Want 2019 to be the best ever? Then you have to self-regulate and take responsibility for your experiences. So many of us want to have wonderful times, yet are not proactive in our daily routines. As a result, we are not ready for whatever life has in store for us. We are tired, feel “heavy” and lethargic, put ourselves and others down with negative comments/thoughts, and feel bored in our life. We call it stress or overwhelm, because we can not seem to check everything off our to do list or accomplish all we are dreaming of after getting lost in the daily grind of getting through the day. Instead just floating from event to event as though we have no control in the process of creating our life.
To be successful in life we have to stop playing the victim of our circumstances and instead play the master. We have to become self regulated, taking full responsibility for the activities that help us maintain that balance. People who learn to self regulate are more successful in many areas of their lives – from work to relationships to feeling more happy everyday.
Self regulation is the ability to stay connected to your experience giving just what is needed in each moment while meeting the moment accurately. We do this by practicing activities that help us stay focused on healthy relationships and interactions.
“Self–regulation can be defined in various ways. In the most basic sense, it involves controlling one’s behavior, emotions, and thoughts in the pursuit of long-term goals. More specifically, emotional self–regulation refers to the ability to manage disruptive emotions and impulses”.
In order to create the best interactions possible in any given situation you have to be able to think. This means your brain (notably the pre-frontal cortex) has to stay fully online. You need the centers of the brain known as executive functioning to help you plan, predict, and respond appropriately. However they will go offline if your emotions are too strong. Emotions are just information and intelligence telling you about your environment and how to respond to it. They are quicker than cognitions and therefore the brain uses them to inform your thinking. When your emotions are overwhelming your brain cannot regulate well and you’ll react rather than respond to what is going on around you. Often the responses are based on old patterns of learning and may not be appropriate in the current relationship, be it with your partner or the customer service rep on the phone. When we do not handle situations well in the moment we often feel shame and guilt, which contribute to a cycle of self destructive behaviors and actions that blow up the very relationships we want/need to be supportive. We have to keep ourselves in check if we are going to have healthy relationships.
When you think about creating healthy relationships it starts with a healthy relationship with yourself. Taking care of others includes taking care of yourself first. I cannot engage well with you if I cannot engage well with me. To do this begin by determining what you need to feel you best.
How much sleep do you need?
What foods give you the most energy?
How much and what kinds of exercise leave you feeling blissed out and ready for anything?
As you determine what you need to be your best self, you begin to meet the needs of others too. You become better at noticing where they are and what they truly want and need in the present moment. You become better at reflecting those needs back to them and this helps you create stronger more authentic connections.
These deeper connections are something we all crave. They actually help us build our brain structures, increase our immune response, and live longer. These brain structures help us engage more thoroughly in everything from learning to experiences to rest thus creating a more vibrant and full life. As we create a more rich daily experience we create more authentic interaction with any given experience.
I know this video looks at teaching children in the classroom … but it’s good for all of us
As we deepen our practices of what keeps us well, we meet the challenges of our life with grace. For example if I have taken care of myself and I am feeling grounded – no physical illness, I am not hungry, I am well rested, I have energy, and feel physically strong – I will be able to handle more of life’s little stressors. As I competently deal with the little stressors I am “clearing my plate” so things do not pile up and become “big fucking deals”.
At this level of engagement, things flow and relationships grow deeper. I am taking care of me so my health is better and I am stronger for everything I need and want. Everyday.
May the light return in your life. Enjoying the end of a great day contemplating the light and dark aspects of our world, the balance between them, and the need for both. I love this time of year and am sad to see the dark begin to recede. What a beautiful night to enjoy the light of the fire and the light of the full moon. The light always returns in more ways than one.
ThisMonday night, December 17th at5:00pm PT, I will present an R20 Live Session for anyone stuck in active addiction, all those who are relatively young in recovery and those who have experiencedrelapse.
It is one of our my core philosophies that different people need different things at different times. People in early recovery have specific needs and I would like to address these from the Recovery 2.0 perspective.
Due to the critical nature of this subject matter, this talk will be open to the entire Recovery 2.0 Community, not just members.
Learning to regulate ourselves is one of the most important tasks we go through in life, however most of us did not have good role models. Most of our families and communities do not regulate themselves well, and we were supposed to learn how?
Well we didn’t. We learned to yell, scream, hide, isolate, and numb instead of really learning how to feel our feelings and process through them. What makes it even harder is so many of us have experienced some form of trauma in our lifetimes. Trauma disrupts and deregulates the nervous system making it hard to be accurate about what we feel and the intensity of our feelings given our current situation, not the one from the past.
As we move toward the holiday season and all its busyness. Its focus on connecting with friends and family, and its focus on comfort (foods, drink, cozier clothing) understanding how to regulate ourselves becomes more important than ever. Here are some steps to make sure you make it through the holiday season feeling a bit more calm and focused on making those good connections rather than frazzled and numbed out. Below outlines 5 ways you can make sure you are regulated this holiday season:
Check your nervous system temperature
Food and mood
Relationships that matter
Move your body
First, you must understanding and have a sense of your own nervous system. What is it like to be in your body? Do you feel grounded most of the time? Do you feel like you are not safe in your skin? Do you feel like your bucket is always full and spilling over, or do you feel like you have a lot of room to handle whatever comes up? Some of us feel on edge a lot, some of us do not. Getting a feel for your situation will help you begin to recognize and understand yourself better. Then use grace to help give yourself a break. If you are someone who feels your bucket is always full and there is no more room, you most likely struggle with overwhelm and maybe anger or depression or collapse (avoidance, isolation, hiding from life, procrastination, etc). Even those of us who feel we have a lot of space get that overwhelmed feeling sometimes. This gives you a baseline to help you plan and figure out how much downtime, type of movement, and rest you will need.
