Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Mirror, Mirror


Maybe it's the realization that middle age has firmly and irrevocably arrived. Maybe it's the aches and pains I notice more now when I leave the gym or finish raking my yard. Maybe my son's penchant for analyzing his every body part, facial expression and hair follicle in any mirror he passes is a remjnder. Whatever the trigger, I'm aware more and more of how our perspectives on our bodies and their abilities is not a focus only of the young. While fashion magazines are criticized for their adoration of the "thigh gap", almost all human beings of every age and gender expression can fall prey to body self-loathing and body criticism. This pervasive and unhealthy habit can lead to self-doubt, a negative, distorted self-image and eventually, eating disorders. A few reminders to help keep you from falling into the negative body image trap follow:

1. Focus on what your body can DO, not what it looks like. Is your lap a favorite resting place for a toddler? Does your smile elicit a mirror grin from your beloved? Can your arms support and enfold a grieving friend? Can your legs withstand a neighborhood jaunt with your favorite furry companion? Our bodies are meant to move and feel, NOT to pose or preen.

2. Develop your own definition of health. Maybe your blood pressure is a bit high. You may need to add more fiber to your diet. You may want to develop the stamina to climb the five flights of stairs to your office without getting winded. Health is a personal standard that you can create, as are the steps to achieve it. Health is NOT a number on a scale or the size on a waistband.

3. A philosopher posited that our bodies reside INSIDE our spirits; that, in fact, the physical self is minute compared to the spiritual energy that surrounds it. This belief puts in perspective the relative power of our bodies compared to our spirits. In essence, our true energy cannot be contained in a body -- we are too immense for that!

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Baby, You Can Drive My Car (Maybe)

My left hand is killing me. No, it's not a flare up of carpal tunnel syndrome. I didn't punch a wall or accidentally slam my hand in the door jamb. My hand is aching from the hour-long DEATH GRIP I had on my car's parking brake. You see, I just finished with my son's third hour of supervised driving time since earning his driver's permit. (Only 47 more hours to go. That's 2,820 minutes I must survive inside a two-ton moving vehicle piloted by my offspring, God willing.)

I'm aware that millions of teens and their anxious parent have made it through this developmental milestone with nothing worse than a Maalox addiction. Millions more will have their turns after me. And while I recognize my experience white-knuckling the dashboard is more mundane than unique, I'm equally aware of how singularly each individual develops, acquires skills, assimilates information -- independent of those around him.

My son and his friends are learning, practicing life skills necessary for navigating their (suburban) world. Our culture, despite occasional public outcry to the contrary, has maintained for decades that adolescence is the appropriate time to learn how to operate a motor vehicle. Who am I to contest years of legal, scientific and anthropological data? Yet...I know my child. I know the pace at which he processes information, the way he thinks abut complex issues, his judgement skills. And, in this contained steel and glass "laboratory" headed down our neighborhood streets, I see the many ways my son's mind and body have yet to catch up with his chronological age. Before sitting behind the wheel, my son was "positive" he'd be a "great" driver. He was certain he'd ace his permit test. He predicted he'd be anxiety-free in rush hour traffic. Wrong. Wrong. And WRONG.

People grow in fits and starts, in sometimes unpredictable ways, and through sometimes surprising circumstances. I've learned a person can develop a deep and abiding faith in a higher power while not understanding how to make change for a dollar. I've seen how empathy for another's pain doesn't necessarily come accompanied by a grasp of the concept of natural consequences. I've heard my son belly laugh at cartoons only later to find him, weeping, as he read  "To Kill a Mockingbird." Some people display pseudo-maturity that is a byproduct of extreme intelligence or surviving trauma that can fool us into believing they comprehend realities that are truly beyond their grasps.

I can't predict how quickly or broadly my child will develop in his driving skills after the next 47 (PLUS!!) hours of practice. And I don't know if I'll decide to enforce a longer-term practice period than the law mandates. But I do know I've deepened my understanding of how mysteriously and uniquely we grow and change. There's no formula, no yardstick that fits us all. And that's ok.  a cookie-cutter world would be colorless and bland. I need to gauge my child -- and myself -- by standards that are clear-sighted and helpful to our movement forward. And maybe let my wife take over "drive time" now and then. My parking brake will thank me.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Independence Day

Holidays, days of remembrance, and anniversaries can all be springboards for a decision to change. Milestones often remind us of what we hold dear, as well as spotlight the finite time we have to create lives that reflect our truest selves. As yet another Fourth of July draws near, I reflect on the myriad freedoms we enjoy as a result of our nation's founders' foresight and wisdom. But other freedoms exist that we must create by CHOICE: freedom from fear; freedom from shame, guilt, obligation. Freedom from negative body image, from others' limited beliefs about us, from our own old, unproductive scripts. At this time of year, we embrace the celebrations that accompany Independence Day, from barbecues with friends and family, to fireworks displays, to the donning of red, white and blue garb. But we must remember that we have the opportunity EVERY DAY to leave behind messages, habits, even people that no longer serve us well. What freedom do you long for? How can you declare independence from the negative and move forward into all that is possible?

BOOKS THAT HELP: An oldie but a goodie, TRIUMPH OVER FEAR by Jerilyn Ross is both a memoir and a self-help book that details the author's debilitating struggle with--and recovery from--devastating anxiety disorders, as well as offers tools and techniques to help readers assess and manage their own anxiety responses.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014


