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Entries Tagged as 'stress'

Emotional Contagion—What Every Leader Needs to Know

August 21st, 2018 · 12 Comments

goldfish2
“Mom, something’s wrong with my eyes. I have some weird blind spots that aren’t going away.”

My son, 33 years old, was calling. He sounded scared, and I knew exactly why. My son’s father had gone blind with a progressive eye disease that started in his thirties. True, it was a rare genetic condition and the chances of my children getting it are almost infinitesimal.

But still…

My mind immediately jumped to a horrible thought and I brought myself back to the present, to reality. Immediately.

Because I knew my son would be having his own frightening thoughts and my job was to keep him as calm and grounded as possible. To do that, I needed to be calm and grounded.

There are a lot of good reasons to face any challenge, whether a crisis or a more routine problem, in a calm state. We think more clearly, problem solve more creatively, and have greater physical stamina.

For me to stay calm with my son, I had to avoid the impact of emotional contagion, the tendency that we humans have to synchronize our emotions to those around us. Emotional contagion can transmit either positive, supportive emotions, or negative, anxiety-laden ones.

Dealing with emotional contagion is a crucial quality for anyone in a position of leadership, whether it’s in business leading others, in coaching working with upset clients, or in family situations dealing with anything from medical emergencies to agitated toddlers.

In this situation, I didn’t want to absorb my son’s upset and get agitated. I wanted to set a positive tone for him to absorb. I wanted to be the emotional leader.

I do this routinely in my daily encounters with clients and their anxieties and upsets. Before I work with clients, teach a class, or lead a workshop, I make sure I’m aware of my mood. If anything is happening in my personal life that might negatively impact my mood, I will consciously set it aside, and take steps to lift my mood.

Admittedly, avoiding emotional contagion from my son was much more challenging. It’s always more challenging with someone close to us, but it can be done.

Emotional contagion transmits easily in-person, but it can take place over the phone, too. We humans are sensitive enough to each others voices to pick up negativity mood, agitation or anxiety, even when we can’t see the other person or feel their physical presence.

In business settings, studies have confirmed that both positive and negative emotions, spread among employees like viruses. Feelings can be “caught” by others when working together in groups. Not only is employee mood affected, judgment and business decisions are impacted, as well.

Emotional contagion can even take place in writing, over social networks. Facebook drew a lot of criticism a few years ago when it revealed that it had manipulated the news feeds of more than a half-million users to change the number of positive and negative posts they saw.

Facebook did this is in a research study with Cornell University, confirming the existence of emotional contagion in this context. The people who viewed more positive posts responded with more positive content and those seeing more negative posts responded with more negative posts. Facebook was accused of violating ethical boundaries by turning users into lab rats without obtaining their informed consent.

And the study proved how easily our emotions are impacted by others.

Because I could think clearly and brought up my son’s mood, I was able to get enough information to help him decide whether he could wait though the weekend until Monday morning, when we could find a better place for him to be examined. We decided that waiting was a better option.

On Monday, he went to an excellent eye clinic and was told that he had a couple of very tiny retinal tears that had no similarity to his father’s eye disease. The doctor he saw was confident that he would fully heal without treatment.

Within a few days, he called to say he could already tell that the blind spots were getting better.

And for an added bonus, he said, “Thanks for helping me through this. I would have really panicked without you.”

This was a very happy ending. It confirmed my commitment that any anxious or distressed person I’m dealing with is going to synchronize to me and my emotions, where I intend to always remain the calm, grounded, positive leader.

Here are some tips I used that can help you stay away from emotional contagion:

