My daughter went to a local shop with twenty dollars burning a hole in her pocket. As many children do, she made an impulsive purchase and by the time she reached the door reconsidered and wanted to return the item. When she went make the return approximately five seconds later, the clerk stated she could give her store credit, but she could not return the cash. There is a no refund or returns policy in the store. My daughter was devastated.

My daughter is young and unaware of refund policies. It would be easy to use this as justification to “fix” this problem for her. It is our own emotions that usually prevent us from taking advantage of these teaching moments. So how do you help your child and take advantage of these moments? It is important to comfort and validate your child’s feelings about the experience. Sit, listen and provide support. Validating does not mean you agree with anything he or she is saying! The key is to listen without judgment. The consequence does the teaching and you get to sit back and provide support.

If I rescued her from this experience she would not have learned to check out the refund policy before making a purchase. If I want her to be responsible with money then she needs to think through her purchasing decisions. If I bail her out, who is struggling with responsibility? She learns that she does not have to worry about her money decisions because I will always be there to “help.”

Do your emotions get in the way of allowing your children to take advantage of these “teaching moments?” Do you find yourself complaining about your child’s lack of responsibility and you do not know what else to do? Sometimes talking to someone else can help to identify barriers and solutions. In addition, I personally recommend the Love and Logic Series. Love and Logic is a philosophy founded in 1977 by Jim Fay and Foster W. Cline, M.D. I use their books regularly in my practice.

Post contributed by Bonnie Barclay, LCSW

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Many of us have experienced the joy of the birth of a child--be it a mother or father.  It is an exciting occasion but it can be a difficult time for the mother.  Everyone keeps telling her that this is the happiest time of her life yet internally she realizes that something is very wrong.  And because everyone tells her this she feels guilty and inadequate when the "joy" is escaping her.  Sometimes it can be so severe that she loses interest in caring for her baby, may fear she may harm her baby, or becomes over anxious or hypervigilant around the baby. 

So, what is "this"?  It may be postpartum depression or postpartum anxiety.  These feelings may occur immediately--sometimes even start during pregnancy--or it may be months after the birth when she recognizes that it is not as it should be.  Her spouse may recognize that she has changed and is troubled by her behaviors.

So, what should we do?

First, you should know that there are different levels of postpartum depression--from "baby blues" that normally resolve themselves to serious psychotic episodes.  Most importantly, the mother can see a therapist that will confidentially talk with her about how she is and has been feeling.  The therapist will do an evaluation of her situation and then help her to make the decision that works best for her to get her to becoming the happy, healthy mother that she wants to be.

Please don't suffer in silence!  In the words of Adlai Stevenson, "Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional".

Friday, September 3, 2010