You've been doing self care wrong. Here's how to fix it.

A Self Care Journey

“My self care is a glass of wine!” I would say with a smile and a toss of my head. And a glass of wine in my hand, with a full bottle in front of me. Next morning, with an empty bottle and a headache, I did not feel very cared for.

Clearly, I had missed the point of “self care.”

Years later I’ve ditched the wine completely, but the self care remains a bit of a mystery. I hear about it plenty, and I imagine you do, too. It’s important to take time for self care, you’re told. Especially as a mom. Perhaps you’ve read an article or two that evoke the image of the oxygen mask on a plane -- you have to put your oxygen mask on before your child’s, because you can’t care for her if you’re depriving yourself. It makes perfect sense, on a plane. But how do we translate that to the how-to of emotional nurturance?

Self Care Confusion can add to anxiety

Because the topic was so unclear to me, I began to research it. What I found was an array of advice. I found a 30 Day Self Care Challenge that pushes busy moms to try something new in the realm of self care every day for 30 days: journal, eat chocolate, get a massage, go to the gym, disconnect from your technology, do some yoga, and so on. Wait, was self care supposed to be indulgent? Was I supposed to enjoy it (like eating chocolate) or was I supposed to enjoy how I feel afterwards (hello, gym, my best frenemy)? The more I read, the less I understood.

The question I didn’t see asked or answered is: How am I supposed to know if my unique self care routine is actually working?

Sure, you can do a 30 day challenge, but what are you looking for at the end of it?

And as with most things, it occurred to me that mindfulness is the answer. Stay with me here.

It simply does not matter what activities you choose as your self care routine. What matters is how you approach those activities. The story you tell around the activities. And the only way to hear your own story is through the practice of listening, to yourself, to your thoughts. Respectfully and without judgment.

A Jewish Perspective

Judaism teaches that there are two aspects to worship. One is the fixed practice, the structure, the words we speak when we pray. This aspect is called “keva.” The other, is “kavanah.” Kavanah refers to the feeling behind it all, the intention you bring to the structure. This separation sets a beautiful context for thinking about a self care routine. When you run your self care bubble bath, filling the tub is the keva. Wait, no, just getting the 30 minutes to yourself and entering the bathroom alone is the keva! It’s no small feat, and it takes commitment on your part. You’re doing it because you said you would, for your own self care. Out of faith that it will enrich your life.

A bath is just a big ol’ pile of water and suds. It means nothing on its own. You create the meaning.

 An indulgent bath is definitely stressing this guy out!

An indulgent bath is definitely stressing this guy out!

The kavana is a the meaning you bring. Tune into it. Hear what stories your mind is telling you about the bath you’re taking. Are you ruminating about the things you “should” be doing instead? Are you berating your body? Or are you fully immersed in the warmth of the water that surrounds you?

If you can’t hear what your mind is telling you, it’ll let you know through your emotions. You might notice feeling frustrated, or resentful, or anxious. Those feelings are not coming from the bath, because the bath is just a pile of water and suds, remember? Those feelings are coming from your thoughts, from the kavanah you bring to the bath.

There is likely a lot of keva in your day. The routines and rituals that you do so frequently you forget you do them. Each one of these is an opportunity to practice noticing your kavanna. While you’re brushing your teeth, eating a meal, cooking, folding laundry, check in with your thoughts. What are you bringing?

Bring mindfulness to anything and make it self care

Are you feeling refreshed after combing your hair because you intended for the activity to be one of kindness, and stayed attuned throughout? Then congrats, you just did your self care. Are you resentful and angry after your massage? Perhaps your thoughts ran away with your emotions. The activity itself matters far less than what you bring to it.

Your self care routine has nothing to do with the activities you choose. You can take a bubble bath, get a massage, or simply tune in to eating your lunch. But the only way to know if you’ve just completed an act of self care is to tune in to the kavanah before, during and after. Eventually, you'll be able to intentionally change that kavanah and create a purposeful intention.

So find the activities in your day that you are committed to, and check your kavanah. You can create self care out of anything -- it's basically a superpower.


