EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing)

EMDR is a type of therapy that uses bilateral stimulation of the physical senses, in order to allow one’s brain-body the opportunity to sort out and reorganize memories from the past that have gotten stuck and get re-activated in the present.

There can be times in life when an experience is not stored or integrated in the typical way, in a way that fits smoothly into the tapestry of your life story.  Instead the experience becomes a memory that  is not like your typical memories, when you remember the experience it comes with a level of emotion that feels way bigger than warranted and can sometimes feel like the experience is happening all over again in the present moment.  You don’t get the opportunity to recognize that the memory is something that happened in the past and is now gone, because survival mechanisms of your brain have gotten busy telling you that you’re in danger.

This mis-storing of an experience can happen when someone’s life or safety or sense of worth is threatened, it can be your own or someone near to you.  The experience can be a trauma in the traditional sense of the word: combat, rape, near-fatal car accident.  Or the experience can be more mild yet still very troubling: a parent being incarcerated, a spouse having an affair.  Or even very innocuous seeming events from childhood can get stuck and cause later distress: feeling left out of special birthday party, losing the election for 5th grade class president.

The typical way that our brain and memory systems work is to link together things that are associated; so when we’re on a certain topic we can easily access relevant information, but ask us out of the blue for some random fact then we might struggle to find it.  And memories aren’t just expressed by words, there are memories that are images or sensations or emotions which can be more difficult for our verbally focused minds to identify and yet this sort of memory still gets linked up in an associated network.  This network of memories is what can give us a fleeting feeling of déjà vu, or in the case of a mis-stored memory the network can take us from a safe present moment and put us into the re-experiencing of a past moment when we felt threatened.

An important part of EMDR is that the process illuminates memories that have not been processed and stored and gives the brain-body the opportunity to do that work as it naturally does.  The brain-body is a complicated and integrative system that has particular parts that specialize in particular tasks and yet all works in conjunction when things are going smoothly.  When the brain notices a threat it directs energy away from certain processes in order to ensure that the threat is managed.  Unfortunately a mis-stored memory continues to alert the brain to threat every time that memory network is triggered so the brain process that keeps track of time is ignored and it feels like the past experience is happening right now.

Through the use of bilateral stimulation, as well as other tools, the brain is able to bring all of its parts into collaborative alignment with the end result of storing memories of past events in a way that no longer triggers distress in the moment.  The brain is doing the natural healing that it is designed to do, with the help of an extra intervention; just like when the skin is trying to heal a cut and may need the help of a bandage to cover a scab that keeps catching and ripping open.    More to come on what this extra intervention, bilateral stimulation, is all about in the next blog post.

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Emotions; Your next adventure is calling

Note: I wrote this from the mountain town perspective but it applies to all habitats

Living in the mountains calls for many adventures, whether it’s wading out to your car through a foot of freshly fallen snow or backpacking to the perfect alpine location, the journey awaits.  Mountain dwellers have a tenacity for the challenges that are presented in our unique environment.  However, there is one adventure that can often be neglected for fear of the unknown; that is the exploration of emotional landscape.  There are lots of reasons why a person may avoid allowing for the full experience of emotions: the uncomfortable physical sensations, the thought of getting stuck or lost or overwhelmed, the societal message of “don’t go there”.  But since when do any of those reasons stop a mountain dweller from taking on a challenge.

Yes, opening ourselves to emotion experiencing can be difficult, uncomfortable and inconvenient.  And yet, there are many benefical things that come from taking the journey through emotional exploration.  Just like there is a benefit from running 50 miles or riding your bike all through the night, that sense of accomplishment and relief can come after fully experiencing difficult emotions.  Another benefit is that emotions provide us with information that can help us with life decision making.  Think about what you might do upon seeing dark clouds on the horizon when you are out for a hike, maybe pick up the pace or keep an eye out for shelter.  Similarly, the rumbling of emotion can tell you to consider a new job or make more time for an old friend, for example.  And the last benefit I’ll mention is that emotions give meaning, fullness, and color to life, even the hard ones.  You have to wait through the cold and wet of the storm to get the rainbow afterwards, and if you try to shut out the pain of anger or sadness you won’t get to experience the delight of excitement or joy.

Often emotions that we’d rather not feel are put in a corner of the mind, ignored or avoided.  In that corner these emotions will fester and become toxic, just waiting for an unexpected time to jump out and disrupt things.  If you have ever lashed out at undeserving passerby or even an undeserving loved one, then you have experienced a festering emotion shooting out from its corner in a misdirected attempt to earn some attention.  Emotions need attention and can lie in wait for as long as needed, sometimes pestering you to give it that attention and typically causing other problems in the meantime.  There are many ways we can use to distract us from the presence of unprocessed emotions, some popular ones in mountain towns: exercise and alcohol/drugs.  Both of these can be over-used as an escape from the nagging need, and more powerful fear, of allowing emotions to be present.  But the escape is only temporary, because the need doesn’t go away.

Okay so maybe you feel ready now to embark on an emotional experiencing journey.  You need a gear list and an itinerary, right?  First find a comfortable, safe space and give yourself some time without distractions.  Invite your emotions into your awareness.  They are temporary guests so treat them with patience and kindness, and above all with acceptance and non-judgement.  How you think about the emotions impacts how you are able to experience them, thinking “I shouldn’t feel this way” is going to limit the fullness of the experience.  Once your emotion guests are present and welcome you can begin to FEEL your feelings.  It is not just a coincidence that emotions are also known as feelings, so pay attention to the physical sensations that arise with the presence of the emotion.  Are the sensations warm, cold, sharp, pulsating, heavy, electrical?  Experiment with how they may shift when you tune into each sensation, or take a deep breath into it, or send it messages of loving acceptance.   Notice any urges for action that may be presented by the emotion, such as to scream or sing or clench your fists, follow the urges (as long as they are safe) and watch how the experience unfolds.  All of this may feel overwhelming or unwanted at times, watch for that too and remind yourself that you are strong and can make it to the light at the end of the tunnel.  Remind yourself the pain is worth the end result of peace and resolution.  Think of the words of philosopher poet Rumi, who wrote that each emotion “may be clearing you out from some new delight”.  When you have found the light at the end of the tunnel and completed your adventurous journey through emotional experiencing you will gain relief and release and possibly new insights or inspiration.  Emotions are a part of a healthy mountain lifestyle (of course any lifestyle) and they are a territory where I can offer guide service if you would like to embark on your journey with an expert companion.


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I feel like such an idiot

also known as The Story of Putting My Resources To Use on Myself

I had the wrong time in my head and missed an appointment today.  I sat waiting for my client for awhile and when she didn’t arrive I figured it out that I should have been at my office half an hour earlier.  When I realized I had been late, that my client had already come and gone, I felt terrible. So, so terrible, and a torrent of self criticism flooded me (“I am such a expletive idiot”)

As I hung my head in shame a few resources on my desk caught my eye, one was from Kristen Neff’s work on self compassion.  The exercise recommends practicing the three components of self-compassion in writing.  This was something I had gotten out of my filing cabinet for a client, but the applicabity to myself in that moment was quite plain.   So I went for it and here it is, with Neff’s prompts and my responses:


Mindfulness: bring awareness to the painful emotions without judgment of your experience.

I feel ashamed because I was late.  I want to cry.  I feel like my whole body, especially my head and chest, is bring crushed in a vice grip.  I think how can I call my self a professional, how can I be trusted.

Common humanity: write the ways your experience connects to the larger human experience ie all people have painful experiences, no one is perfect; you can also think about conditions underlying the painful event.

Human beings are imperfect and make mistakes.  I’m not the only person who has forgotten, been late or mistimed a meeting.

Self kindness: write some kind, comforting words to yourself to show caring and to reassure yourself.

I messed up and it is not the end of the world.  I might even be forgiven and/or the person I stood up might be able to relate or even be comforted by seeing another person making a mistake.  I am a good therapist and people do benefit from working with me as a fellow imperfect being who cares deeply about the feelings of others.


I followed the instructions of the exercise and immediately the rush of emotions slowed down and by the end of it I felt much better.  I was able to do some brainstorming on ways to avoid making that mistake again in the future.  I decided to share my written exercise here in the interest of deconstructing the myth that we need to be perfect in order to be seen as worthy of approval or success, also to practice the technique of dispelling shame by sharing the story of what created it; thank you Brene Brown.

So there’s my story and now you know I am not a perfect person or a perfect therapist.   I second guessed sharing this, a few times, for fear of negative perceptions.  I decided to go ahead with it, because of the reasons above and, perhaps more importantly because if I cannot practice what I preach then I am doing a disservice to myself and my clients.

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Happy New Year, Happy New Decade

I am excited to recognize I am beginning my second decade of work as a professional psychotherapist.  I graduated from University of Colorado at Denver in December of 2007 after completing a year long internship at Noeticus Counseling Center and earning a MA in Counseling Psychology.  After graduation I immediately transferred to working as a private practice clinician, mainly because this was the model that was practiced at  Noeticus.  I also explored other venues for my mental health work including brief stints working at an addiction treatment center, a community mental health center doing crisis response work, and a supervised visitation program.  Through all these experiences I have been able to interact with the many venues that support and respond to people struggling with mental health disorders, substance abuse disorders, and relationship dysfunctions; including the justice system, hospitals, and Department of Human Services among others.  I am grateful for the range of experience I have had in the community and I have come to find that I am most satisfied and fulfilled in my work as a private practice clinician.

