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Hope for Christmas: The Psychological Meaning of the Christmas Tree


Given that the Christmas season is upon us, I felt compelled to write a short piece on the meaning of the Christmas tree. Over time, certain traditional symbols have become so commonplace that we can sometimes forget to think about their meaning or origin. Like most symbols, the Christmas tree is polysemic, which indicates that it is replete with a multitude of meanings. Given that this is the case, this article will not be an exhaustive meditation on the meaning of the Christmas tree. However, I hope that this commentary will give you something to think about during this holiday season. 

Prior to the advent of Christmas, pagans would decorate their homes with evergreen fur branches in order to remind them of the coming spring while in the midst of winter. Over time, Christians adapted this tradition, and the evergreen tree has since become the perennial symbol of Christmas. For Christians, the evergreen tree came to represent the Tree of Life that is alluded to in the Garden of Eden. Moreover, it came to represent nativity and everlasting life with God, even while surrounded by death. Unlike many other trees or forms of vegetation, evergreens maintain their needles and foliage in the wintertime, which is a reminder that life is to still be found even when mired in bleakness and death.

If you’re experiencing overwhelming darkness this holiday season, I hope that you’re able to look to the Christmas tree as a symbol of hope that light persists even amid the darkness.


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Cooper, J. (2019). The history of the Christmas tree. Why Christmas? https://www.whychristmas.com/customs/trees.shtml

Cornerstone’s Response to Racial Injustice

by CCCOC Resources in Active, Blog, forgiveness, Grief, Healing, Trauma Comments: 0

The Cornerstone Family is deeply saddened by the tragic events across our country.   The protesters’ reactions to the murder of George Floyd and previous injustices, reflect the pain, anger and frustration that so many of us feel.  Although we do not agree with the destruction and acts of violence in our city or any city, the depth of pain and feeling unheard and unseen have resulted in this needless violence and destruction. It is all unjust and painful!  From watching the life being choked out of Mr. Floyd to reviewing the destruction of cities across the nation.  Our condolences go out to the family of Mr. George Floyd and to those who have lost loved ones, including the families of Ms. Breonna Taylor and Mr. Ahmaud Arbery. The current events highlight there is still more work do in the areas of racial equality, justice, diversity, and human rights. These recent events only forge the recommitment of Cornerstone to social justice and racial equality.  We are all accountable to living out justice and equality and acknowledging and honoring the human rights of others. We must recommit to breaking the repeated acts of injustice, inequality, violence and murder by raising our voices in a healthy and productive manner so that we are united to defeat injustice and white supremacy.  We can no longer be bystanders as we observe injustice and systemic racism.  We cannot afford to stand by and look while the lives of our black men continue to get snuff out with such little regard.  We must turn our pain into purpose whenever possible.  We must turn our oppression into opportunity and our silence into wise strategy.  Additionally, we must use added preventive measures to aid in flushing out unwanted applicants who apply to the police departments across our nation and use reliable steps to intervene when unprofessional conduct, practices and policies are shown by anyone in authority with an egocentric and racist approach to people of color.  Also, we must continue to train police who are committed to justice and equality and are truly working to protect with a servant’s heart.  Dr. Martin Luther King stated that “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

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Dr. Peonita Harris

Executive Director of Cornerstone Counseling Center

Forgiveness: The Great Anger Validator

by Grace Schuler Spencer, M.A., LPC, NCC in Active, emotional health, forgiveness, Grief, Trauma Comments: 0 tags: anger, Forgiveness, hurt

The feeling of anger is one that is common to everyone. Perhaps we clench our fists, grit our teeth and imagine the worst for an offender. Maybe we stuff our anger inside into densely compacted packages that are eventually set off like explosives when we just cannot take it anymore. In many instances, anger functions like a deflective buffer, protecting us temporarily from the deeper pain we may be experiencing in association with a grievance that has occurred. When this happens, it can be helpful to recognize that in such instances, anger is functioning in a protective manner, shielding us from being overwhelmed by a greater hurt, especially if it is during circumstances where our safety is at risk. In other instances, our anger is a just response to an infraction committed against us that never should have taken place. Teasing out our experience of anger and the bigger function behind it is an important part of developing our own emotional awareness and attuning to its role in the story of our lives.

Considering the function of anger in our lives is a worthwhile pursuit. According to researchers, anger is among those emotions that can result in mental and physical health risks. These can include things like heart disease, earlier mortality, depression, anxiety, and troubled relationships.[1] This is especially true for those of us who tend to harbor anger. When we hold onto it and continue to use it as that protective shield, we put ourselves at risk for developing larger difficulties that we likely never bargained for.

Forgiveness is among those potentially helpful methods for attending to and resolving anger and its related emotions, like hostility, bitterness and resentment. It can be especially effective in our interpersonal relationships. According to Robert Enright, one of the thought leaders and researchers of forgiveness, “forgiveness helps a wronged person examine the injustice, consider forgiveness as an option, make a decision to forgive or not and learn the skills to forgive.”[2]

Forgiveness has the unique quality of fully validating an injury and recognizing our legitimate anger response. The beauty of forgiveness is that not only does it offer this validation, but it goes the next step. Once anger has done its job, forgiveness takes us into a deeper phase of healing. When invited in, forgiveness reminds us of what our boundaries are, that they are worth protecting and that we have the power to release ourselves from the hooks of offense, injury and abuse. One forgiver put it this way, “I’ve learned to like forgiveness because of its strength, freedom and assertiveness. Now, I think I have a better sense of myself and my boundaries. I grew up with my physical, emotional and spiritual boundaries being invaded. Forgiveness tells me it matters that I have boundaries; it is an infraction if they get crossed, and I can unattach from you to restore more a sense of myself.”