Tammy Wynette had it right all those years ago, when she sang of the deep heartbreak, loss and sense of failure that can accompany divorce. Over the last several decades, researchers have studied marital divorce and it's impact on spouses and their children. To hear my clients and colleagues talk, most folks continue to believe that divorce is a traumatic experience for all involved, and to be avoided at almost any cost. And certainly, the costs of divorce can be excruciatingly high -- from financial hardship, to chidren's emotional struggles to maintain loyalty to two parents who dislike each other, to moving residences and setting new, painful boundaries with in-laws. Having experienced divorce myself, I know the devastating self-doubt, anxiety for my child's physical and financial future, the losses akin to a death that accompany the ending of a marriage. But, like most of life, I see divorce as more complex than a black and white, "good" or "bad" decision. Divorce can be as gray an experience as any of life's struggles. Rarely is one spouse "completely" at fault, nor is it possible to predict with accuracy how their parents' divorce will impact children in their futures. In fact, many experts purport that it is witnessing CONTINUED, UNRESOLVED CONFLICT between parents, rather than DIVORCE ITSELF, that damages children. When I am working with couples considering divorce, I find that I am most helpful when I can offer a different possibility than most of popular culture contends. In her book "The Good Divorce," Constance Ahrons suggests considering divorce as more of a developmental stage than as a certain trauma. If more than half of us will experience the end of a marriage, couldn't it be helpful to frame that event as a more neutral, developmental experience, one in which we can grow, evolve and deepen our awareness, as surely as we can become wounded, scarred or frightened? Most milestones in life can go in different directions -- for some, puberty is a time of self-discovery and competence-building. For others, adolescence is a field of land mines, filled with the risks of acting out, drug experimentation, negative body image issues. Moving from high school to college can be a time of excitement and stretching, or it can highlight an individual's lack of readiness for independence. Similarly, divorce does not mandate that we label ourselves as failures or that we wait for our children to inevitably choose poorly in their own choice of mates. How could divorce, and the potential healing and growth that can develop post-divorce, be experienced differently if we but incrementally shifted our expectations? Is it possible to consider the end of a marriage as yet another life marker, one which can be crafted into a source of growth and enlightenment, as much as a source of grief and angst? Could we allow ourselves, and the majority who make up divorced folks, to shed the shame long associated with divorce and instead look ahead with hope and esteem? The future is not etched in stone; perhaps we can lighten our load by breaking down the "burden" of divorce into stepping stones that can lead us forward.

Next time: is it possible to use divorce as a POSITIVE step in our spiritual evolution?

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Giving Up the Paper Chase

Report cards arrived in the mail today. And while my son's final grades were acceptable according to our family's standards, I couldn't avoid focusing on the "D" and "F" he received on two final exams. Those letters seemed to vibrate on the page, and my son was (momentarily) frustrated that his efforts to prepare for those challenging academic tests were not reflected in his exam grades. But both my son and I know that school has never been his passion, and attempts at tutoring and other behavioral changes have had minimal impact on his grades over the years.

My son attends a respected high school that launches almost all of its students on to further education after graduation. My son harbors the same hopes for himself, though he plans to attend a fine arts college rather than a traditional university. Even so, I struggle with the question of whether I should push him harder to improve his grades. These moments cause me to pause and examine my definitions of success. I want my son to have all the opportunities to express himself, to grow and explore, to succeed in his passions. I want him to develop into a contributing member of society; to become a considerate, caring and responsible adult. But I also hope to not be housing him in my basement when he is 30. Being able to support himself is an integral part of growing into adulthood. And, in our community, the media, and among his peers, college seems to be the undisputed path toward independence and success. But how do we define success? Is it defined by a paycheck, a stock portfolio, or the number of letters after one's name? Is success equated with socioeconomic status, peer esteem, notoriety in one's field? Am I naive to encourage my child to pursue happiness, creativity, spiritual and emotional fulfillment at the cost of being "hire-able"? With our country's skyrocketing health costs, should I remind my child that a job that provides insurance benefits and a savings plan is as vital to his well-being as creative fulfillment? I find myself stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place. My wife and I make enough money to live in a decent neighborhood, vacation occasionally, and make our bill payments on time. We both are lucky enough to have jobs we enjoy. Are those realities a hallmark of success? Have we ourselves bought into the cultural mindset that happiness is found in security, a high credit score and a regular paycheck? I don't have a clue. We all want the best for our children. We want them to have an easier life, a more supported start, than many of us have had. We hope for them that they find purpose and meaning, and that those things come to them through healthy relationships and work that reflects their talents and spirits. Academic success and further education is one path with a likelihood to those ends. But for my son's sake, and those of other creative, dreamy souls, I hope there are others. For now, I post his report card on the fridge, next to his application to the student film competition and under his end-of-year show choir picture. By the beginning of school in the fall, the grade report will have wedged itself under the neighboring stove, or be torn in half to be used for a shopping list. Maybe, by then, I will know how to guide him toward the surest path to success. More likely? I will join him in learning all the songs for "West Side Story." Those Jets know how to dance!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Resisting Resignation

I was shocked and saddened by my reaction to news of yet another school shooting. Before outrage, grief or compassion for those who lost their lives or someone they loved, I felt a moment of hopeless, powerless RESIGNATION. When did I become anything less than hysterical about the senseless loss of human lives? When did I stop feeling terrified at the thought that random violence could, indeed, erupt anywhere, anytime? When did my empathy for the victims of violence get preempted by a fear that we may be losing the fight to treat some of the most damaged, most dangerous members of our society? Regardless of one's position on the gun control debate, most people would agree that using weapons to vent our anger or wreak vengeance for society's slights against us is an extreme response born of hopelessness, rage and mental illness. As mental health providers, we often sit with people as they experience the range of human emotions, some of them incredibly painful or scary or toxic. We teach our clients tools to use to cope with overwhelming feelings, challenging situations and dysfunctional relationships. But like Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the mountain, we invariably see some of our suggestions pushed aside, or discover a client who we thought was capable of certain growth is unable to move beyond a certain spot. Usually, we take these realities in stride; we know that growth and change can have their own timetables, and that each client has the right and responsibility to choose a life path, free from our preferences or values. But when mental illness causes the death of an innocent person, or even the suicide of a violent offender, we are left with more questions than answers. Could we have done more? Was this violence predictable? Is the fix in stronger laws and punishments or in prevention efforts? These complicated realities don't fit neatly onto any one path or rhetoric or politics. They certainly will not be eradicated by the passage of a law or the emergence of a new drug on the marketplace. But what I do know for sure is that we cannot grow complacent, we can't pass off these tragedies as the new "reality" of living in an age abounding with technology, violent video games or permissive parenting. We must be willing to continue the dialogue about how to best help people with severe mental illness. We need to make it easier, cheaper and less stigmatizing to seek out help when we are troubled. We must invest more in research and testing to determine why some people choose violence and how to mitigate the vulnerabilities to these choices. We must never lose our outrage, our belief in our world's right to live peacefully and without fear, our compassion for those who struggle, are hurting, who want to give up.I know it is I. The moments when I feel most powerless, most unable to imagine something different for my world, that I must summon Thr strength to resist resignation. Be the change you would like to see in the world, Gandhi said. For me,mthat means touching my grief, feeling my sadness and anger, choosing not to dehumanize a suffering soul who makes a horrible choice. It may be a minute step, it may not create more than a ripple in the Universes energy field, but it is a choice I CAN make. And in choosing, I move from the shadow of powerlessness into the light of my own power.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Love Thyself as Thy Neighbor


