5 Tips for Living with Anxiety: part D

Get active!

It’s been a bit since the last blog. There was a break in school and new years and, if you’re like me, a bit too much food and napping. It’s fortunate then that this next point about ways to live with anxiety includes something that may just help me feel not so bad about that second (or third or fourth) piece of cake at the tail end of 2018.

So, at this point you can hopefully remember we have talked about some of the ways our bodies react in stressful situations, some ways to identify your personal stress triggers, and you may have even tried a coping mechanism or two in your quest to live with anxiety. This blog looks at a significant tool in your arsenal to combat anxiety: exercise. Now I can almost hear you saying, “but Aaron, exercise is dumb” or “that won’t help my mind” or “I’m not an athlete, how will this apply to me?” If you’ll stick with me I hope you’ll see a simple trick to help you get a jump start on the process of reducing feelings of stress and anxiety in your life.

Can exercise cure depression or anxiety?

Cure is a really strong word, and it kind of depends on what you mean by cure. Like, does a pain reliever “cure” a headache? It does help lessen the pain, it may even help you have less frequent headaches, but headaches still happen. So on the one hand it may seem like the pain relievers do “cure” headaches by making them go away, but in another fashion they don’t “cure” anything because the symptoms are not gone permanently. Exercise can function in a similar fashion to a pain reliever for a headache. The practice of exercise can certainly help alleviate symptoms of depression or anxiety, but just getting physical doesn’t somehow prevent you from ever feeling anxious or depressed ever again.

Working out and exercising, whatever that looks like for you, can help, but it’s just a part of the overall picture of dealing with your feelings of anxiety or depression.

How does exercise help anxiety and depression?

So, you decide you want to try exercising because it may help. Well how does it do that exactly? There are a few way that exercise can help with these issues. For one, the fact that you have a goal and begin accomplishing that goal can help you feel better about your situation. If you are doing something, then you’re not doing nothing. You are then actively engaged in getting better. And it doesn’t matter how big the steps, if they are in the right direction you will get there eventually. So just starting and being on the journey can help in and of itself. Secondly, there are researched physiological benefits to exercise in which the research suggests that exercising helps release the happy feel-good chemicals in your brain and also help stave off the accumulation of the unpleasant not-so-feel-good chemicals. If nothing else, your heart rate increases and pumps more oxygenated blood to your brain giving your noggin the best fuel available and that certainly helps improve mood and ability to cope, right?

Which exercise is best for mental health?


The one that you do - SURPRISE! But seriously, the exercise you actually DO is better than a hundred workouts you just THINK about doing. That being said, there are some important factors to consider when exercising and ways in which some exercised might be better for different people for aiding in mental health. First of all, consult your physician before beginning any exercise routine - you need to make sure you are physically healthy enough to engage in whatever exercise you decide to do. So, you’ve checked with your doctor and your good to go? Good, let’s get started.

While you may decide to become a “gym-rat” and pump iron every single day until you can win a bodybuilding competition, the best kinds of exercise for mental health seems to be steady-state low impact cardio - otherwise known as just plain old walking. That’s right, taking a nice 20-30 minute walk 3 or 4 times a week can dramatically increase one’s sense of overall well-being and decrease the occurrence of feelings of anxiety and depression.

Like I’ve said before, there is no magic trick to simply make feelings of anxiety and depression disappear - whatever option you take to deal with these feelings can help, but it will likely take consistent effort in a positive direction. It’s just like eating. You don’t have a great meal once and then never have to eat again, you body constantly needs continual input of nutrients to function well, and so does your mind. You do the things that help and it becomes easier and easier to do those healthy and helpful things, that’s the idea here. Find something that works for your physical health level and try to incorporate that into your routine. By themselves none of these tricks will have the same benefit that you will get if you apply all of them. And once you start doing that I imagine you will start to notice just how different life feels.

Research bits

So below are the sources I used for this blog.

Callaghan P.. Exercise: a neglected intervention in mental health care? J Psychiatr Ment Health Nurs. 2004;11:476–483. [PubMed]

Guszkowska M.. Effects of exercise on anxiety, depression and mood [in Polish] Psychiatr Pol. 2004;38:611–620. [PubMed]

Sharma, A., Madaan, V., & Petty, F. D. (2006). Exercise for mental health. Primary care companion to the Journal of clinical psychiatry, 8(2), 106.

5 Tips for Living with Anxiety: part 3


So, we’re right about halfway through this series on living and dealing with anxiety. We started with some discussion of the ways your body reacts during stressful situations and some tips on learning to identify what gets you so stressed out. If you have done those things then its time to take the next step and look at different coping mechanisms to help you deal with your feelings of stress and anxiety. If you haven’t read through the first two parts, go ahead and do that first and then come back here...don’t worry, I’ll wait :)

How do coping skills help? 

Simply put, they help you to cope with your stress and anxiety. There. Simple. Asked and answered. 

But in reality you are probably wanting to know a bit more detail, right? The idea of coping skills/coping mechanisms is to find a strategy to combat your stressful and anxiety-ridden feelings. To find some kind of outlet or behavior or whatever to make you either feel less stress and anxiety or enable you to function even though you feel some of that stress and anxiety.  Coping skills don’t magically make feelings of stress and anxiety disappear, but those strategies can lessen the impact and experience of stress. Like a nice warm coat in the cold winter. It’s still cold outside, but things are so much more comfortable and manageable in the cold if you have on a nice comfy and warm coat.

Why are coping skills important? 

Because without them you will likely continue in the same pattern that you have always experienced with stress and anxiety. It’s said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results. If you don’t find a way to manage unpleasant and difficult feelings, then it will be quite challenging to make any kind of change in your life. If you can find ways to deal with those stressors and handle yourself, then you can face the challenges in life with a fully-equipped utility belt full of coping skills to handle whatever life throws at you. Hopefully it’ll just be a gentle toss of a snuggly puppy. 

Which coping skill should I use? 

This is the question you really want to know right, how to cut through the talk and learn what to do so that you can stop feeling so stressed and anxious.  There are probably as many different ways to deal with stress as there are people in the world, but don’t let that get you down. While many skills are different there are a number of common elements that we can draw from to find a thing that works for you. That’s the real key, finding out which technique or skill works for you. The coping skill you should use is probably the one that works, right?

But to your point, here are a few examples of coping skills/techniques/mechanisms that might be helpful. If you’re comfortable doing so and are interested I recommend you give them a try.  Below is one of my favorites - I use this trick in my life as well. Click the link for a more detailed description of each option.

Deep Breathing

What do I do when coping skills don’t work?

The answer depends on what’s happening.

Is the coping skill you just started not doing anything? Maybe give it a few times to practice and get used to. It is a skill after all and those take some time to get good at. But if after some practice it still seems to be ineffectual then see below.

Has the coping skill that used to be helpful stopped being helpful anymore? Then maybe switch to a new/different tactic. Sometimes our bodies and minds need variety or perhaps that specific trick just won’t do the trick any more - it happens occasionally. Sometimes certain coping skills are better suited to certain situations than others. I often share a breathing technique (the Deep Breathing from above) to help people calm their bodies when they are feeling stressed.

Next time we will look at one particular coping mechanism that helps not only in times of stress and anxiety, but some research indicates may even help lower the instance of anxiety in general. (For those interested I will link to some of the research in that blog).

5 Tips for Living with Anxiety: part two


In the first part I talked about the importance of knowing yourself so you could Recognize What’s Happening The second part of discovering tips to live with anxiety is to Learn Your Triggers - or What pushes your buttons?. When you know what causes you to be stressed and anxious you can begin to create habits and routines that help you avoid even getting stressed in the first place. Begin by keeping track of the times that you feel those feelings of anxiety. Maybe you write them down in a journal or use an app, but keep a log of the when and where you found yourself stressed - the more context the better. After you have amassed a bit of a list you can then look and see if you can find a common thread between all the times you have been stressed. Maybe you always feel nervous when you are in a crowd, or when you have to speak in front of people, or every time you see a cat. With some luck and careful deductive skills (you go Sherlock!), you might be Abel to tease out at least some common factors. Once you figure that out, just avoid that thing…maybe…if that makes sense in your life.

