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!

Grieving Body Changes

Whether from aging, medical treatment, or an accident, our bodies change. Like other forms of grief, the story we tell ourselves about how and why these changes happened is the source of our peace or distress.

Body changes are often our most public changes. When we start a new habit or learn a new language, others can’t tell just by looking. But the people around us take notice when chemotherapy leads to hair loss, an accident takes an arm, or aging makes us need glasses at work.

Medical treatments can cause some of the most extreme body changes. Treatments may cause us to gain or lose a significant amount of weight, we may lose a limb or an eye, we may lose our reproductive capability. Even when these treatments were medically necessary and we understand logically that this was the best path, we still grieve these losses.

Aging-related changes can be difficult to accept, particularly in cultures that value youth and appearance over age and wisdom. Even though we all know that we will age every year, some people fight hard against the reality of growing older.

Accidents are the most likely to result in complicated grief for the simple reason that they are not something we might choose (like medical treatment) or reasonably foresee (like aging). And accidents often have someone to blame, whether that’s yourself or someone else.

Blaming narratives lead us down a path of grief that is likely to keep us stuck in a vicious cycle of negativity. Blame helps us hold onto anger at the person or situation that caused our grief and keeps us away from taking productive action toward the present and future.

Grief that keeps us stuck in the past can be resolved through work around changing your story of what happened and why. Even when someone is clearly at fault, your narrative needs to incorporate the facts in a way that acknowledges what happened while still allowing you to accept your present reality so that you can continue to create your life moving forward. We need to balance our natural desire to know the reason for our suffering with the fact that there are some things we need to accept that we will never fully know.

As you notice the changes in your body, try to also notice the thoughts you have surrounding the changes. Notice if you are worried what others might think, if you are missing your ability to do a particular activity, or if you tend to blame someone in particular for your loss. This noticing allows you to begin to be aware of the narrative your mind has already created about the situation. These narratives are instinctively formed from your past experiences and your emotions. Notice with compassion and non-judgment, but also notice where your automatic narrative might be creating additional problems for you.

Once you’re aware of your narrative, you can work to shift it in a way that leads you to peace and mental freedom. Your reality is the same, but your thoughts and perspective can move from a focus on the past and what you lost toward acceptance of your current situation and a hopeful future.

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.

Mindfulness through Handlettering

Combine mindfulness with beautiful brush script lettering in this easy exercise to boost memory, brain function, and awareness.

It’s no secret. Handlettering and mindfulness have both been popular for a while now.

We know that being mindful of the present moment is good for us because it helps us engage intentionally in life. Mindfulness requires attentive, intentional focus on the here and now.

I recently took a handlettering class. Creating beautiful scripts with just a brush pen isĀ hard, harder than I expected. After all, it’s just cursive. I’ve been doing that since I was a kid. Boy, was I surprised.

Apparently, if you want to create something that looks good, it takes effort and focus. Then it hit me. Focus is the central part of both handlettering and mindfulness. Why not combine the two?

For this exercise, you’ll need three things: a brush pen (I use a Tombow calligraphy pen), some paper (regular is best), and a quote or saying that you want to meditate on.

First, warm up by writing a few words, getting used to the pen and how much pressure you need to make the lines as thick and thin as you want. There are plenty of tutorials on getting started with Tombow pens if you’ve never used one before- it’s pretty easy to start!

Next, write out your entire quote or saying. It can take a while if you’re working carefully. When you make a mistake, notice it without judgment and continue writing. Most likely, your first attempt isn’t perfect or ready for Instagram. That’s where the meditation comes it. Write it again. And again.

Set yourself a timer for this exercise. Meditating on a phrase for as little as ten minutes can be helpful. I usually work for about twenty minutes because my hands don’t like to hold the pen for too long. You can work for as much or as little time as you need, but whatever you do, let yourself finish without necessarily making everything perfect.

An added benefit of this practice is that you’ll likely memorize the quotes you work on. Memorization is good for your mind, and it’s something we don’t do as much in the modern day where our phones save all our contacts and we can look up anything we forget.

This practice helps you develop focus on the here and now through mindful meditation on the process of creating brush script art. It also helps strengthen your mind as you memorize quotes. And once you get the hang of using the pens, you have beautiful art to hang on your walls or post online!