Why do we still react with “fight” or “flight?”

Our ability to physically study the brain supports what many philosophical, spiritual, conflict resolution, educational and therapeutic models attempt to provide:  a way to live into our highest potential as individuals and as humans in relationships.

Jan Kwiatkowski, LMFT, is a psychotherapist and mental health consultant for Aurora Family Service in Milwaukee, WI.

Jan Kwiatkowski, LMFT, is a psychotherapist and mental health consultant for Aurora Family Service in Milwaukee, WI.

I don’t know about you, but I sure need to keep learning, reflecting and growing in these areas.

One thing we know now, is that our brains are hard-wired for survival and that elf-preservation is deeply embedded in our genes. Humans learned to band together because their very survival depended on it.

We got really good at being alert to any danger, whether from a predator that might devour us, or the tribal leader who might banish us from the tribe.

In some places in the world, these situations are still very real. But most of us do not have to worry about being trampled to death by a pack of animals or being banished from a tribe to die in the wilderness.

What we know  is that in 2013, our brains still instinctively react with that primitive flight or fight instinct. This is good if we are in a life-threatening situation, but not in conversation, at work, in family life, in schools, or any other place there are people.

Every day disagreements, miscommunications, conversations that feel like criticism and more, call up this basic fight or flight instinct in us, and literally, to our brain feel like a death threat. When we are stressed, tired, facing significant challenges or illness, this instinct is on hyper-alert. We can’t help it that the instinct is there, but we can help and choose our response to it.

The good news is that we are not slaves to our brains and instincts. We have tools we can choose to learn, use and teach our children. Each of the books I referenced above starts from the premise that with all our uniquenesses, at our core we all desire the same thing: to be treated and live with dignity. It is when our dignity is violated that we react with the defensiveness that can destroy relationships.

We also, can only honor the dignity of another, when we accept our own dignity as human beings, both beauties and imperfections. This is a lifelong process for all of us.

Three of my current reads are:  Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of HappinessPlanting Seeds: Practicing Mindfulness with Children, and Dignity: The Essential Role It Plays in Resolving Conflict.  Each of these books is very readable.  If you want more detail about the dignity model, you can go to www.drdonnahicks.com or any of these publications.

If you are struggling with experiences of dignity violations at home, at work, in relationships or struggling to recognize your own dignity, please call Aurora Family Service at 1-414-342-4560. 

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How does laughter lead to better health?

This past week my 4-year-old grandson asked me what a ducks favorite snack is.
I said that I didn’t know. He responded “Cheese and quackers! Ha-ha grandma, that’s
funny!” We’ve seen an emerging sense of humor for quite a while, and this was the first
joke he told. Of course, now everyone is hearing his joke and laughing (or at least pretending they are).

Jan Kwiatkowski, LMFT, is a psychotherapist and mental health consultant for Aurora Family Service in Milwaukee, WI.

Jan Kwiatkowski, LMFT, is a psychotherapist and mental health consultant for Aurora Family Service in Milwaukee, WI.

My grandson is discovering a basic human joy that we often overlook: the joy of sharing humor and laughter.

His first joke reminded me of how serious I often take myself, and the how much more enjoyable even the hardest day is, if I can find or create place for some laughter.

My guess is that many adults reading this often find themselves in the “taking ourselves too seriously”category. This can be especially true of those of us in the helping professions.

What experience and now, research, tells us is that laughter is indeed good for us:  body, mind and spirit. In a world of great complexity, we forget that a simple thing like laughter and good humor can make a difference. Maybe laughter can’t change or fix a situation, but it helps in lots of meaningful ways.

Here are 10 ways laughter and humor makes a difference:

  • Humor decreases worry, by changing or giving us some distance and perspective on any given situation.
  • Humor comforts. It gives us a sense that we can get through or that ultimately things will be OK.
  • Humor relaxes. Our bodies are so often in high gear, that slowing down is really hard. When we laugh, for just a few minutes our autonomic nervous system takes over giving our heart a chance to slow down and our bodies to relax.
  • Laughter boosts the immune system by increasing components in our blood. Who couldn’t use an immune system boost?
  • Humor cultivates optimism. This correlates with number one. It’s easier to be optimistic if we are worrying less.
  • Laughter is contagious. Just Google “baby laughing” and try not to laugh.
  • Laughter increases wellbeing by increasing endorphins in the body.
  • Laughter increases oxygenation, which means more oxygen to the brain and vital organs.
  • Laughter releases emotional and muscular tension.
  • Laughter gives our internal organs a massage, which also increases blood circulation.

