Category Archives: strategies for self-care

What I Learned

I was recently interviewed for a piece on mental health for VerywellMind about things I have learned from the pandemic.

The question was:
As both one who is living through this and helping others live through this, what are the lessons that most come to mind for you?

Seven things I learned from the Pandemic
1. There was no ‘Normal.’
We say, I wish we could return to normal, I miss the old days. When will things go back?
The old days weren’t so great. We have seen businesses go under, people who were barely getting by already go over the precipice, huge upticks in mental health and substance abuse problems, how separated and isolated people feel, and how difficult it is to ask for and receive support. I believe The greatest lesson of these times is the absolute necessity for a paradigm shift. The concept of a paradigm shift, originally based in physics, refers to a major change in the worldview, concepts, and practices of how something works or is accomplished. Recently, people have sometimes referred to it in employment terms as the Pivot.  Why return to a supposed normal that never worked, completely fell apart under duress, neglected the vulnerable, and is certainly not equipped to address any future challenges?

2. Nothing is more important than connection.
People have deeply hungered for love, touch, intimacy, and affection during these difficult times. It is an essential part of being human. Those who felt most isolated suffered the most challenges to their mental health. I recently wrote a piece about loneliness as a marker of danger to mental and physical health. A recent study equated deep-rooted loneliness as the equivalent of smoking chronically, with regard to the impact on longevity and wellness.

It’s literally a killer.

3. Mindfulness matters.
Groundhog Day happens. Over and over again, I have heard people say they have lost track of time. ’It feels like it’s going by so slowly, and yet so quickly’. Each day can feel the same. Learning mindfulness strategies anchors our perception of reality. We cannot live in a blur, and it’s very easy to succumb to that. Before we know it, it’s September 2021. Also see this helpful post on a mindfulness practice.

4. Pain cannot be avoided.
We can numb our feelings of fear, resentment, anxiety, grief, and terrifying uncertainty. They are still there. How to cope without being overwhelmed requires numerous strategies. I was sent a photograph from a recent trash recycling day in DC, where house after house was lined up with dozens of empty bottles; liquor, wine, beer, soft drinks. Our pain is honorable and a marker of experience. It’s not going to go away just because we want to anesthetize.

5. Looking after your health is absolutely essential.
Health care that is consistent in the middle of chaos is one of the hardest things to do. When you’re just trying to juggle bills, care for children and family, deal with virtual learning, work from home, metabolize constant health alerts and daily fears, confront financial hardship and job changes, and combat isolation and ennui, survival needs take over. Self-care often goes on the back burner. And yet, it is the absolute foundation.

6. It takes community.
In previous work, I have referred to the pandemic as the ultimate #compassionproject. In short, thinking about ourselves and our immediate circle has never worked, is not working now, and will not work in the future. Only if we pull together with our amazing range of strengths, talents, skills, and vulnerabilities, are we going to make it through.

7. Creativity can thrive under fire
I have seen innovation, creativity, flexing, and hustle like never before. In line with number six, above, I have seen projects large and small making the world a better place. Resolve, Love, and Hardwork are unbeatable.

The Superhero Meditation

Art: courtesy of the fabulous Nicole Heere

When you’re doing therapeutic work with superheroes, this power meditation is a good way to help superhero clients charge for the day.

What I teach:
You wake up, and feel yourself in your body. You are a superhero, a protector making the world a better place. Every single day so many responsibilities are in your hands. Do you feel the weight of these duties? You also feel the roiling energy within. It’s already in you.

Close your eyes and find stillness in your body. Take a breath, slowly. Feel the energy that’s inside. Allow your body to vibrate with this energy, this strength, your personal charge.

Breathe in energy. Feel it recharging and swirling in your body. Exhale slowly. Breathe in energy. Savor it in your bloodstream. It might feel warm and peaceful. It might also feel like a tsunami that’s building or lava under the earth. Exhale slowly.

Feel the power that you innately possess swirling through your body, arms, legs, torso. It fills your head. Breathe in your power, breathe in your strength, breathe in your capacity.
Breathe in energy. Exhale slowly. You are a superhero ready to face everything. When you are ready, open your eyes.

Also see The Psychology of Superheroes, a tribute to Chadwick Boseman.

Work Martyrs and Mental Health

Do you avoid taking leave because you think you are indispensable at work? Do you equate being crazy busy with being important and valued? Do you work yourself to the bone because you believe no one else can do the work as well as you? At social events, do you mostly talk about work? At the end of the workday, are you still thinking about what you didn’t get done?

