What is it about mindfulness that reduces stress – ACCEPTANCE!

In my own personal journey of healing, as well as being a compassionate witness to the healing of others, I have come to realize that suffering comes from rejecting parts of ourselves that we either think or believe are unacceptable to others.  When I first found myself in psychotherapy, I discovered that I was rejecting my emotional parts, because expressing emotions in my family of origin was either not acceptable or was overwhelming.  However, the effort it took to try to reject these emotions from my life was exhausting, created a great deal of anxiety and was completely unsuccessful.  In fact, the more I rejected them, the more my emotions would come out when I least expected!

It wasn’t until my therapist had me befriend my emotions that I was able to regulate them, honoring that they were a core source of my intelligence and would not want to reject them.  Wow, what a concept, ACCEPT my emotions as part of this experience of being human.  When I learned, which was a process, to allow those parts of me to express themselves, they no longer raged (read overwhelmed me).  It was as if giving them air actually dissipated the energy, versus the thought that ignoring or avoiding them, not giving them air (AKA suffocating or stuffing them) would extinguish the flame/energy.  And one of the main emotions I was trying to avoid feeling was fear.  My family did not acknowledge fear and instead taught us to wear many different masks to not reveal such vulnerability.  So the perfectionist and people-pleasing parts of me became overactive, to compensate for the scared little girl part that simply wanted to feel safe and accepted.

Along the way, I gathered some tools to deploy during the process of accepting all parts of myself, such as but not limited to deep breathing, yoga, journaling and guided meditation, as these tools helped me to welcome those parts of myself that I had been trying to avoid.  These tools might be referred to as contemplative science, cognitive practices, or simply mindfulness.  Now, I didn’t really know what it was about these practices that made them so effective for me, yet what I did know was after practicing them consistently for a period of time my anxiety went away.  What I came to realize was that the power of rejection creates long-lasting wounds to the hearts of many and that acceptance is healing.  Acceptance is a basic human need, as we are wired for connection and want to belong.  When we believe parts of ourselves are unacceptable and try to reject or mask those parts, we create our own chronic stress and suffering that manifests in symptoms such as anxiety.

Now the research is helping us to understand the power of acceptance and how contemplative science practices support us in monitoring our present-moment experiences through the lens of acceptance, reducing biological stress in the body through emotion regulation and evidenced by a reduction in cortisol levels and systolic blood pressure reactivity.  In addition, research is showing how Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is becoming an empirically-supported treatment option for anxious youth.  I think this is critical information to share at this time, as no one knows the lasting effects of the fear coming from the uncertainty the COVID-19 pandemic is creating.  What we do know is that social isolation is not a healthy state of being for humans (think solitary confinement in prison) and we will all need tools to heal the traumas of this time.

If you would like to read more of the research on the healing effects of acceptance, click the boxes below:

Compassion for Survivors of Trauma – a New View of Substance Use Disorder/Addiction!

I remember being assigned to read the book by Dr. Gabor Maté, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, while in graduate school and simply feeling gratitude, compassion and validation afterwards.  I never believed in the medical model of addiction that describes the symptom of addiction as a chronic disease of the brain, even suggesting a genetic component to the disease, implying that if my parent(s) had addictions, most likely I would too.  Now, don’t get me wrong, the brains of people who struggle with addiction are different, yet those changes are created as a response to the adverse childhood experiences (AKA TRAUMA) these people survived.  And if your parents suffered from addictions when you were growing up, that experience is traumatic to a child!

I’ve written before about the impact of adverse childhood experiences, especially on physical health later in life as well as addiction; however, I felt compelled to revisit it again when I learned of research that found over 96% of the study participants suffering from substance use disorders, including prescription opioids, nicotine, and cocaine, had trauma histories.  When comparing the groups based upon their drug of choice, the prescription opiate group reported more traumatic childhood experiences than the other groups and a younger age of their first adverse childhood event.  So, when you learn about the underlying dynamics associated with substance use, the thought of “Just Say No” to drugs seems crazy!

