Category Archives: Anxiety and Depression

Waking up Anxious

By Andrea Wachter, LMFT

If you commonly wake up in the morning, filled with anxious thoughts and sensations, you are not alone. Anxiety levels have reached epidemic proportions in our fast-paced world. It is estimated that globally, 284 million people experienced an anxiety disorder in 2017, making anxiety the most prevalent mental health disorder that exists. And that estimate does not even include all the unreported people who suffer from anxiety, or the people who do not relate to having a full-blown disorder but still struggle with it. Beyond medication prescriptions and deep breath recommendations, many people are hard pressed to find help that actually helps and often spend day after day suffering in silence.

Rather than load you up with a bunch of tips, techniques and tools (my usual style!), I’d like you to instead, consider the following two scenarios. I will be using a parent/child relationship in these examples but if you don’t relate to kids, you can substitute your dearest friend or family member.

As you read these scenarios, I ask you to ponder the following questions:

  • Which scene reminds you of how you usually speak to or treat yourself?
  • What thoughts or feelings come up as you read each example?
  • Which scenario would you choose, for yourself or for others?

Scenario one:

You have a child who struggles with anxiety. She often wakes up feeling scared and her mind spins with all the worst-case scenarios of the day ahead. This morning, she climbs into bed with you and tells you that she feels like she has a rock in her chest and butterflies in her tummy. You tell her even more scary things that could happen as you lie next to her and you agree with her that really horrible things could happen. You tell her to focus on her body and watch as the sensations get even bigger. You tell her it’s hopeless and that she will likely never feel any better. She starts to panic, and you tell her even more scary things that could happen to her and how nobody really understands her. At some point, you grab your phone or gadget and mindlessly surf the internet for a few hours. Then finally, you tell her she needs to just get it together. You drag her into the shower and give her a cup of coffee and a donut before sending her off to school.

Scenario two:

You have a child who struggles with anxiety. He often wakes up feeling scared and his mind spins with all the worst-case scenarios of the day ahead. This morning, he climbs into bed with you and tells you that he feels like he has a rock in his chest and butterflies in his tummy. You wrap your arms around him and tell him that the scary thoughts in his mind are all made-up stories and that not one of those things are actually happening right now. You point out all that is real and true in the moment, like the fact that he is safe right now. You have him focus on the blanket as you wrap him up even tighter and cozier. You have him focus on the pillow beneath his head and ask him if he can relax his head into the support of the pillow as he focuses on his breathing. You have him tell you several things that he can see with his eyes, hear with his ears and feel with his hands and feet. You remind him of so many times in the past when he was scared about things and they either never happened, or he got through them and can barely even remember them now. You open up your very favorite meditation app, Insight Timer, and you pick a meditation that you are drawn to in that moment. You play it and ask him to listen to it no matter how anxious he feels. You bring him fresh water and warm tea, and even though he tells you he has no appetite, you make him a delicious, nutritious breakfast and ask him to eat as much of it as he can. You play his favorite music. You take him outside for fresh air and some movement on the way to school and you remind him that hard moments pass and that he can and will get through this. You teach him that we are all born different breeds, or personalities, and that some of us have to work a bit harder to quiet our minds but there are positive qualities to being the breed he was born, even if he can’t feel or know them right now. You tell him you love him, and you remind him that he is very lovable.

So, which scenario do you choose for yourself?

View on Insight Timer

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Finding Some Relief for Grief

By Andrea Wachter, LMFT

Some of us start to experience grief and loss early in life. Others don’t get hit with the big whammies until our later years. Either way, we all have to face grief and loss, as long as we choose to love. In fact, the bigger the love, the bigger the grief. I hate that. When I realized recently that the more I love my people, the more I have to grieve when I lose them, I thought, Uh oh. I’m screwed. I love my people big.

But what are our options? I only see two: love less or seek solace. I’m goin’ with door number two. One way I find solace is through reading and listening to matters of the heart; spiritual matters that go deeper than our thoughts or the material world around us. Much of the spiritual literature I dive into teaches about the need to let go of attachment. I repeat, Uh oh. I’m so not unattached to my loved ones. I love talking to them, seeing them, playing word chums with them, having them on the planet.

So how do we bear the unbearable? How do we shore up to prepare for, or weather the storms of grief? Do we try to love our loved ones less? Attach less? Close our hearts more? Isolate? Use massive amounts of pharmaceutical and/or street drugs? Check-out on screens? Having evaluated all these options and more, I come back time and time again to choosing a wide-open heart. And if your heart is filled to the brim with love for your loved ones, you understand only too well how this leaves us wide open to grieving the loss of said love ones. Darn.

So how do we get some relief from grief? How do we handle losing the people (or furry friends) we are the most connected and attached to? Whether you have just been hit with an insurmountably shocking loss, or you are experiencing a loss you saw coming but still have to face and feel, or you are living in anticipation of a loss around the corner, may these ideas help you feel some comfort and connection.

Welcome and honor your pain.

As challenging as it is to feel our painful emotions, the only way to move through them is to allow them up and out. Let yourself cry and sob and wail. Then rehydrate. Get water in you and you in it. Drink water and tea, take baths and showers. And repeat. Remind yourself that crying is normal, necessary and healing. Our tears actually contain toxins that get released when we cry. So although crying is certainly not the funnest part of life, it is part of what helps us move through loss. Since our emotions are natural and we are designed to experience feelings like sadness, anger and fear, the only way to avoid them is to stuff them down unnaturally. That’s where substance abuse or excessive behaviors come in. Those are attempts to stuff down our painful emotions. But pain is part of the deal here. When we befriend, or at least accept our emotions and allow them out in healthy ways, they move through us.

Speak to yourself as you would speak to a loved one.

Allowing our emotions to come up and out is one thing, but how we speak to ourselves internally is another thing entirely. So often, my clients tell me they let themselves cry but they feel no relief. Sometimes it’s because they are just in the thick of it, but oftentimes it’s because their self-talk is unkind. Imagine if a crying child came to you for comfort and you said, “Quit crying.” Or, “Stop being such a crybaby.” Or, “Stop, that’s enough!” They certainly would not feel better. In fact, they would feel even worse. So, if your internal talk is anything less than empathic or kind, you will be that much less likely to feel relief from your grief. Take a look at the way you speak to yourself when you are in pain and see if you can upgrade it to a kind and tender tone. The better you get at welcoming what you feel, the sooner you will feel better.

Treat your body respectfully.

In addition to the way you speak to yourself, pay attention to the way you treat yourself. I’m guessing (or hoping) that if someone you love was grieving, you would feed them well, make sure they got rest, fresh air, and lots of TLC. Some people have a hard time eating when their bodies are filled with feelings, so respectful treatment for them might be to encourage themselves to eat anyway (even if it’s just soup and smoothies for a while). Other people have a hard time eating moderately when they are highly emotional and they may need to encourage themselves to reach out for support rather than to excess food. If you are in the thick of grief, do your best to get adequate rest and some movement, even if it’s a short walk around the block to get some air. Many people have the tendency to reach for unhealthy substances or habits in an attempt to comfort or numb themselves, but in the long-run this is not respectful, loving treatment for your body or your grief. Ask yourself how you would take care of someone you love and do your best to treat yourself that way.

Give yourself time (but not too much).

