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!

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.

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.

Teresa’s Prayer

Teresa of Avila wrote a prayer that helps me refocus my negative thoughts when I’m worried about change.

Lately, I have been meditating on this prayer written by Teresa of Avila. Meditating on prayers is one of my favorite ways to refocus my mind when I’m feeling anxious or stressed. I hope it helps you in the same way.

Let nothing disturb you, let nothing upset you

Everything changes, God alone is unchanging

With patience all things are possible

Whoever has God lacks nothing

God alone is enough

When everything seems to be changing around me and I feel worried, I think it’s helpful to remember that everything changes. Change can be very stressful, and there’s a tendency to think that change is the exception and if only things could settle down we could get back to normal. But this prayer reminds me that that’s not how life works.

In therapy, I often meet with people whose goal is to always be happy, have a relationship without any conflict, or find a perfect job. If your goal is to be happy or positive all the time, that’s unrealistic. There is no perfect relationship or job that will completely fulfill you or complete you. Having negative moods or a bad day at work fan derail you, but only if you let it.

Part of the goal of therapy is to build resilience. Given that change is constant and nothing will be perfect, how can you develop the mental skills to handle the ups and downs of life?

The stories we tell ourselves shape the way we perceive and react to the world. If your mental narrative tells you that you need to always be happy all the time in order to be okay, you’ll be consistently on the lookout for negative thoughts and emotions and it will ruin your day and your self-image. And a consistent focus on your negative thoughts can create a downward spiral that sucks you down into depression.

If this sounds familiar to you, consider meditating on this prayer to help break the negative thought cycle and get you back to a healthier narrative.

When things change, remember the times you overcame difficulty in the past, all the times change brought you a positive result, and how you made it through negative changes through your own strength and help from others.

Then ask yourself this question: What if everything works out well?