 

Completely Change How You Think About Passover Cleaning

A Bit of Background

I am not a very tidy person. I also don’t keep kosher for Passover (for now). So the whole idea of cleaning for Passover  is a bit anathema to me. However, like all things Jewish, it inspires me. It is full of rich wisdom that helps us manage the anxieties inherent in being human.

Passover is the Jewish holiday that commemorates the Israelites’ exit from slavery in Egypt. It’s origin story is generally pretty well known. It’s the one with Moses and the crossing of the Red Sea. For us Jews, it’s one of the biggies.  

Jews today observe Passover by gathering with family and having a meal together. But not just any meal. The Passover meal, known in Hebrew as a “seder,” is...different. What makes that night different from all others, you might ask (and you wouldn’t be the only one asking)?

 The matza, or unleavened bread

The matza, or unleavened bread

Quite a few things, actually. But I’d like to focus on the one about eating unleavened bread (matza, in Hebrew).

On Passover, we forgo bread, and not in a Paleo kind of way. Trust me, there’s plenty of other carbs on the table (hello, potato kugel!). But none of them rise up in a bready, leavened kind of way. The rule is that for the Passover seder, and the following eight days of observance, Jews do not eat any leavened bread (known as chametz in Hebrew). No pretzels, no cookies, no muffins, you get the idea.

We do this to remember that the Israelites had to run from Egypt so quick that they didn’t have time to wait around for their baked goods. They just slapped some unrisen dough on their backs and let it bake in the sun while they ran. Honestly, the forethought here is amazing to me. Can you imagine? “Yes, Moses, we are going, we are going, but not without a snack!” Is this the origin of the Jewish mother always needing to feed the family? Perhaps, perhaps. But I digress.

This unrisen dough, once baked by the sun, was like a cracker. In Hebrew, it’s known as matza. It’s one of the most important and recognizable symbols of Passover.

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For more observant Jews, the weeks leading up to Passover are a frenzy of cleaning as they rid the home of any trace of chametz. There is to be no leavening anywhere!  Could this be the origin of spring cleaning? Perhaps, perhaps.

This time of year finds Jews the world over scouring the home, hunting down any bit of bread or crumb or Cheerio or Oreo (or Hydrox, more likely) that has tucked itself away somewhere. I remember learning that we are supposed to go through the home with candle and a feather during this search -- the candle to illuminate and the feather to dust the chametz away. I’m not certain that part of the tradition accurate, but I like the image.

I don’t know much more about it than that. Like I said before, I am not particularly drawn to cleaning nor have I historically kept the Passover rules. I just like to think on them. So now that the background is out of the way...

What does any of this MEAN?

This ritual gives us plenty to think about. Here are three of the ideas that struck me as I considered the tradition:

  1. Clean the home, clean the mind: I often tell clients in the therapy room that doing the work of self-examination is an exercise in excavation. We turn inward, look around in all the corners and crevices, and shine a light upon what is hiding in the corners and crevices. We hold a candle to whatever we find in those corners. We may get rid of it altogether, if we learn that it is no longer welcome. For example, a client has the habit of always saying yes when asked to do something even if she doesn't have the time or desire. As we walk through her memories, we find that father left her family when she was young. Now we shine a light upon her belief that people leave if you refuse their requests. Is this a belief that she wants to hold on to? Does it serve her now? Or do we gently dust it away with the feather?
  2. Cleaning is so hard! It strikes me that this tradition is quite physical. You need to go through the whole home, pulling up couch cushions, vacuuming up the rug, getting into areas you may have forgotten about. In some parts of the world, it’s getting warm this time of year (that’s what I hear, anyway. In Chicago, it’s still pretty frigid), and one is likely to work up a bit of a sweat. And exercise, it turns out, is one of the best ways to cope with anxiety, stress, or depression. It can help you to focus into the moment, and quiet the busy mind. This may not be a reason that the tradition came about, but it is certainly a nice side benefit!
  3. You are always amazing. According to some teachings, the symbolism of the matza is that it is flat, low, modest, and simple. Leavened bread, on the other hand, rises, it gets puffed up, it swells. So when we get rid of the leavened bread, the chametz, we are also asked to examine our own ego. Are we puffed up with self importance that turns out to just be pockets of air, meaningless though it takes up space? Perhaps the matza serves as a model for the value of simple existence. It holds one of the most important places on the seder table simply by being there. You, too, need not do anything extra in order to hold an important place in the world. Your existence, just as you are, is not only enough, it is sacred.

