A Time for Kindness

It is hard to find words that offer any comfort in the midst of the painful time we are immersed in after the senseless killings in Roseburg. All I could think of to share is this poem, which doesn’t so much comfort, but instead reminds that we are all connected, that we all suffer, and that we can choose to use our suffering to learn compassion. As the poet so aptly says, kindness is the only thing that makes sense anymore.


Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and
purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you every where
like a shadow or a friend.

by Naomi Shihab Nye from “Words Under the Words”

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Weeping For Our Delight: The powerful link between love and grief

When I was 26, my mother died. It was a difficult death. She suffered and longed to leave, but lingered, in pain and semi-consciousness.

My last act as a daughter was to give her sips of water and promise to miss her…and to finish my education. I have accomplished both. The education part came in starts and spurts, with long breaks in between, when my resolve waned. But eventually, I ended up with two master’s degrees. The missing her, however, has been near constant.

We are often taught that the pain of losing someone eventually dissolves, and all we are left with is memories, devoid of sadness or longing. But the truth is we are forever changed by significant loss, and the pain of that loss can revisit us again and again, albeit in more tempered doses.

For me, each phase of life has brought renewed awareness of my mother’s absence and pain in the realization of that void. When I got married, when I graduated from college, when I began a new career, I felt the loss again acutely. When I am struggling, confused or lonely, I long for her. But always, I am aware that I am motherless, and always, I miss her.

Grief is a reflection of how much we have loved. When we love deeply, the loss will stay with us, for the rest of our lives. This is not dysfunction, but a manifestation of our ability to bond with and love another.

Khalil Gibran expresses this idea with grace in his master work, The Prophet:

“When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.

Some of you say, “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.”

But I say unto you, they are inseparable.”

It is true that the intense, all-encompassing pain of grief does diminish with time when we allow ourselves to experience it rather than pushing it away. Eventually, grief’s physical symptoms (lack of energy, nausea, crying, lump in the throat, etc.), the inability to concentrate, the anger, (even rage sometimes), the guilt (often unjustified), the isolation, the hazy feeling of unreality, all these will fade and you will return your energies to life and other relationships.

But, there is no cure for grief. It is only converted from the acute to the chronic. And, this is really chronic love, manifesting as sorrow, which clings throughout the years. You have loved and so you mourn. You are human and so you grieve.

Here is one of my favorite poems about embracing and accepting grief.

Talking to grief

Ah, grief, I should not treat you
like a homeless dog
who comes to the back door
for a crust, for a meatless bone.
I should trust you.

I should coax you
into the house and give you
your own corner,
a worn mat to lie on,
your own water dish.

You think I don’t know you’ve been living
under my porch.
You long for your real place to be readied
before winter comes. You need
your name,
your collar and tag. You need
the right to warn off intruders,
to consider my house your own
and me your person
and yourself
my own dog.

By: Denise Levertov

For more information about grief or to find support contact Winterspring Center for Loss and Grief.

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Why We Blame the Parents

I don’t know about you, but I often hear people say things like, “His parents really raised him right,” when good things happen for a young person. Or, “Her parents must have let her run wild,” when a teen or adult child gets into trouble. But is that really true? Are parents mostly to blame when something goes wrong and can they take the credit when their child grows up to be successful?

In my work as a therapist and social worker, and in my own life, I have seen much to contradict this belief. I have known kids from broken, abusive and chaotic families, become, by all accounts, successful people: loving, engaged, happy in relationships. On the other hand, I have witnessed kids addicted, depressed and suicidal, who were loved and given structure and security from the time they were born. So what gives? How can it be that one child in dire circumstances will flourish, while another with many advantages becomes addicted and takes their own life? I don’t have all the answers, but here are some things to consider.

We often believe parent’s are responsible for how a child turns out because:

1. We don’t understand genetics. Genetics are a powerful thing. Scientists differ on how much of a person’s temperament, intelligence and motivation is in-born, but most agree a significant portion is. When mental illness or addiction is a factor in a child’s success or failure, genetics often becomes even more important.

Many dysfunctions of the mind are passed to children through their DNA and when it comes to addiction, geneticists have determined that genes play a significant role. The National Council for Alcoholism and Drug Dependence puts it this way, “Research has shown conclusively that family history of alcoholism or drug addiction is in part genetic and not just the result of the family environment.”

