Acceptance: Making People into Trees

Ram Dass (Dr. Richard Alpert) expresses acceptance of self and others with a beautiful metaphor:

 

“…when you go out into the woods and you look at trees, you see all these different trees. And some of them are bent, and some of them are straight, and some of them are evergreens, and some of them are whatever. And you look at the tree and you allow it. You appreciate it. You see why it is the way it is. You sort of understand that it didn’t get enough light, and so it turned that way. And you don’t get all emotional about it. You just allow it. You appreciate the tree.

The minute you get near humans, you lose all that. And you are constantly saying “You’re too this, or I’m too this.” That judging mind comes in. And so I practice turning people into trees. Which means appreciating them just the way they are.”

Remember, emotional and cognitive skills take practice just as physical skills do. Many of us have years or decades of practice in thinking destructively and judgmentally! So practice a little self-acceptance today, and then again tomorrow, and the next day…

 

What Attending Therapy Is About: (AKA We Are Not Just Sitting Here Chatting)

Everyone’s approach to attending therapy sessions is different: people’s needs, symptoms, and circumstances vary incredibly. People want and expect different things in session.

Clearly, there are specific, well-researched interventions that are likely to be effective with most people who experience a certain symptom or pattern of behavior. Some interventions can be practiced in a therapy session, and some interventions are good for a client to take home and practice on their own. I do have plenty of handouts to work on and books to recommend that you read!

But not every intervention is on a list of tips that I’m going to print out and give you outright, or on a sheet in a manual with steps 1, 2, and 3. In fact, nearly all of what we are doing while in session is an intervention, even if I do not formally announce it as such. That is to say, we are not just sitting here chatting, even if sometimes that’s what it appears to be.

When I’m asking about your week, or how you feel, if you’ve gotten over your flu, or how things are going with your family or job, for example, I’m actually assessing your anxiety, depression, hypomania, behavior patterns, physical well-being, environmental influences, sense of hopefulness, and any changes in how you are interacting…for starters.

But I’m not just gathering data. I’m also intentionally getting you to practice certain kinds of conversing, thinking, and interacting during session.

I’m getting you to practice speaking openly about things that may have felt “unspeakable,” uncomfortable, scary, or just awkward. I’m reframing or redirecting your thoughts as you speak them from “shoulds and musts” to “preferences and wants,” so that you can begin to change your internalized messages. I am giving you the chance to practice openly experiencing and expressing feelings in the presence of someone who will not censor or scold you for how “irrational” or “unacceptable” they are. I am often taking the role of defending you from your own inner critic! I am supporting you in developing an attachment that is not based in power and control or other unhealthy dynamics. I’m also simply being a trained witness to your life; checking in with you over time to see how you are changing and making sure you are okay.

Developing different patterns of thought and interaction takes time, and it’s a great deal more powerful if done with another person. That is why sessions are “booster shots” even for those who do a lot of internal work on their own. Humans are social creatures. Everyone, even introverts (like me!) must interact with others in order to process and develop emotionally.

And you know I can tell you’ve been making real progress when you stop yourself from saying “should” in session before I can give you the “shoulds” lecture yet again! ;D

So that is why–even if I didn’t give you a handout to take home or a list of suggested solutions to your situation–you made a LOT of progress in your session today.

Remember, “talk therapy” actually changes brain structure!

20180714_150311

Self-Care: It’s Okay Not to “Optimize” Yourself

Many people have been making New Year’s resolutions, and some are even sticking to them! For most people, however, they won’t last very long.

It’s completely valid to want to make changes to yourself and to your life, but pay attention to what you are telling yourself in the process. You may be telling yourself that you will finally be acceptable if you can meet your goals. The “if” lets us know that if we don’t meet our goals, we are not acceptable. We often believe (consciously or not) that there are only two choices: exceptionally fantastic, or…crap. (To state it plainly.)

Guess what? You are already acceptable! You are wonderful and miraculous! Yes, even on your bad days.

The idea that you aren’t good enough unless you are the best of the best is an expression of perfectionism, and perfectionism is a life-killer, a progress-killer, a killer of the good. We seek progress, not perfection.

Instead of telling yourself that you “must improve,” try the dialectical approach:

“I am already acceptable as I am, AND I would like to try doing this a different way to see if I like that better.” (No “buts” allowed!)

This makes it clear that it is a choice you are undertaking, rather than a “should.” Also, it is a way of making a choice to try change but without browbeating, judging, and criticizing yourself–all things that, ironically, make change much more difficult.

If you accept yourself as already okay, then you are free to try changing things all year around, as the opportunities present themselves. But–this is key–you don’t have to “improve” yourself in order to be acceptable.

While we’re here talking about accepting yourself, here is a great article about expressing your vulnerabilities:

woman20under20stress

Happy Saint Lucia’s Day!

Celebrate the returning of the light. Your hypothalamic pituitary axis certainly will be!

Checking In With Yourself

When you’re feeling really depressed, upset, or anxious, it can be hard to come up with ways to understand what is happening with yourself, let alone what to do about it. Even the most basic self-care can be hard to remember when your executive functioning is down.