Next up in this forgiveness mini-series I will share more about the decisional and emotional nuances of forgiveness. Until then, take a moment to consider where the anger in your life could stand a possible upgrade into the next level of healing. If so, maybe forgiveness has a part to play.

[1] Chida & Steptoe, 2009; Miller, Smith, Turner, Guijarro, & Hallet, 1996; Williams, 2010

[2] Enright, R. D., 2004

What Just Happened?: Making Sense of My Seemingly Random Reactions


Marie was feeling productive at work when she received a phone call from her mother. As soon as she saw the caller ID, she felt irritable and dismissed the call. For the rest of the day, she struggled to return her focus to her work or get anything accomplished.

Brenda was enjoying her time out to dinner at a nice restaurant with her boyfriend, Jude. However, she wanted to run out of the restaurant when Jude took his phone out of his pocket and started doing something on it. For the rest of dinner, she just answered his questions with one-word answers and couldn’t wait to get home so she could go to sleep.

Tiffani was fully engaged in the conversation at her 11:00 business meeting, which she found to be fascinating. When the colleague sitting next to her raised his hand to interrupt the discussion, she flinched and had trouble participating in the remainder of the meeting.

 

What do these women have in common?

Although at first glance, these women may seem to be drastically different from one another, when we take a moment to investigate their histories, we find similarities in their reactions in each situation. Each of these women’s reactions makes sense. Each of these women’s trauma response was triggered by the circumstances of their environments and made it difficult for her to fully engage in the present moment.

Marie grew up in a home where she never knew what she would experience when she walked in the door. Some days, her mother would be waiting to greet her with a smile and interest in what happened at school. Other days, her mother would be drunk on the couch, waiting for Marie to return from school so she could take care of her mother’s every need.

Brenda’s first marriage started off great, but after a year, her husband didn’t seem to even know she existed, that was, until he wanted something from her sexually and he could not be deterred. Brenda felt unwanted and cast-off and wasn’t surprised the day he filed for divorce because he found a “better woman.” It took a long time to feel ready to date again, but finally, she was willing to try again.

Tiffani’s step-father was scary and mean. She would hide in her closet to stay away from him when he was angry, praying that he wouldn’t find her because she was afraid that this time, he would hit her so hard she might die.

 

What is a trauma response and why does it happen?

Our brains automatically respond to dangerous, stressful, and traumatic situations by prioritizing reactions that will keep us safe; this is a very good thing, as it helps us to survive. When a person experiences these dangerous, stressful, or chaotic situations time and again, his/her brain gets really good at quickly prioritizing this survival response. Sometimes, the brain is so good at doing this, the survival response becomes the automatic and occurs even when the person is in a completely safe situation. This triggered reaction is a trauma response and it makes sense. Marie’s trauma reaction was triggered because her brain knows that sometimes when she talks to her mom, she isn’t safe. Brenda’s trauma reaction was triggered because she felt unwanted by her boyfriend when he started using his phone; she had been here before and it was not safe. Tiffani’s trauma reaction was triggered because her brain knows that sometimes, when someone near you raises his/her arm, it is to hit her. Although each of these women may not understand why she reacted in the way she did, each response makes sense in light of her past experiences and makes it difficult for her to fully engage in the present moment.

 

What can I do if I experience things like this?

First and foremost, seek support from safe and trustworthy people. Talking through your current and past experiences with a family member or friend who has consistently been safe and caring can help you express these things so you don’t have to hold them inside or on your own. Many individuals find it helpful to participate in therapy in order to have a safe place to discuss these reactions and the situations that have caused them and work towards growth and healing.

Secondly, take care of yourself when these reactions occur – maybe you need to take a break to go for a walk, grab a coffee, or take some deep breaths. Do something little and easy to help calm your brain and your body down so that you can re-engage in the present moment. Be kind to yourself by reminding yourself that this reaction was helpful for your survival at one point in time and makes sense in the current situation – there is nothing inherently wrong with your reaction and you can do something to help yourself through it.

If you would like to begin receiving professional services for reactions such as those described above, our office has therapists who have specialized training to provide services to individuals who have experienced trauma. Please click here to request an appointment.

 


*These stories are fictional and were created with the intent to illustrate triggered responses as a result of traumatic experiences in order to increase awareness, offer knowledge, and provide support for those who may be experiencing similar reactions.

Commemorating Loss with Joy

by CCCOC Resources in Active, Grief Comments: 0

In a commonly cited grief model (Kubler-Ross, 2005), it is noted that we move through 5 stages of grief, which can include denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance of a loss. These steps are not sequential, but could occur in any order, and not everyone who encounters a loss or a life-threatening/-altering event experiences all five stages. Read more!

Cornerstone Counseling Center of Chicago