The 3-2-1 Project

dropletHave you taken a deep breath yet today?

When life gets busy and stressful, we may go through an entire day without taking a single full breath. This can in turn increase the level of stress and busyness that we experience because our mind and breathing are closely connected. When we feel stressed or anxious, our breathing becomes more shallow; in turn, each shallow breath we take activates our fight-or-flight response, further increasing our internal sense of pressure and stress.

Taking a deep breath, on the other hand, sends the “all clear” signal to our bodies and brains so that deep breathing, when practiced regularly, can lessen anxiety and depression, improve your mood, lower blood pressure, slow your heart beat, and even help with insomnia.

The 3 – 2 – 1 Project’s mission is to help you begin to reap the benefits of deep breathing by reminding you to pause and take a complete breath, even just a few times each day. In order to do so, we are distributing “3 – 2 – 1” cards at numerous locations around the city. Our hope is that you will leave the card somewhere where you will see it several times each day – maybe in your wallet, or next to your toothbrush, or in the cup holder in your car. When you see the card, please let it remind you to take just a moment to breathe in smoothly and gently (ideally, your abdomen and chest will both expand as you breathe in), pause, and then breathe out for a slow count of 3 – 2 – 1. *

Our hope is that these moments of breathing will add small oases of quiet to your busy life – small moments in which you connect to the part of you that is still and calm. And our wish is that, over time, these moments will add up to create just a little bit more peace in your life.

Warmly,

Mirjam, Angela, Bethany, Hillary, Lauren, Mikiela and Mindy

 

* The material appearing on this website is for educational use only. It should not be used as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

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Blooming (Grief #1)

I often think of my work as a therapist as being the work of bearing witness to people’s stories – stories of love, of grief, of rage, of helplessness, of triumph, of the everyday. Each story is as uniquely textured as the person telling it. And yet, these stories, told by diverse individuals from many different walks of life, have common threads that tie them together.

One such common thread is that we all have losses that we must grieve. Some are the shocking losses that completely obliterate life as we knew it. Some are the expected losses that grind us down with their ordinariness. Both kinds can feel overwhelming, like it will be impossible to continue on in a life that is not what we imagined, a life that we did not choose.

And it is here is where the hard work of grieving begins.

In his book No Mud, No Lotus, Thich Nhat Hanh points out that, as a society, we tend to think of suffering as something bad, something to be avoided. But, he says, “suffering is a kind of mud to help the lotus flower of happiness grow. There can be no lotus flower without the mud.”

In order to grieve well, we must stand in the mud. And we must find the lotus.

We must stand in the mud because it is only by being in contact with our pain, honestly and directly, that we can begin to reckon with it. And we must stand in the mud because it is important to honor our experience, to acknowledge to ourselves and others that this loss is unfair, and tremendous, and has opened a deep well of grief, and will never be okay. And we must stand in the mud because ultimately, we will need to take gentle care of our pain in order to begin to soothe it.

And we must find the lotus, because we need to create meaning from our experiences. Perhaps more importantly, we must find the lotus just because it is there, and to walk past it would be another loss – an unnoticed loss perhaps, but a tremendous one just the same. The lotus might be difficult to find, obscured completely or in part by the pain that goes along with grief and loss. It might be difficult to find because we may, on some level, feel that if we acknowledge the lotus, we are in some way saying that we accept the loss which created it (this is not true. It is a tricky balancing act, but possible to hold and honor both the lotus and the mud). It might be difficult to find because initially, we might not even know what we are looking for. But it is there.

Perhaps growing up with an addicted family taught you how to take care of yourself as well as others. Perhaps you unexpectedly lost your mother and were surprised by who showed up to help. Perhaps the loss of a job brought on a reckoning in terms of your identity and allowed you to adjust your life course to one that is more congruent with your values. Perhaps the bottomless grief you experienced when your best friend died taught you how to breathe into suffering and soothe yourself, and this allows you to begin building a relationship with your father, with whom you were previously so angry and reactive that the smallest issues triggered you to fight and flee.

Even in the thickest, most immobilizing mud, the lotus is there. You are capable of finding it, and you are capable of blooming.

