Seeking Connection

We had a connection crisis long before social distancing and shelter in place. For years, sociologists noted that our reliance on digital media as a means of contacting and connecting with others was problematic.

But even then, most of us worked outside our homes. Even if our friends and family were digital connections, we at least had to see our bosses and coworkers in person.

The disconnect in digital connection comes from the safe distance we feel from others when we interact online. Think about the comments section of any social media post- people are more likely to get into inflammatory arguments online than in real life. The screen insulates us from the humanity of the people we’re talking to and gives us protection from immediate consequences of saying something insulting. We don’t have to see how we hurt others, and we can’t get hurt in return.

Not that most of us are internet trolls, but the same principle applies when we try to connect. It’s harder to feel personally connected to someone on a screen because we’re used to screen people being fake people- actors on a show for our entertainment. Even if you are looking at someone you know and love, it’s hard to feel as personally connected when it’s digital.

This is a result of perception and training. The good news is it’s possible to work toward feeling connections even across screens and across distance. The bad news is that it’s hard. If you haven’t had distanced relationships before the pandemic, learning this new skill will take focused mental effort. It will be exhausting at first.

There are three key skills you can use to foster a sense of connection despite distance and digital interference.

1. Be Present. When you start a call or meeting with a loved one, take a moment to be present with them. Being in different locations, we each have environmental distractions that, if we were together, could be shared. But across distance, they only serve to divide us. Mentally set aside things outside your connected space and focus on the conversation.
2. Be Attuned. Notice their nonverbals. This can be more challenging on a phone call or with low video quality, but since most communication is nonverbal, this is a key point of connection. In person, we pick up on so much of this unconsciously, and it takes more effort in a digital format.
3. Be Honest. If you’re struggling to feel connected to someone in a particular format, ask for what you need. Some people feel most connected in email which allows for long-form expression. Others feel most connected over a phone call so you can hear their voice. You may enjoy video chats with friends but feel stressed when it’s with your parents. Be straightforward and ask for what you need.

The Importance of Sleep

Sleep is key to good mental health as well as general physical wellness. Not getting enough sleep- or not getting quality sleep- is a huge blow to your ability to maintain your emotions, feel good in your body, and stay mentally sharp.

We are armed with modern technology that allows us more understanding of our personal sleep cycle than ever. Most smart watches and fitness trackers can detect the depth and length of your sleep cycle. Some phones are also able to monitor your sleep.

Despite this knowledge, we are not sleeping well. Part of this is natural- as we age, we spend less time in deep sleep and may need less sleep. But part is cultural. For those who work during the day, night is often the only time you have to yourself to relax or to do your own activities. Sleep is one of the first things we sacrifice when we have a major deadline coming up or we want to spend more time with friends.

Good sleep starts with routine and sleep hygiene. Going to bed and waking up around the same time every day creates a routine that supports quality sleep. This flies in the face of our idea of weekends, days off, and holidays as time to “sleep in” so creating a sleep routine means finding alternatives to sleeping in as a benefit of a day off.

Sleep hygiene means keeping non-sleep activity out of the bedroom. Even though fewer people own TVs or keep them in the bedroom, our phones and tablets create a similar disruption in our sleep hygiene. Those living in a single room or studio can benefit from having a couch or comfortable chair for other activities. Those with multiple rooms should avoid the bedroom except for sleep.

We know the problem- poor sleep- and the solutions- sleep hygiene and routines. But the problem goes beyond just a poor night’s sleep. A habit of too little sleep can leave you susceptible to anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.

Interested in discovering how your sleep cycle affects your mental health? In therapy, we can go over your sleep routines, explore any resistance to sleep, and go through the process of discernment to find out how much sleep you actually need. Call or text 831-531-2259 or email leftcoastmft@gmail.com to schedule a free consultation to find out how we can work together to transform your sleep habits to work for you.

Not quite ready for therapy? My Foundations of Mental Health course is coming soon and will go over sleep as one of the foundational habits that are key to health and wellness.

Clarify Your Values

Many people find it difficult to think meaningfully about their ideal life. Try this exercise instead and clarify your values by looking at things you dislike instead.

Many clarity exercises ask you to look at your ideal day, your ideal life, or your ideal partner as a way to discover your values. But that’s often not helpful. We would all like to find a way to make an excellent living while working part time and traveling the world, writing the Next Great American Novel, or being fully devoted to family.

