Saturday, April 30, 2016

Anxiety and Stress Relief, Part 1, Dissipating Intense, Unpleasant Feelings

Dissipating Intense, Unpleasant Feelings

When you're having an intense and uncomfortable feeling like stress, worry, fear, anger, sadness or aversion, scan your body slowly from head to toe. Notice any places where you feel physical discomfort. 

Anger and sadness often show up in the chest. Anger can feel hot or like wanting to push outward. Sadness can feel cold, heavy or empty. 

Worry and fear often show up in the stomach. Worry can feel tight or jittery. Fear can feel icy or spiky. 

Everyone's experience is unique. Just notice yours without trying to suppress or change anything. See if you can bring a friendly and compassionate feeling toward your discomfort, as if you were sitting with a beloved friend who needed company through a difficult moment. 

Notice if your breathing feels constricted or open. Notice the intensity of the distress, and give it a number from 1 (not too bad) to 10 (horrible). You can use this awareness to track any changes as you do the next steps.

Find the part of your body where the discomfort is worst. Imagine giving more space to the sensations. If your chest is tight, imagine the energy inside expanding outward beyond your body, it can extend three or ten or fifty feet beyond your skin. It's just energy. I've had feelings that fill up whole city blocks.

stress relief technique, anxiety relief technique

As the feelings have more room, you may notice that the intensity of them dissipates. Scan your body again, and see if the distress has decreased at all. If it has, this may become a stress-relieving tool you keep handy.

To practice this skill and learn even more body-mind tools to feel good, join me in the class, Techniques to Relieve Stress, Anger & Anxiety, May 19th, 7pm, at Pleasant Hill Rec and Parks.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Lovingkindness: the *Shpiel Method

*In Yiddish, Shpiel (spiel, shpil) means a long, involved story, often used to persuade. When someone calls you to donate money and reads a canned speech, that's their shpiel. When your uncle Morty tells the same old tale about a no-goodnik trying to get one over on him at the flea market, that's his shpiel.

In a few weeks I will be teaching a meditation class. The goals are stress reduction, lowered anxiety, increased self-awareness, self-compassion and resilience. My plan is to start with LovingKindness meditation.

Meditation Class, Pleasant Hill, CA
LovingKindness provides a focus, something for the mind to do instead of thinking all of its habitual thoughts. If we let ourselves really feel the emotions that go along with the words, we also generate some very nice feelings, and with that, we change the chemical bath our neurons live in. LovingKindness also creates a new mind-habit: thinking compassionately about ourselves and everyone else.

As a therapist, I think this is a great way to begin a meditation practice that will gradually shift toward mindfulness in general and insight in particular. Having our own compassion is a gift when we sit quietly and notice all the mental debris that has collected in our minds over the years. It's a gift when we begin to feel the emotions that a noisy mind is trying to keep us from feeling.

In preparation for the class, I've been thinking about my LovingKindness Spiel - the talk I plan to give to introduce the practice, and to help students deepen into the feelings that LovingKindness invites. It helps that SHPL is the acronym I use when I teach my version. Here's what I plan to tell them.

S is for SAFE. May we all be safe. May we be safe from muggers and terrorists, from car accidents, financial setbacks. May we be safe from the latest virus making headlines. When I wish safety for myself and all beings, I imagine a wave of energy circling the planet. In the mind-movie I create, people literally put their guns down. This is a prayer I send out to the universe, just in case anyone with any kind of power is listening. Then I reflect on my part in this change I wish to see. I lay down my own weapons - usually sarcasm and judgment. And when I do this, I usually feel a sense of relief and ease wash over my body. Then I focus on the good feeling my intention creates.

H is for HEALTHY. May we all be healthy in mind, body and spirit. May the delusions that cause fear and animosity fall away. May the stress that creates tension and illness fall away. May doctors and scientists discover treatments or vaccinations for cancer, MS, ALS, and all the other diseases we struggle with. I send the prayer. I see the wave of energy. And then I reflect on my part. May I eat wholesome food. May I do cardio most days. May I work on dissolving the mind and body habits that create pain. When I wish myself and the world health, that sense of relief and ease usually expands, and I marinate in the good feeling in my body.

P is for PEACEFUL. May we call feel peace and contentment. Especially because we can't control how life unfolds or how other people behave. May we all discover the ability to observe our feelings and respond gently to them. I send the prayer. I see the wave. I bring it inside. May I continue developing my own compassionate, observing self, who can feel all the feels, big and small, without trying to control things I have no ability or business trying to control. Now the relief is even bigger. It's so good to remember I can be peaceful even when I am struggling or in pain.

L is for LOVINGKINDNESS. May we all be filled with lovingkindness. May we awaken in the understanding that life is painful for everyone, even Dick Cheney, as Anne Lamott would say. I send the prayer. I see the wave. May I grow more and more compassionate with myself and others. May I remember to practice random acts of kindness. When someone drives like a jerk, may I remember they are struggling and send them wishes for safety, ease and peace.

