Category Archives: strategies for self-care

Shades of Gray

Black and white thinking – also known as all-or-nothing thinking – splits your world neatly into one category or another. If you’re experiencing depression, it’s common to fall into black-and-white thinking. You might focus a lot on your perceived failings, what you should have done differently in a situation and not surprisingly you end up feeling low. Black-and-white thinking also plays a role if you’re experiencing anxiety. A panic attack can make you think about a situation as either completely safe or completely unsafe.

Why Thinking in the Gray is Important

  • Black and white thinking can negatively impact your relationships
    Your partner is the most wonderful person in the world — until they’re the worst. This cycle of love/hate, down/up, good/bad can be seriously stressful for any relationship. In some cases, these wild lows and highs can be a sign of something more serious, such as mental health problems. In family relationships and friendships, quickly changing from thinking a loved one is perfect to feeling they’re awful can erode intimacy and trust. By seeing your loved one as either all good or all bad, you’re not letting yourself see them for what they are: a normal, fallible human.  See also How Mental Flexibility Helps Romantic and Family Relationships.
  • Binary Thinking Leads to Poor Decisions
    According to psychological research, thinking in binary terms can actually change the way we perceive the world, effectively conditioning us to miss nuance. In a 2016 study, Pomona College researchers found that participants’ perceptions of how someone was feeling changed depending on whether they were given black and white, or more fluid categories, to understand emotion. By conditioning a person to see things in more binary terms, black and white thinking can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, making it even harder to perceive nuance.
  • It can signal a deeper problem
    While everyone experiences black and white thinking to some extent, extreme black and white thinking can also be a symptom of mental illness. People with Borderline Personality Disorder, for example, experience intense black and white thinking, which can in turn affect their perceptions of their relationships with others and with themselves.

How to challenge black and white thinking
Shifting your thinking can be difficult but with the right support, you can learn some helpful strategies. Cognitive BehavioralTherapy (CBT) and Mindfulness based therapy are effective ways to address black and white thinking. It is a process where you are encouraged to replace unhealthy patterns of thinking and behaving with more helpful approaches. It certainly doesn’t happen overnight but with time and professional help, it is a very effective treatment.

How to Be In The Gray
Reframe your thinking. Catch yourself in the middle of a thought and challenge whether it is true or not. Are you really a terrible partner? Does your boss really hate you? Is your best friend actually ignoring you? Is it more accurate to think: ‘I might not have been at my best today, but my partner loves me and I can work to communicate better.’ Or ‘My boss doesn’t need to constantly reassure me, they will tell me if there’s an issue.’

Words like ‘never’ and ‘every’ are not helping you. Catch yourself using ‘absolute’ words and rethink them as ‘sometimes,’ maybe,’ or ‘every now and again’. Acknowledge and accept that life is filled with uncertainty. You don’t have all the answers all of the time. It’s completely fine to say, ‘I don’t know, I need to think about that more.’

The Small Things That Are Huge

  • Telling people that you can’t take on any more tasks.
  • Allowing yourself to sleep when you are tired. (See also Making Sleep Your Best Friend)
  • Spending your time with people who get you.
  • Respecting your limitations and boundaries.
  • Being honest. With you and others.
  • Walking your talk.
  • Asking for help.
  • Enjoying your leisure time.
  • Throwing away guilt.
  • Speaking about your expectations in relationships.
  • Recognizing red flags. This is intuition, an ancient trait.
  • Not arguing with people about your values.
  • Stepping away when angry, instead of engaging in that moment.
  • Allowing yourself to be loved and supported by others.
  • Forgiving yourself.

The Neuropsychology of Wine

Neuropsychologists already know that the brain’s memory hub, the hippocampus, is the first area to be compromised by neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Those who smell, serve, recommend, and taste wine for a living are apparently doing more than just expanding their palates. According to a study published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, the brains of Master Sommeliers seem to be much more resistant to neurodegenerative diseases than those of the average person.

Scientists analyzed MRI scans of Master Sommeliers and compared them to those of non-wine-experts, to determine how the human brain responds when it gains a certain level of expertise. There are currently less than 250 Master Sommeliers worldwide, all of whom must pass a rigorous and in-depth exam to earn the title. The certification process can take several years and is the highest official professional distinction one can attain in the beverage service industry.

In 2016, a study on Master Sommeliers at the Cleveland Clinic for Brain Health located in Las Vegas found that the entorhinal cortex (the important area of the brain that includes the Hippocampus) was physically thicker in the wine professionals’ brains versus a control group. Results showed that sommeliers with long careers in hospitality exhibited enhanced and healthier brain tissue in the entorhinal cortex, suggesting that the specialized training of sommeliers might result in advantages in the brain, well into advanced adulthood. This is especially significant, given that the cortical regions involved are the first to be impacted by many neurodegenerative diseases. Additional research has also backed up the theory that sommeliers make excellent models to study brain health.