"I do not trust people who don't love themselves and yet tell me 'I love you.' There is an African saying which is: Be careful when a naked person offers you a shirt." Our practice manager posted this quote from Maya Angelou in our lobby, and I find myself ruminating on it whenever I pass by the iron frame in which it's held. While loving others seems as natural and essential to us as breathing, I find many people struggle with the practice of loving themselves. I hear folks say they feel self-centered if they treat themselves lovingly, or they worry they will miss signals that their families or friends are in need of nurturing, if their focus is on the self. I try to teach my clients the difference between "selfIST" (i.e., my needs/desires/feelings are AS IMPORTANT as others' needs/desires/feelings) and "selfISH" (I.e., my needs/desires/feelings are MORE IMPORTANT than others'). In the former viewpoint, we strive to honor both realities; in the latter we diminish or dismiss what's valuable to the other in favor of what we want. Similarly, many therapists use the "oxygen mask" analogy to reinforce the importance of self-care. On plane trips, the flight attendants instruct us to put on our OWN mask first, before aiding children or elderly people around us. The logic is that we will be of no use to anyone else if we are not at full functioning. Undoubtedly, there are other reasons why people lack self-love: shame issues that lead us to believe we are broken or unworthy, lack of positive modeling of self-compassion. Regardless of the reason, self-love remains key to our own healing and growth. Without this positive self-regard, a true communion with others, our world, and the Divine is built on shaky ground. How can we believe fully in someone's love for us if we doubt our own lovablity? How can we accept the gifts of adoration from our significant others if we fear we may not completely deserve it? Self-love is not narcissistic or egocentric, it simply recognizes that, like all beings, we are worthy and valuable simply because we ARE. Self-love is essential to accepting that we are made of the same stuff as the stars in the heavens. When we glance up at the night sky, in gratitude and wonder for the awesomeness of the Universe and it's creations, we might want to send up some thanks for our unique, lovable selves.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Let It Go

"It's over." "We're done." "I love you, but I'm not IN LOVE with you." These phrases have ended countless relationships, and in my counseling office, I regularly see couples who are on the brink of uttering those words. Often people regard therapy as a last-ditch effort to save their marriage. And it can be. But just as possible is the chance that therapy will illuminate what is deeply broken in a relationship, wounds and ruptures that may or not be repairable.

The general public may regard counselors as professionals in the business of saving relationships. I've encountered plenty of clinicians that also opine that their responsibility to couples is to help as many as possible avoid the trauma of divorce. But, in my experience, not every relationship can be mended, and perhaps some shouldn't be. Now, let me be clear: I NEVER make the decision for my clients to end or continue a relationship. I don't even offer an opinion about their direction in therapy. Clients' choices reside solely in the realm of accountability of the client. But that reality doesn't change my belief that sometimes, people choose to stay together even when they are continuing to harm one another, or even their children. Couples make the choice to separate or stay united for as many reasons as there are marriages that exist. And heated debates have raged for decades about whether divorce is an irreparable wound, especially for kids whose parents split up. But what about these fractious couples who continue to engage in destructive dynamics despite many rounds of therapy, with multiple counselors? Why do they stay?

I don't give credence to the "easy" answers I sometimes hear -- religious beliefs prohibitting divorce, financial constraints, couples being "addicted" to their painful mode of relating. Often, I think it comes down to our lack of comfort with letting go. Letting go of people, of dreams, of circumstances being what they "should" be, according to our well-laid plans. As a culture, we lack good modeling for letting go. The Anerican ethic often supports the opposite ideal -- pushing harder against any obstacle until, with enough pressure exerted, the individual is successful in her effort to overcome. We don't teach people the invaluable skill of grieving, despite the guarantee that loss will be a regular visitor in each of our lives. We champion achievement and accomplishment, and look down on those who "give up" or stop "trying." Perhaps we would do better to learn from the lessons of our Eastern cousins, who maintain that ALL suffering is a result of "clinging", of being unwilling to let go and release ourselves, others, our expectations or our beliefs. The more we hold on, the longer and more intensely we wed ourselves to suffering. Buddhists know that relief and freedom come with letting go. We are able to move in new ways, see from different vantage points, when we stop tethering ourselves to one specific value, behavior or person. I won't claim that letting go is easy. It can be terrifying, painful and sad to let go. But it can also be the only way to embrace our truth. Unfortunatley, we can't easily predict the correct timing to release our grasp, nor can we immediately know which ropes to let go and which to hold fast. Those insights can only be found within, in a fearless plumbing of the depths of our beliefs, feelings and values -- a courageous endeavor to say the least. I wouldn't wish for anyone the pain, confusion and grief that accompanies divorce. And certainly, a life changing event like ending a marriage demands a broad and thorough effort at maintaining the union before moving toward rupture. I'm simply suggesting that letting go can be a loving, affirming and respectful choice when all that lies before us is more suffering.

BOOKS THAT HELP: My favorite author on letting go, as well as practical ways to apply Buddhist principles to everyday Western life, is Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun. Her no-nonsense, clear prose in books like "When Things Fall Apart:Heart Advice for Difficult Times" and "Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living" elucidate how to let go and develop a deeper sense of peace and purpose in our lives.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Bring Me a Higher Love

Folks familiar with Twelve-Step Programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and Overeaters Anonymous are well-versed with the concept and importance of a Higher Power. In recovery, people understand the crucial need for a strong and committed relationship with their Higher Power to sustain and support their efforts at abstinence and learning to live and relate to the world in a healthy, balanced way.

Often, one's Higher Power is conceptualized as God, the Holy Spirit, or the Creator. But, as many folks in recovery know, our Higher Power can take any form or name. And we don't need to attend AA or practice organized religion to benefit from this nurturing relationship. Nature, for example, is an accessible and common Higher Power that fuels people with a sense of renewal, constancy, and examples of wonder and evolution. A group that comes together for a common purpose, such as a congregation, a family or a clan of long-time friends, can be a Higher Power that reminds us of the strength of connection, that we are more powerful together than we are alone. An ideal, like Love, Honesty, or Serving Others, can inspire us to strive to be our best selves in our movement through the world.