Several years ago, I experienced the death of a loved one. I spent hours and hours sobbing in bed. I longed for a nightstand brimming with pharmaceutical drugs and alcohol but refused to revert back to my old ways of coping. Eventually, my husband came in and said, “You have two more hours and then you have to shower.” I told him, thank you for your concern but showering won’t be possible. (Though I’m fairly sure I didn’t use big words like “concern” or “possible.”) My head was about to explode from sobbing so much and leaving my bed simply did not seem like an option. But it was. And I did. And it helped. The warm water helped. Getting up helped. Doing as I was told helped. I still sobbed and howled in every corner of the house but each day, week, and month, the intensity of the grief changed shape. Some losses are with us always, like scars on our hearts but they often change shape with time.

Creating rituals and writing.

Another way of expressing your grief is to create a ritual that symbolizes and honors your relationship with your loved one. Lighting a candle, creating a memory book of pictures or symbols of your relationship, playing your loved one’s favorite music, writing them a letter, eating his or her favorite foods, watching their favorite movies, listening to their favorite music or songs you enjoyed together, or creating art to express your grief. One client took time on the anniversary of her husband’s death, to walk to their favorite spot in nature and write him a letter. A grief dialogue is another written ritual that many people find healing. This is where you allow your grief to express itself on paper. You write whatever wants to come out until you feel complete. Then you write a loving, compassionate response back. There are countless ways to honor your grief. As long as it feels productive and kind to yourself, it has the potential to help you along your healing path.

Stages are not set in stone.

It can be helpful to know that there are essentially five stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. These were originally developed by author and grief expert, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. Being familiar with these stages can help to normalize what you’re going through and know you are not alone. However, it’s important to know that these stages are not always linear and they are certainly not quick, cut and dry. Some can take months or years to move through. Some stages get recycled back to when we thought (or others thought) we were done. In general, most humans in grief do go through these stages in one form or another, but they are certainly not given a timeline or a linear prognosis. Be gentle with yourself as you move through the process, and perhaps cycle back to stages you thought you were done with. Grief takes time and some losses are with us forever. Certain dates or times of year can trigger our feelings and even a song, picture, dream or memory can ignite a flame of grief out of the blue. Remember, the bigger the love, the bigger the grief, so it’s not always a bad thing if your grief wells up. It might be inconvenient, and it’s certainly not easy, but it is often a sign of love and connectedness to your loved one.

Don’t mistake berating for bargaining.

One stage of grief, bargaining, can easily slip into berating. Many people beat themselves up for the things they think they “should” have done differently. The “if only’s” that are a normal part of grief can often turn into turning against oneself. The truth is, we can never know if that “if only” would have turned out any better. It’s easy to think so but we can never truly know. There are a million ways things could have gone. Plus, the chances are, if you had done it differently, your mind would likely come up with a few new “if only’s.” Our minds tend to invent scenarios that really only serve to make us feel worse, when what we need in grief is to feel compassion. If you find you are beating yourself up for things you think you should or shouldn’t have done, see if you can label it bargaining, and go deeper, to the emotions that lie underneath the should-ing story. Perhaps it’s sadness, perhaps it’s anger, or some other emotion waiting to be acknowledged, honored and felt. Most emotions live in our bodies as a sensation. Berating and rehashing our choices are stories that live in our minds and keep us from being in present moment reality. So when you are in the bargaining stage of grief, watch out for berating, and gently steer yourself back to normal, natural grieving.

Four Tasks of Grieving.

While many people are familiar with the stages of grief mentioned above, not as many are aware of the Four Tasks of Grieving, identified by Dr. J. William Worden. He says that these tasks must be accomplished during the process of mourning and while everyone handles and moves through them differently, and in their own time, it can be helpful to have an understanding of them, either for yourself, if you are experiencing a loss, or to better understand and support someone you care about.

The four tasks are:

Task #1: To accept the reality of the loss

Task #2: To work through the pain and grief

Task #3: To adjust to a new environment

Task #4: To find an enduring connection with the deceased while moving forward with life

Reel yourself back to the present (whenever possible).

This one is uberly easier typed than done. Of course it can feel impossibly hard to be present. Present is where the grief is. But present is also where your soft blanket is, or the comforting hand of your loved one, or this breath, this sound, this sensation. It’s so seductive (and actually the minds’ job) to think and think… and um… think! It’s trying to be helpful, I’m sure; trying to figure everything out. But it can’t. We can’t figure out how we are going to handle a loss if it hasn’t happened yet. We can’t figure out how to get through next week if it’s still today. Sometimes an idea or intuition comes to us about something and of course, we can follow its lead, but most of the time, our minds are off in the future, trying to figure out something that we don’t have (or don’t even need) the skills for. I remember working with a client once who was anticipating the loss of her mother. She was so scared about how she would get through it, how she would be able to plan the funeral, clean out her mother’s house, do all the things she dreaded doing. But she didn’t need the skills, grace, energy or knowhow to do those things right then. Her mom was in the process of passing and she needed only the skills and grace to handle that. That was hard enough. So see if you can reel yourself back to the present moment as much as possible. We can handle what is in front of us because it’s in front of us to handle, but we don’t need to handle what is not yet here. It’s like wondering how you’re going to do college level homework when you’re still in high school. Just attend the class you are in. That’s more than enough.

Reach out to loved ones.

Not everyone is comfortable with strong or long-term emotions, but some people are. Make sure you reach out to people who welcome your grief; people who totally understand and can offer compassionate listening, tissues, or words that help you feel heard and understood. It can help to talk to the people who share your grief as well, but it also helps to find people who are uninvolved and can offer you one-way support. If someone responds in a way that doesn’t feel helpful, consider asking them if they could word something differently, or kindly let them know what would feel helpful. Some people naturally support us in just the ways we need. Others might be teachable if we respectfully ask for what we need. And of course, there are those that are just not a good fit to take our deep emotions to. It’s important to know who is safe for our big feelings and who it’s best to be vague with. Not everyone speaks the same language and you wouldn’t speak French to someone who doesn’t know that language. Find people who speak the language you are needing to hear or who are open to a bit of tutoring along the way. Whether you are needing verbal feedback or a quiet loving presence, there are people who would be honored to support you.

Seek professional help.

There are countless therapists who could walk you through this chapter, as well as many grief support groups available, both online and off. There are also a wealth of books, blogs, podcasts and other resources that can help. Doing a web search for grief support or seeking a health professional in your area who treats or specializes in grief can get you started. One resource in particular is Hospice. Not only does their website offer many services and answers to questions but many hospices offer free grief support to community members, regardless of whether or not their loved one used their services. It’s important to note that even someone who is a trained professional may not give you exactly what you are needing, so hopefully you can remain open to voicing your needs. Some people really only want to be heard and others want feedback. We often want and need different things, depending on the moment, the day, or the stage. If you have a sense of what you would like for support, it can really help to let your therapist know, and if not, you might get clear as you go. Therapists don’t always get it right and not everybody needs the same things. Plus, you find out the most about someone’s safety and support capacity when you make a respectful request and see how they respond. A safe person will respond non-defensively and kindly. They will truly want to know what you are needing and feeling.

Feed yourself spiritually.

Death is the greatest mystery in life. We can’t grasp it in our minds or hold onto it in our material world. As humans, we are all taught to feed our bodies with food and feed our minds through learning but what about feeding our spirits? What about fostering a deeper connection to the things that can’t be seen or held? Whether you have formal practices like prayer, meditation, reading or listening to spirit-filling things, or perhaps you find connectedness through nature or mindfulness practices, it’s so important to fill ourselves up on a deeper level. Dropping down from the busy mind, we can tap into our intuition and this can guide us to what we need and what is bigger than our daily to-do’s. Taking the time to get quiet and contemplative and tune into our hearts is a very important and helpful part of the grief healing process.