So here’s to the next ten years. My resolutions? I aim to provide efficient and effective treatment for my clients while maintaining the caring and nonjudgmental presence that I believe is the most valuable foundation for empowering positive change.  I also intend to continue to grow my knowledge and expertise through continuing education and collaboration with peers.  Lastly, I want to give back to the community through de-stigmatizing mental health treatment and raising awareness of mental health resources, so that everyone is receiving the help they need to live their best life possible.


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“First World Problems”

Every time I’ve heard this phrase lately, its thrown me off a bit and I’ve heard it with enough frequency that I decided to look into it.  The history of the phrase on the internet brings up a range of memes of varying levels of funniness, such as the one below; its not my favorite but illustrates the point:

Image result for first world problems meme

But the way I’ve been hearing it used has a different effect than comedy.  Here’s how it goes down for me: I’ll be listening to someone tell me about something troublesome in their life, typically not a majorly life changing problem but not as frivolous as the one depicted above, and then the person gives a flip of the hand, a laugh, and utters “first world problems” in a dismissing tone.

For me the energy of the conversation abruptly shifts: there I was intently listening and eager to support, when all of the sudden the topic is belittled and what’s left is a lingering sense of guilt.  Its as if the message is that we shouldn’t be talking about such things when there are people in the world who are exposed to horrible disease or don’t have access to fresh water.  Yes, these are important problems, and many “first world problems” are much, much easier to bear….does this mean we shouldn’t talk about problems unless they have life-threatening consequences?

I think it is the residual feeling of guilt and shame that bothers me the most because its uncomfortable and, more importantly, its not based on reality.  In reality, everyone has their own set of problems related to the context in which they live and must reflect on said problems in order to find remedies.

My guess is that people use the dismissing phrase when they start to feel like they are being some form of petty whiner and want to lighten things up.  Again, this is probably fueled by the myth of their problems not being important enough by comparison to get any airtime.

It could also be that people use the phrase when they feel like they are crossing the line into victimhood, where people complain endlessly instead of taking accountability or putting effort into finding personal power.  This is, of course, not a healthy place to be in and a difficult place to be witness to.

My suggestion (to myself and others) is to use the phrase as an opportunity to delve into gratitude instead of getting sucked into guilt.  Not just gratitude that my own problems leave me better off than people in third world countries, but also gratitude for the intangible things that enrich my life: that I have a friend to talk to (and complain with), that I have the freedom to reflect and share my opinions, that the air is blowing and the green grass is growing.

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Holiday Joy/Holiday Distress

Tis the season for treats, parties, gift-giving, memories…in the best cases these things can be joyful and tinged by some occasional discomfort such as guilt, anxiety, sadness, or disappointment; in the worst cases the holiday season straight up sucks.

Parties are packed with temptations for people trying to manage eating or substance abuse issues.
Community activities can be difficult to attend for someone with social anxiety.
Anyone who has gone through a life transition, from moving to a new town to losing a loved one, will experience a range of emotions while adjusting to an interruption of past traditions.
The excesses of the holiday season can be overwhelming or just plain annoying.

The list goes on and on for reasons someone might experience holiday distress. So if you find yourself feeling a bit off or irritable or down, take a step back and find solid ground. You can watch the rush of ribbons, tinsel, and “cheer” and get a better view of what could be dragging you under. Observe your reactions, physical and emotional, and pay attention to what triggers distress, or just notice that you are feeling the distress. It is a clue that you have needs that can’t be met by Santa, can only be met by you.

Taking time to take care of yourself, in the season of giving can be hard to remember to do or to feel justified in doing. And yet it is as important this time of year as any other. Take care of your needs for exercise, healthy meals, sleep, rest and relaxation, as well as other rewarding and satisfying ways you spend your time. This might mean turning down invitations to holiday activities, and that is okay.

Another reason to not participate in holiday activities is because you don’t want to. Some activities can be too emotionally painful or stressful, watch for the strain of feeling like you have to do something.  Beware of Holiday Shoulds: thoughts like “I’ll look like a scrooge if I don’t go along” or “This is the way I’ve always done it, so I need to keep doing it”. Holiday Shoulds are unrealistic expectations or myths that need busting.  If you are doing something because you think you should rather than because you believe it brings you joy, then you need to pick something else to do.

This doesn’t mean I’m advocating you live in a cave like the Grinch during the holidays, there may be times when the challenge of getting out of your comfort zone could be good for you.  Getting yourself to a holiday spirit event can cause some anxiety but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.  Anxiety is a sign you need to do some extra planning and prep work: plan to go with a supportive friend, eat beforehand, bring your own drink, have some topics ready for chatting, etc.  Overcoming the fear or challenge can bring about satisfaction for the accomplishment, so push yourself when you have the resources and possibility of some genuine holiday cheer.

Whether the holidays equal happiness for you or not, keep a look out for moments of joy that can arise in unexpected ways.  Joy does not come pre-packaged and is not permanent.

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Radical Acceptance

Today is a day to practice accepting something that you really don’t like but have no control over changing, also known as radical acceptance. Yes, this topic is stimulated by the election results but can apply to many areas of one’s life, so this post is not really about politics. It is about how to find some calm when life feels like a storm that could rage on eternally in any which way.
Radical acceptance is a concept that comes from Buddhism, that I first learned about through Marsha Linehan’s DBT work. The concept is that one must acknowledge, and decide to tolerate what is happening as a way of easing the suffering that comes from fighting reality. It involves observation and non-judgment, a choice and commitment.  Radical acceptance is about taking note of what is happening and acknowledging it, as it is, without judgement, wishful thinking, or regrets.

Radical acceptance can be difficult to practice for many reasons; one is that the mind will try again and again to stray to the why rather than settling on what is.  Asking “why did this happen, how could it have been prevented, what does it mean, how will I survive this” are distractions from acceptance.  Cursing and complaining are also distractions from acceptance.  These are examples of wasted energy. It takes a lot of energy to hate something, but if hating it can’t change it, then it is wasted energy.

So, what makes radical acceptance different from giving up or condoning evil? First, accepting something is not the same as saying it is good (remember non-judgment).  Next, giving up involves doing nothing; there is hopelessness and helplessness, a draining of energy and filling with despondency.  That is not what happens with the practice of radical acceptance.

It takes agency to observe and recognize the current state of what’s happening now.  Just as it takes agency to make the distinction between what can and cannot be changed.  Through the choice of acceptance there is a gaining of personal power. And through the practice of acceptance there is a gaining of a grounding energy.  An energy that allows you to go forth and do the things that are within your power to change.  And doing such things will lead to a more fulfilled, satisfied, and healthier you.

You only have control over yourself so what do you plan to do?


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Shifting towards non-judgment and objectivity

…and away from judgment and subjectivity.  Subjective statements are ones that involve opinion, judgment and ambiguity, objective statements are ones that involve specific use of facts as they are seen in that moment.

Subjective based conversation:

A: “He was very rude.”

B: “I didn’t think he was rude.”

A: “Of course he was, he’s such a jerk.”

B: “Its not like he was making monkey faces at her and calling her names.”

Each speaker is asserting opinions and the conversation could go on indefinitely, possibly leading to elevated emotions and more aggressive statements.

Objective based conversation:

A: “He made comments while she was speaking 7 times in the first ten minutes.”

B: “Oh you were keeping a close count on his interruptions.”

A very specific, non-judgmental observation is made and the conversationalists are in connection.

We often shorten and simplify things that we want to say as in the example “he’s rude” vs. “he made comments….”.  We do this for a variety of reasons but the end result is that, in leaving out the objective specifics, the message is distorted and charged with judgment. The trouble with judgments is they tend to fuel emotions, often righteousness in the speaker of the message and defensiveness in the receiver, and this is very effective in shutting down communication.  Another problem with judgments is they are subjective which makes it difficult to find common ground.

Being able to make objective observations without any judgment or evaluation is a valuable skill which takes self-awareness, attention both to the words being chosen, and a step back from that, attention to the emotions being experienced.  Intense emotions will drive the word choices away from objectivity.  Luckily it works both ways: choosing non-judgmental words can lower the intensity of overwhelming emotions.  Knowing yourself and your physical signs of heightened emotions is essential to being able to choose objective words.

The teachings of Nonviolent Communication emphasize the importance of being very specific, unambiguous, and dynamic in making observations and removing any evaluation or judgment to facilitate effective communication.  A couple examples that illustrate the difference between a subjective evaluation and an objective observation: “Jim is ugly” vs. “Jim’s looks don’t appeal to me.”, “You seldom do what I want” vs. “The last 3 times I initiated an activity you said you didn’t want to do it.”*   Can you tell which is which?  The evaluations could be seen as criticism causing hurt feelings or arguments, the observations are specific to the speaker and non-judgmental.  The importance of making this distinction is to raise the likelihood of the intended message being heard and having a clear and compassionate conversation.

Our language and culture sets us up to make frequents subjective evaluations so it is likely that you, dear reader, make such judgments throughout your day (just as I do), therefore, you have lots of opportunities to notice and practice shifting from the subjective evaluation to the objective observation.  As you do this notice how it impacts your mood and behavior.

Let me know what happens or share comments on my facebook page.


