How to Harness Your Insanity 

Are you insane?

Have you heard that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results?

It’s cute and pithy. It’s relatable. And side note, it’s also misattributed to Albert Einstein, who never said it.

And just like its provenance, it’s sentiment is false. If insanity is defined by the repetition of futile behavior, then there are a whole lotta insane people out there. Maybe even all of us.

Our human brains are made to do the same things over and over again. It’s convenient and it saves time and energy. Consider what would happen if your brain didn’t operate that way. It would mean that every time you were faced with any sort of stimulus, you would have to figure out how to approach it, as if you had never seen it before.

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So, imagine you see a door. If your brain wasn’t interested in repeating the same thing over and over, you would have to spend your energy figuring out the function of the door, every time you see it.

What a waste of time! So, evolution has provided us a shortcut. Once your brain has seen enough doors, it just does the same thing every time it sees the door. It does not consider other options. In fact, it avoids even acknowledging that other options might exist. When you understand that, you also understand it’s not insane.

Why is this a problem?

Ah, but it’s the results we are interested in. We want those different results!!

Think about what that might look like for you.

What results have you been saying you want, but just can’t seem to get? A better relationship with your family? More time to do things you enjoy? Fitting into a brand new pair of pants? Being able to spend money on a brand new pair of pants?

And what have you tried, over and over, to move towards that outcome? And why hasn’t it worked?

A Personal Example

I want a neater, cleaner home. I’ve never been the type of person who cleans fanatically (or even at all). But I do like to have a clean house! So, what do I do? Well, my primitive’s brain favorite go-to when faced with a messy home is to retreat. That’s one of my responses. I’ll just avoid the mess, maybe by leaving, or sinking into the couch with Netflix and my dog. Or, I’ll trick myself into productivity by writing a list of all the things that need doing.  Then I’ll feel so accomplished at having created that list that I call it a day, leaving all the items on the list undone. A third option is to research the best way to clean. Yes, I have concocted many home made cleaners, which requires spending my time buying spray bottles, lemons and white vinegar, leaving me less time for the actual cleaning.

These are a few of the preprogrammed responses I have when I see my messy house.

None of them get me the clean home I want. But when I’m doing them, they FEEL like great ideas.

In other words, the stimulus is the messy house. When I see it, it triggers my old, well rehearsed reactions. I do those things, and end up right where I started, with a messy house. The next time I see my messy house, I guarantee my brain is gonna say “hey I have a great idea! You should research how to make a non-toxic bathroom cleaner.” Same action, expecting a different result.

So, how do you get the life you want while keeping the brain you have??

This door became someone’s mural!

This door became someone’s mural!

When you want to make change in your life, you have to work through this tendency of your human mind to want to react in its rote way. You have to find the courage to start seeing the door as not a door.

In other words, you can bring your brain to the next level, where you actually try something DIFFERENT.

Here’s a few ideas on how to make that happen:

1.     Get to know your mind’s habits. Practicing some mindfulness is one way to really learn what’s going on up there. Here is a link to a quick guided meditation that will help you gain some clarity.

2.     Find a role model. Do it their way. And when your mind pipes up with “Oh, well THEY can do that but YOU can’t,” return to step #1.

3.     Act crazy. Here’s the real kicker – doing something that SEEMS crazy, actually crazy, is exactly what you should be doing. Returning to my example of a clean house, the key to the clean house may not be anything I have come up with on my own. It may start with sitting still and journaling (again, return to #1 on this list).

4.     Treat Yo Self. Making change is hard. When you do it, figure out a way to reward yourself. But don’t give yourself the reward until you’ve earned it!

5.     Tell someone. Get an accountability buddy. Be very clear about what you’re trying to achieve, and check in with that person.

Now that you’ve figured out all the changes you want to make, let me remind you of something. You are actually perfect, exactly as you are. You don’t need to change a thing. In your pursuit of growth, you may have identified changes that you want to play with, that you want to try out. And I am here to support you in that, because I know it’s possible and I can’t wait to meet the version of you that’s tried lots of crazy shit. But you are 100% enough just as you are, right now, in this moment.