More important than the form one's Higher Power takes is it's function in providing us with the knowledge that we don't have to rely solely on ourselves for strength, guidance, wisdom to know the next right step forward. A Higher Power eases the loneliness and fear that can accompany being human; it provides a resting place for our pain and struggle when we can no longer bear our burdens. The road of life is a twisting, surprising and--hopefully--long journey to navigate. A Higher Power can be a constant, committed companion that helps us see the potholes in our path, picks us up when we fall, and whispers "You can do it!" in our ears when we are afraid to turn a corner. And this travel partner is always packed and ready to go, whether we know our ultimate destination or we are careening around in the dark. Like a fail proof GPS, our Higher Power will show us the path to our most authentic and fulfilling lives. We just have to be willing to plug in.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

THAT Moment in Time

Recall a favorite memory, a moment in time that you wish you could relive again in exactly the same way. Maybe it was the birth of your child, or your first step down the wedding aisle. Perhaps it was hearing your beloved say "I love you," or the last time you embraced a treasured friend before she passed away. Revel in the details of that moment: the smells, textures, sights and sounds of that experience. Get swept away in the beauty, the grace or the poignant sweetness of that moment. Now, consider this question: what if THIS moment was THAT MOMENT, now? What if right this instant is a moment that, at some future point, you will look back and want to experience fully in every way possible?

That query shakes our perspective by asking us to recognize that EVERY moment could be THAT precious moment -- that first time, that last time, that best time. Each moment has the potential to be so cataclysmically staggering that it marks us forever. Each experience could be the catapult into enlightenment, intense joy or sorrow, the knowing of our spirit. We often think of those moments as either fond memories or hopeful anticipations of the future. But each second of our existence is an opportunity to create an indelible experience, one ripe with wonder, or awe, rage or passion. The doorway to that realness is awareness. Just as we imagined that long-ago special time, complete with recalling the color of our dress, the softness of our lover's kiss, or the sweet fragrance of our baby's skin, we can today notice, with all our senses and feelings, what this moment holds. For this moment, RIGHT NOW, will never come again. What must we do to remember that every moment is precious, every instance of life is a memory worth revisiting? What could you do, NOW, to make this moment THAT moment?

Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Silent Treatment

Silence. Quiet. Calm. Those words are a distant memory to most busy adults I know, whose days are a blur of work meetings, waiting in the school pick-up lane, chores at home and, if they're lucky, a few precious, uninterrupted moments spent with friends and loved ones. Many of us report not finding a space of quiet in our daily lives for more than a second or two before we are pulled back to what we believe (or are told) are our pressing obligations and innate responsibilities as parents, workers, partners.

 I didn't realize how long I'd lived without quiet until a recent surprise hospital stay. Now, I wouldn't recommend a bowel obstruction as a regularly-scheduled interruption to your daily life, but four days on my back, hooked up to a nasal gastric tube, IV pump and painkillers, was a forced hiatus from my constantly growing list of "to-do's." What I discovered, once the initial pain of my condition had been eased by my treatment, was that I was prevented from "doing" much of anything, other than laying in the hospital bed, flipping through television channels and trying to get myself and my IV pole to and from the bathroom without becoming entangled in plastic tubing. It wasn't long before the usual chatter in my head started to fade to a faint background murmur. Sure, I could have spent my mental energy worrying about my condition, catastrophizing about possible treatment options or scrolling through work tasks that were being left undone. But, despite my usual anxious personality, I found that my mind fell into a kind of silence I don't ever recall experiencing. Maube it was knowing that I couldn't accomplish any life tasks from a hospital room, or that I knew my spouse and child were banking the home fires just fine (with the help of neighborhood take out, of course.) Maybe it was the "permission" of the hospital staff to get as much rest as possible and focus on my SELF only, rather than all my usual life tasks. Whatever the reason, I found myself, for the first time in my adult life, with NOTHING TO THINK ABOUT. Foreign, indeed.

I've long been a devotee of meditation, and I did spend a bit of time meditating on mantras of wellness and renewal. But I kept finding myself drawn to observing the silent space within me. What a unique experience to feel my brain nearly "empty" of chatter, judgement, list-making and dialogues that make up my internal world. Like viewing a serene landscape, residing in the quiet of my mind brought me a sense of calm and hopefulness that I hadn't known I'd been missing. In that space of emptiness, I sensed an expansiveness and lightness that brought with it peace and gratitude. I told my best friend that the sensation was like hearing the wind whistle through my body. Two weeks post-hospitalization, my mind has reverted to its "normal" pace and the lists and self-talk and internal noise are just a few decibels below deafening. Clearly, I have work to do to get back to that restorative space of quiet. But knowing that it's possible to dial down my brain, to live for a few moments in a void from all noise and clatter, is a revelation I will strive to replicate as often as I can. I know now that peace and ease -- and wisdom -- dwell there.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

(Mis)Adventures in Nature

We couldn't be sure what was twisted in a "figure 8" in the middle of that Carolina dirt road. Was it a torn and rotting piece of rubber? Was it a strip of fabric that had blown into the path of our rental car? Was it . . . A SNAKE?!? My eagle-eyed wife spotted it first, as we retreated down the dusty driveway of the winery we had just visited. When my admittedly wine-glazed gaze finally settled on the quiet mound, I nearly shrieked in delight. A REAL SNAKE, out in THE WILD!

 Here was my chance to commune with nature, to observe a majestic, colorful slithering invertebrate in its natural habitat, slinking from the knee-high grass, into the rutted, dry dirt of the winery drive, possibly headed toward the murky creek on the other side of the road. Before I knew it, my excitement propelled me out of the idling car. Look! There it is! A REAL LIVE SNAKE, uncoiling before me as a I approached. "It's BEAUTIFUL!" I called out over my shoulder to my wife, who was tapping out an SOS on the car's horn. Ignoring her calls to return to the car (to be honest, she used some colorful adjectives in her request) I couldn't help but gape at the gracefulness of this creature as it raised its kite-shaped head at my approach. I took in the complex pattern of chocolate brown and coral orange that marked its skin, noting the undulations that shifted it's appearance as it moved toward me. My sentimental nature was enhanced by the several glasses of wine I had enjoyed at the winery's tasting table. I crouched down, my face mere feet from the cold-blooded creature. "You're such a PRETTY snake! aren't you? Aren't you a PRETTY SNAKE!" At that moment, my new friend seemed to levitate, the upper third of his ropy body rising vertically as if pulled from above. I'm not sure if it was the snake's hiss or my wife's hysterical screeching from the safety of the car, but I toppled backward just as the snake lunged in my direction. Somehow I managed to coordinate my limbs enough to scramble crab-like away from the snake's immediate vicinity and catapulted myself toward the car door that my wife had thrown open. Once we were assured that I had suffered no more than a dust-covered behind from my adventure, we proceeded to take pictures of the snake from the safety of our rental. We were surprised to hear from locals who viewed our photos that my snake friend was a copperhead, a venomous variety common to the region.

