Women! – We Are More Than Our Stories

This summer, I attended the first ever “Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) BootCamp for Women’s Issues.”

Though I had attended a traditional ACT Bootcamp earlier this year, I was drawn to this summer event out of a desire to connect more with my community of women and to examine ways I can better serve my female clients. The reality of the unique struggles women face in the world has been inescapable in both my personal life and in the therapy room.

I went to the training ready to learn. I walked away empowered and inspired.

A Mutually Shared Story

Throughout the training, we often reflected on the question, “What is our story?”

In other words, “How did I come to be who I am?”

The answer would help us to understand the multitude of challenges we often face as women—how our story may limit us in terms of the choices we make in our lives and what we feel our lives can be.

There is so much commonality in that story—it crosses over the human experience. Pain and suffering do not discriminate by gender.

However, there is commonality that is also very gender-specific. Women have different experiences that can impact us in so many ways in our lives, such as our relationship to finances, to aging, to sexuality, or to a career.

Even though we have distinct personal experiences, there are ways in which women also have shared experiences—a shared story, essentially. For example:

  • Women are more likely than men to be the main caregiver for their children and other dependent relatives
  • Women are overrepresented in low-income, low-status jobs
  • Women are more likely to be sexually assaulted and neglected or abused in childhood

We explored a lot of sobering but not surprising facts like the ones above.

But the most powerful experience from the training did not come from a lecture or discussion. The act of sitting in a room full of people who had similar experiences, and feeling and understanding the power of connection coming from these mutually shared experiences, was by far the most impactful.

Breaking Free of the Confines of Our Story

The pain of our experiences often leads us to withdraw and isolate. And when we do that, it is easy to think that we are alone, and for many of us, that we are at fault. It keeps the story alive and makes our lives small.

That isolation keeps us contained—trapped in our little boxes and limited in our lives. It has profound consequences. For example, research has shown that a lack of social connection negatively impacts our health equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

The antidote is simple—connection.

Connecting can help us see that our story is not an uncommon one. When we connect to others and build community with them, we can start to recognize how our story got built. And that not only helps us to understand ourselves and our situation, but it also takes the power out of that story as something that has to define us and isolate us.

In turn, connection allows us to break free of the confines of that story, making room for the fullness and complexity of our beings and giving us greater freedom to choose our path.

Looking for more connection in your life?

Sign Up for Our 9-week ACT on Life Class for Women in Portland, Oregon.

In ACT on Life for Women, you’ll learn techniques based on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) to break the grip of unwanted thoughts and feelings and more fully engage your life. Amongst a community of other women, we will connect and dismantle common stories we carry that are often barriers to the full life we want and deserve to live.

Sign Up Here

Chinese Finger Traps: What a Novelty Item Can Teach Us about Acceptance

Let’s start with the obvious. In most cases, human beings want to minimize pain and discomfort. This is doubly true for emotional pain. While some people enjoy extreme temperatures, endurance sports, and pushing their body to its limits, it’s very rare that anyone enjoys anxiety, panic, or depression. Unfortunately, the inner experiences we want to escape—our thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations—are often the hardest to get away from.

Acceptance

People talk a lot about “acceptance,” but what does it really mean? I practice a form of treatment called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy; in practice, though, I don’t use the term acceptance much because the word is easily misunderstood. For this post, I won’t bother trying to give a definition of acceptance. Instead, I’d like to explain a metaphor I commonly use with the people I work with.

Introducing the Chinese finger trap

When I was a child, my pediatrician had a drawer of cheap toys I could choose from at the end of my appointments. Almost invariably, I chose a Chinese finger trap. If you’ve never seen one, finger traps are woven bamboo tubes (check out the picture above). You place your index fingers in either end, and when you try to pull them out, the tube constricts, trapping your fingers. When you push your fingers inward, it causes them to loosen.

