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Mental Health Considerations for the Australian Bushfire Crisis: The difference between Traumatic Stress and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

The recent bushfires have certainly been a traumatic time for our country. Over 5million hectares of land have been scorched, destroying thousands of homes and killing over 20 humans and almost 50 billion wildlife. For those directly affected by the bushfires, the damage is not limited to the loss of loved ones, possessions or community – mental health and emotional wellbeing can also be negatively impacted. Disastrous events such as this can influence certain emotions, feelings and thoughts, which can be challenging to deal with. Although some of these responses are normal, it is important to notice when your mental health is at risk so that you can seek additional support. In this month’s blog, I will explore the difference between normal responses to trauma, known as Traumatic Stress and a more serious clinical diagnose, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). After reading this blog, you should understand the difference between the two so that you can identify whether yourself or someone else should seek psychological support in light of these traumatic events.

The bushfires are likely to cause people (both directly and indirectly affected) to suffer from Traumatic Stress symptoms. Traumatic Stress is considered a common, normal response to experiencing a traumatic or stressful event (such as a car crash, or a natural disaster). Most people who experience a scary situation will show some signs of Traumatic Stress. This is because the ‘fight-or-flight’ response kicks in when we experience something that is mentally or physically terrifying. The fight-or-flight response is triggered by the release of hormones that prepare our bodies to either stay and deal with a threat (fight) or to run away from a threat for safety (flight). This response pumps more blood and oxygen into the body, causing us to tense our muscles and breathe faster. Other symptoms include shaking, sweating and feelings of nervousness. The fight-or-flight response is a normal, and usually temporary, survival response experienced during and sometimes after, a traumatic event, which is why Traumatic Stress is considered a normal reaction and not a mental illness.

Traumatic Stress differs from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which is a clinically diagnosed condition. It is a group of stress reactions that can develop after we witness a traumatic event, or series of events, such as a death or serious injury. PTSD can affect people who are a victim of the event, a witness of the event happening to someone else, or even learn about an event that has happened to a close family member or friend. It is still unclear why some people develop PTSD while others don’t.

Although Traumatic Stress and PTSD share similar symptoms, that main distinction is the intensity of the PTSD symptoms. PTSD symptoms are more severe and persistent, often interfering with day to day functioning. PTSD symptoms also last for a longer length of time (i.e. over a month), while Traumatic Stress Symptoms are usually temporary.

People with PTSD often experience a reliving of the traumatic event (i.e. through nightmares or flashbacks). During this time, some of the Traumatic Stress symptoms outlined above may be experienced in the body again, as if they are experiencing the traumatic event again firsthand. People with PTSD may also engage in avoidant behaviours, such as avoiding situations or people that remind them of the event. For example, if someone has experienced a traumatic car crash, they may avoid driving or even getting into a car. PTSD can also cause people to feel anxious for long periods of time, even when there is no potential threat close by. People with PTSD may also turn to coping strategies, such as alcohol or drugs, to distract themselves from their symptoms.

If you believe that you, or someone you know, is experiencing PTSD, the best treatment is to seek psychological support. PTSD is a medically diagnosed condition that should be treated by a clinician. However, therapy is for everyone, so if you feel like you are not coping due to a traumatic event, or would like more information, then please contact the clinic.

Drop of Life is offering no gap sessions for people directly affected by the bushfire crisis. If you believe that your mental health has been affected by the recent bushfires, then please do not hesitate to contact our clinic to book in with one of our psychologists.

Sources:

Beyond Blue (2019). Retrieved from www.beyondblue.org.au.

Bender, J (2013). Retrieved from www.brainline.com.

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Mindful Parenting

In today’s society, our lives can become hectic and busy with the expectation that we have to be and do everything. To be the perfect friend, parent, sibling, employee… As a parent in this world, those expectations appear to be heightened, sometimes to the point that we may become so busy in our lives that the richness of raising children becomes reduced to the management of children and the family, instead of simply being with them. This can lead to us parenting on auto-pilot. Due to having an endless to-do list inside of our heads, parenting can become just another task on that list. We start to lose touch with our experience of being a parent and of being in the moment with our children and our families.

