MENTAL HEALTH

The Doctor Will See You Now

Finding insight and healing in writing

We can attend to our inner wounds through self-reflective writing.

The boy sat staring at the blank page in front him, while his fourth grade peers wrote with gusto.

One word came to mind as I took in the 9-year-old with gripped pencil in hand:

fear

Writing as a Vehicle

The students were filling in their journals, writing about their family members. Kids were smiling as they wrote about their parents, siblings, and cousins. The giddiness in the room was palpable.

Writing about ourselves is a powerful vehicle for self-discovery.

Still, the 9-year-old-boy with the gripped pencil remained staring at the untouched page.

Me: You okay?

Student: I don’t know if my dad is a family member. My mom said, I can’t see my dad anymore and that he’s no longer my dad. So, do I include my dad?

Ouch. 

Sometimes, the vehicle of writing brings some rough terrain.

Fostering Self-Discovery

Education is all about offering tools to empower. Writing is one of those foundational tools. Our world is literally built on words; it is the machinery that drives innovation and self-awareness.

The young student’s question offered an opportunity for him to self-reflect and find the answer within.

Me: That depends. What do you think? Do you think your father is still your father?

Student: Yes.

Me: Then that’s your answer.

Writing LightBulb Moments

Immediately I saw the boy’s eyes light up, his pencil no longer gripped with fear, but instead, moving with great energy in the no-longer empty journal.

When we lean into the painful questions through writing, sans judgement, aha moments abound.

Writing puts us in the driver’s seat of our life. It offers an opportunity for us to slow down and consider what we think, not what the cacophonous world at large says to think.

When we go within to write, we literally slow down our brain waves and decrease anxiety. Slowed down, we find space to explore problems from a greater creative perspective.

Writing as Therapy

The 9-year-old student was eager to share his family tree and some of their personality traits with the rest of the group. The once anxious face he carried was now emanating pure joy.

Writing offers us the opportunity to go within for counsel.

I never told the young student what to think of his father. The power to perceive his father as his father is his choice. 

Writing allows us to take the reins of our perception.

It doesn’t matter whether we are 9 or 99 years old — our perceptions are ours alone. 

Metacognition, the act of understanding one’s own thoughts and perceptions, only grows stronger with self-reflective writing.

 When we write, we are no different than a radio dial, tuning into what we think about the world around us.

Writing as a Doctor

When we write reflectively, we are taking care of ourselves. We are nurturing our brain waves and self-esteem.

When we take the time to write reflectively, we are subconsciously sending a message to our psyche: what I think and how I feel matters.

Writing reflectively opens the door to the best doctor for you to visit with: your Highest Self. Stress hormones lower, sadness is articulated and addressed. Emotions — in all of their colors — are addressed. Self-compassion and self-awareness are cultivated.

The Most Important Bank Account

The most important bank account has nothing to do with your 401K.

            It’s not the number of stocks or annuities in your retirement portfolio, nor the percent of interest accruing in your money market account. It isn’t the bonus received or expected from work or the amount of dollars in your checking and savings.

            The most important bank account isn’t measured in cryptocurrency, gold, or one’s investment in semi-conductors. Those values, like everything else fiscally measured, will rise and fall. Just peruse renowned investor’s Ray Dalio’s recent books, Principles for Dealing with the Changing World Order: Why Nations Succeed and Fail to discover the cyclical nature of economic abundance and poverty.

            After our most basic needs are met—thank you Maslow (air, water, food, shelter, sleep), our spiritual bank accounts require our attention.

            Only we humans possess an affinity to avoid pain and discomfort. We flee from hurt, instead of looking at it directly. We hide behind schedules or alcohol, or addiction to numb our pain.

            Avoiding the pain, denying what we are feeling creates two potential outcomes over time:

  1. Mountain-out-of-a-molehill behavior 
  2. Illness in the body and mind

Author and speaker, Brene Brown (Atlas of the Heart), refers to this tendency to be triggered over something seemingly insignificant as “chandeliering.” 

We see this triggered behavior all over the world and in our own backyards: 

-the “Karen” ready to attack someone for having a different opinion

-the road rage against a total stranger on the highway

-the friend who starts cursing up a storm when their iPad won’t charge

In all of these examples, the anger lashing out is not about what appears to be the source of their anger. The anger is a symptom of an inner pain that is going unaddressed.