How do you incorporate laughter into your day? Do you laugh during the day? How might you increase moments of good humor and laughter every day?

I, for one, will continue to delight and laugh at my grandson’s jokes, and perhaps
even tell a few. I’m going to do my best to notice when I am stressed and intense, and remember that a good laugh would help me gain some perspective. And with that better perspective, and increased oxygen going to my brain, I might more quickly and creatively solve problems.

Even if I can’t solve or fix everything, at least I, and the people around me, will enjoy
life a little more.

Aurora Family Service helps families overcome challenges, changes and crisis to live well again. We achieve stability and strength for families through counseling, parenting, elder care, financial, career, health and community services.  For more information, visit our website, follow us on Facebook, or call 1-414-342-4560.

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What happens when life cracks your “shell?”

Whether you celebrate Easter or not, you can’t help seeing colored eggs this time of year.

The egg has a long symbolic history. Due to its shape, it’s been a symbol of the earth and the basis of ancient creation stories. As Europe became Christian, eggs became a symbol of Easter and the resurrection. The egg is also part of the Jewish Passover holiday that takes place in spring. It is a symbol of sacrifice and loss. In China, red eggs are given out at the one month birthday of a new baby. It’s customary to hold a Red Egg and Ginger Party, as a symbol of fertility and the beginning of life.

The decoration of eggs spans the continuum of jeweled, painted and engraved works of art to children’s colored multicolored, joyful creations. We all seem to intuitively understand not only the symbolism, but also the joy that comes with honoring that symbolism.

All eggs have shells, and these shells can be broken and wasted, or they can be broken and used for nourishment.  As part of a recipe, an egg becomes part of something bigger and more lasting. Eggs come in different colors, grades and sizes.  Most importantly, they can be fragile, if uncooked or hard, if cooked correctly.

Individuals are even described as “good eggs” or “rotten eggs”. We talk about “walking on eggshells” around certain people or situations.  We somehow know that we have an inner self and outer shell. We know that some people and situations are harder or more fragile than others.

We know that sometimes cracking open the shells we hide in is healing and sometimes protecting the shell (our boundaries) is a sign of health. Sometimes we are not sure whether or how we should crack open shells. We are not always sure what to do with whatever is found inside our shells. We also, intuitively, know that every time we crack open an egg, it is a bit of an adventure.

Are you worried that life is shattering your “outer shell” right now?  Afraid what will happen to your family if your shell cracks?  Or maybe you’re curious about coming out of your shell and moving towards a healthier life?  If you’re ready to take that first step, please contact Aurora Family Service — in springtime or anytime.

Aurora Family Service helps families overcome challenges, changes and crisis to live well again.

We achieve stability and strength for families through counseling, parenting, elder care, financial, career, health and community services.  For more information, visit our website, follow us on Facebook, or call 1-414-342-4560.

 

 

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“This, too, shall pass…” but only if you let it

If you’ve lived in Wisconsin for more than 5 minutes, you know that the weather here is wild and unpredictable at this time of year. Actually, that can be said about much of the year, here.

This last snowfall reminded me of a phrase I often heard when I was a young and sometimes overwhelmed mom of 4 preschool boys. The phrase, uttered by a very seasoned mother of nine, was “This, too, shall pass.”

Jan Kwiatkowski, LMFT, is a psychotherapist and mental health consultant for Aurora Family Service in Milwaukee, WI.

Jan Kwiatkowski, LMFT, is a psychotherapist and mental health consultant for Aurora Family Service in Milwaukee, WI.

In other words, whatever is happening right now, whether pleasant or distressing, desired or undesired, expected or unexpected does not last forever. This can be a helpful thing to remember, when it seems like long nights will never end, you may never again eat anything that is more interesting than macaroni and cheese, or that you may implode if you have to hear your child asking the question “why?” one more time.

