Establishing a Bright Future through Therapy

What do hanging off a rock cliff, hiking in the Canadian Rockies, building trail in Glacier National Park, and floating in your PFD in a cold mountain river all have in common? For one thing, they are all exciting, outdoor adventures. They are also all activities that the girls at Chrysalis will have an opportunity to engage in this summer. And for another thing, each activity offers abundant opportunities for girls to explore and define who they are, a process psychologists call identity formation. Dr. Seth Schwartz, Associate Professor at the University of Miami, maintains that adolescence is a time for young people to explore their values, beliefs and goals, and make some decisions about who they want to be, and what they want to do in the world. What if a young person is suffering depression or anxiety? What if they feel hopeless about their future, and are unaware of, or deny the existence of their own strengths? What if they think the world is a scary and unpredictable place, and they don’t trust themselves or anyone else for that matter? What if the process of identity formation has come to a screeching halt because of unhealthy patterns?

All therapists at Chrysalis offer some form of cognitive behavioral therapy: teasing out negative, distorted cognitions a girl may hold about herself, other people and the world. Examples of this are “I am worthless” “I’m not lovable”, “No one understands me or my feelings,” “It’s not okay to have my feelings” or “Things are never going to get better.” These negative beliefs often function as the lens through which a young person views his or her world, and they are often associated with unhealthy or destructive behavior patterns. In our experience, there are almost always negative scripts that underlie “acting out” behaviors such as defiance and school refusal or “acting-in” behaviors such as depression. Once this negative “self-talk” has been identified, girls are led through a process of challenging irrational beliefs and replacing them with more accurate beliefs about themselves, other people and their world. Some writers call this “untwisting” the “twisted thinking”. This process becomes all the more effective, when girls are repeatedly placed in new situations that offer powerful evidence that their negative beliefs are false, outdated, and do not reflect who they are, or who they are becoming. Old beliefs such as “I’m a failure” or “I’m not good enough” give way to more positive beliefs such as “I am capable” “I am strong” “I am a good person” and “I can accomplish my goals.” When cognitive therapy works in concert with activities that provide young people the chance to see themselves differently, change can occur rapidly.

Here are a few examples: Annie, (named changed to protect confidentiality), an anxious 16 year-old, decided she wanted to float in the river as part of the day’s rafting adventure. The cold temperature surprised her and took her breath away. Once she relaxed and got in the ‘safe swimmer’ position, she loved the feeling of being supported by the river. A few days later, she excitedly shared her adventure with this writer saying “I didn’t even have a panic attack,” referring to episodes of panic she frequently experienced in her past. Annie was delighted with herself. She could see herself as brave and courageous, and not the panicky, uncertain girl she had come to believe that she was. Another girl, whom we’ll call Bethany, suffers from moderate depression. She has noticed how strong and confident she feels when she is rock-climbing, or scrambling up a rocky trail. Her sadness, her hopelessness, her low self-esteem are left behind when she goes on an adventure. Pushing herself on a hard rock-climbing route recently, Bethany went as far as she could, and then decided she had reached her limit. Rather than feeling like a failure, she was satisfied with how much she had challenged herself, and how high up on the rock face she actually made it. Amidst support and positive comments from her peers, Bethany came down from the climb. She was, and is, proud of herself. She feels accomplished. Bit by bit, experience by experience, this girl is re-writing the scripts or meta-cognitions that govern her life.

Dr. John Ratey, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, teaches that regular exercise provides a “spark” for our brain, and not only improves attention and learning, but it primes the brain for future learning. His research shows that exercise causes the brain to produce its own “Miracle Grow,” a rich fertilizer for the brain, called BDNF, (brain derived neurotropic factor). BDNF plays a role in developing new neurons, and improving the integration of existing ones. Dr. Ratey’s research shows that daily exercise increases test scores across the board, in addition to numerous other cognitive and physical benefits. Chrysalis has always had a strong workout program, offering running, bike riding, swimming, yoga, Zumba or other forms of exercise every morning. In addition, in the summer, girls participate in 2 to 2½ days of adventure activities such as hiking, rafting, rock climbing, canoeing or other outings each week. We believe that this combination of exercise, adventure, and cognitive therapy that challenges old beliefs and replaces them with more positive ones, is part of a winning formula that allows girls to heal from depression and anxiety. It also allows them to re-engage in the healthy and age-appropriate process of identity formation, and to make positive decisions that will shape the course of their lives.

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As girls begin to feel better about themselves, they begin to imagine a brighter future for themselves: one where they can be successful and have meaningful relationships; a future they can face with confidence, believing that at their core, they are good, capable human beings, who have the skills and attitudes needed to navigate today’s world.

~Franny Gryl, Ed.S., LCPC