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:

5 Intention-setting Ideas for Navigating This Eclipse and Retrograde Season

On Tuesday, August 7th, with the planet Uranus going retrograde, we will now be under the influence of six planets in retrograde for the next two weeks, until the 19th when Mercury returns direct and Mars returns direct on the 27th.  In addition, we have the last eclipse of the year, a solar eclipse occurring on the 11th.  What is the Universe trying to say to us with all of this heavenly activity this month?  It is encouraging us to stop pushing forward right now and take some time to reflect on our past.  There is much opportunity this month for healing our hearts and souls and elevating the collective consciousness of our planet if we do so!

Below are some ideas to consider that will help you navigate this month, until the energy starts flowing again next month:

  1. Take a vacation.  Vacations do not have to be a week long event that requires a great deal of planning and money.  Consider planning a day retreat or a weekend away.  Simply finding yourself in a different place for a short period of time can shift your perspective. Have you always wanted to visit a particular local city to immerse yourself in a different culture? Or has a certain spiritual center or temple been calling your soul? Or have you been planning to try a new hiking trail that someone recommended to you?  Now’s the time to just do it!
  2. Spend time in nature.  With the heat of the summer, we might be finding ourselves spending more time inside in the air-conditioning.  While, in the short term, being inside where it might be cooler can be beneficial, especially at the peak of the heat during the day, avoiding the outdoors for any length of time can wreak havoc on our body, mind and spiritual health. Try to plan a early morning or late evening walk near a body of water, like a lake or the ocean, or taking a hike where there are canopies of trees.  Create an opportunity to sit down at some point and set an intention to notice the smallest form of life, maybe through your eyes, ears or skin.  Watch that life move for a short time and sense your connection to it.  Reflect on how you might impact that life and how that life might impact you.
  3. Review and renew commitments.  With Mercury retrograde at this time, we are reminded that now is not a good time to start anything new, especially when a legal contract is required. So, instead, we can take this time to review previously made commitments and determine if any adjustments might need to be made.  We might reflect on those that seem effortless and those that require more effort.  And for those that require more effort, we might ask ourselves is the amount of effort we are expending outweighing the return in soul nourishment?  From our reflections, it might become very clear where we need to focus our energy and renew our commitment to it.  And, in doing so, other commitments might need to be transferred or released from our lives.
  4. Practice gratitude.  When our lives might begin to feel a little stagnant or stuck, having ‘an attitude of gratitude’ has been shown to be the wind beneath our wings that can lift us out of a rut. So, as the universal energy is supporting this time in reflection, keep the handy tool of gratitude with you at all times.  Schedule a gratitude break each day.  Express your gratitude to another, whether it is simply to share something you are grateful for with them or to share your gratitude for them.  Dig out your gratitude journal or start a new one.  Merely reading a past gratitude journal can remind our hearts and souls of the abundance that already exists in our lives without having to push forward and grasp for more!
  5. Read.  Speaking of reading, now is a great time to pick up that book you have been meaning to read. When we allow our minds to be engrossed by a good book, it is like a vacation from our thoughts!  When we spend time in reflection of our past, gaining awareness of how our experiences in life impacted our beliefs, thoughts and emotions, we open ourselves up for a deeper understanding of how connected we really are in the human form.  And often, in this space, when we read, we discover new things about ourselves that might have been hidden (or forbidden) from revealing themselves before.

Self-acceptance, what is it good for? Absolutely everything!

Some days I get washed away by a tidal wave of gratitude for discovering yoga all those years ago.  I first embraced the practice “on the mat”, showing up for classes sometimes 5 to 6 or 7 days a week depending upon the kind of week I was having, and ultimately integrating it into my daily life “off the mat” and pursuing it as a way of life through the process of becoming a yoga teacher.  One of the first things that I learned in my training was that there is so much more to yoga that the poses that you do in a yoga class.  The first limb of the eight limbs of yoga is a list of observances or moral ethics to guide us in our thoughts and behaviors, in how we engage with ourselves and in the world, before we even get on our mats.  The first one on the list is ahimsa, which often is translated from Sanskrit to English as non-violence.

When most of us think about violence, our perspective is external – don’t harm another, whether it is another person, an animal or any sentient being on Mother Earth.  Yet consider for a moment the harm we might do to ourselves.  If you could record your thoughts toward yourself, would you be willing to recount those thoughts towards another?  Would you impose your limiting beliefs on another?  What is it like to lie to yourself?  Would you insist that everyone must be able to touch their toes before coming to a yoga class?  We can be our own worst critic!

What lies beneath such self-harm in body, mind and spirit is fear and self-judgment; ahimsa can guide us in a different direction, towards self-acceptance and ultimately self-love.  Now, applying ahimsa toward yourself requires practice and patience because, as humans, we are perfectly imperfect.  Ahimsa does not require perfection, and in fact, asks us to accept and love ourselves despite the fact that we are flawed.  It asks us to respect ourselves enough to offer ourselves kindness when we wander off course into the weeds of self-judgment, which will happen.  So maybe embrace the concept of ahimsa as a process of growth, as a verb and not a noun, which implies it is a destination instead of a journey.

So, why might you want to embrace ahimsa and lean into the opportunity to practice self-acceptance?  Well, if you take it from me, it brings much needed relief and inner peace.  However, if you don’t believe me, take a look at some recent research that suggests acceptance (or lack thereof) is a central factor in the onset and maintenance of mental health.

Click the button below to read more:

5 Intention-setting Ideas to Beat the Heat

Although we are technically still in the first third of the summer, we are in the middle of the dog days of summer as children start to plan to return to school next month!  And not only are we busy down here on earth moving through the changes that come with summer vacation, but the skies are busy too, with two Eclipses this month and a total of five planets in retrograde.  The stop and go type of energy surrounding us this month is encouraging us to slow down.  The Universe is conspiring right now to support internal reflection and a focus on what is already right in front of us.  At the end of next month, forward moving action will be supported, just in time for the kids to return to school!

And, at this time of year, we begin to experience the heat.  Continuing research on climate change has focused on the impact on worker productivity and ultimately, on the effect on the economic status of entire countries.  I know I don’t need to tell you that when you feel the heat, your level of motivation to do anything – even fun things – goes way down.  So, in addition to continuing to do what you can to reduce your personal impact on Mother Earth, I offer the following intention setting ideas to keep your cool during the dog days of summer:

  1. Breathe and visualize yourself cool.  If you find yourself overheated in the moment (whether body or mind of both!), consider trying a yogic breath practice (i.e. pranayama) such as Śītalī/Śītkarī (Cooling Breaths – pronounced SHEE-tahl-lee, SHEET-kar-ee), which have been shown to cool the body and calm the agitated (AKA angry) mind. To practice Śītalī, open the mouth and form the lips into an “O,” curl your tongue and stick it out of the mouth slightly, inhale through your curled tongue making a (ssssss) sound to fill your lungs. Fill your lungs completely, while focusing your attention on the cooling sensation of the breath, using your tongue like a straw. Withdraw the tongue, lower your chin to your chest, and hold the breath for 5 seconds, while visualizing yourself in an environment that makes you feel cold, like skiing or ice skating. Exhale through the nose slowly and completely, lift the head, and repeat the cycle for five minutes. If you cannot curl your tongue, practice Śītkarī: mouth open, tongue tip at the roof of your mouth. Inhale through the side of your mouth along your cheeks and jaw, following the other steps as described for Śītalī.
  2. Do Less.  When our “To Do” lists are constantly long, the natural, adaptive human response of “flight or fight” turns on in the body and mind, and with this response, your blood vessels tense up, which is called vasoconstriction, causing the body to heat up very quickly.  So, consider reducing the number of items your have on your daily list or at least give yourself permission to not complete as many on those days where the thermometer is on the rise!
  3. Spend more time in savasana.  I think we all learned in science that heat rises.  And for those of us that have ever been brave enough to enter into a sweat lodge know this personally to be true!  So, when you find your temperature rising, let this be a reminder to practice savasana.  Savasana, also known as corpse pose, is the Sanskrit name for the final resting pose in most yoga classes.  We rest on our backs on the floor, supporting the body in any way needed to find comfort in the body, and we give ourselves permission to stay in the comfort and stillness while it permeates our bodies and minds.  Consider placing an ice pack, frozen hot water bottle, frozen bag of peas or frozen wash cloth in a towel and putting it on a strategic body part, such as underneath the back of your neck, on top of the belly or on the wrists, to get an extra dose of “cool down” in this pose.
  4. Eat more fresh food.  If you have been considering a change in diet, the summer months might be a really good time to embark on such an endeavor.  Eating more fresh fruits and vegetables, whether whole or juiced, reduce the need to use the oven or stove, two huge culprits for heating up our homes.  In addition, there are certain foods that have a cooling effect on the body, such as cucumbers, watermelons, and leafy greens.  Considering the mantra for beating the heat of summer is hydration, hydration, hydration, fresh summer fruits and vegetables bring along additional water content to boot!
  5. Peppermint tea mist.  When we find ourselves outside in the heat, with no opportunity to duck inside an air conditioned building, consider carrying a spray bottle to mist yourself with.  Even better, add some peppermint tea for a enhanced cooling effect.  It’s pretty easy to do.  Brew a pot of peppermint tea (before bed when the peak heat of the day is subsiding) and then stick it in the refrigerator.  In the morning, pour some into your spray bottle.  The menthol in the tea gives you a tingly, cooling sensation on the skin. If you forget to brew the tea the evening before, no worries, just put it in the freezer until it is cool enough!

Neurofeedback – Promising non-pharmaceutical intervention strategies for anxiety and depression!

Many people that I connect with express a desire to try other approaches to address symptoms of anxiety and depression before turning to medications, especially when it is their children that are suffering from such symptoms, as all prescription medications come with undesired side-effects.  As a psychotherapist and yoga teacher, I share the research with them that shows the effectiveness of integrating these two (yoga and talk therapy) healing arts to support the shift in focus toward health promotion for those who prefer to take a more natural, holistic approach to healing. Now I am excited to share recent research that demonstrates combining neurofeedback with heart rate variability training (e.g., deep slow abdominal yogic breathing) provides another viable non-pharmaceutical approach to address the symptoms of anxiety and depression.  And the research showed a reduction in symptoms for both children and adults!

Neurofeedback is not new and is a form of biofeedback, where instruments are attached to the body to provide information to the individual on the functioning of their body.  Biofeedback, including neurofeedback, as a field of study has been growing since the 1960s.  Neurofeedback (or EEG biofeedback) is the form of biofeedback that enables people to change the brain’s electrical activity.  An EEG (electroencephalography) is the device that captures the real-time brain wave activity so it can be displayed and assessed for any unhealthy patterns that might be contributing to symptoms, such as anxiety and depression.  Being able to offer a way to change unhealthy brain wave patterns through neurofeedback is of special interest to those of us working with clients to relieve such distressing symptoms because the brain is a central contributor to the emotions, physical symptoms, thoughts and behaviors that define many problems for which people reach out for support.

Yoga and it’s slow, controlled deep abdominal breathing is also not new.  What is new is the research that is showing how this yogic breathing impacts heart rate variability (HRV).  HRV has been shown to be linked with an increase in cardiovascular disease, specifically when the variability is low.  (Please refer to last month’s Reflection to learn more about HRV.)  Stress and anxiety increases the activity of the sympathetic nervous system, the system responsible for the flight-fight response in the body, leading to increases in heart rate and a lowering of heart rate variability. On the other hand, activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, the system responsible for the rest-digest response in the body, has been shown to decrease heart rate and increase heart rate variability, specifically through the stimulation of the vagus (Cranial X) nerve that controls the heart, lung and digestion.  It is the controlled breathing found in a regular yoga practice that stimulates the vagus nerve, bringing balance to the activity of the sympathetic nervous system activity.

Even more recent research has brought these two healing modalities together to assess the impact of stimulating both the brain with neurofeedback and the vagus nerve with deep abdominal breathing on symptoms of anxiety and depressing in both children and adults.  The results showed evidence that such training may provide an effective, non-pharmaceutical approach to reducing such symptoms, with some additional benefits such as improving blood pressure!

To read the full research article, click on the link below:

5 Intention-setting Ideas for Shining Light on the Human Need for Acceptance

The Summer Solstice is upon us as we are celebrating Pride Month and making plans to mark International Yoga Day on Thursday, June 21st!  As I reflected on the intersection of these events and celebrations, I came upon a thread that runs deep, connecting the acknowledgement of the light on the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, dignity, equal rights and self-affirmation, and discovering the sense of oneness – ACCEPTANCE.  Rejection is the darkness, so tapping into the light of acceptance opens the door wide to better mind, body, and spiritual health.   

As humans, we have a fundamental emotional need or desire for validation that we are intrinsically valuable and worthy of belonging.  We can try to ignore or discount – or dare I say reject – this basic human need in our culture that puts a very high value on independence, yet when we do so we are simply rejecting a part of ourselves, making us even more vulnerable to the rejection of others.  When we are a part of a group, we tend to feel protected and safe.  When we are rejected or excluded, it can contribute to a sense of isolation and feelings of embarrassment and loneliness.  Research has supported that the experience of rejection leads to poor health – both physically and mentally – and increases the tendency toward violence, both towards oneself as well as towards others.

So, below I have offered intention-setting ideas to allow the external light of the sun be a reminder to keep our own internal flame burning brightly, so it can bring light to those dark corners of our minds and hearts that have us holding the false belief that because we are housed in different earthly human vessels with unique expressions of being in the world, we aren’t valuable and don’t deserve to be here unless we conform to what others say is acceptable.

  1. Embrace your intelligence.  Alfred Binet’s research from the early 20th century on what is intelligence is ‘so yesterday’ if I might say so!  How many of us felt stupid if we didn’t excel at math or science or language.  I know I did!  I hated English until a teacher gave me permission to be creative in my expression.  As I allowed myself to be more creative in my writing, I discovered a whole different part of myself.  Howard Gardner, a developmental psychologist, theorized in his 1983 book, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, that there are nine categories of intelligence.  If what he suggests moves us in the direction of recognizing and valuing the diversity of human expression, it definitely supports our basic human need for acceptance.  And I am all for not limiting the definition to just logical intelligence, where dare I say most of us would count ourselves short, which feels detrimental to the experience of being human. So consider setting aside some time to read more about Gardner’s theory of nine intelligences to see where your natural gifts might reside within your brain!
  2. Acknowledge your accomplishments.  At the end of each day, think about taking a few minutes to focus on what you accomplished that day.  Most of us have VERY LONG “to do” lists and are not able to cross everything off each day, which tends to invite self-defeating thoughts.  To cut off the stress that accompanies those self-defeating thoughts, close your eyes for a few minutes and reflect on what you did do that day.  What you may realize is that you accomplished way more than what was on your list, including some less tangible tasks, like making someone smile or listening to a friend in need, which are invaluable.
  3. Express appreciation towards yourself.  Most of us are taught to thank others when they do something kind for us, yet I bet most of us were not taught the practice of thanking ourselves for making ourselves a priority.  In fact, I suspect most of us were taught the exact opposite, that putting any attention on ourselves would be considered selfish and thus not acceptable.  Therefore, I challenge you to identify something that you did to take care of yourself recently and formally thank yourself for doing so.  And if you can’t identify anything, might I offer that it’s been way too long and that you plan to do something for yourself this week.  And don’t forget to thank yourself for taking care of yourself, remembering that self-care does not mean selfish!
  4. Say something kind to yourself.  How radical would it be for you to stop right now and say something like “You are intelligent” or “You are lovable” or “You are worthy”?  Remember how our mothers would tell us “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all”?  Well, I personally wish my own mother would have empowered me to apply that to myself!  If we were able to record our thoughts and then listen back to the recording, I suspect most of us would experience more negative, critical judgments of ourselves than we would hear expressions of loving kindness.  And if you are like most people and experience “out of sight, out of mind”, then consider identifying something kind you would like to say to yourself and write it down on an index card and place it by the bathroom mirror, where you can see it each morning and night as you brush your teeth.
  5. Get in touch with our common humanity.  When we make mistakes, there is a tendency to beat ourselves up mentally and emotionally, and sometimes physically. Yet the expression ‘it’s only human’ exists as a reminder that to be human is to be perfectly imperfect and that it is by design that we are all fallible and will make mistakes.  So why are we so harsh on ourselves?  Why are we able to comfort a friend when they are being down on themselves, yet find it difficult to offer comfort to ourselves when we are suffering?  When we can consciously open ourselves up to and explore the concept of common humanity, we are more able to remind ourselves that feelings of inadequacy and disappointment are universal, a shared human experience.  We all experience the same pain even though the mistakes we make may be different.  Remembering we are not alone in our pain and suffering brings comfort, acceptance and peace.  Try it out soon!!

