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Flexible Thinking Part 2: Flexible Thinking and Mental Health

In my last post, Flexible Thinking Part 1, I reviewed what flexible thinking is and its benefits. Over the last few months, we have all been “thrown in the deep end” of flexible thinking as the COVID-19 pandemic has required us to make adjustments. Flexible thinking, or the ability to adapt mentally, emotionally and behaviorally to a variety of situations, helped us transition to distance learning, working, shopping, and socializing. 

In this post, I briefly highlight how flexible thinking can improve and help reduce feelings of depression and anxiety:

  • Depression tells us things will never change and reduces hope for the future. Flexible thinking applied to depression recognizes the opportunity each day and, in each situation, to do something different and breaks down negative feedback loops.
  • Anxiety feeds on possible, but unlikely, scenarios playing out in our lives and the lives of those we care about. Flexible thinking reminds anxious minds they have the resources around and within them to solve current and future problems and to create solutions to those problems. In short, flexible thinking focuses on “possibilities rather than deficiencies.”

What can we do to increase and improve our mental flexibility? 

Engaging in mindfulness activities, (think deep breathing, meditation and guided imagery) yoga, aerobics and relaxation techniques have all been shown to increase executive functions and mental flexibility. Research has also shown we can also enable flexible thinking through positive affect (positive emotions such as cheerfulness, pride and energy and their expression), openness to experience and self-control.

As we consistently engage in flexible thinking, we can have more control over our thoughts and responses, reduce feelings of depression, anxiety, frustration and stress, meet our goals and successfully navigate the changing circumstances in our everyday lives and interpersonal relationships. 

Emerald Robertson, M.S.Ed., ACMHC, NCC

Reference:

Kashdan, T. B., & Rottenberg, J. (2010). Psychological flexibility as a fundamental aspect of health. Clinical psychology review30(7), 865-878.

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-inner-life-students/202003/flexibility-in-the-midst-crisis

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Help!!!! I’m Going Crazy!

Over the last month, you may have had that exact thought cross your mind a time or two (okay maybe a million depending on how well your kids are adjusting to on-line school). Seriously though, during this global pandemic and all the changes to our daily schedules and lives there seems to have been an overwhelming sense of discombobulation and unease with each new declaration. At least that’s my perception from my personal experiences with friends, family, neighbors, clients, and written accounts that I’ve read. It seems to leave a lot of us feeling like we’re living in an alternate universe….(cue the music), “You have entered the Twilight Zone!”.

How do we build some continuity into our “new normal”? By being creative and flexible with our expectations and focusing on our priorities we can reduce some of the anxiety of the unknown. Now, you’re probably wondering what exactly I mean by that and are wondering if I’m going to tell you to create a “schedule” that is color coded with daily achievement goals that is Pinterest or Instagram worthy? Nope!!!! I am going to suggest a couple of things that I have seen have huge impact, both personally and professionally, when trying to create a new normal.

First, set a consistent wake up time. If you are a natural early riser and like to be up with the sun and that helps you feel grounded and ready to start your day; set an early morning time. If you are more of a “I like to laze in bed a bit and then start my day”, type of person then set a little later time. Having a set time to get up every morning creates a natural sense of normalcy for our bodies.

Next, find a purpose in every day no matter how small. It can be from walking the dog to creating a presentation for your work Zoom meeting tomorrow. Just find one thing that will give you a purpose for that day.

Get outside the four walls of your house!!! Even the most introverted are struggling with feeling confined during the stay at home directives and orders. We don’t realize that over the course of a typical day many of us are in and out of our homes, offices, cars, stores, and schools many times. The loss of this freedom of movement can have a strong impact on our mental, and physical, well- being. Combat this by getting outside 2-3 times a day for at least 10 minutes each time. It doesn’t need to be for exercise purposes, although that certainly has added benefits, but just the change of scenery.

Make a connection with friends, family, coworkers, or neighbors every day. No, I am not saying throw the social distancing guidelines out the window and be reckless with your health. I am saying it is important to feel connected to those around us, especially in a time of stress. Isolation and loneliness are not our friends. We are social beings that have a need for connection. Think about it, how does the penal system punish inmates? They put them in isolation…solitary confinement. Break out of your solitary confinement and talk to your neighbor from your porch. Call your sister on FaceTime. Set up a virtual girls’ night. Stay connected!