Instead, this exercise looks at what you don’t like or don’t want as a way to discover where your values truly lie. It can be overwhelming to think of what you do want in life, but often it’s easy for us to think of things we haven’t liked. Your ideal is often nebulous and may change as you grow. But things you dislike often stay dislikes.

So here are the statements. Fill them out with sentences or bullet points, and don’t worry about how much you may put down. And once you have a picture of what you don’t like and don’t want in your life, look at how you can change your life to minimize and eliminate the things that you hate and replace them with things you don’t hate.

  1. I feel most unhappy when I…
  2. I dread …
  3. I am good at but do not particularly enjoy…
  4. I cannot imagine doing … every day for the rest of my life.
  5. I don’t understand why anybody would…
  6. … does not appeal to me.

If you want help looking at your life with a view of minimizing what you truly dislike, therapy can help you look deeper at your history of negative experiences and pull out what in particular you disliked. And therapy can help you shift your relationships at home, at work, and within yourself to shift your life away from the things you hate and toward something richer and fuller.

Contact me at 831-531-2259 or leftcoastmft@gmail.com to schedule a consultation.

Building Resilience

We all know we should build resilience, but how? Learn three ways to build resilience before things go wrong and three ways to enhance resilience in a crisis.

We all know that resilience is the factor that allows us to deal with life’s ups and downs. And we all know that resilience is a skill that can be built up. But not everyone knows exactly how to build resilience. I’ll give you some key steps to take to build up resilience before things feel overwhelming as well as some extra things you can do when you already feel overwhelmed.

  1. Be socially connected. One of the things I look for as a therapist is if my clients have at least 5 people or groups they can look to for support. For children, peer support is nice, but I’m looking for at least 3 adults and 2 peer age kids. Support doesn’t have to mean telling them about your deepest fears and worries. Support from one person could be a casual friendship where you go for walks or out to coffee. Groups like AA, NA, or GriefShare are a great source of support.
  2. Practice self-care. The idea of self-care includes fun things like treating yourself to a nice dinner or a spa day, but it also includes routine care for your body and mind like exercise, sleep, and taking a bath or shower. Develop a basic self-care routine that incorporates exercise and hygiene with occasional additional treats.
  3. Practice mindfulness. This could include journaling, meditation, art, or any other form of mindfulness. The goal is to learn how to recognize your thoughts and emotions from a distance, separate from your self-identity. Mindfulness also has a core of non-judgment. It doesn’t help to beat yourself up for “being anxious,” but it can help to recognize when you are having an anxious thought or experiencing anxiety in your body.

These three factors- social support, self-care, and mindfulness- are the basis of developing resilience. By practicing these skills when you’re feeling good and things are going well, you’ll improve your ability to use them when things aren’t so good. Here are three additional things you can do to increase your resilience during a time of stress or overwhelm:

  1. Disconnect from devices. News media and social media can contribute to your sense of stress. Taking a break can help you clear your head and focus on yourself.
  2. Reconnect with your goals and values. Sometimes, a sense of stress is a signal that we’re going in the wrong direction. Check in with yourself to see if anything in your environment- work, relationships, living situation- is contributing to your feeling overwhelmed. Sometimes, stress is a part of moving toward your desired goals and remembering why you are choosing this path may give you the strength to carry on.
  3. Talk to a therapist. When things become more than you can handle, a therapist can teach you skills to navigate the situation. A therapist provides a neutral, outside perspective which can be helpful when friends and family all have their own opinions on what you should do.

What skills do you use regularly and when you feel overwhelmed by stress? Is there anything that’s worked for you that I missed? Is it time for you to talk to a therapist about your situation?

Curiosity and Defensiveness

Defensiveness is a natural response to feeling threatened, but it can be hard on relationships. A posture of curiosity allows you to empathize with the other person.

Most of the time when people start therapy, they are approaching life- relationships, change, work- with a defensive stance.

A defensive stance is natural. Our responses to new situations are usually fight, flight, or freeze. The instinct of self-protection is key to our survival. It’s important, and we can’t completely ignore it.