Consider reading or listening to reports of NDE’s.

One of the things that can provide some comfort is to read and listen to stories from people who have survived a Near Death Experience. Millions of people, from all walks of life, have been pronounced dead from natural causes and been revived. The majority of them report the same things: peace, well-being, light, love, and nothing to fear. Listening to, and reading these stories can provide some peace to a topic that generally induces the most fear. Since death is the biggest mystery we’ve got going here, and one we have no say in avoiding, we can take some solace in learning from those who have experienced it. There are many books, podcasts and reports of NDE’s. If you think this could provide you with some answers and peace of mind, consider checking some of these out.

Find a belief that brings some relief.

Many years ago, I experienced the loss of a dear friend. It was certainly not the first death in my life but it was the first where I was old enough (and sober enough) to grok that we are all here impermanently. I had not really gotten that memo before. I was floored. I simply could not believe that my friend was here one day and then not here, like ever again. I set out to find out what the deal was. I literally asked anyone I could get my hands on, what their beliefs about death were. Many “I have no clue’s” and uncomfortable throat clearings later, I found a few people who shared a few theories that helped me have a few moments of peace. And since it’s all theories and stories we can choose to believe or discard, I decided to adopt a few that helped me feel a bit better (or a bit less dread). One was from a colleague who explained it this way: “Dogs and cats do not know there are planets and stars or a sun and a moon but we know for sure that they exist. Well what if there were all kinds of bigger things that exist but we don’t know about them?” So I tried that one on. Maybe there is more to it and I know as much about that as a dog knows about Jupiter? Hmmmm.

Another helpful theory I adopted came from a cousin. She said, “Since I can’t know what death is really like, I’d rather spend my life believing that it’s peaceful and get to the end and find out I was wrong, then spend my life in fear of it and find out it was peaceful. Either way, I’m making up a story so I’m choosing one that makes me feel better while I’m here.”

Sold.

We are all in this together.

Regardless of our circumstances in life, we all experience death and loss. No matter how separate we feel from one another or how we manage to separate ourselves through our various labels, the fact is that we are all here temporarily and we will all have loss. It’s so common to think or feel that we are alone in our grief, that nobody gets it or gets us. And while your closest people might not fully understand what you are going through in this moment, they will someday, or perhaps they already have. There’s an old Buddhist parable called The Mustard Seed that illustrates our universal connectedness. It speaks to the fact that so many of us feel incredibly alone in our grief, and yet we are not. The story is told like this:

During the time of Buddha’s life, a mother loses her son. The devastated woman carries her lifeless child from neighbor to neighbor, searching desperately for someone who could bring him back to life. Someone suggests she ask the Buddha. She does and Buddha tells her to go and gather mustard seeds from all the homes that have never been touched by death. Once gathered, she should bring all the seeds back to him and he would make a medicine that would restore her son’s life. The woman does as instructed and begins knocking on door after door in search of someone who has not been touched by death. Obviously, she is unable to retrieve any mustard seeds because everyone has been touched by death in some way.

While grief can feel so overwhelming and so isolating, it can sometimes help (a tiny bit) to know that this great mystery of death is universal and we are all in this together. Grieving is hard work. It’s surely one of the hardest parts of life. And it can sometimes feel never ending. But authentic, safe expression of our feelings is the only way to release and relieve our pain so we are not left with the secondary effects of addiction and chronic depression. While there is no cut and dry formula for grief, and regardless of the cause or shape of your grief, speaking to and treating yourself kindly, reaching out for support, and reminding yourself that you are not alone can help.

View on The Huffington Post

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Trying Not to Try: The Wild Mind Workings of a Recovering Perfectionist

By Andrea Wachter, LMFT

If you are someone who has struggled with eating and body image, there’s a good chance you have also struggled with perfectionism. If this is the case for you, you’re likely no stranger to the concept of trying.

Back in the days of my eating disorder, my trying looked something like this:

  • Trying to lose weight
  • Trying a new diet
  • Trying to recover from a binge
  • Trying to work out
  • Trying to work out more (Pull up a chair, this could take a while!)
  • Trying to improve my looks
  • Trying to get a boyfriend
  • Trying to look good
  • Trying to fit in
  • Trying to do well in school
  • Trying to be cool
  • Trying to be perfect

Next up were my early years in recovery:

  • Trying to listen to my body
  • Trying to eat intuitively
  • Trying to get it right
  • Trying to let go of being perfect
  • Trying to be perfect
  • Trying to be balanced
  • Trying to be healthy
  • Trying to be a good person
  • Trying not to beat myself up
  • Trying to get a career
  • Trying to get “likes”
  • Trying to let go of caring about “likes”
  • Trying to keep up with the daily grind
  • Trying to do the right thing
  • Trying to know what the right thing was
  • Trying to look good
  • Trying not to care how I looked

These days it’s more like:

  • Trying to let go
  • Trying to be more present
  • Trying to surrender
  • Trying to live in acceptance
  • Trying not to get injured
  • Trying to be kinder to myself
  • Trying to find my glasses
  • Trying to have a balanced life
  • Trying to be peaceful
  • Trying to welcome all emotions
  • Trying to age well
  • Trying to surrender to aging
  • Trying to practice gratitude
  • Trying not to lose my keys
  • Trying to practice mindfulness
  • Trying not to beat myself up
  • Trying not to try so hard (I told you this could take a while!)

Recently, while on a lovely walk in the redwood forest, (my personal place of worship), I started thinking about all this trying. How for as long as I can remember, I have been trying, and then more recently, trying not to try so hard. I’d set out to take a lovely, quiet walk and commune with nature, yet that day, my mind was as busy as ever. I decided to call order in the court.

Hey! Can we give it a rest? Can we just stop trying? Can we stop trying to stop trying? Can we admit that the only reason we ever try to get or get rid of anything is because we think we will feel better if we did? Can we cut out the middle man and just cut to the chase?

And then, perhaps being witnessed by the majestic trees, the swaying ferns and the glistening creek, or perhaps because I made a conscious decision to drop trying (the new stop, drop and roll), something inside me gave way. My little tryer said, “Uncle,” and I began to steer my mind to the breeze, my feet on the ground, my arms moving in time, my breathing, a bird song. Much like pointing a tantruming child back to something soothing in the present moment, I steered my busy mind back home, back to reality.

The promises of attainment, achievement and accomplishment will pop up again and again, I’m sure. Many of us have been raised on way too much Disney and happily-ever-afters. But I’m onto it now. I am onto my mind’s seductive nature. Our minds seduce us into thinking if we just got this fill-in-the-blank, we would be happy, but all we have to do is remember the last several hundred things we were convinced would bring us happy-ever-after-ness to see that it’s not the case. If it were, we would have just lived happily-ever-after.

So, if you struggle with a busy little tryer inside of you, see if you can reel it back in now and then. Notice the simplicity of the moment. Remind your mind that anything you acquire will have pro’s and con’s and ups and downs so there really is nowhere to get. This is the best news of all.

In any given moment, we all have a feast of temptations to take us away from this moment. And then we have this moment. Reality. Right here. Right now. We get to choose… fantasies and fears or that which is actually, factually here. This breath. This surface. This sensation. This sound. I’m willing to give it a whirl if you are.

 

View on The Huffington Post

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Is Worry Useful?

By Andrea Wachter, LMFT

I am no stranger to worry. In fact, I was pretty much raised on it: love, chicken soup and worry. Suffice it to say that worrying is pretty much in my DNA. And after a few decades of counseling others from all walks of life, I realize that I am not alone. It’s human nature to worry. If you’re a parent, I’m pretty sure it’s in the job description. But having spent a lot of time lost in the depths of worry and its more intense form, anxiety, I have often wondered: Is worry actually useful?