Warmly,

Mirjam

Holding Your Family, Gently

In the weeks leading up to the holidays, I always notice an uptick in anxiety related to the families we were born or partnered into.
I hear it in the therapy room, I see it on social media groups, and read about it in the November/December issues of magazines, which regularly feature articles about how to avoid having Thanksgiving devolve into a family feud.

This anxiety isn’t surprising. Holidays, with their combination of outsize expectations, exponential increase in quantity of tasks that need to be accomplished in any given day, and forced togetherness, have a unique potential for bringing to the surface those family wounds that we may be successfully able to ignore for the remainder of the year. We may find ourselves neatly, almost unconsciously, slipping back into roles (the fragile one, the screwup, the caretaker, the achiever) that we’ve played in our families in the past, even if we find these roles limiting, uncomfortable, or shameful. We may find ourselves having outsized reactions to the behaviors of others – reactions in which we are responding not to what the other person is actually doing, but rather to the meaning that we ascribe to their behavior. We may walk into a celebration hoping that this, maybe, will be the day when our family finally “gets it,” when finally they behave as we need them to, and then feel disappointed and betrayed when they continue to behave as they always have.

So, what can we do? How can we be together with those who form our root system without experiencing old hurts over and over again?

My suggestion is this: hold your family, gently, and meet them, and yourself, with patience and compassion. For many of us, an important first step in learning how to do this is to recognize that the ways in which our family reacts toward us often has little to do with us, and is much more influenced by old family patterns, or by what is going on in their lives. A mother-in-law may ignore you at the dinner table because she hasn’t figured out how to cope with losing her son to another primary family unit. A sister may dismiss your opinions about current world affairs because she has always been the competent one in the family and she struggles with figuring out how to relate to her siblings from a place of commonality rather than superiority. A mother may override your parenting decisions because she is still adjusting to being the parent of an adult. A father may withdraw from an interaction with you because he struggles with connecting to others emotionally.

Of course, approaching others from a place of empathy and compassion does not mean that we must condone or even passively accept all of their behaviors. But if we try to see the world through their lens, and attempt to understand how their own limitations and hurts are shaping their responses to us, then this may allow us to see more clearly when their behavior toward us is nothing personal. And that may help us respond to them in a manner that is compassionate rather than reactive.

I recognize that this simple advice is terribly hard to follow. Holding others – especially those with whom we have emotionally charged relationships – in compassion is an enormously difficult skill to learn. But, like any skill, the more you practice, the more stable, and balanced, and grounded, you will feel.

I wish you a peaceful and connected holiday.

Warmly,

Mirjam

Cultivating Your Soul

In my years of practicing therapy, the one observation I have made over and over again is how difficult it is to maintain balance in one’s life. So many of us hear that endless refrain – both from within ourselves and outside of ourselves – telling us that we should work harder, be richer, smarter, better, thinner, prettier, more popular, more enlightened. And so we try to measure up – by working harder, volunteering more, running five miles instead of two, driving our kids to three after-school activities instead of just the one, saying yes when we mean no. And it is exhausting. It is depleting. It leaches our ability to be present, to breathe in the grace of living.

And yet. One of the underpinnings of that struggle is this: the beautiful and uniquely human drive to create, to build, to connect to something greater than ourselves, to find meaning and make purpose of our lives.

And so one of the big questions becomes: how do we honor our need to create structure and significance in our lives while also leaving space to honor our lives themselves?

A very wise and kind supervisor that I had in graduate school likened this balancing act to the medieval farming practice of three-crop rotation.
Three-crop rotation was a practice in which farmers would sow a winter crop. Once the winter crop was harvested, a spring crop would be sown. After the spring harvest, the field would lie fallow until it was time to sow the winter crop again. Rotating the crops in this way ensured that the nutrients that each crop leached from the soil had ample time to replenish between harvests. In addition, the diversity of the crops would leave the fields more resilient to pathogens.

Similarly, our soul has a winter crop. What exactly this crop comprises will differ from person to person, but for all of us, this is the hardy, strong crop, the rye and wheat that we sow to feed our families and to position ourselves in the world – to leave our mark, to create our meaning. This might be working at a job, or it might be volunteering, or it might be raising children or it might be creating art or training for a marathon – in short, it is what people mean when they ask: “and what do you do?”