  1. Set your intention to be the calm, grounded leader, to stay in a positive emotional state, and to let anyone else you are encountering synchronize to your mood.
  1. Harness your out-of-control imagination. Your mind may want to create a narrative out of the few facts you have. It’s what our brains do automatically to keep us safe. But those narratives are generally based on speculation and predict terrible outcomes. Remind yourself that you can’t know that the situation will have an unhappy ending.
  1. A regular mindfulness practice is really helpful in building the skill to stay away from imaginary scenarios. So can regular use of my heartbreathing meditation. (You can obtain a free mp3 recording of it and a descriptive worksheet by emailing support@terrydemeo.com and putting “Heartbreathing Meditation” in the subject line.)
  1. When dealing with an upset person, put your attention on them, on what they are saying and doing. If you are in person, make eye contact. If on the phone, you can give them your full attention by closely listening to them.This will help divert your attention from your inner world and your mind’s imagined parade of horrible outcomes.
  2. Breathe slowly and regularly, inhaling and exhaling to a slow count of four. Inhale-2-3-4-exhale-2-3-4. Over and over. I use a simple mantra, “Breathe and stay calm, breath and stay calm, breathe and stay calm.”
  3. Move. If you start to feel distressed, adrenaline and cortisol will be released into your system to prepare you for battle. This is what is known as fight or flight. When you aren’t having to run or fight, you will get a jittery feeling from the hormone buildup. Shake it off any way you can, with physical movement. If you need to go into another room and close the door, do so. This simple tool only takes a few minutes to work.I hold a lot of tension in my arms in tense situations, so in this one, I stood and shook my arms and let my body tremble several times over the weekend when my son was in distress.
  4. Keep this in mind: you don’t need to DO anything to convince the other person to change their mood. Your job is to hold a positive mood. Our bodies naturally want to synchronize. Be the one that gets synchronized to.

Tags: feelings · noticing · stress

Thoughts Coming at You Like a Runaway Train?

June 26th, 2018 · 2 Comments

runaway train #2
When the email came in last week, I was puzzled. I’d received a notice that an Emergency Motion and an Emergency Court Order had been filed in a probate case I’d handled twenty years ago. My thoughts began to spiral:

  • I need to file a Motion and Order to Withdraw. UGH! What a hassle!
  • Maybe I did something wrong. Maybe that’s what this is about.
  • I probably did do something wrong.
  • I’d better read the court file and see what is happening. Maybe it’s online. I’ll ask a clerk to help me find it since I don’t practice law any more.
  • UGH! They are probably too busy to help me. I’ll have to go downtown. UGH! That’ll take half a day.
  • For sure I did something wrong.
  • Yes, I absolutely screwed something up.
  • OMG! How long is the malpractice statute of limitations?
  • What if my malpractice was only recently discovered and the statute of limitations won’t apply?
  • What if I get sued and everything is taken away from me?
  • Everything will be gone!
  • What should I do?
  • There’s nothing I can do. I’m screwed.

Within moments, I’d gone from casually checking email to eating government cheese and living in a van down by the river. The Inner Lizard–that part of the brain that is always on high alert, ready to screech urgent warnings—was, as always, preparing me for disaster. It doesn’t care whether we’ve encountered a spider or a shadow, it’s job is to determine that there might be danger and to scream, “MOVE QUICKLY OR YOU WILL DIE!” It doesn’t think critically. It doesn’t care about truth. Its job is to save our lives.

It’s a brilliant system that causes us to needlessly jump out of our skins if there is any possibility that a fuzzy little bunny rustling in the bushes could be a venomous snake. It’s simply trying to keep us safe.

For lawyers, this powerful system tends to go on overdrive, as our training teaches us to intentionally look for what could go wrong in any situation. After years of looking for the worst, we find it easily. But lawyers aren’t the only ones and it doesn’t take special training to over-react like I did.

But here’s the important part of this tale. For the past ten years, I’ve personally applied the principles I now teach others. I don’t automatically believe everything I think, like “I’m screwed, I’m going to lose everything.”

I now know that thoughts like these need to be critically examined if I’m in no immediate physical danger. I’m aware of the signals that my body broadcasts and intervene early with breathing and focusing techniques when I begin to feel the symptoms of fight, flight or freeze. I practice mindfulness techniques regularly so that I’m ready for emergencies like this one.

After a few deep breaths, I was calm and knew I needed more facts. My body is primed to immediately calm down because of my practices.

Then, I simply called the attorney on the paperwork and learned that years before I ever was involved in the case, the decedent sold a piece of property without signing the proper documents. This attorney reopened the case to clear title for the subsequent property owners. She had to notify me because I was attorney of record on the original file. There was nothing for me to do. She got the necessary court order and I would stop getting notices in a few days.

Okay, said the Inner Lizard. Nevermind.