We all have our share of things to worry about — from personal to global issues. But there is a distinction between worrying and thoughtful planning. Worry is about focusing on troubling things that might happen but generally speaking, worry does not help a troubling situation. Thoughtful planning and action can help. Deciding to let go and focus on the present moment can help. Sometimes, asking someone else for help can help. Sometimes asking something bigger than our minds — like whatever made the oceans, rainforests, flowers, snowflakes and babies — can help.

It’s not always easy to let go of our worrisome thoughts. Some are stronger and more convincing than others. But if we can stay committed to living more in the present moment instead of believing every thought that pops up in our minds, it can really make a difference.

One of my all time favorite quotes is from the author Eckhart Tolle. He says, “Worry pretends to be necessary but serves no useful purpose.” And boy oh boy does it pretend to be necessary! In my counseling practice, I regularly work with people who worry all the time. When we take a deeper look at their relationship to worry, I often notice a theme. A lot of people think that their worry somehow protects them from or prepares them for painful situations that may or may not happen in the future. But does it really? If someone worries that others will judge or criticize them, how does their worry actually help? How does constantly worrying that one might die prematurely or contract a fatal illness prevent that from happening? The theory I often hear is, “If I think about it in advance, I will be more prepared if or when it actually happens.” But is that true?

Worry does not prepare us for the future. It robs us of the present. Worrying is like trying to prevent something hard from happening in the future while causing something hard to happen in the present — worry! Worry is hard work and it’s stressful. We may tell ourselves that the right amount of worrying will help us get through an eventual disaster or hardship, but worry doesn’t have that kind of power. Now, I’m not talking about realistic preventative measures, like getting timely medical check-ups or going to a couples’ counselor if you’re worried about your relationship. If the weather channel is predicting a big storm, loading up on groceries and batteries might help, but worrying won’t. Unless you’re taking steps to actively do something about the issue or event that you’re worried about, worry is not really helpful.

So what does worry do? Worry makes your body feel as if the circumstance you are worried about is actually happening when in most cases it’s not. After experiencing my first big California earthquake, I found myself worrying frequently about there being another one. Every little jolt, door slam, foot stomp or thunderstorm sent me into a tizzy. Not to mention the quiet times my mind decided to get a jump on things and just plain worry without any evidence whatsoever! I realized after a while that if another actual earthquake happened, I wouldn’t have time to worry. I would head to the nearest door or react in whatever way I manage to at the time. Worrying now won’t help me then. Canned goods and bottled water might. So I began to thank my mind for sharing and for trying to anticipate and prepare for every possible future catastrophic quake. I began to reassure myself that I was actually safe in the moment. And I continued my resolve to spend more time in reality and deal with hard times when they actually arrived, rather than create them in a false attempt to prevent and prepare for them.

In recent years, life gave my worry some concrete evidence to sink its teeth into. My precious 85-year-old father began periodically fainting. Not a big fan of hydrating, the man plays tennis every day in hot weather and decides to as he calls it, “lay down.” Well my worry could have a field day with this one, especially given that my parents live thousands of miles away from me. One particularly memorable day, after a recent episode of “laying down,” I tried calling to check in with him. There was no answer on his or my mom’s cell phones and the home phone was busy… for hours. Well my worry began to have a feast. I’m talkin’ pull up a chair. Until I decided to practice what I preach. I asked myself, if my dad fainted, how is my terrorizing myself going to help him? If something horrible actually happens, how about if I deal with it then instead of creating it in my mind now and dealing with it twice the amount of time? It turns out my Dad had hung up the phone incorrectly, which was why it was busy. When I finally reached him, he was eating ice cream and watching a western. Note to self: We cannot prepare for the unthinkable but we can sure ruin a perfectly good day thinking about it! The episode with my dad reinforced this valuable lesson. We can deal with the hard parts of life when they actually occur or we can deal with them in our minds constantly and also when they occur.

Even though worry feels like serious business, a sense of humor can help sometimes too. In a recent session with a client who was preparing to travel abroad for a few months, we discussed her fears about her upcoming trip. She was excited for the opportunity to travel but she was very worried about going off to a foreign country without her familiar support system. She said, “I’m worried that my anxiety will ruin my trip.” She then laughed and said playfully, “I’m worried about ruining my trip and I am actually ruining my day! I’m worried about being worried!”

Another client of mine with was facing a frightening medical procedure. She spent months worrying about how much the procedure would hurt and how long it would take to heal. And she worried about having to go through it all again if her condition didn’t improve. The dreaded day finally came and went and she later told me that the procedure wasn’t nearly as bad as she had anticipated. She talked about how many months she spent worrying about the pain compared to how many moments the actual pain lasted and she was amazed. When she began to talk about how much time she “wasted” on worrying, I told her that the time would not be a waste if she could use it as a reminder to worry less and stay more present the next time she was facing a scary life circumstance.

These days, there’s plenty of grist for the worry mill: terrorism, the economy, climate changes, to name a few. Personally, I could lock and load my worry full-time if I’m not careful, conscious and in charge of who’s steering this tender ship. But I am. I realize every day that worrying about war, drought, floods, school shootings or the health of my loved ones is not going to keep something really hard from happening. Worrying only makes my system feel like the hard things are happening now.

So if you are a periodic or perpetual worrier, try asking yourself: Is this worry actually helping me or anyone else? Is there some action I could take to prepare for this worrisome possibility or can I let go and let life do what it will do anyway (with or without my well-intentioned assistance)? Can I reassure myself that whatever happens, I will handle it if and when it happens?

And then ever so gently, bring yourself back to whatever is actually and factually happening in this present moment right now…

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Sometimes Adults Need Tantrums, Too!

By Andrea Wachter, LMFT

When I was studying to become a psychotherapist, a professor told me that people generally seek therapy for one of two reasons: They are either having a tantrum or they need to have one! I have actually counseled people for many additional reasons but the tantrum tip has stuck with me over the years. And as I have worked with clients’ issues (as well as my own), I have recognized the importance of an occasional adult tantrum.

Tantrums are usually associated with children and are often considered unpleasant and unwanted. But what about a healthy, grown-up tantrum? What about making a conscious decision to welcome up our emotions rather than stuff them in or lash them out?

We all experience bumps in the road that trigger emotions. These bumps can range from minor irritations to challenging hardships to major traumas. A flat tire, a root canal, lost luggage: not fun, but likely something you’ll get over in a day or two. Your child’s difficulties in school, a rough patch at work, financial problems, marital problems: These can get you down for months. And then there are those life-changing, sucker-punch events that can knock us down for the count: a cancer diagnosis, the death of a loved one, an unwanted divorce, a natural or unnatural disaster. Personally, I’d like to speak to the manager in charge of dolling these out, but there is no escaping the fact that they are part of being human.

Obviously, minor annoyances are easier to deal with and recover from; but what about those ongoing stressful circumstances or the overwhelming realities we have to bare that feel utterly unbearable?

It seems to me that we have several options for how to deal with life’s hard breaks and heartbreaks:

1) Accept the news, situation or disaster as an integral part of life… and carry on. (Usually those who can readily do this are the more spiritually evolved among us. I know a few!)

2) Fight it, hate it, argue with it, chronically complain about it, and refuse to accept the situation.

3) Deny the difficulty of the situation and pretend like everything is perfectly fine. (This is where addictions come in handy.)

