Month

September 2015

Toolkit

I  said this the other day:

I don’t know about you, but in the moment, tools are really hard to remember to use. Also sometimes hard to believe that they’re going to do anything. So I find that practicing strategies and tools during calm moments, and semi-stressful moments, make them much more automatic to use during the super hard times. I think I could probably write a whole post on tools, and I think I will.

And I did.

Here are the three main tools in my toolkit lately that always help:

1. Move
Sometimes this means moving locations. Walking out of my apartment to go sit by the reservoir. Going to a coffee shop. Usually a change of location and scenery makes a huge difference and abates some of the heaviness I had been feeling.

Sometime this means physical movement, like going for a walk, going to the gym, or going to yoga. During this type of movement, I usually feel “it” moving through me. As I move my body, however vigorously or gently suits that moment, I’m moving it out. Moving the heaviness around, dislodging it from where it had taken root. More often than not, the tears or panic stop once I move – and this is something I have to re-learn each time. This morning I kept trying to wait it out. I said to myself, I’ll leave the apartment once I feel calmer, I’ll go to the gym once I’m not teary. But after a while I decided to just go – and by the time I got downstairs and into my car I was already a bit calmer. Just move. Now.

2. Visualize
I used to hate the idea of visualization, and that’s because I thought visualization was only “imagine yourself on the beach listening to the waves.” And while that type of visualization certainly has its time and place for me, it doesn’t do it all, and I needed more than that. I have since learned way more about this idea, and visualization has quickly become a go-to.

I usually visualize “it” moving. “It” can be panic, anxiety, memories, fear, whatever it is for you, or for me. Lately “it” has been a general heaviness that holds itself in my chest, in my throat, or in my head. It feels like a dark murky thick smoggy cloud. I like to envision a white, sparkly light coming in as I breathe in, swirling around, and clearing out the murky darkness as I breathe out. To those of you reading this and rolling your eyes: This works.

The other visualization I’ve done stems from something I read in an amazing neuroscience book [this is an affiliate link]. This chapter of the book discussed chronic pain and how visualization can help decrease the pain. And, I’ve used those ideas before, when I get a headache – I imagine the pain center in my brain, and I imagine a barrier around it, so that any pain signals my head tries to send are blocked and don’t reach the pain center. This works. I have practiced it so much that it now decreases the pain of a headache fairly quickly.

Anyway, I decided I could probably use the same principle around my heart, for those times that I’m feeling too much of my own feelings and all of everyone else’s feelings. So I imagine a barrier around my heart – not shutting myself off from the world, but protecting my heart when it needs a break.

3. Grounding
I could give you a zillion grounding tools (i.e. tools that help you stay present, focused on the moment), and there are another zillion out there on the internet. The ones that work for me best lately:

Mantras. I like mantras a lot, and I don’t like affirmations a lot. Mantras seem to be more relevant to me in the moment, whereas affirmations just…don’t work for me. [Side note: does anyone else feel like there’s a difference between the two?] For me, a mantra is a grounding statement, often what someone else would tell me in that moment, or what I would tell someone else, and ultimately, what I am aiming to trust and believe in that moment.

Sometimes my mantras are on post-it notes (there’s about 8 of them in my moleskin notebook right now) or in my pocket (the day of my wedding I texted my dear friend a picture of the post-it note in my purse that read, I am worthy) or just in my head. One that works in a moment of hypersensitivity: “Those are not my feelings. I don’t have to feel them.” Another one that works in a moment of panic: “I am breathing through this moment. I am breathing through this feeling.” They have become comforting statements that bring me focus and relief.

I also find narrating what I’m doing to be very calming. If I find myself starting to get spinny in my brain while I’m driving, I focus on what’s going on: I am in the car. I am driving home.

The one specific visualization that I do love, seems to fit better into this “grounding” category for me. It was an exercise I once learned in a therapy session, and the idea was to find a calming, safe place that could be thought about in such great detail that it would eventually be neurologically strengthened in my brain as calming, the minute that I pictured it. The place that has been consistently safe and calming for me is a specific location at my summer job. So after formally talking about the place in great detail (5 senses), it has been so strengthened in my brain that in a moment of overwhelm or panic or heaviness, I fairly automatically start thinking, I am on the back porch. I am rocking in the chair. I see the sunlight, streaming through the trees. I see the green grass, I see the blue skies. I hear the crickets, I hear the birds.

Calm.

For all of these mantras and narrations, I find pairing it with my breath crucial. I don’t really know how to explain this in writing, but basically, I breathe in for one piece of it, and breathe out for the other part, so it has some sort of rhythm to it. For example: Inhale for the entire length of I am breathing through this moment and then exhale for the length of I am breathing through this feeling. Does that make sense?


And there you have it. My current set of tools. As I’ve said, I really find that in a hard moment, it’s equally hard to remember to use these tools. Generally because I initially think, That’s not going to work. That’s not going to make this feeling better. But they always do. Not always right away, and not always fully, but they always help. And the more I practice them during less intense moments, the more automatic they become during hard moments.