How do triggers cause anxiety?

They just do. But seriously, the biological machinations behind the process is a bit beyond the scope of this blog, however I shall provide a brief summary of sorts. What happens to us when we experience negative situations? We tend to remember those much more strongly and vividly than other experiences, right? Like touching the stove, you don’t remember the hundred times you touched the cold stove, but the ONE TIME you touched the hot stove, oh man do you remember that. This kind of negative experience tends to make a much bigger impression in your mind because it deals with your safety, nay, your very survival! Ok, that was a bit dramatic, but you get the picture. The more we find ourselves in situations that could be bad for us - even if the probability of that is very small - we tend to remember that more. A nifty threat-avoidance system our brain is running all the time. While that system can help us avoid the angry-cat-threat, when running too long it can have us jumping at shadows. So how do we tell this unhealthy system to stand down and stop alerting us at shadows and only when the angry cat shows back up? Let’s read on.

Can triggers go away?

Sort of. In the same kind of way that we acquire triggers (a particularly strong and negative experience or fear of consequences or something) we can also use that process to undo our mental connections between events and unpleasant responses. One of those methods is exposure therapy. In this process you are gradually introduced to the things that you fear or cause anxiety in a safe manner- this is mostly used for phobias with like snakes or spiders or something controllable like that, maybe even public speaking. This kind of continual exposure in a safe environment can help to desensitize you to the negative experiences you had before. Another method is to examine the thought patterns you have around the specific thing/event and try to understand why it bothers you and then unpack if that response is appropriate when you recognize the thing you are afraid of is really unlikely or improbable. It is worth noting though that the specific method used will depend on you, your therapist, and the specific trigger of your anxiety. But the good news is that you can learn ways to minimize your responses to the triggers you can’t avoid and that will hopefully lessen your anxiety overall.

Next time we will explore some specific coping mechanisms and ways to utilize those in moments of distress.

5 Tips for Living with Anxiety


Having feelings of anxiety - that nervous and uncomfortable feeling like things won’t be alright - can be quite unpleasant to say the least. When you deal with feelings of tension and nervousness it can be overwhelming and at times debilitating. While each person’s situation and circumstances are different and so there isn’t a single magic trick to resolve any and all feelings of anxiety there are some common factors across various experiences of anxiety that we can use to help limit how anxiety affects us. Over the next few blogs I will explore these different tips and give some more insight on how they can help you live with your anxiety.

The first step will be to Recognize What’s Happening. Knowing what’s going on with your body and mind when you become anxious can be very rewarding in that it provides some context for you. Even though just knowing what’s happening doesn’t “fix” those feelings, it can be a helpful step in making sense of your life and maybe help you not feel so out of sorts.

How does anxiety start?

Anxiety starts when we find ourselves face-to-face with an unpleasant situation, especially if it is one we aren’t prepared to confront. While we can still be anxious when dealing with something we do quite often, it can hit us hardest when it’s a new or uncommon thing.

These kinds of physical behaviors typically occur when we have the “fight or flight” response. Though in reality there are other ways we respond to stress (like “freeze” or “friend” etc.) I bet you are familiar with this concept. Part of your brain sees a threat to your well-being and gears you up physically to deal with that “threat” by generally being ready to fight it off (like an angry cat) or run away from it (maybe also an angry cat). When we find ourselves in this kind of “dangerous” situation our mental faculties are routed into dealing with this stressor. This new mental focus causes changes in our bodies which we will talk more about below.

How does anxiety affect the body?

Part of what’s happening when we feel anxious is that biological and physiological response (our bodies are doing stuff) that arises from the aforementioned “fight or flight” stuff. The most common physical responses that people share with me include increased heart rate and breathing and also some tension in their muscles (neck or shoulders are most common). Sometimes people even feel their hands tightening into fists and find that their legs are doing that restless thing. You are now in the “fight or flight” (or freeze or friend etc.) zone. Your body is amped up and ready to act. While this is useful in the aforementioned “angry cat” scenario, it becomes unhelpful when it happens if we have to speak in front of others, or drive on a very busy highway, or struggle with feeling like we are going to disappoint people. In these situations our bodies tend to release some adrenalin and activate different parts of our nervous system to handle the imminent danger we are facing. At this point it is very difficult to calm yourself back down by sheer force of will. Our brains are trying to keep our bodies amped up while our minds are trying to stay calm - we are at an impasse.

What are some ways to reduce anxiety?

Connected to the idea that you are now in “fight or flight, etc” mode, one method to reduce anxiety is to try and help your body relax. It may seem like you should be able to just recognize that whatever is bothering you shouldn’t be a stressor and you should just calm down, but when has that ever worked, just telling someone to calm down and then they actually calm down. When your mind and body are tense getting either one to be more calm will only help reduce your overall anxiety. Here is a simple exercise to help you begin taking control back from your body’s automatic responses when you feel anxious or nervous. As soon as you start to notice any of the physical signs of your anxious feelings perhaps try this breathing exercise. 

Slowly breath in through your nose while you count to four. 

Hold your breath for a seven-count. 

Slowly exhale through your mouth as you count to eight. 

Repeat this cycle a total of three times.

This exercise helps to slow your heart rate, control your breathing, and also gives your brain some more oxygen to hopefully then process your situation a little bit clearer. Then you can take stock of what’s happening and maybe find yourself a little less stressed. Next time, we will look into what causes you to feel like this.

When living with a spouse or partner is hard


Anytime you try and combine two individual lives into some type of coupling, things can and often do get messy. Maybe one of you is a morning person and the other a night owl, maybe one is very organized and detail oriented while the other is a bit of a slob and doesn’t plan ahead. Whatever the differences you find, they can be quite difficult to manage at times. Here is a brief rundown of a few things partners/spouses may run into and some ideas about what might help change that situation.

What to do when (it feels like) your spouse or partner hates your family?

Families are tough. Maybe you had a great family and couldn’t imagine someone having any issue whatsoever with your parents/siblings/cousins, etc. or perhaps you have a bunch of rotten and selfish people you share some DNA with and completely expect others to take issue with them. Odds are that you fall somewhere in between. You probably have a decent relationship with some or most of the members of your family and expect others who meet them to feel the same. But in this instance your partner/spouse cannot stand them. In a practical sense you may want to look at ways to minimize their interactions with family. More holistically you may want to ask for your partner/spouse to answer some “what” and “how” questions about the problem. What does aunt Sally do that makes you mad? How is cousin Steve being a jerk, like what’s he do? The more you can identify specific things the more you can begin to understand what is really motivating the anger. Maybe you have that one uncle who is really racist and that bothers your partner/spouse, perhaps you have a cousin that reminds your partner/spouse of a childhood bully. Whatever you discover, it can give you a place to start figuring out how you want to handle family and helps you learn about your partner/spouse even more.

What to do when (it feels like) your spouse or partner hates you?

Odds are that they probably don’t. It can sometimes feel like your partner/spouse has nothing good to say about you and doesn’t like you anymore. This is unpleasant. Something important to consider when trying to overcome this kind of issue is what might be causing your partner/spouse to be angry. This isn’t to say that their emotional responses to you are your responsibility but to ask you to investigate what is causing the anger to happen. If your partner/spouse is mad when you get home from work later than you said, then the idea of expectations not being met is something to talk about. If you find that when you two are talking about how to parent the kids things get heated, then finding the ways in which you disagree merits further study. Try to be a detective and look for the things that could be causing distress and then go from there to how you two can work together to resolve that conflict. Maybe therapy or couples counseling?

What to do when your spouse or partner won’t go to counseling?

