Tag Archives: difficulty

Approach Rather Than Avoid: Embracing Emotions to Minimize Suffering

Many of the clients who I see in my practice seek support as a result of unknowingly avoiding some or all of their emotional experience. Avoiding a painful or confusing emotion works really well in the short-term. So well that it often comes as a shock to people when it is suggested that they try something different. In real life, avoiding emotion often looks like avoiding certain situations or people, not a particular emotion itself. It is only when people grow frustrated with the results of living their life within these very particular confines that they begin to question what is truly driving the avoidance. Throughout the process of psychotherapy, they can begin to explore what it feels like to approach an experience rather than avoid it. In doing so, great richness can be found in relationships, opportunities for growth and a compassionate, empowered sense of self.

Take the example of a client I am seeing. As a child, she was the victim of prolonged sexual abuse by one of her primary caregivers. In order to survive this horrific experience, it became adaptive for her to eliminate feeling. The emotions one naturally feels were disabled so that she could navigate the world around her. She describes how, as she matured, it was difficult for her to turn her emotions back on in relationships after they lay dormant for so many years. As a result, she felt unable to express her opinions, frustrations and desires to her partner. She found herself avoiding conflict and intimacy. Resentment and hopelessness grew.

In our sessions together, we work toward enhancing her ability to identify her emotions earlier in the “cascade”. For her, this has meant tuning in to body sensations and the “bristly” feeling she experiences as a cue that something is going on for her emotionally. She can now label the emotions that she feels and is working to be able to express them in a way that empowers her. Although this work was initially very frightening for her, bit-by-bit she was able to challenge the belief that “emotions are dangerous” and instead see them as an important part of her psychological landscape.

It can be very confusing to recognize that not only do we avoid painful emotional experiences, but sometimes avoiding pleasurable experiences becomes a habit as well. As can be the case with depression, positive emotions can seem very threatening and the fear of disappointment can drive people to avoid acknowledgment of their own strengths, building healthy relationships or taking care of themselves. Although for the short-term this can result in a sense of self-sufficiency and insulation against pain, in the long-term it can lead to isolation and suffering.

Psychotherapy combines helping clients to see how avoidance worked for some time and how it was adaptive in order to cope with a stressor or painful situation. We talk about how reasonable it is to develop some way of keeping it together. At the same time, we discuss how this habitual way of responding usually does not work over the long term. We talk about how emotions, although powerful, do not have to overpower. My hope is that by cultivating their ability to approach rather than avoid, clients learn how to integrate their emotional experience with their values and long-term goals.

The Importance of Being Still

Aare_fishing
Mindfulness gives you the opportunity to practice being still if you don’t have the time for a contemplative fishing trip.

Although I talk a lot about how to integrate movement and activity with your mindfulness practice (hence the name of this blog), today I feel it is important to highlight the equal utility of cultivating stillness and quiet in your practice. In the midst of the busyness of daily life, physically being still and not moving our bodies generally only happens when it has to: stuck in traffic, waiting at the DMV, or logging hours at our desks. And opportunities to cultivate stillness in our minds happens far, far less often.

Of course, mindfulness does not mean emptying the mind of thought. Instead, when I talk about mental stillness, I refer to the practice of intentionally noticing and being aware of the mind’s activity. Resting in awareness of what is present, rather than all of the myriad other mental gymnastics. It means noticing the pull to make that mental shopping list or write that mental email to your boss or to take a mental inventory of your own failings during the week. When being still, it is possible that we notice the movements in our minds and bodies (like that rumbling stomach, your respiration, that ache in your back) even more than we do in other less mindful moments. This awareness may be unpleasant and there may exist a rather strong pull to slide back into the busyness to avoid these sensations. The practice of being still is quite dynamic and changeable- which seems contradictory!

Making time to be still has many benefits, including that it strengthens your brain’s ability to understand and identify complex experiences. Furthermore, being intentionally still is just plain uncomfortable at times (it’s true!) which is a useful state to explore given that discomfort is something that occurs often throughout any given day. If our bodies become better acquainted with it, we can potentially increase our effectiveness in responding to a discomfort-inducing situation.

