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New Book Is Out!

If you’ve been following me for a while, you might remember that book 2 of the DIY Therapy series was supposed to be out in January. After some delays, it’s finally here!

Managing Chronic Insomnia is designed to help people who have been dealing with the stress, anxiety, and sheer weariness of chronic insomnia. Therapy techniques are effective in over 70% of insomnia cases, more than double the long term effectiveness of sleep medication.

Insomnia treatment is based in Cognitive Behavior Therapy which is an evidence-based manualized treatment. Because of these factors, CBT is totally doable on your own- no sleep therapist or doctor needed. By following the guide and going through sleep retraining on your own, you should be able to manage your chronic insomnia!

And if you decide part way through that you do want to work with a specialist, they’ll likely be using CBT as well, so you’ll be able to pick up right where you left off and all the terminology should be familiar to you.

This book does not replace therapy, but it does provide an option for you to learn the skills, practices, and techniques of CBT and get relief from your insomnia without needing outside treatment.

Sound like something you’re interested in? Check out the universal link here. If you like it, consider leaving me a review on the platform where you got it.

Grieving Missed Pandemic Milestones

Like many people, I was really excited to hit the next decade of my life and had big plans for how my new-decade birthday might go. I figured 2020 would be a big year for me personally, and I was looking forward to the milestone birthday being one of many important transitions. I don’t think I need to tell you that the big party didn’t happen. The big vacation I planned didn’t happen.

But it didn’t bother me at the time. Seniors missed graduations and class trips, weddings were postponed or streamed on video. Plenty of other people missed birthdays and holidays and vacations. It felt for a while like we were all in this together, all sacrificing the things we were really looking forward to.

It still didn’t bother me in 2021 because things still felt up in the air. Sometimes events could happen, other times they’d be shut down or postponed yet again. Some people were having parties, but other people were still keeping things small out of caution.

This year has been different. One of my best friends is about two years younger than me and she’s now hitting the decade milestone that I missed in 2020. And she gets to have the party and go on the special vacation. I’m jealous in ways I didn’t expect.

I’ve heard similar from people who had to skip their graduations or have them virtually. They can go and walk this year to make up for it, but they’ve moved on in their lives and it feels weird to go and walk in someone else’s graduation just because you missed yours. But the feelings of sadness and jealousy are still there.

So how do we deal with these feelings? How do I watch my friend have an amazing party and then follow it up with a fun long weekend away? How can I be genuinely happy for her while missing the fact that I wanted those things for my milestone birthday too?

And just like it feels wrong to walk in someone else’s graduation to make up for the loss of mine, it also doesn’t feel right to have that party two years later simply to make up for lost time. All that’s left is for me to bring these thoughts and emotions up with acceptance. I missed my birthday party and the vacation. I didn’t feel sad at the time, but I’m sad now and that’s okay. I’ll have another birthday this year, and that can be good enough. I can plan a new vacation this year, and that can be okay. I’ll never get back all the time in 2020 that I lost to the pandemic and all the restrictions, but I need to accept that as a fact in order to move on.

Acceptance doesn’t mean I ignore my sadness or my jealous thoughts. My sadness is real and an important part of me. I can accept what happened and accept my sadness. The jealousy is different. I can tell from sitting with it that it comes from a place of feeling like things were unfair and I deserved better. Those emotions are valid, but they’re ultimately unhelpful. Focusing on the sense of unfairness doesn’t help me feel better, it keeps me in a cycle of feeling angry and jealous and focused on what I’m missing.

Does this make sense? My sadness is helpful because it allows me to acknowledge what I lost. My jealousy is unhelpful because it keeps me focused on myself as a victim of circumstance. Moving through this grief, it’s not helpful to allow myself to dwell on the jealousy, but I do need to hold and sit with my sadness so I can feel it fully and journey through it.

Grieving missed milestones and memories from the pandemic looks like sitting with your thoughts and feelings with a posture of acceptance. From there, you can decide which thoughts and feelings are helpful or unhelpful and decide how you want to proceed with intention, acceptance, and self-compassion.