Here’s the important point: my mind-body tools and practices didn’t stop my capacity for catastrophic thinking. But my reactions to those thoughts were significantly different than they use to be.

In the old days, thought spirals like this would trigger high stress, panicky symptoms like a stomach ache, trembling hands, and sleep loss. I might have avoided calling the attorney for a few days, frozen in physiologically triggered fear, and worrying the whole time.

Now, I can think clearly. “Oh, I’m having a bunch of crazy thoughts. What do I need to do? I need to get the facts. What’s the easiest way to do that? Oh, look at the documents more closely and see if there is an attorney I can call. Look, there’s a name, now find her number.” In several minutes, it was over.

Taming the Inner Lizard is not the equivalent of a lobotomy. Your brain will still strive to look for catastrophe, always looking to keep you safe. You may still have spirals of disastrous thoughts.

But with the right tools, your reactivity will be reduced significantly. It takes some time and practice, but it’s so, so worth it.

My Inner Lizard is now warming herself on a rock, her eyes half-closed, just waiting for our next adventure. Meanwhile, I’ll go back to my email, just waiting for the next time to take a few deep breaths.

Next time your thoughts are coming at you as fast as a runaway train, here are a few simple tools that can help:

  1. Drop your attention into your body by feeling your own weight. Feel the weight of yourself on your chair, of your legs and feet, of your arms and shoulders. Then take three slow, easy breaths, concentrating on a long, slow exhale that is at least as long as the inhale. Exhaling triggers the relaxation response of your nervous system, telling your brain that you are safe.
  2. Ask yourself which of your thoughts are true. In other words, which are factual and provable, and which are merely thoughts or conclusions without evidence? In the example above, the only thought I had that was factual was the one that said I needed to get more information by calling the attorney who filed the Motion.
  3. Try my Heartbreathing Meditiation Tool. For a free worksheet and mp3, just drop a note to support@terrydemeo.com and put the words “heartbreathing” in the subject line.

Tags: fear · stress · truth

How to Be a Friend in Need — Seven Tips That Can Help a Troubled Friend

March 9th, 2016 · No Comments

Friends and family in distress are all around us. From the workplace to the dining table to yoga class, we hear their stories. Their in-laws are driving them crazy. They have toxic co-workers and cope with bizarre office politics. Their stress is palpable.

And we want to hear about it. We want them to talk to us about it. Why do we do this? Is there something wrong with us? Not at all.

Wanting to talk with family or friends about their problems isn’t the same thing asschadenfreude, which translates from German as “harm-joy,” where we take actual pleasure from another’s misfortune.n-FRIENDSHIP-628x314_rev2

There are healthier, kinder parts of us that want and even like to hear about the woes of those we care about. Why is that?

We feel closer when we share our difficulties. When my friend reveals that she is divorcing, I feel special. She chose me confide in. I tell her how terrible I felt during my divorce and that it’s now a distant memory. My assurances relieve her. I feel good about being supportive. Our bonds deepen in such intimate conversations.

We want to know we’re not alone. Misery indeed loves company, and when we know that our friend’s sister-in-law is an alcoholic, we feel better about our nosy, opinionated mother-in-law. Neither of us has a perfect family and we feel better about that.

We do it out of curiosity. Let’s face it. We’re intrigued when we learn how our friend caught her boyfriend cheating. It’s flat-out interesting. While we don’t wish misery on our friends, when it inevitably comes their way, we want to hear about it. It doesn’t make us bad people. It simply means we’re human.

But there are ways to have friend-in-need conversations that support others and strengthen our connections with them. Here are a few simple guidelines to help negotiate this tricky terrain.

1. Don’t ask, don’t tell. Recently, I was having dinner with a friend who is divorcing after a long-term marriage. I wondered how it was going, but I remembered how, when I was divorcing, I treasured those times when I could relax with a friend and not think about it. So I avoided any topic that might remind her.

It’s so tempting to bring up the juicy topic, but just don’t. We all need down time from our difficulties. We need to relax and enjoy our social encounters. Trust that your friend will talk to you about a problem when and if they are ready.