The constant pressure to be giving our absolute all to every role in our life leads us to be in a constant state of stress. When our brain is in this state, it is hardwired to act as if we are in a life-threatening situation. Our brain is wired this way to protect us and to ensure our survival. The problem is that, in today’s society, our brain tells us we are in life-threatening situations when we are not. Being late to work, or running late for school drop off, is not life-threatening (although stressful!) but our brain tells us that it is. This is a problem because the brain then tells us to act as if our life is in danger. Stress causes us to take the “short route” in our brain. Instead of taking time and accessing the prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that uses logic, thinks rationally, directs attention, engages perspective taking, plans, and organises, it bypasses this and goes directly to the limbic system, where emotion is processed. This means that as opposed to thinking through our decisions, we act on instinct and impulse. While this is helpful in a situation that is life threatening (e.g., jumping out of the way of a moving car), it can lead us to act in ways we would not normally during stressful situations. In parenting, stress can have a negative impact including decreased attentiveness and more impulsive reactions.

I am sure you are all now picturing how this works in a parenting scenario. Imagine you are getting ready in the morning. Two of your three children are ready and waiting in the car, but your youngest child is still upstairs re-doing their hair for the ump-teenth time even though you have called upstairs three times asking for them to come down. You have recently spoken to the teacher who is concerned about your children’s constant lateness to school, and your boss has already given you a warning for being consistently late to work. You decide enough is enough and you really have to leave. You go upstairs to give your youngest child their final warning. You open the door and they fling themselves on to their bed screaming that they don’t want to go to school. In this scenario, what bodily sensations do you notice? What thoughts are going through your head? What feelings do you notice? I am sure reading through this you can resonate with this being a stressful situation. We can all think of what we would like to do in an ideal world - be responsive to our child, see what is happening for them. But in the reality, with pressure from work and school, we are more likely to act on our stress and impulsively yell, drag them to the car, etc.

The problem with the above incident, is that while we are in this state of stress, it is difficult for us to see the pattern that has arisen until we are mulling over the incident hours later. In mindful parenting, the goal is to become more in tune with our emotional reactions and use this to adjust our behaviours. Mindfulness is all about the direction of our attention. In a busy world, our attention is often divided between tasks, especially as a parent. For example, while reading your child a bed time story, mentally you are thinking about all of the things you need to do once you are finished, e.g., “I need to do the dishes, fold the washing, do the ironing, maybe I will have time to watch an episode of Grey’s Anatomy before bed…”. In mindfulness, the aim is to notice that our attention has drifted from what we are doing presently (reading to our child) and redirecting our attention back to that task. This can be done by noticing our 5 senses. What can you feel (your child leaning against you, the feel of the paper), hear (your child breathing, you reading the words), smell (soap from the shower), see (the pictures on the page), or taste (the mint from your toothpaste). By doing this, you can be fully present with your child and enjoy the moment with them. This is a new way of doing things, so you might find that when you first start to mindfully do these types of tasks, that your mind keeps drifting off, and that can be frustrating. Like any new skill though, the more you practice, the better you will become. Through this type of practice, you will notice that you become more mindful in other areas of your life. Eventually as well, you will begin to notice when you are stepping in to the automatic stress response when you are under pressure, which will give you time to step out of auto-pilot and act differently.

If you are interested in becoming more mindful in your parenting, start off by picking one task a day that you would like to do more mindfully with your child (e.g., mindful playtime, mindful reading, mindful dinner time, mindful walking) for the next week and see the difference it makes!

If you need more assistance with increasing mindfulness in your parenting or everyday life, or any other advice on parenting strategies, contact us at Drop of Life.

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Benji’s Tip’s for Reducing Stress at Christmas

Hello humans, it’s Benji here!

Soon it will be Christmas, which is my favourite time of year! It’s the time of year that all of my favourite humans are around me, having fun, and giving me all their left-over turkey and ham! Yum!

But I’ve noticed that Christmas can be a stressful time for humans. It’s the time of year when people are running around, frantically getting presents, food and other things organised for the big day. Talk about exhausting! So, here are some tips for how humans can KEEP CALM this holiday season!

