"The Martial Therapist"

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I got home that night full of bruises, tired as hell, and I noticed a growing pain in my wrist…

Have you ever just woken up in the morning and decided, “No, not today”. Well if you’re like me, then that happens more often than you’d like. I think at some point that happens to all of us. We just wake up and for whatever reason (you could be tired, stressed, lonely, overwhelmed, hungry, etc.) you decide that today is just not going to be your day and there’s nothing anyone or anything can do to turn it around. The funny thing about those days is that they tend to come out of nowhere (Ugh, so frustrating!) and the feelings that come along with those days tend to grow out of control quickly. I want to tell you about one of my bad days so that I can (hopefully) show you how I was able to turn it around.

I’m a therapist that practices Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or CBT for short. So I’m basically equipped to handle any situation…good, I’m glad you caught the sarcasm there! But in all seriousness, I make my living showing people that they have the ability to help themselves feel better by teaching them simple tools and strategies. So it’s obvious that I should be perfect at doing those things, too…right? Well I won’t keep you in suspense any longer. I’m not as good as I would like to be. The cool thing about being a therapist is that I am trained how to use all of these wonderful self-help tools, so when I end up not using those tools myself, I get to add an extra serving of guilt to my day. Remember, no matter how hard your therapist works for you, they are working just as hard making sure they have their personal life in order as well. In essence, they have to put on their oxygen mask on before assisting you with yours!

Well that morning, I did not feel like getting up and going to work. I thought to myself, “How the hell am I supposed to help anyone when I feel like this?”. I was slow in every step of my morning routine. I slept in until I absolutely had to get up. I took too long on the toilet. I lingered in the shower…you get where I’m going with this. I did NOT want to do anything and my behavior was telling me as much. Often, when we are feeling off, our behavior will change in subtle (or sometimes not-so-subtle) ways. I we can clue ourselves into these changes, we have the chance to head off the storm! My response was “Screw that”. I was feeling crappy and I wanted to! I knew in my mind that I was doing things to keep myself low, but I just wanted to feel low for a bit and forget all of my training as a therapist. The problem is that little voice in the back of my head nagging me to stop being such a hypocrite. I wondered to myself as I was taking way too long to pack my lunch, “If I was my own client what would I do to help solve this problem?”

The answer is frustratingly simple. Two words…Behavioral Activation. This terribly simple concept can solve so many issues. But when we need it most, it’s the last thing we want to use. Ridiculous, I know. What is Behavioral Activation? Translated into human speech, Behavioral Activation boils down to this…

 If you’re feeling crappy, do more stuff and you won’t feel as crappy.

                                                                OR

When you engage your body and mind in pleasurable activities, you tend to feel better.

So I did what any begrudging therapist who is aware of their own self-sabotage would do, I made a plan to go beat up my friends that night after work.

I know what you’re thinking (Okay, maybe I don’t really know). But you might be thinking that I’m nuts for saying that and that maybe I should be reevaluating my profession for having these thoughts. I swear, things will make sense soon. You see, every week I go to a self-defense martial arts class that teaches me to use my body as a lethal weapon in case I ever find myself surrounded by some seriously menacing dudes who want to beat me up. I go to the gym and spend two hours every session using my body in ways that I would never dream of using toward another person in my outside life. But for those two hours when I’m in class with the rest of my group, I am free from everything that weighs me down. Let me give you a taste of what a normal session looks like.

We start out by partnering up and hardening our bodies by striking each other on our arms, legs, and stomachs. This is so we can get used to the pain of getting hit by another person. Then we do some light warm up exercises, you know practicing how to apply a choke for maximum effect or which body parts provide the least resistance to breaking. You know, normal, typical, everyday kinda stuff. After that, we usually train some new way to apply pain as a defensive strategy. After that we do some intensive aerobic and strength exercises to make sure that we’re good and tired for the night and so that our bodies will feel something if the hitting somehow didn’t do it.

Now you might be thinking, is that what all therapists do to relieve tension? Do they all just want to hurt other people? No…at least not me. Here’s the thing, when I go to these classes, I am completely free from everything that bothers me. It’s hard to worry about your day when you’re dodging a punch. I can’t be thinking about my stressors and be effective in my fight at the same time, so the stress just has to go. When I go to class, I train with other people who are there to get better and have similar interests to me. I have built a network of friends that are motivated to work hard and are glad for me when I improve. I consider myself lucky to have these people in my life. Each time I go I am working toward something bigger than me and using my body to the point of exhaustion so that when I’m done, I have nothing left but the satisfaction of a job well done (and a few extra bruises and scrapes).

That morning I noticed my behavior had changed, I was mindful of how my thinking was keeping me down, and felt the sting of knowing that I could do something about it. I decided that I would go train that night even harder than normal because I needed to get out of my funk. I messaged my group ( so they could hold me accountable if I didn’t go) and exercised my body and mind.

I got home that night full of bruises, tired as hell, and I noticed a growing pain in my wrist…

…but the only thing I had the energy to do was smile to myself and say “You did it”.

9 Signs Therapy Is Actually Working

Experts break down what progress looks like.

