What a delightful conversation I engaged in with the passionate and compassionate Shenandoah Chefalo, author of Garbage Bag Suitcase: A Memoir and faculty member of The Center for Trauma Resilient Communities. We dove into the depths of:
the healing work of Crossnore and The Center for Trauma Resilient Communities
“Shenandoah Chefalo’s early childhood and subsequent placement into foster care has given her a personal insight into the trauma that children in our nation experience every day. As an author, coach, and nationally-recognized speaker, Shen advocates for foster children everywhere she goes. She also encourages and challenges those in power on state and federal levels, as well as those providing care, to provide the best care possible for these children. With a lengthy career as a paralegal and director of a law firm, Shen has also seen the legal side of children’s care and how much more trauma may be experienced as a child’s case proceeds through the court system.
Shen has been the owner and chief training advocate of two firms in Michigan offering business and life coaching, consultation, and training across the United States. She has consulted with both private and public sector clients providing group and one-on-one training and coaching, workshops, webinars, and keynote speeches. Shen is particularly adept at helping clients identify and address issues, as well as achieve goals, specifically related to the topics of trauma and adversity.
In addition to her work, Shen has authored three books: Setting Your Vision and Defining Your Goals (2013), Garbage Bag Suitcase (2016), and Hiking for Stillness: Healing Trauma One Step at a Time, expected to be published in 2019. Shen earned a Bachelor of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies in Social Science, Human Resources, & Society from Michigan State University, and is a 2011 graduate of Coach U in Atlanta, Georgia. She is a member of the Michigan State Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) and currently serves as the State Chairman of DAR Schools.
Shen is married to Gerry and the couple have one daughter, Sophia. The Chefalos enjoy adventure and their travels have taken them around the globe. They especially enjoy their family trips during the Christmas holidays and in 2018, they will be hiking Mt. Kilimanjaro, a dormant volcano in Tanzania. This trip will also raise awareness for children in foster care and funds for Crossnore School & Children’s Home.”
I so enjoyed the opportunity to sit with the soft-spoken, brilliant, passionate, and enlightened Sarah Peyton of Empathy Brain and author of Your Resonant Self: Guided Meditations and Exercises to Engage Your Brain’s Capacity for Healing to discuss:
the concept of time-travel practice (returning to a younger self for healing)
“Sarah Peyton, Certified Trainer of Nonviolent Communication and neuroscience educator, integrates brain science and the use of resonant language to heal trauma. She brings together depth work and self-compassion that integrate relational neuroscience with the transformative potential of language. She teaches and lectures internationally, and is the author of the book ‘Your Resonant Self: Guided Meditations and Exercises to Engage Your Brain’s Capacity for Healing.'”
I have said for years, as I felt my way along a sometimes rugged and dark healing path, that I had to return to the darkness in order to make it into the light. Those dark spaces held my trauma, the negative energy needing to be released from my body, mind, and spirit. I used to dish this advice to my then-best-friend in regards to her traumatic past. She would scoff me off.
Just when I thought I had processed the worst of my traumas (sexual abuse, bank robberies, murder, physically abusive parent), this said-friend ghosted me. Gone. Just like that. No closure. No good-bye. No “piss off” to send me on my way. Just silence. After seven years of texting every day, weekend hang outs, girls’ trips adventures, deep talks, and laugh-til-we-peed gatherings. Done.
Only two weeks prior had I sat across from her at one of our impromptu lunch dates, telling her that my therapist and I had discovered my biggest fear during my last EMDR session: the fear of abandonment. I told her how it linked back to my mom and her alcohol addiction, how she had left me feeling emotionally abandoned my entire childhood. She knew most of the history of life with my mother: partying with her co-workers after banking hours, stumbling into our apartment hammered a few nights a week; pouring herself a vodka over ice with a squirt of lemon juice on those nights she came straight home from her teller job, sinking into the worn recliner, held together in places with duct tape, losing herself in a book from the library, yelling for my dad to silence the children, which always came with the jingling of a belt-buckle prepping to beat us quiet; belittlement at our not using our God-given talents and, therefore, disappointing Jesus, God Himself, and all of the heavenly hosts; attempted stabbing of my dad when she raged at him with a butcher knife; attempted drowning of her children when she decided we’d be better off with Jesus in lieu of living in this “valley of tears” called life; showing my school photo to church friends, in my presence, and laughing as she declared, “Look how ugly she is!”, later to remind me, “I was just joking”; and so on.
