When do we return to normal?

In the beginning of the pandemic, we all experienced a collective event that hit many people as a trauma. And as a predictable result, many of us got brain fog, lost confidence, experienced physical changes in our bodies, and difficulty keeping up with the rapid changes in policies within our companies and cities.

But most of us expected to be better by now. It makes sense that you’d react to a sudden shift in lifestyle by getting stressed, sleeping poorly, missing deadlines, and gaining weight. After years, it seems like we should be adapted by now. The continued stress and trauma only added up, they didn’t get better. And the longer this goes on, the more we lose confidence in ourselves and our ability to bounce back.

Our inner critic is the key here. It’s bad enough to be stressed and going through a collective trauma, but when your inner critic piles on the shame, you add the sense of ongoing failure to the list. It’s the inner critic who keeps you from being resilient and accessing your strength because it keeps you in the mindset of comparison, shame, and failure. Even when we know consciously that these are normal reactions, the inner critic’s blame and shame tell us the story that it’s okay for everyone else to be struggling, but it’s not okay for you to struggle.

This belief creates a sense of isolation from others. It’s hard to look at someone else who seems to be doing so much better and admit that you’re struggling. And it’s equally hard to be around friends who are struggling and resist the pressure to put on the face of doing just fine. This isolation keeps you from accessing the community, mutuality, and support you need to actually bounce back.

We return to normal only when we can accept what happened, admit to ourselves and others when we are not doing okay, and enter into supportive community in order to truly heal.

Lent Intersecting Therapy

Lent is usually a season of giving up oppressive habits and taking on new patterns of living. We often think of Lent in terms of giving up chocolates or coffee for a time, but when we think of Lent in the broader sense of observing and breaking the chains that lead us on a negative path, we can see how it plays into our mental health.

This year, I’m going to stop drinking coffee because I’ve noticed I get irritable and am prone to withdrawal headaches if I don’t get my morning cup. Coffee is a good thing, but it’s become a weight on my life- I have to have it, I’ve grown dependent on it.

Similarly, I’ve noticed a pattern of thinking that’s unhelpful. When I’m worried or have a concern, I’ve fallen back into ruminating on all the possibilities. This makes me feel tense, and I can feel it all through my body. And when I start to feel the anxious tension in my body, the mental distress escalates which again turns back to mental chatter. It’s a vicious cycle and I don’t like it at all. So this year, I’m also giving up anxious thinking.

Breaking a thought pattern is very different from breaking a physical habit. I can stop drinking coffee by simply not picking it up or ordering it. But thoughts are often unconscious, and there’s not an option to simply not think at all or to filter your thoughts to block out the ones you’re trying to avoid. Wouldn’t that be nice?

In the Christian tradition, we’re told to “take every thought captive” (2 Cor 10:5) and “think on things that are true, noble, pure, right, admirable, and lovely” (Phil 4:8-9). These suggest two key points: first that thoughts happen unconsciously, and when they do, we have a choice about that to do with them when we notice them. Second, that we can consciously direct our thoughts, and we are not entirely at the whim of our unconscious minds.

Taking unconscious thoughts captive starts with awareness. We can’t capture a thought that we don’t know is even happening. And awareness starts with slowing down and paying attention. Most of our life happens on autopilot. And most of the time that’s okay. You don’t need to pay close attention to every detail of your commute, and it’s normal to want to zone out a bit after a busy day. But sometimes autopilot goes wrong, and our default thoughts turn toward the negative.

That’s what happened to me- I consciously managed my anxiety years ago and haven’t been super prone to anxious thoughts for a while. But lately, it’s crept up again, and it’s important to deal with it early so it doesn’t get out of hand. My autopilot has turned to worry, and that’s not okay with me.

You may be surprised to hear this from a therapist, but I’m not the best at noticing my emotions. It’s something I’m working to get better at through this conscious practice of noticing and increasing my awareness. I usually notice my anxiety when my neck and shoulders start feeling tense and I notice the shift in my breathing. Once I notice these physical shifts, I can usually trace them back to the frantic thoughts. Taking time throughout the day to check in with my thoughts, emotions, and body feelings is so helpful in allowing me a chance to notice in advance what’s going on in my mind before it starts affecting my body.