Now, I’m going to do something really nuts, like hiring someone to clean the house.

 

 

It's Purim. Get naked.

Today is Purim. The Jewish holiday that celebrates our triumph over those who sought to obliterate us. Again.

The story, in short, is that a king came to power, and had an advisor, Haman, who hated the Jews because of a personal slight at the hands of one Jew, once. Haman convinced the king that he should slaughter all of the Jews in the country. Meanwhile, the king had selected a new queen who, unbeknownst to him, was Jewish. She eventually revealed her secret in effort to save her people. By telling the king her true identity, she convinced him to spare the Jews. Instead, the king would dispose of the treacherous advisor. And so, the Jews celebrate to this day by dressing up as the characters of the story, donning masks and getting drunk. 

As with most things religious, there’s some room to doubt the facts of the story that girds the holiday. But the point isn’t historical accuracy. The point is to suck the marrow from the story itself and from the traditions that define it.

For Purim, we wear masks. We celebrate while hidden. We get to show others only a frozen image of our own choosing, one that stays consistent no matter what the mask-wearer is feeling. Expressions that would usually betray our innermost feelings are invisible.  

The outside world is denied the opportunity to see the ‘real’ you, and celebrates it for a night. 

For a night, it’s all fun and games. 

But what about when the mask doesn’t come off? What happens when you find yourself playing a game of pretend all the time? Is there a danger of becoming so enamored with your chosen costume that you forget what you look like underneath? 

Here’s a story of how this might look, in real life, non-metaphor terms. 

A client comes to her therapist, saying that she’s just not satisfied. She can’t put her finger on it, but she feels anxious all the time, and can’t get herself to take action in a committed direction. After some conversation, the therapist learns that this woman is endlessly invested in the happiness of her children, her husband, her sisters and brothers, her coworkers, her boss…the list goes on. “I can only be as happy as my saddest child,” she says. Somewhere in her life, she learned that when people around her were happy, she didn’t worry about them leaving her. She found that the more she hid her own needs and desires, the easier it was to help the people around her to be happy. It was truly efficient and effective. It worked. As far as she could tell, the people in her life were happy, and if they weren’t, she was adept at helping them fix whatever the problem was. Her mask enabled her to look “fine" all the time, so that no one would have to worry about her. But eventually, she forgot that her own life satisfaction required her to notice her own needs. She forgot that she ever put on a mask in the first place. 

Now, in therapy, she’s working on the accepting the uncomfortable feelings that come up when she takes the mask off. Her skin isn’t used to being exposed like that, and she forgot what her face looks like. Her therapist is helping her resist the urge to just put it back on, which would, in the short term, make her feel better. Instead, she is now involved in the work of owning her needs and wants. She’s beginning to show the world her real self. The hardest part, she finds, is that she can’t always control her emotions. Even so, she is becoming confident that the world will still love her. 

In honor of Purim (and Mardi Gras!), ask yourself, what masks do you wear? Can you take off the mask when you’re around people you trust? What happens when you leave it on too long?

Do more, feel better, feel better, do more...

Your brain does not live in a vacuum. It lives in your body. You might even say it is part of your body, no different from your heart, liver or lungs. It’s a big ol’ mass of cells, working together to perform vital functions to keep you alive. And, it thinks. Oh, does it ever.

Thinking. It's the thing the brain got really famous for. "I think, therefore I am?" Damn that's giving a lot of credit to thoughts, hm? Sometimes it's more like "I think, therefore I am...miserable!" amirite??

It is really, really hard to control what goes on in the brain. Contrary to all the advice out there about forcing yourself to think positively, or “making your own sunshine,” the truth is that thoughts are frequently involuntary and uncontrollable. Trying to control your thoughts is almost like trying to control your stomach. Go ahead, force your stomach to stop digesting. Can you do it?

Nope, you can't.