Next, check out your sleep patterns. Are you getting enough sleep? Most research shows us the average person needs 7-9 hours a night to feel rested and ready for our day. If you have shortened this task as part of your regular routine, you are already starting with less room in your bucket. I hear people tell me all the time, “I do not need that much sleep” or “I can’t sleep that much” outside of the rare few, most of us do need that much or more. You’ve just conditioned your body to need and work on less. Not the best way to be ready for anything that comes your way. If you aren’t getting at least 7-9 hours a night, how can you get more? Can you add just 1 hour more tonight? If that’s too much add 15 minutes more per night until you reach the goal amount of 7-9 hours. Small changes help your body get into the routine, fall and stay asleep. If you are struggling to find the right sleep hygiene routine read more about that here. On the other hand some of get more than 10 hours of sleep a night. This also causes problems in our system. If you are one of those, examine why you are sleeping so much. If you are finding it is because you feel overwhelmed and lost in the world or do not want to face the world, it is time for a mental health check up. Begin to use an alarm or the light of the day to remind you to get up. It doesn’t matter if you do not get dressed or ready for the day right away, just help your body by getting out of bed, drinking some water, and doing a little bit of movement to get started and stay on a schedule.
Third, take a look at how you eat. Food and mood run together. If you are filling yourself with items high in sugar, low in nutrients it is like asking your car to drive down the street with no gas in it. You are running on fumes and are likely to feel the effects of outside stress much quicker and more intensely. Again, you bucket does not have much room for more if your body is trying to get enough fuel to make it through your daily tasks. During the busy holiday season so many of us are eating whatever is put in front of us at this party or the next. We may be holed up at home eating whatever feels good because we are stressed by the season – more people at the grocery store, the endless advertisements, and the constant barrage of what the culture says we should be doing right now. Many people put on weight over the holiday season due to stress, lack of sleep, and overeating. Pick and choose which items are important for you to eat. Do you love Christmas cookies? A special cake your family makes every year? Eat those things but watch portion sizesand how you talk to you body about the foods you are choosing. Saying to yourself “this is going straight to my hips” as you pop that cookie is not helpful and creates an internal response system that says “ok, I guess she wants this on her hips”. Make sure you are choosing foods based on enjoyment and watch portion sizes. It will lower your stress levels and help you let go of weight rather than retain it around your belly.
Finally, relationships. Many of struggle around the holidays because our relationships are difficult. Many of us want deep connections and are scared to be vulnerable enough to get them. Many of us come from families or communities where our true self may not be accepted so we shape ourselves to fit the group we are with and it feels exhausting. Some of us find ourselves in down right abusive relationships unable to set the right limits and protections for ourselves while in that person’s presence. Make sure you set the boundaries you need to be healthy. It does not mean you do not have to attend the party, but you do not have to stay the whole time. Or can you go, enjoy yourself with all the people you want to be with, and ignore or limit the time spent with the person who is emotionally or verbally abusive? This can be tremendously difficult. Partly because your nervous system is ready for the attack and sets you up to be on edge (bucket more full) which creates a need for regulation which may be food, drink, or people choices who are not the most supportive for your system and actually keep the problems going. If you are struggling to have healthy relationships, it is time to seek help. Repatterning past relationship models is possible, but can be difficult to do on your own – you are in it, making it hard to see other options. Seek help, it’s a much more supportive process when you have someone helping you work on building healthy relationships.
Lastly … movement matters. Everyday we have to move, our bodies were built for it. How much movement are you doing everyday? Many people cut back on the amount of movement they do in the winter months due to colder, longer days. If this is you how can you build movement into your environment? Some of us are just more busy. We enjoy the parties, cooking, decorating, and wrapping for festivities. If this is you, make sure you are fitting your movement into your tasks. Things like taking the stairs, parking and walking, squats between wrapping sessions, and counter pushups while cooking go a long way to keeping you on track and motivated to continue accomplishing your health goals in spite of all the extra items you’ve put on your agenda. Planning is a big deal here. If you do not create a plan and stick to it, you will have a much harder time reaching your goals. If you put it on your calendar, you are much more likely to make sure to keep your “appointment” with yourself. Here’s a full body workout you can fit in throughout your workday. This way you are done by the time the workday whistle blows and you can head off to that participate in festive events ready with one more thing crossed off your to do list.
In the end, getting through the holidays is not that much different than getting through life. As a result of extra items on your to do list and more people out and about your regular tasks may be more time consuming. Dealing with people who may not be your favorite or drive you up the wall with questions and comments you do not want to answer or respond to may result in feeling a bit more frazzled and vigilant in your skin. If you can stay focused on your health goals, keeping yourself aligned with your life vision you can make it through the holidays reaping the joys of the season and leaving the garbage behind. It just takes a little planning, a little effort here, goes a long, long way.
Fall is here! Beautiful weather, gorgeous trees, crisp clean air – at least for most of us. Many of us love it. Some of us hate it. Many of us use it as a signal to turn inward, to slow down, to hibernate. For others it means dark, cold, lonely days. As a psychologist, I tend to see the latter this time of year.