If you’ve answered yes to any of these questions, you may be a work martyr. Work martyrs prize hours worked over actual productivity and believe that not taking a break will reap greater professional success. They think no one can do their work as well as them, so they rarely take leave. They strive to show complete dedication to their company and job, often sacrificing other life priorities.

While work martyrs may get a lot done in the short-term, this surge in productivity drops significantly in the long-term. They are also at high risk of burnout. A number of studies have shown that work martyrs have less work satisfaction and a higher level of anxiety.

Do you think your hard work and hustle may be veering into work martyr territory?
Here are a few red flags to watch out for:

  • You reply to emails as you see them, no matter the time of day or urgency.
  • If you receive feedback that is less than glowing, it severely alters your mood for the rest of the day.
  • You eat lunch at your desk or in the office.
  • You go into work even when you’re sick.
  • You complain to anyone who will listen about your long hours and crushing workload.
  • You silently judge others when they leave work early or take off for family reasons.
  • You can’t remember the last time you spent an entire weekend or holiday away from your computer or phone.
  • You have to do everything yourself because you don’t trust others on your team to do the job up to your standards.
  • At social events you don’t have much else to talk about besides work, because it constantly fills your mind.

If you think you’re a work martyr, here are some suggestions that will help you stop:
Say No
Work martyrs usually have no boundaries and rarely, if ever, say no. Commit to saying no more at work. This requires practice if you, your supervisor, and your team are not used to it.

Ask For Help
Work martyrs rarely ask for help because they worry about appearing to be weak. Consider setting a specific goal for yourself, such as asking for help at work once a day. Start with something small. Reward yourself at the end of the week if you meet your goal.

Stop Being A Perfectionist
Many work martyrs are perfectionists, believing that anything less than perfect is unworthy.

Take A Break
Work martyrs rarely take a vacation. Strive to take time off. Even on a staycation, do not check your email or work messages.

Accept What You Can’t Control
Work martyrs often try to control everything in their environment. If they are part of a team or group project, they feel that they are the one who has to make it work. If something goes wrong on a project, they feel they are to blame.

Also see my post regarding wellness in the restaurant and bar industry, a field that has a high level of burnout and work martyrdom.

On Emotion Regulation: Equipoise

Equipoise. It refers to a balance of interests or forces. It doesn’t diminish the importance or impact of the other. These are just a few examples of how you can actively hold and honor opposing emotional experiences with therapeutic effects.


  • Loneliness: Video call or meet with someone that you love and care about.
  • Unneeded: Care for your companion animal. With affection, massage them, groom them, validate how special they are to you.
  • Unwanted: Spend an evening or a full day nurturing yourself. Make yourself something nourishing to eat, curl up in your softest pajamas, watch a movie that brings you joy.  See On The Power of the Self-hug.
  • Anxious: Do mindful breathing to self-soothe, visual imagery, and progressive muscle relaxation. See our Anxiety Toolkit for more info.
  • Not good enough: Remind yourself of your strengths. Coming soon –  The Self Resume: The CV that Counts.
  • Down/Blue: The Reboot: Call it a night. Or day. Sleep, watch your favorite movie or show, unplug. If you have to do something, focus on a mindless chore. Fighting our feelings is exhausting. Replenish first and come back to fight another day.

Equipoise, a momentary counterbalance with cumulative effects.

Cumulative grief

Cumulative grief is what happens when you do not have time to process one loss before incurring another. In an ideal world, you would get a chance to metabolize and heal from one loss before you are tasked with facing another.With cumulative losses, painful emotions which come from the initial loss bleed into the experience of the next one. As you accumulate losses or traumas, processing the grief from each one becomes harder to handle. For example, during the pandemic, a person may have suffered grief from impaired health, loss of financial security, role or job loss, death of loved ones, and prolonged isolation, often overlapping or in rapid succession.

The complexity of multiple losses includes a mix of painful and sometimes contradictory emotions. You may feel angry, numb, have bring-you-to-your knees sadness, loneliness, and even relief. I often state there is no timeline for grieving and loss is not linear. I have written elsewhere about mourning the living; where the person you are grieving is alive but there has been a permanent rift or rupture, so they are physically alive, but gone.