This can be a tricky proposition. A lot of the discussion depends on how the idea of couples therapy or counseling is brought up. If it comes out like, “you are a terrible partner/spouse and we need to see a therapist to fix you” then you will probably be met with a lot of resistance. If you want to take your partner/spouse to counseling because you think they are the problem, then it might end up like this. If you approach the issue from a perspective of a shared desire (e.g. to have the relationship improve) then you will likely encounter more success. But ultimately you can’t force someone to go to counseling - and even if you could it probably wouldn’t help a reluctant participant. Therapy takes work and effort from all parties involved, and the best success I’ve ever had comes from participants eager to work on their relationship - even if they currently can’t stand one another. The more you can help align the goals of both people in the relationship to include trying to make that relationship better, the more likely you will be to both come to a spot where you want to try therapy. In short, don’t try to “fix” your partner/spouse, ask them to join with you to fix the relationship.

Why belonging is important


What does belonging look like?

You have each others backs, but also you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. These two sayings about backs are a good way to summarize the ways that belonging can look in practice. In the first, you are saying that you will watch out for each other. When out in the woods and scared of bears you will be there to keep watch while your buddy rests. In part because you are a good friend, but also because you expect that she/he will offer to take watch next so you can sleep. Belonging is when you are willing to be there for another person and you share something in common. You are connected in a way that prompts you to action when someone else needs you and you can rest in the comfort of knowing that someone else in the group will help when you need it.

How does it feel to belong?

In a sense, like being wrapped up in a nice warm blanket; but also being tied to an anchor while trying to walk the dog. Being a part of something can be wonderful (you find others interested in the same kinds of things and can make friends), but it also can be frustrating when it lumps you in with anyone and everyone who has a similar interest. I’m sure you can think of times that these were true for you, but here’s some about my life to help illustrate. In high school I was in the band, marching band. Now, I can imagine that this is funny for some of you; I got teased enough about this while IN high school that it’s not a stretch to imagine it happening again now. But when I was in the marching band I found it comforting at times. I knew people, we told jokes and laughed, we went on trips together (albeit band trips to play for the “football” “team”), and we became friends. That was the good part. On the other side of things, people made fun me for being such a “band nerd” and assumed that I was just the same as every other member of the marching band. When I mentioned that I was in band in this article I bet you had an idea of what that meant for my social skills or what I was like or the things I would be interested in. Belonging, like so many other things, has an upside and a downside.

Why does belonging create a sense of community?

Because we share a common purpose or perspective or passion. When we have things in common with others we tend to like those people. The expression about “birds of a feather,” it suggests that the similarities you share with others makes you spend more time with them. There is a psychological phenomenon known as the mere-exposure or familiarity effect. In simple terms this experience shows us that the more exposure we have to something, the more familiar it is, the more we tend to like it. Let’s try a thought experiment. Think about the last time you felt upset and sat on the couch eating ice cream right out of the carton, you remember. You probably didn’t run out to the store to find a brand new flavor from some new brand you’ve never tried before. You probably just got the same thing you got last time. Comfort food is often stuff we had when we were little. I know that this is still true for me. When I was little I got sick quite often. Turns out my tonsils were trying to kill me and they eventually had to be exorcised like some sick demon organ. But I digress; I was sick a lot when I was little and so missed a lot of school. My mom was really great about this, she’d make me a spot on the couch all nestled in blankets and bring me a Sprite with a straw and then I’d watch cartoons and eat my comfort food: nachos. To this day, like 25 years later, I still crave nachos every time I’m sick - and I often get them when I’m feeling down or lonely too. The powerful association I have of care and concern for me is deeply linked to my experience of nachos, so much so that just even thinking about the delicious cheesy chips and salsa starts to help me feel calm. Where was I goin with this…oh yeah…the kinds of associations we make to things that are familiar are comforting and so help us feel connected - especially when those feelings of comfort are about people and not nachos.

So, you want to talk about the midterm elections…


Why is everybody so mad?

That’s a very good question. I will attempt to answer this question without blaming people or being mean - tough order these days, amiright? In one sense we are seeing so many angry people because of our involvement in social media, the FaceTweets and InstaBooks and Snap-o-grams. This increased involvement and rapid expansion of communicating through the internet has begun to expose us to more and more people with different and varying opinions on just about everything - often times before we are mature enough as people to handle such conflicting ideas. Online you generally run into two types of experiences which we will call the echo-chamber and the shouting-match. While these are two sides of the same experience, I will address each separately at first.

In the echo-chamber you tend to find that people all think just like you and have similar if not identical experiences and beliefs. This kind of environment can be comforting because it helps you to feel connected to something bigger than yourself. But the downside to this is that you begin to think that everyone thinks like you, that you are the norm, and then at its logical extension your ways are the right and good and correct ways. This kind of thinking means that anyone who doesn’t agree with you has become the wrong-thinking and uninformed sheeple at best and the intentional agent of the opposition and en enemy to be destroyed at the worst. People don’t usually try to create spaces where they only hear a single monolithic version and perspective on the world, but without care we often find ourselves ending up there.

In the shouting-match you find yourself face to face (at least Internet-wise) with people who disagree with you - often with diametrically opposed positions and beliefs. This is the domain of the angry online personalty who tries to yell and scream about what they think and believe. They are desperately trying to convince others to join their side and see the error of their ways. In the best light a person such as this is trying to educate others, at the other end they’re being a bully and just trying to cause pain. In seeing the world in strict binary options of right and left or them and us we often find ourselves in a place that can only see our “rightness” and their “wrongness.”

Different experiences are what enable us to grow. If you were never exposed to letters or words, then you would never have learned to read. These different experiences are what give us the chance to become more than we were. When you ask people about their deeply held political beliefs and really probe their reasoning, you might find that you have a similar goal in mind but a different idea about how to get there.

I’m just one person, my opinion/vote doesn’t matter right?

Wrong, it does matter - just like you matter. Whatever is going on in the world or in your mind, you are a person and so have dignity and deserve respect. Whether or not your opinion/vote will change the world is a different question, one much bigger than I have time for here. But it does have value and worth, even if it’s wrong and bad. There are sometimes no greater stories than those of people who have been so filled with hate and meanness who then come to see the error of their ways and become a kind and loving person. So, just keep on keeping on. Take a stand, with kindness and respect, for your beliefs while trying to respect and appreciate the people who don’t agree with you. In that way you will always matter - whatever party gets more votes.

How do I become a different kind of person, one who doesn’t keep the hate going?

Martin Luther King Jr. said it this way, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” It’s a simple statement, but a challenging thing to live out - the classic “easier said than done.’ An important first step is to recognize that people are messy and complex. There are no easy and quick solutions to learning about people and their experiences. It takes time and effort to understand people who are different from you and think differently from you and believe differently from you - but it’s worth it. 

Sometimes it takes serious effort on our parts to learn about ourselves and see our own weaknesses and blindspots, but that’s how we grow and how we learn to stop the cycle of hate and replace it with love and understanding. How do we change things? The same way things have always changed, one person at a time - starting with ourselves.

When therapy comes to a close...


How do I know when therapy is over?

Hopefully this isn’t a surprise when it happens. In my practice I work with clients on a basis of their goals for therapy and desired outcomes. We set up a plan to reach a specific target and once we hit that mark therapy is over (generally). In my experience, therapy with set targets like this is easier to end and that makes the change more comfortable for everyone involved. Therapy is a unique kind of experience because it treats the client (person seeking therapy) as just as involved in the process as the therapist. In order for counseling or therapy to work well, the two (or more) parties involved need to work together. In other areas of life we hire out a job or pay someone else to do the work. For instance, if you hire someone to mow your lawn you don’t expect to get out there and take turns - you hire someone to do the job for you. But in therapy you are working with someone to get to a goal.

When does therapy end?

This depends on the answer to the first question. If there is a plan ahead of time, then you can usually anticipate when therapy will end in the same way that you could plan for the end of an out-of-town trip or the completion of a project at home or work. Hopefully therapy ends when you have accomplished what you set out to do - work on relationship issues or address your fear of spiders or to process some grief or trauma. Like many things in life, the purpose of a thing should direct its progress. If you know where you’re going you’ll have a better idea of when you arrive.