No matter which camp you are in, here are 13 things you can do to keep your spirits up this winter:
Accept your feelings about winter coming. Acceptance of our current predicament allows us space for choice about it, no matter what it is, even if I hate my current predicament. Acceptance of it will get me out of it a lot faster. Acceptance doesn’t mean you agree, condone, or want the current reality. All it means is you acknowledge this is what is truly going on in this moment.
Make a pros and cons list – what do you like and not like about the season? From here you can build up thing you like and work with what you do not like.
Take stock of your Pros & Cons list. What can you use to help you? Even if you have nothing good to say about winter, we can reframe what you wrote. Trapped inside can become: trying new indoor spaces, time to rearrange your furniture, or making small steps to get outside a little bit at a time.
Make a plan to tackle dark days and loneliness now. Find out what local organizations offer for connection and outings during the winter. As you collect these items, put them on your calendar so you have things to look forward to moving into winter AND commit to going to them no matter what.
Get moving. As an exercise scientist who turned psychologist, I am amazed at how many people do not use their body to treat their moods. You were born into a body to move it. When we don’t move, our energy gets low and we tend to try using calories to increase it. Hello weight gain – see #8 below. Instead move. I don’t care if your pushups are against the wall and your squats land you on the couch, just start moving. This is another great place to try a new activity in the winter – check out the Rec center in your area – being in a warm pool is pretty nice when it’s snowing outside. See #3.
Find some beach oriented guided meditations. For those of you longing for a cabin fever get away – you don’t have to spend a dime. Take a mental vacation. The power of the mind is great. Just think about a succulent, bright yellow, juicy, aromatic, zesty, lemon. How many of you salivated? Do not underestimate your mind’s ability to transport you and create a different experience once you decide to focus. Next blizzard, cozy up, plug your earphones in, close your eyes and take a 20 minute beach vacation in the comfort of your own home.
Get a new blanket (try a weighted one), sweater, bathrobe, slippers, hat, or scarf. If you’re like me, you get cold easy and being cold is not fun. If it’s cold you hate, make sure you have gear. I’m known for wearing long johns and hats in my house all winter long. Make sure you have items so you can be cozy and warm. Layer it up. Get a fake fire app on your phone, TV, computer if you don’t have the option for a fireplace in your home. Why you ask? See #6 above … fake fire or not, you’ll be surprised at your mind’s abilities to create an experience for you if you let it.
Take a look at your diet. Many of us do not eat for mental health. We eat foods that actually leave us feeling depleted, low in energy and overall SAD (standard American diet). Eating for mental health includes eating a variety of foods, especially leafy greens. This gives the body the base nutrients it needs to start making the neurotransmitters you need to enjoy contentment, joy, pleasure, and ease. Look at your diet now, get to the farmers market and see what folks have preserved that you can take home and enjoy all winter long. Get with a nutritionist to review your diet and make sure you are getting what you need. In the winter we tend to want heavier foods. Look through cookbooks and find some items that look appealing to you and commit to making a new recipe every week or so. Again, this helps you be proactive and plan for things you are looking forward to. If you don’t like to cook, enlist someone to do it for you, take a class, or find a few local restaurants to sample over the season. See #’s 9 & 10 below.
Connect with friends and family now. Let them know winter is hard for you and you need some extra support getting and staying in touch during the long dark days. Set up reoccurring dates: game nights, lunch, and movie time. See #4 to remind yourself why you want to start scheduling now.
Some of you are saying what if I don’t have family or friends I can connect with? Again, see #4 above. Look around your community for options that interest you, even if you don’t know anyone yet, which I know is hard. Some of you may need to take an additional step, get into therapy, join a group around a task or activity you think you might like, reach out to an online community. Be open to trying and give it a real shot. Many give new groups one or two times and quit because it’s uncomfortable. It will be uncomfortable at first. I do not mean to be flippant about the difficulties that surround finding and making friends, however we have to start somewhere. Although many of us feel alone, if we are willing to be gentle with ourselves and open to trying new things we can make some sort of connection to help hold us through. Some of us need to be kind to ourselves and others. Work to have compassion for the humanness in all. People will say things you don’t like, do things you may think are weird, and may struggle to connect with you the same way you struggle to connect with them. Give them a break, remember you are there to connect and ask yourself how can you show up to support this person? When you shift the focus from yourself you’ll be surprised at how different your experience is. Again, it may be time for some therapy if you are overwhelmed and confused by this concept. If people aren’t your thing look into volunteering with animals. You will get the benefit of needing be outside a bit – see #3.
Take up a new hobby. Find something that’s healthy for you and commit to learning. Get curious and stay open, even if it’s a bit difficult or boring at first. By staying curious you access your pre-frontal cortex, this part of you, helps you stay in the moment, judge, plan, and respond rather than react. By committing and giving it a real shot, you teach yourself about perseverance and grit. When you have grit you increase confidence. When you increase confidence in yourself, things get a little brighter.