4) Allow yourself to have a safe, responsible, healthy, adult tantrum (the kind my wise professor spoke about years ago). This will help you eventually feel ready to accept the harsh reality you are facing.

I remember many years ago when my little nephew Douglas (now a young man in his mid-20s) came to visit me for a sleepover. We had just finished a fun day at an amusement park, and I informed him that it was time to go. He was not at all happy about this new development in our day and he proceeded to have a full-on tantrum. Being a new therapist (not to mention an aunt, which is infinitely less challenging than a mom), I told him it was fine for him to have his feelings but that we were going to need to head home in a few minutes. Well have his feelings he did. That boy let it rip. He proceeded to fling his little body onto the ground, kicking and screaming, punching his fists and rolling around in the dirt. After what felt like a really long time (but was probably about a minute), he picked himself up, walked over to me and with a tear stained, dirty little face said, “I was mad Aunt Andi. And then I was sad. Now I’m ready to go.” From the mouths of babes.

In the therapy world, we call such a tantrum “fully having your feelings” or going through one or more of the natural stages of grief. Practically speaking, a healthy, grown-up tantrum can look like many things: hitting a punching bag, mattress or pillow, talking about your feelings with someone who is comfortable with emotions, crying, wailing, screaming, shaking, journaling, anything your body wants to do to express your emotions as long as nobody and nothing of value gets hurt. A friend of mine will occasionally email me a long string of curse words when life throws her a doozy. No spaces, just one long word. She takes several of her favorite curse words and merges them into one looooong word to emphasize her point. And depending on the difficulty of the news, several or more exclamation points follow it up. This seems to do the trick to get things started!

Whatever your choices of expression are, when you consciously, responsibly, unabashedly, compassionately and safely have an adult “tantrum,” you are more likely to move through your emotions and achieve some form of acceptance. Of course, the more serious the life event, the longer the tantrum may need to last and reoccur. But we all have the options of stuffing our feelings in, blasting them out in unhealthy ways, or fully expressing what we feel in order to eventually come to accept what life has brought to our door.

I have found that when people allow themselves to safely express their anger, sadness, shock and fear while simultaneously practicing compassionate self-care and seeking compassionate companionship, they can navigate the turbulent phases of life without hurting themselves or anyone else. They naturally experience more acceptance rather than stay stuck in denial, depression, anxiety, addiction or acting out.

So how do you respond to life’s curve balls? Do you live in a permanent tantrum that leaves you feeling angry most of the time? Do you refuse to accept what life has brought to your door? Do you stuff your feelings down with substances or other addictive behaviors? Do you feel chronically depressed, anxious or hopeless? Do you pretend that everything is just fine when it’s not? Or are you able to allow yourself to truly and fully express your feelings — to be mad, sad, scared — and then eventually reach an acceptance of your reality?

How about letting yourself have a healthy, safe, responsible tantrum when life throws you a curve ball? How about getting extra support, extra tissues, and extra self-care, until your tear-stained self is ready to move on? May we all, in the face of our adversities, follow in the footsteps of my young nephew: feel mad, feel sad, and then feel ready to go.

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7 Things I Wish I’d Known When I Was Battling Depression

By Andrea Wachter, LMFT

I spent many years in and out of depression, and while I felt very much alone at the time, I know now that I was not. Millions of people battle the dark depths of depression every day. Like many others, I kept most of my painful thoughts and feelings to myself. When I finally got desperate enough to reach out for professional help, it took a long time for me to actually believe and integrate the guidance that I was given.

Here are some key truths I have come to believe. If you are struggling with depression, I hope you will too.

1. Don’t believe everything you think.
We all have our share of losses and challenges in life. But the main cause of depression is not usually our life circumstances. It is our thinking. Unfortunately, when we are depressed, we tend to believe our thoughts. And the mind of a depressed person is not usually the best place to hang out. When I was battling depression, I wholeheartedly believed every thought that popped up on the screen of my mind. My thoughts seemed and felt so true. I even gathered evidence to support them and ignored evidence to the contrary. For example, when I was single and feeling lonely, I only saw couples out in the world. My mind refused to take in that there were millions of single people around me as well. Not to mention millions of unhappy couples. If I was struggling with a recent weight gain, I only saw thin, confident looking women. My mind refused to see anyone else. It was as if my depressed self was on trial and my mind was the prosecuting attorney gathering evidence that I was not okay and that everyone else was. Eventually, after lots of help from others and a good dose of willingness from within, I learned that I could take a stand against my internal programs. I learned that I could disagree with my discouraging thoughts and eventually dispel them for good. You can too!

2. Do the opposite of what the “voice of depression” suggests.
As a psychotherapist, I often find myself encouraging people to follow their hearts, listen to their true feelings, and go with their intuition… unless they are depressed. That’s because when we are lost in depression, we are not in the best position to make wise decisions regarding self-care. My “voice of depression” used to convince me to isolate, veg out all day, oversleep, binge, starve, get high or give up. I had to learn to do the opposite of what that internal voice was telling me to do. I had to learn that when I was depressed and thought I should isolate, I should do exactly the opposite and reach out to a friend or attend a support group. When the voice of depression told me to watch TV all day, I had to push myself to take a walk or listen to a self-help cassette tape (remember those?) When my mind told me not to eat breakfast because I wanted to lose weight or because I had no appetite, I needed to do the opposite and eat a nutritious meal anyway or I was going to set myself up for yet another binge followed by even deeper depression.

Unfortunately, depression zaps the energy we need to do the very things that will make us feel less depressed. Learning to do the opposite of what your voice of depression suggests will help you begin to climb out of its painful and familiar grip.

3. Don’t open virus-infested links.
We don’t usually have a choice about what thoughts pop up in our minds. But we do have a choice about whether or not to open those “virus-infested links” containing the same old self-sabotaging thoughts. Rather than allow our thoughts to infect our whole system, we can choose to only download ideas we know to be safe and user-friendly. So if you know that your “unkind mind” is operating, you can choose to close it and only open up what you know are safe programs. If you know that a certain link will tell you “I am a loser,” decide to download the “This is what’s okay about me” message instead. Instead of opening the “My life sucks” link, you can choose the “These are some things that are good about my life” podcast. Avoid the virus that says, “Everyone has a better life than me” and download “Here are some things I’m grateful for.” With willingness and practice, you can prevent yourself from getting an emotional virus.

4. Upgrade your mantras.
Whether or not you consider yourself to be a spiritual person or believe in the concept of mantras, we are all constantly repeating internal messages to ourselves. Our minds are mantra machines, and whether our messages are kind, neutral, unkind or abusive, they make an enormous difference in the quality of our lives. I used to have a mantra that went something like this: I’m too weak to handle life. I’m not cut out for this. Things are never going to get better. Not exactly an Oprah pick-me-up! I had heard of the self-fulfilling prophecy that if you tell a child they are stupid long enough, they will begin to believe it and act that way. But here I was self-fulfilling my own prophecies. I had to begin to pry my gripped fingers off of my internal whip and set it down. I had to practice some new mantras that were kinder and as it turned out, more true.

My upgraded mantras sound more along the lines of this: I can handle what happens. Everyone has struggles. I am safe in this moment. I can do things to improve my life. I am worthy. We are all the same on some level. I learned that even if I didn’t believe them at first, it was an upgrade in the system and I had to start somewhere. Plus, the people that told me to speak to myself with more kindness swore that it would eventually make a difference and I knew where they lived if it turned out they were wrong! They were not wrong.

