With the holidays swiftly approaching, I have been thinking a lot about the purpose of play and rest in our busy lives. There seems to be an endless stream of things on the to-do list, which only increases with the demands of the holiday season. So, why do you feel exhausted even when you have gotten enough sleep and feel you are keeping up with your work-life balance? Why do you struggle to find joy even in those moments when you are intentionally cultivating “fun” for yourself or your family? I would like to propose that the loss of play and downtime in our adult lives has greatly diminished our ability to achieve balance and find pleasure in both our work and personal lives. Many of us crave this regularly, but struggle to name it.
When Fun Became Anxiety
Dr. Brené Brown talks about the importance of play and rest in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection. As someone who struggles with craving a sense of control, it feels foreign to carve out time to do something with no quantifiable value, no intended goal, and just for the sake of doing it. But, if I’m being honest with myself, I deeply desire to have this sense of spark and freedom in my life. When I spend time on a hobby for pleasure, it often involves some form of music. However, I have a lot of hang ups associated with music and performance that I never had as a child. This could be because I worked professionally as a singer for a number of years. I took my passion for music and turned it into a vocation, which in some ways was wonderful, but it also quickly became about pleasing others and perfectionism. I lost that original connection I felt when I was younger. It stopped transporting me and became a source of anxiety.
As a child, for a period of time, when it rained heavily, I would go to the piano and write a new song to match my mood. I remember singing my heart out and sometimes crying, because I felt so moved. Somewhere along the way, I lost the joy of singing. I’m trying to find my way back to those moments at the piano in the rain. Now that I’ve transitioned music into simply a hobby, I still feel intense pressure to get it right, to craft something of value and not waste my time making music which isn’t “perfectly” crafted and well received. All of these critical voices, self-doubt, and performance anxiety start to seep in, and it often stops me before I even begin the process. So, my current aim is to shed those expectations and go back to the basics: simply having fun singing and writing songs again, with absolutely no expectations. You may have those childhood moments of sheer bliss, of being in flow while doing something you love. You just need to find a way to access that again. So much is lost when you don’t allow yourself to take that journey, to be creative just because it makes you happy and brings a feeling of freedom. These moments will enhance your life and may bring back that sense of being more fully alive. In order to do this, you must unlearn a lot of the things you are taught growing up and choose to prioritize it. It is a lifelong process for many of us. Here are some articles which discuss how to achieve flow and how it relates to happiness.
Adult Play as the Antidote to Depression
Dr. Stuart Brown is a psychiatrist and clinical researcher who founded the National Institute for Play. He studied how play shapes the brain, helps with imagination and enhances our lives. Interestingly, he described play as the antidote to prevent and cope with depression. What he discovered is that play brings excitement and newness even to our work lives, helps us master skills, and is a core part of the creative process. Play seems to tap into the deepest parts of our needs and desires; therefore, it is essential whether you prioritize it or not. If you choose to dismiss its importance, you will invariably feel its effects. It is not an optional thing. There are some wonderful articles which highlight the importance of taking self-care days when you need them, the benefits of play in various areas of your life, what play looks like and how to incorporate it into your life. If you prefer videos, this Ted Talk helps to better define play, and this one talks about the power of play as it relates to displacement, social exclusion, and identity formation.
Rest and Wellness
Downtime is also a core component of emotional and physical health. So, why isn’t it seen as a higher value by most of us? Perhaps it is because you may be praised for over working and for achieving things that bring greater wealth or status. When people mention feeling tired or a need for rest, it can be perceived as a weakness. This toxic mindset starts to seep in and affect the choices you make. So, why are you surprised to find yourself depressed, anxious, overwhelmed, exhausted, and feeling lost?
I have experienced feeling judged or criticized for carving out the time and space for self-care and fun in my life. It is still difficult to practice setting boundaries by saying yes to rest and play and no to the things which I feel will elicit the most praise from others. However, I never regret acting on that impulse and following through on that which my mind and body are longing for. This doesn’t look the same in every season of life. I must continue to check in with myself and ask: What feels right? What is out of balance? Adjusting to what is and being flexible and kind to yourself is an important part of the process.
Play and Rest Checklist
Prioritizing play and rest is a common struggle. My aim is to normalize it and encourage you to prioritize it. Sometimes even small changes can make a huge difference to the quality of your life. Below are some reflection questions for you to meditate on or journal about toward a more restful and playful life.