We know from previous research done in other fields that the brain benefits from active studying, and using the brain areas processing senses, especially smell, are responsible for memory, emotion, learning, and reward. Olfactory training, in particular, improves brain capacity which lingers in individuals, even those who have developed early stages of dementia. The research also demonstrates the importance of integrating sensory stimuli across modalities, and assigning pleasure (hedonic value) and emotional salience to stimuli. You will remember the scent of the perfume of your beloved.

Take away: experts who use ALL of their sensory knowledge for their work on a regular basis, integrating sensory stimuli across modalities, and assigning passion (hedonic value) and emotional salience (engagement) to stimuli seem to have a brain advantage.

For stats please see: Structural and Functional MRI Differences in Master Sommeliers: A Pilot Study on Expertise in the Brain in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 

Making Sleep Your Best Friend

Sleep loss is linked to a slew of medical and mental health issues, including: Cancer, Diabetes, Dementia, and Heart Disease.

Dr. Matthew Walker, a professor of neuropsychology at the University of California, Berkeley, has focused his research on the impact that sleep has on human health and disease. In his 2017 book; Why We Sleep, Walker discusses how sleep is our best friend.

Sleep Tips:
Stick to a sleep schedule
This means weekends too! Sleeping in late on the weekends only interrupts the pattern you have spent the week nailing down. Schedule your sleep schedule and stick to it.

Don’t exercise too late in the day

Avoid alcoholic drinks before bed
If alcohol is present in your system before going to bed, it will interrupt your REM sleep, keeping you in the lighter stages of sleep.

Don’t nap after 3 pm
Although naps can be a great pick-me-up, taking them too late in the day, or napping too long can make it hard to fall asleep at night.

Unwind
Scheduling in time to relax before bed is a great way to prep your body to unwind before falling to sleep.

Take a hot bath
If you like aromatherapy, include lavender and chamomile, which are natural sleep inducers.

Turn off screens
Cell phones, televisions, and computers can be a major distraction if used before bed. The light they emit, especially the blue light, suppresses the secretion of melatonin, the hormone that regulates sleep/wake cycle which increases in the evening.

Get outdoor time
Sun exposure during the day helps to regulate sleeping patterns. It’s recommended to soak in the sun at least 30 minutes a day.

Don’t stay in bed if you can’t sleep
If you find yourself tossing and turning in bed for more than 20 minutes, get up and do something else until you feel sleepy, like reading a book.
(Painting, Gerrit Dou)

The psychology behind journaling

”I am the subject I know best.” -Frida Kahlo
From a scientific standpoint, there is surprising evidence that supports cognitive, emotional, and even physical benefits from journaling. Psychologist and expressive writing expert, Dr. James Pennebaker conducted numerous studies that concluded journaling can actually strengthen immunity, decrease blood pressure, reduce stress,  diminish anxiety, lower depression, facilitate sleeping habits, and even accelerate the body’s ability to heal wounds. Also see my post on mindful writing.

There are even more benefits to the daily practice of journaling. Dr. Maud Purcell, psychotherapist and expert on journaling, concluded that writing accesses the left hemisphere of the brain, which is analytical and rational. While your left brain is occupied, your right brain is free to do what it does best, i.e. create, intuit and feel. In this way, writing removes mental blocks and allows us to use more of our inherent brainpower to better understand ourselves and the world around us. In short, journaling is intrinsically linked to the psychological process, allowing for greater insight and understanding of our self. Done on a daily basis, it clears the way for the day.

The Small Bits

-What you have in your refrigerator
-How you talk to yourself. Your Inner Warrior is always listening
-Who you share your energy with
-What your personal sanctuary looks like, whether it’s a room, dorm, apartment, or house
-Your morning routine. How you start, matters
-What you read
-What you surf
-What you watch
-Who has access to you
-What you do before you fall asleep

Small moments that define life.

How To Feel Better: 12 ways in 30 Days

At Embolden, we emphasize self-care and self-compassion as an essential part of the therapeutic process.

Simple tips that make a difference:

  • Sleep 8 hours. If you cannot do it in a single stretch, divide sleep into phases, known as polyphasic sleep.
  • Hydrate. Drink a minimum of 2 L of water per day. Make a large jug of water in the morning, adding anything that you enjoy, such as citrus, cucumber, ginger, mint. Sip it throughout the day.
  • Meditate. 15 minutes a day of meditation, including seated, walking, or even lying down calms the mind and body.
  • Avoid sugar. We know that sugar causes inflammation. For mental health, sugar gives us a quick mood/energy spike, followed by a crash that is detrimental for people struggling with anxiety and depression.
  • Enjoy the bounties of nature. Eat fruits and vegetables daily, especially greens.
  • Care for an animal. A number of studies have shown the beneficial mental health effects of caring for a companion animal, including reductions in stress, loneliness, and even blood pressure.  For more see Mental Health and Companion Animals.
  • Write. Writing in a journal, in paper or digital format, for as little as 10 minutes a day reduces anxiety.  Read more on Journaling.
  • Go outside. Get sunlight daily.
  • Read. Just 30 minutes a day is good for cognitive and mental health.
  • Connect. Speaking with close friends and family members on a regular basis; online, by phone, or in person has clear benefits for emotional well-being.
  • Exercise.  At least 3 to 4 times per week, move your body. Whatever format you choose, consistency is the key.
  • Unplug and reboot. When our technology is failing us, we turn everything off and reboot. For mental health, when things are not going well, the reboot can be a short nap, taking a break, walking away from the situation, or even starting again the next morning.