2. Don’t pour gasoline on the fire. “UGH–what a GIANT drag! What a waste of time that you have to deal with this.” I recently erased those words from a text I was about to send a professor friend who is dealing with a student she suspects of cheating on an exam. She’d asked me for advice. I answered her question and let it go at that. She knows it’s a drag and a waste of time. My reminding her serves no useful purpose. We can be authentically helpful and supportive without inflaming a situation.

3. Don’t mine the conversation for pain. If your friend tells you that her son has gone into rehab, don’t ask what drug he was addicted to or whether insurance is paying for his treatment. Trust that if your friend wants you to know, she will tell you. While human curiosity is normal and natural, there is a time and place for it. This isn’t one of them.

4. Keep it under your hat. Assume everything that a friend in need tells you is absolutely secret. Tell no one, even if you weren’t asked to. You may be tempted to tell your sister that your neighbor’s husband had an affair with the nanny and you might know for a certainty that your sister won’t breathe a word of it to anyone, but just don’t do it.

When we spread stories about our friends in need, we compromise our Integrity–that quality of choosing honesty, principled behavior, and walking our talk. The momentary pleasure of sharing juicy details of another’s life is not worth it. You won’t feel good about yourself in the long run, and you’re letting others know you can’t be trusted with their secrets.

5. Don’t offer advice or suggestions unless you’re asked. Telling your friend with a cheating spouse that you know the best divorce lawyer in town might do more harm than good. Your friend may be hoping for a reconciliation. Such uninvited solutions have the potential to increase a friend’s stress and anxiety and undermine their confidence.

6. Do support their feelings. Whether they’re angry, sad, worried, or anxious, people’s feelings are always valid. Statements like “I understand,” or “I get it,” are far more helpful and supportive than, “Don’t be so sad” or “You don’t have anything to worry about.”
When we affirm another’s feelings we show them that we’re listening and that we understand what they are going through, without adding to their woes. It helps us understand that our feelings are normal and that we’re not alone.

7. Do give the gift of presence. One of the greatest gifts we can offer another is our undivided attention. Put down your cell phone, stop multi-tasking, and really show up to listen. This simple yet powerful act is one of the most precious gifts we can offer a friend in need. Often just “holding space” like this is extraordinarily comforting and healing.

So the next time you’re talking with a friend or family member who has hit a rough patch, remember these simple guidelines. And when you’re the one in need, be sure to reach out and ask for exactly what will help you.

Life’s challenges don’t spare any of us. Having someone supportive accompany us on all or part of that journey can make a huge difference in how well we go through it. We are social creatures, and having friends-in-need when we’re troubled is powerful medicine.

Tags: compassion · connection · stress

Lessons from My Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Wonderful Day

October 1st, 2015 · 9 Comments

ace key

It was one of those important and tightly-scheduled days where everything needed to go as smooth as silk, so of course it didn’t.

My daughter and 20-month old granddaughter were coming to visit me in Miami from New York for my birthday.  I had allowed a thirty-minute window before rush hour to get the baby’s car seat from my storage unit. Then I’d have just enough time to tidy the house, start dinner, and drive to the airport.

Lesson #1: Expect the unexpected, especially when it’s really inconvenient. We set ourselves up for stress and turmoil when we don’t allow time and space for unforeseen events.

I vaguely remembered having some confusion about the storage unit key the last time I was there, so I grabbed the box of extra keys from my desk and drove off. I congratulated myself for my brilliant foresight—every key I owned was with me.

When I got to the storage unit and couldn’t find the right key, I began to worry. In my upset and rush, only found one key that was the right size.  But it said “Ace” on it, so I assumed it was a duplicate key from the hardware store.  Since I’d never duplicated the storage key, I left without trying it in the padlock.

Lesson #2: Don’t make assumptions when you are upset or in a hurry. Your thinking isn’t as clear when you are stressed.

Lesson #3: Don’t give up without trying, especially if the effort is minimal.

On the way home, my worrying increased. I couldn’t imagine where that key was. I considered a rapid succession of possibilities–my desktop, a purse, my jewelry box, a bowl in the kitchen. I forgot to quiet my racing mind, even though I teach and practice mindfulness and stress management.