Trauma comes in many packages and I’m grateful that the new California Surgeon General (Dr. Nadine Burke Harris) is focusing on early childhood, health equity and Adverse Childhood Experiences and toxic stress as her key priorities. (For more information on the ACEs Aware initiative, visit www.ACEsAware.org.)  It is time to stop blaming the victims and participate in bringing this information forward in order to educate.  What we don’t know, we don’t know.  However, once we know better, we can do better.  With this knowledge, we can bring more empathy and compassion in our interactions with people that struggle with substances.  We can take extra steps to explain this new research to them, validating their experiences and bringing them hope that they can heal from these past traumatic experiences and release their attachment to something that is harmful to them.  We can empower them to explore various healing modalities, such as psychotherapy, neurofeedback, meditation, hypnosis, guided imagery, and expressive arts, such as yoga, writing and drawing, all of which have been shown to support post-traumatic growth.

To read more about this research, click on the box below:

Is positive psychology really effective?

When we experience loss, it is normal and natural to feel sad.  It is also normal and natural when we are under stress to use safety seeking strategies such as pulling back from support structures, such as friends and family.  At the same time, it can sometimes be difficult to move through such normal experiences and rediscover the joys in life.  We can get stuck under the weight of loss and stress, feeling alone and on edge, especially when the stress is chronic.

Reminders of loss often arise at this time of year, whether it is the loss of the innocence of our childhood or the loss of someone that we loved.  Mix in the stress of the holiday season, when our “To Do” list grows long, and it is a recipe for pulling us down into the gloom and making us more susceptible to falling ill.  It can be especially challenging when experiencing this sense of spiraling downward when we don’t have any tools to support us in turning it around.

When we feel alone and don’t want to bother anyone with our troubles, where can we turn to support our navigation through such powerful emotions that tend to knock us off balance?  Is it truly possible to use positive psychology to get us unstuck and back in balance?  Can the technology wave of online help deliver such life balancing tools, allowing us to take this journey from the privacy of our homes?

Well, a new randomized controlled trial took a look at a facilitated online positive emotion regulation intervention with caregivers responsible for people with a diagnosis of dementia.  It was a 6-week intervention that focused on testing the effects on positive emotion, depression, anxiety, and physical health.  This study demonstrated that there are tools that can teach us to experience a more positive attitude and when we have a more positive attitude, it reduces the powerful emotions of anxiety and depression!  This study supports the use of online, remotely delivered programs to support the navigation towards psychological well-being through the use of positive psychology tools.

If you would like to read more about this research, click on the link below:

Do emotions have a role in healing childhood trauma?

I sense that most of us are aware that our brain, especially the rational part (i.e., prefrontal cortex) does not reach full development until age 25 or so, which implies, by default that until that age, we tend to operate more from the emotional parts, such as the amygdala.  And, as our brains develop, the connections between the two (emotional and rational) centers are still developing as well.  What we may not be so aware of is the impact of childhood trauma on such connections.  We also may not be fully aware of many of the situations that are now understood to be traumatizing to children.

Let me start with the latter.  Extensive research has been ongoing since the original group of participants were recruited for the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study between 1995 and 1997 in California.  Although the study ended in 1997, most states continue to collect such information through the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System.  The information collected focuses on child abuse and neglect and other household challenges, including intimate partner violence, substance abuse and mental illness in the household, parental separation or divorce, and if a household member was incarcerated. This research has resulted in the inclusion of a new diagnosis of Complex posttraumatic stress disorder, also referred to as developmental PTSD, within the International Classification of Diseases, 11th Edition, recently officially endorsed by WHO’s World Health Assembly and set for implementation outside of the US in 2022.

This is a HUGE step forward in identifying the underlying cause of most challenging symptoms to mental health, including anxiety and depression, and how these symptoms link to most chronic physical diseases, such as heart disease and cancer!  I have been known to say we don’t need a Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of Mental Disorders, we simply need The Book of Trauma.  When we all can embrace the idea that there is nothing wrong with us and instead can understand it is what happened to us when we were little that makes it so difficult to live a life full of joy and meaning today, there will no longer be any stigma to seeking support and we can begin the process of healing by shedding the shame and suffering we have been carrying.