Whatever your religious beliefs or Passover traditions, the underlying wisdom here applies:

  • One, it is helpful to self examine and purge that which is unnecessary.
  • Two, move your body, it’s good for you.
  • And three, no matter what you do, you are simply enough. Believe that.

Is your anxiety wrecking your body?

We often talk about anxiety as a purely emotional experience. But the science behind the emotion tells us that after our brain is triggered, our bodies experience a dramatic chemical change.

Once your brain perceives danger in the environment, a hormone called cortisol is released into the bloodstream, which signals the body to shut down non-essential functions. If we consider that stress’ main job was to keep us alive, this makes sense. Who needs a finely tuned immune or reproductive system when you’re running from a lion? 

But the stress system was also meant to be in use only in times of life threatening danger. Our systems are then built to return to a healthy baseline. So while you might experience digestive issues while your cortisol is spiked (ie, when you are actually running from a lion), everything will normalize again once you're safe in your cave.

The problem is that nowadays, the stress never really stops. Usually, we are not worried about a sudden lion attack. Instead we experience stress about things that don't end: what our loved ones think of us, how much money is in the retirement account, whether our children are safe. Because of this sustained stress, the cortisol levels stay elevated, wreaking havoc on your physiology. Anxiety can create some surprising issues:

Stress and anxiety in the body
  • Suppressed immune system
  • Lack of sleep
  • Higher risk of heart disease
  • Increased risk of IBS (irritable bowel syndrome)
  • Decreased sex drive
  • Metabolic issues

Stress causes a considerable number of physiological responses. The respiratory system is compromised. The digestive system is compromised, The immune system is compromised. Executive brain function is diminished (ie, it becomes more difficult to make thoughtful decisions). If you’re living every moment of every day with anxiety, your body pays a physical price. You may get sick more. You may have cloudier thinking. You may have gastro-intestinal issues. Your doctor may be concerned about your blood pressure.

If you're experiencing these symptoms, there are truly simple solutions for you that don't come in a bottle and don't need a prescription. With the right anxiety treatment, you will learn how to tame the worries in your mind and thereby reduce the cortisol in your bloodstream. By teaching your mind that you are safe in the world, you can reach levels of physical health you may not have thought possible. 

Life after anxiety treatment

How to Improve Your Sleep

Tips for Better Sleep

Are you one of the many Americans who don’t get the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep per night? Be honest, did you just roll your eyes when you read that, even chuckle at the very idea that 8 hours could ever be available to you? Do you toss and turn, lying awake, counting sheep? Do you get pulled back to consciousness by your mind’s chatter, the night time horror stories?

You are not alone, my friend. The numbers are a little hard to nail down, but at least 35% of the population is diagnosed with insomnia. But I bet that even if you don’t have an official diagnosis of insomnia, you are wishing that you could squeeze more sleep from your pillow at night.

PHYSICAL HEALTH

As it turns out, the physical health risks associated with sleep deprivation are high. Research has linked sleeplessness with obesity, diabetes and cancer, among a number of other maladies. The fun fact, however, is that we still don’t know exactly what sleep provides us; it remains a mystery. That might be one of the reasons that we can’t replace it with a pill. If you want the health benefits of sleep, you need to get sleep. It is irreplaceable and incredibly valuable, so don’t lose it.

MENTAL and EMOTIONAL HEALTH

I love helping clients with sleep because it immediately ties into our instinct for self care. It is an obvious barometer for our overall health. Our bodies make clear the desire for sleep, giving us all kinds of cues that we need to rest. We feel weary, irritable, we crave exactly the thing we need. The signs of sleepiness are unmistakable. If you ask me, this sort of clarity from the body is precious. Compared to all the other signals my body sends that could mean anything (“what is that bump, a zit or a tumor??” “Why does my stomach hurt, did I eat something weird or is it stress related??”), the feeling that comes with the need to sleep is real and primal and we know how to answer to it.