*These examples come from: Rosenberg, Marshall B., Nonviolent communication: A language of life, Puddledancer Press, 203; p 31


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90 seconds of emotion

Imagine water on the ocean: the push and pull of the tide combines to create a surge and crest of a wave, which peaks and breaks creating a turbulent swarm of white water and strong forces that rush toward the beach, spreading upon the bare sand, stirring it up, then losing power and turning to gently slide back to the sea.

This is a metaphor for emotion.  When experiencing emotion there is a trigger, a powerful crescendo, and a fading. Biologically, physiologically, this is what happens in the body when an emotion comes on. Something triggers an emotional response, most likely some sensory input (sight, sound, taste, etc) which is associated with a memory or is interpreted by an assessing thought, and the brain releases chemicals that are carried by the blood stream activating physical changes throughout the body (elevated heart rate and breathing, tension, tingling, etc), then the physical systems return to baseline…ideally.

The trouble is the brain tends to keep thinking up ways to feed the original emotion, like someone stuck in front of a slot machine dropping in coin after coin so the wheels keep spinning.  And really its just one particular part of the brain that gets stuck feeding the emotion, the left hemisphere

The brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor had the unique opportunity to observe how the left and right halves of the brain work separately and in tandem when she had a massive stroke that took out the functioning of her left hemisphere and worked for several years to regain functioning.  She wrote about her fascinating experience in her book My Stroke of Insight (and she has a TED talk as well).  And it is Taylor that has put the idea out in the mainstream that an emotion lasts for 90 seconds.

The short version of Taylor’s insights stem from the difference between the left hemisphere: responsible for language, critical thinking, problem solving, linear analysis, planning, etc, etc, thinking, thinking, thinking; and the right hemisphere: responsible for our connection to others and the universal energy around us, our ability to be creative, imaginative, intuitive and think “outside the box”, and the full, rich, complex sensations of the moment to moment experience.

The left brain gets us putting our socks on before our shoes and bringing the car keys out to the car so we can drive to work.  The right brain gets us to take a spur of the moment turn on our way to work so we end up missing a huge car accident or getting to witness wild horses running through a field surrounded by a double rainbow.

Of course the two hemispheres do much more than this, but I’m hoping you get the picture.  They also consistently work in tandem, but the left brain tends to dominate. Think about the busy chatter in your mind and you will hear the left brain, think about how often you hear that chatter and you will know how much the left brain dominates.

So, back to the 90 seconds of emotion.  The brain gets its trigger and releases its chemicals, 90 seconds later the chemicals are flushed and the physiological impact has faded OR during those 90 seconds the busy chatter of the left brain has generated future possible scenarios, or assessed alternative chains of events, or connected to related experiences, or criticized, judged, and blamed everyone possible, or all of the above, consequently, releasing more chemicals to keep the emotional experience flowing.

See, the left brain is a storyteller and is responsible for taking things apart and putting them back together in as many different ways as it can.  As Taylor puts it

“if it’s a subject you really feel passionate about, either good or awful, (the left brain) is particularly effective at hooking into those circuits of emotion and exhausting all the ‘what if’ possibilities”

Knowing this about the brain can give you some power to decide whether or not you want to continue to experience an emotion.  These processes typically happens outside of our conscious awareness but by becoming conscious of what is happening in our brain we can influence the form our thoughts take.  Being able to observe both the physiological emotional experience and the left brain’s analytical attempts to keep it going gives you control.  It is a simple theoretical process to decide to disengage from the story circuits of the left brain, but of course it is a difficult act to engage in.  It takes awareness, attention, willingness, commitment, and persistence.

Get to know your own emotional experience: observe what happens in your body when different emotions are triggered, where there is lightness or weight, tension, movement, energy pulses or blocks, and then pay attention to the left brain’s pull to keep the emotion going and what it is saying.  Use the power of your right brain to come into the present moment, as opposed to where ever else the left brain is trying to go.  Pay attention to breath and sensory input and output in order to connect to the here and now, thus quieting the busy chatter and emotional re-experiencing and bringing inner peace.

Emotions can be very useful bits of information or they can become a overplayed drain on your energy.  Using a balanced brain approach so that the powers of both left brain and right brain are equally represented allows for your whole wisdom to determine the best course of action.

Again, these are simple concepts but difficult practices.  Taylor’s book dedicates a couple chapters to the practice of finding balance, my blog on emotional awareness addresses mindful sensory practice, and spiritual energetic practices like yoga, tai chi, reiki, chanting, meditation can heighten one’s ability to tap into the right brain.

Thanks for reading, I’d love to read your comments (related or not) on my facebook page.

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NOW not KNow

After a recent appointment I found myself trying to rectify why it seemed that I was talking to my client out of two sides of my mouth.  The oversimplified version was one side of my mouth was telling my client to share her feelings and the other side was telling her to not feel anything, of course there’s more to it.  The client had been talking about how hard it was to see her grown son making unhealthy choices and how it sends her into a tailspin of worry about what she can say or do to make things better.  I advised her to tell her son what she is observing and how it makes her feel, then leave the problem solving to him.  A few minutes later we were talking about how she feels good when she sees certain signs that tell her he is making healthy choices, and then feels distressed when those signs are not there.  My suggestion was that she practice not getting attached to feeling good about the signs when they are there so that she won’t feel bad when they are not there.  So the more complicated version of “telling her to not feel anything” is telling her to practice non-attachment and avoid meaning-making.  Which means what? 

Non-attachment is an acceptance of the impermanence of all things and states of being.  Attachment is a clinging to or strong need for circumstances to be a certain way.  And mean-making is what our evolved brains do so well, looking for patterns, making sense of things, interpreting what we see, predicting the future, etc.  The downside both to meaning making and attachment is that we begin to expect certain things and set ourselves up for disappointment when those things are gone or turn out differently.   Another downside is that our focus gets directed away from the present moment and the full experience of what is happening now.
Sometimes it can seems like a good thing to redirect our focus, for example if the present moment is painful, however, if we are not taking it all in we are denying ourselves access to all the information that is available.  Staying present allows us to notice if there is a familiarity in the experience that could give clues to subtle connections to things that could be exacerbating the emotion or increasing its frequency, such as habitual interaction styles or distorted beliefs about self, others, and the world.  The good news about staying in the experience of the moment no matter how painful is that if you are not feeding an emotion through judgment, mean-making and then the emotion will fade after about 90 seconds.
“Stillness, insight, and wisdom arise only when we can settle into being complete in this moment, without having to seek or hold on to or reject anything”
-Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever you go there you are
You can obtain this stillness of the present moment by allowing yourself to observe the physical sensations, thoughts, imagery, and energy of an emotional experience in the moment rather than being consumed by analysis and thus transported to the future or past.  You can boost your ability to accept even the most difficult situations by using some tips from Marsha Linehan: try a half-smile as you go about your day tuning into the sensations it brings; use “radical acceptance” to remind yourself that acceptance is acknowledging what is which is not the same as judging it to be desirable; and turning the mind again and again and again towards a commitment to accept.
I like to remember the difference between NOWing and KNOWing.  This reminds me to focus on how something makes me feel NOW in the present moment so I can avoid the temptation of focusing on the illusion of KNowing how I will feel in the next moment or KNowing what the future will hold.  I also believe accepting impermanence makes it more possible to generate gratitude for the special uniqueness of each moment.  My cousin shared the quote below when my mom was at the end of her life, I like the imagery generated by her words and I like how it addresses the misunderstanding and over-simplification that non-attachment means we can’t appreciate and enjoy the good things while we have them.
“We are like children building a sand castle.  We embellish it with beautiful shells, bits of driftwood, and pieces of colored glass.  The castle is ours, off limits to others.  We’re willing to attack if others threaten to hurt it.  Yet despite all our attachment, we know that the tide will inevitably come in and sweep the sand castle away.  The trick is to enjoy it fully but without clinging, and when the time comes, let it dissolve back into the sea.”
-Pema Chodron, When things fall apart: Heart advice for difficult times
Please post comments to my facebook page.
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The Gifts of Imperfection Book Review

I read a book by Brene Brown, called The Gifts of imperfection: Let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are; Your guide to a wholehearted life.  This is the book’s title, or just all the words on the cover of the book, either way the words inside and out of this book are imbued with acceptance…embrace who you are, imperfections and all.  The book doesn’t preach about acceptance, it is more of an underlying character that is interwoven with all the other characters.  The book’s objective seems to be more directly illustrating the value of boldly owning up to one’s imperfections rather than hiding them for fear of not being seen as “perfect” and therefore not being worthy of the love and respect of others.  And this fear of unworthiness is a big part of what fuels shame–shame being the buzz word of Brown’s career.  Brown is very careful to clearly define all the important words she uses, such as love, intuition, and of course shame.  Her definitions come from her own research as well as others, however, this exacting, scientific approach does not make for a dry, boring textbook read; Brown identifies herself as a storyteller as well as a researcher which enables her to create a very readable and relate-able handbook.  Her writing contains the overarching story gathered through her research participants as well as stories from her own life as a way of modeling the importance of sharing our weaknesses or “imperfections”.