Did you miss a milestone or major event during the pandemic? How did you handle it? Does the method I used sound like it might make sense for you or did you use a completely different way?

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?

Grief at Systems of Injustice

In most grief literature, we frame grief individually- I, or you, have lost something or someone and we have to step forward in life in the wake of that loss. But we also see an undercurrent of a deeper grief, one that reacts to the damage done by injustice and unjust systems as they harm humans both individually and in communities.

This is a pervasive grief. None of us live in perfectly just societies, and if we do not see the injustice in the system it is because we choose not to see it or we are privileged enough that it is invisible to us. We all participate in society, and even as we run into these unjust systems, we recognize that individual action will not do much to change the system itself, we need collective action.

This kind of grief turns readily into anger, both at the system itself for being unjust and at others who are not working to bring justice or may be actively working against justice.

This kind of grief can also turn into apathy, the sense of struggling to move a system that seems unmovable. The sense of being alone in wanting change can wear us down as we do not see others rallying with us in the cause. And a different kind of apathy when these stories of injustice sweep through the culture with a sense of pity, but the energy for change doesn’t last as the next big story comes in.

Choosing a life of activism often feels like grief. It is difficult to remain faithful to a cause when it feels like shouting at the ceiling and pleading to an empty room. And yet we are heartened by stories of other activists who did see lasting structural changes toward justice, often after decades or even a lifetime of work.

Justice is a strong drive at the core of your heart, and grief walks alongside it. You may find it useful to retell your story, even just to yourself, to remember why you believe in justice and why it’s worth continuing to pursue right action through all the struggles. As an activist, you are a modern day prophet, seeing straight through to the heart of the issue and trying to wake up a culture that seems to be asleep.

Your story of justice can be a light when everything around you seems dark. Stories keep us going when we want to stop. Justice is worth pursuing every day, and your choice to sit with the grief of injustice instead of ignoring it will be a beacon to those who come after you.

The Equalizing Power of Grief

Grief therapy is fundamentally different from other kinds of therapy for a few reasons, a primary reason being that both the therapist and the client have had their own experiences with grief and loss. In other therapies, the client may have a problem that the therapist has never experienced, so the therapist is operating purely clinically with no personal interjection.

This different way of doing therapy can feel odd to those who are more comfortable in a therapeutic experience that is more one-sided and hierarchical with the therapist being the expert on treatment and the client bringing the issue to be treated. With grief, we are all in the same boat. Not that your therapist will give great detail about their own story- therapy should always center on you as the client- but there is a different sense of community, a feeling like right now it is you going through this grief, but we have both been there and we will both be there again at many points in our lives.

And so, grief therapy is a process grounded in a horizontal relationship of equality rather than a vertical relationship of hierarchy and expertise. We are truly traveling together on the journey of grief. This is a collaborative process of digging into the meaning and purpose of life in the face of our mortality and limits.

Helping Children Grieve

Even very young children are aware of loss and have their own process of grieving based on their understanding. Because children look to their caregivers to learn how to process their losses, caregivers can inadvertently shut down a child’s ability to grieve when they assume the child does not know or is not reacting to the loss.

Children’s television and literature cover common topics of loss like changing schools, moving away from a friend, and losing a pet. With these kinds of losses, caregivers can leverage the child’s understanding of how their favorite characters went through their loss.

The most common temptation for caregivers is to help move the child through the process. Resist the urge to tell the child how much nicer it will be at the new school or that they will make more friends soon. Help the child learn how to be sad in appropriate ways, express their anger at the situation, and find ways to honor their loss.

The topic of death, particularly parent or sibling death, is not common in children’s media. Unless you purposefully seek out these books, you are not likely to find them at your local library or bookstore. Grandparent death is a more common topic, but again not always available on the shelves.

A key difference with parent or sibling death is that you as the caregiver are likely processing your own grief through the process. It’s very different from helping a child deal with their emotions through changing schools since you as the caregiver are not also changing schools.

Children need to know that it’s okay to express their grief with you, and they often want to know that the loss matters to you too. Younger children often want to tell the story of their loss over and over, and this can be an opportunity for you to craft a story together of what you have lost and how you are grieving together.