  1. Give yourself permission to do what you want to do. The holiday period can be filled with social gatherings and events, and it can be stressful to attend everything or see everyone. Acknowledge that it's ok to say NO and take time for yourself. But be careful that you are not isolating yourself from everyone too.
  2. Set boundaries. Let family and friends know when you will be available and when you will be unavailable. This will give you time to look after yourself and do the things that help you reduce your stress levels, like meditating or taking your dog for a walk! Woof.
  3. Set a budget. If you have a budget set, this will reduce overspending and the stress associated with worrying about finances. Unless you want to spoil your favourite furry friend, in which case overspending is ok! Hehe.
  4. Practice self-compassion. Understand that it is normal to be stressed during the holiday period. If Christmas is a time for loving and giving gifts, then we should be able to practice this kindness on ourselves. When you get stressed, remind yourself that it’s understandable to feel this way around Christmas.

I hope these tips help you during the busy holiday period. My humans at Drop of Life and I hope that you have a safe and happy Christmas and New Year! Woof.

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On regulating your emotions: A key ingredient for enhancing psychological well-being

Emotions are a central part of the human experience, and when individuals are challenged by the stressors of life and attend therapy for support emotions are also a key component of the work that is done in therapy. In my clinical work with individuals across the lifespan, one of the most common issues I have observed is the challenge individuals may have with regulating their emotions. Interestingly, this challenge with regulating emotions seems to manifest in several different mental health concerns, with some concerns being more commonly associated with specific emotion regulation difficulties. But, what is Emotion Regulation?

Well, to keep it as simple as possible, think about emotion regulation as a process whereby individuals influence which emotions they have, when they have them and how they experience and express them (Gross, 1998). These efforts at modifying emotional experiences and expressions typically have, as a part of their goal, the individual trying to respond to their environment in a healthy and acceptable way. Therefore, one’s ability to regulate their emotions impacts on their ability to adapt successfully to their environment and maintain a sense of psychological well-being.

On the other hand, when individuals are not able to do so effectively, they may be more vulnerable to challenges with their mental health. Moreover, it may not be surprising that there are several different strategies that people use to regulate their emotions – and while it’s tricky to say that a strategy is “good” or “bad” (since it really depends on the situation), there are some strategies that are more adaptive/healthy and others that are regarded as maladaptive/unhealthy. While there are probably too many different strategies for me to cover in this blog, I thought I would highlight some of the more helpful and less helpful ones that I speak about most frequently in my work with clients.

Less Helpful Emotion Regulation Strategies

Suppression – At times, individuals may engage in suppression of their thoughts and emotions, this means that they try to hide how they are feeling internally or push the thoughts and feelings as far out of their awareness as possible. But does out of sight really mean out of mind? Unfortunately, not in this case. What decades of research tells us is that when individuals suppress their emotions their experience of the difficult emotion is more intense than if they had not suppressed at all. This means that it might be more effective for us to develop pathways to working through an emotion rather than trying to “get over it” or otherwise push it aside.

Rumination – Many people may become trapped in a cycle of rumination, whereby the individual may engage in repetitive thinking about a situation and its causes which fuels the negative emotions that have arisen. This regulatory strategy is probably the individual’s best effort to try to analyse or solve a problem that is causing them a great deal of distress, except no solution emerges – especially in cases where the problem is “unsolvable”. To understand this strategy, I often use the metaphor of watching a washing machine – where all the thoughts and emotions just continuously go around and around and around and…well you get the idea.

More Helpful Emotion Regulation Strategies

Cognitive reappraisal - refers to changing the meaning or interpretation of an experience to manage the emotional response. The reappraisal is typically centred on the situation itself or the individual’s capacity to manage its demands. In other words, HOW we think about the situation and our ability to manage it can very much change the emotional experience we have while going through it or change the way we feel about what has already happened.

Acceptance - The individual is aware of the thoughts and emotions they are experiencing, and they remain open to these internal experiences without feeling the need to change the thoughts or emotions that are present. There is a recognition here that neither thoughts nor emotions are dangerous, and we have control over how we respond to them. Developing acceptance as a strategy can be challenging, especially when we are so used to wrestling with thoughts and emotions that come up in response to life’s challenges. However, we can indeed develop a more accepting style of coping. When individuals view thoughts and emotions as inherently negative, they are more likely to engage in problematic behaviours like avoidance and withdrawal.

The role of parents in developing a child’s capacity to regulate their emotions

From the very beginning of life, parents have a crucial role to play in children’s development of healthy emotion regulation. Early aspects of a child’s emotional life are guided by their parents’ selection of situations for them, especially while they are infants. Parents take the lead on deciding what children can and cannot manage emotionally, simply because at this stage children do not know enough about the world to make such determinations for themselves.