So, the next time you feel yourself hurtling along with the velocity of life, take a minute to consider being still. Here’s one exercise to try:

Adopt a posture that you can maintain for a few minutes and settle in to your body. Notice the feeling of contact that your body makes with the objects around it, the floor or the chair or your clothing. Open your awareness to the feeling of being still in your body. Notice that you may feel the desire to move, to scratch an itch, to adjust your weight, to fall asleep… Whatever is present, just take a moment to note the associated sensations. Investigate the sensations of the breath in the body and the movement in the body that occurs with each in-breath and each out-breath. Now, bring your attention to thinking and notice what may be present in your mind. Just as you did with noting sensations in the body, simply observe the habits of the mind that are occurring in this moment of stillness. Continue for a few minutes and notice the quality of ease or dis-ease that may ebb and flow over the duration of this practice. When you conclude the practice, intentionally return to movement with some of this expanded awareness and notice what that rejoining with busyness feels like in the body and the mind.

All practice is useful and as this lovely diagram points out, there is possibility for great variety in our “mindfulness diet.” I hope that you will consider a brief moment of intentional stillness even when life provides us with infinitely more opportunities to avoid sitting with ourselves. Or, perhaps you can take just yourself fishing.

An Ode To Expat Mamas

Friends

This post is one of a particularly personal nature and also one that I am very excited to write. I think it is relevant to the general theme of this blog given that it relates to what it is like to be a mother abroad and the importance of social support for mental health. But mostly it is about friendship and its power to transform the experience of living far from home.

When I first moved to Switzerland, my son was just two months old. I had very little experience parenting in the United States much less parenting in a country where I could not speak the language, did not have a job and was far from the support of my friends and immediate family. I made an effort to reach out and luckily, there were a number of ways to meet other English-speaking parents in Lausanne. I now know that, during this initial phase of acclimation, there can be a tendency to open up to anyone with friend potential and very quickly become socially overextended. But, with lack of sleep whittling away patience, I moved into the phase of being more selective with potential social activities.

I was fortunate to meet and connect with some of the most creative, courageous and smart women from all over the world. Our countries of origin spanned most of the world: Taiwan, Ukraine, Austria, Poland, the Netherlands, Dagestan, Malaysia and the U.S. And despite our differences, we now share a chapter of our lives with one another that we all consider to be one of the most special and unique. We all had our first children around the same time and weathered some of the greatest ups and downs of this new experience together.

As it often happens in the highly mobile expat communities, that chapter is now coming to a close as these women and their families follow opportunities in other countries. Although we always knew the intensity of these relationships would change as our life circumstances did, it is still sad to go our separate ways.

I often tell clients that expat moms get the short end of the stick. In moving to Switzerland, they are usually the ones that experience the most dramatic changes to their living situations and, typically, are tasked with organizing life for the kids. They are immersed in the minutiae of daily life in a foreign country and often juggle a lot of balls. Whether they stay at home or work outside of the home or something in between, expat mamas have to be tough. They enter this life without many certainties about what the future may hold and develop a thick skin that allows them to weather the daily difficulties. They learn how to advocate for their children even if it goes against the grain and how to manage the childcare shortage. Many of these mamas are tireless entrepreneurs who put themselves “into the arena” in a big way. Expat mamas take things in stride, whether it’s the inconvenient laundry room schedule, the train stations without elevators or ramps, the two-hour lunch break from school, or the Sundays where nothing- I mean NOTHING- is open. In short, to be an expat mama, you have to be comfortable with discomfort.

One of the best things an expat mama can do is develop a strong network of genuine social support. Ideally, a playgroup for mother and child-where both moms and kids can enjoy the company of those who understand their experience. I believe that while it is not necessary to have a village to raise a child, it sure is nice to have one. And expat parents are uniquely in a position to enjoy the immense diversity of cultural perspectives while connecting with other parents who share the same fundamental motivation: being the best possible parents they can be.

I do not think I would be the happy and relaxed parent I am today without the influence of my mama friends. Even though moving abroad meant starting over and forging my own way in many respects, I somehow feel like the friendships started here have been there all along. And I am confident that these relationships have left a mark that will last into the future.

(Image courtesy of artur84 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Does Mindfulness Numb our Sense of Social Responsibility?

