I sat down recently with Cailey Binkley and Todd Valentine on MARR's podcast: The MARR Experience: Stories of Recovery to chat about a few of my favorite things: meditation/mindfulness, recovery from addiction, and a bit about spirituality and shame. MARR stands for Metro Atlanta Recovery Residence, and is one of the handful of treatment programs that I hold in high regard. They utilize a powerful long-term therapeutic community model of treatment and offer some great resources for the community, like their Loving Someone with Addiction 1-day family education seminar (and their podcast!)
Click the link to check out our discussion about the benefits of mindfulness, how it can be especially helpful for those in recovery from addiction, tips, tricks, and a brief guided meditation to get a taste of what all the hype is about! https://www.marrinc.org/ep-13-mindfulness-is-more-than-monks/
My teacher, Matthew W. Sanford at Mind Body Solutions, talks about the grace and persistence of the body - that it is faithful to move towards living for as long as it can. There are beautiful and challenging implications here related to his work - with folks healing from trauma, and those living with disabilities. There are also beautiful and challenging implications for all of us, when our bodies don't do the things we think they should.
Amber Karnes at Body Positive Yoga talks about this in her article, How to Be Grateful for Your Body (Even When It Feels Impossible): "For a very long time, I was angry at my body because it wouldn’t 'do what I said.' Before I quit dieting, back when I was pursuing intentional weight loss, my body wouldn’t shrink like other folks’ would, and it made me angry. Later, I had really bad chronic back pain for several years. And again I was angry. My body wouldn’t 'get its’ sh*t together' and it made me furious and disappointed. I hated and blamed my body for my unhappiness. The body is easy to blame. It is much easier for us to notice the negative things, the things going wrong, rather than all the things we DO have or what the body CAN do."
She goes on to talk about our brain's negativity bias, that horrible, at-one-time adaptive tendency of our brains to look for everything that's wrong, as well as some practical steps for working to recognize and balance those internal criticisms.
For me, yoga is an excellent tool for improving my mind-body relationship - in that it moves my body, keeps my mind focused on my body moving through space in this present moment, helps me realize my own strength, grace, and energy. There are benefits outside of the physical asana practices of yoga too. Sitting quietly in meditation allows me to bear witness to the thoughts and emotions that are present and maybe typically outside of my conscious awareness. When I'm aware of the ways that I judge myself, I can then pay more attention to intentionally focusing on the good - not only the amazing things that my body can do - ways I sense the world around me and take action in it, but also it's beauty and worth - just as it is. Parenting and child development is an arena where I often hear cited the requirement of 10 positive statements to outweigh the emotional impact of one negative criticism. I'm not sure of the accuracy of the math, but in principle, this holds true - we need some kindness to outweigh the negativity that is inherently present because we have human brains that are biased towards the bad. We are not bad or unloving when we have these thoughts, we simply have to honor our need for more love and appreciation. This valentines day, I hope you will take a moment to express some love to your body!
In our current culture, filled with "you're not good enough the way you are" messages, expressing love to your body might feel uncomfortable, or even wrong or scary. That's ok. If you don't know where to start, here are some suggestions:
- spend some time naked in the privacy of your own home, just practicing being comfortable with your body
- take time to take a bath, put lotion on, give yourself a facial, paint your nails, or otherwise show your body some nurturing and pampering
- pick out one thing you love about your body each day, maybe say it out loud
- go for a walk, do some yoga, or simply sit still and notice the sensations you feel in your body
- express gratitude to your body for the things it can do
- read a book or article about body positivity and notice your reactions
- cultivate your instagram/social media feed to include body positive messages, and people of all body types, especially people who look like you, celebrating their bodies
Additional body-love resources:
Health at Every Size
The Fat Therapist
Love Your Lady Landscape
The Body Positive
Yoga and Body Image Coalition
Align Wellness Solutions is a holistic therapy practice. This not only means that we utilize holistic modalities – neurotherapy, biofeedback, yoga, meditation, breathwork – in addition to traditional types of therapy, but also that we believe that our bodies and minds are not separate entities. There are many things that you can do outside of therapy sessions that will support your healing.