Why should I end therapy?

For one, you shouldn’t stay in therapy any longer than it is providing help and direction/guidance. Some people I work with are very specifically goal-oriented in that they want to address a specific issue and once that issue has been addressed these clients choose to end therapy. For others, the process of therapy is more of an ongoing experience. They like to have a place to unpack their week’s experiences and discuss the deep questions of their lives. For people in this situation the decision about when and why to end therapy is a bit more complicated. For some, therapy is an ongoing part of their lives - a place to have a different perspective and the freedom to work through their life in an ongoing fashion. For people who are seeking this kind of experience the question of when to finally end therapy should be tackled individually.

I hope that this provides some kind of idea for what therapy looks like and how it goes. If you want to know more about therapy or to get started, please get in touch - I’d be happy to help.

What is therapy like?


Therapy isn’t always an easy chat with a nice person while sitting in comfortable chairs (or lying down on a couch if you are in the 1800s - because we really don’t do that anymore). In therapy we will ask you hard questions and have uncomfortable conversations. Therapy is a process to get to the truest and most honest version of yourself in order to enable you to address your issues in an authentic way. I’m not here to just give you advice or tell you how to live your life. Even if I had all the right knowledge about your particular circumstances and could correctly determine the best choices for youth make - you would still be the one who has to make those choices. So, therapy is a unique relationship in which the client and therapist work together to use our respective knowledge and experience to help with problems. But there’s talking, usually lots. 

What should I do when therapy gets hard?

What should you do when anything gets hard? Do you stick with something even when it’s challenging or do you leave just because it’s no longer easy? No judgement here, just asking you to think about your history. Because therapy will likely get hard. There will probably be times you talk about difficult topics or have to face your own issues. But therapy, good therapy, usually happens because of and through moments like these. To make a comparison, when stretching your muscles there is a point of discomfort on the way to progress right? The plan isn’t to hurt yourself or to sit through excruciating pain, but in order to stretch your muscles some level of discomfort is just a part of the process. Now imagine if you just stopped stretching whenever things became uncomfortable, would you ever become more flexible or get the stretching you need? Of course not. But in those moments if you stick with it and push through some discomfort you can begin to see real change and progress happen. The therapist is supposed to be there for you and working toward your best interest - we wouldn’t ask hard questions or deal with uncomfortable subjects for kicks and giggles, it’s because that’s part of helping you through whatever problem you’re facing.

What about when therapy is going nowhere?

One of the first things I would suggest you ask should you find yourself in this predicament is this, “what are my expectations for therapy?” When we think of any process, like therapy, we tend to conceive of it in a way that highlights the end goal or purpose of the event. But a more productive ways of thinking about therapy might be to wonder how you measure progress and what you are looking for to know therapy has “happened.” Oftentimes we measure progress against our unspoken - and maybe even unacknowledged - expectations. We have this idea of how we think things should go and then judge our experiences against that belief. Sometimes our beliefs are spot on, and sometimes they are way off base. By asking ourselves what we think the goal is and what standard we are using to measure our progress, we might just find that we were asking the wrong questions and expecting the wrong things this whole time.

In my practice I like to set goals with my clients so that we can ensure we are on the same page. I ask what they are trying to accomplish and then we set out to work on that issue and get to that goal. Once we get there, congratulations, therapy is done! 

What do I talk about in therapy if I don’t have anything to say?

If I, as the therapist, am paying attention and doing my job well then this shouldn’t really be a concern. While I will often ask my clients what’s going on in their lives and how they have managed since our last appointment, I try to always have a plan of action for that session. I will often try to steer our conversations that direction so that the issues we need to talk about feel as if they arise more organically - its usually more comfortable this way.

But the question remains; what to do if you don’t have anything to say. In cases like this I would suggest that you bring this up to your therapist. Tell them you aren’t sure what to talk about and ask for direction. Alternatively, you can ask questions of the therapist. Ask about their week or what kinds of thoughts they have about your situation or if they like puppies. Therapy requires lots of talking and if you aren’t sure what to say, feel free to say something.

Next time…how to tell when it’s time to end therapy

How to find a therapist


Finding a therapist is one of the most important aspects of doing counseling or therapy. While it may seem like the right decision to go for the person with the most degrees or years of experience or the one who does the newest and trendiest mental health “thing” - I would like to suggest that perhaps a more important criteria to use is how well you “click” with the therapist. The relationship that you are able to create with a mental health professional is part of the process of therapy. So, in order to find a therapist you have a bunch of ways to find people; you could search the internet, find a list of therapists and go from there, or you could ask around and see if someone you know has a contact for you. But when you are looking for a therapist I would like to suggest that you keep an eye out for how well you think you might be able to connect with this person. This is not to say that you should only seek therapy from someone you could (in another context) be friends with, but that you find the relationship easy enough that you can be open and honest with this person. As a therapist, I can only provide help to the extent that I know about what’s going on. If someone came into my office and asked for help with feelings of anxiety but never told me what was causing stress in their lives I could do far less than if they were willing to tell me all about the tension with their boss at work or whatever the specifics are.

What will my therapist ask me?

Hopefully, lots and lots of questions. A big part of my job is to ask lots of questions and figure out just who exactly you are and what makes you “tick.” In order to do that I will ask you lots of questions. Not in a rapid-fire kind of overwhelming sense, but in a way that I am constantly curious about you and what’s going on with you. The more I know about you and what is going on in your life, the more I can bring my education, experience, and training to bear on the situation. It is from a point like this that we can begin to help you engage in your life in your most authentically true self.

What if I think my therapist is wrong or she/he makes a mistake?

We’re just people. Despite the graduate degree(s) and/or state certifications and/or continuing education we all have to maintain, we can and do make mistakes or get things wrong; we’re not perfect. What to do about this is largely dependent upon the area in which we are wrong or make a mistake. Did I pronounce your name wrong, please tell me. Did I assume you were married when you are actually not, please tell me. Did I tell you how you were feeling about something and get it totally wrong (I sure hope I don’t do this), please tell me. Now, these are obviously small things, but if a big thing were to happen - something really bad, we have a professional oversight board that I would encourage you to contact if there is a serious problem that you cannot (for whatever reason) work out with your therapist.

Hopefully, we as careful and thoughtful therapists will try to ask more questions than tell you how to live your life. We will try to refrain from giving you advice or telling you what to do - it’s your life and so you should make those choices. I know that I will often speculate with my clients about what it seems like is going on with them, let em give you an example. If I were talking with a client who has two young children at home I might say something like, “with two little ones running around I could imagine that could get pretty stressful.” At this point I am actively hoping the client will either confirm and then elaborate so we can work on stress, or that she/he would be comfortable to disagree and tell me what’s really going on. Perhaps something like, “it’s not actually that stressful, but when they are asleep and I’m not busy with them anymore I start to feel lonely.” In that case we could start to talk about those feelings. Hopefully, this shows that we try to ask more questions than say how it is.

Why do therapists ask _______ or why do therapists NOT ask _______?

Some of the questions we therapists and counselors tend to ask revolve around the emotions our clients experience. This is where we used to get the classic stereotypical, “and how does that make you feel?” While this questions has now become a trope for the unconnected and/or incompetent therapist, the sentiment is still important and still something we try to discover with our clients. The emotional content of our clients’ experiences is often a mystery to them and this type of question helps concentrate on the ways we react to things.

As for he kinds of things therapists don’t ask; in a professional context I will try very hard to avoid asking “why.” This isn’t because the “why” of something isn’t important, but because any answer to that question is already putting the pieces together and assuming a motive or answering about step 4 or 5 when we really need to be looking at steps 1 through 3. Instead I try to ask “what” questions; “what made you think he was mad?” instead of “why was he mad?” The first question prompts you to look for causes and effects and a logical progression of events, the second asks you to speculate about the inner workings of someone else - not usually the best way to start.

Next time…questions about what to expect in sessions and what to do if you aren’t sure what to talk about in therapy.

