What a beautiful, laughter-filled, heart and soul connection I experienced during this interview with Ingrid Helander as we discussed her work as a therapist, group leader, author, teacher, and more. Ingrid shared her insights on worry and anxiety, along with helpful information on healing avenues; her book: Calm Your Worries: Unlock Your Secret Code to Lasting Stress Relief and Self-Confidence; and much more.
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.
Present-Centered Therapy is a non-trauma focused treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This therapy modality is called “present centered” as the goal is to focus on the client’s current/present life while recognizing the connection between PTSD symptoms and current struggles. All the while doing this without focusing on past traumatic events.
There are a host of therapy options when it comes to treating PTSD and C-PTSD symptoms and they reside under different treatment umbrellas: medication treatment, trauma-focused therapy, and non-trauma focused therapy.
I have utilized all three! When I was first experiencing severe panic attacks (but, not yet given a C-PTSD diagnosis), I was prescribed anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medications. I eventually requested to be weaned off of all medications and challenged myself to learn coping strategies while continuing “talk therapy”. I began psychotherapy with a licensed practitioner in 2013 and we started the process of shining a light on my trauma history. This counselor suggested EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) as an alternative and I moved into that therapy practice. It was there that I started the deep-dive back into my trauma history, reliving traumatic events throughout my sessions. I participated in ninety-eight EMDR and brainspotting sessions which spanned a four-year period.
The goal for YOU (or anyone in your life seeking therapeutic support), is to find what works best for you and your needs. You know YOU best. The key is to research your therapy options, then research therapists who specialize in the treatment you have chosen for yourself. Continue your self-care journey by reading the latest research on brain plasticity (the brain’s ability to change) and evolving therapies.
(The following article comes from borrowed snippets from a conversation thread in the ACEs Connection community in response to my asking for guidance regarding Exposure Therapy)
“Prolonged Exposure (PE) is the most researched treatment for trauma related disorders around. It is also a “gold standard” treatment – meaning its efficacy is top of the line. Dropout rates for trauma treatments are statistically the same for all approaches. Part of the symptomatology of PTSD is avoidance. That is (the) basis for the prolonged exposure, to have the client face what they are avoiding, especially the more disturbing aspects of the traumatic event(s) as measure by subjective units of distress (SUDs).
PE involves having the client relive the trauma over and over again until SUDs begin to go down. Your homework would include listening to recordings of your sessions outside the treatment room. You may also be assigned to expose yourself to anxiety provoking stimuli outside of sessions based on a hierarchy of fears and anxieties working on the most anxiety-provoking antecedent first. As previously stated, the goal of therapy is to reduce your SUDs level to a manageable point. Even though SUDs were developed by a behavior therapist (the “B” in CBT which is the general classification of PE), the late psychiatrist, Josepf Wolpe, SUDs are also used in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) and Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT).
The research indicates there is no statistically significant (difference) in any of the approaches with the exception of EFT, which doesn’t have a significant research base, though the relatively fewer studies indicate EFT yields promising results.
It made my heart happy to sit down with my friend Krissie Myers to discuss her program directors roles with Milestones, Inc. – an equestrian achievement program – and Kentucky Intensive Family Services foster care agency. You can find out more about Milestone’s wonderful programs and volunteer opportunities on their Facebook page or on their website.
Information on Kentucky Intensive Family Services can be found on their website:
“As a small, non-profit agency, KIFS takes pride in the ability to provide intense, therapeutic, in-home services to foster families and the children placed in their homes. We are very proud of our high success rate of helping children reach permanency, reducing the lingering effects of trauma due to abuse, neglect, and family crisis situations, and enhancing the over-all health, well-being, and life experience of our most vulnerable population.”
Thanks for joining us! If you are enjoying these podcast, please be sure to leave a comment on iTunes or provide feedback on Blubrry or my website.
And, as always, a reminder to be gentle with yourself.
I have been taking a little social media post-holiday hiatus. Catching up on life and such. Then today put life in perspective in a huge God-therapy way so I had to share.
Sammie was working her therapy dog gig this morning when a child was brought into the room. His tear-filled eyes captured my heart and Sammie instantly worked her therapy dog magic . . . kisses and hugs and snuggles and more kisses. She wouldn’t leave his side for nearly an hour. He and I chatted and chatted while Sammie loved him. With the purest love possible. Just heart to heart.
