“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Albert Einstein
I love this quote; it speaks to an essential human truth. We want to be different, yet change is hard. In 2016, the self-help market was estimated to be worth $9.9 billion dollars. That’s a significant financial investment made by people interested in transformation. How do we become who we want to be instead of staying mired in a pool of unrealized ambition? We all struggle to change the habits that don’t serve us; and the first step in changing habits is cultivating awareness. Questioning helps to clarify the path we need to tread. Who am I? Where am I currently? Who do I want to be? What is working well for me, and what is keeping me stuck?
When you want to become healthier, write a book, or accomplish any goal, you have to think about each action as a shift toward the new identity you want to inhabit. You are required to become aware of your beliefs about yourself and to make changes that improve and bolster your identity.
Habits can be good or bad, they happen in tiny increments. Each small change compounds over time, often without effort or notice. Conscious transformation requires intention and purpose. Ultimately, when we have built different systems, we feel differently about ourselves as a result.
Here’s a personal example. For much of my life I never thought of myself as athletic. I loved to dance, hike, and be outside, but the idea that I was athletic was laughable. In my 20s, I was friends with people who were into biking. I bought a bike to keep up. Then, because my friends were doing it, and to save money, I started biking to work everyday. My job was a 30 minute bike ride away at the top of a very long hill. That first ride to work was sweaty, scary, and exhausting. Slowly, I picked up tips and tricks from more experienced bikers and eventually learned to love my commute. After a while, I began to think of myself as a biker. This was a shift. I had a new belief about myself. Then I decided to try jogging. I figured, I’m a cyclist, I can run too. At some point after that, I began to think of myself as athletic. This happened imperceptibly over time through tiny, incremental changes.
In essence, humans always want to feel different. We tend to look forward to what we hope will feel easier, or backward to memories imbued with emotion. The pursuit of the desire to feel something else is what becomes a habit; each habit is a constant search for state change.
So instead of endless lists of tasks you want to accomplish, think about who you want to be. Rather than “I’m going to exercise more,” get in touch with what’s your driving force behind that task. For example, “I want to be healthier because I want to feel more comfortable in my skin.” Only then, when you have both your backstory and a clearer path towards the life you want to inhabit, can you get focused on the details that are required to take you there.
One quick tip: people who seem to have loads of self-discipline, don’t. They are better at setting themselves up for success, making good habits easier to achieve. Take, for instance, people who exercise regularly. They make it easy, accessible, and satisfying. Regular exercisers pay attention to what time of day works best for them, schedule exercise into their days, and reward themselves for a job well done.
I’ve used exercise here as an example, but it’s true for whatever ails you. Lasting change occurs in miniscule events overtime. So take some time this week to think about who you want to be, and over the next few weeks I’ll take a deeper dive to look at some ideas, tips, and tricks you can use to guide yourself towards that goal of living your best life.
My clients often look at me like I’m speaking a foreign language when I ask, “How does your anxiety serve you?” Or, “How does your depression feed you?” I encourage folks in my office to slow down so we can linger with uncomfortable feelings together. That is the start of understanding. Yet our instinct is often to do anything but that. Instead, we want to ignore, dismiss, and move away from emotions perceived as negative. Convinced that these feelings are “bad” or “not working,” we are sure they should be ignored or disregarded.
Here’s the thing: feelings always provide us something meaningful, otherwise we wouldn’t be so attached to them. This is the root of understanding how we got where we are. The answers are individually determined, and usually take time to excavate. Each of us comes to our way of being in the world honestly. Emotions are a natural or instinctive state of mind developed from our life circumstances. Starting as bodily sensations, how you interpret this twinge, flutter, or contraction depends on what you’ve learned over a lifetime of practice. And life is all practice.
Growth is, at best, confusing, and often painful and scary. Feelings come fast and furious and there is no one who lives in your body and sees through your eyes to explain what it means to be you exactly. So we do our best and approximate from what we see others doing to manage the onslaught. We learn a way of interpreting our feelings at a very young age, applying those pieces of knowledge over and over again. Sometimes this works better than other times. Sometimes evolving flows like water, while other times the gears get stuck and we are frozen in repetition, failure, or avoidance.
Many of us have the erroneous belief that if we use logic, we can think our way out of our feelings. Wrong. That’s backwards. In actuality, feelings are biological sensations rooted in the most primitive instincts for survival. Take anxiety, for example. Anxiety begins as a neurological sensation. We sense danger and our amygdala lights up sending our bodies into a cascade of sensations. Interestingly enough, anxiety, fear, disgust, and excitement all look the same neurobiologically. The difference comes in our interpretation: is this something that I should be scared about? The problem today is predation is everywhere and that kind of overactive neurobiology just is not going to work for you in the long run. You have to learn how to identify the feeling in order to manage it, and that requires sitting still long enough to pay attention.