I was shocked and embarrassed to admit that the possibility of getting bitten had never entered my mind: I'd been too excited to see such a gorgeous specimen up close. Once I had spent more time reflecting on the experience, though, I realized that I am often taken in by the glittery, the pretty and flamboyantly unique. I am easily seduced by pleasant packaging and dramatic flair. My run-in with the copperhead was a reminder that beauty can belie a genuine threat, and that the enticement of the rare and unique can also be an invitation to pain and fear. I will never lose my appreciation of nature and it's wonders, but perhaps I will now consider as well that just because something is pretty, doesn't mean I have to invite it into my life. Some wonders are best viewed from a secure distance. And definitely best enjoyed fully sober.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Seeing Through New Eyes: EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) Therapy

Traumatic events can create debilitating emotions, thoughts and beliefs that can cause a sensation of being "frozen in time." Sometimes, survivors feel they are doomed to emotionally re-live traumatic experiences. Specialized therapies, like Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy, work with the brain's functions to allow the individual to resume normal functioning without the sense of "re-living" the event. Memories of the event still exist, but the client experiences them as less upsetting. In EMDR, the therapist induces a pattern of rapid directional eye movements by waving one or two fingers in front of the client's eyes. The client is gently guided to simply turn his awareness to what is coming up without trying to control the content. Simultaneously, the client processes the information until it is less and less disturbing. Over time, the disturbing memory and it's associated feelings, beliefs and sensory material can be worked through until the memory is associated with a positive belief about the self. While the effectiveness of EMDR has been replicated many times in clinical studies, it's exact mechanisms that produce such positive outcomes are still unknown. Theorists suggest that the use of rapid eye movements relieves the anxiety survivors associate with a traumatic event, allowing the individual to examine the experience from a more detached perspective, similar to watching a movie of what happened.

Arbor Counseling Center's staff has experience providing this effective therapy. Clinicians in various offices have completed both Level I and Level II training in EMDR and are available to help clients utilize this healing therapy. If you have questions about EMDR or would like to schedule an appointment with one of our clinicians, email our office managers or call (847)913-0393 x101.

Arbor Counseling Center is offering a professional education workshop on EMDR on Thursday, April 24, 2014, from 10 am to 12 pm. The cost is $50, and 2 hours of continuing education credits are available. Scott Stolarick, LCPC, a therapist in our Gurnee office, will lead the workshop, entitled "The Basics of EMDR." Scott has practiced EMDR for many years, and is a seasoned counselor with experience working with a wide variety of populations and treatment settings. Any clinician interested in registering for this workshop can do so by emailing or calling Shawna Lorenz at 847-913-0393 x128. The workshop will be held at Village Bar and Grill, 48 Raupp Rd., Buffalo Grove, IL 60089.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Gaining and Growing from Group Therapy

Group therapy can be a dynamic, productive adjunct to individual, couples or family therapy modalities. Group therapy can provide clients with the benefits of multiple perspectives, empathic support and the ability to practice relationship and conflict-management skills. Groups can provide an arena in which clients can re-enact, and thus repair, troublesome relationship patterns. Clients report finding the support and empathy offered by their cohorts in group to be a powerful source of healing. Clients who have difficulty trusting others can be challenged to practice boundary setting, emotional expression and appropriate testing of others. Groups generally fall into three categories.

PROCESSING GROUPS: These groups provide opportunities for members to gain insight, to develop healthy relationship skills, and obtain support and validation from others. Processing groups are generally led by a clinician, who helps to facilitate discussion, keep the treatment space safe, and guide the group when challenges arise. Groups may focus on a shared diagnosis (i.e., depression, trauma recovery, divorce recovery) or may be open to clients who are looking for an experience of safe sharing and support that can include a range of life topics, developmental issues and a focus on personal growth. These groups may meet for a set amount of weeks, or may be ongoing for as long as members wish to attend.

PSYCHOEDUCATIONAL GROUPS: These groups include a didactic, "teaching" format in which the clinician provides information and education to clients about a specific skill set. For example, dialectic behavioral therapy (DBT) offers members skills to regulate emotions, tolerate distress and learn to relate to others in healthier ways. In our practice, we have used bibliotherapy in a group setting, utilizing a book about growing up with an emotionally unhealthy mother to organize members around a common theme, provide skills and insights about how that experience impacted them, and to teach clients about resiliency, forgiveness and rebuilding. I've worked in groups of legally-involved young people to teach anger management skills. Psychoeducational groups may or may not include time for processing, sharing and relationship-building among members. These groups tend to be time-limited to the length of the course curriculum.

SUPPORT GROUPS: Twelve-Step groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, Al-Anon and Narcotics Anonymous may be some of the most well-known types of support groups. In these groups, members generally convene around a shared topic or concern (bereavement, addiction, a family member with mental illness) for purposes of gaining support, reducing isolation and learning effective methods of coping with their situation. Some support groups, like AA, are member-led and operate on an agreement of confidentiality for its members. Others, such as groups for family members of someone struggling with mental illness, may include a professional facilitator. Support groups are often free to attend and can be ongoing.

If you or your counselor think a group experience could provide you with unique insights or kick-start the pace of your treatment, seriously consider the benefits of group therapy. The Internet has listings of supportive, psychoeducational and process-oriented groups in your area. Just as trying a new exercise regimen can work out muscles that may have been missed by previous physical activity, group therapy can offer a new depth and breadth to your growth and healing.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Walking in the Garden of Grief

Loss is universal to human experience. We cannot live our days without saying "good-bye" to something, whether it be a person, an experience, a stage of life, or a feeling. And loss doesn't necessarily become easier to manage as we move through the lifespan. I've witnessed unbearable grief with a client mourning the loss of her 90-year-old father, who had lived a long and vibrant life. She reported that his advanced age only provided her with more joyous moments to miss, more time shared that she had to release to the past. I've cried with young children who have lost a pet, been uprooted by a move across country, and been forever changed by the death of a parent. Loss of jobs, family homes, precious mementos in a flood -- grief and letting go are practices we may try to avoid, but will find us wherever we hide.