What to expect from therapy


Sometimes people are scared to try something new because they are not quite sure what to expect. My youngest child was hesitant to eat green (mint) ice cream until he saw his big brother enjoying a bowl first. After that, we got him his own serving and he then promptly decided it was his new favorite flavor of ice cream and his favorite dessert of all time. Something big and serious happens in your life and you think about talking to someone about it. It can seem daunting, overwhelming, and scary even. You are not sure where to begin or what to do. Hopefully this blog can give you a bit of a picture of what to expect and help you feel more comfortable in reaching out if you have something you want or need to share.

How do therapy sessions work?

This can and should vary between therapists and approaches (especially depending on what the specific issue is), but you will often find a few common factors - which you can expect if you work with me. First, there is talking. This is a big component of almost every type of therapy or counseling. In order fo rum as professionals to get to the spot where we can be helpful we need to understand what’s going on now and what was going on before. Once we start to understand where you’re coming from then we will probably start to ask you about your emotions. If possible we try to avoid the stereotypical, “and how does that make you feel?” While the question has become a bit of a silly trope, the sentiment is important. We want to understand when new things happen how do you respond, what is going on in your head and in your gut. When we get a sense of what’s happening we begin the process of helping you get to where you want to be. In my practice I set goals with client at the beginning and then we check in on progress towards those goals every so often. That way, we are all on the same page and working toward the same finish line.

Can therapy save a marriage?

This question is a bit too complicated for a one word answer. Saying “maybe” doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence - but also doesn’t really paint a picture of what I mean. Whether or not to “save” a marriage is a much bigger question than merely asking if therapy is the thing that can do it. To paraphrase one Dr. Ian Malcom (Jeff Goldblum) from Jurassic Park, “they were so occupied to think whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to ask if they should.” Sometimes marriages are already over before a couple walks into the therapy session. In some of those cases one or both spouses want to go to therapy so that they can say they “tried everything” before the divorce and so feel better about their decision to separate. Other times one partner is ready to bail on the marriage/relationship and the other wants desperately to save it. In a situation like that, maybe the committed partner could convince the partner with one foot out of the door to stay, but that likely wouldn’t last. In difficult situations like this, therapy is often the best way to ask questions about the relationship and each partner’s commitment to it. Then the therapist can help both parties make sense of the answers and help them figure out how they want to move forward. Therapy can be a part of saving a marriage (if that’s what both partners want), but like you will read below, therapy is only part of a solution.

Will therapy help?

Therapy can help, whether or not you will find it helping in your life depends partly - well - on you. Therapy is a collaborative process, it involves (among other factors) the therapists skills and education to be combined with your openness and willingness to put in the work. Yes, there is work. Asking if therapy works is like asking if school will help you be smarter. It surely can, but I’m sure you can think of a few people who went to school (maybe even university and graduate work) and still have a lot to learn. Like a school, you need good education and training to be able to teach effectively, but the teacher can no more make you do the homework or make you study than the therapist can make you talk nicer to your partner, make you relax when you are beginning to feel anxious, or make you look at life differently.



How to accept yourself

Some people don’t feel like they belong, that they don’t have a place. Sometimes this feeling of confusion and sense of being without a place can make people become more and more isolated. The sad reality is that many more people than we realize are dealing with the difficult prospect of accepting themselves. Maybe this difficulty stems from childhood, you had someone who was supposed to take care of you but didn’t. Their lack of care or concern for you led you to believe that you weren’t worth the effort of looking after - that the tv or the friends or the job or whatever was more important than you. Whatever it was, you learned that you aren’t very important or good or worthy of love and respect. You thought of yourself as, “unacceptable” unless you did the right things.

How to accept others, mistakes and all

Maybe you are just beginning to accept yourself or maybe you already know how to accept yourself, you are pretty amazing after all. But once you begin to accept who you are as you are, then the task becomes to turn that acceptance outward to the rest of the world. The hard truth and reality of our world is that sometimes people suck. They are messy and frustrating and difficult. But they can also be wonderful and kind and good. One key thing to remember when trying to accept people despite their mistakes is that most people are doing the best they can with what they have. Most of the time people are trying to be good people and they try and do that out of the worldview and skillset and understanding that they have - however limited that might be. So, try to remember that people are usually not trying to be mean to you. That jerk who cut you off in traffic was probably not trying to make you angry or stress you out. That “jerk” was probably just driving. This advice does have its limits, sometimes people are mean and hurtful on purpose. When that is the case it will take a bit more than just understanding to work through.

Why should I accept (insert group here)….

This one can be quite complicated. There are often various reasons why people have difficulty accepting certain groups of people. Perhaps you were raised with a belief system that casts certain groups in a poor light or worse, says that you can’t accept them. Maybe you had a family growing up that didn’t like people who looked a certain way and that may have rubbed off on you. Whatever group or population that you think of when you read this heading, there is some rationale you have told yourself as to why you can’t or won’t accept them. But the fact that you are still reading this means that you have some doubt about that, you are at least wondering if there isn’t more to life and other people that you should accept.

I’ll leave you with a quote from one of my favorite people. It was true when he said it and hopefully it can be something true that you say to yourself, your neighbors, and the people you struggled to accept.

“I like you just the way you are.”

  • Mr. Rogers

Who are you, really?


This is a pretty broad question. But in answering it you expose your underlying assumptions about what it means to be a person and to have an identity. Some people use their identity as a shield to stave off any hurtful or negative criticisms of themselves or their actions. Others use their identity as an excuse to behave in certain unhealthy ways and avoid feel bad about doing so. Some people use identity as an aspiration, something to strive for and a moral compass to navigate tricky decisions and situations. I would like to suggest that identity can be all of these things, but maybe it’s main purpose should be to help you be the good kind of person you want to be.

Why identity matters

Identity is important because it helps people to focus their beliefs and behaviors about themselves. It provides a sort of “fixed point” around which people can base their actions and choices and decision-making. For instance, if you see your identity as connected to your professional occupation then when it comes time to retire you might have this personal crisis because the thing that you thought you were isn’t happening anymore. I’ve seen this a lot of times. Someone works for years in one field of work and then when they are done (either retiring or new career path) they can often find themselves feeling lost and without direction. They seem to not know how to conceive of themselves outside of something that they do. For some people identity is found in relationships, they only seem to think of themselves in narrow constrained ways that ultimately limit who they are. I’m sure you’ve known someone that centered their whole like around one kind of thing and that was their everything. From the cat person, to the esoteric book person, to the music-lover - this kind of thinking can be helpful to find camaraderie with people who share your interests, but leaning too heavily into this thinking can restrict your growth in other areas. So, “how did I get this way” you might be asking yourself. Some thoughts on that…

How identity is formed

We are creatures of our environments and behaviors. The things that we do again and again make up the person that we are. That is not to say that we are merely the sum and total of our actions. But this is to emphasize the fact that the choices we make and the actions we take are meaningful and do contribute to who we are. If you constantly experienced stress and scrutiny to be on your “best-behavior” in public so that you wouldn’t embarrass your parents, then you likely grew to become more self-conscious and reserved with your real emotional self. In this example, this may have even been a good-intentioned effort to instill good manners to help you manage socially. But, like many things, could have had unintended consequences. After some time of being told to act like this, you might have come to behave that way automatically, and from there it is a quick jump to you conceiving of yourself as a quiet and well-behaved individual, but also one who never speaks their true feelings or expresses anything other than meek happiness to avoid getting in trouble. I talked before about how family shapes who we are and how we behave, take a look. You might start to think that’s who you are and how you have to be, but the good news is that while you might have an identity like that - it doesn’t have to stick forever…

How does identity change?

Like all things; slowly and over time. As I mentioned earlier, we are creatures of habit and behaviors. We are the things that we do - at least in some part. There’s that expression, “if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck - then it must be a duck.” While there is some truth in this, that the actions we take are indeed describing a part of who we are - that doesn’t capture the whole of our selves. The way that we can change our identity is to begin by making changes to the things that we do. Maybe you aren’t a duck right now, but if you start to walk and talk like a duck pretty soon it won’t really matter, because you’ll be living the duck life of your dreams :)

I spent some time recently talking about why I think change is needed and important, check it out here if you want.