Afterward I discovered the horrific tragedy that had befallen this child only hours prior. I cried the entire car ride home. My sweet dog helped this little guy smile when smiling seemed an impossibility for these circumstances. She gave him an hour of reprieve from his heartache and trauma.
A friend of mine is a therapist, working with adults/teens in the Greater Cincinnati area, and one of her specialties in DBT or dialectical behavior therapy. I decided an interview with her would be a great addition to this newsletter. Thank you, Lauren O’Keefe, MS, for sharing your brilliant DBT insights with us.
1) What exactly is DBT?
This is such a common question! My immediate thought, “Um, DBT is DBT, what do you mean!” But, in all seriousness, it refers to “Dialectical Behavioral Therapy.” It is a life changing treatment modality pioneered by the fantastic Marsha Linehan.
DBT focuses on high sensitivity and high reactivity to triggers. It focuses and can address so many things.The main focus is to target parasuicidal and suicidal behaviors. It’s also one of the only effective and research-based treatments for borderline personality disorder and eating disorders. It assists with allowing opposite and dialectical functioning to be true. For an example: “You can be scared AND strong.” Or, “ You can be trying your best AND still need to do better.” DBT is all about acceptance, peace and non judgment.
DBT is effective when the treatment as a whole is being followed. This treatment includes group therapy, individual therapy and phone coaching components.
2) Are therapists all trained in it or is it a specialized modality?
Like most modalities, you can do either. In order to specialize, you must demonstrate proficiency. This includes but not limited to: frequent trainings, research, frequent practice of the skills, etc.
If you decide to certify rather than specialize, the certification process is extensive for this modality. It is one personally I am preparing for. I currently identify as highly specialized, with over 2 years of DBT use and experience.
To certify you must complete all 4-5 separate trainings that are each 1-2 day trainings. You must read the CBT for Borderline Personality Book, and lead a year of DBT groups. Among this, you must ask participate in the DBT consult teams, acquire a letter of recommendation, and sit for the exam. These guidelines can change; but, when I last researched this, this is what I found. As extensive as it is, I respect it. It ensures the integrity of the treatment program and those practicing it.
3) Why should someone consider DBT?
Why wouldn’t you consider it? That’s the true question! Yes, it targets parasuicide and suicide behaviors. It also can address a slew of issues such as: interpersonal instability, distress tolerance, emotion regulation, anxiety of any degree, depression, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder. It can also assist with trauma symptoms and providing a large amount of stability skills for those dealing with PTSD. The uses for this treatment are endless. It can be used for just about any clinical problem or concern.
4) How long does it take to notice a therapeutic impact?
This is a very hard question to answer for any counseling approach. The effectiveness and improvement times are determined by client commitment. If you work in sessions and are committed to progress- in and out of appointments- then one can see progress within a few months. But, this is highly dependent on the patient.
5) What is a typical session like?
A typical session is like a traditional therapy session, the only difference is we have a whole binder of skills we weave into the sessions and teach to assist the patient in acquiring, generalizing and strengthening. DBT differs in that it requires group therapy to be effective. The Groups assist with faster skill acquisition and they function as a skill classroom. Without the groups, progress can be slower in my opinion.
6) Do you assign homework to clients?
ABSOLUTELY!!!! DBT group and individual rely heavily on homework and patient accountability. If they don’t commit, progress is stagnant.
As a therapist, we have an easy job so to speak. We teach and guide. Patients have the hard job, they have to put it into action. You cannot expect things to get better if you do nothing to change the circumstances. Homework forces the circumstances to change— and boy do they! Trust the work!
7) What are some goals a client might seek to attain while utilizing DBT?
One we use as a blanket goal is: “Create a life worth living.” This leaves it up to the patient to self direct. Trouble with panic attacks? Trouble with maintaining friendships? Trouble with boundaries? Self harming? Done done done! DBT has got your back! You are the driver! You tell us what your perfect life would be, and we help you create and achieve it.
In order to get through hell, you have to go through hell, and once you’re free, you are free. Trust the journey.
Hope this helps!
Please remember:Healing is possible and you are so very worthy of that gift!
ART is the acronym for accelerated resolution therapy . . . and, wow, do I wish I could find a therapist in the Cincinnati area practicing this newfound approach to healing trauma. My research thus far indicates there are currently no practicing ART practitioners in Ohio.
However, the University of Cincinnati Gardner Neuroscience Institute is currently engaged in a study involving the comparison of accelerated resolution therapy (ART) and cognitive processing therapy (CPT).