The anger is misplaced, unexamined pain and a symptom of a depleted spiritual bank account.

Then there is the manifestation of pain in our body:

-the back pain that worsens in traffic

-the chest pain that “comes out of nowhere”

-the panic attacks 

-the frequent malaise

Brene Brown refers to our tendency to swallow our pain, pushing it down, so it can’t see the light of day as “stockpiling.” These are the folks who say everything is fine, like a spiritual Unikitty (Lego movie) when things are feeling far from fine.

If we are in denial like a super-charged positive Unikitty, ignoring our wounds, they will fester. And if we aren’t “chandeliering,” we are likely to “stockpile” our negative emotion until they show up in our bodies.

It’s human nature to avoid pain and seek pleasure. But there’s a real danger in denial, in running from our negative emotion or swallowing it and swimming like a duck through life—graceful on the surface but fighting for our lives below.

Unexamined and untended to pain that remains hidden will fester, affecting either others (when we lash out) or our own bodies negatively.

When we take time to look our wounds directly in the eye, something wonderful happens: the wound itself begins to heal.

Our spiritual bank accounts fill when we honor our journey and respect the emotions we experience along the way. Emotions, like the weather, change; it’s only when we deny their existence or demand that certain ones stay that our bank account falters.

Thank You, Matt Haig!

Enter Haig’s Midnight Library: A world where you get to make different choices that affect the trajectory of your life.

There is nothing like living on the brink of World War III on the heels of a pandemic to cause one to wax reflective, if not, downright depressed. Take your pick of observations: the murder of George Floyd, the deaths of civilians, police officers, and a veteran both at and due to the January 6, 2021 capitol riots; as of the writing of this post, 115 children have died as a direct result of the Russia-Ukraine War. 

Since March 2020, whether we were masking up or hoping that our Amazon order didn’t get taken by porch pirates; whether we were worried we would never see Lysol Disinfectant wipes ever again or contact tracing with dread after learning a friend at a recent dinner party tested positive for Omicron, life on Earth has often felt like an apocalyptic Twilight Zone episode we can’t Rod Serling our way out of.

Enter the ingenious writer: Matt Haig and his new book, The Midnight Library. This is the kind of book that reminds us: even the most ordinary of lives has the ability to experience an extraordinary life. It’s the butterfly effect on steroids. No spoilers here, but Haig’s protagonist, painfully depressed in a way humanity can empathize with now, discovers the profound life changes brought about by the most minute of alterations. 

Again, no spoilers but Haig’s writing is food for the soul, nourishing our hearts with the poignant reminder that what we do matters. Like us, the protagonist and her family are fallible and contend with their own Achilles heels. Like life, this story pulls every emotion from our funny bone to our heartstrings. Haig is both therapist and entertainer with his words; through the insights of the main character, we understand ourselves more.

One of the quotes in Haig’s book is from the philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre:

“Life begins on the other side of despair.”

The Midnight Library has the potential to resuscitate the heart of the heartbroken. It is as complex as it is simple, like humanity itself. 

Mr. Haig, thank you for the invaluable reminder that regardless of what is occurring externally in our topsy-turvy world, each of us has the power to choose a different thought, word, or action; by extension, each of us has the power to create and experience delicious possibility. 

Source: https://www.hindustantimes.com/world-news/russiaukraine-war-115-children-killed-140-injured-so-far-says-report-101647775243391.html

Source : https://www.americanscientist.org/article/understanding-the-butterfly-effect

Source : https://www.amazon.com/Midnight-Library-Novel-Matt-Haig/dp/0525559477/ref=sr_1_1?crid=ZLREKKEQC2OR&keywords=the+midnight+library&qid=1648005044&sprefix=the+midnight+library%2Caps%2C130&sr=8-1

The Dish that Calms…Everyone

There IS something we can do to tame our frayed nerves RIGHT NOW. It’s free and lowers inflammation and our flight or fight stress hormones.

If the world were a person, it would need to see a therapist…PRONTO! Between COVID-19 and its ever-growing variants, politics on everything from abortion rights to gun laws, climate change—you name it, the discussions are more heated than a tea kettle screaming with boiled water. Throw in the omnipresent specter of social media and economic uncertainty, humanity is at an exhausting, precipitous crossroads.

