Cara Boileau is a graduate student at UCF, pursuing her master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling. She is passionate about reducing the stigma surrounding mental illness, and recognizing that trauma affects everyone (directly or indirectly). Cara’s goal is to promote advocacy and education on mental health from a holistic and integrative approach. Cara, say hello and introduce yourself! Tell us how you come to the path of becoming a mental health counselor.
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Misti: I absolutley am a HUGE advocate for toxic positivity. I know this was a subject you wanted to discussand I am very grateful for that. Can you explain to everyone what toxic positivity is, how it can affect an individual, and what we can do to collectively combat this epidemic?
Cara: Yeah, absolutely! Dr. Jaime Zuckerman describes toxic positivity as “the assumption, either by one’s self or others, that despite a person’s emotional pain or difficult situation, they should only have a positive mindset’”; think of the phrase “positive vibes.” We are being inundated with “motivational” Instagram posts, “inspirational” memes and platitudes are being thrown our way as a means toencourage us to move away from our pain. When we are forced or expected to focus on the positive, we are robbed of the opportunity to have the full experience of human emotion.
Toxic positivity invalidates, minimizes and denies what are perceived as negative emotions (anxiety, fear, loneliness, sadness, anger).
So, why does this matter?
When we cut off and dissociate from these emotions, we stop listening to valuable information our bodies are telling us. Fear warns us of perceived danger. Anxiety tells us that we care. Anger is rooted in experiencing injustice. Insteadof being able to tap into this awareness, we begin to feel secondary emotions, like shame or guilt, which are far more “toxic” and harmful. What we are left with is a group of people who feel depressed, anxious and unworthy.
As most of us would agree, this year has been truly trying- mentally, emotionally, financially, etc. It is important to recognize these challenges and move through them, rather than suppress them or numb them away. Avoidance only makes pain last longer. What we can do to combat this epidemic of toxic positivity is really look at the language we are using and start there. By shifting the phrases we use, we are inviting the full range of emotions to show up.
What do I mean by that?
Consider the following toxic phrases:
“Just don’t worry about it! Stay positive!”
“It could be worse..”
Or my least favorite: “Everything happens for a reason.”
These types of statements say, “You are too much. You don’t deserve to feel this way. This pain you feel is actually a blessing in disguise, why are you complaining?”
As uncomfortable as it can be to hear that someone you care about being in pain, the best thing you can do for them is to sit with them in that space of hurt. Give them permission to feel. Say “I am here for you. I see you. This is hard. How can I offer support?” We need to strive for empathy instead of sympathy.
It’s important that we allow ourselves and others to express our emotions so that they do not turn inward and become trapped in the body, which creates dis-ease, manifesting in other areas of our life.
Amber: Living with chronic illness comes with an immense amount of stressors. Given that those suffering from chronic illness are at a significantly higher risk of struggling with things like anxiety, depression, adjustment disorders, etc., compared to those living without chronic illness, how important do you think Cognative Behavioral Therapy is with chronic illness management, and do you see it as another possible tool to add to one’s chronic illness management toolbox?
Cara: Cognitive behavioral therapy is a fantastic tool to address the connection between thoughts, feelings and behaviors. It is one of the most widely researched theoretical orientations used by counselor and is favored by insurance companies. If the individual has a negative perspective about their illness or life that is keeping them from functioning optimally, then we would definitely want to address that. That being said, it is my opinion that there are times CBT may not be the best fit for individuals with chronic illness because CBT aims to create congruency between thoughts, feelings and behaviors and to address cognitive distortions such as mind reading, catastrophizing, and all-or-nothing thinking. For example, grief is rooted in pain surrounding loss. That makes sense, we don’t want to challenge that. In some cases, a more appropriate manner of approaching therapy for chronic illness (decrease symptoms of anxiety and depression, but to also help reduce pain) may be mindfulness-based stress reduction or acceptance and commitment therapy. Both of thesemodalities will invite the individual to be present with their discomfort, to notice it without engaging it, and allow an emotional tolerance to be built, which often correlates with a reduction in physical pain. There comes a point when medication may not be an option or it is not working anymore, therapy absolutely can reduce pain.
When we look at wellness there are 5 domains: Physical/physiological, mental/psychological, social/relational, spiritual (belief-system), professional/vocational
Counseling offers the ability to attend to the mental and psychological wellness, which can indirectly help the other areas of one’s health.
Misti: I would love to discus grief; not only for those with chronic illness but for those without as well. I personally know many people recently who have lost a loved one. I would love to learn a few coping skills for losing a loved one. I also would love to discuss how grieving applies to chronic illness, such as grieving the life you once had, or the life you could have had, and a wellness plan to cope.
Cara: Absolutely, I think this topic is especially important to address during the pandemic, where individuals are not only experiencing the heartbreaking loss of a loved one, but many are also facing loss in other ways, like losing the future they had once envisioned for themselves. There’s a woman named Pauline Boss who coined the term “ambiguous loss” in the 1970’s. Ambiguous loss is essentially any loss that occurs without closure or clear understanding. This kind of loss leaves a person searching for answers, and thus complicates and delays the process of grieving, and often results in unresolved grief.
Many are familiar with the Kubler-Ross grief cycle of: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I’d like to mention a sixth component that my mentor shared with me recently known as “making meaning.” There are several ways this can be done: 1. Finding or creating a sense of understanding about the loss.2. Thinking of benefits and establishing meaning by emphasizing any positives resulting from the loss (Ex. Resiliency, empathy, and insight)3. Identity change, where one is able to reconstruct themselves
It’s important to note that while one is working through this process of meaning making that the individual still attends to the emotional attachment of their loss and explores that connection in effort to regularly take inventory of any positive or healing pieces of the grief process.
Ideally, we will move through the pain and as we move forward we will be able to create a positive narrative to shape the way we interact with our loss that helps us find a sense of purpose.
I highly recommend anyone who is experiencing loss of any form, whether that be through death, the loss of a relationship, losing one’s identity through job loss or illness, to find a support group. Grief is a very isolating place and not having support from those who can share that experience or truly understand can make the ability to overcome the loss very challenging. It’s like walking around with a devastating wound that no one can see and therefore you are expected to function at the level of everyone else around you. Support groups allow those with loss to be validated, seen and heard in a safe nonjudgmental way.
Also, as an aside, it feels worthy to mention that anyone who isn’t experiencing a loss but knows someone who is: please don’t engage with the toxic positive talk when trying to uplift the spirits of those you care about. The best thing you can do is ask, “How can I support you? What do you need right now?” That may mean bringing over a cooked meal or sitting with the individual allowing them to process these difficult feelings without being given advice. Even if we have experienced the same type of loss, we haven’t experienced the same loss and we are in no position to fix the other person. This person is trying to understand their loss and you can help them feel understood by being present.
Amber: How can others find you and follow your wellness tips and education on mental health?
Cara: I have just created a page on Instagram @mindfully.well, where I share wellness tips and education on a variety of mental health topics. It’s still in its infancy, so I appreciate the support as I grow myself professionally in this field.
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