We live in an either/or world. Either I'm right, or you're right. I either have, or I have not. Either I'm ok, or I'm not ok. What if it doesn't have to be that way? In philosophy, religious studies, and business, the both/and idea opens up the playing field and allows for more possibilities than the rigid either/or model. Both/and says that we can both be right. And maybe, that I can be both not ok, and ok at the same time.
In DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy), this is the dialectic. A dialog between two seemingly opposing ideas. The idea that two things can be true at the same time. That there is space for both, and that we don't have torture ourselves with the either/or. I can experience this intense craving and also not use drugs or alcohol. I can feel scared and move forward with the scary thing. I can feel angry and guilty about my anger and silly about feeling guilty and believe that my anger is justified, all at the same time. There don't have to be ors, even when all the ands don't seem to make sense.
In EMDR, a highly effective technique for treating trauma, we see the both/and concept in the practice of dual awareness. In fact, EMDR works largely because it allows us to remember and in some ways re-experience a traumatic event, while also attending to the present moment, where we are reminded that we are safe. EMDR asks us to feel distress and (re)process unpleasant memories, and at the same time, to hold onto the awareness that in this moment, we are ok. In fact, EMDR can't work without this dual awareness. With no awareness of our current safety and ok-ness, the trauma is too scary or overwhelming, and no healing will occur. And without holding space for the discomfort of the trauma to arise, it remains hidden, unprocessed, and lurking underneath to continue to do us harm. Even outside of EMDR, I believe that healing requires both: feeling discomfort, and feeling ok.
We don't like feeling discomfort. (Thank you, Captain Obvious). Much of human behavior is done to avoid discomfort. Sometimes, really maladaptive, harmful behaviors are continued despite negative consequences because we believe that they will allow us to avoid discomfort. The trouble is, that the only way for the uncomfortable emotions to leave us is to move through us. By the time people come to therapy, they have usually accepted the idea that they are going to have to experience some discomfort in order to heal. Sometimes that knowledge is the very barrier that keeps people from getting help. But here's a bit of good news - I see one of my number one jobs as a therapist as helping you remember the other half of that equation. Yes, working through your stuff that you've buried will be uncomfortable. It will feel bad. Sometimes, really bad. But at the same time - you are also/already ok.
Sometimes we are so used to feeling pain (manifesting itself as depression, anxiety, addictions, physical pain, etc.), that we have lost sight of the other piece of dual awareness. Healing cannot occur when we are solely mired in our pain. We must also, at the same time, hold a tangible sense of safety - an awareness that we are ok. So, one of my most important jobs as a therapist is to help you develop the connection with that part of yourself. It is only when you feel connected to your inherent ok-ness, safety, and worth, that all of the uncomfortable stuff can be effective. So, it's ok to feel like shit sometimes, as long as you also are connected to the fact that you are ok. Most people are great at the feeling crappy part - reach out for help if you need support in connecting to the good stuff that will allow your suffering to have meaning, and bring about healing.
I've included below a meditation that I have used with my clients, intended to help you practice this dual awareness - experiencing an uncomfortable feeling while maintaining a connection to your safety and worth. If at any time during this meditation you feel overwhelmed by your negative feelings, or unable to feel connected to a place of ok-ness, simply stop the meditation and simply return to slow, deep breaths.
I read a great article this morning from mindful.org. This article's advice to adapt to change is definitely a good prescription, but how exactly do we do that? I'm reminded of one of my favorite MAD TV sketches in which a therapist simply tells his client to "STOP IT!" Sometimes knowing what to do is the really easy part, but the knowing HOW to do it can be mind-boggling.