I hope you have a great time exploring these things and find that the child in you comes out to play, perhaps even surprising you now and again.
Begin Online Counseling in Seattle, Washington
Are you feeling burnt out and overworked? Are you struggling with finding joy and pleasure in your life? With the guidance of a mental health counselor, you can begin to prioritize your happiness and wellbeing. Your therapist can work together with you to create healthy habits and improve your mental health. You can begin online counseling in the comfort of your own home. Schedule a free 15-minute phone consultation today to get started.
May is Maternal Mental Health Awareness Month so I thought I would take the opportunity to talk about perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (PMADs).
Perinatal mood and anxiety disorder is the occurrence of distressing emotional symptoms during pregnancy and throughout the first year after pregnancy. Around 15%-20% of mothers experience symptoms related to PMAD (Byrnes, 2018). The term has been broadened from postpartum depression in recent years to include symptoms of anxiety, obsessive and compulsive disorder, psychosis, and posttraumatic stress disorder.
Symptoms of PMADs
The birth of a new baby is typically a time of celebration and joy within our culture. The experience of PMADS so often goes into the shadows and parents are left to feel isolated and to blame. If a family is experiencing PMADs it can have adverse emotional and physical effects on the whole family. It is important to be able to recognize the signs and to seek support. With help, PMADs are treatable. You are not alone and it is not your fault.
Perinatal Mental Health for Partners and Family Members
It's important to mention that fathers, partners, and non-gestational parents can also experience symptoms of PMADS. This includes families with same-sex relationships, foster parents, adoptive parents or other non-biological parents. Having a newborn brings about a multitude of stressors into a family. It is a tremendous adjustment for the couple, the family, as well as psychologically for the individual.
How Perinatal and Postpartum Therapy Can Help New Parents
The shift to becoming a parent is complex and holds emotional and psychological challenges. The identity you hold as a “mother” or “father” may be ambivalent depending on your own experiences of being parented. The model you have for parenthood greatly influences how you feel about the emerging role of parenthood. I often hear new parents in my office sharing how they feel as if they lost themselves after becoming a parent. Lack of social support during this phase of life can amplify the stress and intensify feelings of isolation and helplessness. When I work with expecting or new parents, I help individuals explore their internalized models for parenthood, their expectations, and work through any rising grief and loss. We also identify and work towards addressing their needs for support. My hope is to strengthen families and help parents feel empowered as they step into their new roles and identities.
Perinatal and Postpartum Counseling for New Parents
With support, the journey into parenthood can be rewarding and beautiful. If you or a loved one is experiencing signs of PMADs, seek support with perinatal and postpartum counseling. It can get better. We are a group of licensed therapists and psychologist that enjoy working with new parents at every stage of parenthood. We are located in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle and we offer online counseling. Schedule a free 15-minute phone consultation to see if we are a good fit for you.
The past year has ushered in loss and as a society, we are collectively grieving. As a culture, we have a script for honoring big losses such as the death of a loved one. We have rituals in place that allow for the mourning process to be carried forward. This helps us honor our grief and work through it. What the pandemic has really highlighted for me, however, is the question of what do we do with small losses? How do we grieve the ambiguous loss? I think of the unattended high school graduation, the canceled concert, the postponed wedding, the break-up, and the social isolation.
I want to give space and air to these unobserved disappointments that so often get neglected. We are really good at “getting over it” and avoiding our pain. The default for many, is to dismiss and discount their experiences of small loss. It may bring up feelings of guilt or embarrassment because we can always point to someone who has it “much worse off than me.” When we compare our pain to others, we neglect a vital aspect of our personhood.
We are collectively enduring disenfranchised grief. This phenomenon was first coined by Kenneth J. Doka, a professor and hospice consultant. Doka puts language to the experience of losses that are not recognized by others (Doka, 1989). Some losses occur, and we have no social ritual of mourning for it as a culture. It goes unacknowledged and as result, our feelings go unheard and invalidated. Much of the missed experiences, relationships, roles, and opportunities of this past year can be categorized as disenfranchised grief. How are we processing these losses?
Unprocessed grief is devastating to our well-being. It’s no surprise that symptoms of anxiety and depression have increased considerably in the United States during the pandemic (Czeisler, et al, 2020).