I don’t just talk about this metaphor. I reach into a nearby box and pull out a few finger traps. I sit with the individual across from me, and we alternate between pulling and away and pushing our index fingers into the finger traps in effort to highlight the contrast. At the end of the session, I give them the finger trap to take with them, to serve as a reminder to check-in with their own experience between sessions—what happens when they struggle against pain?

Struggling with pain is like trying to get of a Chinese finger trap

When we try to get away from emotional hurt or from bodily pain, the pain may tighten up on us, like the woven bamboo finger traps. Sometimes the struggle to change what we are feeling can make things worse, not better. Our life narrows down to a focus on what’s painful. We tell stories about it, and worry about it, and justify it, and explain it, and all we get for our troubles is more, not less, pain. But when we lean into our discomfort, as when we gently press our index fingers into the finger trap, we create some space.

Here’s a thought experiment: think about an uncomfortable experience. It could be a physical illness, a break-up, work stress, anxiety, depression—whatever. Now imagine someone told you that the pain would be gone in 5 minutes—would that allow you to experience that pain with less struggle? For most people, the answer is, “yes.” There’s very little we cannot experience in the moment, when we sit and really experience it as it is in the present. It is our attempts to struggle against the pain and our stories about it that amplify the pain.

This is the message I want to impart: “Leaning into discomfort doesn’t free you—you’re still in the trap—but you gain some wiggle room. A desire to pull away is natural—it tends to be our default—but it often gets us stuck.”

When we accept, we let go of the struggle against what we’re feeling—in this very moment. In the next moment, we get a choice about what to do next. Acceptance frees us from the struggle with pain and allows for new possibilities. When your entire focus is getting away from pain, this leaves few alternatives. If you’re willing to accept pain—even for a single moment—you’ve expanded your options.

Anxiety Treatment at Portland Psychotherapy

What do people think is the best treatment for anxiety?

Here at Portland Psychotherapy, we spend a lot of time researching the most effective treatments for problems in living. Too often, though, there’s a disconnect between what the research says works and what is often used in practice. Not only is it difficult to educate the public but even mental health professionals can have difficulty keeping up.

For these reasons, I read this CureTogether post (now associated with 23andme.com) with great interest. CureTogether is a website that collects ratings of treatments. It appears to have an ongoing survey of anxiety treatments. Anyone can log in and rate what worked and didn’t work for them. May 13, 2013, the website posted the results from over 10,900 people who had participated in their survey of anxiety treatments.

What do people think works?

I’ll confess: because there’s so much misinformation out there, I was a little worried about what I’d find. I honestly expected to find evidence-practice lagging behind pop psychology. When I saw the actual rankings, however, I thought to myself, “Not bad.”

Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT)—which arguably has the most impressive research base for addressing anxiety disorders—was number 6. Given that CBT is not as “sexy” as other treatments, I was pleasantly surprised to see it in the top 10. Even Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), the specific branch of CBT offered at Portland Psychotherapy, was number 11. (This is amazing, actually, as ACT is still new to many professionals.) Even exposure therapy, which has the greatest research support but is especially unsexy, was listed at number 14.

More informal treatments such as exercise (#1), yoga (#3), and meditation (#5) also have some research support for being helpful to people. Not everyone needs to see a therapist for anxiety.

What was more concerning—although not surprising—was the prominence of a class of drugs collectively known as benzodiazepines. These include Xanax (#2), Ativan (#8), and Clonazepam (#9). I say “not surprising” because these are commonly prescribed drugs that calm you down within 20-30 minutes. I say “concerning” because, although they make people feel better in the short-term, benzodiazepines can actually maintain anxiety in the long-term: they are a short-term solution, can be addictive, and can lead to withdrawal effects with prolonged use and rebound anxiety when people stop taking it. Xanax, which is faster acting, is particularly dangerous.

What conclusions can we draw?

I should note that this isn’t an objective research study: it’s simply a summary of what people who filled out an online survey say they’ve tried and decided was helpful. That said, it’s an extremely useful snapshot of the real world treatment of anxiety.

Anxiety Treatment at Portland Psychotherapy