Find Your Compass--By Looking Inward

I came across this meme while searching for interesting news to push out on Wayfarers Facebook Page, and while I don't generally share memes, this one caught my attention.

Maybe Susan B. Anthony could have been a therapist!  In that last phrase, where she suggests that the conscience is the best place to find approval for one's actions, she is offering wisdom that seems to elude many people who suffer from anxiety and depression.  In fact, I suspect that one of the surest paths to emotional distress is for people to ignore what their conscience tells them is right for them, and look to external cues (what do others want? does it feel good in this moment? is it exciting? will I make someone angry?) to find their way.   When people make choices that are essentially acts of aggression towards themselves, while they may be able to stay on auto-pilot and not think about what they are in fact doing, their enduring symptoms will eventually tell the truth.

Many people come into therapy confused about the chaos or paralysis that they experience in their lives.  Under inquiry we discover that they are consistently using their emotions, wants, desires for approval, and buried fears as a compass for action--in addition to the demands, manipulations, and even threats* of others--rather than considering their values and beliefs and personality traits.

Emotions and wants change all the time, depending on anything from the weather to circumstances to how much sleep we got the night before. But our values, our ethics, our morals, our temperament, our history--the parts of us that make us uniquely human, and uniquely ourselves--are a steady part of who we are, and can be used like the humble and yet awesome compass, to point us in the direction that allows us to reach our goals and become our best selves.

For some, the very act of looking inward, and asking "who am I?", may seem useless or frivolous--and for others, it can represent one of the most terrifying acts of their lives.   Alienation and separation from the self is a habit that is as hard to break as any.  Like carbon monoxide it is an invisible poison that people don't know they have ingested, and learning to recognize it as the source of suffering, and to then change one's ways....that is often the long hard work of therapy.

Therapy is a journey that requires self-compassion, courage, and an enormous amount of hard work.    Some are ready for it, and some are not.  Today, at least, I encourage you to breathe deeply, and to remember Susan B. Anthony's words next time you are faced with a dilemma.  

Many blessings, and I hope you are all enjoying your summer. 

Laurie

*I should add that when people are in relationships or situations where they are being controlled through another person's acts of violence, or through other circumstances such as finances, this can restrict a person's choices significantly.  A psychotherapist is a good place to start, no matter what. 

Vacation time. Why is it important?

For the lucky ones among us, summertime means vacation time. Most of us have had the experience of taking a summer vacation. At best, it can be a time to reset, regroup, relax, and breathe deeply. It can also be a time to have fun, reconnect with family and friends, see new places and try new things. At worst, it can be airport lines, sticky car seats, complex family dynamics, mosquito bites and sunburn….but that is a subject for another blog, not this one!

What exactly happens to us when we take time away from our usual routine? There was a time scientists thought that when our body is not busy, our mind is not busy. When our to-do list is blank, so is our mind. With the advent of EEGs and now, even more amazing, fMRIs (machines that can measure brain activity by monitoring the blood flow when we are thinking about certain things) we know this is not so. It turns out that our brains are very busy when we aren’t. Our brains are busy even when we are sleeping. It is a different kind of busyness. When we are not focused on accomplishing a task or getting a job done, our minds meander in and out of memories and thoughts and ideas, making connections and figuring things out.  After some time of not being busy, our minds are more at peace, our body is calmer, we feel more balanced, we have more patience and more creative ways of thinking through problems. This is precisely why time away from our usual routine is important.

We humans are not machines. We are not meant to focus all day long. Just like our bodies are not meant to sit still for hours at a time, our brains are not meant to focus on a computer screen (or anything else) for hours at a time. Taking breaks helps us work more efficiently. Taking time away, helps us to work better and actually get more done in less time. In order to do good or great work, our minds need to experience variety, change and movement. Coming back from a vacation (or even a day off) you may notice that you work better and have new ideas.

Unfortunately this is a hard sell for employers, at least in the US. Other countries have figured this out. An article in Time magazine from January 2017 (http://time.com/4621185/worker-productivity-countries/) reported on productivity and length of work week around the world. Working long hours doesn’t mean more productivity. Luxembourg, the most productive country, has an average workweek of just 29 hours. “The USA puts in more hours on average then all four of the European countries with higher productivity rankings.”   Staying at work longer or not taking days off doesn’t mean increased productivity. It seems counterintuitive but the research bears this out. When we take breaks, we are happier, healthier, more focused and more productive when we are at work. Americans have fewer paid days than 19 other developed countries (http://bigthink.com/praxis/why-do-americans-have-less-vacation-than-anyone-else ) . In addition, one in four of us do not receive any paid vacation time and more than half of us do not use the vacation days we do accrue.

If you have vacation time. Use it!  All of it! And use it well. You need it!