The book is organized into two key sections, the first is an overview of Brown’s work in researching shame and woven tightly into that are the stories of her own personal work which was triggered by what she saw coming out of her academic work.  Brown’s research is qualitative, which means she interviews people with open-ended questions and collects thousands of stories, then dissects them looking for themes and patterns.  As she was working to better understand shame and shame-resilience she was disturbed by what she saw because she recognized how shame was directing choices in her own life.  Many a reader of this book will likely have a similar, uncomfortable experience of feeling the words hit close to home, and I would say the greater the discomfort the greater the value in continuing to read.

Brown tells us that shame is something that everyone experiences and one of its key features is that it tells us to keep the shame experience and the imperfections a secret so that it can grow.  In the “Shame 101” section Brown defines shame and shows the way to usurp it: recognize it, debunk its messages, and take the risk of being vulnerable enough to share the experience with a trusted listener. Brown’s research showed how vulnerability is the source of shame resilience and this has lead her to baring herself and her imperfections for others to see, which she illustrates and models throughout the book. Through the process of being vulnerable Brown practices courage and compassion allowing for deeper connection between her and the listener.  These words–courage, compassion, connection–are what Brown identifies as the gifts we receive when we allow ourselves to be seen as imperfect so they are defined and explored or “unpacked”, along with all the other important words.  I particularly like one definition:  courage is to “speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart” (p 12).

The second section of the book is the most how-to’ey with its’ guideposts on making changes in various areas of life.  It has a how-to aspect without any of the subtle shame that can sneak in with your typical list of ways to improve your life; the checklist how-to’s tend to lead me into giving myself a pass-fail grade based on how many how-to’s I’m already doing vs. ones that had never occurred to me or seem out of reach for various reasons.  Brown’s guideposts don’t lend themselves to that outcome, instead each one highlights the two alternatives, one unbalanced or “imperfect” way of interacting with the world and one more authentic, inspired “wholehearted” way.  The language she chooses is important, each guidepost is about “letting go” of one alternative while “cultivating” the other alternative, reinforcing the message that the work is an on-going process (not a check list).  There are ten guideposts in all and they address a variety of topics from work to play, self-doubt to perfectionism, anxiety to coolness.  The guideposts all inspire, encourage, and enable a non-judgmental self-assessment, as Brown continues to model.  The last part of each guidepost is a “DIG deep” prompt which is the guiding suggestions of what to do about the conundrum of how to change.  The acronym DIG stands for Deliberate, Inspire, and Going, as in the path to change requires one to be “deliberate in their thoughts and behaviors through prayer, meditation, or simply setting their intention; inspired to make new and different choices; going. they take action.” (p 4).

I think Brene Brown’s work is amazing and I felt a bit daunted writing a review of this book, just as I often find myself a bit tongue-tied when I try to sum up and pass along her wisdom when I am working with clients.  I often find myself referring clients to read or listen or watch Brown’s words directly, so I want to do the same for my readers here. There are many of her works I could recommend, my favorite in this moment is a animated video most specifically about blame, check it out at this link to you tube  but don’t stop there…

Please comment on this review on my facebook page

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Monkey Mind Book Review

Daniel Smith wrote a memoir of his experiences with anxiety in the book titled Monkey mind:A memoir of anxiety.  I found this book to be well written and gripping.  Smith writes in a style that it is honest and revealing of his struggle with anxiety while also being engaging and entertaining.  The book is funny, not what you might expect from a memoir on the topic of mental illness, but Smith relates some of his life experiences that were distorted by anxiety with a self-effacing manner that steers clear of any “poor me” sentiment.  Not all his anxiety-fueled life experiences evoke laughter, some bring about sympathy and some are quite cringe-worthy, for example a graphic description of nail biting.  Another surprise is that the book is suspenseful, as it is obvious from the beginning that Smith has found some way to manage his anxiety so the journey of how he came to that ability makes it a page-turner.  I won’t give away the ending but will say through perseverance with seeking out effective treatment and with the support of friends and family Smith does end the book on a happy note.

The descriptions of anxiety are another strong point of the book.  Smith is very descriptive of his experience with anxiety, using lots of big, interesting words such as solipsistic, self-eviscerating, unremitting, vicious, self-flagellating, and garrulous (I had to use my dictionary for a few of them).  Smith uses vivid imagery as another descriptive technique, especially in reference to how he settled on the book title, a term with roots in Buddhist teaching: “A person in the throes of monkey mind suffers from a consciousness whose constituent parts will not stop bouncing from skull-side to skull-side, which keep flipping and jumping and flinging feces at the walls and swinging from loose neurons like howlers from vines.”(p. 27)  Monkey mind is a valuable concept to reflect on efforts to cultivate a calm and peaceful mind.

Through his memoir Smith attempts to track the origins of his own anxiety by exploring the influences of his parents’ personalities, early traumas, fears, and compulsions, as well as exploring turning points and peaks in the anxiety.  It is clear he has a deep understanding of his own anxiety which he portrays and compares with the anxiety of family members and a friend. This revealing exploration goes a long way to minimizing the isolation that is often felt when an individual is struggling with mental health issues.  The power of the book definitely comes from the in-depth self-exploration and reflection that Smith has done, supplemented by his observations of others’ experiences and his knowledge of the work of psychological and philosophical scholars which is sprinkled throughout the book.

One last excerpt from the book which I really likes comes after the part in the story where he has found great relief from the anxiety and is living a more mentally stable life, so he offers advice to others suffering from anxiety (spoiler alert!)  “Listen closely.  When you are anxious note precisely what your mind has said and then interrogate what you find for accuracy.  Treat every anxious thought like a philosophical proposition and test it.  Apply logic to the content of your mind”(p. 201); the guidelines of cognitive behavioral therapy in the words of Daniel Smith.  Overall, its a great book that I definitely recommend.

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“I can handle whatever crap (literal and actual) that my two year old dishes out”
“I am an amazing parent”
“I’m grateful for my vast stores of patience, without it I’d surely being snapping ten times a day.”
“It’s okay to snap occasionally”
“I will feel overwhelmed and helpless in some moments and those moments will pass”
“I am caring, compassionate and creative and these will get me through the trenches of the ‘terrible twos’ ”

No, I am not an arrogant braggart. 

No, I am not nominating myself for parent of the year. 

I am being a cheerleader for myself.  I am telling myself these things to shift my train of thoughts away from desperate, helpless, and pessimistic thoughts.  I had a heck of week last week and my thoughts were often jumping to “holy crap I can’t take another minute of this!” so I sat down with pen and paper and wrote out some cheerleading statements to “feel me better” as my two year old would say. 

Cheerleading statements are a therapeutic tool with roots in cognitive therapy and dialectical behavioral therapy.  The idea is to stimulate hope and empowerment through encouraging, optimistic, and self-validating statements.  Thinking of what a good friend might say to you or what you would say to someone else in a similar situation to your own, can help you come up with statements.  Thinking of a cheerleader’s task of pumping you up, making you excited and energized, can also help.

Cheerleading statements are also helpful for disconnecting one’s self from the misery of the moment.  Feeling miserable can be very consuming, which is very limiting, not to mention depressing.  However, defining the misery as a feeling in this moment is freeing because this moment will pass, just as every moment passes, and with that passing there becomes room for a new emotion.  Cheerleading statements open one’s awareness beyond how awful things feel ‘right now’ and present a chance to remind yourself that things can get better.

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Support is key to incest survivors

I had the privilege of seeing Marilyn Van Debur Atler and her husband, Larry Atler.  The couple came to Steamboat and spoke about their experiences of overcoming the horrors of incest. I read Marilyn’s book Miss America By Day years ago and was amazed by the story of how she coped with being sexually abused by her father for 13 years of her childhood. For many years her coping was to keep the abuse out of her conscious awareness, unfortunately the side effects of this coping mechanism had very detrimental impacts that she eventually was forced to deal with through the process of recovery and healing. It was a long process with some key turning points being acknowledgement that the abuse happened and acknowledgement of how the abuse impacted her way of operating in the world. She told the audience last week that her recovery has been complete for 20 years now and she still speaks regularly about the incest because she believes in the value of making sure the topic is not swept under the rug and making sure other victims of incest know that they are not alone.

One of the points that stood out to me in listening to Marilyn speak was that she came to recognize that the recreational and vocational activities she was choosing to pursue where activities that triggered a feeling of terror; she was a ski racer in high school and college and chose motivational speaking as her career path.  Now, most people would likely chose to avoid things that were terrifying, but someone who has a distorted view of self and who has become so familiar with the feeling of terror that it brings a sense of comfort will seek out those things that bring on the familiar feeling.  What a confusing existence, to seek out and feel comforted by things that are terrifying or even potentially harmful.  Marilyn shared that through her recovery process she was able to make sense of a lot of things she had done in her life that didn’t make a whole lot of sense before the lens of trauma was used to take a look.

Usually at her speaking engagements Marilyn is the only speaker but this time she asked to include her husband so that he could speak about the very important role he had in Marilyn’s recovery.  Larry and Marilyn started dating in high school and fell deeply in love, unfortunately one of the impacts of the incest (a common impact of unresolved trauma) is that Marilyn pushed him away, repeatedly.  With trauma comes a lot of shame and one of shame’s distorted messages is “I’m not worthy of love”, trauma also brings fear of vulnerability and the message “It’s not safe to be close to anyone”.  Larry is someone that Marilyn felt very drawn to and that felt dangerous and extremely uncomfortable, so she tried to shut him out.  When Marilyn spoke with someone for the very first time about the incest, it was her friend and pastor that helped her acknowledge what happened and when she told her friend not to tell ANYONE, he asked her who she did not want him to tell, when she said “Larry”, her friend replied “then that is exactly who YOU need to tell”.  Thankfully, Larry is a man with boundless patience and love and even years of rejections, he answered the call to fly across the country next day and hear what Marilyn had to say, his response was “now everything makes so much sense”.  Again, looking through the trauma lens greatly clarified things that, before, didn’t make a whole lot of sense.  They stuck together after that and here they are 50 years later.