Bidding farewell to one we have loved threatens to crush the life out of our barely-beating heart. Acknowledging a life dream that has died is as real a death as any other. In our modern culture, we have few models for effective grieving. While religious rituals may be helpful, often clients report the day-to-day living with their losses continues to be a struggle long after the loss is first experienced. And recent research suggests that grieving doesn't follow any formulaic process, as we once believed. Everyone experiences loss a bit differently, in different stages and directions, for vastly different periods of time. Time MAY help to ease the exquisite ache of a loss; for some, however, grief is the background for the rest of their days. Like the saying goes, "We won't make it out of here alive," nor will our journey through life be unmarked by loss, grief and sadness. But in our grieving is the imprint of our love for that departed soul, our joy for that stage of life, our pride in our accomplishments in that profession. Our grief mirrors our investment in living, a testament that proclaims "I was here. I loved, I created, I cared. I lived." A worthy epitaph, indeed.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Come to the Dark Side, Luke

In the modern era, psychologist Carl Jung popularized the concept that all human beings harbor "shadow selves", parts of ourselves that contain impulses, thoughts, actions and emotions that we label as "bad," destructive, unsavory, even humiliating. Archetypal psychologists reference sources from our Greek mythology to our cultural unconscious to highlight ways our "dark sides" inform our lives and the lenses through which we see the world. Most of us, though, are, at best, embarrassed of these shadowy selves and, at worst, terrified of what they mean about who we are. Even in the therapy room, both client and counselor focus on helping the client leave behind pathology, pain and bad habits. We encourage forward movement, an embracing of health, positive choices and productive insight. But much can be learned by studying, even welcoming, our shadows and the rich material that accompanies their energy.

What would summer be without winter as its counterpoint? How would we understand love and compassion without knowing callousness, fear and hatred? What we call "darkness" is a part of the continuum of human experience, and those shadows have as much to teach us as the lighter spots marked with joy, peace and freedom. Jealousy, for example, is a soul-cringing, corrosive feeling, a poison that curdles our stomachs all the while it is churning our hearts and minds into terrifying fantasies. And yet jealousy's presence also indicates a desire to be connected to another, to be known and safe and important to our beloved, the craving for consistency and certainty in our affairs of the heart. Certainly, we know there are no guarantees in life, much less relationships. But stopping to consider what these gut-grabbing emotions signal to us can bring us to a deeper ability to experience our humanness. It's our nature to avoid pain: touching a hot stove ONCE is enough for most of us, thank you. But perhaps not fleeing in the opposite direction every time we feel pain, shame, co-dependence or rage may be our best medicine. Accepting, even daring to embrace, the darkness within us brings us wisdom of a kind we can uncover in no other way. Our darkness will never fade. Better we learn, grow and deepen from it than continue to curse it. By acknowledging our shadows, we stretch ourselves to our true expanse -- an amazing greatness graced by the poles of emotion and experience, and the knowledge of ALL that it means to be human.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Shelving the "Shoulds"

Part of therapy is setting goals, helping clients clarify where they are heading and how to get there. So often, I hear clients recite a litany of behaviors, choices, attitudes and feelings they think they, or others, "should" be demonstrating or following. "I should work out more." "My spouse should appreciate me." "My boss should give me a raise." "I should be more patient with my kids." "I should be kinder, wiser, more flexible, less judgemental, more responsible, less fearful....." The lists of ways folks think they "should" be different can appear endless. But I remind clients that I have never met a "should" that's been helpful.

By design, "should" brings with it guilt and obligation, a reminder of the ways we have failed or fallen short. "Should" does not include the element of choice, of free will. Now, I ask clients, try replacing the word "should" with "could". The energy of these statements, and our feelings about them and ourselves, transforms dramatically. "I COULD work out more" embraces the possibility of a course of action -- it doesn't castigate me for not choosing that action. "My spouse could appreciate me" allows for the hope that gratitude for our part in the relationship can develop, rather than disparaging our spouse for behaviors he or she is NOT doing. The truth is, there are no universal "shoulds," no absolute rules about what an individual MUST do, feel or choose in order to be happy, healthy or at peace. When we put aside the judging, limiting tone of "should", we allow room for empowered choice and owned responsibility. Try it. You COULD find yourself feeling freer as a result.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Reefer Madness

Has marijuana gone mainstream? With the states of Colorado and Washington legalizing the use and sale of marijuana, and 20 other states allowing the use of "medical marijuana" to treat certain illnesses, it may appear that marijuana use is losing its image as a health risk and morphing into an accepted social habit, similar to drinking alcohol. But regardless of your position in the "pro" or "con" camp of legalizing this substance, a recent study about marijuana use among young people contains sobering facts to consider.

Marijuana: The "Safe" Drug?

A report from the National Institutes of Health indicates that marijuana use has increased among middle schoolers. One reason for this upward shift is that, historically, when the perceived risks associated with a drug go down, use of the drug goes up. With the national debate over legalizing marijuana and the arguments for use of medical marijuana to treat and combat certain illnesses and symptoms, young people may be inferring that marijuana is a "safe" drug. And while alcohol remains the most-used drug among the teen population, the study reports that more youth smoke marijuana than cigarettes. Studies suggest that neurological effects on adults may be far less pervasive than on young people. Marijuana use has been proven to affect brain development. We know that human brains continue to develop well into one's mid- to late-twenties. Negative effects on thinking and memory that young people experience from marijuana use may be long-lasting, even permanent. And the impact on coordination, judgment, and decision making--crucial skills for operating a motor vehicle--may make teenagers even more vulnerable to car accidents and DUI arrests. Research does support the value of marijuana in easing symptoms from chemotherapy and chronic pain, to mention but a few areas of its application as a medicine. But marijuana's move into our culture's mainstream might create health and safety consequneces for our youth that are anything but "normal."

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Shrinking Violets -- Is It Shyness or Social Anxiety Disorder?