Acknowledging the role of genetics can be challenging, because it implies, rightly so, that some things are out of our control. Whether our child becomes addicted to a substance or mentally ill is often not something we can prevent. In Al-Anon, one short hand way to embrace this truth as it relates to alcoholism goes like this, “I didn’t cause it. I can’t control it. And, I can’t cure it.”

2. We don’t understand the power of peers and culture outside the home. Judith Rich Harris is a science writer and researcher who spent most of her career writing college text books. She wrote a lot of psychology texts and all of them said the same things about why kids turn out the way they do: it was “nature (genetics) and nurture (parents)” that dictated the outcomes. But after years of writing about all this Harris realized that something crucial was missing in this discussion and a huge assumption was being made that “nurture” was the same as environment and that parents were all that contributed to the environment. “What about peers and the culture outside the walls of the home?” she thought.

This began her investigation into the role of the peer group and culture in a child’s life.  Peers and the larger culture as a whole, it turns out, have a profound impact on the development and eventual outcome of a person’s life and can be more powerful than parents in many cases.

Here is how Harris puts it, “There is no question that the adult caregivers play an important role in the baby’s life. It is from these older people that babies learn their first language, have their first experiences in forming and maintaining relationships, and get their first lessons in following rules. But the socialization researchers go on to draw other conclusions: that what children learn in the early years about relationships and rules sets the pattern for later relationships and later rule-following, and hence determines the entire course of their lives.

I used to think so too. I still believe that children need to learn about relationships and rules in their early years…But I no longer believe that this early learning, which in our society generally takes place within the home, sets the pattern for what is to follow. Although the learning itself serves a purpose, the content of what children learn may be irrelevant to the world outside their home. They may cast it off when they step outside as easily as the dorky sweater their mother made them wear.”

3. We are afraid. Another reason we blame parents when things go awry with their children has to do with our own fear. If it was their poor parenting that is to blame, then we can avoid the same things happening to our kids if we just do things “right”. It is analogous to the way we often blame a rape victim for the way she dressed, her choice to visit “that” place or her other “poor choices”. If we believe it is her fault then we can also believe that we will be safe if we just dress conservatively, stay away from dangerous places (whatever those are) and never have a drink in public.

When we blame parents we also distance ourselves from any responsibility we have to their children. We don’t have to think about how the economy, the schools, popular culture or politics are impacting them, or what we could do about any of that if we thought it was our problem too.

4. Sometimes we are right. Sometimes, parents are completely to blame. Sometimes the things parents have done and not done, the things they have said and not said, are all that matters to a child, and these choices, if they be negative, can devastate a human being. But, rarely, is it that simple.

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Three Keys to Coping with Change

“Change is the inherent and absolute characteristic of reality.” A few years ago while listening to the radio, I wrote down this quote and put it on my refrigerator. Now, I’m not sure who said it, and a Google search for the originator of the phrase turns up nothing. But no matter, the little green note card with those words written in my grade-school cursive, has traveled with me through several moves, an almost divorce and eventual reunion, the end of graduate school, and the start of my counseling practice. It has also comforted me somehow through several significant personal losses, people leaving my life, others coming into it, relationships changing.

Yes, change seems to be the only thing that can truly be counted on. And yet, we humans mostly cringe when change is upon us. Even positive change can be difficult, anxiety provoking and stretch our internal resources. We attempt to avoid it. We try to predict and control it, but reality forces its will upon us. Change happens.

I have discovered three keys for coping that have helped me and may help you too.

1. Accept it. Nothing makes change more difficult than our struggle against it. This can lead to denial and procrastination. My mom had a sign in her office that read, “Not to decide, is to decide.” She would often point to it when one of her customers was stuck in indecision. Even in the midst of change forced upon us, we often have important choices to make. When we accept the change, we have the ability to make them. When we accept we take back a little of our power, and then can see the choices we do have.

2. Be here now. Change often focuses our mind on past regrets: If only I had done thus and so, I wouldn’t be in this predicament, or fears and longings about the future: What if? These ruminations keep us from being in this moment, this one right now, when things are often okay. If we are safe and warm and have food in our belly, being in this moment can be a comfort. The past is gone and the future is yet to be, embracing this moment can set us free.