Larry spoke about how he was able to be a support to Marilyn as she went on with her life, both pre-recovery and in the depths of the excruitingly hard work of recovery.  A couple things that really stood out in what he had to say had to do with control and not taking things personally.  First, control: Larry recognized that a complete lack of control is the most damaging aspect of a traumatic event and that for 13 years of her childhood Marilyn had no control over the nightly terror inflicted on her by her father.  So, Larry saw how important it was to let Marilyn have as much control as she needed and accomodated this by going along with needs she expressed or decisions that she made or if they seemed like really harmful decisions then gently attempting to show the other side so that she might change her mind.  He let her be in control so that she could feel safe and trust that she was not going to get hurt.  The other thing that stuck with me was how Larry talked about not taking things personally, or really more accurately not verbally expressing or reacting to the hurt that some of Marilyn’s action caused for him.  He was able to see that her actions were more about her and her recovery than about him and how she felt about him, and because he could recognize that he could continue to be supportive, kind and caring to her rather than defensive, angry or withdrawing.  If he hadn’t been able to take care of himself through all these years, you can bet he would not have been able to be the supporter he has been, and part of that care was to find ways to work through hurt feelings without taking it out on the survivor.

Neither Marilyn or Larry talked a whole lot about shame but it was in the back of my mind in a big way, partly because it is a very common by-product of trauma but more because I’m reading a book on shame by an amazing researcher, Brene Brown.  I highly recommend watching her TED talk that is linked here.

I am so grateful to both Marilyn and Larry for coming to our town’s high school auditorium and sharing their story once again.  It was a pleasure to see the love between them and feel the hope for positive outcomes from even the most horrific events.  One of the last things that stuck with me from their talk was Marilyn’s mention of important and healing things people have said to her through the years, it is my wish as a therapist that I might say things that stick with people and have an impact on their path to living a more satisfying life.

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June is PTSD Awareness Month

PTSD stands for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  The US Department of Veterans Affairs chose the month of June to raise community awareness of this mental health problem.

PTSD can develop after someone has been through a life or limb threatening event, otherwise known as a trauma, during which there was intense fear or horror and little sense of power or control.  Examples of such an event include war combat, rape, assault, car accident, natural disaster, etc.

After any dangerous event a person needs time to recover; the body takes time to slow down after a blast of adrenaline and elevated nervous system, the mind takes time to process the series of events and sort through the wonderings of “if only…” and “I should have…”, and along with that there is the slew of emotions which are accompanied by their own physical manifestations.  All of this is part of the normal process of recovering from a trauma and can typically be well managed through some sort of crisis debriefing.   If however the process isn’t resolved and more symptoms compound, it can be the beginning of PTSD.

One trauma expert, Francine Shapiro, believes that PTSD develops with the brain’s unsuccessful attempts to process the trauma; instead of the memory of the trauma being filed away like all the other memories, the brain gets stuck replaying it over and over.   Replaying the trauma brings with it all the terror of the original experience so the mind attempts to avoid anything that may trigger memories of the event and prompt a replaying.  This re-experiencing and avoidance are two of the main categories of PTSD symptoms, related to these are the symptoms of numbness and feeling on-edge.

You can read more about the symptoms of PTSD on this checklist provided by the VA.

Avoidance of thinking about the trauma is part of what keeps the brain from effectively processing the event, and can also be very isolating.  Watch the YouTube video “I never talked about it” in the link below to hear one veteran describe his experience of PTSD. 

In the Steamboat Springs area another veteran, Bob Mullen, has addressed the lack of communication and connection by creating a group called Out of The Shadows with the goal of “vets helping vets adjust to civilian life after combat”.  You can contact Bob at 879-6294 for more information about the group meetings or check out his website to read about Bob’s experiences and what helped him overcome PTSD.

In the Denver/Boulder area there is an organization called WINGS that facilitates support groups for survivors of childhood sexual abuse, among other services.

For US military personnel and their families all over the country an organization called Give an Hour provides free mental health services.

There are a lot of resources available, I encourage you to use them in order to make positive changes in your life.

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Happy days, happy life

I recently read Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project; or why I spent a year trying to sing in the morning, clean my closets, fight right, read Aristotle, and generally have more fun (phew long book title!)  I enjoyed reading it because the topic of improving one’s life appeals to me in my line of work, but also because it highlighted the simple (and not so simple) pleasures of life that can be easily overlooked and forgotten.  For example, singing in the morning is a sublimly simple thing to do, that Rubin found brought a lot of pleasure to both her and her kids.

This idea of launching a Happiness Project came to the author after she recognized that, while she wasn’t “unhappy”, she did spend a lot of her time feeling grouchy or wishing that the current situation was different in some way.  So she set about researching and reading all she could find about the concept of happiness and came to the conclusion that if she wanted to be happier, her own attitudes and behaviors were the key to making that shift.  In Rubin’s words: “I wasn’t as happy as I could be, and my life wasn’t going to change unless I made it change.”

The next step in Rubin’s project was to pick out the areas of her life that she enjoyed which could be enhanced and those areas that caused her stress which could be better managed.  She came up with Marriage, Parenthood, Friends, Work, Play, Passion, Money, Energy, Eternity, Attitude, and Mindfulness and made each the focal point of one month of the year.  She took these concepts, some more esoteric than others, and distilled them into concrete action items so she could measure her progress in completing the project.  For example, the action items for Eternity were 1) read memoirs of catastrophe, 2) keep a gratitude notebook, and 3) imitate a spiritual master.

Each chapter of the book focuses on one month’s abstract concept, concrete action items, and the thoughts of philosophers and findings of researchers related to that month’s concept.  Rubin reports back on what works in contributing to a rise in her happiness, as well as what doesn’t work so well, and what she might do next time around.  The book is both practical and inspirational, in that it presents very specific ideas of how to improve one’s life and it taps into the elusive and intangible, but uplifting and energizing parts of life; it celebrates and enables the shades of gray that are often at risk of being trampled by the black and white.

While the book is a good read, you could skip it and still benefit from Rubin’s gathered wisdom.  She has put together a website with a blog, guiding suggestions to starting your own happiness project, and a collection of tips for improving key areas of your life that have the potential to cause either happiness or unhappiness.

An important side note is that this book is NOT a self-help book for mental health disorders, ie depression, anxiety, etc.  It is a self-improvement book suggesting a project to be undertaken by someone who has a stable foundation in place.  If you are suffering from a mental illness or think you might be, or even if you feel more unhappy than driven to be happier, you would benefit from working with a mental health professional.

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Emotional Awareness

I often encourage client to tune into their emotions. This recommendation comes up if people are consumed with one particular emotion such as anger, fear or sadness, or if they are immersed in depression or anxiety. There is a whole wide array of emotions but one or two emotions can overpower others or become, through habit, the most familiar and therefore most comfortable emotions. So, to move past that one powerful emotion and move towards greater emotional health I recommend “emotional awareness”–applying mindfulness skills to the internal world. If you have never heard of mindfulness check out the blog on it and give it a try.

The easiest way to start building emotional awareness is to use the 5 senses (sight, smell, taste, touch, sound) to focus on your external surroundings. The next step is to turn your attention inwards and focus on physical sensations occuring in your body. Emotions are also called “feelings” because there are physical effects that you can actually feel, for example the tightening of your chest or the lump in your throat. Tuning into these sensations gives you the space to avoid being caught up in the emotion and carried off to doing something you later wish you hadn’t.

As part of the experimenting with emotional awareness I tell my clients to prepare themselves for experiencing a certain emotion by identifying a setting when you know an emotion will be triggered, this could be an event in your everyday life or you could chose a movie clip (or try out Sarah Kay’s spoken word poem from the you tube feature at the bottom of the page). Whatever setting you chose pay attention to the physical sensations in your body as they start to change ie: how is your muscle tension changing in your jaw, neck, back, stomach, arms, hands; how is your temperature changing; what is your heart rate and breathing like; are you perspiring; what else has shifted in your body? You can also experiment with intensifying or relaxing the emotion by manipulating your body (for example, clench your fists or smile) or directing your thoughts, notice what that experience is like.

These exercises are simply observations for you to make in order to get to know yourself better. They can be difficult for people who prefer to avoid certain emotions. But with the knowledge that buried emotions will find a way to the surface whether through leaking or exploding, this sort of exercise is necessary for improving your mental health as well as getting to know yourself better, experiencing life more fully, and making good decisions through maintaining emotional balance.

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Why is there a poetry video on a mental health site

I have anticipated that people may wonder, but hesitate to ask, why a mental health therapist has a link to a spoken word poet on her website.

Image result for sarah kay image

Sarah Kay, spoken word poet, Ted Talk

This is supposed to be a mental health website, so what’s with the poetry.  Well there are a few reasons I included this video on my site.  The first has to do with emotions and you can read all about that on the Emotional Awareness blog entry.