Take stock of your thoughts. Do not underestimate your ability to change your mind and impact your environment. Remember that lemon? Did you salivate again? If lemons don’t do it for you, how about a crunchy pickle? You can hate winter all you want, but the more you tell yourself you hate it, the more you will. If moving to “I love winter” is too much just go neutral in your comments “it is winter” without the heavy judgment and anger that accompanies hate and dislike. Move away from the emotional content of your statements and just be objective about your situation. So many of us remain trapped in the prison of our minds (about all sorts of things) because we refuse to give up our story about it. We refuse to look at it from a different perspective and change our mind about it. Doesn’t mean you have to like it, agree with it, or want it, just means you have to accept as it is, see #1. Acceptance gives you power back. Acceptance allows you to truly examine and decide what you want to do about it. Hard part of changing your mind … you have to be the one to do the work and be uncomfortable. No one can fix the way you think about things for you. You have to do the work.
Commit to yourself! No one else can fix this for you. Living in Durango we cannot, not have winter at your house. By being proactive and putting a few things in place ahead of time you can have a different experience this winter. By noticing the way you talk to yourself and if you set yourself up to learn how to shift your focus and manipulate your perception of your environment you stand a better chance at tolerating what you don’t like.
To be effective with ourselves and our teams we must recognize that motivation comes from within, but is first inspired. So rather than chase motivation we must find inspiration. If we are leading a team of people we must look to inspire rather than motivate. If we are working with ourselves we have to figure out what inspires us today. Inspiration is more powerful because once inspired the motivation wells up inside and spills out in joy as we complete the goal, even when the task is difficult.
It was years ago that I learned this distinction. I had a client who was motivated to let go of heroine, however that is a difficult task. He was intelligent, energetic, and had supportive resources available to him, and he still could not let the drug go. One day he looked at me exasperated and said “I need to be inspired. I need to feel inspiration about living this life and I don’t. I am motivated to quit using, but without inspiration I cannot find the missing piece”. We started discussing motivation and inspiration differently that day. I have carried that discussion with me since. I started looking at inspiration in my own life and noticing when motivation felt easy and when it felt forced. When it was easy, it was always inspired.
Now the trick is to find inspiration … and then stay inspired. I can be inspired by lots of things, but they will not sustain me because inspiration moves. Thus, I must work to build inspiration everyday. I must cultivate the practices that build inspiration and I must practice them regularly. This is where people get tripped up. They get inspired in short bursts, do not have a plan or practices to sustain, then get discouraged. So what are the practices that sustain and cultivate inspiration? Well, that depends.
We are each unique and individual. Stop right now and look around your environment. What do your senses land on that draws your attention? Is is a sound, color, breeze, smell, taste, something you are touching? Our senses lead the way and draw us to what we find interesting.
As we begin the practice of cultivating our awareness we become more sensitive to what we enjoy. So many are too busy to notice. We are distracted. We rush from point A to point B and do not notice the way the sun glints off the roof of our neighbor’s house in the frosted morning. We spend time in our own head, with our to do list running fast and furious, and do not hear the new indie music in the back ground at the coffee shop with the unique sound. We sit down to rest, but use substances to finish the relaxation piece we can’t seem to figure out on our own. Instead of finding peace in the quiet we listen to the judgmental commentary lashing out in our heads. To find inspiration we can act on, we must slow down and notice. Follow the practice below to begin the process of noticing, slowing down, and engaging with your environment to find what inspires you.
Take a deep breath
Take another one
Notice the feeling of your feet on the ground …
The other points of contact your body has …
Take another deep breath
Close your eyes and listen …
Keep them closed and feel – what does your skin pick up? …
Open your eyes and notice what draws your attention …
Refrain from judgment, just notice
See if you can find something beautiful in your surroundings …
Then get curious about it, look, listen, feel deeper into the experience of noticing it …
Breathe and repeat
When you feel complete, breathe and wiggle your fingers and your toes. Begin to bring your awareness to your outer body and allow information to come to you, just being aware of your surroundings. Determine if you need to journal about what you found, what inspired you, where your attention was drawn. Maybe you need to draw, move, make a sound. Do whatever feels right to solidify your learning. When you feel ready move on, do the next step of your day.
Do this everyday, more than a few times. Take 2 minutes and notice what is around you. You’ll start to see patterns in what you like, what inspires you, and what brings peace to your moment. Notice why that item draws your attention, is it brighter, more colorful, more lyrical? What does your body feel like when you notice it? Breathe and pay deep attention to it.
From here, you can fill your surroundings with music, art, tactile items, that you find beautiful. Find Pinterest boards and blogs to check in with when you need a little inspiration. Then begin to build items, spaces, places that fit your goals. For example, if I need early morning motivation to workout, I am going to look at my Pinterest workout board to find inspiration. Suddenly my 5:45am spin class seems like a gift, not an interruption to my sleep, for I found inspiration and it created authentic motivation. Now I want to do the things I know help me be my best self. String enough of these moments together and your life becomes embodied inspiration.
And as always, if you are struggling you can schedule a 15 min Q&A appointment to see if it’s time to give yourself the gift of therapy. When else can you talk about yourself for an hour with someone trained to deeply listen to your core, not just the story you tell yourself.
I saw God today. I also saw God yesterday, and I am pretty sure I’m going to see God tomorrow. Everywhere I look, God is present. Everyday, I sit with people and listen to their stories. Deeply listen. I listen under the crustiness of day to day operations and listen into the core of who they are. Everyday, I see examples of amazing resilience and this thing we call being human. As a result of being intensely connected to another I see the pulse of our universe. I see God.