I was struck with an inkling of curiosity when this friend’s head cocked a bit to the side as she replied, “Really?” to my announcement that my biggest discovered fear was that of abandonment. Not bridges or highways, even though I cannot drive on them. Not death, even though I had faced it too many times, from beneath bathtub water, when staring into a revolver placed to my head, when confronted with the firing end of a Luger during a second bank robbery. Not heights, even though my dad had found it funny to dangle me from the Natural Bridge in Kentucky on a rare family outing or had me look out the window of our beat up station wagon at the Ohio River below us as we crossed the humming bridge into Covington, Kentucky to visit my grandparents, as he proclaimed, “See those river sharks? Some day this bridge will crumble. It was built in the 1800’s you know. And when we fall in, those river sharks will eat you”, then he’d laugh and laugh at his humor, while I stared at the muddy water, positive I saw those river sharks. Not flying, though I could not even think of climbing onto a plane without Xanax in my blood. Not cockroaches. Nor being buried alive. Nor fear itself. Abandonment – linked to my fear of rejection, my insecurities, my unstable sense of self, and my deep craving for approval and affection.
Really? That word would haunt my next year as I sorted through the processing of her disappearance from my life.
Only by giving yourself over to your feelings can you find your way out of them.
Susan Anderson in “The Journey from Abandonment to Healing”
I am guessing God’s timing was, yet again, perfect. It was time for me to visit the darkness that was my relationship with my mother. Still swirling in the chaos of her addiction, I never knew who I would encounter upon my calls to check in or visits to her retirement community. Sober mom was kind and doting. “Teri, I don’t know what I’d do without you. Thank God I have you.” Drunk mom was cruel, “I hate you. I want to put a meat cleaver in your forehead.” When I brought that one up during a sober conversation, she insisted, “Oh for Pete’s sake. I was joking. Get a sense of humor. You know I’d never say something like that to you.”
And then the friend-ghosting occurred. And I cried into my journal for a year. I cried at restaurants. I cried at sappy commercials. I cried when I’d hear songs, listening purposefully to tear-jerker ballads. I cried at Facebook memories popping up. I cried all . . . the . . . time. I just cried. For a year.
And as I did so, I read this book. This amazing book filled with comfort and wisdom, reminding me I would survive this, too. Just as I had survived all of the horrors of my past. This ghosting was a reminder that I had not yet faced the pain I had stored away in regards to trust and love, a heart-hurt melded in the hands of my parents. God was opening that attic door and shining a light on that long-avoided box of sadness.
Being left by someone we love can open up old wounds, stirring up insecurities and doubts that had been part of our emotional baggage since childhood.
Susan Anderson in “The Journey from Abandonment to Healing”
My grieving journey had begun. What was triggered by a ghosting, turned into a beautiful journey of healing those old insecurities and heartaches, helping me find forgiveness for my parents, as well as helping me release the ghosts from that abandonment attic. All of them.
The author takes us into an understanding of the five states of abandonment: shattering, withdrawal, internalizing rejection, rage, and lifting. All of which I circled through. The beautiful gift I discovered during this grief journey was that of embracing my own vulnerability even more than I already had. I learned to console little Teri all the while learning to empower adult me.
Susan Anderson, author of this powerful book, offers an action plan for readers to help us along our continued healing journey, as well. An action plan I fully implemented.
The key to change is opening your life to new experiences. Even small changes in your daily routine can lead to new discoveries about who you are becoming.
The key to reconnecting is to cherish the gift that abandonment has given you, to remain open to your vulnerabilities and to the vulnerabilities of others.
Susan Anderson in “The Journey from Abandonment to Healing”
Since reading this beautiful book, I have done exactly that. I opened myself up to new experiences: starting a successful podcast with a growing global audience (The Healing Place Podcast); meeting amazing souls from all over the world who are working to help others along their healing journeys; starting this blog; creating a website aimed at helping others heal from ACEs (adverse childhood experiences) and trauma; becoming a YouTuber (that is still in its infancy stages); standing on stages to share my story of hope; creating our Sammie’s Bundles of Hope project to help children struggling with anxiety and trauma history; volunteering with our sweet therapy dog, Sammie Doodle; and opening myself up to new friendships.
Thank you, Dr. Gretchen Schmelzer, for enlightening us even more about the “journey through trauma”. Listen in as Gretchen shares her insights on trauma GPS, her work in the field of trauma-recovery and healing on individual and societal levels, Nelson Mandela, her five phase cycle for healing repeated trauma, and more!
Welcome to The Healing Place Podcast! I am your host, Teri Wellbrock. You can listen in on iTunes, Blubrry, Spotify, or directly on my website at www.teriwellbrock.com/podcasts/. You can also watch our insightful interview on YouTube. These hope-infused episodes are also now available on Deezer, Google Podcasts, Podbean, and more!
“Gretchen Schmelzer, PhD is a licensed psychologist, trained as a Harvard Medical School Fellow and the author of Journey Through Trauma published in 2018 by Penguin Random House. She is a trauma survivor, who has worked for twenty-five years with the complex issues of trauma, integration and behavior change across every level of system from individuals, to groups, to large systems and countries, including her role as the expert consultant for documentary film The Silence which aired on April 19, 2011 on Frontline regarding priest sexual abuse in a Native Alaskan Village to ensure adequate resources for viewers and for proper follow on support for trauma survivors.