When we learn to identify the feeling and sit with the experience long enough, we have a hope of knowing what, if anything, there is to do. That is why I ask folks the questions above. In order to know ourselves, we have to learn to be honest about what works and what doesn’t. Only then can we hope to come up with a new or different solution to our innermost struggles.
There is a question that I am often asked, usually at the end of an initial meeting. We are sitting together for the first time. We have outlined current stressors, colored in history, and sketched out future goals. We’ve touched on the things that hurt, and shone light on crevices that need space. At this point we’ve established the first wisps of attachment; we begin to think about what the work will look like moving forward. It comes in many flavors, but the essence of the question is:
How long will this take?
My answer is, always: I don’t know.
I don’t know, because it’s not my journey. I’m riding shotgun to someone else’s odyssey. I’m here, sitting beside you, or next to you, but I’m not the one driving. I’ll ask questions, probing in places that have gone rigid from disuse. I listen on multiple levels, hearing dreams and fears mixed in with the laundry. I hand over tissues when the feelings start to leak out of places long covered up. But I don’t know how long the process will take because it’s not my process.
Here’s what I do know. My task is to help my clients find their way into the struggle. This often confuses folks. First time initiants think that I’m going to help them stop struggling, when the truth is just the opposite. I’m going to help you struggle with yourself. I’m going to encourage you to look at the places that you thought you wanted to paint over. We’re going to sit with sadness, grief, anxiety, hate, and loathing... to name just a few of the most common feelings named in the work that we do.
And through those encounters, we will find something real. With time we will find courage, patience, understanding, and usually humor and joy. Feelings run on a continuum, you see, and you can’t have one side without having the other. You can’t have joy, without experiencing despair. You can't have success without living with failure. The grit, the growth, the life we all want comes with both sets, both sides of this coin. You can’t have one without the other.
When we try to limit our sadness, anxiety, or any feeling, for that matter, the result is not what we bargained for. One of two things tends to happen. Sometimes the more people push the feeling away, the more it comes back with an overwhelming ferocity that washes over everything. Or, it’s like a seesaw; you lop off one end of the line and you have to get rid of the other side to maintain equilibrium. People end up existing in the smallest subsection of reality, no highs or lows, just a tiny box to live life in. It's confining and isolating, at best.
So instead, I’m encouraging everyone to embrace the struggle. Look deep into the hard parts. Celebrate your vulnerability, expose the softness. That’s where the win is. It’s through sitting with ourselves, and witnessing our journeys through the strife, that we become our truest selves. And truth isn't gorgeous, easy, or comfortable. But it’s real. And the realness is what makes each one of us knowable and lovable. When people allow themselves to show up as their whole, messy, dirty, scared selves, that’s when the work starts. That’s where the rubber meets the road and we can start to talk about what comes next. And while this is not fast, easy, or fun, the journey is worthwhile and meaningful, ultimately allowing people to connect with themselves and others.
So yes, the struggle is real. Nothing worthwhile is easy. Your struggle is worthwhile because that’s where growth resides, where goals are met, and where success lives. So meet me in the struggle, and we’ll find our way together.
People come to me seeking change, wanting to “fix” something that’s gone awry in their lives. Even if they have a sense that the process will take some time, they usually yearn for a quick fix. People often ask me at the first session: How long will this take?
Here’s the thing: I have no idea how long you will need to change something in your life.
Here’s what I do know. If you want to make change, you have to slow down and become aware of what your needs are. Most of us are too busy doing to stay still long enough to listen to our innermost truth. I’m going to share what I think is quite possibly the best known secret to feeling better. The solution doesn’t cost anything, and you don’t have to go anywhere to find it. A huge part of the cycle of feeling better and doing better in life is... wait for it... rest and recovery.
We all need space to recover. I know it's antithetical, bordering on heresy, in our amped up world where stress and exhaustion are displayed as badges of honor. But no joke, this works.
When I say recovery, I mean anything that allows our bodies and ourselves to energetically reset. But let’s start with the big one.
For too many people, sleep seems like a waste of time. I mean, I’ve said this many times in my life: "I can sleep when I’m dead." Turns out, there is, in fact, a connection between not sleeping and death. When deprived of sleep, a lab rat will die just as quickly as if they are deprived of water and food. Let that sink in for a minute.
