Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Celebrating the Holidays in the Face of Tragedy

Celebrating the Holidays in the Face of Tragedy
by Michelle Herrigel, PsyD

25 years ago today, exactly one week before Christmas, my mother died suddenly.  As a teenager, this staggering blow came at a time when the tree was already trimmed, Christmas lights were up and the gifts were even wrapped. Needless to say, Christmas was “canceled” that year and my family did the best we could to cope. In the years since, each member of our family has found their own ways to celebrate, and honor her memory. And rightfully so: Christmas was her very favorite holiday.

For many who have been witness to the horrifying events in Newton, CT and the unspeakable losses suffered by those at Sandy Hook Elementary, we are left wondering: How can I laugh and celebrate the holiday season in the fact of this heartbreaking time? As a nation, we grieve for the loss of 26 innocent lives, and ask “Why?” While we may never have answers that help us understand, there are some things to keep in mind during the holiday season to help us both celebrate and keep things in perspective.

*You are allowed to enjoy the holidays… although some people may experience feelings o guilt that they are having fun when so many are suffering.

*The joy and wonder children experience at the holidays is one of the most precious aspects of the season. Maintaining or reconnecting with the real meaning of the holiday for your family may by a way to refocus on what is important and help children understand what is happening.

*Remember that everyone handles loss and grief differently. Each of us will experience a range of emotions. It’s very normal to feel shock, anger, sadness, fear, disbelief, and also experience difficulty sleeping, changes in appetite, fatigue or other physical issues. In the short term, these symptoms are very normal and usually resolve with time.

*Allow your family to talk about the tragedy and process it. Listening and addressing concerns, especially of our children, is important. Saying things such as “I will do everything I can to keep you safe” can be a good way to help children feel safe. Avoid telling children that the world is unpredictable and that there’s nothing that can be done.

*Avoid political debates at the holidays.  Gun control and mental health reform at topics best left for the New Year. They have no place at the family holiday celebration.

*It’s perfectly fine to express emotion and sadness. These emotions help send us a signal that we may need to slow down and deal with our own reactions. Children are much more open about their feelings, but as adults, we often bury these feelings in the hustle and bustle of the season. If children express fear or sadness, allow them to discuss it. If they need additional hugs or sleeping with the light on, that’s OK too.

*Maintain a normal routine and traditions. Plan a special way of honoring those lost. Here are some suggestions:
            *Play a special song or poem
            *Hang a special ornament on the tree
            *Light a memory candle in their honor
            *Share cherished memories or wishes for those lost
            *Offer a toast or prayer
            *Volunteer or adopt a family, donate to Toys for Tots in their memory.
*Be sure to be kind, both to your self and to others.  The holiday season is one in which we often engage in self-reflection and count our blessings.  Reach out to those in need or family members who have lost their way from the family.

I always tell people, “If you love someone, don’t wait to tell them”.  You will never look back on your life and say “I wish I had not told all those people how much I loved them.”.

Take the opportunity at the holiday season to reconnect, reflect and reaffirm what you hold dear.  

Grief is a normal response to loss. If you or someone you love is grieving and having difficulty coping ASK A PSYCHOLOGIST!

Monday, June 25, 2012

Nuts and Bolts Series: The Elements of Change

God grant me the serenity to accept the people I cannot change, the courage to change the one I can, and the wisdom to know it's me. ~Author Unknown

"Can people really change"?
I invariably answer the question the same way. I believe everyone has the ability to change and grow under the ideal circumstance and with the right approach.

My philosophy and approach to therapy is a practical one, in which the client and therapist partner together to identify strengths, clarify goals, and develop a plan to achieve those goals. Therapy is not something that is administered, the way a medical doctor administers a medicine. It is a journey that one undertakes, a journey of self-discovery and self-awareness that cannot be rivaled. Understanding yourself, and engaging in self-examination, can be one of the most rewarding, and also scariest, tasks of your life. But, as poet Robert Frost states in his work A Servant to Servant "The best way out is always through" - you must take an honest look inside yourself to move forward.