During this process, a licensed practitioner guides the client through a series of steps in order to change the way negative images are stored in the brain, by waving a hand in front of the client in order to stimulate eye movement. Old negative images are replaced with new positive images, sometimes resulting in instantaneous results.
Similar to EMDR, which I utilized over a four year period, this methodology uses eye movements, but allows the client to replace images of traumatic events with positive images. It is being used primarily with veterans as a way to combat their post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms.
I am optimistic that as we learn more about the brain’s plasticity, meaning its ability to change and rewire itself, these healing modalities will continue to flourish and provide much needed relief for those who have experienced traumatic events. Particularly if those events have resulted in stressful symptoms such as panic attacks, depression, anxiety, and codependency.
The idea of replacing negative images storied in my memories with positive ones, to be able to “unsee” what haunts me, is a dream come true. EMDR certainly provided me an avenue for processing the pent up negative energy associated with my traumas. However, we became stuck at my highway and bridge phobias. After revisiting all of my traumatic events repeatedly, we still could not identify the trigger for the driving-induced panic symptoms. This ART therapy seems as if it just might be the perfect fit for replacing any negative images associated to highways and bridges with positive images instead. Amazing!
Please remember:Healing is possible and you are so very worthy of that gift!
Coming next month: What is Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)?
Following is an excerpt from my upcoming September newsletter. This month I cover: Step 3 in the Defining Resilience series – Utilize Self-Care Strategies; a video on anxiety and panic attack coping skills; information on EMDR therapy; and creating a safe space as a coping mechanism. I would love to have you (or anyone you know who could benefit from my insights) subscribe to this and future newsletters at Hope for Healing Newsletter, as I work to grow my audience.
What is EMDR Therapy?
EMDR Therapy has been life-altering for me. In 2013 I experienced what I reference in my presentations as a “shift”. I was struggling in a toxic relationship, trying to come to terms with my trauma history, and attempting to juggle various personal issues. It was within the confines of Dr. Barb Hensley’s office, at Cincinnati Trauma Connection, where I finally confronted the dark spaces of my traumas and learned to process them, releasing the stored up energy which had been surfacing as severe panic attacks for the previous twenty-five years.
So, what is EMDR Therapy? EMDR is the acronym for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. It was initially developed by Dr. Francine Shapiro as a method for helping soldiers, returning from war, combat their post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms. However, it has since been utilized to help hundreds of thousands of patients process traumatic experiences.
My personal experience during sessions included the following:
Sometimes I would use a light bar in my therapist’s office, keeping my head still and allowing my eyes to move back and forth, following a flowing green light stream from left to right and back again. Other times, I would close my eyes (as I was being distracted peripherally) and focus on the vibrating paddles I held in my hands. Those would alternate vibrations, left, right, left, right, left, right, and so on. My eye movements would naturally fall into a rhythmic back and forth movement, similar to the movement experienced during REM sleep.
While following the light bar or hand vibration pattern, I would be prompted to return to one of my traumatic experiences. The vast majority of the time something would instantaneously surface. A body memory. A flashback. A sensation. Something would appear. Sometimes it would be a snippet I had remembered outside of therapy, other times a memory would appear from an unconscious space. It would be filled with specifics I had long forgotten (such as the blue oval-shaped rug, sprawled across the floor next to my black metal-framed bunk beds, in my bedroom in our home in Park Hills, Kentucky- a memory from age four).
Sobbing, shaking, overwhelming emotions, and sometimes the symptoms of a panic attack would arise. The soothing voice of my counselor would be there to assure me that I was safe. It was there I would first learn to “just notice”.
I became aware of my triggers and realized the body memories were there to help me instead of scare me. I started to look forward to the sessions so I could dive headfirst into the chaos in order to find more answers. There was light within the darkness.
We touched upon every known traumatic experience, sometimes returning to an event repeatedly as something would surface later down the road. At first these visits into the past were seen as if I was watching a movie, from a dissociated space. I was watching someone do horrific things to a little girl from outside of myself.
I knew the day I returned to a trauma and saw it happening from within my body, through my own eyes, that I had reached a place of healing. To feel safe within my body as I relived a moment of terror during an EMDR therapy session was truly empowering.
EMDR allowed me the opportunity to process a massively complex history of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse, neglect, exposure to violent crimes, and addiction in my family. I am now panic attack free. While I still experience heightened anxiety in certain situations, I am better equipped to calm my physiological responses, being mindful of my needs and triggers and the coping skills I can utilize to help myself overcome the fear.