Sleep is vital for most species on earth. All animals sleep. Plants follow sun and heat cycles: morning glories open, and sunflowers chase the sun. Even bacteria seem to have “metabolic resting phases” of activity. Wild, I know. Human bodies also run according to day-night cycles known as the Circadian Rhythm. There are moments that we are supposed to wake, we have times of highest alertness, periods when we need rest, when we are hungry, and when we will most easily fall asleep. However, most of us caffeinate to wake up, myself included, and use other substances to relax or fall asleep. If you’ve ever had a night of insomnia or struggled with jet-lag you know: without adequate sleep, your brain becomes like an unruly toddler: impulsive, reactive, and over-stimulated. In fact, sleep deprivation has been utilized in the military to cause short term delirium and cognitive impairment. Any new parent can attest, sleep deprivation is a form of torture.
Unsurprisingly, sleep is vital for memory. People who cram and stay up late, do worse than people who study and then have a good night’s sleep. Sleep helps learning and memory in two distinct ways. First, a sleep-deprived person cannot focus attention optimally and therefore cannot learn efficiently. Second, sleep itself has a role in the consolidation of memory, which is essential for learning new information.
Likewise, sleep impacts physical health. Sleep is involved in healing and repairing cells. Lack of sleep is a stress on the body, kicking the sympathetic nervous system into overdrive, dumping cortisol and adrenaline into the system. This is your body’s way of preparing for battle; the amygdala fires up, heart rate is elevated, blood glucose levels rise, the immune system is suppressed. Sounds bad enough, but here’s the real kicker: the more activated the amygdala is, the more likely it is to get triggered again. So that’s why one night of insomnia often leads into a second night and starts off a painful cycle.
Chronically disrupted sleep is one of the earliest signs of disease. Ongoing sleep deficiency is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke. Studies with mice have shown that when exposed to light at random times over the 24 hour day, they experienced higher incidence and larger tumors than mice not exposed to the light interruptions. Humans engaged in shift-work over a long period of time have higher incidences of depression, cancer, and other illnesses. We believe this is connected to the disruption of the circadian rhythm and sleep-wake cycles. And crucial to my work with people - depression, anxiety, and suicidality all have a clear connection with sleep interference.
The prevailing thought for many years was that neuroplasticity was over and done with after childhood; we believed neural pathways were laid down and cemented by the mid-twenties. We now know that is not true. Our brains are constantly changing in response to experience and illness. High levels of sustained cortisol result in dendrite loss and even neuronal loss in vulnerable areas of the brain. Rest and recovery allows the brain to build new pathways and fortify those already existing. An integrated model of sleep and wellness places sleep in the center of other self care activities. Yoga, meditation, and breathwork all work together to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, lowering cortisol to desirable levels and increasing neuroplasticity.
For some people, it’s hard to imagine that sitting still and doing nothing can be good for health. But there is plenty of research proving just that. For starters, meditation improves concentration and attention. Teaching and using meditation has been shown to help both kids and adults with ADHD and trauma to rewire their brains for more success.
Then there is the Default Mode Network (DMN). As a quick refresher, the DMN is where our minds go when not engaged in another task. This is correlated with less contentment and more worrying. Here’s the good news: meditation quiets the DMN. Eight weeks of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) has been found to increase cortical thickness in the hippocampus, the area of the brain for learning and memory, and in other areas of the brain related to emotional regulation. There were also decreases in brain cell volume in the amygdala, which is responsible for fear, anxiety, and stress. Moreover, the participants reported lower levels of stress. Meditation changes both the perception and feeling of stress as well as creating physical changes in the brain.
In other studies, meditators had more grey matter than non-meditators. Grey matter is involved in seeing, hearing, memory, emotions, speech, decision-making, and self control. Grey matter seems to be more susceptible to aging. People with cognitive impairment (such as ALS or Alzheimers) appear to have less gray matter in their brains. Meditation lowers cortisol levels, heart rate, and blood pressure, leading to improvement in those with heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure. Meditation doesn’t just make you feel better, it actually helps your body heal. Need more proof?
Let’s move on to my favorite mindfulness practice.
Yoga originated in India, and is part of one of the world’s most ancient cultures. Yoga encompasses an entire philosophy of life including food, medicine, sex, sleep, and religion. Here in the west, we tend to focus on the asana (the movements). There are many types of yoga taught today, but all of them link breath and movement, which is why yoga is generally considered to be “meditation in movement.” Krishnamacharya, the father of modern yoga, felt that each breath cycle was an act of surrender. He believed that the entire point of the asana practice was so that humans could learn to sit and meditate. A yoga fable that I love tells us that Desikachar, a famous yogi, came to the west and saw that westerners had difficulty sitting still, and so he prescribed asana as a way to help people sit and meditate at the end.
We know yoga does the following: increases flexibility, strengthens muscles, improves balance, improves posture, lung function, joint health, improves proprioception, relaxes the nervous system, activates the prefrontal cortex, changes neurotransmitter levels, lowers blood glucose levels, and lowers blood pressure. Yoga requires learning completely new ways to move the body and coordinating different actions simultaneously as well as focusing on breath control. Each of these activities causes the brain to build new synapses, the connections between neurons. Numerous studies show that after three months of regular (daily) yoga practice, participants have improved depressive symptoms in comparison with a group using SSRIs. This is true with civilians as well as with veterans with PTSD.