Lastly, find a way to connect meaningfully with your source of power, whether that be through meditation, prayer, therapy, gratitude affirmations… whatever makes you feel grounded, empowered, and centered. Take the time everyday to find your inner peace and quiet the fears or worries in your mind. And, if you need help and are struggling then there are therapists and resources available on-line that can help you.

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Managing Your Stress Response

In Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski’s book, Burnout, they talk about how understanding the difference between a stressor and a stress response is crucial in helping us respond to both in healthy ways.  A stressor is anything in our lives which causes strain or tension.  A stress response refers to the physical changes in our bodies which occur in response to the stressor.

 
A deadline at work, an argument with our partner, a child who is struggling at school, or a to-do list that is longer than we have time for are all common examples of stressors.  Your response and your neighbor’s response to any of these stressors may look very different. Sometimes resolving the stressor is fairly simple.  We can work overtime to meet the deadline.  We can resolve arguments with our partner.  We can seek additional support for a child who is struggling in school.  We can complete the to do list eventually.  Some of these stressors will take longer than others to resolve, but whether by completion or the passage of time, the stressor will fade.  What is left behind is the accumulation of the stress response.  


Often we feel that the resolution of the stressor is sufficient, but Nagoski and Nagoski assert that it is not.  We must also address the physical response to the stressor, and if we do not, the stress response will accumulate in our bodies to the point where it impacts our physical health.  They suggest 12 methods for addressing stress response build up:

  1. Exercise
  2. Sleep
  3. Mindful breathing
  4. Creative self expression
  5. Using your imagination
  6. Mindful crying
  7. Superficial social connection
  8. Intimate social connection
  9. Connection with nature, landscape, or animals
  10. Spiritual connection
  11. Laughter
  12. Mindful self compassion.


The next time you feel stressed, take a minute to increase your awareness of your stress response.  What changes do you notice in your body?  What happens to those changes when you participate with intention, in one of the above methods?


If you find yourself overwhelmed with stress in your life and aren’t sure how to manage your stress response, give these suggestions a try, or for one-on-one support call 801-944-4555 to schedule a session with Alice today.

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Notice That

Bessel A. van der Kolk, a leading trauma expert, said, “As I often tell my students, the two most important phrases in therapy, as in yoga, are “Notice that” and “What happens next?” Once you start approaching your body with curiosity rather than with fear, everything shifts.”

Through my clinical work over the past 10 years, I have found the body to be one of the greatest teachers in helping clients to connect with, and heal from, trauma that is stored in the body. Stored trauma often manifests itself physically, such as with anxiety, panic attacks, nightmares, fear, and other “uncomfortable” emotions. Consequently, our bodies are often feared, rather than embraced as the wise teacher it is.

I have found one of the most powerful tools in helping myself, and my clients, stay in a state of curiosity, rather than fear, of these bodily sensations is the breath. When triggered by these bodily sensations mentioned above the body typically moves into the sympathetic, or fight or flight nervous system. Often, clients with trauma have learned to operate in this nervous system more often than is useful. The breath is a powerful bridge between the sympathetic and parasympathetic, or “rest and digest,” nervous systems.

Next time you find yourself filled with anxiety, I challenge you to take four deep “box” breaths, where you breathe in for four counts, hold for four counts, breathe out of four counts, and hold for four counts. After which, maintain the deep breathing pattern and notice what is happening in your body physically, and breathe into any tension you find. Then, remain curious and ask yourself what is needed to help you feel safe and secure in the present moment. At that point you may ask, “what happens next?” Take note of what inner child wounds or beliefs may be surfacing, and allow yourself to sit with that wound to find truth. Learning to become curious about thoughts that once seemed overwhelming, scary, or insurmountable can be an empowering exercise when you start unwinding unhelpful past conditioning.