Since 2002, Dr. Schmelzer has also been a senior consultant with Teleos Leadership Institute, an international consulting firm serving leaders of fortune 100 businesses and major not-for-profit organizations such as the United Nations. Her expertise in long term trauma was used to inform the design and delivery of a four year large scale intervention for the UN in Cambodia. She and her colleagues worked with 150 leaders each year who were survivors of the Khmer Rouge in a large scale leadership initiative to strengthen the county’s response to HIV/AIDS. The program integrated work in self-awareness and self-regulation, gender issues, communication skills, relational skills and action learning. This program was rated one of the most successful leadership development programs run through the United Nations Development Program by an independent research team.
Gretchen received her doctorate in Counseling Psychology from Northeastern University, and her Master of Science degree in Counseling Psychology from Springfield College, and BA from Mount Holyoke College. She completed her clinical training as a Harvard Clinical Fellow and completed her postdoctoral fellowship in Behavioral Medicine at UMASS Medical Center and The Center for Mindfulness. Since October 2014 she is the founder and editor of The Trail Guide, a web-mag featured on www.gretchenschmelzer.com dedicated to healing repeated trauma.”
A deep post (it’s been a long time since I’ve typed up one of these!) Today was big. Really, really big.
A few months ago, one of my podcast guests referred me to an entity for funding projects. The guidelines are pretty simple . . . must be an artistic venture AND benefit the community/world in some way.
I registered on the website, read all of the info they directed me to, watched all of the videos, and signed up for a webinar scheduled for this past week. During that webinar I asked if a podcast fell under the “artistic” realm. I was advised it most certainly does and it’s their newest addition.
I completed a very lengthy application including my personal bio, project goals and mission, a projected budget, and more.
This evening I was advised: “The Healing Place Podcast has been approved by our Board of Directors and is now active. Welcome to a vibrant community of artists and organizations who are critical contributors to the creative sector’s vitality, autonomy, and innovation!”
My heart continues to overflow with gratitude and joy. This soul work I am doing is a blessing to many. But also to me. I have learned so much along the way. About . . . Healing. Hope. Editing. Interviewing. Marketing. And now funding.
I have self-funded for 2 years. Now it is time to take this to the next level. This is no longer a hobby. But a business. A trauma-warrior pursuit to help bring healing to the world. With a goal of reaching one million people with inspiring stories of hope and healing.
When I was little I wanted to be a doctor. I told my parents I wanted to “help make people feel better”. I may not be a physician, but I am a healer. A healer who welcomes other healers onto my show to help shine the light of hope into the world.
Right before I received the congratulations notice for the podcast, a beautiful friend and her adorable daughter stopped by to drop off this heart necklace she was gifting me. The timing was perfect. Most definitely a God sign.
I am sitting upstairs savoring this moment before heading into my sacred writing space to edit another podcast (this next episode is a conversation with one of the most adorable and brilliant bundles of energy I’ve encountered yet!)
Wishes of blessings go out to all those needing a reminder to never give up on your dreams. And hugs filled with gratitude to heart-bearing friends, boards of directors who believe in my podcast, brilliant guests who’ve helped me reach souls in thirty-eight countries, and a family that cheers me on every single day. Blessed beyond measure.
Thank you for your support, cheers, and love. Being a part of the ACEs Connection community has helped this podcast continue to grow in its reach. Both through amazing guests who have reached out to join me on air to discuss their vital work in trauma-related fields and/or personal stories of triumph over trauma, but also in my audience. I feel blessed to be a part of this space.
Having a C-PTSD diagnosis myself due to my complex trauma exposure during the first twenty-two years of my life, I know the craving for relief from overwhelming symptoms. I find such comfort even in just touching the softness of an animal’s fur. When I was a child I used to create a stuffed animal fortress around me before falling asleep. I found comfort in holding them close to me or reaching out to touch them when afraid.
There was Lenny the Lion (a royal blue lion with a cherry red main), Bobby Bear (clad in his Pampers diaper I took from a babysitting job in our apartment complex), shorts and a t-shirt, along with Billy Bear (also wearing a diaper covered up by his baby blue overalls). I had Greenie and Brownie, two worn little creatures who possessed broken music boxes for insides, one being green and the other brown, surprisingly. Sammy the Snake was always tucked along the small space left where my mattress didn’t quite meet the wall. Just in case anything might try to sneak up on me in that crevice. I still have Lenny, Bobby, and Billy in a bag in my basement, tucked among some other treasures. There were a few others, whose names I now forget, yet they stood guard each night, protecting me from the boogie man. Or in my case, a drunken mother standing in the shadows, watching me sleep, her blank stare concealing murderous ponderings of sending me to “be with Jesus.”