3. Grieve. Change often involves loss. Even when most would describe a change as positive, the things, people and experiences we leave behind are still lost. A colleague of mine is sending her five year old daughter to kindergarten next week, and of course she is happy that the moment for her child to go out into the world on her own has arrived. At the same time, I imagine she is grieving the child that no longer exists, the two year old, the three year old, the four year old, who needed her mommy so much, and all the sweet, loving times they shared before she became a big girl going off to school.

Let yourself grieve. Let yourself acknowledge what is passing away: cry, weep, feel, get angry even, because change is the inherent and absolute characteristic of reality, and sometimes it is very, very hard.

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Balancing Act: Serving Others Without Abandoning Ourselves

The last couple of weeks we have been discussing ways to detach from people we love who are causing us pain and living lives of dysfunction. We have explored the limits of helping and how in some cases helping can be detrimental both to us and those we love.

However, stopping long held patterns of behavior and changing the way we think about things can be difficult. Placing the focus on ourselves, our own lives, our own well-being, our work, our friends, our home, can seem selfish or wrong to those of us who have grown up believing that we could solve problems for people we love and that to be a good person we must give ourselves away.

Society often tells us we should sacrifice our own good for the good of others and in some circumstances that can be the honorable and effective thing to do. For example, as parents and grandparents we often sacrifice for our children and grandchildren. Or, we may care for an elderly relative. Problems develop when there is never a place for our own needs and when we, inevitably, come to resent the very ones we love and wish to care for because we have neglected ourselves and are empty.The answer is to find balance within our responsibility, to give but not give up ourselves.

Have you ever traveled on an airplane? If so, remember the spiel the flight attendants present about what to do if the plane loses cabin pressure and you are traveling with a child?  They tell us that oxygen masks will fall from the ceiling, and though our inclination may be to try to fit the mask on the child, we must instead place the mask over our own face first, so we can be alive and breathing and thus able to care for someone more vulnerable. The same is true in life. We must fill our own lungs: we must rest, we must be nourished, we must exercise, we must socialize, we must create, we must do work we find meaningful, if we are to also serve others.

Breathe. Take a deep breath. You are alive!

This poem by Mary Oliver has appeared in my blog before. Its message, offered in metaphor, can reach us at a level all this logic perhaps cannot. I offer it once again as a way to spur the journey towards balance.

The Journey
By Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice-
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do-
determined to save
the only life that you could save.

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Help Yourself: How to Cultivate Inner Peace When Someone You Love Struggles With Life

When people discover I am a mental health counselor they often tell me about family members struggling with mental illness or addiction. They tell stories of trying desperately to help, of money spent, of nights searching bars and calling hospitals looking for their sister, daughter, son or husband. They tell of despair, of hopelessness, of anger and resentment.

They tell about their own marriages falling apart due to the stress of trying to help, or arguments about how much to help and when to give up. They tell of losing savings and homes due to the financial stress of sending their loved one to treatment yet again, or supporting them when they make another attempt at sobriety or healing. They tell of visits to jail, to court, to the emergency room. They are often worn out by it all and feel very alone, as if their family is the only one going through such trauma.

But they are not alone. In fact, many families have at least one member who hasn’t been able to make life work. This fact is kept hidden by the stigma placed on mental illness and addiction. We just don’t talk about it. Instead, we labor on in silence and isolation trying over and over to figure out what to do. Shame keeps us silent. We may be ashamed of our family member and of our inability to save them. We may be ashamed that we could not control their behavior and choices. If we just knew the right thing to say or do, we think, then they would be ok.

However, there is often nothing more we can do for our loved one, and to continue trying to help only damages our own life and the lives of others we are in relationship with. In those cases, the best thing for a family member to do is to put the focus back on themselves, for this is where they actually have some control. This is not an easy thing to do if our focus has been primarily on another person. It requires commitment and practice, and the ability to detach from the person we have been trying to help in a kind and compassionate way. When we can do this it allows us to move ahead with our own lives and let go of the struggle. It allows our loved-one the dignity of making their own decisions and living their own life, even if their choices are not what we would want for them.