Mindfulness to emotion helps you to respond more thoughtfully than reactively- and perhaps that means reaching out to connect
Mindfulness increases thoughtful responding to emotion- and perhaps that means reaching out to connect

There has been some interesting chatter in the media discussing the impact of mindfulness on people’s willingness to engage effectively in society. Recently, Suzanne Moore of The Guardian suggested that mindfulness is all about the self and neuters impulses that may be useful for creating positive change in the world. She implied that practicing mindfulness may minimize the distress of the practitioner but does nothing to to directly address the distressing event.

In response, mindfulness practitioner and writer Ed Halliwell suggests in his blog that this criticism of mindfulness is normal given recent increasing attention to this practice in the media, and is actually helpful in furthering a constructive conversation. He notes that practicing mindfulness does not cure society’s many and serious imperfections and that, for those looking at the practice from the outside, it can appear to be something of an “opium for the people.”

For those of us who do practice mindfulness and who bring awareness to our very personal experience of living, we know that this is quite far from the truth. In fact, opening ourselves to the emotions and thoughts and body sensations that may be present in a given moment serves to better acquaint us with distress, sadness and other emotions that usually accompany our appraisal of the difficulties of life. When we open to these emotions, we acknowledge and honor them. Even though these emotions may be painful, we invite them in. Otherwise, the temptation may be to ignore, suppress or deny these emotions because of the automatic or habitual belief that we are helpless to change them or that we will be overwhelmed by their intensity. Yet, with practice and courage, we learn to approach rather than avoid our emotional experience and to just observe what is present in our bodies as we do so.

I would argue that this process of emotional awareness, of connecting to emotion in a given moment, actually prompts more action than the alternative. As a result of recognizing what is present for us in our minds and bodies, we may choose to respond in a way that thoughtfully supports our values and the things that we believe in. The motivation to take action is not out of a desire to rid ourselves of emotion but rather to validate our experience, and to connect to meaningful action.

Here is an example. A client described being deeply affected by the death of Robin Williams. She explained that his suicide prompted her to reflect on the suicide of a close friend and that she was experiencing feelings of sadness, grief, hopelessness and anger. She told me that with mindfulness, she could open to these emotions and ride their rise and fall in response to the thoughts she was having. As a result this process, she decided to reach out to her friend’s mother. She told me that they enjoyed a coffee together and reminisced about her friend, sharing a moment of connection to both one another and to the very natural feelings they have about losing her.

My client found that this action did not minimize her own grief but it did help her to feel like she was “in the driver’s seat” of her experience and that she could do something to recognize the loss. Rather than drown in her own suffering, she created a relationship with the pain that allowed her to respond to it in a thoughtful (rather than a reactive) way. And because she was open to her emotions, she was better able to be empathic when talking with her friend’s mother. Ultimately all of these responses supported her values.

Rather than numb our sense of social responsibility and our motivation to change the injustice of the world, mindfulness highlights the feeling and thinking that make it easier to engage in value-driven action if we want to. And as Ed Halliwell points out, even if our practice does not lead us to reach out and contribute to making the world a better place, simply being able to skillfully manage the distress that naturally accompanies membership in this imperfect world is a radically transformative way of breaking the cycle of unproductive suffering.

(Image courtesy of xedos4 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

No Place to Land: The Expatriate Experience (Part 2)

Expats have developed strengths that help them to face unexpected difficulties in life
Expats have developed strengths that help them to face unexpected difficulties in life

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” –Mary Oliver, 1990 

Life stressors like divorce, health concerns, child educational issues, and caring for aging or sick parents are very difficult no matter the geographical setting. However, when these issues arise for those who are living abroad, they can seem simply insurmountable. I have found that, in general, expatriates are a hardy bunch. They usually feel ready to take on the challenges that living in a non-native country entails. Often they have experience from their childhoods traveling and experiencing different cultures and changing environments. Or they bravely fall in love with someone from a different country and open themselves to the prospect of a multicultural relationship. Sometimes the expat experience beckons to those who are looking for a fresh start and a chance to cast a new die for their lives.

In any case, those who choose this kind of life are usually prepared for the emotional challenges that characterise it. They are not surprised by days that require dealing with language challenges, reaching outside of their comfort zones, and getting lost for hours. But, throw in one or more of the major life stressors mentioned above and these “expat virtues” can be sorely tested.