In 1970 Swami Rama, a yoga guru raised in the Himalayas came to the Menninger Clinic and showed researchers that he was able to change the temperature of each of his hands, so that one hand was hot and one was cold. He was able to change his EEG (brain wave) reading to any of the four major types of brain waves then recognized: alpha, beta, theta, and delta. The western researchers apparently had a hard time believing what their eyes were seeing, and what the machines and apparatus were showing. After all, no one could figure out how he could possibly have such control of his internal bodily systems. The scientists wanted to know how he managed these feats, but he refused to teach people how to do these tricks. Instead, he reminded his students that the real goal of yoga is to attain serenity and meditation.
To recap: 20 minutes of mindfulness meditation, one hour of yoga, or a good night’s sleep have fantastic short and long term benefits. There are myriad other ways to rest and recover. And, important: I don’t claim that meditation, yoga, or a good night’s sleep will fix a failing marriage, or solve work or parenting struggles. But I do believe that this is a major part of life that we tend to run roughshod over. If you have doubts, I hope the science helps to pull you over to the other side.
The first yoga class I took was in beautiful upstate New York. I had just graduated from high school. The teacher was a woman named Joan. I can still see her in my mind. I have no idea how old she was 40? 60? 70? She seemed ageless, willowy with grace and long hair pinned back at her neck.
What I remember most vividly was the peacefulness she radiated from the inside out. This was in stark contrast to what I had known thus far growing up in New York City. While most people I knew had an anxious energy to them, she seemed to exude stillness and grace. She led the class through a simple movement practice. I have no recollection what the postures were. I do vividly remember the feeling I had at the end of the class: I was calmer. Somehow the hour in that room, following her instructions to bend this way and that, left me more centered. I remember having the thought “I feel more like myself than before.”
I left that class wanting to know more and do more. I’ve studied and practiced in the years since then, and the effect remains the same. When I practice, I feel calmer. Then, I was interested in yoga’s effect on my own life. Today in addition to my personal love for yoga, as a clinician I’m interested in using the practice to help others create a sense of peace and calm for themselves.
So how does Yoga do that? Let’s talk science for a minute.
There are two parts of the brain that play a role in stress. There is the “emotional” brain, the amygdala and the forebrain structures including the medial prefrontal cortex, and the “logical” brain, which includes the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, cingulate cortex, and hippocampus. Our emotional brain initiates the stress response which brings adrenaline and cortisol flooding our body. The logical brain tries to turn this off and turn on the parasympathetic nervous system to create the relaxation response. They are simultaneously communicating and arguing with one another. Moreover, there are signals all along our body, on a muscular level, on a neural level, a hormonal level, on conscious and unconscious levels that tell us to either get stressed or relax. If we are aware of the signals or switches, we can manipulate them to our advantage.
Yoga works the entire system, all these signals, in multiple ways. For example, every time we hold a posture, staying very still to concentrate on breathing or trying to balance, our logical brain is being activated as a way to calm the stress that comes from effort. You see, holding a posture creates a stress response, and as you maintain focus and continue to breathe, your prefrontal cortex is countering that stress reaction. This is how you train your mind to mitigate your stress response. First your mind learns to do this in a difficult posture on your mat, then you learn how to do the same when you are in traffic.
Yoga has tangible physical health benefits including stronger bones, more flexible muscles, and improved brain function. Through movement and breath, yoga increases the levels of serotonin and dopamine, which are the neurotransmitters responsible for feelings of relaxation and contentment. Yoga thickens the layers of the cerebral cortex, the part of the brain associated with higher learning. In fact, by learning new patterns of movement and stillness as we do in yoga, we increase neuroplasticity.
It takes time; it’s not instant gratification. Most progress is painstakingly slow, this is true in yoga as well. I didn't imagine when I started doing yoga that one day I would go to India to follow a teacher there. I never imagined that I would use it off the mat as many teachers had said.
But... one day…. I had been practicing yoga about 8 years. I was having an MRI. (If you’ve never had an MRI, you are basically shoved inside an extremely small canister, and told not to move or breathe while intermittent, random, deafening, banging is happening all around you.) At some point I began to feel anxious, and I immediately, without thinking about it, started to do Ujjayi breathing. Ujjayi breath is a particular type of breathing often used in yoga. I had automatically switched to using this breath, only realizing that I had done it after I started to feel calmer.