Jump ahead a few decades and I no longer sleep in a stuffed-animal fortress. Instead it’s a dog snuggle-fest. Max, our Schnoodle, thinks he’s a bad-ass in his little thirteen pound body. Except at bedtime he wants to sleep on my pillow and bury his nose into my neck. Sometimes he places his little paw on my shoulder, just to make sure I’m safe. Personally, I think he likes the reassurance, but don’t let him know I’m on to him! Sammie, our Labradoodle, curls up as close as possible somewhere behind my legs. If she could, she’d sleep on my pillow, too. She thinks she’s a lap dog trapped in a fifty-five pound body.
Sammie recently passed her two year re-test for her therapy dog registration. She was amazing. Truly amazing. A perfect score as she followed my every command (or as I like to refer to them . . . suggestion). She watched me for visual cues and listened for words of encouragement.
That’s my girl.
You’re my favorite.
I’m so proud of you.
Way to go, Sam-Sam!
Nice job, Sammie.
You’re a rock star.
Following is a list of seven benefits I find as I work with this sweet pup (whose 5th birthday we celebrated yesterday! Happy Birthday, Sammie Doodle!):
Sometimes I feel selfish for walking away from our therapy dog sessions with my heart overflowing with joy, a smile radiating from my face AND heart. I love watching this dog turn a child’s tears into giggles. Sammie has a thing for kids. Her tail wags every time she sees one. Whether we are walking the halls at a school or the trails at a nature preserve. She wants to meet them all and offer a snuggle. As a result, her tail thumps in canine happiness, and I just can’t help but grin.
We were visiting a school last year when the counselor asked if it would be okay if Sammie had an unscheduled visit from a child who was having a difficult morning. Of course he’s welcome to visit with Sammie! Immediately, upon this nine-year-old boy entering the room, his face stained from tears, Sammie moved toward him. He found his way onto a bean bag chair and Sammie was instantly next to him. Her pointy elbows tickling his belly as she climbed closer to love him.
That’s her secret.
Pure, simple, unconditional love.
And that kind of pure love can only result in pure joy.
I love it that I absorb healing benefits while doing healing work as a therapy dog team with Sammie. Whether she is comforting a child experiencing anxiety symptoms, offering solace to a room full of teachers headed to a co-worker’s funeral, or just greeting kids in the hallways on testing day, she is happy to be there radiating comfort and compassion. I usually step back and witness, avoiding my human interference in a wordless exchange. A hand reaching down to pet Sam’s head, her snout pressing up against a leg, even just a pause in time as she locks eyes with someone needing reassurance.
I watch all of this and allow it to radiate into my being, as well. There is a magic that happens. An energy exchange so powerful I can’t help but pick up on it. And, again, my heart smiles as a result. Perhaps I sense it because I’ve opened myself up to healing. I seek it, I welcome it, I treasure it. Therefore, when I see it and feel it, I know it’s happening and let it in.
A Course in Compassion
This amazing therapy dog has taught me so much about compassion. Whether a child is crying or a teacher is nervous, if a kiddo is expressing his needs through defiant behavior or a grieving adult is standing quiet and still in a corner, or maybe there’s the high end-of-the-school-year energy pulsating through a classroom making for loud voices and stressed staff, regardless, this dog treats them all the same. All she knows is there is a human, usually a smaller and younger one, that just might be interested in a hug.
She listens without interrupting or offering her input.
She offers a snuggle but isn’t offended if she’s turned away. She merely moves on to the next soul needing love.
She’ll stand in quiet solidarity with anyone needing silence, perhaps leaning against a leg just as a little added support.
She won’t nip or bite or growl if hurt. A woman accidentally stepped on Sammie’s tail and foot during a job fair. She happened to be wearing a heavy plastic boot to stabilize an injured leg. Sammie yelped in fear. But then wagged her tail at the woman. As if to apologize for startling the lady with her yelp for help. A child once stuck his finger into Sammie’s ear. Sammie shook her head and moved away as I gently reminded the child to respect Sammie’s body and use gentle touches. But, all the while, Sammie stayed calm.
She is just there to love. To comfort. To listen. To allow. Compassion at its finest.
One of Sammie’s best qualities is patience. I witness it first-hand when we hike. I’m in my fifties and my knees and ankles just aren’t as nimble as they used to be. Therefore, when we hit the steep treks, as I slowly make my way down the rocky trails with protruding roots and crooked rock paths, this sweet dog will pause and look back at me as we descend steep grades. I never taught her this. It just . . . happened. She is the essence of patience.
I witness this same gift being shared with children. She teaches them through modeling as she patiently listens as they talk her ear off, or patiently wags her tail as they rub the same spot on her head for fifteen minutes.
As I sit here typing this, Sammie is sitting in my office, staring at the closed door. She hears our little dog, Max, playing with our daughter. I look at her and she nods at me, as if to say, “When you have a minute, could you let me out.” I can’t help but smile. No barks. No whining. No digging at the door. Just a patient stare. And a wag of the tail as I open the door.