This is a very helpful list to have handy for those times when you are unable to generate the energy to remember how to support yourself:

 

National Depression Screening Day

Whether you use the October 4th date or the October 11th date, it’s about time to get your “checkup from the neck up”!

There are several online depression screening tests you can try:

A very brief one from Psych Central:  https://psychcentral.com/quizzes/depression-quiz/

A screening that has several languages: https://t.co/qY9aMiJwxh

An overview of NDSD: https://mentalhealthscreening.org/media/fact-sheet-national-depression-screening-day

Depression Part 3: Nurture Yourself Back to Life

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3: Physical Aspects–Sleep and Nutrition

It can be very hard to take care of yourself even at the best of times, especially if you have a trauma history. And when you’re depressed, it can be even harder to take care of yourself. You might feel too drained, sad, and even unworthy of care. But this is exactly when it is most important to take care of yourself, even if you can only do a little bit.

Just do the little bit that you can. And keep doing it.

First, stabilize your physical aspect as best you can. The four most crucial mental health needs of your body are sleep, nutrition, exercise, and social interaction. You may also be considering medication.

Sleep: regular sleep is probably the single most important thing your body needs to maintain mental health. If you have been skimping on sleep in order to get things done, you may need to let a lot more tasks go in order to recover. The purpose of sleep is to release toxins from your brain cells. If you are not getting enough sleep, then you are intoxicated, and not in a fun way–your brain is poisoned. Start developing a sleep routine that is as regular as you can make it, close to the same time every night.

If you are struggling with insomnia, the insomnia needs to be addressed so you can get the sleep you need. It’s not uncommon for depression or anxiety to remit simply by getting your sleep stabilized. Don’t use alcohol as a sleep aid: alcohol is not only a depressant, but it also interferes with sleep cycles, so it can worsen sleep problems.

If depression is causing you to sleep too much, it may be most useful to first address other physical aspects of depression before trying to cut down on sleep. Besides, is it actually “too much”? You may need extra sleep for the time being. If it feels like you are convalescing from an illness, that is because you are.

Nutrition: Your body needs fuel in order to operate physically and mentally. Your mood will be worsened by hunger, even if you are not feeling the hunger. At least get a bit of  protein and some complex carbohydrates. If your appetite has dropped and you are having trouble eating, or caring about eating, then try having something like Ensure, or chocolate milk, or kefir on hand – it can be easier to drink something. If you can eat a little something a few times a day, even if not your usual meals, it will help you not to sink further into depression.

When you’re feeling up to it, treat yourself nicely when you eat. It can be comforting. It may be you’re just eating condensed soup sitting on the couch, but see if you can eat it from your favorite bowl. Or try eating something that reminds you of childhood in a pleasant way.

When you have regained enough energy to attend better to your meals, you can get back to what you would normally eat, but for now it’s okay to just eat something.

If you are suddenly eating a lot more than you normally would, try to be gentle with yourself. There is a reason you are doing this–you feel bad!–and it’s not worth harshly criticizing yourself. Indeed, you will make yourself feel worse and it might compound the issue. Remember the important thing is to fuel yourself and restore your balance overall, and do so gently. The goal is not to sternly restrict. That may backfire.

 

Next: Physical Aspects–Basic Exercise, Social Interaction, Medication

Depression Part 2: When You’re Depressed

Part 1

Part 2:

Recognize Depression: Depression often creeps up gradually and may affect you for a while before you realize what is happening. What effects do you usually experience? Are your symptoms usually physical, emotional, or cognitive, or a combination? Exhaustion, achiness, overwhelm, lack of motivation, negative thoughts, suicidality? (See Part 1.) If you have a better idea of your own symptom profile, you will be able to catch a depressive episode sooner when it occurs.

It is often a great relief simply to realize why you’ve been feeling bad. Also, it can be encouraging to remember that most depressive episodes remit within two weeks even without intervention!

Accept Depression: Depression can be tricky because we often have a belief that if we recognize what’s going on, we should be able to “snap out of it” by some act of will. While it’s good to try some things you think might help you feel better, the process is healing rather than fixing. You are an organism, not a mechanical device. It may take some time to get through the healing process.

Most people feel impatient about this, because depression interrupts whatever else you’re trying to do with your life. That’s the part most people have a hard time accepting. But depression is a real thing that really affects people on many levels, so work on accepting how your feelings and your functioning are affected. Then you can better decide how to address it.

Beating yourself up for “feeling bad for no reason” or “not getting enough done” will only make things worse! It may be that during some depressive episodes you will  feel bad “for no reason” or that you may not get as much done as you want to. That’s what happens during depression. You can do many things to support your healing, but you can’t just decide to not have depression.

Most people experiencing depression–even severe depression–are mostly functional in some life areas, which can lead to denial or minimization. “They must not be very seriously depressed, I just saw them laughing and joking at a party,” or “I can’t have severe depression since I’m able to work 12-hour shifts on a busy floor.”

Functionality varies from situation to situation and from day to day. You can be functional in one or more life area, or appear “okay” to others. That doesn’t mean the depression isn’t real or isn’t serious.

 

Depression Part 3: Nurturing Yourself Back to Life