Lesson #4: We perform better and think better when we’re calm. Take de-stressing action at the first sign of upset. Disconnect from unhelpful thinking, regularize your breathing, and allow your body to relax. 

Instead, I rushed home and rummaged through every nook and cranny that could harbor a key. No luck.

My heart began to pound.  Thoughts flooded my mind: Where is the nearest baby equipment store? Do I have time to buy another car seat? What if I can’t find one nearby? Can I get one delivered by tomorrow? That will cost a fortune! What will we do in the meantime? We’ll be stuck in the house!

I caught myself and stopped the runaway train in my mind. I focused on my breath and grounded myself by feeling my body.  I began to calm down.

Lesson #5: Better late than never. 

I looked through the key box once more and picked up the Ace key.  That has to be it! I didn’t even try it! How dumb! How hard would that have been? I shouldn’t have been in such a rush! What’s wrong with me? 

Lesson #6: Let yourself be human.  Humans make mistakes. Irritation and self-scolding only drive up stress levels and make mistakes more likely.

Again I calmed myself, then drove back to the storage unit. The key fit! The door opened! Life was good!

My daughter’s plane would be landing momentarily.  I texted her that I was on my way, dragged the heavy seat down to my car, and headed for the airport. At a red light, I opened my purse to get my phone so I’d be sure to hear her text telling me where she’d be waiting.

But I couldn’t find my phone. I pulled off the road and searched purse, pockets and car. No phone.

I remembered that I’d texted her just before I took the seat to the car. Ack! I bet I left it inside the unit.

My thoughts raced more intensely than ever: I’m going to be late! The airport will be bedlam! I need my phone to know where she’ll be! I won’t be able to find her! How did people ever find each other at airports without cell phones? This is a disaster!

In an instant, my hands began to tremble and I was no longer able to think clearly. 

Lesson #7:  Stress begets stress. Cortisol—the hormone that prepares us to run or fight for our lives when we’re in fear–has a half-life of about an hour.  This means that an hour after an initial stress response, half the cortisol is still revving us up, and an hour after that, half of that half is left, and so forth. Each time we react stressfully over a short time frame, more cortisol is dumped into our systems before the prior load has dissipated. So our reactions come more quickly and more powerfully.  By this time, after multiple doses of cortisol, my reactions were swift and overwhelming.

I turned around and headed back to the storage unit for the third time. When I arrived, I raced upstairs through the warren of hallways and opened the door to my unit. The phone wasn’t there. I felt the blood drain from my face.

I remembered that a group of men were down the hallway when I’d picked up the car seat. I must have left the phone on the floor in the hallway and those men—those thieves—took it! If they get through my ridiculously simple password, they’ll have access to my bank account information. My identity will be stolen! Why didn’t I use a better password? Why did I keep information like that on my phone? The weekend is ruined!

I urgently felt the need for a plan, but I was so confused.  Halfway to the airport, I turned around.  I’d go home, call my daughter, and ask her to take a cab. Then I’d delete the confidential information from my laptop and hope it would sync to my phone before those thieves messed up my life.

My heart thundered as I crawled through rush hour traffic. My mind was reeling: This is taking forever! My daughter must be exhausted. I bet the baby is starving! And my phone is gone! Those thieves are laughing at my stupidity! This will take weeks to sort out!  I blinked back tears.

Lesson #8: Stress can hijack us emotionally and cognitively. By this time I was exhausted and my thinking was very compromised. Driving in this state could easily lead to an accident.

Luckily I calmed myself enough to realize that driving was my only priority at that moment.  Everything else could wait until I got home.  It wasn’t easy. But I got very present and focused on my driving.

Once again, I began to calm down. At a red light, I saw the clear purples, pinks and blues of the evening sky. I remembered the beautiful birthday gift of my daughter’s visit.  I thought about reading stories to my granddaughter.

My thinking cleared up: Everything is going to be okay. The only thing I know for sure right now, is that my daughter has to take a cab and my phone is gone. Whatever else happens can be straightened out when and if it happens.

Lesson #9: Keep things in perspective. Identify what is really at stake, not what your runaway mind is imagining.

About a block from my house, I heard a pingggggg that sounded exactly like a text coming in. A few moments later another pinggggggg. It was a text.  My phone was somewhere in the car!