It’s not surprising that the global effect of so much uncertainty over a sustained amount of time causes tempers to flare and spiritual bank accounts to feel depleted. On an individual level, anxiety and depression emerges, and mistrust of “Others” grow (whether it’s the person in line at the post office or the governor of one’s state). 

While it was before my time, the polio vaccine protected millions of American children in 1955. According to historians, back then many Americans deeply respected science.

“After World War II, you had antibiotics rolling off the production line for the first time. People believed infectious disease was [being] conquered. And then this amazing vaccine is announced. People couldn’t get it fast enough.”- David M. Oshinksy, medical historian at NYU and author of Polio: An American Story

Compare the absolute faith of Americans in 1955 regarding the polio vaccine and science in general to Americans fractured, ambivalent feelings toward the COVID vaccines available and recommended by both WHO and the CDC.

Where’s that therapist for humanity when you need one?

There IS something we can do to tame our frayed nerves right now. It’s free and lowers inflammation and our flight or fight stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline).

What is this simple, free, and highly beneficial thing that helps each of us and those around us?

Kindness. Yes, giving someone (even a stranger) a genuine compliment or speaking compassionately to yourself reduces inflammation and boosts our emotional wellbeing.

“Many scientific journals suggest that there is a strong link between compassion and the vagus nerve, which regulates the heart and controls inflammation.” -Gabrielle Bernstein- Miracles Now

The vagus is the longest nerve in the human body and makes up our sensory and motor fibers. When we demonstrate an act of kindness to ourselves and others, we are literally helping to regulate our heart.  According to Dr. Fredrickson and Dr. Kok, “people with a higher vagal tone have better overall heart health, lower levels of inflammation, stronger social bonds, and tend to exhibit better emotion regulation.” Psychology Today

So if you want to start feeling good, turn off the news and start appreciating the good you see—in yourself and others. Serve up kindness to those around you, offer a generous dish of self-compassion and watch its miraculous effect grow.

Source: https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2021/05/03/988756973/cant-help-falling-in-love-with-a-vaccine-how-polio-campaign-beat-vaccine-hesitan

Source: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-athletes-way/201705/kindness-towards-oneself-and-others-tones-your-vagus-nerve

The Momentum of Stress

What can we do when the negative momentum we’ve talked ourselves into feels like a train we’re doomed to ride forever?

*Lia is a 6th grader who takes her academics seriously. She will turn in her work for assignments days before they are due, sending emails to her teachers to confirm that she did what was asked of her correctly. Lia has yet to earn less than an A in all her classes. She is personable, astute, and kind.

Unfortunately, there’s an invisible but real force taking over Lia’s life: anxiety. She has trouble sleeping, finds herself breaking down in tears over things that before wouldn’t have bothered her, and describes herself as unable to “stop the worrying” that haunts her throughout the day.

 Lia is not alone. Several of the middle school students I have the gift of working with are manifesting signs of anxiety and depression in the almost ubiquitous cloak we know too well: stress. And while there’s good and bad stress, our perception of those stressors makes a world of difference.

Lia met with me last week after class and talked about her inability to “stop the worrying.” 

Lia referred to herself as someone who “struggles with anxiety.” Her self-diagnosis alone powerfully affects her perceptions. So, the world around her offers up opportunities to worry, thus creating more domino-like effect, stress-inducing scenarios for her. Lia’s belief in her self-diagnosis has created a momentum of anxiety that feeds on itself like a rat snake.

The same domino effect of negative self-talk can manifest in depression. When we are regularly telling ourselves it’s hopeless, things never work out for me, or a slew of other fatalistic misconceptions, the Universe mirrors back to us “proof” that our belief was correct.

So, what can we do when the negative momentum we’ve talked ourselves into feels like a train we’re doomed to ride forever?

Think of a spinning top. What happens when gravity starts to take over? It finally teeters to a stop. When anxiety or depression hit a high point, know that it too will pass. You cannot remain in the high anxiety or low depression forever.

Typically, we wake up with a fresh start, a new day for a new momentum. Baby steps.