The second reason has to do with the poem that she performs in the first 4 minutes of the video.  Apart from the fact that it is an amazing and moving performance, she is delivering an uplifting and important message.  That message is: life delivers both good and bad and you have to experience the curse of the bad to be able to fully enjoy the gift of the good.  It is a hopeful, optimistic message that in no way ignores the pain and sadness of life’s challenges.  It is well worth the 4 or so minutes of your time to be reminded of this concept which can forgotten when we’re in the thick of it or even when we’re just caught up in day to day life.

The whole 18 minutes of the video is also worth watching; it is a TED talk and she goes on to talk about her path with spoken word poetry.  There is a quote in the midst of her talk that speaks to this same message and more importantly (to me, as mental health therapist), it speaks to being open to experiencing all of life’s emotions, even the uncomfortable or embarrassing ones.

“I know that the number one rule to being cool is to seem unfazed, to never admit that anything scares you or impresses you or excites you…You protect yourself from all the unexpected hurt or miseries that might show up.  I try to walk through life…with my hands wide open and yes that means catching those miseries and hurts but it also means that when beautiful, amazing things just fall out of the sky, I am ready to catch them”–Sarah Kay

And the last reason, from a mental health perspective, to include this video on my site, is another thing Sarah Kay says: “I write poems to figure things out.”  Writing is a way of working through complex matters.  The writing itself doesn’t need to be complex or lyrical or publishable, it doesn’t even need to be shared with anyone, including yourself–you can tear it up when you are done.  The act of writing gets you out of your head where the same thoughts can spin endlessly and unproductively in attempts to work through a struggle.  With writing you can clearly see on paper what the patterns of your thoughts are and you can satisfy that part of your mind that wants to make sure you don’t forget to take x, y, or z into account.  And, having your thoughts in plain view makes it easier to examine them and question how true they are.  The act of writing also engages your senses–sight, sound, touch, movement (possibly smell, but I wouldn’t recommend taste), so it engages more of your whole self, which is very useful when you are feeling stuck and can bring to light new things that you hadn’t considered before.

So my recommendation to you is, next time you find yourself feeling lost and overwhelmed unsure of what to do, or consistently pondering the same thing over and over, or simply stuck in a rut, try writing.  Your writing doesn’t have to become poetry on you tube, but Sarah Kay has some ideas about how to get started.

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Relationship Insights: Schnarch’s Four Points of Balance

Some basics of maintaining a satisfying relationship as seen by very experienced couples therapist/sex therapist, David Schnarch:


The gist of the article is that it is important to maintain a solid sense of self as an individual in order to maintain a satisfying relationship.  The article goes into 4 ways to keep the balance of individuality and connection within a committed relationship.

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Blues Break

The winter blues have a way of seeping in and sucking the energy out.  With the short days and cold temperatures we end up spending a lot more time indoors and life can begin to feel pretty stagnant.  The routines of work, chores, and bad weather wear on many people to the point of developing a case of the winter blues.  Some people actually suffer from the decline of vitamin D from limited sunlight to the point where brain chemistry is effected and Seasonal Affective Disorder develops.

Where ever you may fall on the spectrum of winter blues there are things you can do to change the feelings of stagnation, low energy, boredom or sadness.

Many cold weather dwellers envision the ideal blues break as a trip to a tropical destination and if that is within your means, enjoy.  For those who don’t have the money to spend on a get-away, you can plan a different sort of break.  You can plan a tropical “stay-cation”: throw a party with the heat turned up, rent movies set in the tropics, read books or travel blogs.  The mind is very powerful and your imagination can generate the same positive vibes as actually being in a warm place.

Another way to switch up the winter blues is to make the best of the seasonal conditions.  Bundle up and enjoy the snow by building a snow fort, going sledding, or trying out a new winter sport.  Do something different and out of the ordinary to create some excitement and energy.

Or if you’d rather stay inside you can use the time and space to start a new project or learn something new.  There are languages and crafts to learn or practice, books to read, gardens to plan, games to play, and lots more.  Find something that you are less likely to do when the weather is warm and the days are long and devote some time to it.

Just like our habits and behaviors get stuck in a rut, so does our thinking.  You may notice your thinking has been tinted by winter blues and find yourself focusing on the negative, for example “I’m trapped inside, this sucks”.  Taking a break for negative blues thinking can have powerful impacts on your mood.  Do this by switching your focus to positive thoughts, for example “I have a lot of indoor time, I’m going to use it for something worthwhile”.

Spend the remaining month and a half of winter developing some aspect of yourself and improving your mood, so that come spring, its not just the flowers blooming, its you blooming.

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New Year’s Re-Resolution

Here we are three weeks in to the new year, how is your resolution turning out?  Have you made that change you pledged back on January 1 and are now reaping the benefits?  Or have you had some days of success and some days of backsliding?  Or did you forget about it all together by the end of the day on January 4?

If you’ve been successful, HURRAY!  I would love to hear about it below.

If you’ve had backslides, stumbling blocks, or even amnesia on your quest to the Resolution, FEAR NOT!  You are a normal human being, creature of habit, lover of the known and familiar.  I would love to hear about this as well.

Creating change is always difficult and typically the more difficult the change the more worthwhile it will be in the long run.  It is made so difficult because we take comfort in the familiar, even if it is unhealthy or detrimental to other parts of our lives.  We feel a sense of control and comfort when we know our surroundings and what to expect.  Therefore, change take courage.

The word resolution connotes a firm, deliberate commitment.  It also refers to bringing clarity and examining  the smaller parts of something complex, think of the resolution on your microscope.  Bringing resolution, or clarifying the parts, to your commitment to a life change, can help you to bring about the change.

The first part to examine is why you want to make the change; what are the benefits of living this new way.  For example, if you are working on maintaining a new diet, are you doing this to lose weight, honor animal rights, have a more sustainable agricultural impact, trim your waistline, improve your heart health, improve your immune functioning, improve your mood or energy level…  There are lots of possible reasons for any one change, pick out what is most important and most motivating to you.  It helps to imagine what your life will be like after 6 months or a year of successful change.  Write down your top two or three reasons to change and post them somewhere you will see them every day and be reminded of why you are going through the hard work of changing.

The next part to bring into resolution is what will get in the way of the change you want to make; what are the obstacles.  Once you have identified the obstacles you can brainstorm ways around them.  For example, your resolution is to maintain a new diet to in order to lose weight and improve heart health, one obstacle is that there are always donuts in the break room at work that tempt you; to work around this obstacle you could make a request to your co-workers for different snacks, you could avoid the break room, you could make sure you drink a huge glass of water before you go in, you could bring your own snack in…  Put your obstacles under the microscope and hone in on ways to get around them.

Next focus in on how you are going to make this change; make plans, identify steps, set goals that will get you where you want to be.  Change doesn’t happen all at once over night, it is a process with room for many little successes along the way.  These little successes will add momentum, so don’t forget to acknowledge them and reward yourself.  Back to the example of maintaining a new diet, some goals could be: identify healthy alternatives to familiar unhealthy foods, clear house of unhealthy foods, read book on nutrition, find recipes and cook one fat-free, low calorie dinner each week, identify supportive people and tell them your resolution…  These goals should be specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time sensitive (SMART).

Finally, if you have slipped off track do not be tempted by the Screw It Factor (i.e. I had one donut, screw it I’ll eat whatever I want).  Each time you notice that you have lost your way on the path to the new way of living, re-resolve yourself to get back on track and keep going.  Recognize and congratulate your self when you are on the path, even if you’re not there yet you are working hard.  It is a tough path that takes clarity and courage.

My resolution is to make a blog entry at least once a month.  Please share your resolution here in the comments section.  (Making it public gives accountability which will enhance motivation.)

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Visions of Sugar-Plums

“…Visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads…”

This line from Clement Clarke Moore’s poem “The Night Before Christmas” is a reminder of how visions of the holiday season are a common occurrence.  People often have visions of exactly how events will unfold, how people will behave, what will show up under the Yule tree, how delicious the meals will be, etc, etc.  These visions can be exciting and lovely.  The trouble with such visions is when they become too rigid to accommodate the unpredictability of real life.  I’ve found it is a guarantee that not everything will always go as planned and they more attached you become to the details of your visions, the more likely it becomes that some disappointment will follow. 

Comparing the events of this holiday season to past holidays also causes disappointment.  This is not to say there isn’t value in reflecting on happy memories of Christmases past, rather don’t expect every year to be like that one year when everything seemed to fall into place.  The danger of comparisons is where there is a good, there is a bad.  So while this may be the best Hanukkah ever, that means there will be a worst Hanukkah as well.  Enjoy without judgement what you have now, in the present moment.

One more way that preconceived notions can get in the way of enjoying the season of the winter solstice is when you expect things will go poorly.  You look forward, with gritted teeth, to that family gathering or community tradition.  This vision will color your experience, so that all you can focus on is the negative and just how unbearable your obligations are.  If you can shift your focus a little bit you will be able to detect the good, the worthwhile, the agreeable aspects and as a result you will feel more peace, if not even a bit of joy.

The key to happy holidays is balance in your obligations and your indulgences, honoring those things that you personally value, and maintaining flexibility in your expectations….if your vision of sugar plums turns out to be ginger peaches make the best of it.

