Many counseling practices experience a significant increase in calls around this time of year. Despite choruses of comfort and joy, the holidays often bring feelings of loneliness, stress, sadness, and relational discord. The way we are supposed to feel as depicted in commercials and movies causes us to experience dissonance when we realize how we are actually feeling in comparison. Something is amiss.

Advent Candles

We would do well to view that realization as a gift. In essence, God is shining a light on the brokenness so we can yearn for something better. And isn’t that the central idea behind Advent? We hope for that which is better. Within ourselves, we seek peace, joy, grace, love, faithfulness to win out against our frenzied, sad, self-righteousness, begrudging, and fickle hearts. Within our world, we long for Jesus’ grace to captivate our souls and for His Kingdom to restore all things. Advent is about hoping and longing for that which is better.

If you have noticed that something is amiss in you this holiday season and you long for a way of being that is better, call a counselor. Make an appointment. Don’t live another year stuck in the same patterns of thinking, behaving, and relating. God desires for you to hear His good news of grace and restoration again and again. He longs that you experience freedom from captivity and release from darkness (Isaiah 61). If you have not yet done so, carve out time to intentionally celebrate Advent and yearn for Christ’s coming- both in your life and in those among you. The Advent Project by Biola University offers one beautiful way of pilgriming through Advent that features Scripture, written reflections, music, and visual art to help engage our senses as we “earnestly contemplate the wonder and mystery of Christ’s coming to earth.”

The introduction to the afore-mentioned Advent Project reads, “The frenetic activities of the holidays tend to work us up, while the spiritual practices of Advent quietly focus our souls.” Take time this Advent to intentionally and deliberately focus your soul and consider the ways God might desire to lead you out of captivity and darkness as you prepare for a new year ahead.

Deep Breathing: Pearl of Wisdom or Old Wives Tale?

You’ve heard it a hundred times: “calm down, take a deep breath” as well-meaning advice on how to handle stress. But does it actually work? And if so, how?

Nervous System GraphicIt’s all a part of the miraculous design of the human body. Our autonomic nervous system consists of two parts: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system orchestrates all of our fight or flight reflexes. Think rapid breathing and the adrenaline you associate with stress. Conversely, the parasympathetic nervous system is initiated by slow, deep- again I say- slow breathing. This calms us down.

Essentially, you can think of the sympathetic nervous system as the gas, the parasympathetic nervous system as the brake. Just like when driving a car, you can’t pump the gas and brake simultaneously, so guiding yourself to take intentional, deep breaths forces your body to slow down and therefore, calm down. While this is happening, your sense of stress and anxiety is automatically suppressed.

In addition to the immediate benefits of decreasing stress and mitigating anxiety, deep breathing is also associated with more far-reaching health benefits. Some research suggests it can offer positive effects on everything from asthma to blood pressure, the immune system to digestion, with some data even implicating an impact on the expression of individual genes.

There’s nothing fancy to it. Breathe in through your nose. Make the breath in last a second longer than you think it should. Pause here as if you are arriving at the initial crest of a rollercoaster. Then, breathe out through your mouth. If you have the benefit of some solitude, let yourself verbally exhale along the way, making a swooshing sound. Allow your shoulders and fists to follow the lead of your breath, tensing as you breathe in and relaxing as you breathe out. You can even make the experience meditative by repeating a phrase from Scripture or ancient liturgy. Lord Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner.  I am the vine, you are the branches. The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. Change emphases where appropriate to help you reflect on truth and soak it in. You could even try incorporating your body into this exercise in other ways. In Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster describes a technique he calls “palms up, palms down.” While sitting, breathe in with your palms down as you consider an attribute of God’s character and grace. Then move your hands so that your palms are facing up as you slowly breathe out. As you do, make a conscious effort to release specific worries, fears, and sins to the lordship of Christ.

Though deep breathing as a solution to stress and anxiety may sound trite, theological anthropology supports its basic suppositions and science proves its efficacy. Though distinct from one another, our bodies and souls are valued aspects of our personhood and intricately connected to one another. My hunch is that if you give this practice a shot, your experience will add another level of validation. Don’t knock it till you try it!

Good Reads: The Gift of Therapy

Gift of TherapyOne of the best books I suggest to people curious about therapy and young therapists alike is Irvin Yalom’s 2009 The gift of therapy: An open letter to a new generation of therapists and their patients. In it, Yalom offers words of guidance to the next generation of therapists in 85 compact, yet meaningful chapters. Topics vary widely, but Yalom’s central ideas include the importance of using the “here-and-now” as a major component of therapy and the subsequent importance of the therapist’s own personal journey and psychological health. Whether it is entertaining the possibility of conducting a home visit or the use of touch in session, Yalom insists that the intimacy and authenticity of the client-counselor relationship is essential to successful therapy. In sum, Yalom is vigilant in his insistence on the preservation of humanity in the client-counselor relationship; holding fast to the notion that counselors avoid the illusion that they can or should be blank slates or that clients can be conceptualized predominantly by their diagnosis and only secondarily as people.

Yalom gives attention to several unique aspects of therapy, such as how to leverage a client’s experience with death (either the death of a significant other or one’s own pending death) in order to help the client seek meaning in life. Yalom also suggests how to use dreams in session and how to approach a client who is resistant to making decisions. Yalom shares his thoughts on appropriate ways therapists can self-disclose and provide honest feedback to clients in session. Practical attention is allotted to the development of fundamental healthy habits, such as timely note-taking and scheduling clients with adequate note-taking and preparation time in between sessions. Overall, The Gift of Therapy may be a better resource for therapists-in-training than any textbook or counseling manual available today. Yalom’s forthright and frank tone is engaging while his insistence on leveraging the client-counselor relationship and the “here-and-now” of the moment with clients is compelling. Yalom is able to conceptualize therapy as an authentic, bold, and transformative reality, something that the budding therapist idealistically hopes it can be, but by the end of the book, also believes it can be.