But when we carry this defensiveness into familiar situations and routines, it can create relational problems. You may have the experience of feeling defensive at work, perhaps you had a bad week and now the boss wants to talk to you- or in your close relationships, when your spouse is washing the dishes angrily and you’re wondering what you did wrong this time.

I’m sure you know the feeling of defensiveness. Your breath is shallow and tight, you start to notice the tension in your neck and chest. You may start to feel something in the pit of your stomach.

When you’re feeling defensive, your body tightens and closes up to protect you from danger. Often, people who feel defensive show it by crossing their arms and leaning back. Your thoughts and emotions close up too. Your mental focus is on analyzing possible threats and making sure you have a way out. Emotionally, you may balance your fear by getting angry or crying.

In contrast, imagine a picture of curiosity. When you’re curious, you lean forward to look. You may reach out with your hands, you may move closer. Your thoughts are open, your mental energy is exploring. Emotionally, you are prepared to discover.

Curiosity defuses closed off defensiveness. Imagine the earlier scenarios. You’re called into your boss’s office after a terrible week at work when everything seems to have gone wrong. Your spouse is angry at you and you don’t know why.

If you go into these situations defensively, you’re looking for threats. And when you look for threats, you’ll either find them or connect the dots to create them. Humans naturally look for patterns, whether they’re there or not.

It takes effort to overcome the natural sense of fight-flight-freeze when we feel like we’re in danger. And of course if you’re truly in danger, you wouldn’t want to shift to an open and curious posture. But in relationships, whether at home or at work, curiosity helps maintain your connection to the other person. You’re able to take a step back and look from the other person’s perspective. You can only empathize with them if you’re first curious about them and their needs. And you can only admit your mistakes when you’re not trying to protect yourself.

In difficult situations, like when you’re sure your boss is going to want an explanation for your bad work week, defensiveness works against you. If your boss sees you justifying poor work or blaming others for mistakes, they may not feel confident that you would be able to do things differently in the future. In contrast, if you can admit it was a down week and take responsibility for your part in the problem, your boss may develop trust that you are aware of the situation, your part, and possible solutions. Curiosity shows you’re teachable.

And when your spouse is angry, defensiveness calls up all the ways they wronged you. Defensiveness is ready to attack or blame. Curiosity recognizes that they are feeling angry and is ready to listen to their perspective. Curiosity can hear the unmet need behind the anger and is willing to work to meet it.

So how do we shift from defensiveness to curiosity? The first step is recognizing defensiveness when it comes up. Notice the physical sensations. Notice your thoughts and emotions. Then challenge those thoughts by shifting your focus to the other person. Wonder to yourself what they might be thinking or feeling. Change your physical breathing patterns. Deep breathing calms your vagus nerve. Stretch your body to break out of any tightness. Notice any tension and deliberately tighten and then relax those muscles.

This shift takes time, especially at the beginning. If you notice yourself getting defensive, take a break. Give yourself a few minutes alone to get into curiosity before going into a situation where you usually feel defensive. If you can, ask for a break. Start with easier situations before trying to get curious around a hot button issue.

What do you think of the idea of curiosity? Do you notice when you’re in a posture of defensiveness? How do you think defensiveness and curiosity have played a role in your relationships?

If you find that your relationships have been severely affected by defensiveness or you aren’t able to shift into curiosity, therapy can help. Even a few sessions of guided curiosity can help you create new patterns of relating.

Narratives of Failure

The stories you tell yourself about how and why you fail are important. You can reshape your meta-narratives to tell a story of fullness instead of blaming, brokenness, and victimhood.

Your meta-narrative is the way you think about life, the story you tell yourself to interpret what’s going on in the world and how it connects back to your own life.

In general, if your meta-narrative is positive, you will be happy and go through life focused on good things and covering over or explaining away the bad things. Similarly, if your meta-narrative is negative, your focus will be on the bad things instead of the good things.

Your meta-narrative can also be passive or active. When you think about your life, do things seem to just happen to you or are you in control of crafting your path through obstacles?

This is best seen in terms of the narrative you tell yourself when you fail.

When you fail an important test, lose a bid on a contract, have your hours cut, get passed over for a promotion, or get rejected romantically, what is the story you tell yourself about how and why this happened?

Let’s look at some of the most common failure narratives people use.