When you experience a loss, it deserves to be grieved. The mourning process allows for you to honor its importance in your life and to work through the emotional impact. I often tell people in my work that “you can either feel it now, or feel it later, you choose.” Either way, the feelings associated with loss will surface sooner or later.
It is worth the time to reflect on this past year and identify what losses you have experienced. Suspend all judgement, no matter how insignificant it may seem. Try and acknowledge it. I hope that you can find some tenderness for yourself and honor the small losses. Here are some steps to take that I have found helpful in working through loss. (Adapted from Therese Rando’s 6 R’s of Mourning.)
Acknowledge Your Loss
Take the time to reflect on what has been most difficult for you during this pandemic. Don’t compare your experience to others. This is a practice that is personal and just for you. Notice what you have missed, what has felt disappointing, what have you been fearful, sad, or angry about? By naming the loss, you will be externalizing the experience and giving it a home outside of your body.
Share It with Someone
After identifying your unique experiences of loss, find someone who will be a compassionate listener. It might even be helpful to find people who have experienced a similar loss. Our grief deserves a witness. When we can bravely talk about it with others, we will feel less alone.
Create a Ritual
A lot of disenfranchised grief is not given the traditional recognition in our culture such as memorials, obituaries, periods of mourning, etc. Find a way to memorialize your losses. It was something important to you and deserves to be honored and remembered. Get creative and find some sort of action to accompany your grief. Some examples might be to light a candle, plant a tree, hold a special ceremony, bury an object, spend time journaling, drawing or painting.
Adjust to the New Life
Once you have processed your grief and loss, you now have the task of returning to life. How can you invest back into your life? What are the activities that bring you joy? As you adjust to the new normal, be intentional about finding purpose and meaning. Loss is a natural part of the human experience. With each loss you endure, an opportunity arises for new life and new experiences. As the poet, Mary Oliver once asked, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
Grief Counseling in Seattle
Are you struggling with unprocessed grief and loss? Are you looking for support to help heal from past or current loss? You are not alone, and help is available. We are a team of therapists located in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle. We work with individuals and couples in the Seattle area on navigating through grief and loss. You can schedule a free 15-minute phone consultation or contact us for more information.
How are you doing? No, really. How are you? I know I have been so wrapped up with work, adjusting to the constantly changing landscape of the coronavirus, and the roller coaster of the news and media that I have not really checked in with myself about how I am feeling or coping through this time.
There is a part of me that knows if I slowed down and allowed my emotions to catch up to me, I am going to be overwhelmed with the grief, fear, helplessness, sadness, and anger. So instead, I fill my free time with new hobbies and projects. I have pulled out my painting supplies, jumped on the baking bandwagon, and gardened like my life depends on it. Although these hobbies are wonderful distractions in the moment, I know that they are not sufficient to help me pull through this marathon. As the pandemic stretches into the indefinite future, I want to offer some additional coping strategies to support you during this time. Writing this post is also a reminder to myself to come back to the practice of healthy coping during a crisis.
In Part I of the Coronavirus Survival Guide, I discussed the coping strategies of validating your emotions, validating others' emotions, and giving yourself time to adjust. In Part II of the Coronavirus Survival Guide, I will introduce the strategies of practicing meditation and creating new routines.
1. Practice Meditation
I have found that practicing meditation is even more essential during this time of uncertainty and constant transitions than ever before. In my previous blog post on meditation, I talked about how research has shown that meditation can decrease your stress level in as little as 3 days and change your brain chemistry and structure in the long term. How does meditation work? How can you harness the power of meditation to calm your fears and sooth your sorrow?
In my experience as a student of meditation, I have learned that the first step in meditation is to become aware of how much my mind wanders away into the future, the past, and the stories that I tell myself and believe to be true. The second step is to become aware of how my mind tries to push away things that I find uncomfortable, grasps onto things that I believe are desirable, and gets lost in my ego and false beliefs. When I learned to focus my minds on the present moment, I became awake to what is really in front of me and I can come closer to what is real in the moment rather than what is happening in my mind. The third step is to quiet my mind enough for the inner wisdom and truth to speak. When my mind is at peace, I often find the strength to accept what is difficult and painful as well as open myself to what is joyful and beautiful right now.