So, what are the elements of change? Obviously these vary from person to person, but we can look at them in three main categories:  Insight, Motivation, and a Tour Guide. Let's look at these one by one:


In my therapy practice, I often hear a common theme, "My life isn't working", "I am not happy", "I am stuck".  One of the firsts tasks in therapy is to find out what's wrong, what works well, and to begin to  identify goals of therapy.  Insight is a key component of this process. Insight is understanding the specific cause of impact of a certain situation or behavior. For example, a person with low self-esteem may realize that they feel poorly about themselves because they were always put down by a parent. This past hurt has carried over into their feelings and beliefs about themselves in the present day.   Understanding this process is the first step at improving the way we feel about ourselves, and the first step in the journey of changing our lives.


Motivation is the desire or interest in doing something. Without motivation, we would not get out of bed, go to work or accomplish our goals. The motivation to change and grow is an important key to therapy. I often hear clients discuss their problems, without real motivation to change. Change is hard, it often hurts, and it's work every bit of the pain to becoming the person you want to be. Patients sometimes realize they have negative patterns or habits in their lives, or they have past hurts they need to heal, but the lack the commitment and motivation to attend therapy sessions or do the hard work that entails.  This is similar to enrolling in a class, but not doing any of the work, and having poor attendance to boot! You won't get your money's worth and certainly won't learn as much as you want.

Tour Guide (aka Psychologist)

The last component to lasting change is someone who has the skills, expertise, compassion and training to serve as your guide in this process. Like the Sherpa who guides the mountain climber at the highest reaches of the Himalayas, the Psychologists uses their knowledge, education, training and intuition to help clients unlock their hidden potential and guides them in solving their life's mysteries.

Different mental health professional have different levels of education, training and experience. Psychologists are often doctoral level professionals, and have the highest level of education and training, often with an internship and research experience. In addition, psychologists have the experience and training to do psychological assessment and testing, such as IQ testing. Other mental health workers, such as licensed social workers, or licensed professional counselors, have a Master's degree and have supervised experience in counseling. Other non licensed professional act as life coaches or executive coaches and often have a certificate and training in coaching.

If you are interested in the exciting process of therapy and self awareness, ASK A PSYCHOLOGIST!!!

Michelle Herrigel is a licensed psychologists in Northeast PA, serving adolescents, adults and families with a variety of concerns. She currently practices therapy in her Mountainhome, PA office. For more info, or to schedule an appointment, please see her contact info by viewing her profile or contact her at

If nothing ever changed, there'd be no butterflies. ~Author Unknown

"Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end"

Monday, June 11, 2012

Nuts and Bolts Series: The Common Sense in Family Therapy

There is an old saying that "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree". When you really think about that, it makes a lot of sense that who we ARE largely depends on those who raised us, for better or worse.  As a psychologist, I am often surprised at how many people try to change themselves, or their children, without taking that one fact into account: We are a product of both our genetics and our environment (Nature vs. nurture).  You can't change who your family is, but you can certainly improve those strained family relationships and create a more peaceful and harmonious environment in the home. 

This blog will briefly outline the nuts and bolts of family therapy and explain what you can expect when you schedule your first appointment with the psychologist.

I have experienced many intakes where parents have the same request:  "Fix my kid".  But what most adults fail to realize, is that "fixing" a child is a much more monumental task than simply having their child in the office, or setting up a star chart on the wall. Insomuch as the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, there is another, equally important premise, that "it takes a village to raise a child".

Each member of the family plays an important and influential role in the development of the child, and the interplay between family members is often the most telling benchmark of the functioning of the entire family.   I have often found that after months of therapy I can have just one family session and learn more about that person and the situation in the ONE SESSION with other family members.

Family therapy, is a very powerful, and often complex, form of counseling that includes all members of the family in the session to view the issue that's brought them in for treatment, from many completely different angles.  The first task of the psychologist is to understand each of these viewpoints, and work to help each member of the family come to a place of better understanding, improved communication, and increased tolerance.

Families seek help from a psychologist for many reasons - a traumatic event such as a family loss or illness, addiction issues within a specific family member, behavioral challenges or even simple communication difficulties. No matter the type or size of the problem, family strife and conflict is both stressful and anxiety-provoking. Here are some quick facts about family therapy to help you get started:

1.  Family therapy is often short term. Most treatments last less than six months.

2. Family therapy is often focused on family relationships or communication patterns within the family. Poor communication is like faulty wiring in your wall.  At best, it can cause crossed signals, at worst it can cause a blow up or fire. Therapy can help sort out these patterns and improve communication habits in the family.

3. At times, individual family members will participate in their own therapy to address concerns specific to them.

4. Family therapy sessions can last around 60 to 90 minutes, depending upon your family's specific situation and issues presented to the psychologist.