Sometimes with trauma, clients may find themselves feeling stuck at certain points of traditional talk therapy. If that has been the case, it is helpful to explore other modalities to help release trauma on a cellular level, such as EMDR. Other movement based interventions such as yoga, tai chi, qigong, and dancing have also been found to be helpful in healing trauma. If you have found yourself stuck in processing past trauma, please feel free to reach out to see if we can explore some additional healing modalities. You can schedule by calling 801.944.4555.

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Five Tips for Navigating a Faith Crisis

Just Breathe

Really, right now take a few seconds to focus on your breath. Notice what it feels like as it goes in through your nose and out through your mouth.  A faith transition can be frightening and incredibly disorienting. Maybe you have that feeling of waking up in a strange place in the middle of the night, wondering where you are, only to remember you’re visiting a new town. Give yourself a moment to breathe, think, and become acquainted with this foreign land. Be kind to yourself. Sometimes you might feel excited or like you are on a new adventure. Sometimes you might feel hurt or betrayed. Sometimes you may feel lonely and out of place, but remind yourself that these emotions, like waves will go in and then go back out. Notice how you’re feeling without judgement. 

Start with What You Know

When your world feels turned upside down, it can feel like you don’t know what to think, believe, or know anymore. That’s ok. Start with what you do believe or what you do know. Maybe you believe in service or the power of good people to make a difference. Maybe you know how important your best friend is to you or that mint chocolate chip is still your favorite ice cream. What do you value? What is important to you? Make a list.

Reach Out

When you lose a community or separate from important people in your life, you may up feeling isolated or like no one understands. Despite that very real feeling, there are people who have gone through, or who are going through, a change in their Mormon lens too. Try looking for groups on Meetup, or Facebook groups. Network through people you already know or friends of a friend. 

Connect with Resources

“When Mormons Doubt” by Jon Odgen or “Navigating Mormon Faith Crisis” by Thomas Wirthlin McConkie are both two excellent books that are specific to Latter-Day Saints. Looking to people of other faiths, like Tova Mirvis in “The Book of Separation” can also be healing.

Slow Down

Take your time exploring the world through your new perspective. Be patient with yourself and give yourself the permission to say no and to take breaks. Find a therapist who can meet you where you are and support you wherever you decide your journey will take you. You’ve got this.

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Be Present: Enjoy the Silence

The world is full of noise and escaping that noise in important. Whether that is getting out running, hiking, walking, or enjoying any of your favorite activities. What is important in taking in the silences is that we are present. Taking the time to enjoy the silence is an act of mindfulness. Mindfulness has been shown to benefit us by:

·         Physical benefits including lowered blood pressure and improved sleep. 

·         Gaining more control of our thoughts.

·         Reduction of stress.

Remember yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That is why it is called present. – Mastery Oogway Kung Fu Panda 

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Having Courage to Slow Down

I, like many of you, spend a lot of time in my car. I always feel like I’m rushing from one thing to the next and I never have enough time for anything. As I was driving to work the other day there was a car that I ended up behind in the turning lane that didn’t increase its speed once it turned. At first, I found myself annoyed and thought “Are you kidding me? Come on, GO!!” I was looking in my side and rear-view mirrors to try to change lanes but there was a steady stream of cars in the lane next to me. I, then, realized that I didn’t need to rush, I was going to have half an hour in the office before my client’s appointment and I calmed down.

I thought to myself as I paid more attention to the car in front of me that it was probably someone old driving the car because I couldn’t see the driver’s head above the head rest. When I was finally able to change lanes and go around this car, I looked over at the driver as I passed. Sure enough, it was a little old lady, hunched over and barely seeing over the steering wheel. A smile came to my face as I thought of this woman who likely had slowed down in many aspects of her life, only one of which was driving, and how I am always in such a rush. It made me wonder how often I missed things from not paying attention and always rushing from one thing to the next.

We live in such a fast-paced world with so many things demanding our attention at once. I find myself getting lost in the mundane routine that is my life as crazy and busy as it is right now. But when I can slow down and just be present in the moment, I find that while there are parts of my life that are mundane, there are also pretty amazing things that happen around me and inside of me every single day. If we are constantly chasing the next thing, we can never truly just be with ourselves. But maybe that is part of why we don’t slow down.