Those of you who know me well, know I’m not what you’d call a religious person, however everyday I feel this pulse and feel the universe breathe. Everyday I hear the beauty that surrounds us and dive deeply into the moments that matter. Mostly through words and physical sensations – our innate human experience. What’s incredibly curious to me is the way we think and feel so different than everyone else, yet we are so much the same.
Each story in my day is unique, often I have no idea how the plot will twist yet the themes of the day remain the same. Am I good enough, can I be loved, will I make it, what if I fail, will people show up to help me, can I trust myself, am I safe. When I can’t figure out the nuanced theme, I just go for the big one – am I worthy, do I matter.
Our personal brand of wounding lends itself to all sorts of manifestations in our lives. If I feel no one will help me, I’ll learn to do it all by myself. If I feel like I am unlovable, I’ll either work really hard to please everyone or I’ll become aloof and push people away. If I feel like I am not safe, I’ll make sure to be part of communities with very clear lines and defined roles so I can rest in the safety of knowing the “truth”. In the end … we are all ok.
We are all lovable. We are all worthy. We all matter. When we can embrace our inner essence we open the door for others to embrace theirs. When we shine our inner lights bright, they get to shine theirs bright, too. This is very very very … very … important to the world. If I do not shine my light bright, I cannot fully bring my uniques gifts into the world. If you do not shine your fully your’s do not enter either.
This creates a situation – kinda like the one where my grandma would lose the 1 puzzle piece that completed the 1,000 piece monstrosity. The world is incomplete when it’s missing pieces. We are each a piece and must show up fully to make the puzzle complete.
Everyday, I am surrounded by the magic that manifests when we are authentic in our personal experience. It’s like standing in a dark yard quietly watching the fireflies light up the night. When one doesn’t shine I can’t see them, when too many don’t shine the yard is dark. When they are all busy blinking off and on it is breathtakingly beautiful.
Please allow yourself the gift of living authentically in your gifts, shining your light bright. I want my dark yard to be lit up by your magnificence.
And as always, if you are struggling you can schedule a 15 min Q&A appointment to see if it’s time to give yourself the gift of therapy. When else can you talk about yourself for an hour with someone trained to deeply listen to your core, not just the story you tell yourself.
For those of us in the US, July brings up a sense of freedom. Freedom from schedules, freedom from the dark days of winter, the cold, each other, oppression, tyranny, working to find freedom from the heat, the sun, the laziness that takes over during the summer months. We symbolize July as a month of freedom. Yet as Shawn Mullins sings in The Gulf of Mexico, “freedom’s just a metaphor when you’ve got now where to go” and many of us are just giving lip service to the idea of freedom, we don’t feel free at all.
Many of us feel stuck in our lives. We are locked into work schedules that make us feel like we are on a marry-go-round we can’t get off, locked into debt so we have to stay on the wheel, in relationships we find un-inspiring to say the least. We claim to be free, but we aren’t. We are stuck in patterns that get us to the same spot everyday and we hate it, and we are scared to make the jump to what we really want.
Most of us have been taught we must be “this” or “that”, we must live up to the expectations set for us, stuck under someone else’s rule. We must continue to produce in our society to be worthy, which keeps us stuck feeling unworthy. Many of us learned that we must have all the same things as the people around us have, which keeps us feeling less than. We learned that we should have those things even if we can’t afford them, which keeps us locked in work we hate. We learned that if we don’t stay on the track created for us we have failed and let others down. Ugh, it feels heavy just to write all that. Are you ready to change these patterns and really find freedom?
First, you’ve got to look inside. By slowing down and really listening to your own voice you find the way out. As you listen, take note of what feels exciting for you, where do you lose time doing tasks and it’s exhilarating, where do you finish an intense project and feel fulfilled, not drained and overwhelmed? What brings excitement to your life? These are all hints of your calling and the unique gifts you have to give the world.
Second, look for ways to incorporate the above excitement into everyday life. Freedom isn’t always about doing whatever you feel like in the moment, but it is about doing what you love and what brings you joy. As you balance your daily life between things you want to do and things that help you live that life (like work, I love electricity and flushing toilets, I want to earn enough money to pay for those things, even if I don’t always like the work) you find joy in daily living. The Budda said “Drop by drop is the water pot filled. Likewise, the wise man, gathering it little by little, fills himself with good”. This tells us focusing on the small things, little by little, you fill yourself up. Little by little we build a life full of joy. It’s by doing the small things everyday that you fill your internal well of happiness.
Third, you must notice. I don’t know how many hours I’ve spent with people telling them to notice the small joy that surrounds them everyday. Somedays people fight me on this one – hard. They can’t seem to find even the smallest glimmer of good in their daily life, but you know what, they always figure something out. Things that bring drops of joy into your life are little, they are things like the way the breeze feels on your skin, the way the sun glints through the tree leaves as they dance, the way the water sounds as it tumbles into the pot. The feeling of knowing you did a good job or having something to eat. Joy comes in small drops and it comes from within.
The way to find joy is to notice. Most of us are so distracted everyday we miss all those small important and mundane moments. We have to notice and drink them in. This is the only way they’ll pile up and life will have the balance and focus we crave. As we find these small items, the profound finds us.
So many of us are busy looking forward to or searching for the profound event that we miss filling up our inner well, and then feel that life is boring, uninspiring, or un-motivating. We feel that pull of doubt saying “what’s life worth living for anyway”? Before we know it our life is the burden of the metaphor – “freedom isn’t free when you’ve got no place to go”.