The reality is most of us don’t  live in Luxemburg or anywhere in Europe and we are stuck with the number of hours our workplace requires us to work each day and week, as well as the amount of vacation we get or don’t get. What we can do though, is use the time we do get off as wisely as possible. Here are some tips:

  • Leave your laptop at home. When you work on vacation you are not as engaged with those around you, you interact less and you remember less about your vacation.
  • Use technology appropriately. Don’t check messages every day. Don’t video everything. You are less likely to remember what happened when you are watching it through a screen then when you are actually present, engaged, and watching it actually happen.
  • Snap pictures to help you remember. Taking a photo is different than filming. We seem to remember things we take photos of but not remember well events we film. Go figure.
  • Take naps. Schedule time for doing nothing. Let your mind wander.
  • Interact with nature if you can. Just being in nature is healing and rejuvenating.
  • Ease yourself back into your work week. Coming in late on Sunday night and beginning the work week on Monday can make your whole week be one of recovery (doing laundry, getting groceries, watering the garden, catching up on email, and unpacking). Planning a recovery day into your vacation can help your transition back be more manageable.

So, take a vacation, and be present when you do!

Stressed? Try Guided Meditation!

So I have an awesome free app/website to recommend.  It is called Insight Timer (offered through both Android and for IPhone) and it allows you to access as many as 5440 free guided meditations, or up to 2,000,000 meditations in total.   (I will digress and postulate that about 100 free guided meditations, assuming they were high quality, would be plenty and even exceptional, and allow for calmer and more focused browsing.  But we live in a time where we associate large numbers and greater choice with "better", which, if you are like me, basically means being frozen, inert, and having no idea what I actually want.  Have you tried buying shampoo lately?  Yikes.) 

Anyway...if you don't know what a guided meditation is, I can sum it up by saying it is the best thing in the world for those of us who fully agree that meditating sounds like a great idea and yet after two minutes of trying it get bored and decide to read a book.  Guided meditations, in this context, are typically recordings of individuals (for example therapists or maybe yoga teachers) who have soothing voices and who talk to you while you meditate.    It is (at least for some of us) MUCH better meditating with a guide, and can be extremely relaxing, soothing, and grounding. 

Guided meditations often have themes, or topics, and can help with/address issues such as sleep, anxiety, grounding, relaxation, gratitude, acceptance, forgiveness, self acceptance, weight loss, or probably anything else you might think of.  Back to Insight Timer, you can sort the meditation by popularity, rating, theme, length, and even language, which is an especially neat feature.  I typed in "safety" with a client in mind, and found a nice meditation I would recommend, called "Feeling Safe in this Moment" by Andrea Wachter.  Very nice, simple, and a good length of time at 12:00 minutes.   

Some of the meditations, by the way, are very short, and some are quite long.  If you are new to meditation, I would start shorter, so you can have some success.  If you like it, then try something a little longer next time.  Don't worry too much if you aren't doing it "exactly right".  I listened two nights in a row while I was walking the dog, so I was obviously not sitting and I didn't have my eyes shut, but I still found I was able to adapt and get a lot of out of the meditations.  Also, if you start something, and find the person's voice annoying, or in anyway dislike the meditation, just try something else.  I probably stopped and started about four or five meditations before I found one I liked.

Part of practicing mindfulness, which is a whole other blogI plan to write some day soon, is learning to be compassionate with oneself.  In essence, for me this means "don't sweat the small stuff"--but I know a lot of people put a ton of pressure on themselves.  Meditation is a way to take the pressure off, and engage in essential self care.  It is a simple, easy, and cost free thing you can do, right now, for yourself.   What are you waiting for?

Warmly,  Laurie

Disclaimer: I am NOT a paid endorser of the Insight Timer app.  In case you are wondering. 

 

EMDR therapy...why do we love it so much?

Any therapist who has been trained as an EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing) therapist gets used to the glassy eyed gaze that comes from the listener who is hearing about this therapy for the first time.  We EMDR therapists have to get pretty good at talking about what EMDR is, and what it is not.     

A bad conversation--and both Carol and I have had more than a few of them--is one where the person you are trying to educate and inspire with your enthusiasm about EMDR completely tunes you out, and nods a few times before changing the subject or making a joke about being hypnotized.   "Hmmmm, that is pretty interesting…have you ever made someone quack like a duck?" 

A bad conversation is one where words fail you, and you have been unable to convey how transformative EMDR therapy can truly be.

Psychotherapists—and this includes people from a wide range of clinical backgrounds, including social work, like me, and art therapy and nursing, like Carol—truly want to help people feel better about themselves and about their lives, and hopeful about their ability to live a life free from emotional pain and suffering.  It is humbling, frustrating, and sad when we encounter clients who are stuck and don't respond to our efforts to help, who don't benefit from medication, who may have even have to go to the hospital, and who come home still burdened by troubled waters most of us will never understand. 

Because I believe that we as living beings are innately built to survive and grow even in the most adverse circumstances—like the flower that pushes up through the cement—I am unable to be cynical about such individuals.  I realized several years ago when I had gotten stymied by enough people suffering with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) that if what I was doing for my clients wasn't helping, I had to learn a new way of approaching trauma.