Heart-rate variability (HRV) is actually a great measure of our body's ability to adapt - and biofeedback is one way that we can measure and improve it! Align Wellness Solutions is offering a meditation package that includes technologies like Audio-Visual Entrainment and HRV Biofeedback to help us achieve a meditative and coherent state. In this space, we are more adaptable and insightful. So cool that technology can help us with the HOW of mindfulness!
Align Wellness Solutions is offering a package of six sessions incorporating Audio-Visual Entrainment, Heart-Rate Variability Biofeedback, and Guided Meditations to help train your brain to meditate using technology, and then to support your efforts in learning to get yourself into more adaptive, coherent states on your own. For December only, get EIGHT sessions for the same cost of $500.
Last week's blog, Hustle and Go - Our Glorification of Busy-ness and Anti-Rest, we talked about our culture and its creation, reinforcement, and systemic-rewarding of keeping us in a near-constant state of stress and anxiety. We acknowledged the toll that such a persistent state of dis-ease can take, and saw that the work to get out of that place may sound simple, but will definitely not be easy. This week, we will delve into some practical tips to manage and maybe even permanently alter our relationship to stress, anxiety, busy-ness, and the hustle.
We will discover techniques to re-align ourselves with a more peaceful state of being by first noticing all the myriad things that happen to us physically, cognitively, emotionally, behaviorally, and energetically when we are under stress. You'll notice that these areas overlap. We are indeed not separate parts - this breakdown just helps us see the same whole of ourselves from different vantage points.
Our bodies. Most of us are disconnected from our bodies. In fact, we are so disconnected from our bodies that we do not even realize our disconnection. Have you ever been so caught up in your day that suddenly it's four in the afternoon and you realize you haven't eaten since that rushed bagel this morning? Don't notice that you have to pee until you really have to pee? Feel fine and full of energy until you sit still for five minutes and fall right to sleep? This says to me that we can miss signals from our bodies about even our most basic of needs. Food, elimination, rest. If these messages can be lost in transit, then certainly we can miss messages about stress. Strategy: Reconnect to your body. Pay attention to it. Take a moment a couple of times a day to breathe deeply. Simply breathing deeply counteracts so many of the physical things happening in our bodies that we feel as anxiety: it slows and deepens our shallow and fast breathing, it calms our increased heart rate, it lowers our raising blood pressure, it relaxes our tensing muscles. If we are disconnected enough from our bodies, we may not even be noticing those very physical effects. The faster, tenser pace of our bodies may have become our new baseline, and so we experience it as "normal." Scan your body and ask yourself what you notice. Stretch your body and mindfully see how it feels. Maybe practice yoga. But definitely rebuild your relationship with your body by listening to what it has to say. When you're hungry, eat. When it wants to use the restroom, go pee. Don't finish that email first, go now. You haven't listened to your body in a while. It might seem to be giving you the silent treatment. Make the effort to take 3 minutes to breathe, turn towards it, ask it what it wants, and then respond lovingly.
Our minds. Our minds are always moving. And they are generally moving in one of two ways: focused on a particular task or all of the things that it does when its left to its own devices. Certain regions of our brain are engaged when our brains are left on their own, when we aren't consciously and steadily directing them towards an action. Those regions collectively are referred to as our Default Mode Network, or DMN. When the DMN is lit up, we experience this as three basic types of thoughts: ruminating about the past, judging the present moment, or worrying about the future. At this point in the discussion, folks are often like, "eff you, brain." It does kinda suck that these are our brain's natural tendencies. But it's also for great purpose. Evolutionarily speaking, we need our brains to be doing all of this in order to keep us alive. And today, this kind of brain activity is still super helpful in figuring out how the world works, and how to be successful. So it's also kind of amazing that our brain is just doing this on its own, by default. Sometimes our DMN stays too activated and is just too damn loud. That type of increased activity is associated with depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. Strategy: Turn down the volume of the Default Mode Network. This is one reason that we turn to unhealthy coping strategies - especially drugs and alcohol. They turn the DMN way down. But they bring a host of consequences of their own, and as soon as their effects are gone, the DMN is right back to work, sometimes even louder than before. Luckily, there are healthier and longer lasting options. Meditation not only decreases all of that DMN activity, but its effects continue even after the meditative practice is over. In fact, folks who participated in an 8-week daily meditation program still exhibit positive benefits one year later, even if they had not continued to meditate. Trouble meditating? Aside from my first line advice (get a teacher), you can achieve some level of these benefits by getting into a flow state. A flow state is any kind of task that we get lost in. Usually something that doesn't require a lot of brain power, but still task oriented enough to keep the DMN from taking over. For me, it's playing guitar. For some folks, it's running. If you sit down to do an activity you enjoy, and suddenly realize that a couple of hours have passed, you can be pretty sure you've been in a flow state.