There is a strong connection between sleep, stress, anxiety and depression. If you’re up all night because your mind won’t stop racing, and then during the day you experience low energy and mood that you attribute to your lack of sleep last night, you know this connection first hand. The chatter in your mind is often a sign of anxiety, and the low energy can go along with feeling depressed. Recent research has strongly suggested that creating new thinking patterns and new behavior patterns is as effective in alleviating insomnia as were sleep medications.

It can be hard, really hard, to make new behavior patterns. If you’re routine includes TV in bed, and you relish the alone time spent with your partner for that TV hour, then you’re not going to be so excited to sacrifice it. Making little changes during the day so that you can feel better at some point in the future is simply not how we are wired to behave has human beings. We want what we want and we want it now! Coffee, a nap, screen time, we deserve these small indulgences!! And we also want a good night’s sleep. Is that too much to ask?

Unfortunately, it might just be. Counseling with a focus on mindfulness and mental change can help you decide your priorities and then commit to taking action to honor those priorities. More specifically, once you declare that you want to experience consistent restful nights, then you get to make the choices that will get you there.

Tips to Sleep Better

FOUR TIPS TO GET YOUR Zzzzzz's

Are you ready to take some steps towards a better night’s sleep? Of course you’re ready! Read on to learn a few tips that you can start using right away.

  • Your bed is for one thing only. This is where you get to teach your brain a new trick. Since it’s in charge of your sleeping, you want to make sure it understands that when you’re in the bed, it means it’s sleep time. If you’re not sleeping, get out of the bed. No phone, TV, or reading while you’re in the bed. Reserve that space for the activities you’re meant to have there, and you’ll cue your brain to activate those activities once you’re there. And yes, you’re still allowed to have sex in the bed.
  • Regulate breathing: This is a big one, you guys, and I’ll probably devote lots more space to it in future posts. Regulating your breath means purposely inhaling and exhaling to a particular rhythm. By doing this, you communicate to your brain that it’s safe and OK to drop off to sleep. When you practice breath regulation, keep in mind that it’s a practice. You do it, and then you do it again and again, even if it’s not comfortable or helpful immediately. Just like you don’t expect to be a pro pianist the first time you sit down at the keyboard, you don’t expect your brain to reprogram itself to new habits in one shot.  Be consistent. Your brain will get the message.
  • Bubble your thoughts: This trick goes hand in hand with #2. As you’re counting your breaths, you might find that your brain is still trying to tell you it’s favorite bedtime tales. Mine are usually along the lines of “OH MY GOD DID YOU REMEMBER TO PAY THE CREDIT CARD BILL??” or “YOU FORGOT TO DO SOMETHING IMPORTANT, I AM ABSOLUTELY SURE OF IT, BUT I DON’T KNOW EXACTLY WHAT. BE ON THE SAFE SIDE, AND START FREAKING OUT NOW!!” So unoriginal. So what can you do about these tenacious tall tales? Take those thoughts as they come charging in, wrap them up in a bubble, and send them off, one at a time. That will release your mind and allow you to gently refocus it on those breaths.
  • Get off the sleep aids: It is so tempting to drift off under the comfy effects of medication! There are a couple of problems with this method, though. One, you can become addicted, which means you’ll be forever dependent on a pill and it’s effects will become less powerful. Two, there is a difference between sedation and sleep. While medications can sedate, they don’t bring your brain into the restful, rejuvenating sleep it requires. The behavioral hacks I’m sharing here will be more effective, longer lasting, and safer.

 

You deserve solutions that work.

Whenever I hear women dismiss their despair as "first world problems," I cringe inside. Let's think about this. What other kind of problems are you supposed to be having? You live your first world life, you're going to have first world problems. You don't need to be starving or dying to need help. And, you're going to be much better at helping those who actually are starving or dying after you've gotten your own problems in check.

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The thing is, the best way to address these first world problems is to accept them as first world problems. They won't be solved by greater access to clean water or nutritious food. You already have all that. Instead, they require you to tap into your inner resources. 

How? Turn your thinking around. Dump it all out, all your thinking, just toss it all on the table and take a look at it. Empty out your mental purse so you can get a good look at what you've been toting around with you. Then, just like you do with your purse contents, take a look at what you've got. Look at the thoughts, one by one, and ask yourself if it's a thought that keeps you on your chosen life path. If it's not, don't put it back in your purse.   