I would really, really, love to know: do any of these tools work for you? What are your go-to tools and strategies these days? Please share with us – anonymous is always an option.

Acceptance, people, tools

I was talking with someone today about how sometimes our brains tell us things that in hindsight we laugh about. We think, Wow, I can’t believe I ever entertained that thought!  For example: at the beginning of every school year I have a brief moment where I think, Crap. What if I just forget how to be an SLP? What if the kids walk into my office and I have no idea how to help them? This person had a similar experience, where today she thought, What if I walk into my class tonight and just can’t teach, what if I just forget how? We laughed about both of those thoughts, but in the moments they grab at us and we see them as hard truths, rather than just thoughts.

That got me thinking about similar moments- have you ever had a really awful moment or day, or maybe during a panic attack, or a crying spell, and you just think, What if this never ends? What if I cannot move through this? What if this does break me? [I just know in my heart that nearly every person has had this moment at least once – am I right?]

I rely on three things in those moments:

  1. Acceptance. I have found that the number one thing I can do to make those moments worse is to panic and fight them.

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The more I entertain thoughts of, I can’t do this, I’m freaking out/panicking/hysterical/upset, this will break me, I am broken, I can’t move through this, it will never end, the harder it is.

A tiny space of calm is found within the storm when acceptance is embraced. I am having a really hard time right now. Oh. Okay. Yes. This is what’s happening. This is where I am. Okay. I’m fully here.

2. People. Not all people. And not most people. But the people who Get It, or who Get Me, and will love me through it, who will remind me, This will not break you, who will be present with me wherever I am. Those very few people are the lily pads leading me across the lake.

3. Tools. I don’t know about you, but in the moment, tools are really hard to remember to use. Also sometimes hard to believe that they’re going to do anything. So I find that practicing strategies and tools during calm moments, and semi-stressful moments, make them much more automatic to use during the super hard times. I think I could probably write a whole post on tools, and I think I will.

There are so many, good, concrete, realistic strategies out there. Some, we teach our kids each day at school or at home. Some, we learn ourselves. I think we all know that tools are more than just “take a deep breath” which my ukele-playing, beyond-insightful kiddo will tell you “doesn’t work” and “makes it worse!!!!” And you know what? Sometimes she’s right. So often the go-to advice is, “take a deep breath.” But really, a deep breath doesn’t always help. In the moment, it doesn’t initially matter how deep the breath is, it matters where it comes from. An attempt at a deep breath that involves a shallow breath where the shoulders raising up high is going to physically feel awful. But a breath from your stomach, where you put your hand on your stomach and try to breathe into it – that breath is going to feel good. And it will gradually deepen on its own.

 

So – while I ponder a post about my own tools that I’ve gathered and discovered over the years, I welcome any and all thoughts: What works for you during a hard time? Are there certain thoughts that grip you in terror but later you laugh about? Have you ever tried to accept where you’re at, however hard that may be?

Bio Poems

I was out sick yesterday, and another therapist worked with many of my therapy groups. She did a fun, creative, describing activity, called “Bio Poems” – and reading them warmed my heart so much that I just had to share. These are all done by 6-8th graders, all with language and learning disabilities. They did a few pre-writing steps with writing templates and prompts for each line, but otherwise? These are their own ideas, their own words, with nothing changed (except names!). I laughed, teared up, and had my heart melted as I read these – it’s such a powerful experience to see how these incredible kids view themselves, and what their inner workings are like. I hope you enjoy.

Miranda
Who is creative, kind, and smart
Who enjoys Max Ride, math, YouTube,One Direction, tv, iPad, iPhone, pools beaches
Who is able to flexible thumbs, swim really fast, sing, act, dance
Who feels joyful playing on my iPad and happy reading my book
Who wonders what will happen next
Who fears when my mom is mad and the dark
Who cares about family, friends,cats school, books, stuff animals, necklace
Who dreams of being a famous vet/mom and meeting 1D

Ally
Who is Smart , Talkitive , Sweet
Who enjoys Playing sports , Playing with Sibilings , Drawing and
Coloring
Who is able to play soccer , Draw and Color
Who feels happy when I play with my brother
Who wonders what is out there in space
Who fears Thunderstorms
Who cares about Faimly and pets
Who dreams of About being a baker or a cook

Doug
Who is cool, kind, smart
Who enjoys video games
Who is able to beat video games easily
Who feels lazy when playing with friends
Who wonders how we got here
Who fears the end of the world
Who cares about the world of nature
Who dreams of being really cool

Nellie
Nice, fun, pretty
Who enjoys playing Minecraft
Who is able to do gymnastics
Who feels happy when I play Minecraft
Who fears big scary sharks
Who care about my family and friends
Who dreams of flying in the sky

Caitlin
Who is athletic, creative, nice
Who enjoys six flags, friends, drawing
Who is able to watch movies, go to school, play basketball
Who feels happy, loving, funny
Who wonders what I’m going to do when I grow up
Who fears spiders, reading in front of people, the dark
Who care about friends and family and animals
Who dreams to have a great rest of my life!