Lia asked, “How do I stop my thoughts?”

“Get out ahead of them, before the momentum starts on that train to worry. Do one thing that pleases you today. Write three things you are grateful for each morning you wake up and each night before you go to bed. Listen to music you like.”

Whether a teenager or a grownup, we all experience stress. Yet while stress is unavoidable, building momentum in the direction of peace is in our control. Stress is a continuum, and our self-talk determines whether we take a harrowing ride on an uncontrollable track or experience an adventurous journey.

Lia has altered her label since we spoke last week. She is no longer someone who “struggles with anxiety” but now refers to herself as “conscientious and capable.” And that altered shift in her perception is the foundation for a rewarding momentum.

*Name has been changed to protect the privacy of the person.

Thank You, Langston Hughes

The talented Langston Hughes reminds us of the choice we all have in his moving story, “Thank You, Ma’am”

Our world is fraught with anxiety, filled with the uncertainty of COVID-19 as our death toll continues to mount. The almost full calendar year of pandemic life has rendered many of us depressed. Factor in the economic stress and growing political tension, it is no surprise that many of us are also quick-tempered. After all, when we are experiencing pain it’s normal to react. 

How we react to pain makes all the difference.

As an English teacher to middle school students, I bear the gift and responsibility of educating minds through literature. Students “buy in” when they can connect a text to both the world around and in them. With the escalating violence at the US Capitol, I felt a need to choose a story that could palpably demonstrate an invaluable commodity: kindness.

 It’s easy to be kind when we are in a good place, when our needs are met and we want for little or nothing; kindness becomes, for many of us, a challenge when we are in pain.

The social activist and prolific Harlem Renaissance writer, Langston Hughes offered my students (and humanity) a short but profound and palpably moving example of kindness in the face of pain with his story, “Thank You, Ma’am.”

The story involves a young teen who attempts to steal a woman’s purse on the street at night. Instead of reporting the boy to the police, the woman brings him home and gives him a warm meal. Her kindness alters the boy’s behavior, his perception and—although we can only infer—the trajectory of his life.

I want my students to know that each of them has the power to make a choice every moment; I want each of us to remember that, despite how painful life can get at times, we always have a choice to be kind. This is not a call to be a doormat. Langston Hughes’ character, Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones is portrayed as a strong, no nonsense woman. She is that rare mixture of confident and compassionate, perceptive yet matter of fact.

So, as you go through your morning, your day, your week, your life, regardless of wherever life may take you, channel your inner Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones. A simple gesture of kindness can change someone’s life in ways you may never know—including your own.

The Unspoken Struggle

There is a silent but desperate pain in many teens and tweens in our 21st century world

As a writing teacher, I have the bittersweet gift and responsibility that comes with reading the many hidden thoughts of tweens and teens. An English teacher is often informally consigned to the role of therapist, a safe repository of one’s typically dormant insights. While a significant number of students’ essays contain innocuous content, there are sometimes those red flags that require I share my concern with the school psychologist. Unfortunately, I’m seeing an uptick in red flags.

Since the pandemic, we know there’s been a rise in mental health concern. According to MedScape (www.medscape.com), depression symptoms have “jumped threefold, overdose deaths…increased in 40 states, and 25% of young adults have suicidal ideation.”

It is no surprise then that our adolescents are demonstrating an increase in anxiety and depression as well. This past week, I’d assigned my students the following prompt:

“Write about a time when you have felt or experienced a struggle in your life. Did it resolve? If so, how? If not, why?”

Regardless of ability (i.e. ELL learners, GT students and everything in between), my students were eager to write about their struggles. They were also hungry to be heard. Shortly after posting the assignment, a barrage of emails appeared with the following inquiries:

“This really helps. Can we do more of these prompts?”

“I normally hate writing, but I like this assignment. Can I do more than one?”

“I have a pretty big struggle. Would it be okay if I shared it with our class?”

There’s a sense of safety in writing, in getting our thoughts out onto the page. Writing also creates an immediate sense of being heard—even if it’s just for an audience of one—YOU!

Several of my “red flag” essays end with a request to not share their anxious thoughts and/or depression with anyone. They write of observed or experienced domestic abuse, estranged parents, gender uncertainty, cancer, the loss of a loved one, and bullying. The overarching emotion that binds them is a sense that they are alone and unworthy.

