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September 9, 2020

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Flowing Through COVID-19: Reflections on Summertime at PQ

By Andrea Sussel, MSS, LCSW

WORKING IN THE HAWAIIAN HEAT wearing a mask during a pandemic requires internal cool. We’re all facing a scary reality that requires a fresh perspective. Are you, like so many, finding it challenging to keep your internal cool these days and flow with life’s challenges? Fear can be a barrier to experiencing flow. What interrupts your flow? Do your fears take you out of the present and take you into catastrophic thinking?

Here’s a little Zen story to illustrate this common habit: A monk returned to her modest hut to find a snake coiled on her bed. She felt panic and intense aversion. Next, her mind raced to the future to plan her escape! But then the light shown through the window and she saw the snake was not a snake at all, but merely a rope, and so the illusion was unmasked. How often does this happen to you?

As the well known Zen teacher A.H. Almaas so wisely offered: “To contact the deeper truth of who we are, we must engage in some activity or practice that questions what we assume to be true.” You may ask yourself: Am I sure my fear is serving me well or is even true? Can I face this challenge and see the situation with more clarity and return to my ‘flow?’

Life has been pretty great at PQ since we re-opened, and I attribute this, in part, to what positive psychology calls ‘a flow state’, or ‘being in the zone’. This is the mental state in which a person performing some activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. Essentially, when we are in a flow state, time transforms or flows, as a result of this full absorption into the present moment.

At PQ we frequently notice that our students ‘future trip’ or ‘past trip’ and so we encourage them to return to the present moment. Yes, we do plan for the future and address unfinished business from the past, but we do this with present moment awareness without the distractions of technology or a chaotic home situation.

Come join me in the present moment. Do you feel like playing today? Sand play therapy is one of my choices to help nurture this feeling of flow through ‘play’. One recent student was a perfect example of being ‘in the flow’ as she worked in the sand non-stop for 45 minutes, shocked at the passage of time and the ‘art in the tray’ she so proudly created. Sand play can help students come out of their heads into their hearts and bodies, and to drop deeper into present moment feelings in a safe and protected space.

PQ does a fabulous job of providing a protected space for young people to ask these important questions. The benefit to my students and their families of staying in my ‘flow’ is that they can experience their PQ therapist as safe, centered and present.

Students and their families are safe to challenge assumptions, face fears and learn how it feels to land wholly in the wonderful present moments of their lives. Here they can experience the well being that comes with ‘flow.’

March 18, 2019

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Life Happens FOR You, Not TO You

Getting a student into wilderness therapy requires the effort of many dedicated and committed people. By the time students reach Pacific Quest, they’re in deep, open to at least giving it a try…until they don’t. Uncertainty and fear arise, and then questions emerge like, “Where will this journey lead me,” and the externalization we so often witness in the form of “Why are my parents doing this to me?”

This generation of student consistently shows up with applications to PQ that read, “I am depressed and anxious.” Why is this? Is it the environmental uncertainty, the current instability of our political system, combined with the gun violence in schools and messages they heard as children like, “you can be anything you want to be” until they find that they need to struggle much harder than they thought would be required while trying to flourish in a college setting without the support system grounded in their parents’ involvement?

The notion that “Life is happening for you, not to you” is a powerful reframe that can shift the sense of failure, and the fear of uncertainty to excitement and then hope.

Lately I’ve been running a group built around this topic of uncertainty and the theme of life is happening for you, not to you. I talk about the Yale University study (https://qz.com/1343503/a-new-study-from-yale-scientists-shows-how-uncertainty-helps-us-learn/) that says that the brain benefits from volatility and that uncertainty switches on the learning parts of our brain.

When I teach this to our students they experience a shift in perspective. Maybe this “not knowing” is a good thing, maybe I’m not failing or screwed up forever. Maybe I don’t have to complete college in four years. Maybe I just need to learn more skills to make it work out there. The shame falls away and the possibility that I am right where I need to be emerges. A significant shift occurs as the student moves from victim-hood to sovereignty.

I don’t know about you, but most of the really juicy changes in my life have not been planned, rather they emerged from my courage to embrace uncertainty and follow my heart, trusting that if I stay healthy, and do the right things and show up with kindness and compassion towards myself and others that great things will happen, and they have.

Students at PQ and their families step into uncertainty when they enroll with us, and it takes a collective effort to hold the uncertainty with confidence that what we do works, and it does. They begin to build small positive experiences that reinforce a belief in their personal agency, defined as the ability to set ones own course, and to be effective at reaching ones own goals in life. Stepping into the uncertainty, the mystery of life brings expansion of consciousness and disrupts old neurological pathways.  And as a student recently shared with me, “If you can’t get out, get in,” that’s when the magic begins to happen. 

February 20, 2017

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Eating Disorder Treatment: A Different Approach at PQ

By: Andrea Sussel, MSS, LCSW

It’s time to talk about it

Eating Disorder Treatment: A Different Approach From Traditional Models | Pacific Quest

Andrea Sussel, MSS, LCSW

The National Eating Disorders Association has created National Eating Disorders Awareness (#NEDAwareness) Week to shine the spotlight on eating disorders and put life-saving resources into the hands of those in need. This year’s theme is It’s Time to Talk About It. Andrea Sussel, PQ Therapist, shares how we can make that happen without doing further harm.