As we walk the trails at our local nature center, Sammie approaches all dogs with a wagging tail. She looks to me for guidance. I usually remind her to leave it as we keep moving forward. Every now and then, however, the hiker coming towards us will ask if Sammie is friendly and if we can stop to allow a doggy meet-n-greet. I always agree. Which makes Sammie one happy girl. The dogs do their usual dog-thing when it comes to meeting another dog. And Sammie walks away knowing she has made a new friend. I will say, though, that there is one particular breed of dog that cannot stand Sammie. Every time we encounter this breed, they always try to eat her. Without fail. Yet, she still wants to be friends.
I’ve studied this. In regards to my own interactions with people. Do I approach with a “wagging tail” and welcoming aura? If so, most people will respond with reciprocatory warmth. And if they are one of those rare few who do not, I’ll just walk away . . . wagging my tail behind me.
Sammie has brought new friendships into my life not because of anything I’ve done, but because of her willingness to approach each and every person she meets with gentle curiosity. As if she’s inquiring, “Do you need some love?” A beautiful thing to witness really. She could care less about skin color, what someone is wearing, religious affiliation, what car they drive, if they have stinky feet or a pimple on their forehead, whether smiling or frowning, upbeat or beat up . . . she just wants to meet them and offer her support.
Filling a Personal Need to Give Back
I have this compelling need to give back to the world. I want to give out hope by the fistfuls, money in anonymous surprises, and time in a I-have-more-of-it-than-I-really-do way. Maybe because I grew up in home where money was always a problem. Or, I guess I should clarify, the LACK of money was always a problem. My dad struggled to keep a job and blew through my mom’s paychecks with his latest “get rich quick” schemes. They never did pan out. Maybe because I spent the first forty-something years of my life struggling with heartache and trauma-related anxiety and panic disorders. And now I know peace. Maybe because I’ve battled my way through darkness and currently celebrate the light.
Working with Sammie as a volunteer therapy dog team truly makes my heart happy. I love the kids, the school staff, the giggles, the joy, the tail-wagging, and the love I witness transcending between souls. Beautiful on so many levels.
Offering hope to children through Sammie’s gentle ways gives me a sense of creating change in a world where sadness and anger seem to be gaining traction. Maybe that’s just social media. All I know is that having a sweet lady offer me hope as an eight-year-old second-grader changed my world. I still treasure the gift of that teacher. I’m hoping Sammie and I can offer that same gift to children. A pay it forward kinda thing.
This dog is truly a rock star! We were hiking through Cincinnati Nature Center last year when someone stopped us on trail and asked, “Is that Sammie?” I laughed and responded with an enthusiastic YES. This person went on to explain, “I know her from the internet.” I mean, seriously, rock star status, Sammie!
Sammie joins me on The Healing Place Podcast, as well. Not as a co-host. That’s Max’s job. He has his own chair and everything. Sammie just insists on being in the office with me when I record shows. She lays at my feet or snoozes in a corner. Every now and then she pops her head up to greet my guests. And whenever she does, the response is always the same. A huge smile appearing on my interviewee’s face. Along with, “Oh, hello, Sammie!”
I love it that this sweet pup has a reputation in Cincinnati for offering love and support to children. We have a project called Sammie’s Bundles of Hope. We fill bags with donated trinkets of hope (PlayDoh, journals, stress balls, bubbles, and more) and disperse them to children with trauma-history, anxiety struggles, recent loss, homelessness, etc. These bags represent everything Sammie. Relief from pain, fear, worry, stress . . . by focusing on something soothing.
This super-star dog even has a book written about her, The Doodle with the Noodle. My daughter and I wrote a book geared toward preschoolers a few years ago when my daughter was in fourth grade. We wrote, illustrated, and published it through Kindle Direct Publishing. And now we donate a copy in each Sammie Bundle of Hope we disperse.
Anticipatory anxiety is where a person experiences increased levels of anxiety by thinking about an event or situation in the future. Rather than being a specific disorder in its own right, anticipatory anxiety is a symptom commonly found in a number of anxiety related conditions, such as generalized anxiety. Anticipatory Anxiety can be extremely draining for people as it can last for months prior to an event. The worries people experience specifically focus on what they think might happen, often with catastrophic predictions about an event. The nature of negative predictions about the event will be the difference between an anxiety level that is incapacitating or merely uncomfortable.
A friend recently reached out to me prior to her drive from Cincinnati to Chicago to inquire about mindfulness practices. As she spoke, she talked about her fears of traveling alone, the possibility of heavy traffic, not knowing where she was going once she arrived in Chicago, and the known fact that she would be driving over bridges. All of which were causing her to experience heightened anxiety. I love it that she reached out to me, trauma-warrior research guru that I am, to discuss options.
I advised her to begin practicing mindfulness as that is my favorite go-to when experiencing anticipatory anxiety. I just happen to be working through my own bout with that pesky little symptom of my C-PTSD right now. We are preparing for a trip to Denver to visit my oldest son. While I am super pumped to see his cute face and the beauty of Colorado, I am also fretting flying, the high elevations, and being far from home.