But what to do with anxious thoughts once you notice them? They feel like they’re racing so fast, they almost have a life and power of their own. I think it’s enough to simply say no to the thoughts. No, I’m not doing this right now. No, this isn’t helpful. No, you’re just going in circles and getting nowhere. No, no, no. Some theories say that it’s helpful to debate the thoughts or analyze them to see if they’re true. And if that works for you, go for it! But that doesn’t work for me.

I’ve mentioned before about how a tree branch fell on my car in a windstorm and I would get super anxious when it got windy with the thought that another branch could fall again. It wasn’t helpful to challenge those thoughts because my anxious mind doesn’t care that a branch fell only once in the ten years I’ve lived here- it happened once and could happen again. The only thing that truly helped was saying no from a place of acceptance. Yes, the tree could blow around so hard that another branch falls on the car or the house or a person. But my worry thoughts can’t stop it. If I stay up awake at night worried about what the tree might do, that won’t keep it from falling if it’s going to.

This brings us to the second part. You may have heard the saying “Life abhors a vacuum.” This is equally true of our thoughts. It’s not enough to simply say no to the anxious thoughts, we have to replace them with something else or another thought will quickly come up from our unconscious minds.

Whatever is true, whatever is right…
The “what-if” thoughts aren’t true. They’re hypothetical. They’re future focused. The best way to think of what is true and right is to turn your attention to the present. Give direct, focused, mindful awareness to who you are, where you are, and what you’re doing.

Whatever is pure, whatever is noble…
The “worst case scenario” thoughts aren’t pure. Pure means “without unnecessary elements” or “without contamination.” Worry adds to your reality with all the ways things could go wrong. And again, the antidote is present focus, getting back to what is currently happening without the added extras that the anxious thoughts are focused on.

Whatever is admirable, whatever is lovely…
Anxious thoughts often take us to the lowest place. Thinking of things that are admirable or lovely helps to lift us back up. When we set our minds on higher things, we are reminded of the good things in this world. Lately, I’ve seen articles of studies that show how good it is for people to experience things like awe, wonder, beauty, and glory. Whether it’s going out in nature, experiencing art, or simply marveling at the majesty of the world, focusing outside ourselves helps us get out of our minds and back into a proper perspective of who we are and how we fit into the world.

As we approach the beginning of Lent, I hope you consider how Lenten practices can intersect your personal work in your thoughts and habits. If you have a similar experience or want to join me on this journey, leave a comment and share your perspective!

The Benefits of Failure

Nobody likes to fail, especially in front of others. But failure carries with it two implications- first that you were willing to try something, and second that you have a chance to learn. These are the benefits of failure.

For some of us who have at least one area in life where we are at least moderately successful if not highly proficient, we are faced with the temptation to stay within our realm of competence. This is a key danger in life because once we develop a core competence and choose to remain within it, we can shut down from novel and difficult experiences. We can keep ourselves safe from not knowing, not being very good, being the worst, but only at the cost of our ability to learn and grow and explore.

So failing in itself isn’t necessarily the benefit. But failing means that you tried something outside of your core set of competencies. It means you were willing to stretch yourself and be open to the many different possibilities that could await you. Any time you want to learn how to paint or try a yoga class or sew your own clothes, you probably won’t be a master the first time you do it.

The way out is through acceptance. When you try something new, you might fail. You might look silly. Other people might form opinions of you and your capability. Let me share a story from my life to illustrate.

My Inner Critic is deeply focused on worrying how I’ll do at physical activities. When I was about ten years old, I thought about asking my parents if I could start taking karate lessons like many of my friends did. I never asked because my mind told me that ten was just too late to start learning karate and I’d be behind all the other kids who started even younger.

Looking back, it seems objectively silly. As an adult, ten doesn’t seem to old to learn a new skill. But in the moment, my mind had convinced me it was way too late. Of course, everything seems more obvious in hindsight. The real trick is to be able to notice in the moment when my mind is telling me an untrue story.

I think of some of the things I was interested in but didn’t do. That cookie decorating class- why didn’t I go? That book group- why didn’t I sign up? I can tell myself that the class was too expensive, but in reality if it were half the price I still wouldn’t have gone because what if everyone else is there with a friend and they notice I’m by myself?