Now to expand on the awareness of the impact such developmental PTSD has on the growing connections between the emotional and rational parts of a child’s brain.  When we are little and presented with trauma (as defined above), the emotional input to the brain is overwhelming to the point where we only ‘feel’ and are unable to ‘think’ because the developing rational part of the brain is hijacked by the emotional part, cutting off the connections that encourage a more balanced perspective.  The most familiar and natural fear responses of ‘fight or flight’ in many cases may not be an option for children.  Therefore, the ‘freeze’ response may be the most accessible, especially in young children.  The freeze response is used when the presenting danger cannot be escaped or beaten down, and if either were to be attempted, might actually increase the risk of harm.  The freeze response is a survival response that encourages stillness and silence to avoid being seen and offering a mental escape instead.  What this normal response to danger also does is narrow the range of emotional awareness to flavors of fear and shuts down the development of a more diverse range of emotions, including engagement, joy, comfort, confidence, empowerment and enthusiasm.  When the freeze response helped us to survive the traumas of our childhood, it also stunted our emotional intelligence (aka alexithymia), locking us in a world where danger lurks around every corner, even as adults.

So what can we do to unlock the door to the fear chamber and open it up to a safer, more peaceful existence?  In order to facilitate improvements in trauma-specific symptoms, such as anxiety, depression, dissociation, impulsivity, and interpersonal problems, emotions need to be welcome to express themselves.  Working with a therapist that embraces the intelligence of emotions, through perhaps using Emotionally-focused therapy, can address the emotional challenges associated with alexithymia and thus, begin to resolve issues of childhood trauma.

To read a little more of the research on how working with emotions heals childhood trauma, click on the link below:

 

 

What does your attitude about crying say about you?

Take a moment and ask yourself which of the following four statements reflects your belief about crying:

  • Crying is healthy
  • Crying is controllable
  • Crying helps one feel better
  • I hate crying

Recent research reflects that your beliefs about crying reveal your attachment style.

When I grew up, I got mixed messages from my family about crying.  My mother would cry all of the time and I would presume that she would identify with either the ‘crying is healthy’ and/or ‘crying helps one feel better’ beliefs.  Whereas, my father on the other hand would never cry and most likely would identify with ‘crying is controllable’ and/or ‘I hate crying’ beliefs.  More recently, I heard several quotes that stuck with me, one within my yoga roots by Kripalvanandji “One who knows crying, knows spiritual practice.” and the other “Crying is how your body speaks when your mouth can’t explain the pain you feel” which appears to be from an unknown author.

Crying is a universal human attachment behavior and starts at birth.  As little ones, crying notifies our caregivers that we need something, to relay important information to our attachment figures, such as food or sleep.  As we grow up, crying is a part of emotional processing and acceptance of loss.  The act of crying tends to elicit care and comfort from others throughout our lives.  But what happens as we grow when our caregivers have different beliefs about crying and they may not respond to our needs with care and comfort as intended?

I remember times when I was crying and my father’s response was something like ‘I won’t speak to you until you stop crying’, which implied to me that he was not available to provide care and comfort and somehow I must find a way to do that for myself.  I also witnessed that same response when my mother would be crying and he would not provide her with any comfort.  I quickly learned that crying does not elicit comfort and care in my family and, instead, makes the source of comfort and care unavailable.  As you might suspect, I tried my best to ‘stuff’ my emotions, especially my fear and sadness, and tried to rely on my words to explain my responses to the world.  But what happens when words fail?

Another memory comes back to me when I was a young woman working in the corporate world and I found myself feeling unsupported at work, even bullied.  I approached Human Resources and started to use my words, until my tears starting flowing and the dam broke.  I could not stop crying and I felt ashamed.  The HR person even alluded to the fact that my tears made it difficult to navigate the circumstances.  Well the research findings now show that the beliefs we develop about crying as a result of our experiences with our attachment figures have implications for interpersonal and intrapersonal functioning throughout our lives, impacting all of our relationships.

Learning and embracing the wisdom of Kripalvanandji helps us embrace our humanness, which includes the capacity to feel and experience emotions, and release any shame around crying.  It is a normal, natural human response to loss – whether we learned to deny/avoid the pain that comes with loss or cry more and stronger when we experience loss, hoping to get the care and comfort we all deserve – that has the power to heal.

