“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in the bud became more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” –Anais Nin

Surviving Hurricane Irene

Which t-shirt should I get? The one that says “I Survived Hurricane Irene!” or the one that says “Impeach Mayor Bloomberg for Scaring Everybody!”?

Because my son starts college at NYU next week, we were scheduled to move him into his dormatory in the West Village of Manhattan today. Responsible admins at NYU postponed moving day to Monday. That was fine for what it was worth. We still had to get from Western New York to NYC with all his stuff (by the way, I haven’t seen more Stuff in relation to my child since he was an infant and we couldn’t go anywhere without two carry-alls and a stroller!) When were we going to do that? The day before moving in day? I don’t think so!

We got to my cousin’s house in NYC well ahead of the storm but not ahead of the hyperbolic news announcers. Or were they just being responsible? My son, as much as he was looking forward to starting his college career, began to doubt his parental units when he heard the radio announcer say “This is a very dangerous situation! No one alive today has seen a Category 3 hurricane in this part of the country!” What were we doing heading TOWARDS the path of a hurricane! Were we nuts?

Cautiously optimistic, not quite nuts, but we weren’t taking any chances. We kept a close ear to the official announcements. We did everything Bloomberg and company asked us to do: lay in enough provisions, food water and such, for a couple of days. Bring anything that could become a projectile inside. Raise anything precious off the ground that is in a possible flood area. And above all stay put, off the roads and streets, until the storm is really and truly gone. Tropical storms can be sneaky, calm one minute and wild the next.

My cousin’s house is on high ground in central Queens. She welcomed our company. There’s nothing nicer if you are going to be stranded than having people you enjoy hunkering down with you. We kept our spirits up with funny tweets on Twitter, movies that made us laugh (i.e. Kinky Boots) and music. So far we have power but are ready for that to go too. Books and magazines, a deck of cards, cats to play with (is there anything more entertaining than a cat and a string?) and food. Lots of food.

Did government officials exaggerate the danger of this storm to New York residents? It’s my opinion that they did their job. If you heard Bloomberg on the radio he sounded so calm as he asked people to heed the evacuation orders, he almost put you to sleep! Better safe than sorry in situations like this. How tragic would it have been if the hurricane was worse and no one was ready? My heart goes out to anyone who seriously suffered because of Irene – tragic deaths, injuries, property or trees damaged or lost. Without the early, steady and consistent leadership of our officials from the President to Mayor Bloomberg to the cops on the ground, it could have been so much worse. Even a downgraded hurricane carries quite a whollop!

So I decided I will get the t-shirt that says “Gratitude is the Best Attitude!”

Another Way to Stop (or Slow Down) Cognitive Distortions

Earlier today I was thinking more about those pesky cognitive distortions and I remembered another CBT technique to use to help slow those suckers down.

What is the evidence?

Earlier I suggested you challenge the distorted thought by asking if it was reasonable or unreasonable.

You can also look for the evidence to either support or disprove the cognition. Take the risk to investigate, like a detective, before you make the final arrest.

Maybe you can relate to this…

I was in my kitchen messing around with dinner preparation. In comes my husband, home from work. I greeted him. He growled at me, marches past, frown on, brow wrinkled, head down.

Rats, I think. What did I do? Why is he mad at me? First I was anxious, then angry. But before I got all defensive, a more reasonable voice in my head whispered, ‘What makes you think his behavior has anything to do with you? Before you jump to conclusions (a type of cognitive distortion, don’t cha know), gather the evidence… Ask him!’

You know the rest. Somehow I found the guts to ask him if he was mad at me and he said no, of course not. His mood had nothing to do with me. He was mad about something at work. My anxiety went from 8 on the distress meter to a sensible 3.

Look for the evidence next time you are thinking nasty, distorted thoughts. What you discover might just spare you a lot of unnecessary emotional pain.

8 Steps to Stop Cognitive Distortions… or at least slow them down.

A couple of days ago I wrote an article about what a cognitive distortion is and how they can mess up with out thinking so badly we become anxious or depressed. Today I want to share with you what you can do if you suspect a thought you have is a cognitive distortion. Here goes:

1. Recognize and isolate the thought. Absolute words, like ‘always’, ‘never’ or ‘can’t’ are usually clues you’ve got a cognitive distortion going on. So are really strong, negative words directed at yourself like, ‘hate,’ ‘stupid’ or ‘loser.’

2. Write it down. Yes, take pen to paper. It makes a difference.

3. Then take your distress temperature. Zero to ten. Zero meaning your content and peaceful; ten that your misery is paralyzing.