For instance, there have been times in the past few months when I have felt intense fear about getting sick and dying from COVID-19. I have woken up in the middle of the night crying with fear, panic, and dread. When I practiced meditation and quieted my mind, I was able to trace this fear back to this story that I tell myself that "there is not enough." A part of me believes that there will not be enough time in my life to achieve and experience all that I want before I die. In those moments of fear, I find myself pushing away the idea that my life can end at any moment and grasping onto my expectations of a fulfilling life. I hold onto false ideas about a life worth living (e.g., achievements, travels, wealth, etc.). I realized that the acts of pushing away and grasping were causing me anguish and suffering. When I calmed my mind, I came back to the truth and wisdom that death is as natural as breathing. I was expecting a sense of control over the length of my life when that control was never in my hands. I have a life worth living already because I am surrounded by people who love me.
Ready to learn more about meditation? Below are some of my favorite books on mindfulness and meditation. Here is a recent podcast episode from Oprah's SuperSoul Conversations with Eckhart Tolle titled "How to Find a New Spiritual Awakening During the Pandemic." Check out the Youtube video from author Thomas Hubl discussing how to stay open, vulnerable, and connected during this pandemic. Finally, Dharma Seed provides free recorded talks by meditation teachers.
2. Create New Routines
You may have already established a new routine since the pandemic began and the stay-at-home orders were put in place. As the nation is starting to reopen, you may be adjusting yet again to a new routine that is based on your profession, family context, financial reality, geographic location, health conditions, and many other factors. As the pandemic continues around the globe, there may be new developments that could disrupt and change your routine quickly. As you are adjusting again and again to the changes, I encourage you to identify the things that are most important to you. What are the values and aspects in your life that you do not want to compromise even during times of uncertainty? To spend quality time with your loved ones? To get out into nature? To have some down time to yourself everyday to recharge? To contribute meaningfully to your neighbors and community? I encourage you to identify the one thing that is the most important to you each day and shape your day around that.
Online Counseling During COVID-19
Are you struggling with increased anxiety and stress due to COVID-19? Are you looking for extra support during this difficult time? We are a group of exceptional licensed therapists providing online therapy. We love to help individuals and couples in the Seattle area with a wide range of mental health concerns. You can schedule a free 15-minute phone consultation or contact us for more information.
It's that time of the year again. The amount of daylight is decreasing every day. Here in Seattle, the clouds, rain, and cold have moved in. People who are sensitive to the effects of weather and sunlight may notice that their moods are significantly impacted by the change in season. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a common experience here in the Pacific Northwest due to our geographic distance from the equator. According to the American Psychiatric Association, SAD affects 5% of adults in the U.S. and can last on average 40% of the year.
The changes in weather and sunlight can impact our brain chemistry and circadian rhythm, which controls our sleep, exercise, eating patterns, and mood. I used to struggle with SAD symptoms when I first moved to the Pacific Northwest nine years ago but I have created a winter routine of coping strategies that really works for me. In this blog post, I offer some ideas for preventing and coping with SAD symptoms.
Is Seasonal Affective Disorder Real?
A recent 2016 study looked at the depression rates of individuals based on geographic location, season, and sunlight but found no correlations between these factors and depression. You can read more about this study and several others in this Scientific American article. The author suggests that the scientific jury is still out on whether SAD is "real" even though it is recognized as a diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
Whether scientists have come to any definitive conclusions about SAD or not, you are the expert of your life. If you have noticed a pattern of struggling with symptoms of depression with the change in seasons, it may be helpful to engage in some preventative coping strategies so that you can feel your absolute best, even when it is dark and gloomy outside.
What are the Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder?
The symptoms of SAD are very similar to that of major depressive disorder, which includes:
In addition to the symptoms of major depressive disorder, the following signs are characteristic of SAD:
Strategies to Prevent and Cope with Seasonal Affective Disorder
First, formal assessments by medical and mental health professionals are helpful to rule out other possible medical or mental health concerns. Your primary care provider can conduct a physical exam and run labs to determine whether you are struggling with a physical health concern, which sometimes can look like depression, and if you are deficient in your hormones or vitamin levels. Your mental health provider can assess whether your symptoms meet diagnostic criteria for SAD and/or if there are other mental health concerns present.