If you would like to learn more about how your beliefs about crying may reflect your attachment style in relationships, click the box below:

Tame Your Dragon with Compassion-focused Therapy (CFT)!

Do you sense that you are your own worst enemy?  Is your inner critic’s voice loud and obnoxious on most days?  Are you challenged to accept your flaws as a human being?  Do you find yourself berating yourself when you make a mistake?  Is most of your energy and time spent on trying to be perfect in order to avoid making such mistakes?  Well, you are not alone and Compassion-focused Therapy (CFT) might be the prescription that the doctor orders!

Talk therapy, or psychotherapy, can take many forms, including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Emotionally-focused Therapy (EFT), and Narrative Therapy, and Compassion-focused Therapy (CFT) is one of the newer kids on the block.  However, the research is very promising and CFT is making a name for itself within the field of psychotherapy!  It evolved as an approach to healing for people experiencing high shame and self-criticism that creates mental health challenges, such as anxiety, depression, and addictive, impulsive behaviors.  And, having been a perfectionist in the past that suffered from anxiety growing up in an environment born from chaos, I can personally attest to the peace that comes from quieting the inner critic and accepting my imperfections as a normal, natural state as a spiritual being having a human experience.

So if you are tired of trying to be perfect (whatever that is?!?) and feeling like a failure when you make mistakes, all hope is not lost.  If you are thinking that you might need some help in challenging the shame that your inner critic brings up, then you might seek out support from someone that will work with you to expand your ability to experience compassion through CFT.  As a psychotherapist that looks through such a compassionate lens, it has been my experience that it will feel awkward at first because it is something new and different.  Yet, it is exactly that feeling that indicates there is much room for growth and healing through compassion.

Although I have not done any research of my own, I can personally attest to the shift I have experienced as well as the shifts I have seen in my clients when our hearts began to open to the idea of our common humanity through compassion.  For those of you that need a little more evidence, click on the link below to read a review that summarizes the findings of research where CFT has improved the mental health in clinical populations:

Is self-compassion the answer to happiness?

If we are lucky, our parents actively taught us the concept of compassion towards others.  If we were very lucky, our parents actively taught us self-compassion.  Unfortunately, it is only recently that such concepts have come forward in the research as tools to support our body, mind and spiritual health, so most of us may not feel lucky.  Fortunately, compassion – and self-compassion – can be cultivated and integrated into our experiences, both with others and with ourselves, no matter how old we are currently.

So what is self-compassion?  Many of us might think it includes self-pity, which will tend to keep us from cultivating the belief that we deserve comfort and care when we are experiencing pain and suffering.  Dr. Kristen Neff defines self-compassion as having three elements: 1) self—kindness versus self-judgment; 2) common humanity versus isolation; 3) mindfulness versus over-identification.  The three elements build upon the need to accept that we are human and, as such, are perfectly imperfect.  This means we will all fail at something in our lives, we will all subjected to loss at some point and we will all trip up and make mistakes on our journeys – these are all facts of life.  When we think we can bypass these inevitable experiences or ignore the pain that such experiences cause us, we open ourselves up to a deeper level of suffering.  It is when we encounter such challenges in our lives that we need to offer ourselves the same kindness and care as we would offer to someone we love, instead of offering judgment or criticism.  That’s self-compassion.

There is so much judgment and criticism in the world, which comes from a place of fear and creates darkness, separateness, and negativity.  When we can invite understanding of the shared human condition into our awareness, remembering we are not alone in our pain, then we can open our hearts from a place of love and invite in light, connection, and positivity.  When we experience the pain of failure or loss, we must allow ourselves to acknowledge the pain and not ignore it, yet be mindful at the same time that the powerful emotions that arise with the pain do not define us and, if honored, will move through us.  If we try to ignore the pain, either by stuffing it down or distracting ourselves from it, our body and mind will begin to express the effects through illness. We must embrace that pain, along with such powerful emotions as disappointment, rejection, judgment, fear, anger and sadness, are part of the common human phenomenon.  We are all going to experience these situations and emotions – no one can escape them for long!