Blaming. Many times, you can comfort yourself through failure by justifying it as another person’s fault. You failed the test because the professor wrote the questions poorly or didn’t teach well enough. You weren’t chosen for the special team or project because the boss hates you or because another, less deserving coworker did something to suck up to the boss to get chosen. The problem with a Blaming failure narrative is it takes all the responsibility off of you. If it’s not your fault, you don’t have to look at the ways you may have contributed to the outcome.

Broken. Instead of passing all the fault to others around you, a Broken narrative assumes the fault is an intrinsic part of your character. You had your hours cut because you’re the worst employee and it was only a matter of time before your boss found out. You were turned down for a date because nobody could ever love you. Again, the problem with the Broken narrative is it takes responsibility away from your actions and puts it on your character, or who you are as a person.

Victim. This narrative feels chaotic since your life is completely out of your control. Things just started happening to you one day and since then it’s one thing after another. Nothing seems to go right at home or at work. Like the others, this narrative also takes the responsibility away from your actions but instead of putting it on yourself or others, it’s just that Life or the Universe or God has it out for you.

Do you see the common thread? All these bad narratives deny personal responsibility. A healthy narrative looks at all aspects of a situation. You, your thoughts, and your actions have a part to play in your failure. Regardless of what others do or don’t do, the contributions of your character and personal history, or your external circumstances, a healthy narrative centers around what you do in response.

Life will always happen, and your meta-narratives about life and your part in shaping it will affect the way you respond to events. Do you notice Blaming, Broken, or Victim stories when you think about your life, particularly your failures? If these have become your habitual responses to failure, therapy can help you untangle your unhelpful meta-narratives and create new ones that support you in thriving through life.

What is ACT?

Curious about ACT? Check out this overview to see if it’s right for you.

ACT stands for Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. ACT is a kind of cognitive therapy that works to help you live your desired life by identifying your values and aligning what you do to make sure your values come out in how you live.

ACT is best explained through a metaphor. One of my favorites is the metaphor of the backseat drivers. Imagine you’re driving a car toward the life you want to live. But fear, anxiety, sadness, grief, and all their friends are piled in your back seat talking over you and pointing you down different roads.

You can pull over, stop the car, and work on trying to get the backseat drivers out of your car. But it takes a lot of effort to get rid of them, and while you’re doing that you’re not moving forward in your life. And when you get back on the road, those backseat drivers will eventually find their way into your car again.

ACT believes that the most effective way to get to your desired life is to keep driving. Focusing on the backseat drivers only leads to a crash. And stopping to get them out of your car is a lot of effort for not much payoff. It might be difficult to learn how to tune them out, but the important part is that you keep going where you want to go, not derailing your dreams because of anxiety, not taking a different path because your low self-esteem says you don’t deserve to get what you want.

This takes effort. The first part of ACT is based in mindfulness. You need to know how to tell the difference between your unhelpful backseat driver thoughts and your core self and its desires.

Once you can separate your unhelpful thoughts, you’ll learn skills to simply observe your thoughts as they come up rather than reacting to them. Observing in the present moment is a key skill.

Then we’ll start looking at your values. Everyone has different values, but because they’re such a core part of who we are, it can be hard to recognize them and put them into words.

Finally, your values will turn into committed action. You’re probably already living out your values in some areas of your life, but we’ll look at where you need help reshaping your life. We’ll identify specific action steps for you to take to transform your life to align with your values so every day feels purposeful and meaningful.

ACT helps anyone who feels like their thoughts and emotions are out of control backseat drivers who are derailing you from living the life you want. It works well for both individuals and couples. ACT has special workbooks for anxiety, depression, couples’ issues, and even chronic pain. But like most cognitive therapies, it can be helpful even if you don’t identify with any of those categories.

If you’re interested in ACT or in learning more, text, call, or email me for a free consultation.

Life Rhythms

A rule of life helps keep you in tune with the natural rhythms of the world. Therapy can help you find the balance and live into your values.

Traditionally, creating a Rule of Life has been a key component of spiritual growth and direction. These rhythms are not only helpful for spiritual growth, they are also a good foundation for your mental and relational health.

Rhythms involve opposites. These patterns of life include solitude and companionship, rest and work, knowledge and experience, prayer and service, action and meditation. Notice that these go back and forth between active effort and passive refreshment.