Sound too easy? True, changing your emotional trajectory is not as easy as cleaning out your purse (though a good purse purge is a pretty awesome start, am i right?). It takes work, and you may find you need a guide. Just know that your problems are real, and the solutions are available.

 

 

Relax! Let pot(s) help.

From the book Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland, a lesson on quieting the inner critic when you go about your work:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.

His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”.

Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

What can we learn from this? Let go of making the one perfect thing. Embrace the process of whatever task you're taking on, let yourself go wild with it, and remember there's always a trash can and another piece of paper. 

Five ways to make better decisions and reduce hidden stress

Let’s face it, sometimes your chaotic life needs an immediate fix. The bad news is that you can’t snap your fingers and put all the pieces where you want them to be. The good news is that you can take some very quick and manageable steps to get YOU where you need you to be!

 

  • Remember your broccoli. No, this isn’t about eating healthy, although that’s not a bad idea either. It’s about the remembering. Close your eyes, and think back to the last meal you ate. What was it? What did it look like? What did it taste like? Who were you with? What were you feeling while you ate? What were you thinking about? Close your eyes for 60 seconds and do your best to touch the answers to the questions as best you can. Really try to recreate the scene. Why does this work? Because it forces you to have contact with your mind in a purposefully new way. It gives you the opportunity to get in touch with all of your senses, which has a grounding effect.

  • Hold your breath. Yes, that’s right, just as if you’re about to go under water. Research has shown that taking deep breaths lowers our stress response, and brings a sense of calm. Starting with a lack of breath will force your attention to breathing. Yes, it’s a bit of a trick, but sometimes we need to trick ourselves into healthier habits!

  • Grab a some dirt.  The positive effects of being out in nature are well proven and multi-faceted. Aside from the cleansing and clearing benefits of a long hike, even just contacting the soil can be good for your mental health. Recent research is revealing that there are microbes within the soil that decrease depression. If you’re a gardener, you may already know how much the time in the soil can improve your mood, and now you know why!

  • Change a lightbulb, tie your shoe. Make stressful moments into stretchful moments (cue the eye roll here). Reach up high, stretch big. Then bend as close to your toes as you can. Just like sixth grade gym class except without the gym shorts. Why does this help your mind settle? When you’re experiencing stress, your muscles tense. It’s an involuntary physiological reaction that you can combat by stretching instead of tensing. That signals to your nervous system that you are, in fact, safe. Your brain can then reduce the stress hormones released.

  • Find some funny animals. In the type of research study that you can file under “obviously,” it was shown that research participants rated their emotional states as more positive after watching cat videos on the internet. Yes, that’s right, I’m prescribing you LOLcats. Set a timer for five minutes and dive in, find yourself some adorable animal videos and indulge. Take it one step further, and use your boosted mood to try one of the other tips above. Once you’ve gotten yourself feeling a little better, you’re more likely to engage in one of the more traditional activities like deep breathing or taking a walk. Because you deserve it.

Launch! And the dangers of perfectionism.

Here it is, my very first blog post on my new website. I could not be more excited to have this space to share the tools for creating a rich and meaningful life!

I debated what to write in this space. As a perfectionist in recovery, I cope with the tendency to spend obscene amounts of time making decisions like this. Should I use my very first blog post to provide you an outline of how to start feeling better? Perhaps an article review? Reflections on new research? 

Do you want to guess how long I spent considering these questions and their answers?

Thankfully, it was less time than I would have spent in the past. Maybe you have similar thoughts that prevent you from reaching your own greatness. Perhaps you can relate to sensing that you have something amazing to contribute to the world, but an overwhelming fear that it won't be good enough. I am so glad to have found some tools to quiet all the worry and anxiety about doing The Perfect Thing. Because now I can share all of this with you. I can release the worry and use my brain space for other things, things that truly matter to me. My family, my dog, my work, spending time outdoors. 

So, instead of an outline of how to start feeling better right away (coming soon!), or a review of current research, I'm starting off my website with a look into my own anxious mind. If you can relate to any of this, and want to find your way to the other side, check out my next blog post for some quick tips to reset your mind. Or, reach out and connect personally. I would love to hear from you.