Happy Holidays to all!

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Customer Reviews of Therapy

Obviously I think therapy is beneficial, but why just take my word for it.

I invite anyone who has worked with me specifically,  or worked with any therapist on a mental health issue, to submit a comment entry below or on my facebook page and tell the internet world how therapy has benefited you and why you think others should give it a try.


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Getting Therapy does NOT mean you are “crazy”

There is a very unfortunate stigma around mental health therapy, people often think that getting therapy means you are at best “unstable” or “weak”, or at worst “crazy” or even “dangerous”.  This stigma is misguided, out of date, and of course untrue.

Mental health ought to be considered on the same plane as physical health.  Imagine having a consistent sharp, aching pain in your elbow and saying “well the bone is still in the skin, so I’ll just let it get better on its own”…would you endorse this line of thought?  Probably not!  More likely you’d set up an appointment with a professional to have the problem looked and set a course of action to heal the pain.   And yet when it comes to emotional or mental symptoms folks do often follow the first type of logic: “I’ve been feeling stressed out (or angry, sad, unmotivated, etc) for weeks but I need to just get over it” and they will continue to suffer which will begin to effect other parts of their life  such as relationships, physical health, career, and overall self care.

There is no need to suffer from emotional or mental pain.  When you notice you are being consistently effected by a negative mindset or uncomfortable emotion, seek professional help to investigate the roots and determine the best course of action to eliminate the cause of the negativity  and discomfort if possible, or to cope with pain so that it is manageable and you can continue to lead a satisfying life.  Many, many people have benefited from mental health therapy and you can too.

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This is. (or The Concept of Acceptance)

Acceptance is simply an acknowledgment of What Is.  Acceptance is a concept which forgoes judgment on a circumstance.  Acceptance is  a mindset which allows you to let go of frustration and disappointment, stress and anxiety, regret and false hopes.  Acceptance brings peace.  Acceptance is the practice of recognizing the limits of your control.  Acceptance is a straightforward concept yet a difficult practice.

Thankfully, there are many chances to practice acceptance.  The fact of the matter is that life is full of opportunities for you to wish that something else did happen,  is happening, will happen when it is not.   How often do you curse the fact that your plans for the day have unexpectedly changed?  Or wonder in frustration why other people do the things they do (or don’t do the things they won’t)?  Or how often do you wistfully regret past mistakes or missed chances?  Or wish that your life would change in some way?  All of these are opportunities to practice acceptance.

To be clear, acceptance is not giving up.  Acceptance is not a way of excusing other people’s behavior and allowing it to continue.  Acceptance is not about giving in to circumstances that are unhealthy or uncomfortable.

The main thing that gets in the way of acceptance is wanting to be in control, but control is an illusion. The one guarantee in life is that it is unpredictable.  You cannot control what happens in any given day, you cannot  control what other people do, say or think, you cannot control the past and you cannot control the future…so what can you control? Your self and Your thoughts: beliefs, attitudes, interpretations, expectations, assumptions.   Trying to control anything else or operating under the idea that you can or should control anything else will only lead to frustration and self-contempt.

Recognize what you can control and focus your energy on those things.  Trying to control (ie change)  anything else in life is wasted energy.

Practice acceptance on simple things.  For example, when it is raining, acknowledge “Its raining” with out judgment, when your mind tries to judge or goes toward a line of thought that is leading away from acceptance (ie “It sucks that it is raining, now I can’t have my picnic”) return to “Its raining. This is.”  Use mindfulness skills, for example, tune into the 5 senses, listen to the rain, watch, smell, taste and touch the rain.  Tune into the feeling of calm and peace that is generated by your acceptance.

Serenity Prayer

God grant me the serentity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.

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Thought Distortions

So you read the last entry and know all about the power of thoughts, now what?  If your thoughts are powerful enough to effect how you feel, it is important to know what they are and even more important to  change them if you don’t like how you are feeling.  Very often when you are feeling an uncomfortable emotion the thoughts behind it are distorted.

Thought distortions are a way of thinking that stems from the wells of negativity and self-doubt that are in everyone and are fed by depression, addiction, anxiety, fractured or abusive relationships, or just being Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired (HALT).  Everyone has instances when their thoughts stray into one of the categories of distortions described below and if your mind is fit you can recognize the distortion and shift your thinking.  However if you are impacted by deeper mental health issues the distorted thoughts will feel more like The Truth and it will be more difficult to shift them.

Steps to Healthy Thinking

First: Know what your thoughts are. One way to tune in to your thoughts is to work backwards when you are feeling a powerful emotion.  Emotions are more visceral, this is why they are also called feelings, you feel something in your body that gets your attention.  Once you recognize the emotion, you can step back and ask yourself what are the thoughts?  This process can be developed by honing your mindfulness skills.

Second: Evaluate the thought. Once you have identified the thought causing the painful emotion you need to ask yourself is this thought based in reality or is this a thought distortion.  It is helpful to know the common categories of thought distortions, so they are listed below.  It is also very helpful to ask not just yourself but other people in your life, especially if you are impacted by deeper mental health issues or relationship difficulties.

Third: Challenge and shift the distorted thought.  Ask yourself, how true is this thought, 25%? 80?  The closer it is to 100% the more difficult and more minor the shift will be, but there is always room for a shift.  Here’s an example.  Original, distorted thought: “It hurts to swallow, I must have throat cancer”, 60% true.  Shifted thought: “There is a slight possibility that my sore throat is cancer but it is more likely an infection, just in case I will keep track of my symptoms and see a doctor is it gets worse”, 100% true.

Fourth: Compare your emotions before and after shifting the thought.  In the example above the person thinking the original thought likely felt extremely worried and scared and after shifting the distorted thought to a thought more based in reality he likely felt some relief, maybe still a bit of fear but with much less intensity.

Fifth: Practice. Learning to tune in, monitor and shift your thoughts takes practice.  Some ways to develop the skill are to keep a written thought record listing the thought distortion, truth% and emotion, the shifted thought and the new emotion; be aware of your most common thought distortion and when it enters your mind shift your attention away from it and into the present moment by snapping a rubberband against your wrist or using one of your 5 senses; write out a shifted thought to counter your most common thought distortion and put it up somewhere you will see it everyday, like your bathroom mirror.  Beyond these do-it-yourself tips, it can be very useful to explore the wells of negativity that are continuing to spawn thought distortions; this is hard work and it is valuable to have the help and support of a therapist.

Categories of Thought Distortions

Should Statements: I should go to that party.

Labeling: I am a total loser.

All or Nothing/Black and White: If this date does not go well I am giving up on ever finding a boyfriend.

Minimization/Discounting the Positive: My boss only liked my presentation because she was in a good mood.

Jumping to Conclusions: I have a sore throat it must be cancer.

Catastrophication/Magnification: I didn’t remember to pay my rent, this is the worst thing that could ever happen.

Personalizing/Blaming: This event went badly and it is all my fault.

Mind Reading: He didn’t stop to chat because he doesn’t like me.

Mental Filter: One person made a negative comment about my haircut (five people complimented it) so nobody likes my haircut.

Emotional Reasoning: I feel scared so this must be dangerous.

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The Power of Thoughts

“Sticks and stones will break your bones, but words will never hurt you”

–   Unknown

Anyone who has been around awhile, in any relationship with another person, knows that this childhood saying is a simplification and knows that words can hurt.  Words can be tremendously powerful for harm or for help…if we let them have the power.  If we accept words, whether from our own mind or someone else’s, without question or examination and take those words as The Truth, then words can have power to bring about anything, including broken bones.  The beauty of this saying is the reminder that words do not automatically have the power to hurt you, and if they do carry an initial sting you can examine and question, or even ignore them, to take away their power.

“I think I can, I think I can, I think I can”

–         The Little Engine that Could

Another childhood quotation.  This one owns up to the power of words and demonstrates that words/thoughts can create outcomes that are regarded as impossible or, if possible then extremely difficult and rather unlikely.  Focused determination and cheerleading blocks out the words of others and self which are saying things like “you can’t”, “its too hard for you”, “you’ll never make it”.  The words that we choose to focus are the ones that we choose to give power to.

Words and thoughts are intangible and they come and go through our mind, often without awareness.  Because of the powerful impact thoughts can have it is important to open our awareness to our thoughts and to the ripple effects they have on the rest of our experience.  The ripple effects of thoughts include emotions and behaviors which are the palpable, visible power that thoughts will create (if we let them).  Thoughts can create feelings/emotions of “hurt” as discussed above, as well as the whole range of emotions from happiness and hope to humiliation and heartbreak.  Thoughts can also create a whole range of actions, such as the dogged determination of the Little Engine and through the gamut to the inert immobility brought on by depression thoughts.

Emotions and actions are the parts of our experience that really stand out.  Emotions feel a certain way in our bodies: we notice the deep jab of disappointment and rising lightness of accomplishment, and our actions have some sort of tangible result no matter how slight or impermanent.  It is for these reasons that the thoughts causing the emotions and actions often get overshadowed and overlooked.  And yet if we want to change the way we are feeling or acting, we must turn our attention to our thoughts.