Our behavior. We are doing way too much. Our schedules are jam-packed, sometimes even overlapping and double-booked. We over-estimate how much we can achieve and underestimate how much time it will take to do it. This leaves us rushing around from one thing to the next. Strategy: Self-care. When I teach about self-care, I get one of two reactions: "Yay! Massages!" or "I don't have time for self-care!" My answer to both is that self-care includes (of course) massages, but more than that, self-care is self-parenting. It's making sure that we make time for the things that are necessary to our health and wellness. Self-care is going to bed on time, waking up on time, eating your vegetables, getting some exercise, and speaking kindly to ourselves. It's making time - managing our time wisely to truly be able to give 100% to the present moment, and giving ourselves time to breathe. Self-care can sometimes feel like more to-dos to tack onto our list. And there are definitely things to do that need to be prioritized. But mostly, I find, self-care is about doing less.
Our energy. When we are moving fast, disconnected from our bodies, and multi-tasking, our energy is a very up-in-the-air feeling energy. The image comes to mind of someone in a business suit and flung open briefcase all blown about by a storm. Everything disheveled: papers, clothes, hair, energy. Strategy: get grounded. Put your feet on the earth. Weigh yourself down - cover up in a big heavy blanket. Eat heavy, warm comfort foods, like a potato that grew in the dirt. Get out in nature. Touch something real and not man-made. Take a hot bath. When we talk about energy, the strategies are intuitive. Don't do the things that make you feel blown around. Do the things that feel earthy.
Our emotional experience. What we experience as emotions is really a synthesis of our perceptions of all of the above, mixed with our values and ideas of meaning. When our bodies, thoughts, behaviors, and energies are under stress, we feel powerless and our lives can feel out of control. When we get into this space, it can be very easy to focus on all of the ways we are indeed powerless, and the many things out of our control. This line of thinking can cause even more physical reactions to stress, tacking on more and more appointments in our schedules and items on our to-do lists. A cycle forms where our attempts to manage our anxiety actually cause more anxiety. Strategy: Create a sense of stability. Focus on what you do have control over. (Hint: your own thoughts, behaviors, and energy). The things you can control, do those things. For the things you can't control: reframe the thought: "I have no control over what happens" or "nothing I do matters" to "everything I can do, I am doing." When things feel out of control, routine and structure are your new best friends. They allow you to build into your life more things that are within your control. Create a morning and/or evening routine (bonus if it includes self-care!). Have a schedule (bonus if it's not an overwhelming one!) and stick to it. Try to wake up, eat, and go to bed at the same times each day. Stability and predictability are inversely proportionate to stress and anxiety - as one goes up, the other comes down.
Next week's blog post will continue this theme of coping with stress and anxiety. We will look at some of the habitual thought-patterns and core beliefs that we have that keep our anxiety stirred, and talk about how we can begin to change some of those more deep-seated factors.
When people find out that I’m a therapist, they often ask how to cope with stress and anxiety. In an already go-go-go! culture, our abundance of technology makes the bombardment seemingly inescapable. To-do lists, endless reminders, near-constant interruptions, messages of comparison, incoming images and sounds that stoke emotions of alarm and panic are everywhere – in our hands, in our faces, and in our pockets.