Shame says: I don’t want to be the fattest, weakest, and least flexible person in the Pilates class!
Acceptance answers: You might be! But you’ll be doing something you’ve been wanting to try for years.
Shame says: I should have started ceramics years ago if I wanted to be any good.
Acceptance counters: But you can’t start years ago. You can only start now.

I can choose to think back on some of the times I did go to a class alone. I met new people, and others in the class were happy to include me even though they came with friends. I can remember how it felt to finally try karate in college and I did struggle compared to some of the other students but I got stronger and learned a lot, and nobody was as hard on me as I was on myself.

Here’s your challenge- think of something that you’ve wanted to do but just haven’t managed. Explore your reasoning and question deeper to see if the surface reasons are covering over some internal shame or Inner Critic narrative. And then try it. Just once. Just to show your Inner Critic that you’re strong and resilient, that you don’t want to be trapped by worry.

Exploring Motivation

Motivation seems fairly straightforward on the surface, but when you don’t have the motivation to complete basic daily tasks, it suddenly becomes complicated. And it can be frustrating to know that you’re on top of everything you need to do at work and at home but feel like you don’t know how to get yourself to want to work out every night when you get home.

Motivation is huge in therapy. Many people come to therapy looking to regain the motivation they used to have, to explore why they can’t seem to do the things they want to do, basically how to get yourself to want to do the things you have to do.

Motivation is also a bit of a paradox. My clients who are depressed, lost, and frustrated are all looking for the motivation to get them going in life. But my clients who are high functioning don’t see motivation as a relevant factor. They don’t work out every day because they want to, but because it’s built into their routines.

Structure and habit seem to be the key to bypassing motivation. If you only get out of bed when you want to, there will be some days when you simply don’t feel like it. But if you get out of bed every morning when your alarm goes off, you don’t have to check in with yourself to see how you’re feeling first.

This is why many unmotivated people can do well at work but are unable to follow through on what they would like to be doing with their personal time. The external structure of work creates certain obligations- be up and ready by a certain time in the morning whether you want to or not, do your routine job tasks regardless of how you’re feeling, attend meetings when they’re scheduled even if it’s not your preference. At home it’s flipped. You want to start reading more, take up a new hobby or craft project, do a puzzle. But then the “I’ll just watch one episode with dinner” becomes a few episodes, or you’re comfy on the couch and it feels easier to stay seated than to get up and do some yoga.

How do you motivate yourself? By creating a habit. By creating a new narrative of how your evenings go. By deciding that I am a person who works out every day after work whether I feel like it or not. By deciding that every night at 9pm all the screens go off and I’m going to read until it’s time for bed.

The narrative is the key. It shapes your new identity as someone who does these things instead of someone who wants to start doing those things someday. Identity stories are powerful. When it’s 5am, an identity story of “I’d like to be a runner but I’m not there yet” isn’t going to get you out of bed. But when you decide “I’m a morning runner,” you find that your motivation shapes itself to the identity that you declare for yourself. Of course it isn’t as simple as naming yourself a runner, but that’s often the first step.

Try it on with something you’ve been meaning to start or get better at.
“I’m the kind of person who……”
“I ……….. every night after work.”
“I like to ……….. at least three times a week.”

These decisions are powerful. If you work out every day after work and have that as part of your narrative of who you are as a person, it shapes your schedule. When coworkers ask if you want to get drinks after work, you can draw on your identity story to protect your time and let them know you’ve got to work out first and you’ll join them after.

As you shape these identity narratives into a habit, the action becomes routine. Motivation is not a relevant factor. You wake up early to run because that’s just what you do. Think of other routines you have. Severely depressed people often don’t shower or brush their teeth because they can’t motivate themselves to get up and take care of their hygiene. But most people don’t even think about it. They brush their teeth at certain times of the day whether they feel like it or not, even when they’re rushed or exhausted.

Focus on motivation isn’t helpful because it requires you to be monitoring your internal state which is naturally highly variable. You will not always “feel like” doing things you need to do. Deciding that you want to take on a new habit means that you decide that you will do things regardless of your internal feelings about the new routine.

Here’s the lesson: if you’re focused on motivation, you’re looking for internal resources to create an external structure. Try it the other way instead. Create the external structures- scheduling, habit forming, identity narrative- and don’t worry about waiting until you feel like following through. Because once you’ve created that habit, it doesn’t matter if you internally want to keep going, it’s just something that you do.