It’s really hard to force your brain to stop thinking the thoughts it likes to think. Even when those thoughts are mean, like "you are a complete failure," or "everything sucks all the time," they're still hard to stop.

Thoughts like those can be problematic because of how they influence mood, which can then influence behaviors. 

For example, you think "Everything sucks all the time," leading to a feeling of hopelessness. What kind of behaviors are you likely to engage in once you're feeling hopeless? Probably not the things that will move you toward your larger life vision. Maybe things more like binge-watching Netflix and shoving ice cream in your mouth. 

Since you can’t control your thoughts, and thoughts influence mood which influences behavior, does that mean you can’t influence your behavior?

Nope, it doesn't mean that at all.

Instead, work it backwards. Grabbing control of your behaviors in any way you can is an incredibly effective way to create changes to your thoughts. See, when you’re trying to change they way you think, you gotta sneak up on your brain. You can’t let it know you’re coming.

How?

Target easy behaviors you can alter, quickly and immediately.

  • Breathe differently.

  • Eat something fresh.

  • Stretch.

  • Walk.

  • Touch something soft. 

  • Get on your knees and pray.


Now, tune in to how your feelings have responded to the action. Simply by noticing whether or not your feelings have shifted, you’ve learned something about yourself and changed the script. It’s powerful stuff.


TLDR: If you're having trouble lifting your mood by changing your thoughts, try changing your actions instead. Let your thoughts go on their merry way, like background music to your actions. 


How to improve your relationship in four simple (not easy) steps

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You're doomed. It's February, Valentines Day is quickly upon us, and have you heard? There will be NO CONVERSATION HEARTS!!!  No "crazy 4 U!" or “Let’s Kiss” or “Hug Me.”

With America's main means of communication yanked out from under you, it's a really good time to try out some new techniques to broadcast your feelings to the one you love.

Relationships without effective communication (in candy form or other) create stress, tension and loneliness. 

Have you ever been in a room with someone you care about, tossing words at one another but never really feeling like you understand each other? 

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Speaking is more complicated than it seems. There is so much room for misunderstanding, which leads to estrangement rather than connection. There’s the speaker, the listener, and the message itself. There is no guarantee that the person receiving the message understands exactly what the speaker was intending. There are so many layers of communication that live beneath and around the words themselves. It’s really important to be aware of the biases that you bring both as a listener and a speaker, and come to understand how they might affect your relationship.


Here’s an example:

Pat: You left the mail on the hall table.

Chris: Yeah, so what? I have a lot going on and I didn't have time to sort it. You have no idea what my day was like.

Pat: Yeah? My day was pretty bad too! You're so self centered.

What's going on here? A miscommunication that has led to a rise in difficult emotions, and you can imagine how this conversation is destined to continue. How can this couple stop themselves from an all out explosion?

Defuse the situation by using strategies taken from non-violent communication, a framework by Marshall Rosenberg, PhD. He suggest four simple (not easy) steps:

  1. Observe: simply and without judgement or evaluation, you state what is bothering you. 

  2. Describe feelings: use feelings words to tell the other person what is going on inside of you.

  3. State needs: tell the other person what you need to help you feel better

  4. Make requests: provide a specific action step that the other person can take in the future. 

For Pat and Chris, imagine this as the next step: 

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Chris stops and remembers what they learned in couples counseling. He takes a deep breath and says, "You just brought up that I left the mail on the table (observation), and I felt overwhelmed and upset after everything that went on today (describing a feeling). I need some quiet time (clear need) to shake off a difficult work day. I'd love to have 15 minutes to myself (clear request) before I get the mail.” Bam. Communication achieved.

Dr. Rosenberg does advise that these steps are simple but not easy. They take practice. For a calmer, easier relationship? Worth it.







Use nature to feel better. Bring the outside inside.

Take it from this hibernation expert: sometimes it’s best to just stay in!

Take it from this hibernation expert: sometimes it’s best to just stay in!

It’s brutal cold here in Chicago. As I write this, temps are dropping to record lows. It is not a good time to go outside.