5. You are not alone.
I remember the first time I asked someone if they ever thought about suicide and they said they hadn’t. I was floored. “Never?” I asked. “Not even once?” It simply never even occurred to me that everyone wasn’t battling those dark thoughts; that everyone wasn’t as sensitive as I was, and that everyone wasn’t deciding whether or not to stick around and choose life. But it’s true. We are all different breeds and some of us are more sensitive and thought-filled than others. Yes, we all face hard times and we all — regardless of fame, fortune or physique — will face losses. But some of us have a darker internal experience than others. It’s important to find people who reallyunderstand and can handle your pain and your dark thoughts, people you feel totally safe with.

I also remember the first time I confided in a friend that I was suicidal. She was completely silent. I’m talkin’ not one word. Poor thing. I know now she had zero skills to deal with such intense information and we were pretty young at the time but it left me feeling even more alone and despairing. It would be years before I would risk sharing my dark secret again; however, the next time, I chose a professional who really got me and really knew how to respond. Boy did I feel the difference! It’s so important to seek out loving, compassionate, non-judgmental people until you can be that way toward yourself. If you are looking for a therapist, consider someone who has Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) skills as well as Mindfulness Training. CBT will help you learn to challenge and change your thinking and mindfulness will help you learn to live without becoming lost in your thoughts.

6. Something needs to die, but not you!
Being a sensitive person in a demanding and often perfectionistic world is not easy. I spent years thinking I just wasn’t cut out for this life. My go-to thought when things felt overwhelming was “I’m outta here.” It’s hard for me to believe that now because I’m so committed to seeing this life through. I’ve learned that difficult feelings pass and that not every thought needs to be camped out on. But back in my dark decades, I truly wanted out. A lot. Sometimes my way out was through addictions and sometimes it was truly wanting out.

What I know now — and I hope, if you are in the grips of depression, that you will know too — is this: If your mind is telling you that you need to die, it might mean that something does indeed need to die, but not you! Your perfectionism might need to die. Self-hate might need to die. The belief that you can’t handle life might need to die. The thought that everyone else has a charmed life might need to die. The thought that you are alone and that nobody cares might need to die. But not you. Underneath the habitual unkind mind is a quiet, loving heart with passions, ideas and dreams. Once you let go of your self-negating thoughts, all those other parts of you can be tapped into and lived to their fullest.

7. One chapter is not the whole book.
When you are struggling with depression, it is so tempting to think that this is the way it will always be. But life takes different twists and turns, and we don’t get to know what the next chapter in our life will bring if we give up on ourselves. One client spent years comparing herself to her seemingly happily married friends and felt desperately lonely. Despite my weekly reminders that life stories can change, she was convinced that hers would not. But her story did change. She is now married and enjoying her new chapter in life. Additionally, a few of her previously “perfect and happy” friends are now divorced. I’m not one to say I told you so. I am just one to say that things can change. We all experience sad, challenging chapters in our lives, just as we all experience change. Regardless of whether or not our outside circumstances drastically shift, if our minds change, everything can change. This is why some people have what is seemingly a dreary job and swear that they are the happiest people on the planet, while others have literal fame and fortune and yet struggle with addictions and depression or even take their own lives.

So if you are battle weary from depression, try challenging your next dark thought. Try doing the opposite of what your voice of depression suggests. Upgrade your daily mantra to something kinder and more grateful. Allow a harmful thought pattern to die. Try reaching out to someone who really understands you… and see how the next chapter unfolds!

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Healing What You’re Feeling When You’re Reeling

By Andrea Wachter, LMFT

Dealing with painful emotions is one of the most challenging aspects of being human. And, as human beings, we are going to have painful emotions throughout our lives. While we can’t prevent them, we can learn more effective ways of coping with them.

The most common emotions that cause people stress are fear, anger, and sadness. While there are many other words to describe the various emotions that humans feel, those are the three main ones. Happiness is a primary emotion as well, but it doesn’t usually cause stress like the others. Although, it is often our pursuit of happiness that causes us to repress, judge, or avoid our more difficult emotions. Granted, fear, anger and sadness are more challenging to experience than happiness but since they are all part of being human, it is essential to learn how to deal with them in order to avoid depression, chronic anxiety, and addiction.

In my experience as a psychotherapist, I have found that the most common obstacles to overcoming painful emotions are the counterproductive strategies that people use to deal with them. Some people deny their feelings outright, which of course is impossible to sustain given that our feelings cannot be hidden away indefinitely. Others attempt to avoid difficult emotions by using alcohol, drugs, food, or other addictive activities — but are still left with their original pain, in addition to the negative consequences from having used their drug of choice.

Once you learn how to identify, notice, express and treat your feelings, you will be able to heal what you feel. Your emotions will no longer be something to fear or avoid. They will simply become occasional waves that you will know how to ride out. So, if you are someone who has a difficult time dealing with big feelings, here are four steps to help you ride out the waves of emotional pain:

Step 1: Identify Feelings: The first step in learning to heal what you feel is to identify what you are feeling. If you are not well versed in the language of emotions,here is a great list you can refer to. There might be times when you know exactly what you’re feeling. At other times you might have to take a guess. Sometimes you might not have a clue. Don’t worry if you can’t name what you’re feeling; you can still continue to practice the following steps.

Step 2: Notice Sensations: Our feelings are essentially experienced as physical sensations in our body. Often we feel a troubling emotion in our chest or our stomach but sometimes in other parts of the body as well. A common mistake that many people make is to ignore these physical sensations and instead, focus on the thoughts and stories in their minds. I refer to these as Mind Movies. For example, a person who is feeling sad might get stuck in the thought that they will always feel this way and that life is hopeless, when all that is really happening is that they are experiencing sadness. Or someone might be feeling angry at their partner and rather than experience that emotion until they get clarity on what needs to be said, or until it passes, they get lost in the story that their partner is a jerk. It is very seductive to leave our body when we are having big feelings and stay lost in our minds with big stories.

One extremely helpful practice when you are having painful feelings is to notice the sensations in your body with curiosity and without judgment. Simply notice them without attaching any story or thought to them. You might try locating where in your body you feel your emotions and notice what they feel like. It’s so easy to get lost in our thoughts and miss this simple and effective practice of noticing body sensations. Practicing this will often result in quieting the mind and relaxing the body. You still might need or want to talk about your feelings with someone else but experiencing them as bodily sensations without attaching any judgment or story line is an extremely effective and powerful practice to keep in your emotional healing toolkit.

Step 3: Safely Express: Once you have identified what you are feeling, another option can be to safely express that emotion. If it’s sadness, you might need to cry. If it’s fear, you might find it helpful to share or write about it or perhaps come up with a realistic solution. If it’s anger, you might need to find a way to let that emotion out of your body without hurting anyone (or anything of value). Some people benefit from hitting a punching bag, going to a batting cage and hitting some balls, or doing some other type of physical exercise. Others find it helps to release anger by screaming into a pillow, drawing or writing it out on paper (otherwise known as a “rage page”).

If you do decide to talk with someone, hopefully you have one or more safe people in your life with whom you are comfortable sharing your feelings. A safe person is someone who will not judge you, minimize your feelings, or overreact. Whether it’s a friend, a relative or a counselor, the important thing is that you find a safe person you can truly be yourself with.

Step 4: Cultivate a Kind Mind: This step can be challenging for a lot of people because it involves being kind to yourself and this is not a strong suit for everyone. When we are in pain and speak to ourselves in a critical, harsh way, we only make things worse. Imagine if a friend or a child came to you in pain and you criticized or scolded them. They most certainly would not feel better and would likely feel even worse. Not only would they feel the original pain they had revealed to you, they would experience additional pain from your scolding.