I would like to suggest that identity isn’t necessarily a “fixed point” in the way that I mentioned some people think of it. But rather, it is a constantly shifting expression of the things you do and the ways you want to be. Identity can be a powerful tool to help you become the person you want to be, make the directions in life you want to take, and give you clarity about decisions you have to make - but it is a tool, a thing to be used by you when it is helpful, but not something to restrict you in ways you no longer want.

Who are you, really? You tell me :)

Aaron Maleare, LMFT Associate
What grief really looks like...


When you hear the word “grief,” what do you think of? Do you imagine someone losing a loved one? Do you picture someone sad and crying? Do you see someone who is angry? I’m sure you can guess that grief doesn’t just take one form - but each person experiences it differently, and often in different ways for the same incident.

Grief and loss

Most of us often connect the ideas of grief and loss so closely that they almost seem to become part of the same experience. While we may often consider grief in the context of death (like the passing of a loved one), any kind of significant loss can trigger feelings of grief. Maybe you didn’t get hired for that dream job you applied for. Maybe you realized that you are never going to be the number one NBA draft pick. Maybe you just came to term with the fact that you never had the parents that you wish you had grown up with. Moving past such realizations can be difficult, but isn’t impossible. Start by calling out your missed expectations. Maybe you had a crappy childhood and it just hit you how much you wish it had been different. It sounds silly, but find a place where you can say that out loud. By speaking your mind and feelings out loud you begin to pull them out of your thoughts and start to take away the power those thoughts have over you.

Grief and sadness

This is probably the most common arena in which people think of grief - the crying and sadness. Grief can hurt, and not just emotionally but physically as well. The intense sad feelings can create pain from headaches to nausea to soreness in the muscles. The depth of emotional responses that people have can correlate with real physical pain, not just felt pain as if it were just in the mind. One of the most helpful ways to begin to manage the overwhelming sadness that grief can trigger (at least one of the ways that people I have worked with have found helpful) is to set aside time for the sadness. It may feel odd to schedule a good cry, but when you make the space for your sadness and emotions it becomes easier to keep those overwhelming emotions from intruding into times and places where they are not welcome. If this is how you are feeling, maybe give this a try: set aside 30 minutes where you can just be sad for the loss or the experience, where you can have that good cry. But spend just the 30 minutes, and then immediately afterwards try to do something that can bring you a smile. Maybe it's a funny movie or a heartwarming chat with a good friend. Whatever it is, make the space for the sad, then allow yourself to feel some kind of happiness afterwards - balance, really.

Grief and anger

When some people get hurt, they get angry. I am one of those type of people. If you hurt my feelings I’m more likely to yell at you than to cry about it - and I’m not the only one. A part of the standard “stages of grief” anger often gets overlooked because of the focus on the sorrowful and melancholy stage of depression. But the power that this angry phase can exert in our lives should not be overlooked. When faced with loss or heartache, the instinct to respond with anger is so very human. We have been hurt and so we wish to send that hurt back to the source of our pain. Sometimes we lash out at those we perceive to be a part of the problem, and sometimes we are just mean to whoever is closest. This kind of lashing out, while typical, isn’t healthy or helpful in the long-run. One way to begin to counter these angry thoughts is to acknowledge them and to name the inanimate source of your anger. If you suddenly realize you will never be the professional athlete you wanted to be you aren’t really mad at anyone in particular - but saying that you are mad at the situation, hurt and angry that your dreams aren’t being realized is a way to begin to get those feelings out in the open. You can’t really heal until you can name your pain and figure out where it came from.

Why grief is a good thing

I’m not suggesting that grief is pleasant, or “worth it,” or that it has some innate benefit that it bestows. But grief can be a good thing. Part of grief is letting go of something, learning to move forward in a time of pain and hurting. This isn’t easy or fun, but the growth you can experience and the joy you can find on the other side of grief are real and meaningful. The process of grieving shows that you are able to make healthy attachments to people and ideas. It shows that you care enough to be sad and hurt when those things are gone.

Life may never be the same that it was before, but that doesn’t mean that everything afterwards will always be sad. The precise way out of grief is different for every person, but the common thread tying those experiences together is woven of time and acceptance. While we may never “accept” what happened as alright (and sometimes never should) we can learn to accept the reality we face and then look forward as to what we decide to do next.

Sometimes people can move through grief organically, they process their different feelings and then learn to cope and find a new way forward. But that’s not always so easy. For some people, the strong emotional response they have can be more than they know how to deal with - more than they have experience handling. Sometimes grief is so isolating that you can feel like you are suffering all alone, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

If you are dealing with grief and you feel alone, reach out - if not to someone like me for professional help, then please reach out to someone you trust. Grief becomes easier to manage when you share the burden.

Not my circus, not my monkeys


This delightful Polish saying has brought me laughter in times of sorrow and peace in times of frustration. This saying has helped me to move past hurts and resentments and I want to share some perspective on how it might just be able to help you too.

Let it go, let it go...

Even though it's been years, I still hear Frozen. every. single. time. It's not that I don't like the movie, just that I tend to find myself nodding my head and humming and before you know it I'm belting out that song while driving and people just stare at me when we're stopped at the light. So, for that - I'm sorry, you probably started singing too.
The real question here is how to let go of something, maybe it was a painful experience, perhaps it's a relationship that's now over, or it could be that hurt from years past that still makes you mad every time you think about it. Whatever it is that you are dealing with, letting something go is a difficult prospect in some ways. I mean, it's not something that we are usually taught how to do. And with all the nostalgia inducing tv and movies these past few years it can even seem like it's not really possible to let go and move on. But it is. So let's take a look at some strategies for different things to let go of. (or for the more grammatically inclined, let's take a look at some strategies for different thing of which you wish to let go).

How to let go of a relationship

It's over, move on. While this may be accurate, it seems pretty cold and uncaring. What you might be wanting is not just to go to the next thing in life, but to figure out how to make the heartache stop. This takes some time, and works better when you can think of this whole experience in a different way. In some respects, it's like grieving a death. You have lost the relationship that you had and with it the potential relationship it could have been and the idealized relationship you wanted it to be. These can be powerful feelings of sadness and loss. This is where our Polish saying comes in handy. In times of sadness and loss it can be meaningful to talk about the problems as if they are at arms length. This hurt isn't from me - not my circus. I don't want to be a part of the sadness - not my monkeys. Sadness happens, but you don't have to stay in it. The relationship is over, but now, it's not your problem anymore. You don't have to be trapped by longing for what was, that's another circus, not one you're a part of anymore. Time to look for the next thing to do. This will take time, you'll have to remind yourself, but consistent effort in one direction will get you there.

How to let go of anger and/or resentment

Don't waste your energy. At this point it's just hurting you, not that other person. You've probably heard something like this before. While it may seem small and unhelpful, this kind of mentality is the key to breaking past your hurts and resentments, the ones you cling on to for far too long.
In order to do this you need to take a long and searching look at what is making you angry or resentful. Did someone hurt you and never get the punishment they deserved? Were you passed over for that promotion again and are bitter that your time hasn't come? Understanding the motivations behind your feelings can help you learn to separate your feelings about an event (getting hurt or passed over) from the recognition that something bad happened. Our saying can give us a boost here. The things that happened which made you angry and resentful, that's on someone else - not my circus. The angry feelings that you have, those don't have to belong to you either - not my monkeys. By deciding and subsequently telling yourself again and again that this is "not my circus, not my monkeys" you can begin to separate your feelings from the memory and then deal with each one in a healthier way, without limping them together. Sure, that person was a jerk and hurt you - but that's on them. Yeah, you've still felt angry, but those are just feelings and don't have to be how you live. You have to just let it go, that whole situation, it's not yours to deal with or obsess over or think about anymore. Whoever it was that you are angry at or were hurt by all those years ago, they probably don't even think about it any more. It's just weighing you down, but it doesn't have to. That whole mess, it's not your circus, not your monkeys any longer. What's done is done, but you don't have to live in it every day.