Lovingkindness usually fills my heart with tenderness and openness. Sometimes I can feel it in every cell of my body, as if I am glowing. I imagine (and studies are beginning to confirm this) that I am flooding my body with happy neurotransmitters and new neurons are growing.

So that's my plan for the first few sessions, steeping in LovingKindness. Later we will use that compassion and the bath of happy neurotransmitters to deepen into compassion for all of our thoughts, crazy and sane,  and all of our feelings, comfortable and uncomfortable.

And that is my shpiel.

If you want to join us in this practice, you'll find all the details here.

To learn more about how meditation changes the brain, read this article by Dr. Rebecca Gladding.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Book Review: Amanda's Big Dream

I was a fat kid. I had a mom with an eating disorder, who restricted my food intake before I was even born. She liked to brag that she only gained 22 pounds when she was pregnant. In school I was teased for being fat. By the time I was in kindergarten, I assumed that if someone was mean to me, it had to be due to my body.

At age nine, I was a member of weight watchers, weighing and measuring my food, but also weighing and measuring my worth. At fourteen, I was eating between 600 and 900 calories a day. By eighteen, I was binging and vomiting. No matter how thin I became, I could not outrun (or out-diet) my anxiety. I wasn't a naturally thin person, so an anvil hung over my head, waiting to drop. If I regained the weight I'd lost, which surely I would because I was sooooo hungry, who could possibly love me?

It would be another fourteen years before I discovered the size acceptance movement and began to practice loving myself unconditionally in the body I have. It's been a long and arduous process, full of fits and starts, to really embrace myself lovingly. Along the way, I learned from experience that how I feel about myself and how I treat myself sets the tone for how others treat me. When I felt ashamed of my body, people were openly critical and judgmental, even though I was a size four. Now that I am comfortable in my skin, people just enjoy who I am at a size 16.

I would never want a child to experience the shame, blame and rejection I felt. I would never want another human being to feel less than because she or he weighed more than fashion or weight charts dictate. Yet we still live in a world where fat is held in fear and contempt, fat people are seen as inferior and morally weak, and thinness is equated with desirability and good health (despite growing evidence that fitness, not fatness, is the best indicator of health).

So I am thrilled to share a book on size acceptance written for kids (and their parents). Amanda's Big Dream is about a little girl who loves figure skating.

When her coach suggests that losing weight could help improve her performance, she begins to doubt her ability. Her parents and her doctor (who thankfully practices a Health at Every Size approach), are supportive and encouraging. Amanda's best friend teaches her that it's not size, but lots of practice, that makes a skater great.

We need more books that help parents, teachers, doctors, coaches (and first-ladies) recognize and stop playing into fat-shaming kids. A couple TV shows and video games would be good too. Until that happens, we are the front line. We need to become role models of self love and self acceptance for our kids. And we need tools to talk to them about the fat discrimination they will likely face or witness in this culture. Amanda's Big Dream might help start those important conversations.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Straightening the Cake

I wrote this essay several years ago, and just ran across it again...

emotional eating blog, overeating
S'mores Cake
I remember as a kid, standing in front of the refrigerator, scanning for something I wanted to eat and not finding it amidst the low-fat cottage cheese in the pink container, the non-fat milk in the blue container, and the steamed, skinless chicken breast wrapped in plastic. My mother would yell at me to shut the door and stop wasting energy. She meant the energy the fridge used. Looking back I realize I was wasting my energy trying to find something I actually wanted to eat. Outside in the garage we had an extra freezer that housed Sara Lee cheese cakes and pound cakes - for my mother's dinner parties. I liked to open that freezer door and stand there too, wasting energy.
My mother hid "goodies" for herself. On top of the fridge in a big wooden bowl, under a towel lay a bag of malted milk balls. Her stash. My two older sisters taught me to climb onto the counter and find the bag. We would each have a couple. Not too many or Mother would notice.
When my mother threw those elaborate dinner parties, she created dishes out of Gourmet magazine. Gourmet magazines filled the rack in the bathroom. I could read about buttery sauces and cheese filled pasta while sitting on the toilet. But in the kitchen, there was nothing good to eat.
At my mother's parties, I learned to sit at the table and pretend to be satisfied with a smidge of this and a sliver of that. I ate the salad with the real dressing, full of fat, and pretended I didn't want more. I ate the pasta filled with ricotta and spinach and parmesan and pretended I didn't want more. I ate the dessert - one of those frozen cheesecakes, now defrosted and decorated with cherry pie filling. I pretended I didn't want to eat the whole thing.
When the parties were over, and it was my turn to help clear the table and clean the kitchen, I would sneak more food. I carried the warm brie and crackers from the living room back to the kitchen, sneaking a bite as I set it on the counter. I ate the remnants of pasta off the serving plate before washing and drying it. And when there was cake left over, I sliced off a tiny wedge, so no one would notice.
My sisters would do the same. We were in cahoots, conspiring with each other as we ate forbidden food, literally behind my mother's back. Sometimes my mother would even be "in" on the process. If my mother turned around at just the right moment, she might catch one of us enjoying a transparently thin slice of cake. My sister Sue, in training to become a master manipulator, would say innocently, "I'm just straightening it out. It was crooked."
We would all laugh, nervous laughter, the laughter of recognition. We ALL wanted more cake, even mom. Sometimes, we would put the cake in the middle of the kitchen table. Mom and her three daughters would sit around the table talking, making each other laugh, and straightening the cake.