Very often, as clients tell me about their pain, they are simultaneously beating themselves up for feeling the way that they are. They’ll say things like, “I hate myself for not being able to stop crying.” “I’m such a wimp!” “I can’t believe I still feel this way.” “I need to get over it.” “I just can’t get it together!” If the internal voice you are using is an unkind one, it obviously doesn’t feel too good, even though it might feel familiar. Criticizing ourselves when we are in pain only creates more pain.

If you struggle with self-compassion and acceptance when you are in pain, consider the following steps:

1) Identify the painful feeling you are experiencing.

2) Say something kind and compassionate to yourself about what you are feeling.

3) Imagine holding your painful feelings like you would a hurt child, a puppy or a kitten.

When I walk clients through this process, it is amazing to see how a more loving response changes people’s experience. Almost immediately, clients tell me that they feel lighter or in less pain. When we are in pain, the last thing we need is self-criticism. What we do need is kindness, compassion, and sometimes a lot of tissues.

It is possible to learn how to identify and notice sensations in your body until they move right through you. It is extremely healing to express your emotions with safe, loving people. And it is highly effective to treat your own painful feelings with kindness and compassion. In these ways you can heal what you feel.

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Advantages of Being Highly Sensitive

By Andrea Wachter, LMFT

Chances are, if you are a highly sensitive person, you are no stranger to being told that you are “too sensitive.” For many people, this comment feels like an insult, but in fact, there are some considerable advantages that come along with being a highly sensitive person.

When I was a kid, I used to think that everyone was equally as sensitive as I was. I figured everyone took everything to heart like I did– they just didn’t admit it. I was sure that my siblings cowered inside like I did when our parents scolded us. I was certain that all my friends were as crushed as I was when a budding romance did not bloom into a full-blown relationship. I thought everyone wanted to die if they made a mistake or disappointed someone. It took many years for me to realize that we are not all the same breed. Some people are not crushed at the thought of disappointing another person. Some people are neutral about conflicts. Some want to lash out instead of in. (I refer to them as “Outies” as opposed to the highly sensitive “Innie.”)

Countless times as a kid, I was told, “You are soooo sensitive.” And naturally, being a sensitive breed, I cowered inside and took the comment as an insult. I decided that being so sensitive must have been a fatal flaw. It took many years before I could respond to the, “Your so sensitive” comment with a shame- free, “Yes I am.” Or “I am, so please be kind to me.” Or “Thank you.”

It is not a curse to be highly sensitive; it’s a trait and it can even be an asset. After treating many sensitive people in my therapy practice (and making peace with the quality myself), I have found some pretty nice benefits that come with being highly sensitive. Here are a few:

1) Sensitive people get to feel the good stuff more deeply- If you are highly sensitive, you probably have to deal with feeling difficult emotions more intensely than some people, but the flip side of this means that you get to feel the sweet things in life very deeply too. While you may have to use more tools to weather the storms of life, when the storms subside and there are calm moments, you get to feel those more fully.

2) Sensitive people can be very empathetic- Another benefit of being sensitive is that you can have very deep compassion and understanding for the struggles that other people face. As long as you don’t take them on or think you are responsible for fixing them, sensitive people can make excellent partners, parents, friends and healers.

3) Sensitive people can be very perceptive- People who are sensitive tend to pick up on things that others might miss. Being aware and observant can be a very positive quality. There are a lot of jobs that require great perception and insight so being sensitive can be a great asset to many different career paths.

4) Sensitive people can embrace new concepts very deeply- While sensitive people tend to absorb a lot and often have to work on letting go of hurt feelings and harmful thoughts, they can also use this quality toward positive input as well. Given a handful of healthy tools, a person who is “sensitive” to new information can be very teachable. They can use their ability to embrace new concepts and reap extreme benefits from them.

5) Sensitive people can be very creative- While sensitive people tend to be greatly affected on the inside by outside stimulus, they can also use their sensitive nature to tap into the creativity within. Some of the most creative people I know are extremely sensitive. Yes, they might have to deal with the outside world a bit more carefully than some but when they use their awareness and clarity to tap into their inner world, amazing things can happen. Being sensitive can give someone a front row seat into the inner show of creativity, intuition and clarity that lives inside of us.

6) Being sensitive encourages people to practice excellent self care- While some people can get away with postponing their needs at times, sensitive people often feel the effects of neglect sooner than most. A person who feels everything fully is more encouraged to fully take care of themselves. One client of mine said, “Other people can get away with skipping a meal now and then or neglecting their sleep for a few days. I am a wreck if I do that. Oh, maybe that’s not such a bad thing? It forces me to be on top of my self-care!”

7) Sensitive people are very aware of their surroundings- Being a sensitive person can give you a highly attuned sense of the environment around you. Sensitive people are often accused of missing nothing, but this is not necessarily a negative quality. They are often the first to spot a dolphin at the ocean, the first to spot a deer in the forest and the first to spot danger coming. Sensitive people can be quite helpful and handy on a hike or in a natural disaster.

So if you are a highly sensitive person, take heart. Once you make peace with the way you were born, you can learn to weather the storms of life and fully enjoy the many advantages of being sensitive.

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Self-Parenting: What’s Your Style?

By Andrea Wachter, LMFT

Parenting and nurturing a child involves many things: How we speak to our children, how we treat them and what we teach them, to name only a few. How we engage in these behaviors can also apply to how we parent ourselves. Whether or not you are the parent of a child, if you are old enough to read this blog, you have more than likely adopted a style of “self-parenting.”

In my years of counseling clients, I have noticed that when it comes to self-parenting, most of us tend to adopt either our parent’s style of parenting (sometimes attempting to do an even better job than they did) or the exact opposite style. For example, the adult child of a neat freak might be extremely conscious of cleanliness or they might completely rebel and live in a pigsty. The child of a chronic dieter may strive to be an even more vigilant dieter or go to the other extreme and struggle with overeating. Usually, these patterns take shape without our awareness. Often people don’t realize until they are in therapy that they have either earned a PhD in their parent’s style of parenting or utterly flunked the subject.

One of the most important aspects of self-parenting is how we speak to ourselves, sometimes referred to as self-talk. This is so important because most of us engage in constant internal conversations. Self-talk dramatically affects how we feel about ourselves and thus plays a significant role in our day-to-day experiences as well as in the choices we make in life.

As you consider what kind of self-parenting you engage in, keep in mind that there are essentially three styles of parental communication: one is healthy and two are not. You can probably guess which one you should strive for.

#1 Critical Self-Parenting:
The voice you would hear if you employ this style of self-parenting is often unkind, angry and even hateful. Someone with this style of self-parenting constantly beats themselves up for not living up to their own expectations. Instead of learning from mistakes, a critical self-parent uses mistakes to confirm that they are not good enough and deserve to be punished. They are unforgiving with themselves and don’t recognize that all humans are imperfect. They use self-berating as a means of motivation. And even when they do succeed at something, they tend to focus on what they haven’t achieved.

#2 Neglectful Self-Parenting: This is the opposite extreme of critical self-parenting and often involves procrastination and depression. A person with this style might avoid tackling a problem or project, continually coming up with reasons not to do it. They also may speak to themselves unkindly, but their self-talk does not motivate them to take action.

Let’s look at how these two styles might play out in the real world using the example of a mother trying to get her child to clean his room.

• The critical parent might first criticize their child. If the kid doesn’t comply, the parent yells at him. And finally, the parent punishes the child if the room is still not cleaned up.