If you are diagnosed with SAD, below are some evidence-based strategies to prevent or cope with the symptoms:
Counseling to Treat Seasonal Affective Disorder
I remembered the first time I tried meditation. I attended an introduction to meditation where the facilitator provided guided meditation for the first 15 minutes and then we sat in silence for the next 30 minutes. At first, I struggled with keeping my focus on my breath and allowing my thoughts to drift in and out. I started thinking about my to-do list and the conflict that I had with my partner. A few minutes into the meditation, I was fighting my desire to curl up on the floor for a nap. I learned that meditation is not easy. But with regular practice, I can see the power of meditation in my life to reduce stress, improve sleep, manage anxiety, and increase focus.
I introduce it regularly to my clients because of how effective meditation can be in treating depression and anxiety. Science has shown that meditation can quickly change the function of our brains and, with regular practice, it can create lasting change in our brain structures. In this blog post, I want to share with you the mechanisms behind how meditation can alleviate the symptoms of depression and anxiety for good.
The Science Behind Meditation
There are two brain regions that are key in understanding depression and anxiety. The first region is the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC). This region is located right behind our forehead. This is the region of our brain that is active when we think about ourselves, our self-worth and self-esteem, how we compare to others, what happened to us in the past, and what will happen in the future. The second region is the amygdala. This region of the brain is located closer to the center of the brain. This part of the brain regulates the emotion of fear and is responsible for our fight-flight-freeze-appease responses. Both brain regions are active when we experience depression and anxiety symptoms.
When you practice meditation, you are quieting down the mPFC and amygdala and disrupting the connections between the two. That is, you are practicing letting go of your negative perceptions of yourself and calming your fears. According to an abundance of research, in the short-term, meditation helps you calm the amygdala, which creates stress hormones; in the long-run, meditation actually shrink the size of the amygdala. Researchers have found that meditation can be as effective as antidepressant medication. One study showed that in just 3 days, meditation can make a significant difference in your stress level.
Ready to give this practice a try? Check out one of my favorite meditation apps, Insight Timer, where you can search for guided meditations by topic and length of time. You can also try one of my meditations from a previous post. As with any new practice, I encourage you to start off small. Try a 5 minute guided meditation and build up your practice from there.
Counseling in Ballard
Have you tried meditation before but struggled? Maybe you want the accountability of working with a therapist, or even after trying meditation you are still suffering from anxiety and depression symptoms. Counseling may be able to help. We are a team of trained therapists that aim to help individuals and couples in the Seattle area. You can schedule a 15 minute phone consultation or contact me for more information.
I remember the first time I was introduced to the idea of positive psychology in my undergraduate psychology class. Until then, I have never heard of positive psychology. I thought psychology was about the study of mental illnesses and how to treat them (a.k.a, the deficit model). It blew my mind that mental health can be about happiness and thriving, instead of just about the absence of problems. Is thriving possible? Can I live a life that is more than get up, go to work/school, come home, got to bed, rinse and repeat? After 10 years of higher education, clinical training, traveling, and learning from people around me, I think the answer is yes.
Positive Psychology and the Research into Happiness
Below is a TEDx Talk by psychologist Shawn Achor about human potential and happiness. Although it is titled "The Happy Secret to Better Work," I think his advice can be applied to any area of life. This is one of my favorite TED Talks because it is entertaining, informative, and inspirational (if only all lectures can bring me to tears of laughter!). Here are the main points of his talk:
Ready to Be Happier? Begin Therapy in Ballard
Are you tired of feeling unhappy? Are you ready make the changes that will lead to a fulfilling and thriving life? You don't have to go it alone. If you are looking to utilize evidence-based strategies to improve your wellbeing, we can help. Our licensed counselors draw from positive psychology to help you reach your full potential. We are located in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle and also offer online therapy. Schedule a free 15-minute phone consultation today to see if we are a good fit for your needs.
We created this blog to share information about living a healthy, happy, and fulfilling life. We are constantly learning new things and making mistakes along the way. This blog is our way of chronicling our discoveries, musing, and lessons learned as people and professionals. We invite you to come along on our journey of self reflection, discovery, and thriving with challenges. We also hope to exchange wisdom and enlightenment from you, our readers.
The information provided in this blog is not a substitute for professional mental health treatment.