Most of us experience butterflies in our stomachs before giving an important speech. We may feel jittery and anxious prior to a job interview. But for individuals suffering from social anxiety disorder, social situations of almost any kind can invoke terror, intense physical symptoms and a constriction of their daily activities. Specifically, social anxiety is "an excessive and persistent fear of social or performance situations." People with social anxiety dread situations that include other people, like dating, being called on in class, meeting new people, or having to talk in public. Some folks avoid using public bathrooms, ordering food from a restaurant, even talking to a customer service representative on the phone. Sufferers of social anxiety may experience physical symptoms like blushing, sweating, shaking or trembling, muscle tension, pounding heart, and dry mouth. Because of their fears, people with social anxiety may isolate or avoid situations that may require them to interact with others. They may experience a decrease in their self esteem due to judging their reactions or feeling "flawed" for not being able to accomplish life tasks that others seem to do easily.

Treatment Options for Social Anxiety Disorder

The third most common psychiatric condition in the United States, social anxiety disorder occurs in 1 out of 8 adults. Both children and adults can struggle with social anxiety, and sufferers are equally distributed between men and women. The good news is that treatment is available and clinically proven to be successful. Data supports that a combination of medications and talk therapy provide the best treatment outcome for people with social anxiety disorder. Counseling that includes cognitive-behavioral therapy and social skills training have been proven especially helpful. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) helps individuals understand and change thoughts and behaviors that contribute to their anxiety. Social skills training gives people the opportunity to learn and practice responses and skills they will need in social situations within the safety of the therapy room. If your anxiety or worry about social interactions is limiting your life or negatively impacting your daily activities or self-perception, talk with your doctor or get a referral to a counselor. Everyone deserves to fully engage in life and to reap the benefits of relationships, work and social interactions without the burden of anxiety and worry. Treatment can pull back the curtain of social anxiety and allow individuals to step onto the stage of life with more confidence.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Psychology in Action

Albert Camus believed that psychology is ACTION, that we cannot know ourselves simply by thinking about who we are, we must ACT. And yet owning our power and behaving from its seat within us is a daunting task for many people.

Assert Yourself
Assertiveness can be (falsely) portrayed as selfishness, power-mongering, or dictating. In reality, assertiveness claims our power, our needs, our feelings to be of EQUAL IMPORTANCE to those of others. Not more, not less. Assertivness asks us to consider the gift of ourselves to the world to be as precious as that of all other souls. Assertivness requires us to operate from a space of self-respect and -responsibility. Assertivness does not trample on the rights of others, it acknowledges those rights with the same gravity as it recognizes our own. Aggressivenss dominates; assertiveness respects. Every individual deserves the validity of their own feelings, thoughts, needs and actions. By asserting ourselves, we put our value on par with others -- we ACT from a belief of equality and fairness. Respecting our own needs models the innate charge each human has to respect others. Another famous writer touted "Treat others as you would like to be treated." Assertivness suggests that we treat OURSELVES with the regard we so easily show to others. Acting from a place of personal power and worth doesn't damage relationships, it creates balance and equity, a true respect and valuing of our similarities AND our differences.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Learning to Lean

Human beings are wired to avoid pain. Touch a hot stove once, and we steer clear next time the burner is lit. Get rebuffed by a loved one when we make a request, and we may hesitate to ask the next time. Similarly, we humans pursue pleasure. Remember the advertising catch phrase for potato chips -- "Nobody can eat just one"? Some foods, like chocolate and salty snacks, entice us to have bite after bite. And biologists maintain that sexual pleasure is an evolutionary response to ensure the propagation of our species. But we may have the logic all wrong, or at the very least, we are looking at pleasure and pain through a black and white lens.

The Lessons in Our Experiences 
Most of us can agree that the world resides largely in the "gray area" -- very little in our experience is absolutely wrong or always right. Yet, we continue to avoid pain at any cost, assuming that it's presence signals imminent harm to our physical or psychic selves and we are best served giving all painful stimuli a wide berth. If we truly embrace the "gray", however, we see that pain, discomfort and distress have something to teach us. For example, if conflict with my son's dad makes me nervous, I am likely to avoid bringing up contentious topics. But if I adopt the view that my anxiety is a lesson of some sort, if I slow down and LEAN INTO the fear rather than away from it, I may discover key insights about myself. Sitting with my discomfort, I may remember events from childhood that taught me not to upset others. I may understand that it isn't conflict that I fear, but the possibility of losing the fight. Perhaps my anxiety is a reminder that I need to build up my "muscles" of assertiveness and self-value. Avoiding what pains me might rob me of a deeper understanding of the spectrum of human behavior and feelings. I'm not suggesting we look for opportunities to shame, hurt or harm ourselves. But perhaps the next time we feel depressed, lonely, angry or hurt, we can pause before fleeing away from those emotions. We can ask ourselves to be open to the guidance and revelations those feelings have to share. Learning to lean into our distress helps us grow in compassion and understanding of the joys and sorrows of our fellow beings. From our vantage point within the "gray", we can see the rainbow prism of real life, it's darks and brights, it's ethereal and it's mundane. Let's lean forward, together.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Emotional Fitness: A Necessity for Wellness

Joining a gym. CHECK. Eating healthier. CHECK. Quitting smoking. CHECK. Taking a daily multivitamin. CHECK. We easily, even casually, commit to self-care habits like these time and time again, knowing that the most effective path to good health is a proactive, preventive approach to wellness. We will follow our doctor's orders to take cholesterol-lowering medications, or our personal trainer's suggestion to try out novel, challenging exercises. But rarely do I encounter folks who consider counseling as an essential part of their overall healthcare regimen.

Re-Thinking the Purpose of Therapy
Why is that? Therapy may still carry a stigma, the message that we are "crazy" or "sick" if we see a counselor. People may consider that mental or emotional pain is "just a part of life" and something we can't avoid or influence. I've heard clients name the expense, the time that would be taken out of their busy schedules, and the belief that therapy isn't "necessary" as some reasons why they don't pursue counseling. Most people seem to seek out help after a life crisis, a traumatic event, or a debilitating experience of anxiety or depression hampers their functioning. But most of us don't wait for a heart attack to spur us onto a treadmill. We've internalized the knowledge that exercise, healthy foods and preventive physical care can enhance our well-being and even lengthen our lives. While emotional suffering may not be as visible as a broken leg or off-the-charts blood glucose levels, we know in a visceral way that psychic pain is as torturous and debilitating as its physical counterpart. Counseling can teach healthy coping skills, mind-body awareness, and help develop insights that allow us to make more positive, productive and authentic decisions in our lives. Therapy has been proven to enhance an individual's emotional resilience, allowing them to bounce back faster after a crisis, and with less lingering negative effects. The empathy people experience through the counseling relationship can provide a sense of connection and self-value that empowers people to feel better able to influence their world. The insights people discover through the therapy process can move us to deeper, more satisfying self-awareness, more meaningful relationships and more fulfilling lives.