I grew up in a family where one of my parents wore their emotions on their sleeve for everyone to see, while the other one learned to compartmentalize their emotions for no one to see.  So when I experienced powerful emotions, I hadn’t learned how to work with them in a way to bring a balanced state of being, until I learned about self-compassion as an adult with the help of kind and patient psychotherapist.  Prior to that point, I bought into the saying that “We are our own worst critic”, judging myself harshly, feeling very alone in my pain, and doing my best to deny or distract myself from my emotions.  It was until I embraced my humanness and those powerful emotions that humans experience and must express that I was able to create space in my heart for compassion.  From that point, I had to learn how to offer myself kindness and care when disappointment, rejection, or grief greeted me.  With practice and patience, I have come to experience offering compassion to myself in painful times as one of the most powerful tools in my self-care tool kit for health, peace, and well-being.

Now the research is validating that self-compassion is a powerful practice for inner peace and health!  If you are interesting in reading more, click on this link below:

The Legacy of Childhood Trauma – Transgenerational Impact!

I had a dear colleague once say to me “We didn’t know what we didn’t know.  When we know, we do better”.  I hear myself repeating this phrase often, because blame and shame are not healthy, period.  Yet, if we don’t look back to reflect on the need for change and growth, then we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.  I have written reflections in the past on the research around the impact of adverse childhood events (ACEs) on the individual and today I want to share the research that shows the impact of such events doesn’t stop with the individual!

Both of my own parents experienced childhood trauma and stressors, which thwarted their emotional growth trajectories, yet they didn’t know that about themselves and neither did society.  However, I definitely sensed that something was off and, as little ones will naturally do, I attempted to fill in the gaps.  Impossible, I know now, but I didn’t know then.  How ironic.

With this new research from UCLA reflecting a strong association between children’s behavioral health problems and their parents’ adversity histories, we now know better.  When our awareness grows around our past, it brings a deeper understanding of our experiences and our normal, natural adaptive responses.  With that deeper understanding, our hearts can begin to heal from events that our conscious minds were not even present to directly witness, yet stuck in our bodies instead.  We can create opportunities for ourselves to challenge those strongly guarded, unspeakable beliefs that there must be something wrong with us or that we are not worthy of acceptance and love, which keep us from a meaningful connection with ourselves and to others.

So, if you currently suffer from symptoms of trauma, such as anxiety and/or depression, and are not aware of experiencing any adverse childhood events yourself, perhaps consider exploring any that your parents might have been subjected to as they grew up.  Please remember that this exploration and what it might uncover is not meant to blame your parents.  It is meant to shine a light on the blame and shame that you might be carrying and that is feeding the self-judgment that is holding you back from a life full of connection, meaning and health.

To read more on this research, click on the button below:

Does the ability to be self-aware of our inner emotional world contribute to our mental health?

In March of last year, I explored alexithymia when reflecting on how this difficulty in identifying, describing, and feeling our emotional world may be a factor in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), specifically how early childhood trauma impacts the developmental ability to integrate thinking and feeling.  I find myself revisiting this topic again due to recent research that suggests alexithymia has a role in anxiety and depression in general, placing an even greater emphasis on the importance of the intelligence of our emotional experiences and the need to promote both self-awareness, and cultural acceptance of emotional expression as a way to improve mental health.

From my own personal experience growing up, I spent a great deal of energy navigating between the emotional overload of one parent (AKA chaos) and the emotional desert (AKA rigidity) of the other.  Initially, rigidity was winning the battle as I did everything that I knew how to in order to suppress my emotions, including disassociating from them altogether and relying heavily on logical intelligence to figure life out.  What rigidity taught me was how to be on my own, embracing the cultural value of independence and discounting the need for human connection (or is it the human need for connection?).  What I came to understand many years later is that you cannot ignore your emotional world for long without severe consequences.