Over time, the wave of hurt that is sharp and distracting may move to one where it is quieter and softer. Anniversaries of loss can send us right back to the raw place.  Clinical psychologist and grief researcher, Dr. Katherine Shear, writes about characteristics of Integrated Grief, what I refer to as metabolized loss in my practice:

– We accept the loss.
– We adapt to a new world with the absence of the person or situation we are grieving.
– We begin to believe again in a positive future.

When self compassion hurts

Some clients have recently mentioned that when they start practicing self compassion, they feel a wave of pain that’s almost overwhelming. Their pain actually increases at first. You can call this phenomena backdraft, a term used by firefighters and emergency workers that describes what happens when a door in a burning house is first opened: oxygen goes in and flames rush out. What should you do? I believe in staying in place, hunkering down.

This can include breathing, meditation, going about your everyday tasks, making your coffee, petting your companion animal, going for a walk. Eventually the wave subsides.


Brain Lies: Internalized Negative Thoughts

Your brain can be a trickster. Depression and anxiety create automatic negative thoughts that can become our internal dialogue. They are obstacles that influence our everyday life. Therapy is useful for identifying and giving voice to these internalized beliefs. And actively combating them.

Some examples of negative thoughts that can be harmful:
– All or nothing
Binary thinking. If you stick to your exercise plan for a month, you think you think you are the most disciplined person on the planet. If you miss a day at the gym, you think you have no discipline and give up and go back to being a coach potato. Being able to hold multiple opinions and thoughts, often contradictory ones, is mental flexibility.

– Catastrophizing
Jumping to the worst possible conclusion, usually with very limited information or objective reason to despair. When a situation is upsetting, but not necessarily catastrophic, we may still feel like we are in the midst of a crisis.

– Shoulding
Our “shoulds” come from internalizing others’ expectations and comparing ourselves unfavorably. This is the hallmark of regret, the what if, the opposite of living in the moment.

– Overgeneralization
You see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat. These thoughts make you see only the negative aspects of situations and make you more inclined to give up on your efforts.

– Labelling
When you call yourself or someone else names or use negative terms to describe them. A lot of us do this on a regular basis. You may have said one of the following at some point in your life; “I’m a loser”; “I’m a failure”; “I suck,” or “I’m lazy.” The problem with repeatedly calling yourself names is that your brain starts believing them.

– Personalization
You see yourself as the cause of some negative external event, which in fact you were not responsible for. For example, you see someone scowling as they walk down the hallway. You automatically assume that they are angry with you, when they could’ve actually had a really bad day.

– Assuming
When you make assumptions, you’re usually filling the void of the unknown by imagining an undesirable outcome. In reality, a number of good things are often also possible.

– Fortune-telling
Predicting an outcome, usually negative, even though you don’t know what will happen is the hallmark of fortune telling. These thoughts disregard data.

– Mind reading
When you think that you know what somebody else is thinking even though they have not told you, and you have not asked them, it is called mind-reading. Listen carefully to the other person instead of trying to predict what they have to say. See also Active Listening.

– Blame
Blaming others for your problems and taking no responsibility for your own successes and failures.
Also see How to Practice Self-Compassion.

How to stay young, or cognitive reserve

A summary of findings from neuropsychology on how to stave off dementia.

Movement matters
Regular physical exercise in midlife, ages 40 to 60, showed evidence that exercise physically changes the brain (neuroscience geeks: People who had aerobic exercise at least three times a week showed an increase in the actual volume of the hippocampus, compared with controls who actually saw a loss of hippocampus volume over the same period. Hippocampal functioning is implicated in memory).

Work and social interaction matter
People who engaged in complex work that involved interacting with other people had lower rates of Alzheimer’s disease. Specifically, using complex problem-solving for cooperative efforts seems to be protective. Teamwork is better for your brain than solitary work. This finding holds for virtual teamwork as well.

Type of leisure time matters
People who engaged in more intellectually demanding leisure activities had lower rates of dementia (these activities included arts, music, reading, strategy games, and community service/volunteer work). This effect was more robust for women than men.