Since then, I’ve done yoga teacher training and specialized training in using yoga for anxiety and depression. I’ve worked with people who said, “I am totally inflexible, so I can’t do yoga” which is entirely untrue. And I’ve worked with people whose yoga practice was regular and in-depth. I’ve seen the real life effects of this ancient practice on kids and adults. And the more I practice on and off the mat, the more that I realize yoga has more to offer.
What heals a person’s ailments is a question as old as time.
As a clinical psychologist I meet people struggling with conditions physical, spiritual and relational in nature; they suffer in their individual ways and hope I can help them feel better. In my years of study and practice I have found there is a profound and often overlooked connection between what we do and how we feel. Sometimes the most important interventions are the most basic and subtle.
My philosophical training truly stretches back to the traditions of Hippocrates, the forefather of today’s medicine. Hippocrates examined patients’ everyday habits in order to best understand their complaints. He looked at everything from food, hydration, sleep, movement, interpersonal relationships, the season, prevailing winds and what direction the person’s house faced. Through his holistic understanding of the patient he would offer his main prescriptions which included improving the diet by adding more vegetables and instructing people to walk more each day.
Within the last 2000 years we’ve moved away from understanding root causes of disease as stemming from a holistic place. Today’s medicine has become subspecialized into precise fields of understanding leading to many important breakthroughs for illness. But as medicine moves into infinitely more specialized arenas, our overall health and well being has been left by the wayside. Depression and anxiety are skyrocketing; suicide and addictions are at epidemic levels. People are living longer but struggling nonetheless.
There are some current trends in medicine and psychology towards better understanding the importance of overall wellness in a person's health. Research reminds us that the same aspects Hippocrates studied still impact us today. Factors such as hydration, nutrition, sleep, movement, and interpersonal connection all impact a person's mental and physical health. My belief is that these five factors: Sleep, Hydration, Nutrition, Movement, and Connection are the basis for all health and the prescription for general well-being.
Sleep and health are inextricably bound. Sleep deprivation impacts mood, cognition, and bodily functions. People with mental health concerns are more likely to have disrupted sleep patterns than healthy individuals.
Brain cells require hydration to operate optimally; when dehydrated, people cannot pay attention. Even mild dehydration affects mood, cognition and energy levels.
The importance of nutrition cannot be underestimated. The countries which follow the Standard American Diet (SAD), which is high in fat, sugar, and highly processed foods, have higher incidences of major health concerns including depression and anxiety among other physical diseases.
Robust evidence illustrates that exercise is necessary for maintaining mental and physical health. Exercise helps us have better sleep, sharper memory and cognition, higher self-esteem and more energy. Exercise improves mental health by reducing anxiety, depression, and negative mood.
Cancer survival rates are impacted by quality of interpersonal relationship and support that patients receive. Interpersonal relationships are disrupted by mental illness, and poor relationships are often the precursor to diagnosis. Major areas in which these conflicts may occur include all aspects of family, social and work relationships.
These five areas individually impact health to be sure. Assessing them helps understand the person’s overall awareness about how self-care impacts well-being. I believe when taken together these five areas coalesce to help people find a better way forward. We find our best selves by going back to basics. If we are feeling poorly we will feel better. If we are feeling okay, when we align with the most core aspects of health, we can perform to our peak capacities.
How much do you think about thinking?
Most of us are blissfully unaware of what is happening between our ears. When life is humming along we have the privilege of ignoring the biological components; neurons firing, neurotransmitters created; all working their magic together. We roll along oblivious to the different ways our brains control movement, language, memories, feelings and everything else that we do.
As a clinical psychologist, I think about thinking a lot. My professional gig is helping people when something goes awry. Usually, someone who is suffering and feeling poorly arrives asking for guidance to get their emotional ducks in a row. And it’s actually from understanding what happens when things go awry, that we learn how we work to feel better.
For example, there are a number of neural pathways to anxiety. The main one is the amygdala, an almond shaped mass of nuclei deep in the temporal lobe. The amygdala is colloquially known as the “lizard brain” because it is considered a vestige of a biological function related to survival.
Let’s set the stage. You are living in the jungle about to be pounced on by a tiger. Your amygdala senses danger and makes a split second decision which begins a cascade of biological triggers: adrenaline starts pumping, causing increased heart rate, blood pressure, and shallow breathing, among other things. The amygdala creates a sudden and intense unconscious emotional response that makes thinking difficult; when stressed our cognition goes off-line. You are poised to react, to fight, flee, or freeze in order to survive the tiger attack. You are not ready to do intense thinking, no calculus or crossword puzzles when you are about to be eaten by a tiger.
Super helpful if you are indeed being pursued by a predator; less helpful when the predator is an inbox full of emails.
The amygdala is also responsible for recording memories and where they are stored. Storage and retrieval depends on the level of emotion attached to the memories. Happy memories are stored differently than anxiety related memories. So when you are happy you have access to happy memories. Same-same for anxiety or any other emotional state.