I pulled into my driveway and found the phone lodged deeply under the passenger seat. I didn’t waste a moment trying to figure out why I hadn’t found it earlier. I called my daughter, apologized, and asked her to take a cab.

Tears welled up in my eyes again, and I laughed aloud at the same moment. All that for nothing! Except perhaps a good story of how not to deal with unforeseen events, stress, and upset.

Lesson #10: When all else fails, find something to laugh about, including yourself. In the School of Life, laughter always earns you extra credit.

My stories could wait. I had just enough time to shower and get dinner ready before my special guests arrived. But before I did that, I went inside to my desk and put a label on the storage unit key. That fake duplicate key would never fool me again.

Tags: fear · laughter · self-criticism · stress

Why are women twice as depressed as men?

January 28th, 2011 · 17 Comments

It hit me like a bucket of ice-water in my face.  I was putting away a book this morning, and it fell open to this:  modern Western women have twice the rates of depression as men.

How could this be?  We have access to unprecedented independence, careers, education, birth control, therapy, and options unimaginable to prior generations.  What is getting to us?  What’s bugging us so much?

I began to read.

Could it be our hormones?  Nope.  While hormonal factors can play a role in feeling lousy, it’s not significant enough to account for the whopping difference between men and women.

Genetics?  Maybe we’re just predisposed for some ancient evolutionary reason?  That doesn’t explain it either.  While there is a tendency to pass on depression through the generations, careful genetic examination shows that it can’t account for such a wildly lopsided disproportion.

How about our willingness to talk about our depression more openly than men?  No, the two-to-one ratio shows up even when people who are very private about their internal states are studied.

Perhaps it’s because women go to therapy more than men, so it’s reported and studied more?  While we do, door-to-door surveys produce the same result.  Women not in therapy have twice the depression rates as men not in therapy.

Is it due to sex-based discrimination, or economic factors, since women tend to have worse jobs for less money? No.  Rich or poor, well-employed or unemployed, women are twice as depressed as men.

How about the multiple demands and roles that women deal with today—working plus tending children and maintaining a home?  This theory doesn’t pan out, either.  Working women are less depressed than stay-at-homes, who have fewer demands placed on them.

One by one, the possible culprits are eliminated by Martin Seligman in What You Can Change & What You Can’t, A Guide to Successful Self-Improvement. Seligman is known as the “father of positive psychology” and has written and researched extensively on happiness and how to achieve it.  After shooting down all of the obvious possibilities, he offers three possible explanations that are all confirmed by social science.

Here’s what the evidence points to:

First, learned helplessness, a proven predictor of depression, is far more prevalent in women than in men.  We often feel we have no control over the outcome of a situation, even when we can control it, because we’ve “learned” that we are powerless.

We live in a culture that trains women to be bystanders.

From cradle to grave, Seligman says, women get a masterful education in helplessness—boys learn to be active and adventurous, girls to be passive and dependent.  Women who become wives and mothers are devalued by our culture, and women who don’t marry or don’t have children are perceived as out of place.

How about this one, sisters?  Women who achieve success or power are seen as tough, bitchy, and aggressive.  Man-like.  Who wants that? So why bother, we tell ourselves, and ignore the yearnings within our souls.

Since we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t, we tend to give up and stop trying.  We assume we are helpless when we are in fact, not.

Second, we ruminate more, we churn and worry about our upsets and their causes, way more than men do. We lose our jobs and want to know why, what we did wrong, what happened, how could we have prevented it, who didn’t like us, and on and on.  This kind of reflection is not useful and digs us into a deep emotional hole.  Men tend to ignore causation and exploration, and take action.  It may not be healthy action—they might get drunk, watch sports, or otherwise distract themselves.  But they don’t tend to churn about it inside.

Our inner worlds sound like this:  Will he call? Maybe he doesn’t like me.  What did I do wrong?  I said the wrong thing.  I wish she wasn’t upset.  How can I fix it?  I didn’t do enough.  I did too much.  I’m not enough.

A man’s inner world sounds like this:  Hmmm, wonder what’s in the fridge? TGIF. Can’t wait for the game tonight.  Maybe I’ll call that girl I went out with.

