Human Trafficking: Are you helping or hurting?

In September, the American Association of Christian Counselors held their 2015 World Conference in Nashville, Tennessee. I had the privilege of attending over a dozen of the approximately 200 sessions, and I was blown away by the amount of quality information presented! Over the next few weeks, I’d like to shed light on a few of those topics. For this post, I’d like to share some reflections on the human trafficking research that Jennie Brightup, MS, LCMFT (of Bright Hope Therapy, LLC) has been working hard to present and apply to the world of counseling.

Human trafficking is modern day slavery. Every day, people in the United States and across the world are being recruited, sold, or harbored by force, fraud, and coercion so that they can be used for labor, service and/or sex. I think it is important to emphasize that human trafficking includes both labor and sex, especially since counselors in some states are mandated to report all types of suspected human trafficking. Examples of human trafficking can include: pornography, prostitution, sex tourism, forced marriage, sweatshop work, begging, migrant farming, domestic servitude, janitorial services, strip club dancing, hair and nail salons, and debt bondage. In case you need to be convinced that human trafficking is a serious issue, consider these statistics:

  • The International Labour Organization estimates that there are 20.9 million victims of human trafficking worldwide. 5.5 million of those are children. 14.2 million of those are victims of labor exploitation.
  • In 2014, the International Labor Organization estimated that forced labor generates $150 billion in profits a year worldwide.
  • In 2014, an estimated 1 out of 6 endangered runaways reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children were likely child sex trafficking victims. Of those, 68 percent were in the care of social services or foster care when they ran.
  • The average victim of human trafficking only lives 7 years as a victim because they are often used to death.

Do you enable slavery? I bet you do and don’t even know it.

  • Start by visiting the Slavery Footprint website, take the quiz, and see how many people are in slavery to support your lifestyle. (I was surprised and saddened by my score.)
  • And remember, if you watch pornography or pay for sex, you are directly investing your resources into one of the largest businesses within the human trafficking industry.

Do you want to be a part of the solution? I bet you do.

  • Start by recognizing that many of the things you purchase probably feed into a slavery-reliant supply chain. By shifting your consumerism, you can support organizations which have taken a stand against human trafficking.
  • Save and share the phone number for the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline (888-373-7888). Call this number to report tips or get help.
  • Support the quest of Made In a Free World by sending emails to your favorite companies to encourage them to consider their slavery footprint.
  • Support organizations that combat human trafficking. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel! Check out some of these local organizations which are already fighting the fight:
  • Send letters to urge Congress to pass legislation to crack down on those who have made human trafficking a multi-billion dollar industry rather than punishing victims. In PA, House Bill 262 has gotten attention for its potential to help human trafficking victims in Western Pennsylvania.
  • Recognize these signs of human trafficking. If you see someone dealing with questionable work/living conditions, poor health, and lack of control, consider making a tip by calling the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline (888-373-7888) or by texting INFO or HELP to: BeFree (233733).
  • Change your language. Recognize that labels like “hooker” and “prostitute” keep human trafficking victims in a scapegoat position. In fact, some states are already changing legislation to help human trafficking victims find freedom while enforcing harsher penalties on consumers of sex trafficking.
  • Tell your friends what you’re learning! Ignorance will keep the human trafficking industry thriving, but educating yourself and others will be fundamentally important in this fight.

Please realize that human trafficking is something that happens right here in Western Pennsylvania. What is one thing you will do today to fight for the people trapped in slavery?

Brightup, J. (2015, September 25). Human Trafficking. Lecture presented at AACC 2015 World Conference in Gaylord Opryland, Nashville.

Bringing Down the Walls

“It’s like I’m talking to a wall!” Perhaps you’ve said this after a conversation you’ve had with someone you love. Perhaps it’s something others have said about you. It’s one of the most common communication complaints, and the wall may continue to grow if we aren’t proactively assessing what’s going on.