I am well aware of these fears and why they are present, after my four year stint in EMDR therapy, so I honor their presence and just notice them without judgment. I remind myself these are physiological responses triggered by chemical surges in my brain in relation to past traumatic events. I am working at re-wiring my brain and creating new neural pathways, but that is still a work in process.
Think: brain pep talks! Do what scares you, Teri. You got this, girl!
My personal anticipatory anxiety goes something like this:
Lying in bed. Thinking about staying at The Grand Hyatt in downtown Denver with its rooftop pool and tennis courts. Then my knees start to sweat. Rooftop pool? How does that water not crack the roof and cause the building to crumble? Is there a guardrail? How high is it? Will I be able to ride the elevator up there? Will I feel it swaying? I swear, if that kid of ours goes near the edge, my heart will stop. I wonder how the drive is from the airport? I’m hoping we aren’t in heavy traffic. Especially on a busy highway. I’ll have to sit in the back. You should check out the city and enjoy it, Teri. No. What if you have a panic attack. You haven’t had one of those in a long time.
That all transpires in a mater of seconds. Ah, the joys of racing thoughts. But, then I reach into my coping skills tool box and start to pull out my calming strategies and redirect my thinking.
Deep breath. Closing my eyes slowly, I savor that breath. Now another. A smile creeps into the corners of my mouth. Another breath follows, even deeper. I reach over and grab a grounding stone lying bedside. I love this stone. It’s cool to the touch. And heavy in my hand. So smooth. Other than that rough little edge where it dropped into the gravel on a hike once. I wonder sometimes how long it might take for me to rub it smooth again. My fingers engage in their rhythmic dance along that edge.I’m excited to walk the one block trek from our hotel to the 16th Street Mall. I’ll let John pick a fun restaurant since he’s now a Denver pro. My sweet boy. The best hugger ever. Looking forward to that hug. If something triggers some anxiety, I’ll just hold onto his arm. He knows how to help his momma stay grounded. So blessed to have these children in my life. This trip is going to be amazing. I am going to savor every one of my senses. The sights of the city and atop the mountains in Estes Park. The tastes of new eateries. I wonder how crisp the air will be without Cincinnati humidity? I look forward to breathing it in, smelling The Rocky Mountain flora. We will definitely need to rent a boat on the lake so I can feel the cool water mist splashing onto my face. Oh, to hear the laughter of my children as they catch up with one another after months apart.
My anticipatory anxiety is now silenced. Perhaps it will poke its annoying head out of hiding again. But, I know how to put it in its place.
Back to my friend who was traveling to Chicago.
She called me today as she drove back home to Cincy. I was happy to hear her voice sounding perky. When I asked about her trip, she replied, “Oh, Teri, it was wonderful!” Yay! I then inquired about the six hour drive. She spent the next thirty-one minutes telling me about the strategies she used throughout her trip. How she brought along one of her stuffed otters someone had gifted her from the Cincinnati Zoo, having stuffed the little guy into a pocket of her purse, and reaching for him to touch the softness as she approached a sky-way bridge into the city. She discussed the pep talks she gave herself, You’re fine. You’re doing great. Just stay focused on your lane. The songs she sang along with and the phone calls she made in order to pass the time and keep her mind re-directed from anxious thoughts.
Her friend lives on the fortieth floor of a high-rise condo overlooking Navy Pier so her fear of heights was another anticipatory anxiety. She explained how the elevator ride was smooth and quick and her friend kept the shades shut in the bedroom in order to allow her to settle in. She took stunning photos of the scenery from forty floors above the city streets, but avoided stepping onto the balcony. Honoring her needs. I love that.
She also challenged herself to new adventures, such as an architecture tour of the city from a boat cruising along the Chicago River. Her friend praised her for how well she was doing throughout their escapades. She even watched the fireworks display through the windows of her friend’s condo upon returning from their day of tours and sight-seeing. She told me she continued to use mindfulness techniques to shake off her anxieties and enjoy the present moment. Again, I love this!
Mindfulness as defined by me: reminding myself to re-direct any old habitual scary thought patterns back to this moment, right here, right now, and all the joyous beauty to be found in it by use of my senses. I open myself up to all things smile-inducing in this moment in time.
So, how do you stop anticipatory anxiety? Practice mindfulness. As often as possible. Soon you will be living mindfully aware. And anticipatory anxiety may try to sneak in a word or two, but you can mindfully remind it to sit down and shut up. You have a beautiful life to enjoy without its input.
I am heading to Denver, Colorado in the next few weeks to visit my oldest son. Three days in downtown Denver and three days in Estes Park, which we are being told is simply breath-taking. I am super excited to hug on my boy! Yes, he’s twenty-five, but always my baby boy. Yet, there is this little pest named Anxiety that keeps popping its head up to remind me how terrified I am of heights, that there is a possibility of altitude sickness, and I am not a fan of being far from home and my “safe space” along with a whole checklist of long-ago created avoidance behaviors.