But wait, there’s more.
Interestingly, the way we generate fear is the same pathway to creating excitement; same amygdala trigger, same biological cascade. So what’s the difference between panic and excitement? The difference is in our interpretation of the situation, our understanding of the feeling.
Let’s take a second to talk about the Umwelt. It’s a German word which means “environment.” Imagine a ladder. The umwelt is all the information that our brains perceive: noise, smells, sights, environmental factors, who we are with, how we are feeling physically, and more. We’re talking about the entirety of the pool of available data.
We can only perceive a select portion of that information. For example, we can’t hear every sound, nor can we see infrared light. So, we select certain data from the original stream, and we are up one rung. From that we make assumptions about what is important to pay further attention, and we’re up another rung. We draw conclusions, and we’re up another rung, which support our beliefs, and we’re up another rung. Bam! we’ve reached the top of the ladder and from all of our assumptions based on the data we’ve selected: we take action.
This entire process takes mere seconds; mostly away from conscious thought.
The reflexive loop of our beliefs affect what data we select next time. Can you see the endless opportunities for either self-referential cementing of past belief or... change?
Turning back to the anxiety triggers; when we are anxious the pool of available data is even smaller; the unconscious process, even stronger. Unless you can regulate your arousal state to inquire into your thought pattern you’re stuck playing out the same old game you’ve played for years. The same old hurts, the same fears, the same stuck places.
But here’s the thing: Every time you bump up against yourself you have an opportunity to choose.
You can unconsciously reach back into your life-long play book, and go that route. Or, you can try to regulate your arousal and inquire back down that ladder to understand where you started and see if you can change the game.
Attention is a habit. If we change what we pay attention to, we can change the habit. Each time you slow yourself down, take a breath and question your certainty you’re changing that habit. Every time you chose to respond differently (wait before sending the email, stepping away from the argument, listening instead of shutting down) you are reinforcing your new habit.
One simple thought has worked wonders for me.
I remind myself constantly, everyone is doing the best they can with what they’ve got.
With that mantra I take myself out of the drama. I remember that people have their own reasons for their behavior. This puts me back in the position to make my own decisions about me. If they yell, that’s on them, I don’t have to respond. Rudeness becomes someone else’s issue not mine. I don’t have to feel what others are shoving at me.
I’m not perfect with this yet, nor do I expect to be. But repeating my mantra multiple times a day has changed the meaning that I make from the data that I get.
Your brain is built to make meaning in the world. It’s up to you to decide what to do with it. Where and how are you choosing to make meaning in your world?
I’ve been thinking about the importance of flexibility at lot lately.
Flexibility has profound implications for our lives: the strongest things are usually the most flexible.
Skyscrapers are built to be stable and to move with winds and earthquakes. In a hurricane, the trees left standing are the ones that bend. Even your favorite article of clothing is probably not a stiff, scratchy sweater; it’s the stretchy, comfy, soft thing you never want to take off.
The same holds true for our minds: we benefit from elasticity.
We all know how to do more than one thing at a time: aka multitasking. Contrary to popular belief, we all suck at it and it's terrible for us. (If you’re interested, you can read more about multitasking here.)
Instead of doing multiple things at once, we are better off learning to efficiently switch between tasks. This is what’s known as Cognitive Flexibility (CF).
My favorite metaphor to describe CF is switching channels on a TV. If you’ve got two shows running at once, it’s hard to understand the plot of either. Even if it takes longer, you’re better off watching one and then the other. And, if you can’t switch between channels at will, you’re going to get stuck watching a show you hate. That’s where CF impacts our Emotional Flexibility (EF), which is super important for your well-being.
Take for example you are stuck in traffic, you are impatient and frustrated. What happens when your boss calls you on the phone? What about your kid who just found out his hamster died? You don’t want to respond to all of those stimuli with the same emotional output. You need to be able to use different emotional regulation strategies as the environment changes.
After all, if you want to build a house, you need more than just a hammer. If you come with only one tool, you’ll only be able to do one task, and if you don’t practice, you won’t be able to be efficient at using any of the tools in your toolbox when you need them
If you want to read more about EF you can click here. And here’s another study about connection between emotional flexibility and resilience link.
Interested? Here are some things you can do to build your Emotional Flexibility:
Step one: Pay Attention.
Notice when you get stuck. How are you feeling in that moment? Perhaps tired, stressed, depleted, or overwhelmed.
Remind yourself that you are entitled to feel your feelings. You cannot heal what you cannot feel. Every feeling has a beginning, a middle and an end, if we let ourselves feel them. If you are pushing away or ignoring difficult or confusing feelings, you will get stuck and won't be able to work on increasing flexibility.
Step two: Practice.