Think I’m kidding?  Ask a man.  I have.  Lots of times.  And they consistently tell me these kinds of answers.  Sure they worry, too.  Sure they ruminate.  But not like we do.

Third, (and this one was the big shocker for me, so buckle up, girlfriends), the futile pursuit of thinness. Yep.  We are chasing a biologically impossible ideal with such zeal that we have depressed ourselves in record numbers.  We hate our natural curves that much.

We strive to have an unnaturally thin body so excessively, fruitlessly, and unhealthily that we work ourselves up into staggering and unprecedented amounts of depression.

When boys approach puberty, hormones give them lean muscles; when girls arrive, we get body fat.  Guess what?  We need that extra fat to make estrogen and the female hormones that also bless us with smooth, soft skin, supple bodies, and babies and breast milk.  How do we respond to this gift?  We hate, starve, vomit, exercise, worry, lipo, pummel, and then overeat ourselves into massive depression.

We are literally brainwashed into thinking our natural beauty is ugly.

Here’s a powerful factoid:  all the world over, every culture on the planet that believes thin women are the ideal have women more prone to depression and eating disorders.  Every world culture that does not worship at the altar of the unnaturally thin female body has no eating disorders and no lopsided female-to-male depression.

Be clear about this one, please.  I’m not suggesting that overeating is an emotionally healthy option.  But torturing ourselves because we don’t have a body like a prepubescent teenager’s, loathing our beautiful, curvy, naturally soft bodies is futile and extremely self-destructive.  And, our obsession passes this viewpoint along to our daughters, who begin “dieting” practically as soon as they learn to read and write.

What’s the good news in all of this?

All three of these causes can be changed. Learned helplessness, rumination, and poor body image are all based on thinking patterns and false beliefs that we can learn to change. 

Isn’t that wonderful, amazing, fabulous news?  I’ll say it again.  The major causes of depression in modern Western women can be changed when our thinking and attitudes change. By changing something we have control over.

It’s not easy, but depression is worse. I’ve been there.

I don’t know about you, but learning that I was in control of most of the things that bugged and upset me was the single most empowering discovery I ever made. And I do not say that lightly.  I am an attorney.  When I practiced law, I won cases that impacted thousands of people’s lives.  I am a mother.  I gave birth to two children and connected with the raw power of my body’s torrential forces.  Both of those roles gave me tremendous feelings of power and joy.

But the power and joy available by managing my self-destructive thinking patterns has been beyond anything I’ve ever experienced, and beyond anything I could have ever imagined.

Once I got the hang of it—with simple tools that are powerful, user-friendly, and available—my lifelong tendencies to feel helpless, to worry excessively, and to hate myself for not being built like a Barbie doll began to fade away.  So far, it hasn’t returned.

So what do you say?  Shall we declare a truce on ourselves and our bodies?  Shall we accept that some of us have breasts and hips and, ahem, muffin tops, and that’s okay?

And as for our learned helplessness and our excessive worrying, we have the power to change that, too.

So if you need help get it. A coach or a therapist can do wonders with stuck thinking patterns. If  you are prone to feeling low or prone to depression, or actually depressed, be sure that your recovery plan includes resources that help you manage your destructive thoughts.

Seligman’s research also confirms what my experience has taught me:  managing your thoughts manages your moods.  Our feelings are a direct result of our thinking.

Tags: change · depression · feelings · stress · thinking · transformation

The Tao of Holidays

December 13th, 2010 · 10 Comments

“When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.”  The Tao te Ching

Do you approach the holidays in a spirit of leaving nothing undone?

I feel your pain.  My holidays used to include a ten-foot Christmas tree, a perfect specimen chosen with a careful eye and festooned with hundreds of carefully placed lights, trinkets, and toys.  It took two ladders and several days to complete it

My family didn’t share my attention to detail.  “Mom,” my eleven year old son said one year, as I was speed-hanging blown-glass icicles moments before dozens of guests were arriving, “The tree is beautiful.  No one cares if you get more stuff on it.  Just relax and enjoy it.”

I thought this was a very uncooperative attitude.

Relax and enjoy?  When there were halls to deck and gifts to buy.  And parties to throw.  And meals served on antique china and vintage linens.