Gabi
Who is happy, kind, creative
Who enjoys tennis, yoga, baking
Who is able to biking, swimming, yoga
Who feels nervous, happy, shy
Who wonders what I am going to do as a future job
Who fears presenting in front of the class
Who cares about family, friends
Who dreams of to be famous some day

Inside a hard time

[Editor’s note: I feel compelled to preface this by telling you how vulnerable I feel in posting this. I realize that vulnerability comes from fear of being met with shame. Being shut down, being quieted, being negatively talked about. But, I will write it anyway. Because I channel that feeling that I have when I read a blog post that deeply resonates with me, that makes me think, “Wow, someone else really gets it. Someone else was brave enough to write about it.” And I hope that maybe I can evoke that feeling in just one person. And should that be the case – should one person feel grateful, relief, companionship, then the vulnerability was worth it.

I have written and re-written this post many times, ever since my wonderful dad suggested that I write. During many versions, I added in something at the end to the effect of, “But I am okay! Don’t worry about me! I’m fine!” Which speaks to my fear of worrying others, of wanting to do everything I can to keep those in my life calm and happy. But I am gently putting those fears aside. And writing what’s real.]


Time doesn’t heal all wounds. Not if they are wounds that were never processed. Events from a month ago, a year ago, two decades ago, can and will still affect you.

Events and memories that you had buried deep within you, taped up, and topped with a sparkly pink bow, will not be fooled, and will still find their way to the surface, claw their way out, and demand to be acknowledged and processed. Gates will be broken down, dams will be breached, and it will rush at you, over you, through you, just as a flood does. Five weeks later, you will still be waiting for the waters to abate.

Old habits and behaviors will rear their heads. You will initially welcome them back without a second thought. You will initially forget to question them.

You will initially try to fight it. You’ll think things like, I shouldn’t be feeling this way or What is wrong with me? and I’ve been fine for so long, I should still be fine.

Your chest will constantly feel constricted. So will your head and stomach, but it’s in your chest where you’ll notice it at all times.

You will sleep, a lot. You will have little energy. You will throw your energy into work, and collapse after. Weekends will be hard.

You will inwardly laugh when one of your students says, “You are just so happy! Are you ever NOT happy?” and you will respond honestly but simply, and say, “Sometimes I am happy, but sometimes I am mad or sad, too.”

You will remind yourself to eat, despite a lack of appetite.

You will go to new types of appointments and cry. You will cry a lot. You will realize your voice is flat. You will talk about events and memories. When she asks you if you want to process x, y, or z, you will laugh, and tell her, “No. So I guess we should.” You will realize that these appointments, this new methodology, might be the key to your lock.

You will start to have a few minutes, an hour, maybe even part of a day here and there when the tight compression in your chest lifts. When you notice that you can breathe. When you haven’t cried. When your voice is a little more sing-songy. When you can think about people and places and memories without waves of nausea and dread.

And then those moments will end.

You will feel a true acceptance of where you are, of what’s happening. You will understand that it was kind of inevitable. You’ll get that while it might not have happened this year, it would’ve happened eventually. You will trust that it can’t last forever. Eventually the waters will subside. Eventually the floods will stop.

And so you will just keep going, minute by minute, day by day.

Because there’s no other option.

And you remind yourself of your beloved poem that you post every solstice, and you take to heart the words:

So do not lose heart
when vision dims.
Journey forth
as best you can-
bloom when you are able,
rest when you must,
keep faith,
keep always
towards the light

Colored lights

Tonight in yoga, I attempted to focus on my breath, something that has been quite difficult for me lately. I tried to set an intention, as we were being guided to do, but I immediately got overwhelmed and tried to do it all: I wanted to breathe in courage and happiness and lightness and freedom and safety and so many more.

As I began to imagine my breath as these feelings, trying each one out and seeing how it felt in my body, colors took hold. And I initially found this surprising, as colors have continued to fail me over the last few months – but they appeared, slowly, gently, timidly.

I began to breathe in a sparkly, light blue light, that swirled around me for a round of breath. I sent it out on the exhale and a glistening pale green light took its place. Next came a deep, glittering red light. In and out the colors swept, washing over every cell in my body, exhaling the fear and doubt and confusion. I didn’t know what each color meant or represented, but it didn’t matter. My body thirstily drank in the magical, colorful lights for most of my practice. The colors matched my breath, healing me from the inside out, up the chakras, through the cells, breathing space and lightness deep inside, into the dusty and blocked off corners of my being.

When thoughts started to take hold of my brain, a gentle yellow light softly melted the thoughts away. When a muscle began to tense, a breath of orange softened it. When I forgot how to breathe deeply, a radiant indigo light opened me up. Wave after wave after wave. Focusing on them. Allowing them in.

Until my head was quiet.

Until my body was relaxed.

Until I had all of those intentions – courage, happiness, lightness, freedom, and safety, swirling inside of me – for a split second. And I grabbed it. Held it. Cherished it.

And breathed it out.

Knowing. Trusting. Believing.

It would be back.

The colors would be back.

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