Eating disorders, food and body image are not easy things to discuss. Conversations can be riddled with unintended triggers, for example, I have heard from many people who are in recovery say that when someone tells me I look “healthy” they instead hear “you look fat”. So how do we discuss these issues without contributing to the struggles of another?

  1. Focus on what our bodies can DO and how they FEEL, not on how they LOOK.
    Because our approach is one of whole-person wellness, students can begin to focus on what their bodies need and how their bodies feel versus how they look. While this is occurring, we are simultaneously providing a lot of education – including lots of research – about whole-body, whole-person wellness. From a programmatic perspective, shifting this focus includes de-emphasize mirror gazing (at PQ we have very few to begin with) and also having students wear clothes that are loose fitting and uniform.
  2. Remember that exercise and movement is for our physical and mental health, not for weight loss.
    Experiencing what are bodies can do, and moving them shamelessly is an essential part of healing from an eating disorder. At PQ, we educate our students about metabolism and how food as fuel translates into a greater capacity to live our lives with more vibrant energy. Movement takes the form of working in the garden, yoga, swimming, weekend hikes, and daily core workouts. It takes reinforcement to rewire the societal messages that tell us to exercise to control weight. At Pacific Quest, we move for a higher quality existence, one that helps us feel more connected to our bodies and our passions.
  3. Speak up when we hear “Fat Talk”, don’t let it go unaddressed.
    Pacific Quest is a Fat Talk free zone. Having appropriate boundaries about what we can and can’t talk about helps not only break the pattern of negative self talk, but gives space to encourage new and healthier patterns to emerge. PQ is also “lookism free”. Lookism is defined as a “construction of a standard for beauty and attractiveness, and judgments made about people on the basis of how well or poorly they meet the standard.” At Pacific Quest, you can be healthy at any size. We don’t subscribe to one “look” being beautiful – all looks, shapes, and sizes are!
  4. Remember, food is medicine.
    Sometimes what isn’t being said is just as important as what is. Getting involved in food preparation can be a healing activity, as individuals start to rebuild their relationship with food. And at Pacific Quest, growing your own food is akin to teaching someone how to fish; learning and beginning to appreciate that entire developmental process can lead to lifelong shifts in understanding and healing. Students have the opportunity to learn about their own relationship with/to food as well as the relationship with their body. The place where these two relationships overlap is in the garden, making Horticultural Therapy a powerful therapeutic modality. There is also a lot of healing that comes from preparing your own food in a community setting. Because Pacific Quest is not a primary eating disorder program, students with eating disorder patterns are able to observe and “rise to” the normative eating habits of the rest of the group.

The Pacific Quest model imparts skills to make progress and healing sustainable for eating disorder recovery for a lifetime: You learn how to truly feed all your hungers at Pacific Quest.

September 22, 2016

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Art and Sandplay Therapy Training Series

By: Andrea Sussel, MSS, LCSW
Primary Therapist

Art and Sandplay Therapy Training Series - Pacific Quest: Wilderness Therapy for Teens & Young Adults

Nine members of the Pacific Quest team completed a 10-month long experiential art and sandplay therapy training lead by PQ Clinical Director, Dr. Lorraine Freedle. Sandplay is a non-verbal, depth-oriented, multi-sensory therapy wherein students use symbols and sand to express and work through their inner experiences. Sandplay rooms are available in both our adolescent and young adult programs. As a primary therapist in the young adult program, I have found this to be especially helpful at various points in treatment with students who are dysregulated and struggling with overwhelmingly difficult emotions. The therapeutic benefits begin as soon as we walk into the room lined with ceiling to floor shelves filled with objects, each of which contain symbolic meaning and energy. Students are incredibly drawn to the collection and it immediately stimulates dialogue, curiosity and expression. Students with trauma sometimes find this form of therapy provides them with a safe way to access and express memories through art, process the experience, and rejoin the world of others.

A Shared Journey

Lorraine held a space for each member of our group to learn concepts and to have a personal journey of healing through a variety of art mediums from pastels, to finger painting, to clay, to creating a “wholeness” project with collage materials. We began each session by making a group sand tray by choosing a personal object from among thousands on the shelves. Together, we created a safe space to go deep, heal and connect in an academically rich, learning experience that was indeed transformative. The experience prepared us to skillfully guide our PQ students on their unique journey.

In our final class, Lorraine prepared a slide show for each of us combining images from our process with her great insights. It felt profound to pause and witness each individual’s transformation in symbolic form.

Personal Reflections

As a Certified Gestalt Therapist, this training will live inside me in perfect harmony with my pre-existing “permission to be creative”, awareness of the here and now, and listening deeply to what emerges in my thoughts, feelings and messages from my body. The entire group expressed heartfelt appreciation for this unique experience to learn about ourselves first, so that we can serve our students well, as they travel their hero’s journey.

Art and Sandplay Therapy at PQ

We offer art and sandplay therapy to our students for many reasons: it’s fun and requires no artistic ability, it transcends verbal communication, and it is multidimensional, allowing for many processes from different levels in the brain and psyche to occur simultaneously. Art therapy is integrative, addressing emotional, cognitive, motor and sensory experiences happening in the here and now. It integrates right and left-brain functions, conscious and unconscious, past and present. And, it facilitates communication through processing what has been created, easing the discomfort that some experience from sharing purely emotional material.

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