A client once described to me how living abroad and dealing with a major life stressor left her feeling like she had “no place to land,” that she felt too disconnected from support in her country of origin but also not intimately acquainted enough with support in her adopted country. As a result, she struggled to carry the weight of the stressor by herself, without knowing how to direct the emotional resources she had cultivated through the challenge of living abroad in order to more effectively manage her experience.

Deciding to take the plunge and live outside of your country of origin for an extended period of time is not unlike dealing with a major life stressor. As you consider what life might be like following a major change, it is easy to get caught up in anticipation of the worst-case scenarios or doubt your abilities to manage what might arise as part of this adjustment. However, if this was where the thought process ended, than no one would live abroad. There is a point at which the thinking flips to consideration of all possibilities in a more balanced way. Regardless of how you think about an event, however, there is no certainty about how these thoughts will correlate to the future. So, there is a self-confidence and awareness of an ability to be flexible in the face of the unknown that is necessary in deciding to live abroad.

Once my client could connect to these gained skills and her own quiet strength, she felt more empowered to manage the stressor and was able to develop a plan to deal with it in a way that reflected her values. She came to believe that she could do it, even when there were days when she encountered extreme challenges to this belief. Concurrently, she created a support system that she could turn to for information and empathy. She admitted feeling surprised that increased self-reliance actually helped her to feel better able to seek support, rather than confirming her initial fear that asking others for help would make her reliant upon them. In essence, with hard work and courage, she created a safe place to land for herself.

Although it can certainly be more challenging to deal with major life stressors as an expat, it is not impossible. Those characteristics that often draw people to living life abroad can also be utilized to cope with unexpected difficulties that challenge emotional well-being. The decision to live outside of your country of origin is one that cannot be made without a great deal of courage, hope and belief in your abilities to cope with difficulty. And though we do not get to decide when and how major stressors will arise in life, the same hard-won attributes that help us manage other difficult situations/decisions can be called upon to help us through.

(Image courtesy of smarnad at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

A Heart in Two Places: The Expatriate Experience (Part I)

The expat experience can be exciting but complicated
The expat experience can be exciting but complicated

As an American, living abroad conjures images of exotic locales and adventure- experiencing sights, sounds and tastes that expand any understanding of how the world works. The expatriate experience can be a marvelous one. The infusion of adventure into everyday life can inspire and challenge. And now, as our global economy expands, more and more people from around the world are taking on the joys and difficulties that comprise expatriate life.

As fabulous as this kind of life experience can be, it is also difficult. It requires adapting to a new culture, establishing a new way of navigating every day difficulties, and managing separation from loved ones at home. Often it entails learning a new language or finding a new job. Of course, these challenges may be part of the appeal of living abroad and the sense of mastery gained by overcoming these obstacles can be very empowering. However, adjustment is a stressful process that can impact health and well-being if there is not consistent and compassionate attention to self-care.

A client recently confided to me that her experience of expat life is complicated by the guilt she feels by being far away from her family of origin. She discussed feeling like her “heart is in two places” and that as much as she feels proud to have established a life for herself in Switzerland, she finds herself feeling paralyzed about future decisions for fear that she might disappoint them.

Another client recounted his deep longing to raise his children in an environment similar to the one in which he grew up, an environment he does not feel like he can access due to his current circumstances living abroad. He reflected on the grief he feels about having to make peace with this reality and his uncertainty about how he will be a parent in a foreign country.

As with most things, the expat experience is not easy to characterize. There are so many variables that influence the adjustment to living abroad and I have found that it is an ever-evolving (almost daily!) experience, one that can feel simultaneously exhilarating and exhausting. It is not unusual to experience difficulties in managing the new challenges that arise when adjusting to living abroad but if you find that the way you are feeling interferes with your mood or with your ability to complete daily tasks (i.e., go to work, maintain hygiene, go out with friends), then it may be a good idea to consult a medical or mental health practitioner for support.  It can be frustrating to find that the life envisioned prior to moving is not the reality but that does not mean that the reality is impossible to manage or enjoy.

For many, life abroad is thrilling from the very first moment. For others, it can take time to settle in and adjust to the many changes. In any case, the courage and hard work required to take this leap into the unknown should be celebrated.