In holding on to my basic right to autonomy so tightly, I kept the door closed to connecting with others, viewing their emotional needs as monsters that would eat away at my independence.  I used to say “I don’t need anyone.  I may want you in my life, but I certainly don’t need you!”  At that point, all I understood was that if I was not independent, I would be judged as co-dependent and needy, which was not acceptable and dangled rejection over my head.  I didn’t know that neither end of the spectrum (from dependent to independent) was ideal for my overall health and well-being.  When I started to learn that humans are part of a complex system that requires interdependence to thrive, I was able to start the journey towards wholeness, unlocking the doors that had been holding my intense, seemingly uncontrollable emotions out to be heard.  The anxiety that I felt for most of my life was because I had rejected those parts of myself that I thought would make me unacceptable in the world.  As I learned to listen to my emotions and the wisdom they had to offer, I was able to accept all parts of my human self and to open my heart to deeper connections with others.

The lessons of both my familial and societal cultures had impaired my emotional self-awareness and my sense of the emotional experiences of others and thus my ability to emotionally connect with others, creating a great deal of anxiety.  With the support of a kind and patient therapist, I was able to allow myself to feel again, learn to reconnect with my emotions by giving them names, listen for understanding as to why those emotions arose, and, perhaps most importantly, that by allowing them to flow through me instead of denying them, learn to value them as much as my logical intelligence bringing more balance and compassion to my experience of the world.

So, how excited was I when I read this research that reflects how experiencing difficulties with identifying, describing and feeling emotions (alexithymia) explains the association between finding the healthy balance of interdependence (autonomy-connectedness) with anxiety and depression as it validated my personal journey.  Prior to this research, evidence showed that the concept of autonomy-connectedness was related to anxiety and depression, yet little was known about the underlying causes.  The results of this research offer guidance to mental health practitioners when supporting people experiencing anxiety and depression, specifically assessing, supporting, and increasing emotional awareness.

If you would like to read more on this research, click on the link below:

What is my purpose and why does seeking it matter?

As a young woman working in the predominately male corporate culture, I struggled to find purpose, or meaning, in the work that I did to reduce the frustration, among many other mixed emotions, that I felt on a daily basis.  In fact, I still have a framed print hanging on a wall in my home from a previous employer reflecting a vision that resonated with me on a deep soul level:  Discovery & Hope.  It was also at this same employer that I experienced what has come to be referred to as ‘sexual misconduct’ today.

When I reflect back on that time of my life, one of the things that stands out for me is how I still managed to get up every morning and feel motivated to go to work.  I really enjoyed what I was doing and was able to remind myself that what I was doing was closely tied to improving the health and well-being of others, which was a personal value of mine.  So, although my work conditions were not mentally and emotionally healthy, creating meaning out of the actual work I was doing seemed to propel me forward in life.

Now, flash forward many years later, including a mid-life career change to better align my personal values and gifts with how I engage in the workforce, what weighs on my mind is the rise in the incidence of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.  I know, through my studies on the normal, natural developmental stages of life that memory loss is to be expected and is a normal part of the aging process.  However, what may not be so well understood is the underlying causes of dementia.  What is coming to light is that chronic stress is associated with damage to a critical part of the brain, specifically the hippocampus, and memory loss and may predict progression from mild cognitive impairment to dementia.

So, when I became aware of recent research suggesting that cultivating a sense of purpose, or meaning in our lives demonstrated a 30% reduction in the risk of developing dementia, it caught my attention!  I don’t believe there is any corresponding research showing such a significant reduction in risk by using any currently available prescription medications when it comes to this age-related disease.  Even more encouraging is that this research suggests that the results are independent of psychological distress, in other words, even if you find yourself in a mentally and emotionally stressful environment, if you are leading a meaningful and goal-driven life, this sense of purpose may be protecting your brain against the risk of developing dementia.

With this new discovery comes hope.  If you feel lost or sense your purpose in life is not so clear, therapy can be a resource.  I know it personally helped me to get in touch with my needs and values, identify false or limiting beliefs I had collected along the way, and gain clarity on aligning my personal priorities and professional goals.  Sometimes we just need to create a sacred place for the exploration to reconnect with our own inner wisdom and ask a fellow journey(wo)men to assist in fine tuning our sense of purpose and meaning to serve as a guide on the journey toward lasting body, mind, and spirit well-being.

If you would like to read more about this emerging research, click on the link below: