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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:

Can 8 weeks of listening to a 13-minute daily guided meditation change your life?

The second most frequent question I get asked – after how many times a week should I do yoga (Click here to read my reflection on this question) – is how long should I meditate each day in order to reap the benefits?  Well, it appears that brief daily meditations can have a positive effect and it can be as simple as picking your favorite meditation to listen to each day for just 8 weeks!

When I was first introduced to the idea of meditation on my yoga mat, I was still struggling with giving myself permission to include taking care of myself on my “To Do” list and was in the process of embracing the idea of that in order to take care of another, I must take care of myself first.  So, the idea of creating time to sit still and empty my mind of my thoughts did not seem realistic.  And, at the time, we didn’t have “smart” phones we carried around with us all day!

As I continued my yoga practice on my mat, I learned that meditation can take many forms, not just one.  In fact, the very last pose of all yoga practices – savasana – is a very powerful meditation opportunity.  When I initially found myself in savasana, I used the time to organize my “To Do” list for the following day, leaving my mat feeling uplifted by the clarity this time created for me to get even more organized.  It took me awhile to release my attachment to the need to be productive even in the quiet, still moments of life and fully appreciate those moments to simply BE.

As I slowly began to embrace the concept of less is more and challenge society’s demand for multi-tasking, I opened up to the idea that creating more opportunities for “being” brought balance to all of the “doing”, which, I personally discovered reduced my anxiety and allowed space for a response instead of a reaction.  I found myself in yoga classes 5, 6, 7 times a week as my body was motivating my mind to get through the “doing” to settle into the “being” that savasana supported.  The challenge then became how to learn how to meditate off of my mat, without a teacher guiding me in a group class.

And that is one of the exciting offerings that advances in technology bring to us today – you can access meditations online without ever leaving your own place of comfort!  So, the question then becomes, is this sort of meditation effective, where you are listening to someone guiding you through the practice or is it required that you sit in silence trying to quiet your mind on your own to gain the benefits?  Well, recent research conducted with non-experienced meditators suggests that such a daily practice can enhance attention and memory and improve mood and emotional regulation.  The research had participants listen to a 13-minute recorded, guided meditation for 8 weeks and found that such a short, practical meditation practice affected cognitive functioning in these ways with non-experienced meditators!

So now might be the perfect time to find that guided meditation that you find comforting and soothing to download and start listening.  This research also found that only 4 weeks was not enough time to experience the beneficial impact, so don’t give up!

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

Gratitude Journaling Improves Mental Health!

Growing up in a chaotic home environment, whether as a result of job loss, divorce, mental illness or abuse, challenges the developing brain to grow from its survival parts to the parts that allow us to engage in the world in a way that brings a sense of acceptance, belonging, peace and abundance.  It gets us stuck in a reactive mode that operates from a place of lack and fear, where the lens we view the world through suggests the glass is half empty, not half full and that we will never have everything we need.  I know it did with me and the research tends to support my anecdotal experience, which has become a part of my own personal gratitude journal.

It was through my own personal yoga journey that led me to the idea – and ultimately the regular practice – of a gratitude journal over a decade ago.  I started slowly, simply identifying some very basic items (for me at that time while recognizing they might not be for many), such as writing down that I was grateful for the roof over my head, the bed that I had to sleep in, and the hot running water that provided a hot shower each morning upon awakening.  Some days that was all I could identify as far as what I was grateful for in the moment.  But with the encouragement from others, my list began to expand – and it didn’t take that long either!

I recognized how grateful I was for my sometimes daily yoga practice, my breath, the joy that my fur babies bring me, walking, the thoughtfulness of my friends, my car that allowed a greater sense of freedom in my experience of travel to and from my jobs, music, air conditioning on hot days and heat on cold days, the colors when the leaves change in the fall, sleep, movies, the internet, rain, the sound of a train whistle, the smell of a fire place, Eastern medicine, boredom, reading a good book, setting a healthy boundary, the sound of the ocean, the warmth of the sun on my skin, sitting still in nature and I could go on and on, as I found the practice of gratitude growing exponentially.

Then I decided to challenge myself in this experience, where I got curious about what I might find to be grateful for in those moments when life sucks, such as when we lose someone we love or fail to get something we worked hard for and really wanted.  Each night, I would open my gratitude journal and reflect on my day and delve into the challenging moments I experienced that day, whether it was a conflict I had with someone at work or the traffic accident I got stuck behind on my way home from work.  Through this effort to test the strength of my gratitude I discovered that there is a silver lining or benefit that serves us in all of our life experiences where we can feel gratitude if we are open to the shift in perspective that arises when we exercise those parts of the brain that support our growth and transformation.

So what was the result of my gratitude journaling practice?  Well, it has become a habit of mine!  So now, whenever something that others might perceive as negative happens, I stop, reflect and share a different, more positive perspective of the event or circumstance.  My felt response to this practice includes a greater sense of peace, trust, confidence, and a new, growing belief that all is as it should be which emanates from a deep, growing well of abundance.  I now see the glass as half full and encourage everyone to try it for themselves, reminding them to start small and watch how their list grows.  Then, when we do experience dark days – as we all will and do – we can read through our gratitude journals to remind ourselves that this too shall pass.

If my personal experience of cultivating gratitude isn’t enough to motivate you to start practicing immediately or continuing practicing, click on the link below to read up on the first randomized controlled trial (which is the gold standard in the research world) to test the impact of gratitude writing that demonstrated a positive, lasting impact on mental health:

5 Intention-setting Ideas to Help Save Lives

September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month and September 10th is World Suicide Prevention Day.

Suicide is not an easy topic to talk about and yet that is exactly what is needed in order to reduce the growing rate of this tragedy.  Conversations can make a difference when someone is thinking about suicide.

Did you know that suicide is now the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, that, according to the CDC, suicide rates have increased by more than 30% in half of the states since 1999, and that the youngest person to kill themselves was only 6 years old?

Many of us will notice changes in people around us and get the feeling that “something is not right”. You may not want to say anything for fear you won’t know what to say if they confirm your concerns. While these conversations can be very difficult and confronting, just one conversation can save someone’s life by preventing suicide.

You may not be sure what to do to help, whether you should take talk of suicide seriously, or if your intervention might make the situation worse. Taking action is always the best choice. Here’s what you need to know to start saving lives today:

  1. Know – and look – for the warning signs.  There are several warning signs of suicidal thoughts that you may hear or see, such as:  1)  Seemingly harmless comments such as “I wish I was never born”, “I wish I wasn’t here” and/or “I wish I was dead”; 2) Withdrawing from friends and family and/or wanting to be left alone; 3) Having dramatic mood swings; 4) Impulsive, aggressive and/or reckless behavior; 5) Obsessed with death, dying or violence; and 6) Increasing use of drugs or alcohol.  Additional warning signs that the person’s thoughts may be moving toward putting a plan into action include:  1) Giving away their possessions or getting their affairs in order when there is no other explanation for doing this; 2) Saying goodbye to friends and family as if they are not going to see them again; 3) Their mood shifts from a sense of despair to calm; and 4) Taking action to secure the tools needed to complete suicide, such as buying a gun or stockpiling prescription medications.  Take any and all signs of suicide seriously.  If someone tells you they are thinking of harming themselves or behaves in a way that suggests they may be thinking of suicide, don’t dismiss or ignore the situation as many people who have killed themselves had expressed the intention at some point.
  2. Know the risk factors.  According to NAMI, the following are risk factors for suicide:  1) Previous suicide in the family; 2) Personal history of trauma or abuse; 3) Prolonged stress; 4) Agitation and reduced sleep; 5) A recent loss or tragedy; 6) Isolation; 7) Substance use and intoxication; 8) A serious or chronic mental illness; 9) Access to firearms; 10) Gender (men are 4 times more likely to die from their attempt) and 11) Age (under 24 and over 65 are at a higher risk).
  3. Ask questions!  If you sense something is not right and you have noticed some of the warning signs, connect with the person by asking them some questions.  Be sensitive and direct and ask some of the following:  1) How are you managing with what is going on in your life?; 2) Do you ever feel like just giving up?; 3) Are you thinking about hurting yourself?; 4) Have you ever thought about suicide, or tried to harm yourself, before?.  If they tell you that they have or are currently having suicidal thoughts, continue to ask the following questions: 1) Have you thought about how and when you would do it? and 2) Do you currently have access to the weapons or things that can be used as weapons to harm yourself?  Please know that asking someone if they are experiencing suicidal thoughts or feelings won’t push that person into doing something self-destructive. In fact, connecting with someone by starting the conversation and creating space for them to talk about their feelings may reduce the risk of acting on suicidal feelings.
  4. Know what to do.  If you become concerned that your friend or loved one may attempt suicide:  1) Stay calm (don’t fidget or pace) and don’t leave the person alone; 2) Ask what you can do to help, including “Can I help you call your therapist or psychiatrist?”; 3) If they ask for something, give it to them as long as the request is safe and reasonable; 4)  Don’t argue, threaten, or raise your voice, especially if they are experiencing hallucinations or delusions, instead be gentle and compassionate; 5) Don’t debate whether suicide is right or wrong; 6) Seek support by telling another family member or friend what is going on, by getting help from a trained professional, and/or encouraging them to call a suicide hotline number (i.e., in the U.S., National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)).  Even if your friend or loved one may not be in crisis, it is important to still offer and provide support.  Let them know you are open to talking about what is on their mind.  When listening, demonstrate you are actively engaged in the conversation by providing positive reinforcement, reflecting their feelings and summarizing their thoughts.  Actively listening can help your loved one feel heard and validated.  Reassure your friend or loved one that you care and are concerned for their well-being and that they can lean on you for support.  If your friend or loved one has attempted suicide, call 911 or your local emergency number immediately or take them to nearest emergency room if you believe you can do so safely.  Try to determine if they have taken drugs or alcohol, whether they are under the influence or may have taken an overdose.  As soon as possible, tell a family member or a friend what is going on for additional support as you don’t need to try to handle the situation alone.
  5. Do more.  Start a dialogue now.  Consider watching “13 Reasons Why” and ask others if they have seen it, what they thought about it, and when (i.e., at what age) they might consider it appropriate to have a proactive conversation with their own children on the subject.  Consider helping out at a crisis center or volunteer with an organization that makes house calls to isolated individuals, such as single, house-bound seniors, such a Meals on Wheels.  Share images and graphics on social media to promote awareness and reduce stigma.  Remember that your engagement might just might help prevent suicide by letting others know that there are people that care and that there are other options available!