“This, too shall pass” is sage wisdom for each of us, every day. Whatever the experience, it will not last forever. Struggles with relationships, jobs, finances, substances, abuse, grief, a new baby, a move, retirement…any of life’s challenges are ultimately, all passing. It is our response to a given situation, person or event that really matters.

We can choose:

  • to let go of or hold on to hurts,
  • take steps to change behaviors that are unhealthy or not
  • let anger, resentment and fear rule us or learn new responses\
  • take ourselves very seriously or learn to gently laugh at ourselves.

Working with families, one of the things I notice is that the situation that caused the original hurt has long passed, but family members have held on to the feelings, fears, stories, misinformation or misunderstanding for years, sometimes generations.

The “this” was never allowed to pass.

If you have a “this” that has not been allowed to pass, or something has gotten in the way of letting your “this” go, and you’d like to figure out your next steps,  give us a call at Aurora Family Service.

Aurora Family Service helps families overcome challenges, changes and crisis to live well again.

We achieve stability and strength for families through counseling, parenting, elder care, financial, career, health and community services.  For more information, visit our website, follow us on Facebook, or call 1-414-342-4560.

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Have you taught your kids how to calm down?

CALM DOWN!!!!

How many times have you heard a parent, teacher or caretaker shout those two words at young children? Or perhaps on a particularly exasperating day,  maybe you were the one doing the shouting.

Jan Kwiatkowski, LMFT, is a psychotherapist and mental health consultant for Aurora Family Service in Milwaukee, WI.

Jan Kwiatkowski, LMFT, is a psychotherapist and mental health consultant for Aurora Family Service in Milwaukee, WI.

When I have the chance, the question I always ask is: have you taught your children how to calm down? So far, the answer is always “No.” I don’t know how we expect our children know how to engage in the complex process of social-emotional regulation, when we have not taught them or we have not learned that process ourselves.

Self-regulation is about paying attention to what is happening inside and outside of ourselves. It’s about paying attention to our unique way of interacting with the world and managing the positive and negative stressors in life. Our bodies and emotions are the primary indicators of how, and if, we are managing ourselves.

I’d like to offer the following suggestions for teaching young children to self-regulate. I am assuming that you as parent, teacher or other caretaker have learned or are practicing your own healthy strategies for managing stressors and calming down.

  1. Teach your children to use words to name their emotions. You can find free feelings charts online. Have children color their own and keep them in a visible place at home.
  2. Ask your child “What does your body need?” When you notice your child is excited, restless, bored, angry or sleepy, help them figure out what they are physically experiencing. Maybe their tummy is tight. Maybe their heart is racing or they are breathing fast. Maybe their eyes feel floppy. Help them figure out what they can do to help with that feeling.
  3. Teach your child to stop and take 5 big breaths when they have strong feelings. Practice this before a child needs to use it. One way to remember to practice throughout the day is to choose something you do several times each day, like going up stairs, putting the seat belt on, drying wet hands. Every time you and/or your child does this activity, also take 5 big breaths in and out. Have them note how much better they feel. When strong emotions come up, you can have your child take 5 big breaths and feel better again. Do it with them.
  4. Get some bubble solution and blow bubbles. Did you know it’s impossible to be stressed and blow bubbles at the same time?

The most important way to teach your child to manage or regulate themselves is by modeling healthy self-care and regulation skills, yourself.

One excellent resource for adults who want to learn more is: Planting Seeds: Practicing Mindfulness with Children by Thich Nhat Hahn.

If you would like some support with healthy self-regulation or teaching your child these skills, give us a call at Aurora Family Service (414-342-4560).

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The groundhog didn’t see his shadow. Did you?

On February 2, America observed the yearly ritual of Groundhog’s Day.

Tradition has it, that when groundhogs pop out of their holes, after a long winters hibernation, what they see and do determines whether we will have an early spring, or not. If the groundhog sees it’s shadow, when it emerges, the groundhog runs back into it’s hole to hibernate for 6 more weeks of winter. This year the Wisconsin and national groundhogsdid not see a shadow and stayed out, meaning an early spring.

Yay, groundhogs! Personally, I root for the early spring, rather than 6 more weeks of winter.

woman-shadow11Groundhog’s Day reminded me that we all have a shadow, too. And our shadow is more than just the one we see on a sunny day.