Our soul also has a spring crop. Again, what this crop is will be different for each individual. But these are the oats, the barley – the delicious fruit that we sow to nourish our soul, to fill up the life we’ve created through the winter crop. This might be spending time with a significant other. Or reading a poem. Or taking a yoga class. Snuggling a child, or a pet. Belly laughing with a friend. Going to the movies. Hiking in the woods.

Finally, our soul needs to lie fallow. We all need moments of slackening, of sagging, of numbing, of hitting the pause button in our brains. This might be watching a mindless television show. Or eating a second bowl of ice cream. Or doodling around online, or playing Candy Crush. It is this last piece of the crop rotation that we often either don’t do at all, or we do too much of and then feel guilty. But this fallowness is necessary. It is important. And it is healthy, as long as we are able to find a balance among our three crops.

I often ask the people that I work with to take a piece of paper, divide it into three columns, and make a list of what things in their lives are winter crop, spring crop, and a fallow field. And then I ask them to take that list home and put it somewhere where they will see it every day. That’s all. There’s no need to embark on a big self-improvement project (that would be too much winter crop!). The list’s only job is to serve as a reminder of the things we need in order to cultivate a nourished, balanced soul, and thus to sow the seeds of a more mindful living, a living that honors our lives themselves.

Warmly,

Mirjam

You are More Than Your Body

As a therapist who specializes in eating disorders, I know that, even in the course of a long career, I will only ever meet a fraction of the 30 million people living in the United States who will struggle with an eating disorder at some point in their lives. Many will never seek treatment; some might not recognize their eating patterns as being disordered; others might not know that help is available. Disordered eating can be experienced in myriad ways, affecting both youth and adults as well as males and females. No matter the manifestation, eating disorders are serious, and often can be life-threatening illnesses. Nevertheless, the education about eating disorders that exists in the public domain is often lacking. Here are five facts about eating disorders that I wish everyone knew:

1. Eating disorders don’t discriminate. They don’t discriminate between the young and the old, genders or race. While most eating disorders are associated with younger populations, according to the National Eating Disorders Association, studies show that 90% of adult women worry about their weight, and 60% engage in weight control behaviors that have the potential to manifest in disordered eating patterns. Though assessment tests have been historically biased towards female populations, reports show that of the 30 million people suffering with eating disorders in the U.S., one-third are men.

2. Signs of a disorder vary. Depending on the particular eating disorder, symptoms can present very differently. However, this does not lessen the severity of the problem. It’s important to be aware of eating patterns and behaviors that could be a sign of a problem. These may include inadequate food intake leading to low body weight; obsession with weight and persistent behavior to prevent weight gain; self-esteem being overly related to body image; and frequently consuming a very large amount of food and then engaging in behaviors to prevent weight gain.

3. Harmful eating behavior is evolving. Eating disorders have evolved beyond traditional illnesses like anorexia, which involves inadequate food intake, and bulimia – excessive intake followed by purposeful purging. For example, orthorexia, a newer diagnosis, is defined as an unhealthy fixation with consuming only healthy or “pure” foods paired with an extreme belief that other foods are “bad.” Similarly, bigorexia is an obsession with building muscle through exercise and nutrition that is associated with a body dysmorphic mentality, where a person views him or herself as being too small or too skinny despite being very muscular.

4. They are all-consuming. While many of us may have something about our appearance that we don’t particularly like, we do not often obsess over these commonplace imperfections. People with eating disorders are consumed with their perceived imperfections to the point that the obsession interferes with their daily lives. Those with disordered eating patterns often think about food and/or their imperfections many hours of the day. They lose the ability to control their negative thought patterns and it can cause severe emotional distress.

5. You can recover. While the road to recovery can be overwhelming and difficult, there is help available. Early intervention is the first step towards a successful recovery and that’s why education and awareness is so important. When loved ones know the signs and symptoms of disordered eating behaviors, they are better able to support the person that’s suffering. From inpatient care to outpatient counseling, there are a number of ways people can get help.

Working in mental health has taught me that recovery from anything is one of the most powerful things a person can do!

Check out http://nedawareness.org/ for more information! ‪#‎NEDAwareness‬ Week

– Angela