Developing a Philosophy of Wellness

Your philosophy of wellness shapes your expectations of what you want to get out of your time in therapy. In the first few sessions, I try to get a picture of what my clients are looking for. Most give an answer like this:
“I want things to go back to how they were before”
“I just want to feel normal again”
“I want to feel good and for everything to be okay”

Many people have a philosophy of wellness that looks something like the above examples. They have some idea of a time when things were going well, and they want to have that feeling all the time. There are two problems with this kind of philosophy. First, it’s not realistic to expect that things will be good for you all the time if only you can reach a particular point of wellness. Second, the idea of “good” and “normal” is undefined and nebulous, and it’s hardest to hit a moving target.

To address these problems, we can safely say that we need to develop a philosophy of wellness that accounts for the normal ups and downs of life. Your definition of what it means for you to be and feel well can’t depend on your life circumstances always being positive. And your understanding of wellness should include specific, measurable targets that are well defined and understandable.

With that in mind, what does it mean to be well? What does it look like in terms of how I behave? How does it feel mentally and emotionally? How do I handle negative experiences when I am well? I’ll show you how I answer these questions and how I use them to develop an overarching philosophy of wellness.

To me, being well means that I am okay with just being. When I am unwell, I tend to rush around and have a sense of striving in hopes of working myself into wellness. When I am well, my actions show it by the pace. Instead of a frantic energy, my behavior is characterized by a centeredness that shows even when I am working quickly. When I am well, this centeredness allows me to be more patient with my family, more open to my friends, and more able to respond to events rather than react. My feeling mentally and emotionally is calm and open, and when I am doing very well, I am curious, creative, and energized by new ideas. When I am well, I handle negative experiences thoughtfully without being derailed by anxiety or panic. I am able to process and analyze the situation, asking for help without feeling frantic or shutting down. I am able to deal with catastrophic thoughts without being caught up in them.

My natural tendency is toward anxiety, so my philosophy of wellness is focused on my ability to move away from my unwellness- frantic, striving, rushing, catastrophizing- toward its opposite. For me, that means calm centeredness, openness, curiosity, and creativity. I feel it mostly in my chest. The sense of striving feels tight and hot, and I notice it in my breathing. I also feel it in my mind. The thoughts move from swirling, ruminating, overwhelming, catastrophizing into stepping back, watching the thoughts without being swept up in them, taking time to think clearly.

So while there’s nothing really wrong with saying that you want to feel normal again, or back to your old self, I’d like to challenge you to really dig into those statements. Make them more specific. What is it that you’re feeling right now that you’d like to manage differently? How would you prefer to handle difficult circumstances? What was different about your behaviors, thoughts, and emotions in the past? How do you know when you’re feeling well or unwell based on your physical sensations in your body, your behavior, and your thoughts?

Can HSPs be extroverts?

In short: yes!

While the Highly Sensitive trait is commonly associated with introverts, it’s also totally possible to be a Highly Sensitive Person and be an extrovert. 

Going back to basics, extroversion and introversion are descriptions of how we deplete and recharge our energy. Extroverts gain energy from being around people and can be drained by being alone. Introverts are the opposite- gaining energy from being alone and drained by being around people. 

You can see how it’s hard to differentiate. Highly Sensitive people can be overwhelmed by lots of stimulation, like the amount found at a party or a crowded event. But there’s a key factor- the high sensitivity is reacting to the amount of noise or light or social pressure at the event. An introverted HSP might feel each of these drains similarly. But an extroverted HSP feels both energized by the human energy of the situation and drained by the overstimulation. 

As an extrovert who works at home, I love going out for dinner on Friday nights. I feel like I’m literally buzzing with energy from being around the other people at the restaurant. Similarly, if I have more than one social event on the weekend, I feel totally drained because social events tend to be overstimulating for me. Often, I can feel the tipping point between the buzz of people energy and the overwhelm of social engagement. 

But it’s also true that the majority of Highly Sensitive people are introverts, and if you’re an extrovert you may find that you can’t necessarily relate to information or posts that are supposed to reflect the HSP experience but are actually about introversion. You are not alone in your Highly Sensitive extroversion, and you are not less valid as an HSP because of your extroversion. 

Are you a Highly Sensitive extrovert? Let me know! I’d love to connect.

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.