It’s also a time when depression and anxiety can get worse. Science has not yet uncovered WHY there are links between weather and mood. But even without the nerdy data to explain it, there’s plenty of evidence that the link does exist.  More and more research shows that mood plummets with the mercury

When we are shut inside, our eyes looking only at screens, walls, furniture and other people, it’s easy to disconnect from the outside environment. Who’s thinking about trees and grass when the temps are in the single digits?

This disconnect from nature has consequences. In one study, brain areas associated with anxiety show increased activity in research participants who were exposed to an urban environment, as compared to those who took walks in nature. In other words, being deprived of green scenery increases anxiety

So, for those of us who live in these cold cold (did I mention cold?) climates, what are we to do?

Fret not. Here are a few ways to access the power of the outdoors without freezing your tail off. They may not answer the call of the wild, but they can help to soothe your nerves so that you can survive til spring. 

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  1. Tune in to nature noises. Try swapping out your morning radio routine for the soothing sounds of sparkling streams. One app I particularly like for this is called White Noise, and it’s free!

  2. Gaze at images of the outdoors. From the warmth of your living room, find some pictures of grand outdoor scenes, and flip through them. Double points for combining this with the nature noises!

  3. Find an indoor garden. Here in Chicago, we have the Garfield Conservatory, which is FREE and amazing. If you don’t live near a place like that, then visit a local nursery to expose yourself to the sights, smells and sensations of plant life.  

  4. Make an indoor garden. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but tending to indoor plants can feed your soul’s need for dirt. Or, consider creating a sand tray and give yourself some time to build sand castles in your living room.

  5. Plant yourself by the window. It counts. One study showed that people recovered faster and with fewer complications when they had a room with a view of trees, as compared to those who faced a brick wall. A pane of glass can’t get in the way of your mood boost!

Nature heals. You deserve that health, so go get it. Smell the roses!!

How your mind is like a kitten pile and what you can do about it

Stress seeps into our systems and wreaks havoc. It is linked to myriad health conditions, with research uncovering more and more relationships between stress and disease. A stressed out immune system can go haywire and create allergic reactions; or it might become underachieve and fail to protect the body against the common cold. The digestive system responds to stress by slowing down, creating issues like irritable bowel syndrome. The brain stops prioritizing executive thinking, which makes it impossible to make wise decisions or act in a thoughtful manner. 

By learning to cope with stress, we begin to reassert control over our bodies and our health

What is stress? It’s not just some hazy word to describe a feeling. Stress is the physiological response that the body has to a perceived danger. Once the brain registers a threat, it send the signal to release a hormone called cortisol into the blood system. Cortisol is what triggers all of the systemic changes listed above. It slows non-essential function so that the body can focus its energy on what is most important. In the moment of danger, the most important thing is to fight or to flee, so all systems become primed for that priority. 

Chances are, this hungry lady is not actually hunting you down. But try telling that to your stress response!

Chances are, this hungry lady is not actually hunting you down. But try telling that to your stress response!

Humans evolved the stress response in order to stay alive. If we didn’t have it, there’s a good chance that our ancestors on the African savannah would never have lived long enough to create the generations that led to us in the 21st century. 

So we can say “thank you” to our stress responses! Except…

In this modern world, the stress response has become a liability for some of us. While our caveman ancestors were responding to real environmental threats, like hungry lions or armed enemies, in the present day we are often perceiving threat while in a safe environment. The sound of a busy street, or an echo of a traumatic memory, or the fear of saying something embarrassing could all trigger a stress response. 

Which is scarier? The lion or the demands of this fast paced modern world?

Which is scarier? The lion or the demands of this fast paced modern world?

Imagine a person, waking up a few minutes late (STRESS!), running for the bus (STRESS!), seeing a stranger who reminds them of their abusive ex (STRESS!), and finding that she left her phone at home (STRESS!). All of these stressors before 9 am! The cortisol never has the chance to return to a baseline level.  