Meditation for Difficult Times

I frequently recommend and teach mindfulness meditation in my practice. Meditation meets several therapeutic goals: it encourages reflection combined with self acceptance and self compassion,  it promotes calm breathing, is grounding for individuals who have anxiety disorders and panic attacks, and is a relaxation and de-stress strategy that you can take with you anywhere.

Meditation takes us just as we are, with our confusion and our hectic-ness. This complete acceptance of ourselves as we are is a simple, direct relationship with our being. This is known as maitri, loving-kindness toward ourselves and others.

There are four qualities of maitri that are cultivated when we meditate, as described below by Pema Chodron, in ‘Comfortable With Uncertainty: 108 Teachings on Cultivating Fearlessness and Compassion.’

  1. Steadfastness. When we practice meditation we are strengthening our ability to be steadfast with ourselves, in body as well as mind.
  2. Clear seeing. This is another way of saying that we have less self-deception. Through the process of practicing the technique day in and day out, year after year, we begin to be very honest with ourselves.
  3. Experiencing our emotional distress. We practice dropping whatever story we are telling ourselves and leaning into the emotions and the fear. We stay with the emotion, experience it, and leave it as it is, without proliferating. Thus we train in opening the fearful heart to the restlessness of our own energy. We learn to abide with the experience of our emotions.
  4. Attention to the present moment. We make the choice, moment by moment, to be fully here. Attending to our present-moment mind and body is a way of being tender toward self, toward others, and toward the world. This quality of attention is inherent in our ability to love. These four factors not only apply to sitting meditation, but are essential to all the bodhichitta (awakened heart) practices and for relating with difficult situations in our daily lives. By cultivating them we discover for ourselves that it is bodhichitta, not confusion, that is basic.

Mental health and the benefits of snow days

Snow makes you work out
If you’ve ever trudged through even just a foot of snow, you know how hard it is. From snowball fights and making snow angels to shoveling, snow works our bodies. Just be careful in snowy weather, and always wear warm layers of clothes and slip-proof shoes.

Snow gives us time to read
Spending the day curled up with a good book comes with its own proven health benefits. Research has linked daily reading to helping to ward off memory loss, increasing verbal expression skills, and reducing stress.

Snow days force us to take a break.
Many of us work a lot without taking much-needed physical and mental breaks from the daily grind. A report in 2019 found that 53 percent of Americans who receive paid vacation don’t actually use all of their given days off. Not taking time off can actually hurt our productivity at work. But snow days push us to take some welcome and unexpected time to ourselves, without filling the day with errands.

Snow makes us want to cook nourishing meals
Snow sometimes makes it hard to order delivery or takeout, and offers enough free time to actually cook dinner. Research suggests that home cooking leads to better food choices and a healthier overall diet. In addition, family mealtime has been shown to help children build communication, decision-making skills, self-esteem, healthy eating habits, and daily routines.

Snow may help you burn calories
Studies show that exercising in cold weather or even just shivering while on a short walk can burn extra calories. A drop in temperature to even a mild 60° revs up metabolism.

Snow can help you fight off colds/infections
When your immune system adapts to cold environments, its ability to fight off infection gets stronger.

Snow can help you get a better night’s sleep
Many studies have proven that sleeping in a cold room can improve your quality of sleep and help you get to sleep quicker. When your body temperature drops, it mimics the same process that occurs in REM sleep. Even turning your thermostat down a few notches at night can be helpful. In the winter, with less daylight and colder temperatures, the body’s natural sleep hormone, melatonin, kicks in harder.

Snow can improve your brain function
We might feel a little sluggish at times being indoors during winter, but research shows that exposure to cold weather may actually boost your brain activity and focus.

Snow is fun
Whether you’d prefer to spend the day outside or curled up with a good book and a cup of hot chocolate or soothing soup, actually enjoying yourself for a day is a boon to your health. Stress can cause headaches, fatigue, anxiety, sleep problems, and even depression. Taking a day off to relieve all that can improve your mood and your health. Getting silly in the snow, with your dogs, children, family, is also great. Laughing may lower inflammation, soothe tension, boost your immune system, and reduce anxiety.

Embolden Psychology
Embolden

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.

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