However, I am bound and determined to enjoy every waking moment soaking up all the positive Colorado has to offer. I live in Ohio. The heart of the Midwest. I have never traveled further west than Illinois. For those of you who may be geographically-challenged, that is two states west of Ohio. Not even to the Mississippi River. When we have traveled south into Tennessee, I have closed my eyes as we drove over the Great Smoky Mountains. Yeah. Jelico, Tennessee on I-75 has been known to trigger a full blown panic attack.
Flying results in similar panic-induced responses – sweaty palms, flipping stomach, racing thoughts, and other overwhelming body sensations.
So, how do I bring myself back into a state of calm once the anticipatory anxiety has been triggered? Here is my personal go-to list. Please keep in mind I created this plan on a trial and error basis. I have loaded my coping skills toolbox with exercises, fidgets, courses, books, therapy suggestions, and techniques discovered through personal research. Following are my top seven strategies, however, please note that I have a much larger bag-o-tricks I pull from if needed.
Whenever I travel, I pack a backpack and fill it with my favorite calming aids. These two stones are always included in that collection of soothing strategies.
There is something settling about the weight of the stones in my hand and the silky smooth surface as I move my thumb and fingers over them. A transition happens, as well, as they move from icy cold to radiating heat as my energy transfers into them.
I purchased mine through a local store which carries various crystals and stones. However, you can find them online, as well.
Calming Coloring Books
Another one of my favorites, especially when flying, is to lose myself in the intricate designs of my coloring books. As with my calming stones, I find soothing comfort in the process of creating bursts of color on the white pages. This is very much a mindfulness practice as it brings me into the now, into this present moment. I forget whatever past trauma may be attempting to surface and I lose all worry of future what-ifs. I merely focus on staying in the lines as my gel pens glide along, enjoying the right-here-right-now moment.
I have purchased these at craft stores, my local grocery store, put them on my birthday wish list, and even won one as part of a writing contest prize. These, too, can be purchased online. My favorite is The Mindfulness Coloring Book which is smaller in size and easy to transport.
Coinciding with my coloring book calming strategy is my use of gel pens as I color and practice mindfulness. Again, there is something peaceful about converting the page from white with black squiggly lines into a vibrant work of art.
I have tried using colored pencils, Sharpies, and markers from my daughter’s school supply collection, but my preference is most assuredly gel pens. Particularly the pack of 120 pens I have found at Target. There are glitter, neon, swirl, pastel and more in the pack. A bundle of fun! Of course, they are available online, as well.
all photos copyright Teri Wellbrock
As you can tell by my collection of photos, I am drawn to the beauty that can be found in “the now”. From breathtaking sunbeams to dew-soaked spiderwebs, insects scurrying about their days, a seal basking in a meditative moment in the sunlight, from muddy hikes to rain-soaked blossoms, there is wonder all around us.
I use my Samsung phone to capture these moments, although if I remember to grab my Nikon D3300 camera before heading out the door, I will snap higher quality pics on that. But, most moments I simply stop, take in a slow deep breath and savor.
We live near a nature preserve (four minutes from our driveway to be exact!) and I find myself and lose myself all at once on those trails. The sounds of water rushing through the creeks as they sing along with the symphony of birds. The scents, oh how I wish I could record the scents for playback at a later time, sometimes stop me in my tracks. Again, I pause to close my eyes and breath in renewal into my soul.
However, I can find nature in my office as a lady bug appears on my desk as if she just stopped by to check in and chat or during a dinner date downtown Cincinnati as I smile at the muddy Ohio River carrying the paddle boats upstream or even as I step into the parking lot of my local grocery store only to be greeted by God, waving to me via sunbeams peeking from dark clouds.
What a gift I have found in being cognizant of the beauty in the now.
Angels, Faith, and Prayer
Growing up Catholic . . . my dad was a Jesuit brother for eight years from age sixteen to twenty-four and my mom wanted to be a nun but they wouldn’t allow her in due to her partying tendencies, a.k.a. alcoholism . . . was both restrictive and comforting. It wasn’t until I was in my forties and started my healing journey that I found my faith truly blossoming beyond the dogma of the Catholic Church. I started to embrace other faiths and found myself experiencing a higher power, God, universe, whatever label you would like to apply, outside of the walls of a church.
I pray throughout my day. But not The Lord’s Prayer and formal prayers. I throw out prayers of gratitude and pleas of compassion and requests for guidance. My faith is now weaved into my breath. It is merely a part of who I am, not how often I attend mass or donate to a charity.
I am my prayer. A living, breathing, loving prayer.
