Mindfulness

My Discovery of How Mindfulness Reduces Stress

mindfulness tips

Mindfulness Reduces Stress, but I Wasn’t Sold

If you’ve ever heard of mindfulness, you might know that mindfulness reduces stress. You might assume that therapists are experts in mindfulness.  I will admit when I was first introduced to it, that I was not sold on how much of an impact it could actually have on my life.

When I was still in my internship, one of my responsibilities was running a Dialectical Behavioral Therapy group.  One of the core skills that I taught using this model included mindfulness. I had been exposed to mindfulness before, but never to this extent. I wasn’t convinced that just practicing a few minutes a day of something could truly make a difference in my overall stress level and ability to focus. 

Mindfulness has gained a lot of popularity recently, and it sounds like something that is meant for the yoga studio or the meditation cushion. How could simply slowing down actually put a dent in the amount of stress, worry, and overall tension in my life? Of course, in theory, I was all for it. But, I hadn’t actually practiced it.

Since I don’t ask my clients to do anything that I’m not willing to do myself, I totally immersed myself in the same exercises that I was giving them for “homework.” The more I practiced mindfulness, the more I started to really experience its benefits.

I First Tried The Easiest Mindfulness Exercise. Ever.

One of the first things that I first started practicing was paying attention to my breath.  I would spend just two minutes a day noticing how I was breathing, and would make it intentional, rather than automatic. I focused on my breath in, the rise of my chest and expansion of my stomach, and focused on the breath out. I noticed the cooler air coming in and the warmth of the exhale. I felt how my shoulders moved, and my chest expanded. I explored the sensations as if I were an alien that invaded this body and was experiencing the act of breathing for the first time.

This totally calmed down my nervous system.  I was able to slow down my thoughts. I was able to pay closer attention to what was happening in the present moment, rather than the stories I had in my head about the past or the future.  Most importantly, I was able to drown out the numerous distractions that made it hard to feel like myself. 

I decided that mindfulness was awesome.

So what exactly is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is a technique used to bring our attention to the present moment.  It calms us and reduces outside noise so that we have greater access to our intuition.  

Think about trying to tune into a radio station that has a lot of static; you can sort of hear the music, but it’s muffled, and the signal keeps going in and out.  Mindfulness can be used to fine tune our “station” so that we can fully experience our emotions, bodily sensations, and the world around us, and can better assess what we need and want.  

Being mindful has had an incredible impact on my quality of life— by increasing my ability to manage stress, growing my tolerance for experiencing uncomfortable emotions, giving me more focus on everyday activities, allowing me to fully experience happy moments, and has even helped me make better decisions!

One of the best parts of mindfulness is that it’s portable, it’s free, and it’s flexible.  You can practice mindfulness for 5 seconds or 5 hours, and there is no special equipment needed!  No one even has to know when you’re doing it.  There are also so many different ways that you can practice mindfulness; from breathing exercises, to counting, to being out in nature, to even everyday activities like driving or washing dishes. We can figure out a way to integrate this practice into our lives in easy and beneficial ways. 

If you are curious about how mindfulness reduces stress and how you can harness your own power to calm your nervous system and create new possibilities, reach out for a free consultation so we can talk about how your life will change for the better.

 

Kristy Vergo, LPCC
Kristy Vergo, LPCC

Schedule a Free Consultation with Kristy

The Real Reason You Can’t Stay Motivated

The real reason you can't stay motivatedI have a really bad habit when I’m trying to stay motivated to change something about my life. It’s something that I recognize does me no good, but it creeps up on me like the dishes and the laundry. I don’t notice it at first, but then suddenly I’m knee-deep.  Somehow my optimism about things has dissolved and I have a case of the screw-its. I’m talking about feeling discouraged at the amount of progress I’ve made in my endeavors. Trying to be a better parent and spouse. Trying to do the things that I know are important for my mental and physical well-being.  Have you ever worked hard at something, but couldn’t stay motivated because you weren’t seeing any progress? Since I’m a human, I do things that work against my peace of mind. And, since I’m a therapist, I know I didn’t invent this little mind game.  In my Lakewood counseling practice I see this all the time.

There are plenty ways to describe this habit. You can call it perfectionism, pessimism, realism, the need for instant gratification (I want this issue fixed now). Sometimes I just call it:

“I’m never going to stop yelling as a parent. Things were going well this morning and then I blew it.”

“My partner and I haven’t solved our fighting problem, this isn’t working at all.”

Why do we do this to ourselves? Goal setting and staying motivated while you are imperfect isn’t easy. Here’s a neat way to combat this that I got from a mentor of mine:

String.

Yes.

String. This is a powerful metaphor for setting goals and having confidence. And it’s a way to learn how to be gentle with yourself. Here’s how it goes:

Everyone has a certain length of string. This string represents how much good stuff we have that can combat a problem. Coping skills and tools to use in difficult situations. Knowledge that we need. Resources such as having enough support and encouragement. Usually we have a relatively short piece of string. We humans tend to recycle the same strategies to deal with issues over and over. We yell. We sulk. We turn to substances or other distractions. We get mad. We approach our issues the same way over and over.