Our shadows are those things we don’t like about ourselves, hurts and resentments we hold, secrets we keep about things we’ve done or not done, things done to us, family or work secrets we keep, feelings and thoughts we have that we think we “shouldn’t” have.  When we see our shadow, we would rather run away from it or put it back in a dark.

But, just like the groundhog, our shadow has a chance at coming out again at another time. We just don’t know when.

What is different for we human beings is that if we try to keep our shadows hidden in a dark hole,they do come out in different ways at different and unexpected times. Our shadows can show up in unhealthy relationships, financial issues, drugs and alcohol, physical illness, decreasing happiness or satisfaction with life….and the list goes on. The only way to stop our shadows is to get to know them; to make friends with them; to have compassion on them and then decide how much control we want to give them over ours lives in the present.

Jan Kwiatkowski, LMFT, is a psychotherapist and mental health consultant for Aurora Family Service in Milwaukee, WI.

Jan Kwiatkowski, LMFT, is a psychotherapist and mental health consultant for Aurora Family Service in Milwaukee, WI.

Everyone of us has a shadow within ourselves. Getting to know our shadow and have compassion for ourselves can be a daunting task, but it is possible and can be very freeing.

If you have a shadow that is causing you distress or interfering with your life, I invite you to give us a call at Aurora Family Service. Unlike the groundhog, who had lots and lots of people watching, you can decide what to do about your shadow in confidence.

Aurora Family Service helps families overcome challenges, changes and crisis to live well again.

We achieve stability and strength for families through counseling, parenting, elder care, financial, career, health and community services.  For more information, visit our website, follow us on Facebook, or call 1-414-342-4560.

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Are you feeling cabin fever, winter blues or worse?

“Number seven on the ‘Top Ten Signs of Cabin Fever’ is the realization that “family togetherness is overrated.” – Anonymous

winterbluesIt’s definitely that time of year when many of us (myself included) are really tired of putting on layers of clothes, chipping ice off the car and trying to convince the dog that they really do need to go out for a walk.

Yesterday, temperatures reached 58 degrees in Milwaukee. Winter jackets were coming off and windows were being opened. People were even having conversations about seed catalogs and gardens.

Today, that light rain has turned to ice and snow. Temperatures have plummeted below freezing — and are expected to go below zero by the weekend.

With such extreme changes in our climate, it’s not surprising that we might be a little more irritable, bored or restless than usual.

Jan Kwiatkowski, LMFT, is a psychotherapist and mental health consultant for Aurora Family Service in Milwaukee, WI.

Jan Kwiatkowski, LMFT, is a psychotherapist and mental health consultant for Aurora Family Service in Milwaukee, WI.

Maybe our kids, significant other, boss or dog is getting on what feels like our last nerve. Sugar cravings are harder to manage and our sleep might be off or not restful.  Escaping to anyplace that is “not here” sounds like a really good idea.

I can almost see your heads nodding in agreement as you read this.

If this is happening to you and/or the people around you, you might just be experiencing cabin fever, a feeling that you and the people around you have been cooped up, together, for too long.

But, what if you’re mistaking cabin fever for something more serious?

Ask yourself this question: are any of these symptoms getting in the way of your everyday life?

  • Feeling sad or depressed
  • Lethargy
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Craving carbohydrates or sugar
  • Difficulty walking in the morning
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Social withdrawal
  • Reduced productivity
  • Irritability

AUR_dv1430005[1]If you are bothered by any or all of these symptoms for more than 2 weeks, you may be experiencing seasonal affective disorder.  Seasonal affective disorder can be managed in many ways, including exercise, eating healthily, limiting alcohol, limiting news or upsetting media, more sunlight and possibly medication.

The winter months can be enjoyable.  After all, January temperatures reaching the 40s and 50s are a sign of hope that “this, too, shall pass.”  If you are not sure whether what you are experiencing is more than cabin fever or the winter blues, give us a call at Aurora Family Service and we can help you figure it out.

Aurora Family Service helps families overcome challenges, changes and crisis to live well again.

We achieve stability and strength for families through counseling, parenting, elder care, financial, career, health and community services.  For more information, visit our website, follow us on Facebook, or call 1-414-342-4560.

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