Today, break free for real. Get out of your pattern and start to notice all the joy that surrounds you. Delight in the mundane and everyday occurrences that are pretty profound in themselves – like the way my stove lights and my toilet flushes, wondering what the dog is really smelling, hearing the pine trees talking to you, and watching the pattern of people and traffic on a busy street corner. Today take the challenge to pay attention to your life before it passes you by – today find your joy.
I'm currently living in an area impacted by a large wildfire. Although I used my personal impact for the topic, this was written for anyone who is living through stress and overwhelm regardless of the cause.
Every year fire season rolls around and we talk about it. We talk about how dry or not dry it is, how much snow we did or didn’t get. We talk about the trees, the heat, the lightening potentials. We try to predict where and when we’ll come around the corner and see the plume of smoke we know is not a cloud. We desperately hope it won’t be in our backyard.
And then it happens. Somewhere, somehow a fire starts, we come around the corner and we see it, we can smell it, we hear the people on the street, the radio, and at work or play talking about it.
We all stop and look, pointing while trying to determine how much space is between us and it, where’s it’s located, and is it affecting spaces I know. At first there is usually a lot of chatter, energy, maybe even excitement that parts of the forest may become more healthy, yet over time our endurance wanes and our hearts become heavier.
We run out of “fuel” to stay positive about the impacts of such a natural event. At these times it is important to take care of ourselves because the effects do not go away easy.Caring for our mental health is as important as caring for our physical health during forest fires (or any other disaster in our lives).
First, lets talk about physical health and mental health intersections. With an event like a fire we have a strong response in our bodies. We feel the primal nature of the event and register the lack of control. These add stress to the body and mind. Mind and body are not separate entities to be regulated to sections of your physical frame. In fact, if I want to know your serotonin levels (a marker for depression) I would take your blood or look at your gut health where the majority of it is made.
If I want to know how stressed you are, I’ll take a saliva sample to check your cortisol levels. Cortisol is a stress hormone that impacts inflammation. Inflammation impacts joint pain, brain efficiency, heart health, and obesity to name a few mental to physical health connections.
Your breathing rate is tied to your heart rate, and both are tied into your nervous system. When breathing or heart rate run too fast or too slow, your brain registers danger. When you feel like you can’t breathe it’s a big deal. Breathing is necessary for survival and your brain’s ultimate goal is to keep you alive.This lack of oxygen (or the perception of it) shifts the brain into a hyper-vigilant state because it needs to find the danger. This elevates your nervous system and impacts items like digestion, rest, inflammation rates, and positive social connections.
Sleep is a huge piece of physical and mental health. When we can’t sleep all sorts of things happen to the body and mind. The body goes through a number of important cycles during sleep. When we miss these cycles – guess what happens … the brain registers the lack of these important steps as a problem, it’s stressed because it’s running on lower than normal / needed systems. It’s like taking your car out but forgetting to top off the oil and then wondering why things don’t run smoothly.
Here’s a concrete example of how the body and mind interplay on our health during an event like forest fire:
On a concrete level we have to deal with lots of smoke. This smoke makes it hard to breathe – stress response in the body – and may have a direct or indirect response getting enough sleep. So much smoke, gotta close my windows, now I can’t sleep because it’s hot or I’m so worried or sad for those effected. I can’t sleep because my mind is playing images over and over, or I’ve been evacuated and now I can’t sleep with all these people around me in the center. Soon our ability to mange regular daily stressors wanes and we have a harder and harder time being present to our life routines and relationships. Bottom line, because our physical systems are impacted – our mental health will be too.
Here’s how to help make sure you are as physically strong as you can be during a stressful event. Get enough rest, good foods – these help make sure the body has what it needs to make the right neurotransmitters. Engage in healthy social contact. Being with people who help us feel safe and connected tells the brain that we are ok and the environment is ok, we have support. Move everyday. Moving gets things flowing through the system and allows your body to help you metabolize stress hormones and other emotion traces. It also helps you be grounded in the moment. This is important because all we have is this moment. Exercise helps us learn to be present to the current experience through physical sensations and teaches us that our behavior matters. Practice breathing with control. Do your best to slow down your breathing rate. When you slow the breath it slows the heart rate, when you slow the heart rate the brain registers that you are safe. This allows your body to help calm your mind. In as little as 3 deep breathes your body will begin to shift from stress responses to the relaxation response and re-set your nervous system, even when mind is trying hard to throw you off with all her chatter.
Second, let’s talk about mind. One of my favorite things is the mind. Mind is so creative and interesting. Sometimes mind drives us bonkers with it’s constant flow of ideas, thoughts, and review of our life. As noted above mind is influenced by the body and that means body is influenced by the mind.
We are just chemical-electrical little beings. Every thought we have produces a chemical and electrical pattern we can map using fancy machines to look at live brains in action. When you have a negative thought it increase stress in the body by changing the balance of chemistry in your body. As your cortisol and adrenaline rise these influence and impact things like heart rate and inflammation levels. As noted above, these have physical health complications over time.
In situations like a fire our mind runs rampant with worry and fear, which raise our stress hormone levels. We watch the news feed and look at the pictures. We talk to our neighbors and friends and strangers and repeat the same stories. All these actions create an electrical – chemical pattern in our brains.
As humans we are very, very adaptable. We are made to adapt. When we follow a thought pattern over and over we create a neurological change to make it easier to access information “if we are repeating it we must need it”, says the brain.