(Image courtesy of Ohmega1982 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Working with Difficulty: Mindfulness and Grief

Grief is unavoidable but how we respond to it influences its impact on us.
Grief is unavoidable but how we respond to it influences its impact on us.

“Only people who are capable of loving strongly can also suffer great sorrow, but this same necessity of loving serves to counteract their grief and heals them.”

― Leo Tolstoy

As long as we love and care about things in our lives, we open ourselves up to the possibility that these things could end. In loving people, places, pets, and circumstances, we are vulnerable to grief when they are lost or change. However, these attachments are part of what makes humanity work. We have evolved to be creatures that have the ability to form these bonds and connections, and ultimately this ability increases our chance of survival.

You might say to yourself, “Yes, yes, sure- I’ve got it. Grief is necessary. But it still sucks.”

Just like pain, grief is unavoidable. However, the way in which we choose to respond to or engage with grief can have a significant impact on the degree to which it impairs our functioning or makes us more reluctant to cultivate future attachments. Oftentimes, it is the thinking that almost automatically accompanies pain or grief that keeps the suffering alive. For instance, the idea that this suffering is intolerable, undesirable or that is it unfair. These kinds of thoughts can unintentionally kindle secondary emotional processes, like anger or anxiety. And this muddies the emotional soup of grief.

Imagine bringing mindfulness to grief. What would it be like to invite the grief in to your “guest house” and to experience it as it is- just in one particular moment? Is it possible to cut down on the clutter of thinking that surrounds that particular emotional event and to simply ride the wave of the sensations associated with grief? Perhaps your grief feels like burning in your stomach, or tension in your chest, or numbness. There is no correct way to grieve or appropriate timeframe for moving on; there is only one certainty:  the only thing you can really experience is the current moment and the myriad sensations that abound. So, why not stay with it as it is without projecting backward or forward with thinking?

Today on my commute, there was an announcement in the train station that the train would be delayed due to “an event involving a person.” In Switzerland, that is terminology used when an individual has fallen or jumped in front of a train. On the platform, you could feel the collective horror as people went silent, shifting uneasily on their feet, looking at the floor. My stomach twisted and I experienced an unusual sinking feeling that indicated to me that I was feeling grief.

In that moment on the platform, I imagined that we commuters shared a common emotional experience. And that shared humanity in the face of difficulty was a reminder that grief and our symmetric capacity to love unites us all.

(Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici / FreeDigaitalPhotos.net)

Mindfulness to Past and Future Moments

Is it possible to be mindful of moments that exist beyond this one?
Is it possible to be mindful of moments that exist beyond this one?

Mindfulness practitioners and teachers talk a lot about the present moment. And with good reason: it is the only moment in time during which we have any ability to truly engage. When we connect with this moment in time, we are honing an ability to focus more effectively on the data that is available and respond in a measured way.

That being said, I had an interesting discussion with a client the other day that caused me to think about whether it is possible to bring mindfulness to past or future moments. And then, I read this article via the always aspirational Real Simple magazine, regarding research that indicates nostalgia can boost good feelings in the present. And what about joyful anticipation of future events?  My sister is getting married next weekend and looking forward to this occasion fills my present moment with joy.

Nostalgia and anticipation are types of thinking- mental events regarding things that have happened or may happen that sift through our mind continually. Sometimes these thoughts take the form of images or judgments, or manifest in emotions or intense body sensations. In each case, however, these thoughts are a direct part of our present moment. Some practices, like metta or lovingkindness meditation, actually involve calling into mind the image or memory of a benefactor and other people that exist in our lives outside of the present moment. And when we work with difficulty in practice, we reminisce about a situation or interaction that caused us some distress, so we can work with the difficulty in the body.

All types of thinking float though our present moment and if nostalgia and anticipation are part of this stream, recognizing that is a moment of pure mindfulness. In addition, it can be interesting to explore what other aspects of our present moment experience are impacted by remembering or anticipating: maybe there is a hint of grief? Or excitement? Or a sensation of unrest in the stomach? Or maybe you experience an impulse to phone that old friend you are remembering?

So, in a nutshell, the answer is Yes! Whatever you are experiencing in this moment, including thinking of all kinds, can be observed more clearly and fully with mindfulness. So, go pull out an old family album, or even better, your high school yearbook. And then bring the focus of your attention to the experience of remembering.