Heart Rate Variability, Stress Reactivity, and Diaphragmatic Breathing – How Yoga’s Basic 3-part Breath Practice Supports Body-Mind Health

One of the designations for the month of May is National Physical Fitness and Sports Month with the social media message of #MoveInMay.  So in support of this awareness effort, I would like to share the benefits of learning how to move your diaphragm to support your body-mind fitness!  Yes, that large skeletal muscle that divides our chest cavity from our abdominal cavity.  Did you know that the diaphragm is the primary muscle responsible for our ability to breath?

When I attended my first yoga class, I struggled with the instruction to allow my belly to expand on the inhale and to pull my belly button in on the exhale.  This was due to several societal messages that informed me that I needed to hold my belly in to look thinner and to hold in my powerful emotions as it was not acceptable (or safe) to reveal such feelings openly.  I had become what is referred to as a “reverse breather” where I held my belly in on the inhale and let it soften on the exhale.  Reverse breathing keeps the diaphragm from participating in the natural breath process, slowly starving the body of the oxygen it needs to function optimally.

When we get stressed navigating overwhelming situations, our bodies naturally react by pulling and holding the belly in, while our minds support the stuffing of our emotions down deep in the well of the body.  So for most of us who have suffered some adverse childhood event or events that traumatized our bodies and minds, allowing our breath to release the tight grip in our bellies is scary!  So reconnecting to this powerful muscle might be a slow process for many and yet, the research is showing that the effort is well worth the reward of improving our overall body-mind-spirit health.

A new measure of our health status, known as heart rate variability (HRV), is being researched as a marker for overall body-mind health identified through imbalances in our autonomic nervous system (ANS), between the sympathetic (flight/fight) and parasympathetic (rest/digest) branches, as reflected by the variation in time between heart beats.  When the variability is low, your overall health is reduced and we experience life as more stressful.  When there is greater variability, your overall health is increased and your ability to navigate stress is improved.  We may not have any conscious control over our ANS and the beat of our hearts; however, this does not mean that we have no way to impact our HRV to improve our overall health and well-being.

Recent research out of the University of Pennsylvania showed that learning to re-engage our diaphragm in our breath process has a direct, positive impact on HRV.  The research studied indices of physiological stress reactivity in varsity athletes before and after introducing a task that created cognitive stress.  Slow diaphragmatic breathing was shown to significantly increase HRV, while also reflecting a trend toward greater relaxation.  So if we are not able to eliminate stress in our lives, we now know we can simply look to one of our most basic processes of life – respiration – for relief.  And with that inner resource to relieve the external stressors of life, we can improve our health – body, mind, and spirit!

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

 

5 Intention-setting Ideas for Navigating Times of Transition and Transformation

“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” ― Socrates

Change can happen all of a sudden or it can creep up on us without truly recognizing it as such!  Either way, change often brings fear into our hearts.  Humans are creatures of habit and comfort so we naturally tend to resist anything that might impact the familiar flows we have created in our lives, sometimes even when those habits are uncomfortable.