The mind that perceives danger in every day situations creates a body primed for disease and discomfort

You can interrupt this cycle. More and more research is showing how intentionally committing to being in the present can reduce cortisol levels in the blood. Perhaps you’ve already heard the word “mindfulness” to describe this practice. But that word fails to truly describe the action, and can be a bit confusing, so I’m going to demystify it here. 

By taking a few minutes every day to play with your thoughts, you will decrease stress. 

Sure, they’re cute. But do you really want them to run your life?

Sure, they’re cute. But do you really want them to run your life?

Here is what I mean by “play with your thoughts.” Visualize your thoughts like a pile of wiggly kittens. All over the place, each with her own agenda, sometimes fighting over a toy (in this case, your attention). They step on each other and wander away and then come back and wander away again. They also have some pretty sharp teeth and claws, that come in the form of thoughts like "you are a failure, you may as well not try," or any other pain-inducing statements your mind throws your way. 

Seeing this pile of kittens, you might be tempted to lay down in the middle of them and let them crawl all over you, which is great until the claws come out and then you're scratched up and bloody. So instead, sit down next to them and watch how they play. Watch the ones that seem to dominate, and those that are barely heard from. Invite one to you and give it your attention and focus, then let it go. Move your focus from one kitten to the next, getting to know each one. Notice which ones seem more likely to scratch or bite, and notice what you like about them anyway. When you're done, go back to whatever else you need to do, like having dinner with  your family or taking care of tasks around the house. The kitten pile will still be there, meowing at you and crawling over itself in its kitten-y way, and you get to decide whether or not you want to go play, or stay in what you're doing at the moment. 

One real, concrete way to achieve this is to purposely bring your attention back to something real and tangible. Some things you can use to anchor yourself:

  • The feeling of your breath

  • The taste of food

  • The sight of your loved one’s face

  • The sound of water being poured

  • The smell of dessert

By doing this, you communicate to your brain through your actions, telling it that there is no threat, calming the freaked out kittens. There is no danger in the environment, no lion in the brush or armed enemy at the door. By sitting still, breathing slowly and just watching your thoughts, can bring some peace to your inner self. 

Call it mindfulness, call it presence, or awareness, it doesn’t matter. Begin by practicing this refocusing with your mind, and you open the door to all sorts of mental superpowers you never knew you had. 



















How the Anxiety Monster is messing up your New Year's Resolutions (and what you can do about it!)

By the time I post this blog entry, it will be a week into 2019. By now, the resolutions have been sitting out for a few days, getting a little stale and dry around the edges, just like those Christmas cookies you had planned to throw away. They’re less appealing, more difficult to digest.

And easier to ignore

The forgotten resolution is a story as old as time. You make the plan that this will be the year that you (fill in the blank here: lose weight, find a new job that you love, start spending more quality time with the family, quit drinking, whatever). You’ve sat down on December 31st and created your vision for what you want the year to look like, and how you’re going to get there. You have big plans! Big dreams! The excitement builds for the year ahead because this time, this time it’s going to be different. This time, you have a real, tangible plan. 

So, what happens? Why is it so common for people to abandon their big hopes and plans? 

Consider what’s going on while you’re creating your resolutions. You’re safe. Safe as can be. You are in your home, perhaps, reflecting quietly on what you plan to do.

Now, visualize this: while you’re doing this introspective work, your anxiety monster sleeps in the corner.

What does your monster look like?

Mine is actually rather cuddly, a big furry blue thing with a bright red tongue and a weird horn. During the quiet planning moments, he's curled up in a ball in the corner, resting. He’s not upset yet, because making plans is not at all the same thing as executing them. He might open his eyes and watch me, sniffing the air, but he knows that there’s no action behind my thoughts yet. No need to waste his anxious energy on this moment.