(Image courtesy of Witthaya Phonsawat / FreeDigitalPhotos.net) 

Mindful Weekend: Coping Effectively with Distress

This weekend, I invite you to meet distress in a different way. We all know this feeling of distress- good old distress makes himself known in a variety of different ways, whether it be body sensations, thoughts, or emotions. It can be assured that in moments of unease or discomfort or anxiety, distress will very often be along for the ride.

To boil down its definition, distress means “suffering.” We know that pain is inevitable- we will lose loved ones, we will be disappointed, we will encounter difficulties (big and small) around every bend in life. Yet, in spite of this inevitability, suffering itself is not a given. Pain is the natural reaction of the body and the mind to a difficulty. By contrast, suffering involves our reaction to the pain: the story we tell ourselves about how long the pain will last and what it means, our assessment of our resources to deal with the pain, what we think past pain of the same degree could mean for dealing with this current pain, and on and on.

If we could peel away that layer of suffering, we could deal more directly with the pain and respond to it more effectively. But while we are defining vague psychological constructs, what does “effective” really mean?  One definition, or equation if you will, that I think is very illustrative is borrowed from Dialectical Behavior Therapy:

current reality + rules of the universe + values/goals = effectiveness  

All the variables in the above equation are important to factor in when deciding how to respond in a distressing moment. Yes, there are things that you cannot change about the situation and about how the universe works (for example, life is not fair). Even with all those realities in mind, you can bring your values front and center, ultimately choosing to move in a value-driven direction.

Here is an example. Today I found myself in the midst of a little “road rage,” wherein I thought I had the right of way and the other person thought they had the right of way. The other driver rolled his eyes, gesticulating, lowered his window and tried to convince me that he was right. I tried to prove my case (in French- yikes!) but I could see it was going nowhere and drove away. A part of me wanted to stay and try to convince the other driver that I was right. But, the value-driven part of me said, “what do you have to prove? There are more important things to do today than stay to fight a meaningless battle.” The inner core of my distress in that moment was striking fear that I was wrong, that I made a mistake. After getting home and calming down, it was clearer to me that who was right was less important than the fact that no one got hurt and I have more emotional energy for the rest of the day.

Even when distress threatens to overwhelm you, keep moving in the direction of your values
Even when distress bogs you down, you can keep moving in the direction of your values

Distress can feel like a formidable foe. He takes many shapes and forms and often it can feel like he engulfs rational thought.  But this weekend, I hope you can try to meet him in a new way. Get to know him and he will lose his power. I believe it will then be easier for you to connect to your values and to move back in the direction of the things that matter most to you in your life.

So, when you encounter a distressing moment this weekend, ask yourself: What does distress feel like? Can you notice the thoughts and body sensations that correspond with it? How are you pulled to manage distress? Is it effective?  Does it serve you and your values in the long-run? If not, is there something else you can try?

New Pathways

Even when a path already exists, you can make a new one.
Even when a path already exists, you can make a new one.

As a visual person, I use a lot of metaphors in my work. A personal favorite relates to the development of new habits, and particularly, new thought habits. Over time, we build up a certain way of thinking about a situation or ourselves or a difficulty until it becomes more or less automatic. This thinking habit becomes a well-worn, frequently-trod path through the landscape of our mind.

For instance, when faced with the prospect of making a presentation at work, some of us have developed the habit of thinking about the worst thing that could happen. Or, when receiving a stinging comment from the mother-in-law, some of us may descend automatically into self-criticism (or revenge fantasies). There are hundreds of mostly automatic thoughts zinging through our mind on a given day. It can be interesting to take a step back and slow down to see if it is possible to make a new path.

Making a new path does not mean that you can never use the old path. It just means that you are opening up options for yourself, consciously cultivating a different type of thinking (that perhaps is more rational and compassionate) that can ultimately impact how you respond to a situation. It will take time and patience to create that new path, just as it did to create that old one. But the beauty is that as a result of this new response flexibility there is greater awareness of choice and of freedom from (as Jon Kabat-Zinn puts it) “the tyranny of thinking mind”.

Change takes time but our mind is an amazingly flexible vessel for our thoughts and motivations. What kinds of new pathways would you like to create for yourself?