Slowing down can be vulnerable. When we allow ourselves to be still, things can surface that we’ve been avoiding. We constantly measure ourselves by what we do and what we accomplish, so who are we when we slow down? Maybe we aren’t enough, maybe we are too much, maybe our emotions are too overwhelming, maybe it will be too vulnerable. Brené Brown has dedicated her life to studying vulnerability, authenticity, and courage. It takes courage to be still, to allow vulnerability, and to show up authentically. She says, “authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we are supposed to be and embracing who we are.” Slowing down, embracing who we really are, and being still with whoever we are right now can be scary but can also be powerful.

So how are you going to demonstrate your courage to slow down, be still, and embrace that you are enough?

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Finding Your Quiet Place

We live in a world of chaos filled with the hustle and bustle of life. There are school, work, home, church, family, and social obligations and responsibilities that are flying at us 24/7; it can be difficult to find the quiet in a world filled with noise. Sometimes our minds scream for the peace and quiet, they need a break from the noise of our lives. How often are you giving yourself a break? Do you allow yourself to stop for just a moment and find that peace? Wonder if you haven’t found your quiet place yet? Create it!

Choose to take a moment and make a space for yourself, if even in your mind, where you can go to feel calm and peaceful. This is a place that is all your own, it can be anything you want it to be. The key to this place is that it is a space where you feel completely at ease. There is comfort in your place. There is safety in your place. This is a sacred place.

Here’s a list of questions for you to answer, in your mind or aloud, to help you start to create a quiet place in your mind. Initially, read through the questions to become familiar with them. After some contemplation, read through them again and experience them from a deeper, more visceral place. Envision how you feel and allow yourself to go into that feeling.

Where’s your quiet place? This can be as broad as “at the beach” or as specific as “sitting on my pink and white canopy bed, holding my Cabbage Patch doll in my childhood bedroom on Forest Street in Podunk, USA”.

 Is it a place that you once visited or is it a place that you only dream of?

If you’ve been there, when did you visit and what kind of memories does thinking about it bring to mind? If it’s a real place with memories attached, dive into those memories. Allow yourself to feel and re-experience what made this place your “quiet” place.

If it’s a figment of your imagination, when did you start daydreaming of going there? Do you remember? Maybe this is a place that you have dreamed of since you were a kid. Maybe you saw a picture somewhere.

 What does your quiet place look like? Use colors, textures, and other descriptive language to be as specific as possible.

What does it smell like? Again, be descriptive. “Good”, won’t have the same sensory impact as describing the scent of the ocean or the pine of the forest after it rains.

 What do you hear when you are there? Trying to engage all your senses, do you hear insects? Birds? Water? Wind?

Do you feel the sun on your face or the wind on your cheeks? Are you warm or cold? What else do you feel? Sand under your feet? The spongy feel of the forest after a big rain?

 Are you there by yourself or do you have people with you? Who? Let’s be honest there are some people that do not help us feel calm, they don’t need to be included in your quiet place. Yep, even if they are your parents, children, spouse, or best friend. Sometimes we need to find peace away from even those that we love the most.

Lastly, after you’ve created a picture with sound, touch, smell, and maybe taste too. Give yourself permission to visit this place when you feel the noise of the world is too much. I have clients that use this as part of their morning or bedtime routine to help them get into a quiet headspace to start their day or go to sleep. Personally, I like doing it for a few minutes in the middle of my day when I have a break. I close my office door, take a few deep belly breaths, visualize a place (I have several), and let the experience encompass my senses and clear my head so that I can move on with my day with a newfound sense of quiet and calmness.

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Five Do’s and Don’ts of Separation Anxiety

Do Implement a Good-Bye Ritual

         Brainstorm with your child a short ritual you will both perform every time you say goodbye. This could be a secret handshake, a special song, a mantra you say together or a combination of words and touch. Anything that is meaningful for both you and your child will work.

Don’t Use Tough Love as a Go To

 Karen Young of Hey Sigmund explains how fighting against our natural fight or flight instincts is a losing battle.