I am not exaggerating when I say that learning to be an EMDR therapist was akin to learning how to see, or experiencing hearing for the first time.  For me, it was transformative to my practice, not only in term of how I approached PTSD, but how I worked with individuals who had anxiety, depression, and a variety of other clinical difficulties.     

EMDR therapy works with the whole person--body, mind, emotions--much like some other effective modalities, such as mindfulness based stress reduction.  But EMDR takes this one step further, in that it intentionally seeks to address emotions and memories at the neurological level.  The bilateral stimulation (the eye movements) engage the brain processes and help access traumatic memories and core beliefs that are held at an unconscious level, and help them organically migrate to parts of the brain where they are no longer terrorizing the individual.   

If you think this sounds somewhat "far out" I would agree, but please, don't write it off quite so quickly.  What impressed me about EMDR therapy was that rather than disappearing, the founders of this therapy went out and did the hard work of gathering research to make this one of the most evidence based practices out there.   In other words, it is not magic--it is actually science. 

We are sharing a video that might interest you, where real life people talk about their experiences.  You can also head over to the websites http://www.emdr.com/ or http://www.emdria.org/default.asp  where you can read about EMDR and the research behind it. 

Please let us know what you think!

All the best to you and yours,

Laurie

 

 

 

It's spring! Thoughts on the hope of the season.

Spring is here!

After a late snow the warm sun is melting the ice away, and for those of us who love the milder weather, we know that the days of wearing shorts into the night, going barefoot, and chasing fireflies are not far away. 

I am always struck by the transformation I go through when the weather breaks at this time of year.   My mood lifts and I find myself lingering outside and talking to the neighbors, or poking around the yard and contemplating our garden for the upcoming year.  I slow down and engage with the outdoor space rather than hunching my shoulders and rushing from my car through the front door to where I feel protected from the elements. 

While I can't fault myself for enjoying the milder days, I know that my attachment to warm weather has a down side, which relates to resisting the time when once again the weather will turn.  I know and appreciate the importance of the cycle of nature intellectually, but in practice, I often falter and face disappointment when the inevitable occurs.  Every November, the trees go through a short burst of piercing beauty, and then lose their leaves and become a barren part of the winter landscape. We set our clocks back an hour and it is suddenly dark by 5 pm. Thanksgiving comes and goes, we have a cluster of festive holidays, and then arrives January, when we are dropped into snow and ice.

Cued by the feeling of loss that comes whenever I consider the colder months I must ask myself: if in my mind the onset of warm weather represents opening up of possibilities and hopefulness, am I in danger of always seeing the late fall and winter as a time when opportunities contract and when bad things are more likely to happen?

Some might see this as a stretch, but I have learned through the practice of mindfulness to become an observer of how the mind works.  I encourage the people I help to imagine holding a mirror up to their minds and watching the way thoughts and emotions swirl together and lead to decisions and actions.  I ask that they try to do this with compassion and curiosity, and as a way to develop a better sense of self-empowerment and personal choice. 

For example I can see through my own use of mindfulness that my changed attitude in the warmer weather in turn impacts my behavior.  I exercise more, I am outside in the fresh air more, and I am definitely more social.   I thus have more actual opportunities to interact with people and experience myself in a positive way, and that reinforces a sense of hopefulness and optimism about my life.  I could allow myself to become convinced that something magical happens when the weather changes, but my wise mind lets me know that actually there is no magic at all.  My life starts to feel more hopeful at this time of year simply because I am behaving differently and the energy I put out starts to create change and open up possibilities in my life.

Stepping back and examining one's mind--and how you are thinking and feeling about things--can be a first step in terms of making sure that you are not impeding your progress toward achieving the goals your have set for yourself.  While some people are constrained by difficult and even oppressive circumstances, often people forget that they have the ability to determine their own path through personal actions.  I find that this is a very hopeful message and come back to it again and again.

When people ask me "will I ever feel better?" I often assure them that I believe they will, not because I have a crystal ball, but because they are in my office and taking responsibility for trying to feel better.  That in itself is an action that says to me "I am ready to work on myself" and "I want help in figuring this out."  While we can't control the weather, we can control our words and behaviors. 

I respect that this is often very hard work, but my faith in the change process comes from my belief that people are fundamentally wired to heal and thrive.  And for that reason, even at their hopeless and despairing, or most depressed, or most anxious, people often still seek to get better, and ask "why?", and persist in resolving the conflicts in their life.

As for me, I will continue to enjoy the warm weather, but I will also work hard to find ways to enjoy what each season has to offer us. In the words of 13th century Zen Poet Dogen,  "Without the bitterest cold that penetrates to the very bone, how can plum blossoms send forth their fragrance all over the universe?"

I hope you have enjoyed reading this post.  Please take the time to let me know what you think, and to share your email so we can add you to our email list.  We will send notifications when new blogs are written, or if we have other news about our practice.

Warmly,

Laurie