The Anxiety Monster’s job is to keep you alive. Not happy or fulfilled, just alive. But he is very pessimistic and very short sighted. He doesn’t comprehend long term goals. He is aware that you are alive, and if you try changing anything in your life, there is a chance that it will kill you. If you have been sitting on the couch, not exercising and eating Pringles every day, Anxiety Monster’s gonna be pretty pissed when you change that routine, because it has kept you alive this long. Why fix what isn’t broken?? 

He is patrolling every corner, barking about the potential for shame or pain or failure. So when you put action behind your resolutions, and change starts happening, the monster really gets to work, protecting you from the potential consequences of your plan. You might fail. It’s hard. Why bother. Oh by the way you have no time for this.

Listen hard. What does your anxiety monster tell you?

Trust the December 31st version of yourself. She wasn’t bothered by the anxiety monster, and she was thinking clearly. She was tuned in to long term plans and taking brave steps. She had faith. When she made that plan for you, she knew beyond doubt that you could do it and that it would be worth the trouble. It can be hard to remember all that when the Anxiety Monster starts barking at you. So now you have to take the actions you planned out, even while you’re listening to barking. 

Think about it. What does your Anxiety Monster look like? When do you notice him getting the most upset? What does he fear? Give him a chance to really talk to you, thank him for trying to keep you safe. Then, go take the steps that he’s afraid of. Show him that you can handle some positive change.

Light yourself up on New Years

I saw a candle this year that says, “Never Change.” I think it’s supposed to be inspiring, because it’s done in that chalkboard font that is always used for inspirational things. Also, it’s on a candle, and I’m pretty sure that any phrase on a candle is meant to inspire.

But a candle that says “never change" makes no damn sense. A candle changes when it does the thing it’s meant to do. When it’s lit, it melts. It releases its fragrance. It burns as it becomes the thing it was created for. 

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For a candle to live its best life, it needs to get lit. It needs to let go of the candle it was, the perfect, unblemished surface, shiny with possibility; the white wick, untouched by flame. It needs to surrender to chaos, not knowing how the wax will drip or in which direction the flame will lean. The only thing it can count on is that it is changing, because that is what it was made to do. Stagnancy does not suit a candle. Unlit candles collect dust and do not look nice (I speak from my own interior design experience here). 

We are on the edge of a new year. Are you creating resolutions? How do you imagine you will change this year? Will you light your flame and allow the unknown forces to shape you as your release your light into the world? What are you willing to let go of as you embrace the unknown?

New research on sleeplessness and anxiety may surprise you...

Insomnia can lead to all kinds of problems. And here’s the newest research: according to this article from popular science, the brain looks the same after a sleepless night as it does when experiencing anxiety. The study showed that regions of the brain that are associated with emotional distress are much more easily activated after a sleepless night.

What does this mean? It means that if you are already sensitive to feelings of anxiety, then getting a full night’s sleep may make a huge difference for you

But wait. Let’s get real about this, because UGH what the hell?? Anxiety makes it harder to sleep, and the less sleep you get, the more anxious (or distressed) you are going to feel. Can we say vicious cycle? Totally unfair. 

No anxiety here!

No anxiety here!

The good news is that you absolutely can break this cycle, and it’s not with a pill you need to get from your doctor or some other dangerous additive. Even better, the same skills you need in order to tame anxiety will also help you get sleep at night. Two birds, one stone. So, I’ve put together a Sleep Well Starter Kit to get you started on your journey to bedtime bliss. The information focuses on learning the skills necessary to quiet your mind so that you can rest, along with general information about creating good sleep habits. You’ll also get a bedtime meditation. To access this curated information about sleep, just CLICK HERE to sign up for my email list. Not ready to commit to the email list? That’s ok, just sleep on it ;-)

How to save your relationship with your child after you think you've completely ruined it

You’d been doing so well, holding it together, keeping your anger at bay. School is out, kids are bored, and you’ve been a veritable supermom, calmly handling all of the flashes of attitude, the “I’m booooooored,” and the non stop fights between siblings. You have totally held it together, smiled for them, hid your own frustration so that they wouldn’t feed off of it. What a mensch you've been!

You may be feeling this, but no one would ever know!

