I went on to earn a post-graduate certificate in End of Life Studies at Smith College in Northampton, MA and it was during that year-long program that I decided to pursue my PhD at Smith. Upon completing the coursework and writing my dissertation, I began to work as a family therapist at the Austen Riggs Center in Stockbridge, MA, began teaching at Boston College and also started a private practice.
A few years later, I returned to Houston to be closer to help my family as we rallied around a loved one navigating the perils of having been diagnosed with Early Onset Familial Alzheimer’s. Once in Houston, I served as an instructor at the University of Houston, began working at The Menninger Clinic providing family and individual therapy, served as an instructor for graduate fellows, and opened a private practice on the side.
In 2014, I committed to my private practice full-time and eventually began to finally write the book I had been wanting to write for years. My approach has always been to focus on de-pathologizing people and help them move away from identifying with the alphabet soup of their diagnoses and move more fully into their lives. In doing so I worked with folks of all ages who grappled with anxiety, depression, grief, challenging life transitions, relationship issues/conflicts and addiction/codependency. Unfortunately, in 2016, I incurred a medication reaction/injury from the generic version of the antibiotic Levaquin that impacted my Central Nervous System and ultimately had to take a little time off work as well as suspend my writing. As a result of this injury and subsequent adverse reaction to treatment I was given a front row seat into the world of what I now see and refer to as nervous system sensitization.
I put my original writing on hold and published the book The Waiting Room, a book chronicling my health journey, in June of 2022. Around the same time, I started a YouTube channel (jenniferswanphd) devoted to issues regarding nervous system sensitization and medication adverse effects and withdrawal issues. On this channel, I also post videos/audio clips on various topics such as mentalization and other skills/strategies for effective living.
While this health crisis was not a journey I would have chosen for myself, it has given me much greater empathy, understanding and clarity in working with individuals who may, for any number of reasons, be grappling with a highly sensitized and heightened nervous system. Also as a result, I am working on a new book that describes and focuses on the hundreds of physical, emotional/mental and cognitive symptoms that can arise when the nervous system is compromised/sensitized and how to adopt a healthy mindset and practical approach towards recovery. Many things can contribute to the overwhelm of our nervous system — acute and/or chronic stressors such as accidents, trauma of various sorts, living with an alcoholic or in a home that is emotionally chaotic, hormonal instability, adverse reactions to medications, or simply one too many rocks in our stress bucket. We can even see the taxation on the nervous system simply with information overload as a result of social media, FOMO (fear of missing out) and the common complaint I hear from folks that “I can’t just seem to ever catch up.”
I look at our nervous system as a highly adaptive and complex structure, but we all have our fault lines — the point where the scales tip and we are no longer managing our lives effectively. Suddenly we can be met with an array of strange mental/physical/emotional/cogntive symptoms that leave us feeling scared, vulnerable and a shell of the person we had been possibly just months before. And the more we become afraid of the state we are in, the worse things become. In fact, it is this point — when we become afraid of our thoughts/feelings/sensations – that we move from simply having anxious symptoms and move into what some describe as disordered anxiety and what I refer to as sensitization. The more we fight, resist, try to figure it out, seek reassurance, ruminate, try to make it go away via implementation of loads of coping skills (breathing, meditating, etc) – the more we get stuck on the hamster wheel of sensitization and our worlds become small and our distress becomes great.
After decades of working in the clinical realm often focused on diagnostics and treating people with specific mental health disorders, I now focus solely on working to provide private mentorship, education, consultation, as well as working on several writing projects. As a mentor/consultant, I am able to work nationally and internationally assisting individuals, couples, families and organizations to formulate goals and employ strategies/skills and effective mindset shifts on issues including, but not limited to:
- Creating an effective mindset and practice to more effectively navigate anxiety/sensitization and stress related issues
- Moving from a “why me” to a “what now” mindset
- Effective boundary and limit setting
- Navigating life transitions
- Building effective relationships focused on communication and strengthening a mentalizing stance (see video The #1 Ingredient in Relationships under the blog tab on my website jenniferswanphd.com to learn more about the critical concept of mentalization)
- Returning to life/work/family after incurring a medication adverse reaction or complicated discontinuation experience
As a mentor/consultant, I draw from many powerful personal and professional experiences and the nuggets of wisdom I have gained throughout my life and career.
One such nugget that I have learned along the way is “we get good at what we practice.” That is just truth. Whether it’s playing a sport, an instrument or practicing good mental hygiene – it all works the same. If we practice the “why me?” attitude or operate from a scarcity model, we will get very good at feeling that the world is unjust and feel that we are always lacking in some way. Conversely, if we practice “what now?” and an abundance mindset, our perception of the world becomes one of opportunity and potential. Another truth is that we don’t see the world as it is, we see the world as we are. If we are overwhelmed, frazzled, and feeling out of control the world will appear scary, frustrating and stressful. If we are feeling empowered, calm, and practicing a mindset of acceptance of “what is, is” then we will feel in flow with the world and people around us.
Mentorship/consulting, as I see it, is about staying in the here and now, teaching the fundamentals necessary for one to navigate their particular circumstances and then providing on-going support and direction as one practices and develops those skills. For example, when I was learning how to play basketball as a kid, if my coach had taught me how to dribble, shoot or pass once or twice and then never showed up again leaving me to master these new skills on my own, I probably wouldn’t have learned how to be a successful point guard. I needed the on-going education, guidance, correction, support and I, like so many others, needed and benefited from having an external motivating force with me on a consistent basis. Later in life, when I first experienced anxiety that was disruptive to my day to day living, finding an experienced mentor who could help me not only develop new skills/strategies but to consistently support me as I made the necessary shifts, was both powerful and life changing.
In a nutshell, my role is to help people drop bad habits of thought and behavior and to employ new strategies in their lives, one step at a time, over and over; to be courageous enough to take their shots, secure enough to handle the misses and enjoy the makes; and to be accountable for their behavior and actions while stepping out of scarcity and/or victim mentality to reach their goals and highest potential.