A large part of what my work is connecting people with resources for their own self care. This page contains my favorites.
Working with “Shen“
In traditional Chinese medicine, the state of a person’s “shen” (spirit), is of integral importance to their health. The spirit impacts the body, the body impacts the spirit, and both impact the quality of the life that we lead. What follows is a collection of ideas and practices that have helped me at various times throughout my life. Some of these I come back to frequently, some have made only a brief, but important appearance.
Working with the Mind
Turning off the Brain’s “Default Mode”
The brain’s “default mode network” is a large scale brain network made up of interacting brain regions. It is active when a person is not focused on the outside world and the brain is at wakeful rest, such as during daydreaming and mind-wandering. It is also active when a person is thinking about others, thinking about themselves, remembering the past, and planning for the future.
All these are important activities for our brain. They allow self-reflection and growth. However, some of us can get stuck in default mode and feel like our brain is always “on”. We can replay scenarios over and over again, get stuck on a certain idea and have a hard time letting it go, or find ourselves trending toward negative, repetitive thoughts.
There are a variety of ways to address this issue, but one thing that always gives me comfort is knowing that it is possible to turn off the default mode in any instant I choose. Essentially, our brain cannot be in default mode when we activate some other large system of our brain, such as the visual cortex, auditory cortex or motor cortex. You can’t think about your problems when you are exercising at your maximum level. You also can’t think about your problems when you are staring intently at the world around you, taking in every piece of visual information down to the smallest shifts in shadow, texture and color. It’s hard to stay in this very alert, focused place of mind for longer than a minute or two, but sometimes that is enough to recenter myself and find a better frame of mind.
I like to tell people that acupuncture works by moving qi (energy) through your body. There are a variety of ways to move qi, though. Exercise is an important one, as is emotional expression. Sometimes we are confronted with difficult situations for which there aren’t any easy solutions. I have found journaling to be a helpful practice in such moments. The way I journal is to write three pages, stream of consciousness, every day for several days in a row. I just write whatever comes into my head. Usually after a page I start to get into what’s really bothering me. Once I finish writing, I shred the pages or throw them out. They are not to keep. They are definitely not to review. They are simply a way to get everything that is rolling around inside my head onto the page.
I find journaling helpful because I tend to self-censor. I don’t want to be judged. At times I don’t want people to know what I’m really thinking because what I’m really thinking is pretty negative. A journal is a place where I can be as mean, petty, vindictive, childish, whiny, cruel, fearful, etc., as I need to be. Getting those emotions onto the page helps me release them. It’s also why those pages go immediately into the trash.
What I’ve noticed, and what I’ve seen happen for many others who do this practice for a few weeks, is that within several days to a couple weeks, my writing starts to shift. Once I’ve had an opportunity to truly express myself, to exhaust those emotions, I start to find solutions to the problems that are bothering me. Have you ever tried to give advice to a person who was stuck, only to find that they didn’t want your advice and had no intention of listening to you? We are more likely to listen to our own advice. What starts as a practice to express emotions, turns into a practice that allows us to solve our own problems.
I do not practice meditation every day. I wish I would, but I don’t. However, I’ve practiced it at various times throughout my life when things were tough, and it has been very helpful. It seems like a small thing, but when I take ten minutes to meditate every day I start to see improvements in my mood and emotional reactivity after five or six days of practice.
The biggest misconception about meditation is that you aren’t good at it if you aren’t able to “quiet your mind”. The truth is that the almost immediate mental distractions that you experience are perfectly normal. The practice of meditation is to gently bring your focus back, for example to the breath, as soon as you notice that your mind has wandered. It’s ok that your mind wanders—that gives you the opportunity to practice.
I personally find it easier to do guided meditations, and I particularly like the app “Headspace”. You can try it for free for ten days, which is long enough to start seeing some results. The reason I like Headspace so much is that the creator, a former Buddhist monk, does a good job teaching some of the fundamental concepts of mindfulness.
I may not meditate every day, but I try to be mindful as often as I can. What that means is that I try to be aware of how my mood or state of mind impacts my perception of myself, my life, and the world around me. As an example, most people tend to have a more negative outlook on life when the weather is bad. Another example is I’m much more likely to get upset and yell at my children when I’m hungry. Mindfulness has helped me find more calm in my life, and has helped me to be a happier, less judgmental person. A great introduction to mindfulness is the book “Full Catastrophe Living” by Jon Kabat Zinn. Or you can check out some of Kabat-Zinn’s youtube videos.
Working with the Physical Body
Power of Posture
Our bodies can change our minds, and our minds can change our behaviors and beliefs. Spending time in a power pose, even for brief periods of time, can increase your testosterone, making you feel more confident, and decrease your cortisol, making you less reactive to stress. In situations where you feel powerless, lack confidence, social settings that make you uneasy, find a quiet spot and take a power pose for two minutes. You will feel more confident, and others will perceive you as more confident. I love this TED talk from researcher Amy Cuddy.