When you think about “bringing down walls,” you may envision a demolition site— a scene with a giant wrecking ball ready to destroy everything in its path. In reality, bringing down emotional walls is more like working at an archaeological site— a quieter, more organized scene with the goal of preserving what has been hidden. You’ll need a plan, the right tools, and most importantly a gentle approach. You’ll need to proceed with caution, carefully distinguishing trash from the important artifacts which can shed light on important past events.

The Walls: Mine, Yours, and Ours

brick wallMine. We started building our walls a long time ago to protect ourselves from the things that hurt the most. At the time, our walls protected us from pain, but now they may also be barriers to intimacy. If you are interested in bringing down your walls, you can start now!

  1. Figure out what it looks like when your walls go up. [Do I shut down? Get angry? Walk away and avoid talking about it?]
  2. Figure out your triggers. [Being yelled at? Being ignored? Feeling out of control?]
  3. Consider when you learned to build the walls. [Is there trauma in my past? Do I have a history of abuse? Did someone teach me that being vulnerable is a weakness?]

Individual counseling can be a wonderful place to explore these patterns and past experiences. Learning about your triggers can open you to learning new ways to respond in wisdom. Once we know more about ourselves, we can determine which relationships are safe enough to practice bringing down these walls.

Yours. We can neither force others to bring down their walls nor control whether they choose to respond in healthier ways. However, there are things we can do to foster safety and vulnerability which may encourage our significant others to bring down their walls. It is not helpful to use triggers to manipulate or control a situation, but knowing motives and past patterns can be empowering. Once your spouse has shared his/her triggers and willingness to try to respond differently, be sensitive. These kinds of changes do not happen overnight. If you are with a woman who is triggered by feeling ignored, consider planning to have serious conversations in a room without a television or other distractions. If you are with a man who is triggered by feeling patronized, consider choosing respectful language and using reflective listening techniques. We are each responsible for our own reactions to triggers, but it sure is helpful to have grace and support in the process! James 1:19 reminds us that, “everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry,” and I think these things are particularly important when another person is practicing genuine vulnerability. Remember to be like an archaeologist, not a wrecking ball.

Ours. Ultimately, bringing down the walls in a relationship depends on truth, safety, vulnerability, grace, and unity. When we feel safe in our relationships, we can be unified in truth and grace. Reflective listening is a wonderful way to listen, share, and connect. Couples counseling can be a safe place for both of you to share your discoveries, be heard, and establish new patterns!

In my past discussion on forgiveness, I shared that strict boundaries can be necessary at times (especially to protect from abuse, addiction, etc.). Although this blog post is intended to encourage people to bring down some of their walls, I encourage you to speak with your counselor about what is best for your situation.

Trauma Lessons (from the Dog)

Those of you who have spent time with puppies know how mischievous they can be. My Labrador is certainly no exception! She would chew on anything that fit in her mouth and try to befriend every living thing she saw.

dishwasherAs you can see in the picture, one of her favorite hobbies was to interrupt my chores by dropping her toys into the dishwasher and licking the plates as I loaded them onto the racks (don’t worry, she was never interested in the clean dishes).

One evening as she was sneaking her head into the dishwasher while my back was turned, her collar and ID tags got caught on the bottom rack. Imagine her surprise when, as she tried to pull away from the dishwasher, the entire bottom rack, dishes, and silverware moved with her! In her panic she tried running backwards, and all of those dirty dishes were scattered between the kitchen and living room. What started out as fear in my heart (there were knives on that rack!) quickly turned to giggles as I realized how silly the 30 second battle had been. But then I saw my sweet puppy’s face as she cowered on the couch, afraid to put a paw on the ground anywhere near the cruel dishes. In true counselor fashion, I left the mess exactly where it was and went to comfort my pup. She squeezed her 50-pound body onto my lap and tried to hide from what terrified her.