Angels surround me. Literally. In statue form and spirit form. I have had three different mediums approach me and say the exact same thing . . . I have never met anyone surrounded by as many angels as you are. Pretty cool! And makes me feel quite blessed and comforted. I have always been drawn to them. I have angel paintings, calendars, statues, and books surrounding me as I type this.
They are most definitely a go-to as a calming strategy. Prayer and conversations with my angels bring me right back here to the present moment.
The majority of the time I am not purposefully searching for hearts. They just come across my radar. I was recently hiking with a friend when I paused to catch my breath as we trudged up a hill. I told myself to “stop and smell the flowers” and upon turning my head, right there next to me on the path, was a leaf which had an insect-eaten heart hole in it. I couldn’t help by laugh out loud. Of all of the places to pause and of all of the leaves surrounding me in that forest, I happened to find a tiny little heart eaten out of a leaf. I laughed because it happens every single day. As in every . . . single . . . day. Without fail.
As a matter of fact, I wrote an e-book about it, filling it with heart pics I have snapped along with photos friends have taken and gifted to me. I even have a page on my website dedicated to those hearts (although it is just a small sampling of my collection).
Again, I find comfort in the reminder that I am loved, surrounded by love signs, and helping me be present in the moment.
Sammie Doodle – Therapy Dog
Oh, this sweet, sweet dog. Sammie is our labradoodle. She is the kindest soul I have ever met. She loves everyone and everything. Except pigs. I took her to a farm once and a pig snorted at her through a fence and she ran away terrified.
Wow, does she adore kids. We are a registered therapy dog team through Pet Partners and we volunteer at schools, visiting with kiddos in order to help them with feelings of anxiety or struggles with bullying or offering comfort after traumatic events. She just knows. She is drawn to those most needing love and dog snuggles.
The perk is that she is a member of our family outside of her therapy dog gig. And due to the fact that I have a history with panic attacks and heightened anxiety, this sweet pup is always by my side. She is my snuggle buddy, hiking pal, comforter, and best friend. She listens without judgment and offers stinky-breath kisses in support.
If ever I need grounding, just putting my hand upon her fluffy being radiates calm into my soul. She is a gift to us all. Sammie even has her own website, Facebook page, and Instagram account!
I love hearing back from others about calming strategies and coping skills used to bring oneself back into the now. Please feel free to reach out and share your experiences.
I wish you tranquility and joy along your healing journey.
Every Tuesday morning this school year, Sammie and I have visited the kids at Terrace Park Elementary school. Sammie melts my heart as I witness her work her therapy dog magic with these sweet little humans. The idea of helping a child who is experiencing anxiety or feelings of overwhelm touches me on a soul level. I know how much small gestures of kindness and gentle acceptance meant to me as a child. That’s what helped me live through my hell and come out smiling. Sammie is helping me pay it forward with her gentle ways with kids.
Today these kids and the amazing staff at that school made my heart smile . . . and Sammie’s tail wag. A lot!! They gifted us with a new backpack (mine was falling apart and my menopause brain kept forgetting to switch over to another backpack!), bags of dog treats, much needed Dentastix (Sammie has stinky dog breath even though I brush her teeth), toys for Sam, even toys for our puppy Max . . . and noodles!!!
But, the cards. These hand-written thank yous teared me up and, again, had my heart smiling. To know my beautiful dog touches so many lives just by radiating love and giving stinky kisses and sharing hugs (she has started to put her head on a shoulder and push her head against the hugger’s head) . . . is fulfilling in ways I can’t really express in words. It’s like my soul is filled with light.
So I send out a thank you to the awesome staff who welcome us each week with smiles and dog treats in the office before we head upstairs, thank you to the amazing teachers who invite us into their classrooms, thank you to Tricia and Liz for helping me continue to learn the gifts contained in just listening and for offering Sammie a space to shine, thank you Jen Hrovat for introducing us all and giving an adorable hint on the rainbow tennis balls. And THANK YOU to the kids for loving my Sammie girl and brightening our Tuesday mornings.
I love this dog. She’s a therapy dog. She’s The Doodle with the Noodle. She’s sweet. And snuggly. And funny. And overflowing with love. She’s my best friend. And my snuggle buddy. My hiking pal. And my calming presence.
But most of all, she is love. A lot of love in a furry body.
What a beautiful conversation with Maria Dunlap, founder and CEO of Vivian’s Victory, about the difficult subject of losing a child and parenting a child with a chronic illness along with a discussion on the gifts that come from grief and the healing journey. Thank you, Maria, for sharing your heartache, triumph, and light of hope with those needing support and guidance.
“Maria Dunlap is the Founder and CEO of Vivian’s Victory. Vivian’s Victory is a nonprofit dedicated to bring hope, building community and bridging gaps for families that have a child diagnosed with a chronic illness. After Maria’s daughter, Vivian, died in the hospital at 59 days old in 2012, she knew families needed to receive support during perhaps the hardest moments of their lives. Since the inception of Vivian’s Victory in 2014, over 2,000 families have been impacted through their mission.”