• The neglectful parent might just let her child live in a pigsty and ignore it. This might seem like an easier route, but failing to teach the child important life skills will likely lead to future problems and unhealthy consequences.

In the case of self-parenting:
• The critical self-parent berates herself until the job is done, feeling bad about it the entire time. Even when the job is completed she finds something wrong, telling herself: “I should have cleaned the house last week and I should have done all the windows too!”
• The neglectful self-parent lets her house go and uses excuse after excuse to avoid cleaning up.

# 3 Loving Self-Parenting: With this style, a person’s self-talk is kind and respectful. They don’t expect perfection — progress and process are sufficient. They encourage themselves by being supportive, rather than by beating themselves up as an attempt to self-motivate. On the other hand, they don’t just let things slide. They get things done because they feel encouraged and authentically motivated.

Being a loving self-parent is more effective than employing either the critical or neglectful styles because it leaves you feeling better throughout the process of pursuing a particular endeavor or goal. If you get stuck, you aren’t distracted by self-criticism or depression. Instead, you shift into problem-solving mode, trying to figure out what kind of help you might need in order to move forward. You treat yourself with compassion, rather than criticism.

What kind of self-parenting do you engage in? How do you speak to yourself throughout the day? How do you teach yourself when faced with a learning curve in life? How do you treat yourself during life’s many challenges?

Whenever I see the bumper sticker that reads, It’s never too late to have a happy childhood, I think about how a loving self-parenting style is how we can give ourselves the happy childhood we may not have had. No matter what kind of upbringing you experienced or what kind of self-parenting style you have adopted up until now, it’s never too late to treat yourself with compassion and kindness. By lovingly nurturing, encouraging, and motivating yourself, you can become the parent you always wanted.

View on The Huffington Post

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Emotions 101: How to Reveal and Heal What You Feel

By Andrea Wachter, LMFT

One of the most important aspects of being human is the fact that we have feelings —all day long. And yet, rarely are we taught healthy ways to cope with them. Who among us learned about coping with emotions in school? And how on earth did such an important lesson get glossed over? How many of us were taught in our families that it’s healthy and healing to cry or safely express our anger? (And this is not because our parents or teachers were bad people. In most cases, it’s because they were not taught how to deal with emotions themselves!) Sure, some fortunate people had an amazing relative or teacher who was really safe and welcoming of feelings, but for the most part, that is not the common case.

Most of us were raised with well-intentioned messages to stop crying immediately (presumably so that we would feel better). Little did our innocent caregivers know that telling us not to cry, or giving us a cookie or a bottle every time we were sad, might give our little brains the message that expressing sadness is not okay and we should keep it down.

As for anger, most of us were told to go to our rooms and come out when we were ready to behave. Again, well-intentioned and likely meant to help us be good rather than what it really did — which was teach us to hold in our anger (which then leaks out later in inappropriate ways or “leaks in” on ourselves in the form of self-criticism, depression or addiction).

So what do we do with feelings if we are not going to stuff them down or blast them out in hurtful or destructive ways? How do we cope with emotions so they do not transform and manifest into addictions, anxiety or depression? Well, I’m glad you asked!

For those of you who never got the lesson on Emotions 101, here are the basics:

In the same way that there are primary colors and secondary colors, human beings have four primary emotions and many secondary ones. The four primary emotions are: sadness, anger, fear and happiness (with an array of variations on each, for example, irritation and rage are lesser and greater degrees of anger).

Our natural state is to be present and at peace. Then when a feeling arises, if we are healthy and not lost in depression, obsession or addiction, we experience and express that feeling and then return to peace and presence. Just look at children. They are in the present moment. When a feeling is triggered they may need to cry or have a tantrum. If their feelings are welcomed, acknowledged and validated, and they are done fully expressing their emotions, they move back to being present again.

Sounds simple enough, right? But coming from a culture that is addicted to the pursuit of happiness and avoidant of the more challenging emotions, most of us are taught at a very young age to stuff down our feelings. We are too often fed or given a pacifier when we are sad, or scolded and sent to our rooms when we are mad. So many of us have been taught that there are good and bad feelings when in truth, all feelings are natural and need to be expressed safely. And when they are, they naturally move through us. It’s when we stuff them down and/or blast them out that we end up getting into trouble. (And by trouble, I mean feeling depressed, obsessed or addicted to something.)

Depression, anxiety, addiction and obsessive thinking are all good attempts to avoid and distract from feelings but in the long run, they don’t work. Letting out our feelings in a safe manner is what helps us move through them and return to peace. It’s healing and natural to express our feelings. In fact, crying has proven health benefits. Scientists have examined and compared the tears that are produced by onions with the tears that are produced by emotions. While the tears caused by onions were made of 98 percent water, the tears that were caused by emotions contained actual toxins. So crying is actually one way the body has of healing itself. When you allow yourself to cry, you are releasing and relieving yourself of toxins! Crying also helps to remove chemicals and hormones that are stored in our body from stress. That’s why people will sometimes say they feel relieved after letting themselves cry.

Of course it’s not easy or fun to cry or to be angry, but it is essential in order to achieve emotional health. The need to express feelings is as natural as having to go to the bathroom. If we have a feeling and we hold it in, then we are not going to feel well or be well. Many of us treat our feelings as if they need to be figured out or fixed. What they really need is to be welcomed and felt.

We basically have three options once we identify that we are having a feeling:

  1. We can implode (i.e., stuff it down, avoid it or pretend it’s not there).
  2. We can explode (i.e., blast it out disrespectfully or destructively).
  3. We can express it safely and appropriately.

Too often, we tell ourselves that we shouldn’t have our feelings or that we shouldn’t bother anyone with them. We judge ourselves as weak. We tell ourselves we can’t talk about it or that we don’t know how. So many of us then end up using substances or obsessing on something or going into a dark place of depression in attempt to distract and numb ourselves from the feeling or in an attempt to get some comfort for it. This might work temporarily, as most distractions do, but then we end up with the same original feelings inside, plus on top of that, feeling badly about ourselves or our behavior (or lack of behavior, in the case of depression).

So let’s say you decide you want to learn how to have a healthier relationship to your emotions. What to do next? There are basically two parts: One part is about is how you let them out and the other part is about what you put back in.

In order to let your feelings out, it is important to find safe people to take your feelings to. A safe person is someone you feel accepted by and comforted from, whether that is a professional, a friend or a family member — and eventually, yourself!

The second part is learning to receive kindness, compassion and comfort for your feelings. We need to receive comfort not only from others but from ourselves as well.

It’s important to know that all emotions come in waves. Sometimes small, manageable waves. Sometimes medium-sized, and sometimes, big tidal waves. The next time you experience a wave of emotion, see if you can tell yourself that it will pass. Try saying something soothing, nurturing and comforting to yourself and/or doing something soothing (and non-harmful) for yourself. This could be talking with someone you feel safe with, journaling, drawing or creating some art to express how you feel. The key here is to find the emotion inside of you and see how it would want to come out (safely).

The more compassionate and kind you are toward yourself when you are having feelings, the sooner and more successfully those feelings will move through you. And once you are comfortable with all your emotions, there is no longer anything to avoid or fear. Whatever the feeling is, you welcome it up and return to peace and presence until the next wave comes.

We all need a safe port in a storm so that when life gets hard, we have someplace to land. For many, their “safe” place to land is obsessive thinking or checking out in some way. When you can turn to internal soothing and external support, then you always have truly safe places to land that do not leave you feeling worse afterward. And you will have learned the most important lesson in life: how to reveal and heal what you feel.

View on The Huffington Post

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