The practice of detaching with love is not something that is done once. It is a process that takes place over the duration of our relationship with our troubled loved-one. Over and over again we must make the choice to turn our attention towards our own challenges and joys rather than getting caught up in the drama of another’s life. What follows are guidelines that can help us navigate this process. They have been adapted from a pamphlet developed by Al-Anon Family Groups. Al-Anon is a 12-Step program for friends and family members of someone affected by alcoholism, but the principles they employ are useful to us all.

To detach with love we learn:
• Not to suffer because of the actions or reactions of other people
• Not to allow ourselves to be used or abused by others in the interest of another’s recovery
• Not to do for others what they can do for themselves
• Not to manipulate situations so others will eat, go to bed, get up, pay bills, not drink, use or behave as we see fit
• Not to cover up for another’s mistakes or misdeeds
• Not to create a crisis
• Not to prevent a crisis if it is in the natural course of events

Detachment is neither kind nor unkind. It does not imply judgment or condemnation of the person or situation from which we are detaching. Separating ourselves from the adverse effects of another person’s alcoholism, mental illness or other dysfunction can be a means of detaching: this does not necessarily require physical separation. Detachment can help us look at our situation objectively.
Detachment allows us to let go of our obsession with another’s behavior and begin to lead happier and more manageable lives, lives with dignity and rights. We can still love the person without liking the behavior.

Adapted from Al-Anon pamphlet #S-19

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When a Loved One Has Problems: Are You Helping or Hurting?

It can be incredibly painful to watch someone we love doing destructive things that damage themselves or others. And part of the pain we feel is often our sense of helplessness. Why can’t we figure out how to help the person we love stop drinking, or gaming, get a job, get out of bed, pay their bills on time, leave a terrible relationship? If we think of ourselves as smart, capable people it may make sense that we want to help our friend, grown child or partner. But doing so can have negative consequence both for ourselves and the ones we love.

Those of us who help and help again, who rescue and forgive over and over, often work much harder to solve our loved-one’s problems than they do. We may help without being asked and believe we know what is best. Melody Beattie wrote about this phenomenon in her groundbreaking book Codependent No More. She identified questions that can help us figure out if we are behaving in a codependent and therefore unhealthy and unproductive way. Take the quiz and then read on for ideas about the downside of helping too much.

• Do you feel responsible for other people’s thoughts, actions and feelings?

• When someone tells you about a problem she has, do you feel it is your duty to solve it?

• Do you swallow your anger in order to avoid conflict?

• Do you find getting more difficult than giving?

• Do you somehow seem to enjoy life more during interpersonal crisis? Have you avoided choosing partners whose lives seem to go too smoothly because you become bored?

• Do people tell you that you are a saint for putting up with something or someone? Does part of you enjoy this?

• Is it more tempting to concentrate on the problems of others than to solve difficulties in your own life?

If you answered yes to any of the questions above, you may be stuck in a pattern of rescuing and resentment with someone you care about. You rescue, they resent it. You rescue again, you resent it, and round and round it goes. This dynamic can go on for years and be detrimental to all concerned. If you think you are caught up in this behavior, understanding why it isn’t a good idea can be a first step towards change. Here is a list of some of the primary reasons why solving other people’s problems isn’t effective:

1. We don’t really know what is best for someone else. Often a person’s greatest growth comes from struggle and pain. If we always fix things for those we love, we rob them of the opportunity to meet life’s difficulties and learn from them.

2. We don’t have control. Trying to fix other’s problems means we focus our energies on people and situations that we have little, if any, control over. Ultimately we really only have control over our own choices and reactions.

3. They will become dependent. If we are successful in solving our loved one’s problems, we teach them to count on us, instead of themselves. We cripple them with the belief that they can’t do it on their own. They may come back again and again asking for, and then even demanding help.

4. They will resent us. Most adults resent being told how to live their lives. They may rebel, or become passive aggressive to avoid our suggestions, prodding, hints or overt demands.

5. It’s exhausting. Trying to run someone else’s life drains the energy we need to live our own life to the fullest. If we are always scheming and planning and manipulating to get people to do things the way we see fit, there is very little juice left for our own hopes, dreams and ambitions.

6. It makes us mean. The strain of trying to keep everything together for everyone eventually leaks out of us as anger and resentment. We may become reactive and say and do unreasonable things.

7. It takes a toll on our health. Trying to control others is extremely stressful and too much stress negatively affects many aspects of health and well-being.

8. Insomnia. Poor sleep is a common symptom of over-involvement in the lives of others.

9. We attract “users”. Those of us who come to care-taking and controlling naturally often attract people who can spot our soft hearts and ability to solve problems. These folks take advantage of us through manipulation, malingering and feigned helplessness.

10. It undermines equality in relationships. The person in control and the person they are trying to help are not on equal footing in the relationship. This is often a barrier to true intimacy.

Join me next week when we explore how to disentangle yourself from the codependency trap and begin creating a life worth living for yourself while giving your loved-one the dignity to make their own decisions and live the life they choose, even if it is one we would not choose for them.

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Do You Have to Be Crazy to See a Counselor?

Many people think that you have to be “crazy” or extremely dysfunctional to seek out the services of a mental health counselor. The truth is that most people can benefit.

Here are some of the best reasons to see a counselor

Manage anxiety. Everyone experiences stress and anxiety. In therapy you can learn ways to reduce the potency of stressful experiences. This improves both your emotional well-being and physical health.

Understand yourself. Sometimes our motivations and feelings can be mysterious. A skilled counselor can help you unearth the origins of your behaviors and emotions. Insight can lead to positive change.

Gain clarity about your purpose. What do you want out of life? What is meaningful to you? How do you balance freedom and responsibility? Counseling can help you discover what is truly important and help you focus your energies towards those goals.

Learn to grieve. Sadness is a normal part of the human experience. Counseling can help normalize your reactions to difficult events and losses and help you express and move through the darkness.

Develop new skills. Counseling can help you learn more effective ways to communicate, to ask for what you need, express feelings and understand the feelings and needs of your family and friends. You can create self-care strategies that include self-compassion and self-forgiveness. In counseling you can learn what healthy boundaries look like and how to stand-up for yourself.

Improve relationships. Many people wait until their marriage or primary relationship is in serious trouble before seeking help. But by then, it can be too late. Counseling early in a relationship or when problems first appear can help set the stage for healthy communication, create understanding of our partner’s personality and needs and help develop realistic expectations of the relationship.

How to Choose a Counselor

Find a good fit. Many practitioners offer a free 30 minute consultation. Take advantage of this by setting up appointments with two or three different therapists. Meet and talk with them about their approach to counseling and typical length of treatment for your situation. What is their training and experience? What are their strengths? How do they collaborate with others on your health care team?

Ask lots of questions. For example if you are interested in treatment for anxiety, ask your therapist if they provide an evidence based approach. (This is a treatment that has been researched and shown to be effective.) Ask how much experience and training the therapist has in providing the treatment you are interested in.

• Get recommendations. For example, ask your primary care physician, your chiropractor, family and friends to recommend a counselor. Ask them why they believe in that person’s abilities and how they know about them.

• Confirm eligibility. If you will be using insurance check to make sure the counselor you have chosen can accept your insurance.

• Ask about sliding scale. Many counselors offer a reduced rate to fee for service clients.

• Trust your gut. If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. While it is normal to feel some anxiety when beginning counseling, the counselor’s task is to put you at ease and build trust and rapport. If that isn’t happening consider switching to a different practitioner.

• Advocate for yourself. If you are not getting what you want from counseling but have developed a strong relationship with your therapist, ask for what you need. Most counselors will be happy you have spoken up and given them the opportunity to be more effective.

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Sleep Glorious Sleep: How to Get More of What We Need For Health and Well-Being

There is almost nothing that can make us more vulnerable than lack of sleep. When we are sleep deprived our ability to cope with emotions, solve problems and act effectively is drastically reduced. Everything seems more difficult. On the other hand, when we are sleeping well and feel rested we are happier and more satisfied with our lives, relationships and work.

In spite of this, many of us experience poor sleep regularly (up to 75% of us according to one study) and most of us don’t know what to do about it. Here are ideas for improving sleep and getting the rest you need to be at your best.


Setting ourselves up for success when it comes to sleep, all starts with the body. If you are full of tension and have consumed a lot of caffeine or alcohol, or if you work on stressful projects right up until bed with no time to wind down, you are setting the stage for sleep difficulties. Instead, follow these guidelines to improve the chances of falling asleep and staying asleep.