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:

Yoga helps improve mental health at any age!

For my 40th birthday, I ventured to a spa in the Catskills of NY with a dear friend of mine for a long weekend to relax and celebrate this milestone in my life. Little did I know at the time how much this trip would change my life!

I decided to keep an open mind and try every class they offered along with the ‘vegetarian’ food being served while restricting my intake of salt, sugar, and caffeine. There were no TVs or radios in the rooms and it was before ‘smart phones’ so we were pretty cut off from the rest of the world, yet surrounded by so much of Mother Nature calling us to connect with her beauty.

Now as I reflect back, I find myself smiling because it felt so disorienting yet so comforting at the same time. I was at a point in my life where I spent a great deal of time at work, with very little time for me. I was most familiar with putting everyone else’s needs in front of mine, and believed that I could only ‘be done’ when everyone else was taken care of, which reinforced an unconscious belief that my value or worth came from taking care of others. I was exhausted emotionally, physically, mentally, and spiritually and didn’t even realize it! Little did my brain know how much my body craved to slow down and nurture it, instead of feeding it a constant diet of stress caused by a deep need to please others.

My mind-body connection was turned off until that weekend in NY. After trying the step-aerobics class (and creating a moat around my step from my own sweat), I found my way to my first ever yoga class. Immediately upon settling onto my mat, something shifted inside of me. I don’t necessarily remember the teacher or the poses, but I do remember FEELING and thinking that what I was experiencing seemed vaguely familiar yet foreign at the same time. When I left that class, I felt a sense of peace and somehow a bit lighter than when I walked into it, although it was NOT a power yoga class and I didn’t even break a sweat.

On the drive home from that weekend away, I was determined to find a local yoga class where I could test out if I could replicate the results of that one yoga class. I found a small one-room yoga studio one town over and when I walked in, I was amazed that it felt like ‘home’ and not any house I had ever lived in. The sense of peace and calm was palpable and irresistible. I found myself called back day after day for over two years. My felt experience in that yoga class in NY was not a one-time event!

Although initially I continued to work long hours, my addiction slowly shifted towards spending more time on my mat in those group yoga classes, where no one knew my name and no one expected anything from me. I could simply be in my own inner world while surrounded by others doing the same thing. The first specific learning I remember is that I was breathing incorrectly. I would hold my stomach in on my inhale and let my belly out on my exhale. No wonder my mind and body were in a constant battle! As I learned to synchronize my breath with the movement of my body, I was able to start to notice sensations in my body, be guided by them to avoid any physical pain, and begin to trust the emotional intelligence of my body.

And that was where I came face-to-face with my anxiety. It was in that safe, sacred space in those group yoga classes where I realized how my mind worked very hard to distract me from the wisdom – and pain – that my body held, encouraging me to keep moving in order to avoid the stillness, because it was in the stillness that the underlying fears would rear their ugly heads. And yet, what I discovered was that by inviting those fears to join me on my mat, sitting with them while I breathed deeply, and asking them how they came to be, I was able to gain a new appreciation for how my fears had been serving me. As my awareness and gratitude grew, my fears began to fade. Don’t get me wrong, my fears still exist, along side of a full palette of other powerful emotions, yet they no longer control me or constrict my world. When my fear greets me now, I remember that they are trying to communicate something to me, so I create time and space for them, honoring their protective nature.

That trip to NY was many years ago, before much of the clinical research to demonstrate the benefits of yoga was conducted, but my personal experience hooked me from that very first class. Now it seems new research is being published every month from around the world supporting the claims that yoga is not only a viable treatment for physical and mental health challenges but also a way to prevent illness by integrating it into a self-care program to promote overall well-being. So, if you don’t want to take my word for it – click on the link below to check out some recent research from Japan published in the International Journal of Yoga that suggests that yoga reduces anxiety, improving mental health, at any age!