5.  The family will set goals and learn to meet specific challenges through this experience. Your family will learn new ways to interact and understand each other to overcome unhealthy or damaging patterns of relating to each other.

6.  Family therapy will focus on finding the family's strengths to build a strong foundation for addressing problems and crisis situations.

7. The psychologist will create a safe environment in which family members can express their feelings and work out issues. Ground rules will be set from the first session.

It's important to realize that therapy should not be entered into lightly. It's hard work, but well worth the effort. All therapy involves an honest exploration of yourself, and family therapy is no exception. If you are struggling with family concerns, or believe that your family could benefit from therapy, ASK A PSYCHOLOGIST!

Michelle Herrigel is a licensed psychologists in Northeast PA, serving adolescents, adults and families with a variety of concerns. She currently practices therapy in her Mountainhome, PA office. For more info, or to schedule an appointment, please see her contact info by viewing her profile or contact her at

Monday, May 14, 2012

I am 42!!!

Counseling Corner, since its inception in April of 2010, has had the mission of providing important mental health information to its readers in a clear, straightforward manner. It has covered topics from Social Networking for Dummies (Novermber 2010) to Handling Road Rage (April 2010) to lighthearted topics such as Let's Get Flyered Up! (June 2010). More recent topics have covered suicide prevention, stress management and Seasonal Affective Disorder.  Please feel free to explore my Blogspot site, and watch for new Blogs to be posted here -->

I am proud to say that this is my 42nd blog, (and consequently its' my 42nd year!) and my mission still remains the same: To let you know about important mental health concerns is a clear, understandable way, with no psychobabble. If you have a specific topic you would like me to discuss, or have  question, please feel free to contact me at I would be happy take requests.

Thank you for your loyalty and kind comments over these last two years. I hope to continue to entertain and educate you for many more years to come!


Monday, May 7, 2012

This is your brain.....

Motorcycle accidents. Football. Military Combat. Falls or accidents at work. Boxing. What do these three things have in common?

They are all ways that the human body and brain take a beating. 

But what you may not know, aside from the physical toll that these injuries can take, the stakes are even higher. The facts is that brain injuries can lead to serious mental illness, including depression, memory deficits, anxiety, personality changes, aggression, impulsivity, increased substance abuse, acting out, and even suicide. In addition, undiagnosed brain injuries may account for some learning disorders and other cognitive deficits. Some psychological problems have a physical basis or can be worsened by such an injury

The recent suicide of Junior Seau, NFL superstar, has brought this issue into the spotlight once again.  Let's talk about some facts regarding brain injuries, and how this increasingly alarming issue is being addressed by the NFL, the Military and high schools around the country. .

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), brain injury is defined as a disruption in the functioning of the brain. This disruption can be long-term or temporary, and can have effects that last anywhere from a few hours, to a lifetime of permanent impairment. The brain injury occurs when there is an injury, called an "insult" that is severe enough to impact the brain. This injury, sometimes referred to as a "Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)" differs from other types of brain injuries, such as stroke, tumors, infection, substance abuse, hypoxia or other illnesses.

Diagnosis of brain injuries can vary from a simple physical exam, to an MRI or other neurological testing and assessment. The most important thing to remember is, that while most falls and bumps on the head do not lead to a traumatic brain injury, early detection and treatment is a key to full recovery. When in doubt, get checked out!

Many psychologists are now being trained to assess injuries in sports and to make return to play recommendations. A trained health care professional is the most qualified person to conduct this evaluation, whether is be a physician trained in assessment of neurocognitive functioning, or a licensed psychologist.

Treatment for brain injuries, sometimes referred to as "Cognitive remediation" can range from simple reading and memory exercises to help the brain recover, to intensive cognitive therapy, and strategies to help memory and with daily activities, such as using a daily planner, making lists, using timers and visual cues, and using the computer to help keep track.

Recovery from a brain injury, traumatic or otherwise, is unique to each individual. This is based on a multitude of factors, such as location and severity of the injury, and the course of treatment and support are critical in the recovery and rehabilitation process. In many cases, especially in the case of violent crime, accidents and military trauma, the brain injury often overlaps with Post traumatic stress disorder, which can further worsen symptoms. This can also complicate the diagnostic and treatment course for both disorders.

Here is a small sampling of efforts to address brain injuries in various areas...