The dishwasher has broken since then and I’ve resorted to washing things by hand, but to this day our dog wants nothing to do with dirty dishes. That change certainly helps me finish the chore more quickly, but it also reminds me of the lasting impacts of trauma. You’ve probably not been scarred by having your ID tags become stuck on a dishwasher rack, but we have all experienced something that causes our brains to produce a stress response. It can be helpful to consider some effects of the trauma we have experienced:

  1. We miss out on things we used to enjoy. When I do dishes these days, my dog no longer brings me toys to throw. She doesn’t get to try to sneak samples of what we ate for dinner. She is missing out on the play and exploration that used to bring her a lot of joy. Odds are, trauma in your life has led you to miss out on activities and experiences that would have brought you great pleasure. Perhaps you’ve quit playing a sport, stopped going to church, or avoided certain places. It can bring sadness to consider all the things we’ve missed!
  2. We miss out on intimacy. Instead of spending time with me in the kitchen while I do dishes, our dog now goes and sits in another room, waiting silently (which says a lot for a 1 year old lab) for the task to be finished. In addition to missing out on the activity, she is missing out on time with someone she really loves. Similarly, people bond through activity and conversation. If trauma has led you to avoid things you used to enjoy, you’re probably missing out on the folks associated with those things, too. Not only have you missed out on the activity, but you’ve also missed out on the connections, community, and interpersonal intimacy that go along with it.
  3. We overgeneralize the fear. Our dog still pauses when she hears plates and silverware rattle together, so she typically goes into a cautious state when I’m putting away clean dishes or reorganizing cupboards (you know, the GladWare cupboard that almost never looks the way it does in the commercials). What started as fear from one experience of getting her collar stuck has turned into a generalized fear response when she even hears the words, “I’m going to do the dishes.” Human brains are obviously more advanced than a dog’s, but the basic stress response is similar: our brains send signals throughout our bodies which prepare us (to fight, flee, or freeze) against the perceived enemy. Sadly, the same anxiety that leads us to miss out on things we loved and people we could grow closer to can also lead us to miss out on new experiences and connections.
  4. We lack confidence/power. My dog could obviously do a lot of damage if she really wanted to. She could break plates, chew on silverware, conquer what traumatized her. But her brain’s response has sent her a different message: she is small, and the scary dishwasher is powerful and dangerous. Similarly, when we are experiencing heightened anxiety, we may start to believe the lies that the perceived enemy is too big and too powerful while we are too small and too powerless.
  5. There is hope! As much as I love doing the dishes in peace, it is good for my dog if I give her a frozen treat to enjoy in the kitchen while I do the dishes. That way, she is able to engage in a safe way, and her brain will start to associate happy things with rattling dishes and silverware. Even if she never sticks her head in a dishwasher again, she can still experience love and safety in a context which used to bring fear and stress. The truth is, we do have power to influence many situations around us; there are things we can do to relax and allow ourselves to experience the things that trauma has convinced us to avoid. Sometimes that means including a safe person, setting new boundaries, or changing the way we think about certain situations.

As you think of a trauma in your past, what have you missed out on? What are some things you can do to empower yourself against the fear that the past traumas have created in your mind? Do you have a trusted friend, counselor, or mentor who can walk with you through that process?

Menopause

Many people have questions about menopauseWhen will it start? What is normal? Does it feel like this for everyone? What can I do about it? How can I support someone going through it?

In honor of the women who have asked these questions, here’s a blog to get the conversation started! Although the information below won’t answer all of your questions, it could be a great place to start. As you read through the information, I encourage you to make a list of questions for your doctors, counselor, spouse, and trusted friends. You aren’t alone!

Three Stages of Menopause

Perimenopause

This time may start years before your final menstrual period and is the result of changing levels of ovarian hormones in your body. Although it is still possible to get pregnant during this stage, it only happens rarely. Estrogen levels decline unevenly, so they are virtually impossible to predict or measure to determine exactly when the second stage will occur.Common symptoms for this stage include: irregular menstrual periods, hot flashes, vaginal dryness, sleep disturbances and mood swings.