We add to our string every time that we work at improving ourselves, try to learn new ways to deal, etc.  So you tried to be patient with your spouse and not start an argument when you would otherwise have gotten into a huge fight? String. You are trying to take better care of yourself by eating healthier? String. You tried out meditation that one time? String. We don’t add a whole lot of string at one time because we don’t magically erase all of our problems at once. We tend to add it inch by inch.

Here’s the problem

If you had five feet of string, then, no, an inch wouldn’t even be noticeable. That is the lens that we are looking through – we think we have way more than we do, so small changes are too little, too late. But, adding an inch of string to 4 inches is a significant improvement.  That’s something to protect and keep working at. It’s very, very easy to discount your efforts because you think that you should be better at this happiness thing. Then, it’s hard to stay motivated to keep trying.

You didn’t yell at your children this morning, but by the end of the day you were barking orders from the couch again. You tried really hard not to argue with your spouse, but you still had an argument anyway. We think, “That’s nice, but it’s not enough. This isn’t fixed.” We focus on the fact that we didn’t add ten feet of string, and we cut off the bit that we do have by thinking it’s not enough.

It may sound strange that overestimating how many coping skills we really have is not helpful. Isn’t self-esteem important? But, what does it do to your self-esteem to feel like no matter how hard you try, you stink and aren’t changing enough in your life?  By remembering that naturally we humans only have a few ways that we know of to deal with issues, we can take a deep breath and realize that a teeny bit of string added (to our tiny bit of string) is a real change. Yelling bit less during the day, holding off before you jump into that argument, thinking about starting to eat better – inch by inch you are making real progress.

So when I’m getting discouraged at just how little I’ve been able to change, I try to take that as a clue that I need to think about string. If you are struggling to improve your relationships or accomplish your goals and feeling stuck, it might be time to call us at (720) 443-1947 to schedule a free 30-minute consultation and learn how to create the life you want.

Kat Mindenhall, LCSW, is the Director of A Peaceful Life Counseling Services in Lakewood, CO. She specializes in helping people create vibrant lives and relationships.

How to be Your Own Therapist

How to be your own therapistBe your own therapist? This is what you need to know

My approach to counseling is about creating psychological flexibility- the ability to essentially be your own therapist. If you can remember the parts of a butterfly, you are well on your way to understanding the elements of what psychological flexibility is.

Our psychological flexibility is like a butterfly. A butterfly has two wings (in this example) and a body in the middle. Each wing flutters in sync and they attach to the body, which is like the hub and hinge of it all. Without the body, the wings are useless. Without each wing, the creature falls to the ground and spins in circles. (Sad picture, but stay with me here).

We all have painful and unhelpful thoughts, feelings, and habits that get in the way of just about everything. We have to be able to cope with these feelings and thoughts as they come. Many people can see clearly that this is necessary, and enter therapy searching for a way to do just this. Working with these thoughts and feelings is one wing of our butterfly.

The second wing balances the other. It is the important stuff; our goals and meaningful things we do that make our lives vital. It’s going in the direction that is healthy and good for you. It’s knowing what direction that would be, and what we’d be doing more of to get there. Sometimes folks are aware that they need something like this, but may have no idea how to figure that out and create change.

In the middle is our butterfly body. This anchors and powers our two wings of strength and meaning. The body is our ability to be present and have a helpful rather than a rigid story about ourselves and our struggles. Being able to notice when one of the wings is off and what needs to be done to fly well  are the hinges that keep the butterfly going.  That’s where you learn how to be your own therapist. Many people come to therapy craving some way to learn how to make themselves feel better. They want to see what the problem is and what to do about it.

Two wings and a body, and you have a beautiful analogy of psychological flexibility. Any issue, from actual diagnosed mental illnesses to relationship struggles and stress, call for psychological flexibility. Wouldn’t you like to have a mind like a butterfly? Strength, meaning, and presence. To be able to float, change course, land quietly, and make fine tuned adjustments in your life. Flexible enough to dream of new possibilities and strong enough to deal with what gets in the way.

If you are like many folks who feel more like that butterfly going in circles on the ground, I’d love to help you increase your psychological flexibility in your life and relationships.

What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear them!

The Secret Ingredient to your Problems

secret ingredient to your problemsThere is a secret ingredient to  your problems that might surprise you. It’s called avoidance. Our minds come up with a lot of ways to help ourselves deal with everyday life. A lot of the time, it says that when we make ourselves feel better, this is a good thing. So we spend a lot of time not wanting to experience any discomfort if we can help it. But, most of the time the things we do to avoid discomfort create problems of their own. We work so hard to avoid dealing with negative feelings that we create many problems.  Over time, these avoidant activities can take on a life of their own – leaving us with the original problem AND our unhelpful way of dealing with it. Hiding in a little box like this kitten!