*Players are fined for head-to-head hits
*The NFL has committed to spending up to 100 million over the next 10 years in research into the long term impact of brain injuries
*Chronic traumatic encephalopathy has been found in players in post mortem studies of the brain.
*Helmet safety is being examined
*Review of the three-point stance

*The Brain Injury Association of Pennsylvania (BIAPA) has formed the BrainSTEPS program to ensure that children returning to school following a brain injury have the support and training they need
(the BrainSTEPS fact sheet can be found  here
*PA has introduced legislation which would require a player who has sustained a concussion or brain injury to not return to play unless cleared by a licensed health-care provider
*Trained licensed health care professionals, including psychologists, can make return-to-play decisions

*The military has stepped up efforts to detect and treat head injuries before soldiers return to combat
*Soldiers are screened to develop a baseline to compare against at points along their career to help detect brain injuries

If you have suffered a brain injury and are struggling, go to  your local doctor or emergency room. To help a loved one cope following an injury, ASK A PSYCHOLOGIST!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

5 Ways to Deal with Difficult People

Maybe you have someone in your life like this: That "friend" who always has to "outdo" you or put you down; The co-worker who always takes credit for your work; That cousin who calls and you feel exhausted when you get off the phone; or that parent who constantly makes comments about your spouse, your life choices, or your home. Research shows that we all need relationships and that good ones are good for our mental health. But what about those other people, the ones who, after a long conversation or day at work, leave you feeling depressed, depleted and drained?

We all have difficult people we encounter every day in our lives. Today's Counseling Corner will hopefully give you some tips and ideas to deal with these people and minimize their negative impact on your life.  There are many more than these 5, but it's a great start.

1. The first, most important thing to do when dealing with a difficult person, is to accept them for who they are.  Easier said than done, right? For sure. But if you can do this one simple, but extremely difficult step, it will improve your happiness, and decrease your frustration SIGNIFICANTLY.  Understanding that we cannot change people, and we can only be responsible for our own behavior, can change your life - for the better. Trying to change others into what you want them to be, will only make YOU a more difficult person to deal with.

2. See the best in others. If you focus on the negative, you will only see the negative in people. It's like the old saying "If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail". When you only see the negative, all of your interactions become focused on this aspect of the person. If you can see the positive, the person will be more appreciated, your relationship will become deeper and more meaningful, and the level of conflict will decrease.

3. Keep it simple, silly (KISS them!).  Keep conversations simple and neutral in topic. If you have that one uncle who always tries to bait you into a debate about politics or that friend who always talks about her personal problems and won't take any advice, change the subject to something more immediate, such as what they are doing for the weekend, or how their family is doing. Changing the pattern of communication can go a long way to making improvements in relationships.

4. Own your part of the negativity. Most relationships are created through a "dynamic" between two people. There's an old saying "It takes two" could not be more true. But don't beat yourself up, nobody is perfect and we can all find room for growth and improvement. Just be aware that when you own, and consequently change, your end of the dynamic, the other person may respond with increased negativity and try to push your limits.

5.  There is a Zen proverb that says "Let go or be dragged". There occasionally comes a time that you need some space, time or distance when relationships become too intense, draining or negative. If you can't be around the person without them baiting your or bullying you, it may be time to move on. It's perfectly fine to cut ties, and to let them know why without any expectation of understanding or change on their part. If this is your co-worker or supervisor, you may actually need to switch jobs. It's OK to move on and it's not a sign of any failure. 

These are just give quick tips for handing difficult relationships. Couples or family therapy can be a great way to gain assistance in changing relationships for the better. If you are having difficulty in your relationships, ASK A PSYCHOLOGIST!

Monday, April 23, 2012

That's it! I'm quitting Facebook!!

I have heard this statement time and time again: "That's it!! I am done with Facebook! As of so and such date, I will be deleting my profile." And so they disappear...only to reappear in days, or weeks after a much needed break.

As many faithful Counseling Corner followers know, I am an avid Social Networker. One MIGHT even say addicted. (But I won't admit to that!). Some ask me why I am so active and even laugh about my posts. My uncle recently told me that he doesn't read all the crap I post on Facebook. I actively maintain a Twitter account, THREE Facebook accounts (one personal, one professional page and I am an administrator of my work's page as well), LinkedIn, Google+, Counseling Corner, Pinterest, Etsy, and about 6 different email accounts (and I'm sure I'm forgetting something).  I'll bet you wonder if I even sleep....