And I think most of us will agree that sometimes our habits can begin to feel stale, dare I say boring!  It is when we consciously become aware of those habits that have us feeling a little stuck in life, that we begin to open ourselves up to change, even welcoming it.

So how might we work with something that might both strike fear in our hearts and invoke feelings of excitement at the same time?  A good starting place might be to acknowledge that fear and excitement feel very similar physiologically in our bodies.  Consider a moment where you felt fear and excitement, maybe while waiting in line for a roller coaster ride or a scary movie, or your first day of school – whether it was kindergarten or college, or the day you and your significant other learned that you were expecting your first child.  Can you sense your heart rate increasing, your breath getting more shallow, the butterflies moving around in the belly, and the pent-up energy needing expression as you consider those moments?

So, to help tilt the scales away from fear and more towards excitement during such times of change and growth, below I offer intention-setting ideas that might help you navigate such transitions in your life with more ease and excitement:

  1. Embrace impermanence.  Evolution and transformation require change.  That’s both the good – and bad – news:  change is inevitable.  It is truly the one thing that we can count on.  So when our bodies signal that it is moving into the grip of fear, a helpful Mantra that you might keep handy is “This too shall pass”, reminding us that change in the moment is neither bad nor good, yet is moving the collective consciousness towards transformation where it is most needed for our ultimate evolution.
  2. Ground through asana.  Sensing the pent-up energy that needs expression when we feel fear and excitement, offer the body some specific yoga poses (asanas) to give direction to that energy.  Consider Mountain (Tadasana), Warrior (Virabhadrasana), or Goddess (Utkata Koneasana) pose as a way to ground our energy into the earth and tune into the natural rhythms of life reflected through nature.
  3. Calm through pranayama.  Pranayama is the practice of bringing control to your breath, ensuring that your life force energy – prana – is able to flow into the body.  When change comes upon us suddenly, it can often times feel overwhelming to the mind and body, narrowing our attention and shutting down the connection to the parts of our brain that assist with decision-making as well as tightening the muscles in the body, including the diaphragm, the primary skeletal muscle responsible for the process of respiration.  Therefore, if we can consciously turn our attention to our breath during times of transition, it will help to relieve the tension in the muscles, including turning the connections back on in the brain, opening the windows to the unlimited possibilities change can bring.  Try simply closing your eyes and bringing your next breath in through the nose on a slow count of four and release the breath through the nose on that same slow count of four.  Repeat that breath pattern two more times, feeling how the in-breath creates a sense of expansion in the torso and the out-breath creates a sense of release.  Adding this conscious lengthening of the breath to the above Mantra (This too will pass) supports the body-mind connection while riding the waves of change.
  4. Turn to the guru inside.  The Sanskrit term Svadhyaya translates to ‘self-study’ and it is one of the basic tenets of a yoga practice as well as talk therapy.  Through this practice, we learn what it is we believe, think, and need and why.  Without such awareness, we position ourselves to be at the mercy of the changes we experience. Perhaps adding this practice through journaling to those moments after pranayama and mantra, so you can gain more clarity around the changes that you want to make in your life, thus becoming a co-creator of your heart’s desire.  You will be wonderfully surprised how cooperative the Universe is!
  5. Meditate through uncertainty.  When we are sensing we want to make a change yet we are feeling indecisive around the new direction we might want to take, I encourage you to lean into the uncertainty by inviting it to sit with you for awhile.  Instead of trying to distract yourself or seeking advice from others, perhaps find a place where you can sit quietly for 5-10 minutes, allowing the body to find some comfort, and let the mind focus on the uncertainty.  You might spend the first few minutes practicing your pranayama to release some of the tightness in the body and mind.  Then simply notice what comes up in the mind, without judging, dismissing or discounting, allowing all possibilities to float into your awareness.  What you may begin to notice is how the body responds to some of the possibilities.  Certain options might create a sense of restriction somewhere and others might create a sense of relaxation.  You may not gain immediate clarity with all of the details, yet perhaps what you will sense is an inclination towards one of the possibilities.  Taking any small step toward that inclination will bring even more light to the direction of change, with course-correction opportunities too!