In order to answer this question - what do we do about this overwhelming amount of stress and anxiety? - my question back is initially: who's asking?
It's usually an individual asking about their own growing sense of unmanageability. But I often wish that this was a question that people in powerful, culture-changing positions would ask. Certainly we have some leaders on the national level that help us to challenge and change this narrative of what a successful American life must look like, but I'm talking about leaders of microcosms of culture - heads of organizations, small-business owners, faith leaders, principals, parents. Each of these roles are in a position to change the tempo of their small corner of the world - to challenge our belief in multi-tasking and the glorification of busy-ness, to call our attention to the importance of transitions between activities, to create systems that reward, or at a minimum do not penalize, spacious schedules that allow unplanned time that is crucial for creativity and innovation. With a realization that stress and anxiety negatively impact performance, absenteeism, job satisfaction, physical illness, and mental health, business leaders are in an ideal position to begin to affect change that not only keeps us healthy, but improves the bottom line. And with an acknowledgment of the harm that stress, rushing, and a lack of rest and play has on kids, parents are their family's own best shot at being healthier and happier.
My next question is when are folks asking? We are so accustomed to stress, that we don’t often seek help until we hit about an 11 on a scale of 1 to 10. Often, we are so busy and disconnected from our bodies and our feelings that our stress doesn’t even register in our awareness until we’re around a 7 or 8. As a therapist, I can certainly help you when you’re at an 11, but I’d rather help you before then. In addition to providing relief from the immediate stress, we also want to help re-calibrate your stress-o-meter, so you can tell you’re experiencing stress before it gets to such a harmful level.
I often use an analogy of dental care when talking about stress, because every one loves going to the dentist (ha!). For those of us who dislike visits to the dentist, it's likely because we've had to utilize their services for some type of unpleasant and urgent dental issue. We can either have the pleasure of getting a root canal, or we can practice preventive dental care: regular check-ups and cleanings, and practice daily dental hygiene. Similarly, for stress management, we need both emergency coping skills, for when our body's alarm bells are ringing, and daily preventive practices, to help prevent the alarm bells in the first place.
Have you ever had an especially busy day and then looked up at the clock and realized it's 4:00pm and you haven't had anything to eat today? Have you ever noticed that you needed to take a bathroom break, but just wanted to finish that one email first, and before you know it an hour has passed and the signals faded from your awareness, but now you are really aware of them? This is clear evidence that we are not hearing all of the messages our bodies send us. And if we can tune out messages that our basic human needs of food and elimination are not being met, we can certainly tune out messages about stress and anxiety.
The good news: stress management techniques are really simple. The bad news: maybe even because they're so simple, we tend to brush them off as not important. It is immensely hard to prioritize this type of self-care, because we are so conditioned that these activities are not contributing to our productivity. These techniques may be very simple, but they are not easy to implement. The work here is not challenging in the typical check-list, figure-it-out, hustle, sweat, anxiety-increasing way that we typically think of "hard work." This work is difficult in the I'm-asking-you-to-do-the-opposite-of-what-our-entire-society-has-conditioned-you-to-do-since-birth kind of way. It might not feel like you are doing much. But you are. Rest is a constructive action, and the "work" is in ignoring all of the pieces of you telling you not to do the work. You might surprised at your own thoughts and feelings that rise up to resist you as you set out to practice good self-care. Our work is in counter-acting some of the sources and results of stress and anxiety.
Next week's blog will focus on some of these simple, though not easy, solutions. Stick around!
If you would like to schedule an individual therapy session to work on your own stress and anxiety, reach out via email or use my online scheduler. You can read more about my practice here.
If you are looking for help for your organization to better address stress and anxiety on a more macro level, contact me to discuss specifics and a free brief consultation and proposal presentation
Melanie Storrusten. Licensed Clinical Social Worker. Owner of Align Wellness Solutions.