I originally joined Facebook, reluctantly, in order to stay connected to family and friends across the world, many of whom are serving in the military. Facebook has been an invaluable tool to keep up with what is happening in their lives, as well as the lives of my children and, now, grandchildren. In the process, I have reconnected with many of my friends and acquaintances from school and have repeatedly had the world get smaller and smaller when I discovered that two of my (seemingly unrelated) friends know each other! And that's just plain fun. In my professional life, networking is just that, an opportunity to branch out, market myself, and maintain a public presence.

I am here to tell you how you can use Social Media to 1) stay in touch with family and friends, 2) express your individuality and creativity, 3) network and market your (business, jewelry, Blog, etc), 4) have a great time and laugh every day.  All this? Yes, and even learn how to manage your time so that you can still actually have a life.  Do you need to cancel your Facebook and denounce Twitter? No.  Do you need to have a simple strategy and some self control?  Absolutely.  Read on....

1. Social media is a choice. Plain and simple. If you don't want to use it, don't.  You will experience peer pressure and ridicule (just kidding), but you have the right to say no. It's a personal decision.  Additionally, your level of involvement is also your own choice. People tell me all the time they are keeping up with me on Facebook, and I never see them post a thing.  You can have as many, or as few, connections as you'd like.

2.  It is increasingly important to learn about what you are using. So many people become frustrated when they feel that Facebook is invading their privacy.  Simple knowledge about privacy settings can make all the difference.  I have heard people say "Facebook posted this and such.".  SOCIAL NETWORKING, people. It's the whole point. Educate yourself about privacy settings and how to protect your photos, and personal information.  

3. Set aside time each day to check your accounts. So many of us hit that refresh button every 3 minutes to see if any new emails came in, or if there are any new posts. This type of thing can be the biggest time killer and each time you change your focus to check, you have lost several minutes of productivity. To easily train yourself, you will have to have discipline at first. As silly as it sounds, develop a strategy and plan. (for example, I will only check Facebook at lunch one time, and not for the rest of the work day. Or, set a timer for yourself with regard to checking email, one per hour, or some other scheduled time frame).  You will be shocked at how easy it is and how rewarded you will feel.

4. Turn off the computer (What? Did I just say that? yes, STEP AWAY FROM THAT MOUSE!). Decide each day what scheduled time you will spend online. And then, TURN IT OFF.  This will allow you to spend some actual face to face time with your family and friends. Go have a life that you can post on your status or tweet about tomorrow.

5.  If you are feeling burned out on social media, it's perfectly fine to take a break. Sometimes we become very enmeshed in what is happening in our online world, and its inevitable that drama will ensue.  Just "click and close". It will be there tomorrow, next week or next month when you come back.  I occasionally find that I am awake at 3am checking email. If you do this, the answer is simple: Keep your phone out of reach of the bed. Sleep is important, folks.

6.  Along the same lines as 5. above, do not play out personal issues or drama on social media. Many folks post every personal argument and issue they have with their family and friends.  These generally become the people who make the statement that is the title of this Blog. Keep your personal business, well, personal. In fact, if you MUST post personal things, there are ways to designate a core group to share those issues with (if you want to know how, ask me). Your coworkers and boss don't need to know about the fight you had with Sally last night at the club.

7. People who post on Facebook or Twitter can be extremely negative, or totally positive about everything. Some people say they feel bad about their own lives because everyone on Facebook is so awesome, beautiful, blessed and happy.  Keep in mind that out of 24 hours, people post ONE THING that happened that day. I am always glad to see people happy and posting positive things.  That does not mean they don't have the same troubles and concerns that we all have. They just don't dwell on them.... Good for them.

8. Keep it in perspective. There are much more important things in life than Social Networking. Family, Friends, Pets and actually getting outside in the sunshine from time to time. The Internet and all sites are there are out entertainment and networking. Don't forget to live.

9. Finally, use responsibly. Remember, what goes on the Internet stays there. More and more, prospective employers, and even colleges are using Google to find out about you. Go ahead, open a new browser window and Google yourself. You may be surprised. You can't take it back once it's out there. Be cautious but not paranoid. It can be a good thing if you use it correctly. 

As always, I am happy to be able to provide this valuable information to you.  If you are having difficulty with moderation, or with any of life's challenges, there is help available.  ASK A PSYCHOLOGIST!!

Like this blog? Check out some of my others...


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