Everyday habits matter
– People who consume minimal sugar, avoid fast food, and follow a healthy diet (greens, legumes, fish, fruit, whole grains, nuts) on a regular basis have younger brains. 
– Excessive sitting is bad for your brain. Sitting for too long is directly linked to heart disease, obesity, depression, dementia, and cancer. More than that, it also changes certain neurons in the brain, for the worse. A study in the Journal of Comparative Neurology (2/2014) found that inactivity decreased structural plasticity (development of neural pathways) in the brain.
– Multitasking reduces brain efficiency. The amount of information we go through on an average day is astounding. The average American consumes about 34 gigabytes of data and information each day; an increase of over 350 percent over nearly three decades — according to a report from the University of California, San Diego. This constant sensory input includes emails, social media, talking to people, notifications, meetings, and texts.

A neuropsychology study at Stanford found that even a small piece of information can hinder focus. For instance, if you’re trying to concentrate on a task and you know an email is sitting unread in your inbox, it can reduce your effectiveness on an IQ-like cognitive test.

On adding mindfulness to treatment

For the past two decades, I have combined my passion for practicing mindfulness and eastern philosophy, with my love for neuroscience and clinical psychology. The ancient and the research; they are compatible.

This is a frequent question posed to me that I deeply honor.

Them: My partner and I are studying Buddhist teachings to help us with anxiety and depression. What can you tell us to help us relieve our suffering?

Me: I believe that attempting to alleviate suffering on an individual basis or just with a partner only partially works. Because it emphasizes attachment to self (ego). To connect with the suffering of the universe, the understanding that all beings suffer, is actually more helpful over time for healing.

I primarily specialize in depression, anxiety, grief, transition, and lack of connection to the moment (ADHD). I encourage my patients to meditate, of course. There is a strong body of neuropsychological research that indicates that meditation changes neural pathways associated with depression and anxiety. I meditate with child clients in my office or my garden outside my office. We ring the gong at the end. Their faces are solemn and joyful.  For more info see Neuropsychology of Meditation.

While most Western practitioners think of Buddhist teachings and practice as primarily sitting meditation (zazen), there is much more in actual practice that is pragmatic. Buddhism is about the every day.

The emphasis is connection, which is highly different than attachment.

I strongly encourage the following adjunct therapies:

  • volunteering and community service
  • tending a garden and green babies
  • caring for fur babies
  • eating foods that honor the earth, animals, and the bounty available to us
  • going through your home and giving away possessions that you don’t need
  • reading poetry and of course Buddhist writings, hopefully a primary source, every morning
  • doing a walking meditation every day
  • teaching non-violence and loving kindness through practical matters such as social justice. Buddhism is not esoteric; it is societal.
  • most importantly finding your Sangha, in your community or even virtually.

Practicing these, and other activities, without attachment, and with a desire to understand and connect with the knowledge that the world is suffering, actually starts to lessen our own.

My work emphasizes the practice of such steps on a daily basis. I have termed it #stonesacrosstheriver. Adding these things to other empirically validated treatment methods is potent.

SEVEN DAYS: A mental health challenge

DAY 1. Each day, clean up online. Block, unsubscribe, delete.

DAY 2. Each day, practice your morning and night time routine. Also see, The Morning Routine Checklist for Anxiety.

DAY 3. Each day, pick a mantra or affirmation to repeat throughout the day.  Say it loudly into the air. Write it on a post-it or card. Put it in your Reminders. Email or text it to yourself. Mine is: No One To Be.

DAY 4. Have a date night with yourself. Cook your favorite, or order a scrumptious meal. Put on your favorite music. Use your favorite bath oil or lotion. Watch your favorite show.Cuddle under your softest blanket.  Check out How to Self-Hug.

DAY 5. Each day, pick one of these:  Meditate/Pray/Yoga/Breathwork.
See Deep Breathing and Anxiety for more info.

DAY 6. Each day, go outside and engage your senses. Pretend you are an explorer on an expedition. Mentally record: what do you see, what does the air and sun feel like on your skin, what are the scents, what do you hear?
See The Sun and Mental Health.

DAY 7. Each day, spend 15 minutes writing. Don’t get discouraged if your first attempt at writing is not to your satisfaction. It’s the action, not the product. As a gifted writer told me, write about both the what and the why. It trains your brain to think about both.  Also see: The Psychology Behind Journaling and: The Way is Through, Not Around.

Neuropsychology research shows that new neural pathways start to form by practicing an activity or exercise for at least a minimum of 21 to 28 days.

Try it, 7×4.

Embolden Psychology

Embolden offers the ADOS-2, the gold standard assessment for kids on the spectrum.

Combined with psychoeducational testing, it helps provide comprehensive information and recommendations to help children and teens six and up.

Thank you for contacting us.