You may be feeling this, but no one would ever know!

Except...well...the ugly truth is that you’ve been biting your tongue so hard it’s calloused. In fact, you’re lucky you have any tongue left at all. And this morning, you lost it. Maybe it was over a complaint about having to go to camp? Or the bathing suit that was left at the pool yesterday, for the millionth time? Or a meltdown over who gets the last popsicle (by the way, it should be you, you should totally have that last popsicle). It doesn’t matter what it was, exactly. The result is that you let it all loose, unleashed your frustration through a raised voice and an unbitten tongue, and basically lost control completely. 

Now, your charming, delightful child has stormed off in in a hurricane of tears and shouts, slammed her door and closed you out. 

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In a moment like this, you may be feeling a whole lot of feels: anger, resentment, disappointment, fear. You might be thinking a whole lot of thinks: she is never going to learn anything, I have no idea what I’m doing as a parent, I just turned into my own mother…

This is your moment. Right now, this is the time you can scurry back to the control panel of your own mind and start to take some action. 

Read on to learn how you can tap into your own mental potential to gracefully work through emotionally charged moments like these. And, for a list of tips that you can quickly access in the moment, along with some other tools to gain control of your emotions, click here to subscribe and I’ll send it your way!

Let’s talk about what’s going on inside your mind in this moment. Often, the brain is on automatic. It just fires off thoughts and stories that create emotions, and it happens so dang fast that you don’t see it happening at all. Instead, the only thing you notice is that you’re yelling, and your child is crying. It may seem like you went straight from Point A (the lost bathing suit) to Point B (the yelling). But in fact, there are many points in between, where your brain briefly stops to create thoughts. Then, the thoughts inform the feelings, and only then do you get the action. But because the brain is such an incredibly fast super computer, these stops between A and B are nearly invisible. 

Key word: NEARLY invisible. With the right tools, you can find those thoughts. And that is a powerful way to start taking some control over your actions. 

To do this, set a five minute timer. Close your eyes. Sit down, maybe (who wants to just stand there for 5 minutes, amirite?). So sit down, close your eyes, and take a few deep breaths. Now, imagine a movie screen in your minds eye. On it, you’re watching the thoughts that are going on in your brain right now. They may take the form of images, or words, maybe some full sentences. If you’re new at this, the movie version of your thoughts may appear as though there are multiple projectors on at once, overlapping on the screen. It may be chaotic. That’s ok, just watch, as an audience member. 

Within these five minutes, some of the thoughts on the screen might pull you away from being an audience member and invite you to become an actor on the screen. In other words, you detach from the present moment and get completely lost in the (very engaging) story line on screen. When that happens, just notice it and put your butt back in the theater seat. Keep watching. See what you notice. That’s all. And do it again. And again.

After the timer goes off, you may or may not actually feel better. Whatever you feel, that’s what you feel. The point of the exercise is to begin to understand some of that automatic programming. For example, you may have noticed that one thought that keeps showing up is “I’m a terrible parent,” maybe partnered with a memory of being yelled at by your own parent. Once you can see that thought clearly, you are empowered to question it. You can begin to call to mind times that you weren’t a terrible parent at all, you can start to ask yourself what standards you’re holding yourself to as a parent in the first place, you can zero in on feelings of shame or fear that come up. 

Only after you have done this internal examination can you effectively change your actions. You have learned why you yelled. It wasn’t because your child left her bathing suit behind at the pool, not really. It was because you felt deep fear or shame or confusion that triggered a big response. Now that you’ve uncovered this, you don’t have to bite your tongue bloody for months, because you have decreased the intensity of the emotion that created the desire to yell. 

The best way to make this practice effective is to do it daily, no matter how you’re feeling. That way, when you are emotionally triggered, you can more easily change gears to this mindful exploration, because you’ve been practicing. 

If you’re interested in learning more about how to tap in to your brain’s power for change, sign up for my email list and I’ll send you a curated package of tips and tools that you can use in the moment.

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.