Do an experiment: Take a problem that you have, whatever it is. Now, think of what would make that situation better. NOW, ask yourself what stops you from doing that. If the answer is another problem, ask yourself the same questions. Eventually, you will get down to what thoughts, feelings, memories, sensations, (any private, internal experience) that you are avoiding.

Here are some examples of avoidance- see if you have ever done any of these things:

  • Procrastinating to avoid doing something, or avoid the distress that comes when you can’t do it perfectly/my way/all at once.
  • Avoiding working on difficult relationships because of having to address problems and possibly deal with fears of abandonment, vulnerability, blame, guilt, anger, etc.
  • Avoiding things that require too much effort – like working out, hobbies, etc.
  • Letting opportunities go to avoid fears of failure or change.
  • Being self-destructive to avoid emotional pain.
  • Abusing substances to avoid boredom, emotional pain, or withdrawal.

Notice anything interesting? The problem is not the uncomfortable internal experiences you have, it’s how you choose to approach them. Waiting to feel better in order to make your life better is like waiting for an illness to subside before you treat the illness.

My next post will look at a perspective that helps make some sense of what is a helpful approach to these problems.  For now, stop and ask yourself, “What am I avoiding?”

Kat Mindenhall, LCSW, is the Director of A Peaceful Life Counseling Services in Lakewood, CO. She specializes in helping people create vibrant lives and relationships.

Why Is Your Pain so Complicated?

One of the things that really contributes to stress is how our minds make up all sorts of unhelpful ways to help ourselves. One of those ways can be called Complicated Pain. Why is your pain so complicated?

Let’s say you have a young child that throws a tantrum in public. The frustration and possible embarrassment that you feel during the tantrum itself is called Simple Pain. It’s what comes naturally when life doesn’t go your way. It’s to be expected, and it will go away once the tantrum is over.

Now, let’s say that you notice this Simple Pain, and you immediately think to yourself, “I should be more patient,” or “This wouldn’t happen if I were doing a better job as a parent.” These thoughts naturally can lead to feelings of being ashamed, upset with yourself for getting irritated, feeling guilty, etc. That is Complicated Pain. It’s pain brought on by how our problem-solving minds tend to worry about how we worry, or chastise ourselves for feeling discomfort. The problem is, there is virtually no limit to how much Complicated Pain we can bring upon ourselves. There’s always a judgement, regret, worry, and uncomfortable feeling that we can pile on. Quite effortlessly, I might add.

You could take any problem you are having, and make a pie chart representing all of your suffering from a given situation. Divide it into the Simple Pain due to the problem itself (such as: Car broke down, so I have to walk), and the Complicated Pain (such as: Car broke down, so I’m worried about money, afraid that this is going to ruin the whole year, getting upset with my spouse for spending too much last week, irritated with myself for feeling this way, fearing that this means I’ll have to go see a therapist.) Ask yourself whether what you are experiencing is directly from the event, or in any way part of your thoughts about the event.

My prediction is that a lot more than half of your suffering is due to Complicated Pain. Though there are many ways to reduce this, a great and simple way to start is to just notice without judgement that this is happening. You’d be surprised at what might happen for you! But, don’t worry, I have more hints to share in upcoming posts, so stay tuned!

Kat is a counseling therapist in Lakewood, CO specializing in helping people get unstuck from relationship and personal problems.

Work, Balance, and Perfectionism

work, balance, and perfectionismAs I sit with some rare and (sort of) precious computer time while my toddler naps, I realized that I hadn’t done a blog post or a Facebook or Twitter update in so long! The thought of “catching up” suddenly inspired the perfectionist procrastinator in me to dread it, feel overwhelmed and somewhat lame for letting things go. But this is also a great opportunity to explore what the term “balance” means to me, and why it is that I don’t feel “effective” or “productive” unless I’m all-consumed by a project?

My part time practice is a great way to spend quality time with my son while doing what I love. But sometimes it’s easy to get over-involved in one aspect of your life and neglect the others, which leads (me) to realize that things aren’t balanced. I’m going to start to balance more. I’m starting by letting this be a short(er) post.

Without getting too philosophical, I’m going to practice balance by re-committing to:

  1. Do a little of something in each important area at least a few times a week. Not everyday. Not once a month in a marathon. Some weeks will be better than others.
  2. I’m going to watch my attachment to the thrill of “being super productive.” Being all-consumed for an hour is not as peaceful as consciously avoiding that high and practicing contentment with doing a little bit here and there. I’m making the fulfillment of doing the activity the motivation instead of the drive to tick off a to-do list.
  3. I’m going to explore how I wrap my identity up in these roles, and why that can lead to imbalance. Can I just be here now?

This is about perfectionism and the way that it destroys balance. It’s about how to practice contentment and be mindful in life, make conscious decisions, and not just feel shameful when you let a ball drop.

The house will fall apart.

Your car repairs will be overdue.

You will want to be impatient about how fast you can learn new things.

You will wonder if you have done enough as a parent.

You will struggle to balance work, family, exercise, etc. etc.

You will learn that balance is in the eye of the content.