4. Ask yourself: Is it reasonable to think that thought or is it unreasonable? Say the thought out loud. If a friend said that, would you agree or disagree?

If the thought is truly reasonable it probably isn’t a distortion. You just need to take responsibility for whatever it is that caused the thought and the resulting bad feeling and do something about it. Either decide to take action, or let it go, or both.

For example, when I said something mean to my sister and she reacted by getting mad, I felt horrible. Was it reasonable that she be mad? Well, yes it was. Was it reasonable for me to think I was a horrible person? No, that was unreasonable. But it was reasonable for me to feel remorse. It was up to me to take responsibility for hurting my sister, apologize, promise never to do it again, ask forgiveness and let it go.

If the thought is unreasonable:

5. What kind of cognitive distortion is it? All or nothing thinking? Fortune telling? Figure it out because chances are you have a pattern going on. Once you have the distortion labeled you will be in tune to when it happens again in a different context.

6. Write down a more reasonable thought to replace the distorted one. If you can’t come up with anything, think about what your friend would say. Or what would the angel say to the cognitive distorting devil?

7. Retake your distress temperature. Even if it’s just a few degrees lower, from a 9 to a 7, say, you are going in the right direction, and that’s a good thing.

8. Repeat as needed.

Do not expect to ever be completely free from cognitive distortions. That would be unreasonable (Ha Ha :-).

However, the more you do this exercise the easier rescuing your mood and lowering your distress temp, gets. Until one day, in a snap, you recover your cognitive balance as easily and gracefully as an Olympic gymnast!

What are Cognitive Distortions? How do They Fuel Anxiety & Depression?

Photo courtesy of Jeremy Brooks

Once upon a time, long ago but not too far away, I was in the first month of a new executive director job. When I checked the voice mail there was a message from the president of the board of directors. In a solemn voice he asked me to call him as soon as I could. I thought, “He sounds so serious. He must hate my work!” My heart sank, my palms got sweaty, my mouth went dry. It took every ounce of resolve to face my anxiety and call him back. As soon as he picked up he said, “I want you to know how happy we are that you joined us.”

We feel what we think.

Accept this simple premise and you will be on your way to recognizing the thoughts that provoke self-esteem-eating anxiety and depression. This is the first step to change those destructive thoughts and as a result change your mood from anxious and depressed to empowered and liberated. Here’s how to start…

We feel what we think.

Just from the sound of his voice I jumped to the conclusion the board president was going to reprimand me and my anxiety shot up. In the same vein, if I think “My friend is mad at me for not calling her on her birthday. I must be an awful person,” I feel miserable. If I think, “I just barely had enough in the bank this month to cover my bills. I’ll end up bankrupt and homeless!” I will feel really scared. These thoughts are cognitive distortions.

Right now, you and I can see clearly how those thoughts are exaggerated, over-the-top, unreasonable. It’s not so easy to see when we are caught up in the moment.

Luckily, to make this task easier for us, Dr. David Burns did a lot of work categorizing ten basic ways we distort our thinking. Study these categories. Highlight the ones you tend to use. Think of your own real life examples.

1.  All-or-nothing thinking. You see things in black and white categories. If your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure.

2.  Over-generalization. You see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat.

3.  Mental filter. You pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it exclusively so that your vision of all reality becomes darkened, like the drop of ink that discolors the entire beaker of water.


Everyone Should Be In Therapy, by Thomas Moore

Browsing the Huffington Post I came across the title of this article “Everyone Should Be In Therapy” and was immediately intrigued. The author,  Thomas Moore, “has been a monk, a musician, a professor, a psychotherapist, an author and a lecturer. His book Care of the Soul was a number one bestseller and he’s written about 20 books in all. Currently he’s working hard trying to bring soul to medicine.”  Sounds good to me! And his article did not disappoint. Here are a few excerpts:

One of the first things I learned after beginning to practice psychotherapy was that everyone is at least a little neurotic, and everyone, at one time or another, could do with a little therapy.

We are not as rational as we might believe or act. Passions can get the better of the best of us. I have yet to meet a completely healthy, adjusted neurosis-free person. I include myself. I have clearly needed therapy on several occasions, and I still reflect on insights, dreams, stories and events from my experiences as a client in therapy.

If you are in good professional hands, therapy can help you get through your depression and grief, find work that you love, work out those marital strains and discover the fascinating universe of your soul.

I know, some people don’t like the soul word. But let me remind you that it has been around for thousands of years and has been explored with remarkable intelligence. In fact, the word “psychotherapy” comes from two key terms that Plato and other philosophers studied closely: psyche meaning soul, and theraps meaning attendant or servant. The word “psychotherapy” means literally “care of the soul.”