Not my circus.
Not my monkeys.

How to avoid distraction

You can’t really I don’t think, I mean…probably…maybe…what were we talking about again?

Distraction is just a way of us describing all the things that try to demand our attention, whether those things are physical (like a message alert on your smartphone) or mental (thinking about what you’re going to eat for dinner). Sometimes distractions can feel overwhelming, maybe like we have a desk full of sticky notes with all the stuff we have to do or things to think about. If distraction is the unwanted and unsought after notifications of things happening or our tendency to have our minds wander, then distractions are simply a part of life. You can try to minimize their occurrence in your life, but they will never be gone completely. But you can dramatically change how you react to and deal with those distractions. So, quit trying to control the world and learn how to deal with its little interruptions better.

How to deal with distraction

Having kids has taught me a lot about distraction. I can’t even have my morning cup of coffee without what feels like a million interruptions and distractions. I have trouble finding the time to work without constantly thinking about that weird conversation with a friend from last week. I bet you know what I’m talking about, you have something similar too. One of the best and easiest ways I’ve found to deal with distractions is to stop being mad at them. I used to get really angry every time I found my attention wandering, whether in the boardroom or in a quiet conversation. I would beat myself up about not being better focused. I promised I would just try harder next time and then when I inevitably failed I would be even more upset with myself. Instead, I have found that taking a more gentle approach to dealing with distractions is not only more effective, but helps me stay happier.

First, acknowledge that you are getting distracted. I know it seems pretty obvious that this is happening, but knowing that it’s happening and announcing that fact to yourself cause you to deal with it in completely different ways. Second, recognize what it is that is distracting you and ask yourself why it’s important in that moment. If it’s an alert on your phone, are you expecting a call or message that you need to deal with right now? If it’s thoughts about tonight’s dinner, are you maybe just getting hungry? If it’s something you need to deal with, like grab a snack break, then do that and then return to your task. Third, imagine that you are sitting on the banks of a river. Picture your thoughts as things floating down said river. Notice them, think on them for a few seconds to try and figure out what (if anything) they are trying to tell you. Then watch them float on by. At first this is really difficult, it takes time and effort to think like this, but if you practice this kind of thinking pattern it becomes easier and easier to let the distractions just float on by.

How distraction can be a good thing

Distractions don’t all have to be bad. Sometimes they are just what you need when tackling a difficult problem or working through a long (maybe even tedious) chore. When I find myself in the position that I have a lot of work to do and I just have to buckle down and get it done - I tend to notice that I get extra distracted. It’s almost like my brain is trying to find ways to avoid the work that I need to do. Part of this is just procrastination on my part and when that’s the case I follow the steps above to try and deal with it. But sometimes it’s my brain trying to remind me to take a break. It’s taken some time to get that sense of things, but it started by planning for the distractions ahead off time. When I sit down to do a long bit of work I plan breaks for “me time” right into my schedule. I plan for a 5-10 minute distraction and mindless wandering thought break for every hour of work. Maybe you will need more or less, but having the built in time to let your brain run wild is a good thing. As long as you do come back to your work :)

What motivates you?


I wonder what really inspires you to do something. We often think of motivation in a binary sense, only one of two options - it's either the "carrot" or the "stick." But in reality things can be so much more nuanced and meaningful. What gets you up in the morning? What makes you keep at something longer than you feel like doing it? What is it that really makes this motivation thing work?

How motivation works

In some basic and primal way, our motivations stem from some kind of desire or need. Maybe it's not so obvious what is truly driving your motivation, but something is - way deep down. This isn't meant to make motivation seem bad or selfish - but it is to recognize the interconnected nature of how we act in the world and how the world responds. I want a cup of coffee and so I am motivated to go make a fresh pot. I need to sleep, so I am motivated to stop the binge-watching so I can rest. 

For some people the motivation to perform well at their jobs is simply for the sake of being praised by their peers or boss. They enjoy the feeling of appreciation and strive to relive that experience through productive employment. For some people the drive to do well at work is just to make it to payday. This kind of motivation trades off the job itself for the external benefit it can provide. People don't just work to get money, they want that money to spend and use on things; perhaps rent or smartphones or a latte. The motivation here is not the accolades of being a good and productive worker, but it is after the thing that you ultimately are striving for and your job is just a means to an end.

Can motivation be changed?

Motivation can indeed be changed, but it takes some self awareness in order to make the change meaningful and lasting. If you don't really know what you want or what drives you, it will be almost impossible to generate motivation to do something you don't really want to do. But like above, the people who think of the rewards that they will get, or the ultimate goal they seek, those people can generate motivation even around unpleasant or boring tasks.

It's all about perspective

The way we see the world determines the motivation we can muster for specific things. If all I see is doom and gloom, then it becomes harder to generate motivation to do something unpleasant or neutral. If all I see is sunshine and rainbows, it may be easier to tolerate unpleasant jobs, but it doesn't fix everything. The key is to connect what we want/need with what we have to do. Sometimes these things line up, like with a job. I want/need the money on payday, so I can generate some kind of motivation to work. But other times we need to build in our own rewards. When I was in grad school I had to write a lot of papers, I mean like two or three papers every week. But I didn't always want to do that - I couldn't always think of the end goal and get motivated. So I hacked my reward system. I decided that I would give myself a small sweet treat for every page I knocked out in my work. In my situation it was some small peanut-butter candies. I would allow myself to enjoy exactly and only four pieces of this tasty treat every page I wrote. this kind of thing helped me to connect my "wants" with my "have to dos" and helped me keep the motivation going.

Sometimes in life we get stuck, we have trouble finding motivation for things we once found enjoyable. If you are struggling with your motivation and would like some help, please reach out. 512-931-4801

Why emotions are important


The simple answer is that they are a part of our human experience and so have value. More complicatedly, they are often manifestations or expressions of our deep feelings; concerns, joys, fears and the like. This kind of manifestation of deeply felt experiences is important to understand in order to know who you are and why you are feeling the way that you are. Because, whether we would admit it or not, our emotions are often deeply entrenched in almost every aspect of our lives. A colleague of mine was fond of reminding clients that our “emotions drive the bus,” so to speak. And if they are driving the bus, we should probably learn a bit more about them and how they impact others. One obvious and important aspect of emotions is how they affect our communication.

How emotions affect communication

Seems obvious enough, right? Well, there is the clear and simple way that yelling at someone when you are angry can affect that conversation (not positively I might add). But our emotions, even the unacknowledged ones, can seriously impact the ways in which we speak to and interact with others. Have you ever asked someone how their day was, only to have them snap at you? Can you remember a time that you saw someone laughing and smiling even though there was nothing funny happening? The feelings that we feel come out, even if we don’t think about it. And the less we think about our emotions and why we feel that way, the stronger they can feel.

When emotions are too strong

The stronger the emotions, the more serious we should take them. Our emotional reactions are like a response to information coming from a deep part of ourselves that we often don’t monitor. And the emotions that we have often come from someplace deeper than we realize. The main top level emotions that we experience and express to ourselves and others often stem from a completely different emotional source. Have you ever been mad at someone who got a promotion instead of you? While you might actually be angry at that person, in reality you were likely experiencing some level of sadness at the loss of opportunity, fear that you really weren’t qualified, and/or a sense of powerlessness. You might act angry at your co-worker, but you might really just be sad and hurt and scared. Well, you might say, emotions are dumb then and I don’t want to have any. Or you might just want to clamp own on them so they do what you want. But it’s not really that simple.

Can emotions be controlled?