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:

5 Intention-setting Ideas to Reduce Stress

“We can never attain peace in the outer world until we make peace with ourselves.”― Dalai Lama

The month of April, among other things, has been designated Stress Awareness Month.  The first step to making any change in our life is awareness.  Without awareness, we tend to  continue on our journeys doing the same old things, repeating old patterns, all while hoping the results will be different.

With awareness comes understanding, which leads to compassion and choice.  One of the best habits we can develop for our body/mind/spirit health is learning our personal triggers and noticing when and where we feel stress.  To this end, below are some ideas to consider to support this healthy habit:

  1. Understand common sources of stress.  Change – good or bad – tends to create stress.  Therefore, recognizing the amount of change we are experiencing in the moment can help the mind to understand why we might not feel ourselves.  With this awareness and understanding, we might be more willing to offer ourselves some compassion, letting that compassion support our next choice.  We all might recognize that the loss of a partner or other loved one as being stressful, yet we might not be as aware that marriage, pregnancy, retirement from work, quitting smoking, vacation, and/or moving to a new home are stress producing life events.  Consider taking a moment to complete the Life Change Index Scale (The Stress Test) to deepen your understanding of what life events are considered stressful and determine your current level of stress from those events.
  2. Know the symptoms of PTSD.  The source of our stress might not be coming from our current experience of change but may be emanating from a past experience of trauma.  Most of us are aware that war Veterans may experience Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD); however, many (I dare say most) of us are not aware that PTSD can be a result of early adverse childhood experiences such as divorce, having a parent with a mental health challenge and/or addiction, and/or witnessing domestic violence, non-the-less more overt abuse and neglect. Consider taking a moment to complete the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Questionnaire to determine your ACE score and how your childhood experiences may be impacting your current body/mind/spirit health.
  3. Identify where you experience stress in the body.  Once you have gained a greater awareness of what life events (past and present) cause change and stress, consider taking a moment to sit in reflection, welcoming your stress to be present in your awareness, and sense into your body.  We all experience stress in our bodies differently.  Some of us might experience headaches/migraines.  Others might experience digestive issues, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).  And others may experience frequent, diffuse muscular and nerve pain.  Our bodies hold great wisdom, so taking the time to welcome the sensations and notice where the mind’s awareness is drawn into the body, contributes to the foundation of the healthy habit of acknowledging when and where we are experiencing stress.
  4. Give yourself permission to learn to relax.  Many of us were not taught to value fun and relaxation as a basic human need.  In fact, I think the message most of us sensed was that we must work hard to be successful (whatever the definition of success might be for each of us) which does not leave time and space for anything else.  So know that it is up to you to challenge that message by embracing a new message, one that allows you to prioritize you.  Prioritizing your self-care is not selfish!  It is absolutely necessary to find balance and peace and health!!  Therefore, consider finding what works for you, whether it is movement, writing, connecting with others, anything that is a way to release stress from the body and mind and give yourself permission to just do it.
  5. Set limits.  I discovered a mantra many years ago that I found very freeing:  Say no so others can grow.  And yes, it can be easier to say than do!  However, with a little practice and a change in perspective, you will find it gets easier.  The change in perspective is seeing “saying no” as a gift you are giving the other person (and also to yourself!).  For example, when teaching a little one to tie their shoes, at some point you must say to them, “No, I’m not going to do it for you today as I know you know how to do it yourself.”  And, although they might get mad and cry (and even scream), if you stick it out, the joy they experience once they have done it themselves is the gift.  When you can really embrace this new perspective, you will begin to think “Who am I to think I have to do everything myself and rob others of opportunities for growth?”  If one of your personal values is growth then saying no to others can be seen as the necessary rain for the growth of others (and, oh, by the way, for yourself).  Setting limits in this way results in growth while reducing stress by reducing the probability that we will overcommit ourselves