EF is closely correlated to our overall mental health. More Flexible= Healthier. Which means if EF is not your strong suit you have to work to become more skilled at it. Spoiler alert, EF is not a strength for many of us, and we all benefit from learning new skills here.Here are some things to try in your practice to build this muscle.
Write. Take the moment of suck, and come up with other options. What do you have control over? What’s outside of your control? What can you do to change your experience of the situation? For example, when you are stuck in the airport on the way home from vacation? Can you remember your best moments on vacation to help you from becoming a tower of rage in the moment?
Meditate. Mindfulness meditation has been proven to enhance people’s ability to switch between tasks. Although there are different types of meditation, mindfulness meditation is the type that works best here. Check out a study that discusses that here.
Nourish. We need enough serotonin. And Dopamine. Make sure you are eating enough complex carbohydrates (vegetables and fruit). Some supplements can help if taken regularly:. For example, magnesium, fish oil, vitamins C and B6. Read more about my take on Nutrition and Mental Health here. (Always check with your doctor before taking any supplements).
Exercise. Regular exercise boosts energy with endorphins and helps end repetitive loops of thinking. Running, Cycling, Hiking, Weights, Yoga, whatever. Just move your body.
Sleep. Specifically, REM sleep appears to increase cognitive flexibility. You can read more about that here.
Talk. That’s where friends and of course therapy can help.
Don’t push away the uncomfortable feelings. Welcome them as an opportunity for learning. Not easy, but even that cognitive reframe is important because we are all going to have difficult feelings. Every. Single. Effing. Day. Growth comes from discomfort. So the question isn’t if you are going to struggle and get stuck again; but what happens when you’re faced with the next uncomfortable feeling? How do you empower yourself to lean in and learn more about yourself?
Have you tried any of the options I mentioned? Are there other things that have helped you when you are stuck? Leave a comment and let me know.
Ask anyone who knows me...I love food.
I love to grow my own food, I love cooking and I love eating. I’ve been known to read cookbooks cover to cover. I know I’m not alone in this obsession. After all, most of us eat multiple times a day. Yet, we have no idea how to eat intuitively. We concentrate on physical markers; primarily on weight, cardiovascular markers, or cancer prevention. Rarely, do we think about how to eat for our mental health.
There is so much confusion about what is “healthy.” I get questions like: Are carbs good or bad? Should I eat meat or not? How many eggs is enough or too much? We are taught there are “good and bad” food choices. And then the information changes. Most of us don't have the time or inclination to study nutritional science. So we go with what we read in the headlines, or what someone has told us works for them.
When I meet someone in my office, I always ask about what they eat, how much they cook, and how often they eat with other or alone. When I ask people about what they eat to feel healthy, most people respond with what they don't eat. At first I was surprised, but I’ve learned to be specific with my inquiry. How much water do you drink each day? What about caffeine and sugar? Do you have cravings? If so, for what and when do those cravings occur? Clients are often surprised at my focus on food and nutrition. After all, people are coming to talk about feelings and relationships, not about food. Or so they think. Although I’m not a nutritionist, I talk about food with clients because our feelings, beliefs, customs and trauma impact our relationship to food. Our culture, families, income and lifestyle all impact our relationship to food. With all that we think we know about food, the reality is that food affects us even more than most people recognize. News Flash: food affects how we feel. link to association between obesity and depression
Most people can understand: you get out what you put in. Put in junk: you get a funk. Yet, most Americans rarely eat home cooked food. Instead we eat processed food on the go or alone in front of a screen. This impacts our physical and mental health. In fact science is regularly reinforcing the importance of the gut-brain connection.link to gut-brain connection Our neurotransmitters, which are the chemicals that regulate our bodies and our brains, are made in the gut. Here's a link explaining where neurotransmitters are made. In plain English, the chemicals that impact our mood are created in our gut. Our gut is where all the food goes. You are what you eat, and what you eat impacts how you feel.
Although science regularly gives us new information about the connections between nutrition and health there is not a one-size-fits-all solution to universal well-being. Confusion around what to eat and what diet to follow is legitimate. In my practice I work with people who have trouble keeping their weight up, and people who struggle to lose excess pounds. There are folks who have food allergies, and those who have eating preferences. Additionally, the nutritional needs of a 15 year old boy on a soccer team are going to be different than a 50 year old woman who swims regularly, or someone who is sedentary most of the day. Yet, people seek a uniform solution. Simply put: Not. Gonna. Happen.
Instead I work with clients to find what works for them as an individual. Your solution is in your struggle. You aren’t going to find success by doing what works for your friend, your mother, or following a rad magazine article.
Here are some concepts that may help you find your own way to health.
These are some basic ideas that have helped me, and countless others, feel better about themselves, about their eating and ultimately their feelings and sense of self. What do you think? Can you take any of this and make changes to help yourself feel better?