“We humans are wired towards keeping ourselves safe above everything else. It’s instinctive, automatic, and powerful. This is why tough love, punishment or negotiation just won’t work. If you were in quicksand, no amount of any of that would keep you there while you got sucked under. You’d fight for your life at any cost. School is less dramatic than quicksand but to a brain and a body in fight or flight, it feels the same.

            Instead, empower your children by teaching them how this primitive part of our brain works and breathing exercises they can employ to combat them.

Do Encourage Your Child To Express Feelings Through Art

            One of the most therapeutic and helpful things your child can do to understand and combat their anxiety is to explore their fears and experiences through art. A study conducted by Khadar et al. (2013) showed that the boys with separation anxiety developed more adaptive behaviors and emotions, and the children tended to share more feelings and improved their communication skills. This particular study used the medium of paint, but drawing, sculpting or any other medium that appeals to your child can be used.

Don’t Teach Your Child to Fight Their Anxiety

         Instead, teach your child to recognize and verbally point out what they are feeling and where in their body they are feeling it as an outside observer. Have your child thank their anxiety for doing its best to keep them safe. But use their thinking brain to then tell the anxiety that they are safe and that they’ve got this.

Do Externalize the Anxiety

         Have your child describe their anxiety—what it feels like, what it says and what it looks like. Then have your child design a creature that embodies anxiety. Have your child name the object and talk through the aspects of the creature your child creates. This gives you and your child a way to visualize, separate their feelings from who they are and a new language to speak about their anxiety.

If your child is experiencing separation anxiety that is concerning you, please schedule an appointment with me by calling 801.944.4555

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We Need Others

Human beings are social creatures and need connection. Psychologists, anthropologists, and philosophers have suggested many reasons for why we need connection.  These reasons include: providing for physical and emotional needs, creating tribal safety, invoking social and economic efficiency, and offering structure for human development.

As I’ve explored this topic, I find our need for others is multifaceted. In mental health, there are overlapping influences, often termed the biopsychosocial model of health. This phonetic amalgamation promotes the importance of three overarching schools of thought: (1) our biology, (2) our thoughts and emotions, and (3) our social environment. Our social connections are no small matter. We experience social connection with family, friends, church relationships, clubs, and work situations.

One reason I feel we need others, is to create affirmation and validation for our life journey. As children, we look to authority figures for validation. At first, this person is usually a parent or guardian. When we enter our adolescence, we turn to friends. As adults, we may seek approval from peers, or authority figures such as church leaders, a spouse, or a boss at work. Marriage relationships uniquely create opportunities for seeking intimate affirmation and validation. As a therapist, I see couples desiring validation if they are “enough,” or if they are “doing things right.” These bids for validation are expressed in a variety of scenarios in the kitchen to the bedroom.

Eventually, we arrive at a place where self-confidence eclipses the need to seek validation from others.  When this occurs, we help support others, and our self-esteem is self-sufficient.  I don’t think this process is a bad thing. Instead, I feel the understanding we gain is helpful and includes three important concepts.

First, as other people bid for validation from us, we should feel complimented, as we are now a companion in their healing journey. Affirming another is an opportunity to support and honor the path and choices others make in a way that creates self-awareness and growth, confidence, and security while allowing for a space of safety.

Second, we need to know how hurtful rejection can be for those who seek for an affirming voice from us. As children, we are often told “no,” “don’t,” or “you cannot.” Usually, these commands are barked from parents who want to protect their children. However, as a conscience being willing to aid in the healing journey of others, an affirming voice such as “you can,” “you’ve got this,” or “I trust you,” is more effective.

Third, understanding your attachment style, or the attachment style of others can assist in explaining how validation and affirmation are expressed.  An assessment of how you engage with others can aid you and those you love to help establish securely attached relationships.  For example, some people will anxiously seek for attention, and others pull back when things get messy, avoiding receiving the needed help the connection brings.

As humans, we connect with others for a variety of meaningful ways. Seeking affirmation and validation is a human characteristic that moves people toward a place of self-confidence. We start by trusting the voices of others we trust, and then we move to trust our internal voice.  We do these in elaborate dances that deserve our attention and our nonjudgmental observation.

If you or a loved one needs help in understanding or seeking validation, please give me a call at 801.944.4555 to schedule an appointment today.

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