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eek after week, you may walk into your therapist’s office and pour out your anxieties, hopes and dreams, or you might cry or get angry. Does any of this mean the process is actually working?

According to experts, there are definite signs that show you’re on the right track. If you are experiencing any of the following, it may be safe to say that your weekly counseling sessions are paying off:

1. You’ll look forward to your therapy appointments

Revealing your innermost thoughts in a session can be daunting. But if you get to the place where opening up becomes more comfortable, you may have experienced some breakthroughs, according to Rachel Dubrow, a licensed clinical social worker in Northfield, Illinois. Dubrow said her clients often make the connection that their treatment is working when they no longer feel nervous before appointments.

“They also tell me that they start to feel lighter and better after a session,” she said.

2. You’re not as “in your head”

“I’ve had clients tell me that when they begin to feel better, they aren’t as ‘in their heads’ anymore,” said Christy Doering, a therapist with Sage Counseling in Plano, Texas.

According to Doering, constant rumination over anxieties, listening to your “inner critic” or berating yourself for past regrets takes up valuable real estate in the brain.

“When people start to get well, they give that space to something better. It’s often a new appreciation for the present moment, or more interaction with family and coworkers, but it builds upon itself and contributes to overall wellness pretty quickly,” she said.

3. You’re having fun again

Anhedonia ― which is the inability to experience pleasure from activities that people used to find enjoyable ― is one of the hallmark symptoms of mood disorders like depression.

“If a person loves to sew, fix cars, read or exercise, then when he or she is depressed, those things will stop bringing joy,” Doering said. “But when people are improving, they will one day wake up and realize they feel like doing those things again, and often those things bring even more joy than they did in the past. It’s like having a stomach virus and feeling like you will never want to eat again, but then after it’s over, everything tastes wonderful.”

4. You are focusing on the present

“Instead of worrying about whether or not your first grader will get into college ... or feeling guilty over enjoying that bagel you had for breakfast, you are being mindful of the here and now and tending to the things you are in control of at the moment,” said Kayce Hodos, a licensed professional counselor in Wake Forest, North Carolina.

So rather than stressing about the future, you are focusing on work tasks, listening to a friend over margaritas, taking a walk on your lunch break or enjoying your favorite band’s new album.

5. You’ve changed your standards on who you swipe right for on Tinder

Sheri Heller, a New York City-based psychotherapist, noted that effective therapy may make you shift your focus toward more stable partners. Additionally, it may help you seek out healthier friendships and romantic partnerships.

“As clients work through core wounds rooted in relational traumas and betrayals, their healing is evidenced in using discernment and discrimination with who they bring into their lives,” she said. “Often these new partnerships are completely contrary to the sort of toxic traits they found themselves gravitating toward in the past.”

6. Self-care becomes a priority

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According to Hodos, noticing that you are beginning to pay attention to yourself is a great sign of improvement. This could be as simple as booking a weekly massage, journaling about your thoughts and feelings or asking your boss for that overdue raise.

“Regardless of how it shows up for you, you are positively including some much-needed self-care in your routine, and a bonus is you are enjoying it with no, or at least less, guilt,” she said.

7. You’ve started applying your therapist’s suggestions ― and they’re working

“I know that therapy is working for my clients when they are able to transfer what we have been working on in the therapy room to their lives,” said Sheralyn Shockey-Pope, co-founder of Central Counseling Services.

She cited a couple on the brink of divorce that she treated as an example. “They began to come into sessions with statements like, ‘I remembered that he was hurting, too, and when things got too intense at home we took a timeout, just like we did in therapy,’” she said.

Dubrow agrees, adding that she loves seeing patients gain a sense of pride over properly applying techniques she has armed them with. “They’ll come back and report that what they did felt challenging at first but that they were successful in the end,” she said.

8. You may start to go backwards

It sounds counterintuitive, but it’s true.

“As you work on dismantling old, unhealthy thought patterns and coping habits, feelings of distress and unwanted behaviors sometimes have a surge before they go away,” said Rachel Kazez, a Chicago-area licensed clinical social worker. “Without those things masking the feelings, people might feel stronger and urges to act in unwanted ways might feel stronger or more necessary.”

Jenmarie Eadie, a licensed clinical social worker in Upland, California agreed, adding that anger in a session is a perfectly valid ― and sometimes wanted ― emotion.

“For me, a sign therapy is working is when the client gets mad at me,” Eadie said. “It’s usually because he [or] she is working through the issues with a safe person who won’t retaliate, dismiss, or abuse his [or] her emotions. For my kid clients, this usually means a crayon or two is going to be thrown my way!”

9. You realize you are only responsible for your problems

“It becomes clear to you which problems are actually yours to own and which ones you’ve been taking on that have nothing to do with you,” Hodos said.

For instance, you might learn to lovingly support your husband and listen to his job complaints without frantically updating his resume for him, or you proactively text your mom to let her know you will not be available for your usual Tuesday night chat, sans guilt.

Therapy is a very personalized journey and what works for some is different than what may benefit others. But any of the above changes signify you’re headed down the right path.