As mentioned above thoughts are not always truth.  Some thoughts come about through a tangled line of logic or from a faulty source.  Some thoughts take root after being repeated again and again by abusive or unhealthy people.  Some thoughts are fueled by emotion and become dramatized and distorted.  Some thoughts are colored by urges and habits.  With some many thoughts possibly being untrue the mind can really start to swirl trying to figure out what to believe.  It is valuable to know and be able to recognize some common thought distortions.  It is also valuable to know one’s self.

Check out the features of your life: your day to day functioning, your relationships, your mood.  Ask yourself if your mood is generally stable enough for effective day to day functioning or do you often feel too depressed to give anything much energy, or too angry to give anything much time, or to anxious to try anything too challenging.  If your mood is getting in the way then your thoughts are ineffective or unhealthy and very likely fall into one or more categories of thought distortions.

The good news is you can change the thoughts that are bring on ineffective or unhealthy outcomes.  It is not easy or automatic to replace old thoughts, especially those thoughts that have a long history.  Like building a new trail through the wilderness takes hard work to clear plants, trees and rocks, establish an even grade and break in a smooth surface; establishing new thought patterns takes work and time and consistent use.  The old, established thought trails will draw you back in with its familiarity, but now that you know exactly where the old thought trails lead you can step off when you recognize you are back on it and can step on to the new thought trail and continue the work of making it your regular path.

The next blog has more information about common thought distortions and how to work on replacing distorted thoughts with more effective thoughts.

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The Practice of Mindfulness

The mind is like a river, always moving.  There are times when the current of thoughts is moving fast and bumping into obstacles, crashing and foaming, there are other times when thoughts are like an eddy, swirling in one place stuck circulating over the same area, and other times when the thoughts gently glide along in a peaceful way.  Oftentimes we can get so consumed by our thoughts that we are in the river, floating away, all wet and removed from the present moment.  Mindfulness is the equivalent of standing on the banks of the river and taking in the scenery, observing what is floating by and what is getting stuck, taking note of the surrounding features of the river: the geography, the plants, the creatures, simply noticing it without judgment or analysis.  To apply the metaphor to your life, when you are observing the present moment you are observing your thoughts and your physical being: the emotions and bodily sensations, as well as your current surroundings: the people and events transpiring around you.

Mindfulness is the practice of observing the present moment without any judgment.  Rather than worrying about the future or regretting the pain of the past, rather than focusing on things beyond one’s control, rather than wishing your life were something that its not, mindfulness is a freeing way of simply accepting “what is”.  It is a simple concept but it can difficult to do, which is why it is called a practice.  Mindfulness is a skill and like any skill it must be used consistently in order for it to be used comfortably, in other words you have to practice it and you will have days when it comes easily and days when you may struggle; even when you struggle if you observe and accept the struggle without judgment you are practicing mindfulness.

Keeping and returning your focus to the present moment can be done by tuning in to your physical presence.  Turn (and return) your focus to your breath as it moves through your body:  into your lungs filling and expanding is it enters, compressing and lowering as it leaves; your belly, ribs, and shoulder all actively move, while internally the blood carries the oxygen and energy of each breath down to your toes and your finger tips.  Another way to use your physical presence to stay in the present moment is to feel the weight of your body as you sit or lay: start with your feet feeling them connected and sinking into the ground then move your focus up your body noticing the physical sensation as you slowly tune into each segment.  One more way is to use the 5 senses: choosing objects and deliberately noticing the minute details of each thing that you see, hear, touch, taste, and smell.

Practicing non-judgment can be done by tuning into your thoughts and noticing the content of your thoughts.  Be on the watch for thoughts that contain any sort of judgment: labeling, criticizing, evaluating, dismissing.  When you notice a judgmental thought resist the urge to beat yourself up about it, along the lines of : “I should not be thinking that, I won’t ever think that again!”, because this is, of course, another judgment.  Going back to the river metaphor you must simply notice the thought and let it float on by, rather than letting it get stuck and muddying up the waters.  The more often you practice nonjudgment, the more often nonjudgmental thoughts will be passing through your mind.  Focus on observing and letting go, observing and letting go, observing and letting go….

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Growing your comfort zone

There is a time for comfort and a time for challenge.  A balanced life needs times of learning, growth, and change countered by times of soothing, familiarity, and ease.  Imagine all the aspects of your life that provide you with comfort; these fit inside the innermost circle in the diagram here: the comfort zone. The comfort zone looks different for each individual but examples include chatting with good friends, hanging out in your pajamas watching a movie from the couch, eating your favorite food.  The comfort zone includes the low stress activities that you have done a million times because you enjoy them and feel calmed by them.

Life is easy in the comfort zone, unless you get stuck there.  Life in the comfort zone can start to feel cramped and limiting, a low level of agitation may develop, the activities that have been soothing may start to lose their appeal.  This happens if it has been a while since you’ve had a growth experience by trying something new, learning a new skill, or examining your life for ways to change or improve the way you live.  When this happens you are rubbing up against the border between the comfort zone and the growth zone and are experiencing useful anxiety.  At this point the only way to relieve the anxiety is to move into the growth zone.

The growth zone is characterized by uncertainty and discoveries, vulnerability and renewed confidence, fear and delight.  It is a time of learning which involves small failures on the way to big accomplishments; as the saying goes you can’t learn to ride a bike without falling off first.  Eventually with time, patience, consistent effort, the new experiences of the growth zone become familiar and mastered, and thus the comfort zone grows to include these experiences or activities.  Unfortunately it is fear of failure that can keep people stuck in a comfort zone that has become too small.  Another reason people avoid entering the growth zone is to avoid getting too close to the panic zone.

In the panic zone there is the feeling that one is in danger and the fight/flight/freeze response comes into effect to deal with the threat; that is, a person feels that he or she must escape the threat of danger by responding  to it aggressively, running from it, or hiding from it.  Survival becomes the priority and growth or learning is no longer possible.  The threat in the panic zone may be real but it is more often a percieved threat that is not actually dangerous.  Imagine someone with the common fear of public speaking, who steps out to the podium and begins to feel overwhelmed by fear and has an urge to run off the stage.  This person has entered the panic zone, staying there and acting from the panic zone will have less than favorable results, but thankfully it is not the only option.  This person can return to the growth zone.  He can take a deep breath, remind himself he is not in danger, and go on with his speech.  He will still be uncomfortable and nervous and his speech may not be the best ever delivered, however when it is all over he will have accomplished something new and grown his comfort zone even if its just a little bit.

So how do you make sure you stay in the growth zone and out of the panic zone?  There are many ways to ensure that new growth experiences feel safe and productive.  One is to make sure you have support and ask for help; this could mean getting encouragment from people who care about you or it could mean requesting the input of a teacher or mentor.  Another way is to take breaks from the growth zone by going into the comfort zone; small exposures to the new experiences balanced with familiar and comforting activities will keep you from becoming overwhelmed.  And last, maintaining awareness of your physical condition and mindset will let you know when you are getting close to the panic zone.  Like the example of the man giving the speech, he used mindfulness skills to reassure himself “I am not in danger” and took deep breaths to ground himself so that he could return to the growth zone and go on with his speech.

A satifying and fulfilling life has plenty of time spent in the growth zone, which allows for an ever expanding comfort zone.

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Useful Anxiety v. Harmful Anxiety

Here it is: my first blog post, months after it was first suggested to me. When I first got the suggestion I thought it seemed like a good idea: a way to channel my knowledge and experience into a written form which could be helpful to people; the only problem was, being less knowledgeable in web-tech, a blog is uncharted territory for me.  And so I dragged my feet with uncertainty while carrying a nagging, unsettled feeling that kept telling me I needed to take the plunge with this new change.  This feeling was anxiety and it was useful to me at a time of transition.

Anxiety is uncomfortable and that does not have to be a bad thing, it can be a motivator.  It is that unsettled feeling that says “I know things need to be different but I’m not sure how this will turn out”.  The tricky part of life is that the only way to discover how things will turn out is to move forward with the change.  In addition to being a motivator of change, the other benefit of the anxiety is it keeps you alert and tuned into discovering all the subtleties of a new change.  Useful anxiety is a normal part of life, it signals the need for change and creates a heightened awareness of how changes are unfolding.

Anxiety comes with the intersection of changes and the unknown, it is the worry and doubt about future events, which are often outside our full control.  Anxiety can become harmful when it freezes us, either in life changes or in day to day life.  This happens when the anxious thoughts about “what if”s and “worst possibilities” feed on each other and grow to create a feeling of overwhelming fear to such a degree that it feels safest to do nothing.  When anxiety moves from an unsettled but motivating state to a fearful or stuck state, it is harmful.  When anxiety causes physical symptoms (elevated heart beat, shortness of breath, sweating) or interferes with daily activities, it may be diagnosed as an anxiety disorder.  To read more about anxiety disorders visit website of the Anxiety Disorders Association of America.

Whatever level of anxiety you are experiencing, if it is causing distress you will benefit from discussing it with a mental health professional who can help you develop a plan for managing the anxiety and regaining a settled feeling of self-control.  A plan could include a variety of behavioral practices such as relaxation techniques, exercise, and nutrition; it could include cognitive techniques such as thought tracking and identification of thought distortions;  it could include using prescription medication to control physical symptoms; or the plan could be about how to successfully navigate life changes.  Anxiety is uncomfortable, to say the least, and it is only useful when it is addressed; left to linger, anxiety becomes harmful and leads to stagnation and distress.

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