 These are sentiments I can agree with! To read the entire article, Everyone Should Be In Therapy, click here.

The Cranky Therapist

This morning I woke up cranky. No clear excuse. The day was gorgeous and everyone I love is healthy. Still I dragged myself out of bed. As I pulled on my running shoes I thought about bailing on the exercise. The mini-therapist in my head wagged her finger and told me that I would feel worse if I didn’t at least walk a mile. As much as I hated it I knew she was right. So I walked. Big f*#cking deal.

Yes, I was that cranky.

It is very hard to admit that I can have days like this, where I am just irritable, sad, feeling low, negative, tired and not worthless, exactly, but not worth-ful either.

I could not think of a damn thing to snap me out of it. What did that say about my therapeutic skills? Therapist heal thyself! Nope. Nothing. The dark mood felt like a fog, or a virus, systemic and without cure.

At breakfast I told my husband:

“I need you to tell me you think I am wonderful.”

Without hesitating he got up, gave me a bone-cracking hug and said, “You are wonderful!” Then,  “What gives? You’ve been acting mopey for days now.” Add mopey to the list.

“I don’t know! If I still got my period I’d say I was PMS-ing!”

He laughed, which only made me more cranky. But the hug helped.

I took a shower. At least I could smell good while I sank into the mire.

When I got around to doing work-related stuff I imagined a sign on my forehead:

Warning: Woke up cranky. Do not expect much. 

That’s probably the best thing I did for myself today, not expect much. While I didn’t push myself I didn’t completely slack off either. The exercise thing is an example. Right now I could be watching television but that would just feed the beast. Writing is better, finding a sympathetic friend or Twitter buddy to converse with, is better. I didn’t stress over finding the cause because, as I tell my patients, sometimes the Why is just a distraction, an excuse to wallow.

Slowly, as the day meandered, the fog began to lift. I realized I was deeply fortunate because despite the black mood I knew in my heart it would not last forever.

The Zen masters tell us to surf the wave of negativity, use the energy to move forward, rather than allow the wave to crush us. One thing (among many it turned out) that was good about today:  It reminded me what depression can feel like for people who really are stuck in it, who are so deep in the pit there is no light coming in, how phenomenally hard it is to break free. That is good thing for a therapist to remember.

Effective Change Requires Insight Plus Action

Action without insight is thoughtless, clumsy, blundering, a waste of good energy, maybe even dangerous. That stupid, ‘Ready! Fire! Aim!’ thing might have been cute in the wild ’80s but today it just sounds juvenile.

Insight without action is passive, over-analyzing, intellectualizing nonsense, an exercise in futility and frustration. Just having insight and not using it can lead to anxiety, depression, indecisiveness, low self-esteem, that frozen ‘deer-in-the-headlights-I’m doomed’ feeling.

Either way, nothing changes.

What to do about it? Geez, I was afraid you were going to ask…  OK. Let’s see:

If you are prone to Action Without Insight, slow down. The person who acts before they think is often accused of being selfish.  I don’t think that’s always the case, at least not intentionally, but it is often the result. People can get hurt if they are close to an Action Without Insight person.

Before you act, do that classic count to ten thing. Think about how your action effects others and look for actions where everyone can win. No man is an island, remember? We are all part of a team, whether it be at work, in our communities, families or in our marriages. Even if we are the Boss, our lives are made up of partnerships.

Discuss options for important actions with trusted friends or colleagues. Take a bit of time to meditate, mull over consequences, gather information. You may end up in the same place you started but you will be more confident, effective and respected as a result of using your insight before you act.

If you are an Insight Without Action person, just do something for God’s sake! 

Before therapy, I was an intellectualizing champ! Analyzing problems to death, doing research well into the wee wee hours (and that was before the Internet!), talking to whoever had the patience to listen until they wearily dragged themselves home, that was me. Thinking about stuff was a valued family trait. Doing stuff, not so much. So what cured me?

1. Someone believed in me enough to say, “Whatever you decide, it will be all right, because you are all right.” That was my first therapist. Slowly the message sunk in and I (shakily) began to believe it myself.

2. From that platform I held my nose, closed my eyes and took the action plunge. The Zen masters say, “Leap, and the net will appear.” It’s not magic, it’s simple faith.

3. Embrace Good Enough. Accept that no action taken, no decision made, is perfect. They don’t have to be. A rocky stepping stone in the middle of a rushing stream will get you to the other side just as well as a path on solid ground. Even if your feet get a little wet.

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