Breathing and the Stress Response
Breathing has an enormous impact on our nervous system. Our breathing patterns change depending on whether we relaxed and safe, or stressed and under threat. When our upper back muscles get tense, whether from stress or poor posture, it can affect how we breathe, which in turns affects how we feel. Working out the kinks in our back can actually make us feel much more relaxed. This video and this video from yoga teacher Jill Miller shows the rolling techniques I like to do on my back. They help with my posture, mood, and breath. Remember, if this is too painful to do lying on the floor you can also do it against a wall
More on Breathing
Breath work can be a powerful tool to combat stress, making it great for our health. Stress is a primary or aggravating cause of most cases of illness. Even if a disease clearly has an organic cause, relaxation can improve the body’s capacity to heal. Breathing is the only function we can do completely consciously or completely unconsciously. Breathing is controlled by two different sets of nerves and muscles. As a result, breath is the only function through which we can influence the involuntary nervous system. Imbalances of the involuntary nervous system underlie many common disorders.
Breath is also a connection between mind and body. Breath work can help you harmonize the impact of the mind on the body. Putting your attention on your breath is like putting your consciousness on neutral. When you feel upset or angry or fearful, you can trace those emotions to particular thoughts or images. You can’t stop thoughts or images, but you can learn to divert your attention. A safe place is the breath.
Here’s a video demonstration from Dr. Weil of three different breathing techniques. To really be effective, these techniques have to be practiced every day. I try to do the relaxing breath at least twice a day, hopefully more. I find myself calmer and less reactive throughout the day.
Rewriting Your Story
The stories that we tell ourselves about our health, our relationships, our value as a person, can have a profound impact on our health and happiness. Taking a personal narrative and rewriting it can be a powerful way to change our mindset.
After writing down the story (be as brief or as detailed as you chose), take a moment to reflect on it and then do one of two things:
Ask yourself if this is an honest assessment? Are there obstacles in your way that you are choosing not to acknowledge? By acknowledging those obstacles, could you potentially feel less stuck and therefore able to make forward progress?
Is there a way you could reframe this story? Imagine listening to this story as though you were your best friend. Are you being objective, or are you actually being overly critical. We are often harsher on ourselves than we are on others.
Here is a great article with more information on the research behind this suggestion.
One of the best ways I have found to deal with a difficult person or a difficult situation is to try and find something about that person or situation for which I’m grateful. I realize that being told to “find the silver lining” by another person can be extremely irritating. However, at a certain point, the only thing we have control over is our mindset.
In my own life, I tend to use a gratitude practice when I’m dealing with illness or with a situation that is unfair. I say thank you for the opportunity to grow as a person, to be more patient with my body or with life, to be reminded of what it feels like for others who have experienced similar situations. I also tend to use gratitude practices when dealing with people I find to be aggressive or insulting, or people who frustrate me. I say thank you for the opportunity to set aside my ego and try to truly listen to that person. Often they’re trying to tell me something important, though the message may be wrapped in pain. Occasionally, all I can muster is a thank you that I am lucky enough to travel through life on a happier road than the person confronting me. I may say these thank you through gritted teeth and not completely feel like I mean them at the time, but it does help.
This is a great article on some of the research behind gratitude practices that you might find helpful.
Jon Kabat-Zinn’s 9 attitudes of mindfulness.
I first came across Jon Kabat-Zinn through his book “Full Castrophe Living”. Kabat-Zinn is the creator of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program at the University of Massachusetts Hospital, and his work has been replicated and expanded on throughout this country over the last three decades. The MBSR program started with individuals who had severe and chronic health issues, particularly pain, and few good treatment options. The focus of the program was to improve those patients’ quality of life. As Jon says during one of the videos on the playlist below, there are ways to work with pain. Before you can work with it, though, you have to put out the welcome mat for your pain. It’s a counterintuitive approach, but also a powerful one. It’s helped me, and millions of people around the world.
This playlist from Jon Kabat-Zinn discusses the nine attitudes that a person cultivates through mindfulness practice. The nine attitudes are: non-judging, patience, beginner’s mind, trust, non-striving, letting go, gratitude, generosity and acceptance. All of the attitudes are embedded in each other. Each is a door into all the others. In all Asian languages the word for heart and mind are the same, so that mindfulness really means heartfulness. Although many people, including myself, discovered mindfulness as a way to address physical or emotional pain, practicing mindfulness has many rewards. It has helped me be a better person, both for myself and for others.
This TED talk from Brene Braun on the power of vulnerability is one of my all time favorites. She speaks as a social worker and researcher. Her message is that we cannot selectively numb an emotion. If we try to numb pain or guilt or shame, we also numb our ability to feel joy, connection, and meaning. Instead, we can choose to be vulnerable, and in this choice, live with our whole hearts.