Though my mother restricted our food (or tried) and dragged us to Weight Watchers, and complained bitterly when we got fat, and despaired over her own (usually minimal) arm flab, I can't blame her for the shame I felt about my body. It was her shame too. In the process of trying to protect us and ensure our happiness, living in a culture that hates fat, she did her best to keep us thin. She fed us her anxiety on a bed of undressed lettuce, topped with a weighed and measured portion of very dry chicken.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Do I Have to Forgive, Part 2 (When the Answer is Yes)

In my first post on forgiveness. I focused on the importance of having your own permission NOT to forgive. The key was to be certain that you protect yourself from the person who harmed you. This permission is so essential when the person who is harmful cannot or will not behave differently. Not everyone is capable of taking responsibility for their behavior. Some people will continue to shame or blame you for getting hurt. In these situations, boundaries are more important than forgiveness.

But there are times when forgiveness becomes necessary - not for the other person, but for YOU. Forgiveness in this sense is not about mending or repairing a relationship. It's about letting go of the indignation, the hurt and above all, the WISH that the other person could one day develop the capacity for empathy, care and repair.

The folks at have a one-page on forgiveness that describes this so well...
Forgiving your abuser(s) is ultimately a benefit for you, not only a benefit to your abuser. Forgiving them can relieve a weight of heaviness, bitterness, anger and resentment you might be harboring that could be extremely damaging to your recovery or even your physical health.

For me the need to forgive comes on sleepless nights. My bladder or my cat (or very often, my cat standing on my bladder) wake me, and in the wee vulnerable hours, my poor little mind goes around and around the loop of insanity, trying to explain to myself why the person who has harmed me is wrong. The unseen person in the conversation is the part of me that WISHES so fervently for repair. The loud, repetitive one arguing is the one who knows that repair isn't possible. To reconnect would only mean further abuse.

In these 2am or 3am struggles, the only thing that gets me back to sleep is a sweeping, all encompassing declaration of forgiveness. Instead of the loop, I tell myself and the world that I forgive all wrongs ever done to me so I can sleep. I forgive everyone and everything, just for tonight. Tomorrow I may change my mind (this is for the one who needs to know I will not put myself back in harm's way). But tonight, when I am tired, and I need to let go, I forgive. I forgive big and broad and deep. And it gets me to sleep.

I like this idea of forgiveness as a tool to use as needed, rather than a thing to do to "get over it." On that same one-page from they write,
Forgiveness is not always a “one and done” action. Sometimes we must make a conscious effort to “re- forgive” when we are flooded with memories or the aftereffects of our abuse. Forgiveness can sometimes be a process that needs repetition often. 
 That’s okay. That doesn’t mean you’ve done it wrong. It just means the wrongs done against you were deep and lasting. 

Ultimately, what I am really forgiving is my own longing that things can be different. This is how it is for us who grew up with emotional abuse or neglect. We have little ones inside of us that are still hungry for the connection our bodies were wired for - the parent-child attachment based on safety, soothing and cherishing. I can apologize to the little girl I used to be. I can tell her, I'm so sorry mom and dad couldn't give you that feeling of security and connection you needed. I'm sorry they will never develop this capacity. It's not fair. It's not okay. You don't have to like it.

This is the apology that allows me to move out of the obsessive loop of longing for something that doesn't exist and into the grieving and letting go. The grief hurts, but it doesn't feel crazy. It's recognizing that what looked like an oasis was actually a mirage. And that realization lets me find water where it actually exists.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

"...and I was fat as hell the whole time."

I'm not usually one to post articles on my blog, yet here I am doing just that for the second time in a row. The thing is, sometimes other people write things I wish I'd written. This is one of those times. 

I too got married fat, and without wearing any minimizing undergarments. It was 1995 and I was just beginning my journey toward self acceptance and fat positivity. I didn't yet know there were others like me, getting ready to say no to both the external and internalized fat prejudice rampant in our culture. It would be another two or three years before I would discover books like When Women Stop Hating Their Bodies or Fat!So? 

When I took up the loving and accepting language of fat positivity, people became silent and awkward. Conversations about dieting and self hatred would abruptly stop when I walked into the office lunch room. There wasn't yet a place for an open dialogue where I could say, "Hey, maybe all of our bodies are just fine exactly the way they are." When I tried, it was like I was speaking a foreign language.