People come to see me for all sorts of reasons. But they all have something in common. Age, gender, sexual orientation, doesn’t matter; diagnosis, history or economic status don't change this factor. They come to me because things are not working well in their lives. Folks feel stuck in a rut and they can’t seem to get out. Usually by the time they end up in my office they have been mired in their situation for long enough and they are desperate for change. I’m rarely the first stop on this train of woe.
There are lots of ways to think about what ails each person. I start with a detailed history; asking about family of origin and developmental history. We discuss current themes and habits, we talk about hopes and dreams. I want to know all the details about relationships and self-care. I try to get into as much detail as possible. This is where the individual resides.
Once I have all this information, I work with the client to come up with a treatment plan. There are many different psychological theories that therapists use to help guide our thinking; Psychodynamic, Cognitive-Behavioral, Developmental, Interpersonal, and Family Systems to name a few. Each of them has their utility and their pitfalls. The one I want to look at here is called the Default Mode Network, because I think its a very useful tool to understand what's happening in our heads. I’m going to get a tad bit science heavy and nerdy, but just hold on the juice is totally worth the squeeze.
The Default Mode Network (DMN) is an organization of brain regions which interact with each other and are distinct from other brain systems. This is the system we use to operate on a day-to-day basis (how to move through the world) and contains the structure of the self (how we are in the world). This network of neurons is responsible for your memories, feelings, and reactions as well as your understanding of other people’s behaviors and their feelings, and organizes our memories and our thoughts about the past. Although the Default Mode Network was first described by Hans Berger in 1929 and has been supported by others since then, it was only in 2007 when researchers were really able to start to see the brain activity clearly in PET scans that the research on this system really took off. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Default_mode_network
Physically the DMN is located in multiple sections of the brain, such as the older “reptilian” parts as well as the more “advanced” parts of our brains. This includes, but is not limited to the medial prefrontal cortex; the posterior cingulate cortex; the hippocampus; and the amygdala, as well as parts of the inferior parietal lobe. Want a quick refresher on brain anatomy, check it out here. brain diagrams
Why is the DMN important? Well it’s what makes you, you. This thing is the amalgam of all of your experience, thoughts, feelings, hopes, dreams and fears. The DMN is what makes us able to look at a face and recognize it as a face; and allows us to complete a task without having to learn it anew each time. The DMN is what reminds you not to eat the sushi that got you sick that one time, or evokes feelings when hearing a certain song. Accordingly, the DMN is modulated by everything that affects us; sleep, food, sex, exercise, acupuncture, meditation, drugs, etc. You name it, and it’s probably got something to do with how you experience the world. link for meditation effect on DMN
Here’s the kicker. When your brain is NOT involved in a task that requires concentration, such as giving a lecture, or focused on a task, such as cooking dinner, the sections of the DMN are more active. This is kinda cray-cray. But what it means is when you are not involved in a task fully, you might get stuck in rumination. You go sliding down the rabbit hole of: why did that person give me a funny look? Was it a funny look or not? Did I do something to deserve that look? In fact the DMN may pull us out of a task and down that same rabbit-hole. Sound familiar?
When that happens, we get pulled into all the times that we may have had a similar experience, and/or pulled into the future of fear when those feelings may come up again. This is precisely the problem with the DMN; while this network of neurons is what allows us to operate on a day to day basis, we also get caught, ensnared and reduced to the misery of rumination or habitual thinking. When you get “stuck” and start churning through our go-to mode of chasing whatever monkey-brain we each have, that is the DMN doing it’s thing.
So, knowing this the question becomes, how do we manage the monster? First (and anyone who has worked with me will tell you this is my default comment), you have to be aware of yourself. You have to be aware that you are in that space, and oops it happened again. The magic is in the struggle. Only then can we work to change the process. You have to be able to name it before you can change it. This is the work of getting to know yourself, and then laying down new neural networks. There are smaller more ways to change and more impactful ways of change, but they all start with the same step, knowing yourself.
Once you’ve committed to learning about yourself you can ask questions such as these:
What are your daily habits of thought? Are you kind to yourself or constantly critical and demeaning?
What are your daily habits of behavior? Do you get enough sleep? Feed yourself nourishing food? Do you exercise? Do you allow yourself pleasure?
What are your relationships like? Do you come away feeling understood or lonely after meeting people in your life?
The questions are a starting point, and the solutions are individualized. That’s where the hard work comes in, stripping away the layers of historical not-knowing to find a place where you can say, this is what works for me and stepping into that. That work can be done with a therapist, with a friend, or on your own with a journal. Solutions can involve food, sleep, exercise, meditation, drugs and connection. But only you can do it. So that’s your charge. Go forth and make change.