• Limit caffeine use. For many of us a cup of coffee or two in the morning will not affect sleep. But caffeine has a long half-life, meaning it takes between eight to fourteen hours to clear our system. So, if getting to sleep is a problem, consider cutting back your daily consumption of caffeine. Eliminate caffeinated food and drink after about 2PM. Look for hidden sources of caffeine in soda, chocolate, tea, energy drinks and some pain relievers and weight loss products.
• Many of us drink alcohol to relax and it can make us feel sleepy initially. But alcohol also interrupts the sleep cycle and can cause mid-night wakefulness. Limit or eliminate alcohol two to three hours before bed.
• Are you tense? It is very difficult to get to sleep when we are wound tight. Use progressive relaxation (the slow tensing and releasing of muscle groups), box breathing, gentle yoga or stretching, or a soothing massage from a bed partner to relax the body.
• If you snore or wake up tired, even after a seemingly “good” night’s rest, consider a sleep study to rule out sleep apnea or other physical issues that may be impacting sleep quality. Consult your physician.


The sleep environment is very important. We have all heard of people who can sleep anywhere under any circumstances. But for most of us an environment conducive to sleep is a must. Here are some tips to make your sleep environment better.

• Make sure the room is dark and cool. Both temperature and light affect our ability to sleep. It is particularly important for the head and face to be cool as this sends a message to the brain to begin shutting down for the night. A cold mask or ice pack can keep the face cool. This can also work to reset the nervous system if you wake up and have trouble getting back to sleep. Make sure to cool the area around the eyes.
• Recent research has revealed that our exposure to light, particularly blue light that is emitted by computers, cell phones and televisions can interrupt circadian rhythms and the production of melatonin (the naturally occurring hormone that promotes sleep). Exposure also seems to be connected to many illnesses including diabetes and cancer.  Read the Harvard study here. So what can we do? Use dim red night lights instead of blue or white. Avoid bright screens two to three hours before bed. Get lots of sun or bright light exposure during the day. This will help you be more alert and improve mood, as well as increase chances for a productive sleep experience at night.
• Clean sheets can work wonders. Many people report they sleep better after they change the sheets. Try it.
• Don’t work or argue in bed. Keep the bed for sleep and sex only. Setting up negative associations with the place where we are meant to relax, unwind and experience pleasure can interfere with sleep.


Worry often causes difficulty when it comes to falling asleep or returning to sleep once we have awakened. It can be tortuous to lay in bed recycling all the things you wish were different in your life, our regret, failures and fears for the future. Most of us know that this rumination is fruitless. It is rare that a flash of insight or a problem will be solved during these sessions of anxiety. What can been done to silence the busy brain that won’t seem to let us rest? Here are some things to try.
• Learn to meditate. Many forms of meditation teach us to focus on the breath. When our mind is following the breath in and out it cannot be caught up with worry. When your mind wanders, as it will, just very gently bring yourself back to the breath.
• Do math in your head. Count backwards from 100 by 3 or 7. This technique keeps your mind occupied and allows worry thoughts to dissipate.
• Another similar strategy is to remember a pleasant movie from start to finish or revisit a happy day in your life and try to remember every detail.
• Use a “brain drain”. Keep a journal by your bed and write down everything you are concerned about. This lets your unconscious know that it does not need to hold onto these thoughts.
• Use a “God box”. Write down your worries and give them over to a Higher Power by placing them in a box or mailing them to the Universe in a book or other receptacle.
• Listen to a guided mediation.  Here is an example that works for many people.
• Read a calming or boring book until you can relax into sleep.

For more information read Good Night: The Sleep Doctor’s 4-Week Program to Better Sleep and Better Health by Michael Breus, Ph.D.

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What I Owe the Tango: Overcoming Fear, Finding Freedom

When I was a little girl my mom said I had stiff back. She reasoned this must be the problem since I had such a hard time doing somersaults and couldn’t stand on my head to save my life. Cart-wheels were out of the questions.

My mom on the other hand was five feet, two inches of athletic prowess. She played tennis, golfed, bowled and danced her whole adult life. As a child she flipped and cart-wheeled across the lawn, played field hockey with the girls and soccer with the boys. She was fierce and comfortable in her body. And, it, her body, was at her command. I remember watching her play tennis when she was in her fifties with twenty- something men, beating them all with finesse and ball placement.

Not me. I wasn’t good at sports and dancing was a kind of torture. I could never understand people who went out on the dance floor, closed their eyes and just let themselves move to the music. Dancing brought feelings of self-consciousness and sometimes even shame, if I happened to shake my booty in a suggestive way. The truth: I was afraid of moving my body, even of being in my body and preferred to live in my head.

So, it was life’s little joke that I married a man for whom dance came second nature, someone who had taught ballroom and performed with a dance company. We were mostly a solid partnership, but not when it came to the dance floor. There, we faltered, because of my fear.

After twenty years of marriage and several aborted attempts at dancing together, my husband finally took up Argentine Tango, alone. This sensuous dance often done in the closest of embrace, is a folk dance that originated in Argentina. It bears little resemblance to American Tango, with its grandiose movements and rose in the teeth bravado that seems to be focused on the audience. Argentine Tango, on the other hand, is a dance done while focused intently on your partner. It is improvised, and danced heart to heart.

I desperately wanted to follow him into this new hobby. I wanted the connection, joy and freedom I imagined him experiencing, and I wanted to share it with him. But, how could I get past my own internal dialogue that screamed: You can’t do that! It’s not safe! You’ll make a fool out of yourself?

The wisest part of me knew that if I wanted to extinguish my fear, I would have to confront it. If I wanted to dance, I couldn’t stay on the sidelines. In fact, one of the things we therapists know for sure is that when something is not life-threatening or even dangerous but we still have intense fear about it, what we want to do is avoid. Everything in us urges us to run away. But that is often the worst thing we can do. Avoiding the things we fear, only reinforces in the brain the miss-placed logic of our anxiety. Knowing this to be true is how I ended up sitting in my car, heart pounding, face flushing, stomach churning, as I contemplated going to my first tango class.

It was spring, still cold outside, though the trees were blooming and the sky clear that late March evening. But I didn’t notice any of that. Instead, I was focused on the sensations in my body. They were so intense it seemed I could die from them. And that’s the thing about fear, panic, anxiety, it feels dangerous. But my situation really wasn’t, and for most of us the things we fear are not going to eat us.

But, as I sat in my car that spring day my feet felt like lead. Ok, just pay attention to your breathing, I said to myself. I counted my breath and lengthened the out breath so that it took twice as long as my in breath and then three times as long. I felt myself down-regulate a little. Then, I looked outside and noticed the way the wind had picked up and a few clouds were pushing across the sky. Pink blossoms on the trees were backlit with rays from the setting sun. I felt myself coming into the moment. More breaths. Some self-talk, You can do this. What’s the worst things that could happen? I’ll be terrible. I’ll be embarrassed. No one will want to dance with me. Ok. Can you live through that? Yes! I won’t like it, but I can live through it. Ok. Get out of the car. Walk. Pay. Put on shoes. Smile. Move like the teacher says to. Breathe. Feel yourself relax a little. Listen to the teacher say this dance is a form of mindfulness practice. Say, “Ohhhhh. That helps.” Just be here. Feel your body. Move it. Hear the music. A partner? Ok. Feel his arms, his body. Breathe. Move. Breathe. Move. Repeat.

And that is how, eventually, I became a tango dancer.

My fear diminished considerably after that first class, but it took months of returning again and again for it to quiet to just a flutter in my heart that I now label excitement. And it has been worth it because tango has given me many gifts.

It is a practice, for those in the follow role, of being as fully present in the moment as possible. Since you never know what the lead will ask of you next, to be effective the mind must be focused only on the very moment you are in. In the times when this is achieved and I can respond seamlessly, there is a delightful sense of union and a sense of mastery over both my mind and body.

Tango also offers the opportunity to give up control within a safe and enjoyable context. For someone like me, with a life fraught with immense responsibility, this is such a relief. In the dance I turn over the major decisions to my partner and in doing so experience moments of pure freedom. I can turn off my busy mind and rest in his arms.

Through tango I have finally found a home in my own body. I think mom would be proud.

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  • About The Author

    Lois Schlegel

    Lois Schlegel, MFA, MS, mental health therapist at Life in Bloom Counseling in Medford and Ashland, has 20 years of experience providing services to individuals and families. She has taught parent education and life skills classes to adults and ... Full Profile
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