Parents generate routines that are comfortable for the child. Such practices are a normal part of the early parent-child dynamic. However, as children get older and mature, and their pool of life experiences expand, they are expected to take more responsibility for such regulatory processes and parents are expected to oversee and guide this self-regulation. Therefore, as children mature, they learn which situations to avoid or approach, when they can modify situations externally, and when they may need to make internal modifications in order to cope. Parents ideally model healthy emotion regulation as well, by way of their responses to situations which children observe and learn from overtime.

If you would like support with developing more healthy strategies for regulating your emotions and reducing the tendency to use unhelpful strategies contact us at Drop of Life Psychology Clinic.

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Self-esteem in Teens

A common underlying theme that I notice when working with teenagers, especially teenage girls, is problems with self-esteem. Self-esteem can be described as someone’s opinion of themself. Those with high self-esteem think positively of themselves, are not as judgemental of themselves and value their achievements. Those with low self-esteem tend to lack confidence, feel unhappy and are highly critical of themselves. Self-esteem is terribly important because it influences our decision making in day to day life, encourages us to look after ourselves and allows us to challenge ourselves so we can discover our full potential. Low self-esteem has also been shown to correlate with depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.

Self-esteem is especially important in the adolescent years, as this is a time for children to explore their limits and discover who they are as a person. If they are held back by a fear of their own shortcomings, then they miss out on discovering what they can achieve, which may limit success (professionally and personally) later in life. Low self-esteem can also lead to other problems like relationship troubles and early sexual activity. Unfortunately, when you look at data that compares across the lifespan, there tends to be a drop in self-esteem during the teenage years, presumably due to maturational changes and complex social relationships.

So, how do you know if your teenager has low-self-esteem? Here are some signs:

  • They avoid new experiences and opportunities
  • They are unable to deal with normal levels of frustration
  • They find it difficult to socialise and make friends
  • Their motivation levels are low
  • They get uncomfortable when they are given a compliment

The good news is, self-esteem can be re-built. Here are some tips that you can do with your teen to improve their self-esteem:

  • EXPERIENCE NEW OPPORTUNITIES. Encourage your teen to try lots of new activities and hobbies. This will help them to discover what they are good at and enjoy. They will also learn that not everyone is good at everything, which is a normal part of life.
  • ENCOURAGE AND PRAISE THEM. If your teen fails or is reluctant to try something new because they think they might fail, keep gently encouraging them to try. It is important to learn that even though we may fail at something, the fact that we tried is the main thing. Praise your child, regardless of their performance, so that they are encouraged to give it another go.
  • BE A MODEL OF CONFIDENCE. The teenage brain is predominately overrun by the amygdala, which is the part of the brain linked to survival instincts. Therefore, your teen’s brain is constantly scanning their environment, studying people’s behaviours, including yours. This is the perfect time for YOU to be a good model of confidence, so that your teen may follow suit. You can do this by being acting confident in day to day activities and by reflecting with your teen about what you did to succeed at something, and they ways you bounced back when you didn’t succeed.
  • PRACTICE SOCIAL SKILLS. Social skills and self-esteem go hand in hand. You can teach your child basic social skills, like body posture, smiling, giving good eye contact etc. You can practice this with your teen in role-play scenarios.

 

If you or your teenager are struggling with low self-esteem and would like some more information on how we can help, call us on 55 207 705 to make an appointment with one of our psychologists.

 

References:

Brown, G., Bifulco, A., & Andrews, B. (1990). Self-esteem and depression: Effect on course and recovery. Social Psychiatry And Psychiatric Epidemiology, 25(5), 244-249. Retrived from https://link-springer- com.ezproxy.library.uq.edu.au/article/10.1007/BF00788643

Confidence in teens. (1st Oct 2019). Retrieved from https://raisingchildren.net.au/pre-teens/development/social-emotional-development/confidence-in-teens

Robins, R. W., Trzesniewski, K. H., Tracy, J. L., Gosling, S. D., & Potter, J. (2002). Global self-esteem across the life span. Psychology and Aging, 17(3), 423-434. doi:10.1037/0882-7974.17.3.423

Self-esteem and teenagers. Retrieved from https://parents.au.reachout.com/common-concerns/everyday-issues/self-esteem-and-teenagers

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