Therapy as Part of Holistic Health Care 
We don't need to frequent our counselor's office three times a week or toss back a little therapy everyday with our vitamins. But if we recognize the power counseling has to help us lead healthier, happier, possibly even longer lives, we might consider adding this intervention to our wellness regimen even if we are not currently in crisis. We prize our physical bodies enough to put in the time and effort to keep them working well. Don't our emotional and spiritual selves deserve the same commitment?

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Fears and Feelings and Fidgeting: Understanding Children's Mental Health Needs

Our fantasies about childhood include images of freedom from responsibility, long summer vacations, bike riding, knee-skinning and being in a perpetual state of wonder about the world. Most of us don't equate childhood with illness, even less so with mental illness. But just as physical diseases like cancer, diabetes, and epilepsy can occur in children, so too can psychological maladies that can create suffering and disability for the child.

Stay Tuned in to Kids' Moods and Behaviors 
Depression, anxiety disorders, obssessive-compulsive disorder, ADHD, post-traumatic stress disorder are no longer diagnoses used only for the fully grown. Current data from the National Institute on Mental Health indicate that, at any one time, 20 percent of children will have been diagnosed with a mental disorder in the past year. This reality supports the need and responsibility of parents and caregivers to attend to their chidlren's mental health needs with as much care and diligence as we do their medical and dental needs. Most parents schedule routine doctor, dentist and vision screenings for their kids, often on a yearly or more frequent basis. Rarely do we think of mental health as needing the same kind of oversight. I'm not suggesting that we drag our kids to a psychiatrist for an "alls-clear" every year. But staying tuned in to ways that kids communicate their struggles or distress is crucial to being able to intervene in a timely and effective manner. For example, children struggling with depression or anxiety symptoms may often exhibit somatic symptoms. ADD can be difficult to acknowledge if a chld isn't exhibiting the hyperactivity component, but has been labeled as a daydreamer or seems lost in his own world sometimes. Kids don't always use verbal means to communicate their upset; we need to look for body and behavioral cues as well. If your child routinely complains of physical ailments, or demonstrates any changes in behavior that are strange, out of character or distressing to her, you or others close to your child, further investigation may be warranted. A physical exam by a pediatrician to rule out illness or organic disease is the first step. But if the complaints continue, a session or two with a qualified child mental health specialist may
help uncover an underlying trauma or psychological disorder that is preventing the child from functioning at his best.

Our Kids Trust Us to Help Them 
Not all mental illness requires medication, nor does it necessarily include long stretches of psychotherapy. Finding experienced professionals, often available by referral from the child's pediatrician, who can assess and treat the child and even possibly the parents and family, is key to restoring and enhancing our child's mental health. It's our responsibility as the rearers and protectors of children to care for their whole selves, body, spirit and mind.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Teacher Under the Breakfast Table

I am the Ebeneezer Scrooge of pet owners. I loathe trudging through the rain, snow and dark of night to take my dogs on their thrice-daily constitutionals. I resent the hair on my sofa, the muddy paw prints on my wood floor, and my pets' craving for toilet paper. (I'm constantly surprised by my dogs' willingness to include all varieties of non-nutritive substances in their diet.) I'm not even especially fond of cuddling with my pups, as their hair makes me itch and their drooly kisses evoke just the tiniest shudder of disgust. But one look in their sad-looking puppy dog eyes brings up the same rush of maternal feelings as watching my son trot off to his first day of kindergarten. My tiny shih tzus bravado when they taunt the Doberman next door is a secret source of pride for me. I love that they see themselves as mastiffs in miniature bodies, capable of all forms of destruction and bullying normally reserved for real-sized dogs.

I've long been aware of the benefits that pets bring to our health: lowered blood pressure, tempering stress levels, companionship. But it turns out our canine compatriots are teachers in the spiritual realm as well. Dogs live in the moment. They don't struggle with attachment or clinging to the past or what we wish would be. They enjoy all food without worrying about the effect on their waistlines or their cholesterol. They know the value -- indeed, the necessity -- of a long nap. They love, freely and completely, and with all that they have. The human journey abounds with opportunities to learn and grow. I've realized that life's teachers can include beings with four fuzzy legs and a fondness for using my son's backpack as a chew toy. Next time I embark on a walk with Niki and Desi, I'll shelve my mental to-do list and my ruminations about the shortfall in our household budget. I'll try to be in the moment with them, whether we are slogging through a muddy walkway or yapping at squirrels well beyond their reach in the treetops. Our pets remind us that the simple, present, everyday moments can be full of intense joy and knee-buckling gratitude. Just look at your dog's face when you reach for the treat jar. THAT is pure bliss.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Rewired -- for Happiness

Much news has been made over the past few years about the plasticity of the human brain: the brain's ability to physically, neurochemically and emotionally change throughout our lifetimes. Previously, we had believed that the brain, and therefore ourselves, stopped growing once we reached full adulthood, and we were "stuck" with the responses, neural pathways and neurochemical realities of our "grown-up" brains from then on. Now we know that experiences, brain training and even therapy can "re-shape" the brain and affect the way it functions.

Brain Training 

Even simple exercises can influence our brains. For example, scientists purport that our brains don't know the difference between real-time experience and remembered experience. If we set aside two minutes to write down a meaningful recent event in as much detail as possible (like snuggling with my dogs on my couch under a fuzzy blanket, watching the afternoon sunlight glinting off the snow in my yard, as I'm doing now) our brains will experience the memory we are recalling as if it was happening in the moment. Pleasurable sensations will flood our bodies, neural pathways will trigger emotions of contentment, pleasure, gratitude, joy. Scientists maintain that we can change not only our moods, but the physical structures within our brains by utilizing exercises like the one I've sketched above.

Benefits for Body AND Brain 

Most of us would welcome more pleasure and peace in our lives. Science is suggesting that working out our brains in ways that recall and focus on happy experiences can actually create positive changes that increase our brains' functioning for happiness. We make resolutions to spend more time at the gym to stay physically healthy. Now, it seems, a little effort training our brains toward happiness may bring us the equivalent of a healthy body -- a brain more attuned toward joy. An added bonus -- you can do this workout without breaking a sweat.