Truth is, apart from admiring my handiwork for a few moments here and there, I was frazzled most of the time.  If I had a spare moment, I’d fill it.  “Florentines?  Perfect! If I go buy hazelnuts right this minute, they’ll be finished by 2 am.  Hmmm…I wonder where I can find organic, fair-trade hazelnuts this time of night?”

Happily, I found a different way.   Here’s how it works—if it feels like love and can be done with ease and my full presence, I do it.  If not, it’s left undone. It’s not only more peaceful, it’s way more fun.

I still love creating a Christmas tree, but now, it’s small and simple and takes about an hour to decorate.  It’s sparkly and beautiful and smells divine, and I have time to sit in front of it with friends and a glass of wine.  I cook on Christmas Day because I love to, but it’s no longer a competition with Martha Stewart.  I might even break out the antique china once in a while, because it’s lovely and these days, because I actually got some sleep the night before Christmas, I have the energy for the hand-washing that follows.

Guided by principles of love and ease and mindfulness, I do less and less, and enjoy the holidays more and more.  Without the long to-do list, I can connect with the people in my life with my full presence.  And isn’t that the point of all the preparations, decorations, meals, parties, and gifts?  Isn’t that connection what really matters, what we really want?

Truly, by doing less and less, all with loving, effortless ease and full presence, nothing that really matters is left undone.

During this holiday season, may you give and receive love and connection with those who nourish your life, and may you keep it with effortless ease in the coming year.

Tags: love · savoring · stress

How to Create Stress Whenever You Want

June 2nd, 2009 · No Comments

Broken BowlA quiz:

1.  The electric drill breaks in the middle of a big project that you had set the whole weekend aside for. You:
a.  Tell yourself the drill shouldn’t break because it’s not that old.
b.  Curse the drill, the traffic on the way to the home store to buy a new drill, and the long checkout line in the store.
c.  Tell yourself and the person next to you in the checkout line that it’s a rip-off that drills cost so much and don’t last long.
d.  All of the above.

2.  Your printer is feuding with your computer when you need a document pronto for an important meeting.  You:
a.  Tell yourself that the printer should work because it was working fine a minute ago.
b.  Hit the print command over and over.
c.  Tell yourself you are an idiot for waiting for the last minute to print the document, and worry about losing your job.
d.  Tell yourself that bad things always happen to you
e.  All of the above.

3.  You leave late and hit a huge traffic jam on your way to your dental appointment.  You:
a.  Tell yourself the traffic shouldn’t be jammed at this hour.
b.  Grab the steering wheel tightly, clench your teeth, and curse the traffic.
c.  Think up dramatic excuses to tell the dental receptionist, the dentist, and everyone in the waiting room about why you are late.
d.  Complain to everyone in the waiting room that you have way too much to do and not enough time to do it in.
e.  All of the above.

4.  You are remodeling your kitchen and the granite you ordered doesn’t arrive on time, requiring your contractor to postpone the installation of your counters and new sink.  You have a big party at your house Saturday night, and you were planning to show off your new kitchen.  You:
a.  Chew out the contractor about how he missed an important deadline.
b.  Cancel your party and tell your friends (and yourself) how stressful it is to remodel.
c.  Get in a huge fight with your partner who doesn’t want to cancel the party, and who just doesn’t get it.
d.  Spend the afternoon crying.
e.  All of the above.

If you chose a, b, c, d, or e, it’s called arguing with reality, and it’s an argument you will lose.  Always.

Here’s the truth:  drills break, printers don’t print, and traffic jams happen.  Refrigerators and washing machines break, too, usually when they are full.  Kids forget to take their homework to school, granite doesn’t arrive on time for your party, and your last pair of contact lenses rip as you take them out of the container.  No matter what you are endeavoring to do, sometimes there will be glitches, delays, foul-ups, screw-ups, and mess-ups.  Count on it.

Now, answer one more question:

You are in the middle of something and a glitch, delay, or foul-up happens.  You:

a. Do what you can to solve the problem.
b. Forget about whatever is out of your control.
c.  Find your sense of humor.
d.  All of the above.

Tags: resistance · stress · truth