When something is continuing to happen repeatedly our brains figure we need it for survival, so it better adapt. It does this by changing it’s wiring. We call this neuroplasticity. Great when we learn to drive a car, not so great when we adapt toward more fear and worry. During an event like a forest fire, it is hard not to feed the fear, worry, grief, anger, and sadness.
To maintain health we must work with our minds and shift our focus from what is not working to what is. Look for positive things in your life, even small things make big gains. Find a flower, the way the aspen leaves move, the fact that the smoke gets easier during the day, that you like the meal you are eating, or the book you are reading. It doesn’t matter what you shift to, as long as it’s something you like, even for a moment. Those small shifts break the cycle of negative thinking patterns.
We must take responsibility for the thoughts we think and the direction we allow our focus to take. If we let mind run rampant, it will. Those repetitive thoughts feed themselves, creating more negative thinking. Remember, if we feed it fear and worry, we’ll have more fear and worry. Due to adaptation, we’ll focus on and find more negativity all around us. If we honor the fear and worry, then shift our focus to something more positive we are able to control the effects on our body for the better.
Now, some of you may be thinking, “you just don’t understand, I can’t turn my mind off” or “this is so horrible it won’t get better, this is a very bad thing” or some other version of the negative story. Switching your focus to something positive, does not mean you are ignoring the negative. It just means you are in control of your thought focus and you are managing what you pay attention to, thus what you experience in the moment.
Happy people do not experience less negative things, they control their focus and perception. They find the positive or neutral pieces of those experiences better than less happy people. They also do a better job of accepting what is in the moment which gives them more control over their experiences and options for changing it. Happier people know they always have choices (hint: we all do) and they know how to manipulate their choices for the best outcome in the moment.
Acceptance doesn’t mean you like the experiences, want it, or agree with it. It just means you acknowledge what is happening in this moment – not the one you want, not the one you wish you were in, not the one that would be easier. From the place of acceptance, it is easier to see what small step you can take in the direction of positive experience right now. A string of positive experiences creates a different neurological footprint and focus point. From here you have more control of your focus and thus the perception of the event.
Life happens to us all the time. I can’t control most of it. What I can control is how I perceive it. This makes all the difference in the world when in comes to living under negativity or positive experiences. Acceptance isn’t just about the mind, it’s also about accepting your emotional state.
Onto the third element of mental health, emotions. Emotions are a method of intelligence. Although many do not like feeling emotions or are confused by them, they are important pieces to understanding our experiences. Emotions help us know what we need to do with the experience we are having. During a fire we can feel lots of different emotions from fear, anger, sadness to guilt, despair, and even shame to excitement and happiness.
When we first hear the news, we often feel fear right off the bat. Where is the fire, who is effected, where will it spread, how will it move, will I be effected? The unknown is scary. It’s hard to feel safe when we aren’t sure of what’s going to happen. This creates fear.
Fear doesn’t live well when we take control of the moment by being present to what we can control and practicing acceptance. Fear is helped by asking for help and support when needed, too. Seek out information that helps you feel supported and safe.
Many feel anger. Anger is a normal emotion when we feel something is unjust or that someone / something we care about has been hurt somehow. Anger is a healthy response that helps us do something with our emotional energy by making changes. This shift helps us feel empowered and more in control of our world, which decreases our level of fear and changes our perception of experience.
For those of us taught to ignore our anger or those who fear their behavior when angry, it can be hard to honor and express it. It is important to express your emotions in healthy ways to help process and move beyond them. If you are feeling angry it can be helpful to get engaged with an organization we believe in making change in the area of concern, or talking with a trusted friend about your feelings and options for making change.
It is not helpful to repetitively vent, blame others, use violent language or physicality, or ignore your anger completely. It can also be helpful to do the exact opposite of your anger impulse. Anger wants you to yell, honor it and talk softly, anger wants you to hide, find a friend to talk with, anger wants to stew on the topic, do something completely different, go volunteer to distract yourself.
Sadness is often a large component of forest fires. As humans we are biological creatures and connected to nature thus we feel loss at the loss of natural life. It is sad and sadness is all about loss. For some of us we have lost our routines, sleeping in our own beds, or habitats we love. For some we’ve lost freedom of being outside and being comfortable. There are lots of things we’ve lost as the fires continue.
Honor the sadness as it shows us what’s important and helps us create a life worth living around things that matter to us. If you feel your sadness, you know what you care about losing. Then you can make sure to build life experiences that allow you to engage with items most important to you, while honoring change.
Guilt may arise as we find ourselves in conversation with others who are having a harder experience or we may be feeling a different emotion than others. Shame could also arise. Simply put, shame is about feeling like “I’m a bad person” where guilt is more about “I’ve done something bad”. It can be difficult to pick apart these emotions and deal with them. We often want to push them away and hide from them, however as with all emotions it’s more important to acknowledge them and make your choice to act on them from a place of authenticity. Both want you to hide and neither survive well when you are in connection with an empathic and supportive friend. Tell someone you trust what you are feeling to help mitigate these two.
Despair can also arise, especially because this is a repetitive cycle. We hope and pray for snow and water, yet experience drought, we have a good year or two, followed by some bad years. Maybe we are engaged in the conversations about human impact on the climate.All of these create situations where we feel helpless and small, we feel struggle not ease, and we feel as though the problems are so big we cannot solve them. As with anger, it is important to work toward small changes you can feel competent making in your own life. As one person we work in our individual environments to make change, then connect with others making small changes to make a larger impact on the world. Despair results when our sense of helplessness becomes so great that we see no way out. The way out is making small changes we feel good about it.