This is like asking if you can control the weather. Not really, but they can be anticipated and there are things you can do to minimize their negative impact when they do arise. If you see a storm cloud in the distance and feel the wind in a direction that will push that cloud over towards where you are, you can probably anticipate that rain is coming. There’s not much you can do to stop the rain from coming in the same way that simply willing it to be one way doesn’t stop emotions from happening. But like an approaching rainstorm, emotions can be prepared from and their effects mitigated or lessened. If I know a storm is coming and I have to be out and about, I will make sure to wear a raincoat or bring an umbrella. If I sense that my angry emotional response is on the metaphorical horizon I will engage in activities designed to minimize my exposure to that emotion, to kind of shield me from the rain so it won’t have as big an impact - like when I get hungry. I am a man who loves to eat. But when I don’t get the chance to have food at proper intervals I tend to turn into an angry bear. I get grouchy and mean and let my emotional state dictate how I interact with others. This isn’t healthy. So how could I control this emotional response? I could just pack snacks (which I often do), but when that isn’t feasible I try to remind myself what’s happening. I am not mad at my spouse or kids for whatever it is they are doing, I am actually just hungry and upset with myself that I forgot to plan ahead. Like our weather analogy, in this moment I see the storm coming and I forgot my raincoat or umbrella. So instead of raging at the sky, I try to remind myself that I won’t melt in a little bit of rain and that I’ll have time soon enough to metaphorically get out of the rain and dry off.


If you are dealing with emotions that run high, or feel too strong, or you aren’t really sure what emotion is at the root of what you are feeling please reach out, I’d love to help.  512-931-4801

Why change is necessary


It's that time of year again, at least it is where I live. School is starting back up and for many of us that means changing into a new routine. Whether that's starting school again or figuring out how to get the kids to school and then ourselves on to work in time. Maybe it's not a special time of year for you, but you are trying to make some changes anyway; a new diet or exercise routine, a new hobby or trying to restart an old one, or maybe you just want to feel different - not as angry or sad or whatever. But no matter what it is that you are thinking about right now, odds are that you want to make some kind of change in your life. But it can seem a bit tough sometimes.

When change is hard

When isn't change hard, am I right? Change, by its very nature, is not easy. Even in the best of circumstances the shifting needed to adjust the world - in big ways or small ones - takes effort and is often uncomfortable. But that doesn't mean it's not worth it. Once you decide the thing you want to change, or the habit you want to stop or adopt, prepare yourself for the  reality that change is sometimes hard but always uncomfortable in some way or another. But for most changes, things are simply uncomfortable, like an itchy sweater or the feeling of breaking in new hiking boots. It's not great, but not a dealbreaker. But just like the itchy sweater, we sometimes take it off before we even have a chance to get used to it.

Why change fails

Change fails for a few reasons. Maybe you didn't meet the goals you set out for yourself and feeling defeated decided to quit. Perhaps you made some good progress for a bit, but then you fell back into old patterns and just threw in the towel. Whatever it is, it likely includes some variation on the previous. We as a species thrive on routine and pattern and habit. This reliance on routine and pattern is why it is sometimes so hard to get up early. Now I hear what you're saying, "but getting up early is hard because I'm tired not because change is hard." That is partly true, but the reason you are tired is that this waking up time is different than normal for you. If you got up every day at 6:00am it wouldn't be so hard. But if you normally wake up at 7:00am, an hour shift earlier (without changing anything else) is quite a pain, sure. It's all about the getting used to new and different things. This is part of how to really make some changes in your life.

How change happens

To really make some of the changes you want stick, you need to start over in your thinking about just how change happens. Change, real and lasting change, isn't something that happens in an instant, it takes time and effort. It's not about taking big steps, even small steps in the right direction will get you there eventually. 
Start small. One of the biggest mistakes I see people make is that their desire for change outpaces their ability to do it. People want to become whole new versions of themselves and they want it to happen yesterday. This isn't realistic and only sets you up for failure; so start small. Set an easy and achievable goal that's part of your plan. If you want to run a marathon, you're first goal shouldn't be to set a new personal record for your mile time - maybe start with taking a 10 minute walk.
Reward progress. Once you complete your goal, give yourself a bit of a reward. Nothing too big, make your rewards comparable to your effort. For your walk around the block maybe you treat yourself to a coffee from that trendy new chain.
Bigger goals and then bigger rewards. Now that you've started this journey, keep it up by picking a new and slightly more ambitious goal. Next time try for 30 minutes walking instead of 10.
Plan for failure. No one is perfect, don't expect this of yourself. If you don't factor in the times that you won't make that goal in the time you wanted, you will inevitably find yourself disappointed. BUT, if failure is part of the plan, then even when you "fail" you are still on track. Don't plan to walk everyday, only 3-4, that way if you do more you feel great and when you have to take a day or two off, you can still make the original goal.
Wash. Rinse. Repeat. Like I said before, it doesn't take giant leaps, just small steps in the right direction and you'll eventually get there.

If you want to talk more about your goals and how to make them happen, I'd be happy to listen and help. 512-931-4801

Check out this infographic for an overview of how to make changes that last.

How to make real change.png
Feeling nervous for the first day of school? I am too.
PIXABAY/CC0 and author's compilation

PIXABAY/CC0 and author's compilation

This week marks the beginning of the school year for a number of school districts near where I live, which means getting up early again to get my kids to school on time. Even though I'm no longer in school, I still feel nervous for others who are - not least of whom are my kids. But in the last few days I have seen all the neighborhood kids and their parents scramble at the stores for last minute supplies, almost in a panic because they can't find that last box of #2 pencils. I can't help but laugh a little (not out loud of course!) at the stress these parents and kids are putting on themselves to be perfectly ready. Not laughing because I don't care, but because the very thing they are doing to try and manage their nerves is only adding to their stress. When we as people get stressed and nervous we tend to try and control whatever we can. Like with starting school again, so many parents and kids are nervous about making new friends or how they will get along or if they'll be able to find their class that they try to hold onto anything they can control - like having all the right supplies and the perfect outfit and the right breakfast - because that sense of control helps them cope with the other things they are dealing with, things that they can't control.

What to do when you feel nervous

Having nervous feelings can be really unpleasant; the tightness in your muscles, the sweaty palms, the racing heart, the butterflies in your stomach. On a side note, I always hated that expression, "butterflies in your stomach." Such a mean thing to say about butterflies...
Like I mentioned previously, a typical response to stress and nerves is to try and lock down control on whatever thing you can actually have any power over - as if the power we wield over our breakfst will translate to power over making new friends and having people like us. But this kind of grasping for control often brings its own kinds of stress and nerves, despite the fact that even if we could control all the little things it wouldn't actually make us feel any better. The obvious answer to what to do when you feel nervous would be to calm down, right? But that is easier said than done, but it's not impossible - it just takes a little effort in the right direction.

How to calm down

Breathe: breathe in, breathe out. Repeat. This is the first step. What makes feelings of stress and nervousness and anxiety so problematic is that they engage both our mental capacities and our physiological responses; and they do so in a cycle that is difficult to get out of. The key to breaking the cycle of becoming mentally nervous and then having your body respond with nervous behaviors which then make you feel more stressed mentally is to break that cycle and stop the crazy ferris wheel of stress in its tracks.There are ways to tackle stress from the mental side of things (figuring out how to be mindful in the moment and realize what can and cannot be changed) and from the physical side of things (that increased heart rate and tense muscles). The easiest for most people to begin with is the physical side of things.
So let's begin.

Breathe: breathe in, breathe out. Repeat. Try to measure your breathing by slowly counting in your head. Breathe in through your nose counting to 4, hold and count to 7, then slowly breathe out from your mouth while counting to 8. Repeat this pattern 3-5 times. There, I bet you're starting to feel a little bit better. Maybe you're still nervous, but hopefully you don't feel quite as tense physically. This kind of slow, controlled, and unusual breathing pattern can help slow your heart rate, increase the oxygenation of your blood, and give your mind something else to think about. This kind of slowing down and helping combat the physical effects of being nervous is a great first step to working through whatever thing you have before you that's stressing you out.

If you want to talk more about what's causing you to feel stressed and nervous, I'd be happy to listen and help. 512-931-4801