Life involves ups and downs. The idea of rhythm is natural and normal. Many people struggle to accept both sides of life, particularly the low points. Creating a life rhythm gets you back in tune with the natural rhythms of the world.

I hear from many people that they wish things could always be good, that they could always be happy, and that they could be more outgoing and positive. But this isn’t realistic and sets you up for disappointment.

It takes effort to get in tune with yourself to see what you need. You will have times of expansion where you do feel social, active, and capable. There will also be times when you feel a need for rest, for stepping back, and for quiet solitude.

Notice this solitude is different from the isolation that often comes alongside depression. This is where discernment is important. If you feel like your desire to be alone comes from depression, your true need is social activity. Soul-refreshing solitude balances times of activity when you give from your strengths.

If you feel like your life is out of balance or if you feel pressured to keep up action and positivity without rest, go back and read the list above. Notice what words you are drawn to. Use your discernment to see what you truly need.

I can help you discern your values and find balance between action and rest. Through therapy, we can look at your patterns of life and examine how it is affecting you, your relationships, and your spiritual life. Then we can gently restructure your schedule to allow you to return to the natural rhythms of life.

Couples Counseling for One

Couple’s therapy can still be effective even if your partner doesn’t want to work with you to change the relationship. Individual therapy with a couple’s focus is possible and effective.

You may know there’s a problem in your relationship, but your partner isn’t willing to go to therapy with you. Does this sound familiar? If it does, there is hope.

Most people think of couple’s therapy as sessions with all partners in the session where they learn and practice skills to improve the relationship. While this may be an ideal for couples to transform their relationships, it’s certainly not uncommon for only one person in the relationship to want to go to therapy and put in the work for change.

Being an individual doing couple’s work can feel awkward or strange. You’ll learn communication skills that your partner isn’t learning along with you. When you go to practice your new skills, they may respond in a way you didn’t want. It can feel devitalizing and demoralizing.

But even if both of you attend couple’s sessions, these scenarios may still happen. Skills you both learn and practice with the therapist may be difficult to bring into your home. This is a normal part of growth and change.

It only takes one person to change a system. As an individual, your work in therapy can transform your relationship even without your partner participating with you. It may take more work on your part, but it is not only possible, it is effective!

I use the Gottman method with couples, and it is also a valuable resource for individuals to learn to change their relationships. If you are feeling disconnected from your partner, wanting better communication, or looking to revitalize your relationship, you can!

Reach out today to start the process of building a solid foundation for your relationship to grow and flourish.

Therapeutic Journaling

Keeping a journal can be very beneficial for your mental health, but not all journaling gives you the benefits you’re looking for. If you want to make the most out of your writing time, try these tips to make sure your journal is a therapeutic part of your day.

Know your focus. Journaling for therapy benefits is different from simply keeping a daily diary. Dedicated therapy journals should focus on the issue you’re dealing with. If you’re trying to be more outgoing to improve your dating life, your therapy journal should focus on your thoughts, feelings, and dreams about dating as well as reminiscing about past dates, family attitudes about dating, and your ideal dating life.

Keep it secure. One of the major drawbacks of traditional journaling is that your intimate details are open to the world. Whether you lock it up, hide it away, or use a private online journal, it’s important to keep things secure. Journaling for therapy is most beneficial if you can be completely honest and get everything out, but you won’t want to do this if you’re worried about someone else getting access. Find a secure place to keep your journal so you can get the most by being the most honest.

Stay in the habit. Just like traditional therapy is most effective when you go weekly, therapeutic journaling is most beneficial when you practice often. Regular journaling is the key to noticing trends in your thoughts and emotions. This is most important if you’re using journaling to help track depression or anxiety. The more you can observe yourself and your processes that might be fueling your negative emotions, the easier it will be to learn how to interrupt those processes and overcome the cycle.

Check in with how you feel. For the most part, therapeutic journaling is highly beneficial. But if you notice yourself feeling more angry, tense, or sad after you spend time writing, you might be using your journal time wrong. If your journal is just a repeat of the negative thoughts, feelings, and experiences you had in your day, it might easily make you feel worse by the end. This is a sign you need to change up your focus. Instead of writing down why everything is the worst, use your journal space constructively to challenge your negative thoughts and reframe them to something more positive and helpful.

 

Was this helpful? Look out for future series on journaling tips just for anxiety, depression, parenting, and relationships!