Natural Menopause

This is the natural (not caused by any medical intervention) and permanent ending of menstruation. Women often experience menopause around the same age as their mothers and sisters. Smokers may reach menopause about two years earlier than nonsmokers. No clear connection has been found between age at menopause and race, age at first period or use of birth control pills or fertility medications. This stage has occurred as early as in a woman’s 30s and as late as in a woman’s 60s. The average age of onset for the second stage in American women is 51. That leaves a lot of life after menopause! Common symptoms for this stage include symptoms above, sometimes more intense.

Postmenopause

Postmenopause is the time after menopause, which is typically about a third of a woman’s life. It is possible to live a sexually-fulfilled, emotionally-stable life after menopause, but some interventions may be needed (counseling, medication, etc.) Some menopause-related symptoms (such as vaginal dryness and hot flashes) may still occur because your body is only making a small amount of estrogen. In this time, your risk increases for diseases associated with low estrogen levels, including osteoporosis.

How might menopause affect a woman?

  • [Depression/Anxiety] Some women will experience sleep disturbances, mood swings, and other symptoms that mimic depression and/or anxiety. There are also hormonal changes which can be addressed with a variety of depression/anxiety treatments.
  • [Sexual Dissatisfaction] Many women will experience vaginal dryness, decreased libido, painful intercourse, and other symptoms which may lead to sexual dissatisfaction. Luckily, there are options you can discuss with your doctors and counselors, including medications, creams, and sex therapy approaches.
  • [Grief] The 5 stages of grief include Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. In the midst of many physical changes, many women will experience grief associated with their perceived loss of maternal identity and old self. It is normal to experience a variety of emotions, but it is important to deal with them in a way that is healthy for you and your relationships.
  • [Phase of Life Stress] is compounded. Someone going through menopause may also be experiencing retirement, an empty nest, and other life changes that occur around the same time in life. Dealing with all of the fluctuating variables at the same time can feel overwhelming. I encourage you to get support, make time for good friends, and be honest with your doctors.

Even though there are struggles associated with menopause, everyone’s journey will be different. Your physical, psychological, and spiritual resources can help you to develop a plan including things like self-care, medical treatments, and lifestyle changes. Consider tracking your experiences to share information with your doctor. You’ll get through this– you aren’t alone!

Reflective Listening

Reflective listening is an important part of communication, especially when spouses are discussing emotions or conflict. If you are craving positive changes in your communication, start the journey by putting effort into becoming a better listener. This type of listening requires two levels of skill: intentional listening combined with intentional responding.

First, genuinely hear what the other person is saying through verbal and nonverbal exchange. A person’s words, tones, and volumes can say a lot, but that same person is simultaneously sending messages through body language, eye contact, and gestures. Remember, a good listener does not interrupt the speaker.

Second, choose to respond in ways which communicate that you have respectfully listened to the speaker. Those responses start as soon as the speaker begins; you show that you are listening by looking at the speaker and positioning your body so that the speaker has your full attention. You can also respond with words to show that you have heard the speaker.

Try using paraphrasing statements. You’ll be acting as a mirror, reflecting back what you have heard by using statements like:

  • I hear you saying that…
  • It sounds like you are feeling…
  • I get the impression that…

Try to learn more by using clarifying statements/questions such as:

  • Can you clarify what you meant about…
  • I’d like to hear more about your view on…
  • Would you please share an example of…
  • What was that experience like for you?
  • What are you feeling about that?

The key is this: wait to share your own thoughts, feelings, and experiences until it is your turn. Once the first speaker feels heard and understood, that person will be more likely to hear what you are about to say. Couples counseling is a great place to practice reflective listening with your spouse because you’ve got someone who can objectively walk you through the process.

At home, start by practicing these skills during less intense moments (such as when your spouse is telling you about a trip to the grocery store), then practice during moderately emotional moments (when your spouse is telling you about a stressful experience. Ultimately, reflective listening is one important part of healthy conflict resolution with your spouse. Here are some extra things to keep in mind:

Gottman Skills