Happiness, excitement, or joy could also be part of our experience. For many we understand the transformative power of fire and may feel an excitement at the change fire brings. For some we feel excitement or joy knowing fire is natural part of nature and part of healthy forest development. For some we recognize fire is about creating a new beginning and we enjoy seeing the resiliency of the forest as it returns, reminding us all that we, too are resilient beings.
The bottom line on emotions is: whatever you are feeling know it’s normal and it is ok. As humans we can feel a lot of emotions all at once and that is ok. When we work to honor our current experience through emotions, we use them to form actions in healthy outlets. As a result our life becomes more vibrant and rich.
Final Thoughts On Dealing with Difficult Life Events:
If you feel overwhelmed by your experiences seek extra help from a professional. Therapy is great, when else can you sit with someone trained to actively listen to you talk about you for an hour with no bias in your situation. We need other humans to build our brains and make sense of our experiences. Seek out help if you need it.
Finally, perception is everything. Life happens, and it happens to all of us. We have little control in what is going on around us, however we have much control in how we respond to it. The way you manage your physical environment and body, pay attention to your thoughts and focus, and allow yourself to gather information from your emotions and make informed healthy action choices as a result, keep us regulated. This regulation is important as we continue to be stressed by disruptions and as we continue to move through this year’s fire season and beyond.
I often get asked how to create more joy. People come into my office and ask “how can I be more happy”. The answer isn’t in big changes. The answer lies in your perception of everyday.
When you make small conscious choices to notice more of what’s around you joy begins to follow. When you make a conscious choice to look for good things – we can all find the crap – it’s those of us who find the beauty that surrounds it who find where joy lives. Deep within us.
Finding joy can be difficult to do, especially if you’ve been taught to find the negative. Here are 11 actions you can use to bring more joy into your life starting right now.
Rest more – we hear this all the time, and the reality is rest helps us balance our lives, our bodies, and our emotions. By making sure you are getting enough rest – not just sleep but rest – throughout your day, you are more likely to enjoy your days more.
Take it slow – along with more rest comes taking it easy. This isn’t about doing less, but being more deliberate in what you do chose to do. Rather than rushing from item to item on your to do list, build in buffer time. Personally I struggle with transitions and “wasting time” if I arrive somewhere early. However, in reality the 10 minutes I think I’m “wasting” help make sure I go to the bathroom, find a parking place, and arrive in a relaxed mood for my next project etc making the quality of my life much better. By slowing down a bit I notice more and am more engaged. In the end it doesn’t get wasted after all. Thanks – Roxann – still hard for me, but great advice!
Laugh – hard, really hard. Laughing is good for our physical system and good for our soul. Find something every day that makes you laugh. Maybe it’s a movie, a song, a child playing joyfully, a friend who tells funny jokes. Doesn’t matter where you find your inspiration as long as you can laugh deeply and fully – big belly laughs. Don’t have anything to laugh at? Here’s a trick … just start laughing. The physical sensations and act of beginning will eventually keep it going.
Find Water – this time of year those of us in the northern hemispheres are feeling the heat cranking up. It’s time to find water. Water helps us release and let go, it helps us recognize that all things are fluid and to find strength. If you haven’t seen the strength of water’s steady determination check out this video … just might help you figure out how to accomplish #5 & 8 below:
Watch the moon come up and find the stars – for many of us, the lazier days and later sunsets have us up into the late evenings. Go outside and find the moon. Watch as she rises and the stars come out. We need moon light just like we need sunlight. Enjoy a full moon hike or lay out under the stars while it’s warm and enjoy preparing for sleep in the quiet of the evening.
Smell the “green” – During the summer months when plants are in full swing there is more oxygen kicking around and you can smell it J Humans like oxygen. Take advantage by taking deep breaths and observing the behavior of leaves, the feel of the breeze, and the smell of “green” as I used to call it when I was little. Up here in the Rocky Mountains flatlanders pay for this stuff (in bottled form) on the ski slopes and in their hotel rooms. When the trees and grass is green no need to shell out the extra bucks.
Read – Summertime is a great time to read. Find a good book or two and just lounge while you read. Get into your imagination as you make your way through a story. It is so fun to find good reads and finish them under the sun or in the shade of a great tree made just for leaning against.
Hang with friends – in the season of vacations – the ones we chose, not necessarily the obligated ones we experience in the winter, allow us to pick our adventures and who we want to adventure with. Find some friends, find an adventure, enjoy! Then repeat.
Start your day with mindfulness – by taking some moments to enjoy your morning beverage on the porch (because it’s warmer) you have the option to breathe deeply and experience # 6 above or talk to a passing neighbor (human or animal) enjoying # 8. By starting with mindful observation you participate in #2 and I think your day incorporates more of #1 just because you set it up to start that way.
Sleep in or wake up early – many of us have an altered schedule in the summer. Be it due to school being out, or co-workers and clients on and off vacation, many of us have something slightly different in the summertime. So take advantage. Maybe you want to do # 5 above so you sleep in, maybe you want to wake up with the sun and have a full fun and long day. Whichever your preference today – make it happen.
Did I say rest more? Even if you ignore all the others on this list … make sure you get this one done!