I want to hug each of these students. Instead, I tell them the truth: they are courageous for sharing their stories and they matter. 

Supermarket Sweep Life

There’s an unspoken “Supermarket Sweep” mentality pervading our lives.

            There’s a popular American game show, now in its 10th season, called Supermarket Sweep. The premise involves contestants racing against a timer to acquire “high-dollar goods within their allotted time. The team with the most…[number] of valuable items in their cart wins the $100,000 prize.” (source The Today Show). The appeal of the show is understandable: the rush of adrenaline to get as many items—hopefully more highly-valued than others—into one’s cart in a finite and small window of time (typically 1 minute and 30 seconds).

            The fast-paced game show hosted by the talented and humorous Leslie Jones is, no doubt, entertaining. We may watch, experiencing a hit of dopamine as the contestants race against the clock; we may experience pleasure, living vicariously through the frenzied contestants as they practically leave skid marks, stomping haphazardly through the many grocery aisles.

            Yet somehow, our lives tend to feel like we are no different than those Supermarket Sweep contestants. As a secondary English teacher, I see it with my students: the race to get an assignment in, the rush to read through an essay prompt without taking the time to consider the prompt itself. As a mother, I’ve witnessed the Supermarket Sweep mind spinning—no different than the contestants’ carts speeding down aisle after aisle. The mental guessing game of What If thinking, is its own conveyer belt of recycled worry.

            Adults are far from immune to the Supermarket Sweep mindset. Whether it’s the rush to get food on the table or the desperation to install a pool (and everything in between), when we put ourselves on this self-imposed time limit to get things accomplished, we run the risk of a few things:

  1. A lack of self-awareness
  2. Greater physical stress on the body
  3. An affinity for anxiety and/or depression

Without knowing it, I spent a good deal of my young adulthood with the Supermarket Sweep mentality as a steady companion. My cart was regularly filled with items that I didn’t necessarily want but falsely believed I needed to make me feel like a “winner”: the right college, a boyfriend, friends—the key was to have these “things” so that I could feel good. Say yes now was my unexamined mentality. It didn’t matter how I felt about what went into my spiritual cart; all that mattered was that I had put something in there.

I encourage you to consider the items you may be placing in your spiritual cart. Choose them carefully and consider the possibility of removing items that no longer serve you. Your life matters and while we each have an expiration date on this planet, we are not in a race or competition with Time. Care about what goes into your spiritual cart; the only appraiser of value for your cart’s items is you.

“Satisfying Soul Food”

 
We are all on a journey in this life. Regardless of our circumstances, I believe the core of that journey is one of self-love. 

Last week, I had the true pleasure of sitting down to talk with two beautiful people on the Law of Attraction Today podcast (LOA Today): Walt Thiessen and Cindie Chavez. Walt is the founder of the inspiring podcast and Cindie is his insightful co-host.

In our pandemic world where we are encouraged to social distance, a sense of isolation and hopelessness can easily manifest in us. The LOA Today podcast can provide a spiritual antidote when we find ourselves chewing on worry.

There’s a famous quote by the late author and speaker, Leo Buscaglia: “Love is always bestowed as a gift-freely, willingly and without expectation. We don’t love to be loved; we love to love.” Walt and Cindie, LOA Today’s co-hosts are beautiful examples of this quote in action. They exude warmth and compassion, both for others and themselves. To be in their presence is a gift.

We are all on a journey in this life. Regardless of our circumstances, I believe the core of that journey is one of self-love. When we embrace the gift of who we are, we become a gift to others.

The LOA Today podcast focuses on the principle of like attracting like. We attract what we are, what we think about, what we believe. Our hunger in this external world of uncertainty is greatly based upon our tendency to resist going inward for answers. The LOA Today podcast is a benevolent, inquisitive space to tune into and by extension, fill our spiritual bellies. Listeners are encouraged to question, gain perspectives not considered before and explore their inner terrain, sans expectation or fear.

I will close this blog piece with a hearty thank you to Walt Thiessen and Cindie Chavez for both having me as a guest on their show and for sharing their authentic selves with the world. Here’s a link to the show last Wednesday, July 15th: