Several months ago, I was speaking with a coaching client, “Tom”. Tom was a STEM graduate student, and his advisor was pretty emotionally abusive and critical. My client was understandably struggling with anxiety and self-confidence, and he acted like someone in an abusive relationship. He would tell himself that if he just got certain things accomplished or worked seven days a week, his advisor would finally become supportive and help him move forward with his academic career. However, because his advisor has never displayed kindness or emotional support, Tom’s thinking was irrational. This led to frustration and pain as he kept hoping for support and a response that would never come from this particular advisor.
While working with Tom, I was reading a wonderful book, Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind by Kristin Neff, Ph.D., as I was preparing a self-compassion workshop. In the book, I came across an equation that reminded me of Tom:
Suffering=Pain x Resistance
As Dr. Neff writes, and as Buddhism teaches, suffering occurs when we compare our reality to our ideals. When we keep wishing and hoping for a different reality, and when this reality does not match our desires, we suffer. We can’t avoid pain, but we can avoid suffering – if we accept “what is”. We suffer emotionally because we want things to be different than what they are and by not accepting our actual situation.
I think about this concept with respect to the pandemic, and I can see how I personally struggle with it. At times, I find myself frustrated and angry by the pandemic and how it is impacting my life. I focus on all the things I cannot do, all of the things that I have lost, and all the ways that my life has shrunk considerably since March. When this is my focus, I am upset. On the other hand, when I can accept my current situation and work within my life’s current boundaries and find its COVID silver linings, I actually feel calmer and more positive.
Tom and I spoke about these ideas, and we looked at how his lack of acceptance was contributing to his anxiety and distress. This concept was really eye-opening to Tom and stopped him temporarily in his tracks as he thought about it. We looked at how he could approach his relationship with his advisor with acceptance, acknowledging that the advisor could not be anyone other than they were.
As Tom began to shift his focus, his anxiety and self-confidence began to improve. He was able to stop internalizing the negative messages from his advisor and protect himself from this hurt. Tom developed more of a “screw them” attitude, which improved his resilience and inner strength, and gave him distance from the abuse. He also began to recover emotionally much more quickly from toxic encounters with his advisor. Tom’s advisor has not changed, but Toms’ ability to deal with his current circumstances and build a better future has.
Breakthroughs do not have to be thunderclaps from the clear blue sky; sometimes they can come from small shifts in perception, like this one. This move towards accepting the situation- that his advisor was not going to change his behavior- helped Tom take ownership of the aspects of the relationship he could control: his own responses to the negativity and stress.
Our reality may not always be what we want or what we dreamed, whether it is dealing with the pandemic or struggling with a challenging relationship. However, with a little bit of acceptance, we can always find joy and happiness in the present and work toward a better tomorrow.
Years ago, I was working with a bright computer science grad student, “Sheryl”. She really struggled with anxiety and then, when she was anxious, she would get down on herself for feeling that way. Sheryl would beat herself up for struggling and say things to herself, such as “how can I feel so anxious?”, “this sucks!”, and “I hate feeling this way. Why can’t I be “normal”?”.
As we got to better understand her anxiety and the thoughts she would have in response to it, I was really struck that she was having anxiety about having anxiety. Distress about having distress. We looked at how the thoughts/feelings she was having about her anxiety made her feel much worse. She named this anxiety about having anxiety “meta-anxiety”.
I began talking with Sheryl about acceptance. Acceptance is looking at what is and treating it and yourself with kindness. Having open eyes and not focusing on how you want things to be or feel different. I think of the Serenity Prayer, from Alcoholics Anonymous, often when I am trying to explain acceptance: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
I started helping this client have more acceptance for herself and her feelings. When she was feeling anxious, she would begin saying, “It’s ok that I’m feeling anxious. It makes sense with all that’s going on right now.” Turning to herself in this manner, with kindness and openness, lowered her distress and helped her anxiety feel more manageable.
When we accept our distress, instead of beating ourselves up for it, we actually feel somewhat better. As Sheryl began treating herself and her anxiety this way, she found the levels lowered as she gave herself space, as well as acceptance and kindness. Sheryl then was more able to use the anxiety management techniques she had gained during her treatment with me.
So, the next time you are struggling with painful feelings, turn with an open eye to what is and treat yourself as you would a friend. Using acceptance and compassion will reduce your distress, and it will give you an opening to figure out how to best help yourself.
When my husband and I first talked about getting married years ago, we agreed that we would get a dog. Life and job prohibited this for many years. However, because we are both working at home due to the pandemic, it seemed like a perfect time to get a puppy! In particular, we decided to get a Bernese Mountain Dog, which I have become totally enamored with.
In March, we found a breeder who loves her dogs, passed her extensive interview to qualify, and then we waited for our girl to be born. With our breeder, she sent us 30-second videos of the possible puppies, and you choose your puppy in the order in which you sent in your deposit.
Selection day in July was very stressful! We knew we wanted a female, and fortunately there were seven available. I was sure we had a good draft pick because we had been waiting for so long; however, we discovered we were fourth on the puppy list. We rushed to see the remaining puppy videos and faced a conundrum.
One of the things that I love about these dogs is the brown fur around their eyes, which gives them such a kind look. When we saw the remaining four puppies, one had these classic marks and symmetry on her face, and the other three had faces that were half-white without the brown markings around the eyes on one side.
At first, I assumed we would pick the classic symmetrical puppy, but when I saw the video of her, my heart fell. In my gut, I was not thrilled and felt disappointed. Somehow, she was not cute, and she did not speak to me. One of the half-white face puppies, however, was adorable, and I could feel the excitement for her in my gut.
This was a strange position for me, and I found myself confused about what to do: which puppy should I pick? I battle perfectionism, as I am sure many of you do. I like things to be symmetrical and look good. It is important to me that I look nice and “put together” when I go out. I also often value being right and doing things in the “right” way. Somehow this choice was highlighting several of the things that I struggle with in my ongoing work to let go of the perfect and to enjoy life in the moment, with all its imperfections.
Additionally, as embarrassing as this is, I was worried about what people would think or say about a puppy with asymmetrical markings. Would they make negative or critical comments? Would I have to keep defending her uniqueness as a positive attribute? I talk to clients all the time about empowerment that comes from within, and that is not centered in the opinions of others – and here I was worried about how my potential puppy looked to the outside world!
The main question became: should my husband and I choose the dog that “looked right” or should we go with our hearts?
This decision was one we thought about and talked about a lot, and we slept on it overnight. In the morning, we knew who our Penny was. We went with our gut and our hearts, which life has taught me is always the right direction in which to go. She has asymmetrical coloring on her face, - but she is adorable – our perfectly imperfect puppy - and we love her!
I was so honored and excited to be part of this important and relevant SHRM panel discussion that focused on work, racism, inclusion, and uncomfortable conversations.
Over 1300 people registered to attend, and the conversation was rich. Each panelist came from a different background and looks at DEI through a different lens- as an HR professional, as an attorney, as a DEI consultant. I was able to discuss how DEI is a wellness issue, both for an individual's mental and physical health and also how improving inclusion in an organization improves retention of employees. The more employees feel included and valued in an organization and also that they can bring all of themselves and their experiences to work, we all win and improve the well-being of all. And the more we recognize how discrimination in all forms can impacts us personally or vicariously, the better we can work to understand and work to improve equality and inclusion.
Register here if you would like to view the panel discussion in its entirety:
I had a great time speaking last week in a "sold out" webinar hosted by Todd Cohen. A great group attended the event, comprised primarily of business and HR professionals. Todd and I spoke about wellness and how it's been impacted by the pandemic, how I see well-being in a holistic way, and what the 5 facets of wellness are.
We also talked about how our isolation from the pandemic has been negatively impacting our wellness. We humans are social creatures, and we feed off interactions with other people. Our brains and neurotransmitters react when we are with another person. Working to improve this isolation, as we are able, will be very important for our mental health as well as for our creativity and problem solving.
If you would like to watch the conversation, the link is below.
Last weekend, my husband and I took out dinner from one of our favorite restaurants. The food was delicious, and they really made it as special as they could, including nice extras such as the gougères (cheese puffs) that they serve as an amuse bouche and the yummy chocolates that they serve after dessert. The meal was really wonderful, but it was bittersweet. Although the food made me so happy, especially their amazing baguette, it was only a fraction of the full experience that I love when I dine at the restaurant. We did not have the attentive and friendly service, the décor that makes it feel like you are in Paris, and the experience of sharing this moment with others.
I have been thinking a great deal about well-being and how it is impacted by this current pandemic situation, with all its restrictions. I keep reflecting on how negatively impacted our wellness has been, how it has been muted and only a fraction of what our wellness was pre-covid. Similar to my experience of eating this delicious meal.
When I conceptualize well-being with clients, I think about 5 different realms. They are:
1.Social- our personal relationships and connections, our community, our “peeps”
2.Emotional/psychological- how we feel inside and what our energy, engagement, and motivation is like
3.Physical- how we are feeling physically and what we are doing to take care of our bodies (e.g., what are we eating and drinking and how are we exercising, grooming and pampering)
4.Spiritual- what feeds our spirit or soul (e.g., religion, being in nature, making or experiencing art)
5.Financial/productive- how we are doing financially, how we are engaged in productive work and feeling that we are contributing
During our new normal of social isolation, we can still hit on all of these components of wellness, but we cannot fully engage in them. Let us take Social Wellness, for example.
We are social creatures, and we are hard-wired to be around other people. Our brain’s activity is modulated by others, and our brain releases chemicals in response to another person. When we experience being with someone, we engage all our senses. Not only do we see and hear them fully, we also may touch or sense them physically. We may smell them. And we may eat and drink with them.
However, we cannot do that nowadays. Don’t get me wrong. I am so grateful to have video chat as a way to communicate in the current time. However, as I heard someone say, using video chat is like eating processed food. This really resonated with me. Eating processed food will do the trick and fill you up, but it will not be anywhere as satisfying or filling as when you eat real, whole food. When we video chat, we can partially see and hear someone, but we cannot see or hear them fully. There are gaps and lags in the video feed that frustrate our innate practice of turn-taking in conversations. And, it is emotionally draining to engage in this artificial and partial interaction. We are missing the full experience and of being able to really connect. And all components of our well-being are similarly muted at the moment.
It feels like the symphony orchestra that was our lives is now merely a trio. We can hear the melody and appreciate its beauty. The all-encompassing richness of our orchestra is missing; its gorgeous sound is missing. We also cannot really feel it in our bodies in the same way an orchestra would viscerally impact us. Although, I do appreciate hearing a trio, I really look forward to my life’s orchestra returning.
I was excited and honored to be a panelist for the webinar on the Neuroscience of Wellness for the Wharton Neuroscience Institute last week. I spoke about the 5 components of wellness that I consider to be so important (social, emotional, physical, spiritual, and financial/productive). I'll be writing about these more fully in my next blog post, but I spoke about how they are all muted in this current pandemic situation. Our wellness is suffering overall because the ways we would usually engage with the world, connect with others, and take care of ourselves are limited by current restrictions. It is important to be doing the best you can but to also be gentle with yourself, recognizing that this is a stressful and difficult time we are currently in.
While all of the panelists come from different backgrounds, we all agreed on several very important things we can do to support our wellness. Exercise is incredibly important for our well-being and happiness. Additionally, social connection and mindfulness were named as incredibly important things we can do to support our wellness.
If you'd like to see the hour-long webinar, check it out:
Additionally, here is the webpage for the institute:
Holding Both the Loss and the Gratitude
Here, I am a well-being coach and consultant, but for me, it has been hard to navigate the stress and uncertainty of living through a pandemic. Since this all began, I have not been able to feel inspired or motivated to write in a way to support others. Some days, it feels like more than enough to sleep, exercise, eat well, and do some work.
But, as we are more settled in a place of stay-at-home status quo, I have been able to get some distance and reflect more on the experience. One image that I keep thinking of is seeing both of my hands held open and holding what is in both hands at the same time.
I have been thinking about how, on one hand, we are all experiencing so much loss. Some of the loss is small, like not getting to see or hug friends, missing working out at the gym, even missing chatting with a cashier or riding the bus. And, for me especially, eating in a restaurant. Very mundane things that are gone for now- and there is grief with this.
And, we are all experiencing much larger losses as well. Some have lost loved ones or jobs to the virus. Some have lost financial security. Others have lost big plans that they were very much looking forward to. For me, I have lost a bluegrass music festival that I attend yearly and look forward to all year long as well as a special vacation that was planned to celebrate a big birthday. I recognize these are very privileged losses, but loss does not come with judgement. Loss is loss is loss.
I am also thinking about how, on the other hand, there is so much to be grateful for. There are small daily things to value- a conversation with a loved one, a good cup of coffee, being able to take a walk. There are also other things to be grateful for, such as a roof over your head, your health, food in the fridge, and even electricity and running water.
It can feel hard to hold such disparate ideas at the same time, but this is how I think we can navigate this unprecedented time. We need to both hold and acknowledge all the losses and grief that we are experiencing, while also holding onto gratitude for our many blessings. It is through moving forward in this way that I think we will be able to survive and thrive during this amazingly stressful and uncertain time.
I hope you are well and healthy during this stressful time and that you are taking care of yourself as best you can. Please let yourself feel the losses but also appreciate your many blessings daily.
It’s ok to feel anxious. This is a scary time we’re living in right now. There is a sense of impending doom, and we don’t yet really understand what is going to happen or what we can control. I’ve been thinking about what I need to do to help myself and how we can all manage the anxiety that comes from living through a difficult and uncertain situation. Here are my top 11 ideas for managing anxiety.
When I work with clients who experience anxiety, one of the things we talk about is the importance of having acceptance of our feelings. Often, when we have painful or negative feelings, like anxiety, we can then beat ourselves up for having these feelings. A former client of mine labeled it “meta anxiety”, having anxiety about having anxiety. When we have a negative response to or judgement of our feeling, it only worsens how we feel. I encourage you to accept how you are feeling. Tell yourself it’s ok to be feeling anxious right now. It absolutely makes sense. Have care and compassion for yourself and for your distress.
In whatever ways feel safe and comfortable to you now, move your body. It’s one of the best ways to combat feelings of anxiety and stress. Go to the gym, if that feels ok to you. Take a walk. Do a workout on YouTube. Dance around your living room. Just move and groove and sweat. This will help you blow out feelings of stress, and it will also release endorphins to increase your feelings of contentment. Exercise also strengthens your immune system.
If you have a meditation practice, keep it going. Meditate daily if at all possible. This will help you calm and center yourself. It will also give your mind and body a break from worry. If you don’t currently meditate, this would be a great time to start. Apps such as Insight Timer, Calm, and Headspace are all good places to start, as are meditation videos on YouTube. Just start with 5 or 10 minutes a day if you are getting started and build up from there.
4) Monitor Caffeine and Alcohol
Caffeine is a stimulant and a drug. It mimics symptoms of anxiety by making us feel nervous and increasing our heart rates, blood pressure, and respiration. Caffeine stays active in our bodies quite a long time. Once we consume it, it impacts us for a minimum of 6 hours. So, I would recommend that you keep your caffeine consumption low currently and not drink any after early afternoon to ensure you sleep well.
When we are stressed or worried, many of us also turn to alcohol. If you drink, watch how much you are drinking and try not to consume too much. When we drink, we can have a rebound effect from it the next day- which can increase symptoms of anxiety or depression. So, while it may feel good to drink more in the short-term, it may be increasing your anxiety overall.
5) Limit your News Consumption
When 9/11 happened, my father was quite teary for days after the attacks. When I explored what he was doing, I realized he was almost continuously watching the news and re-traumatizing himself regularly by what he was hearing and seeing.
When we take in scary or stressful information, it impacts us. I strongly encourage you to really limit your news consumption. Only read it online once a day or watch the news only at night. Or read a newspaper. (Please consider buying a subscription to a newspaper, if you can. They provide such an imperative public service, especially during times like this.) Things will not change so much in a single day and updating yourself once each day should be sufficient. This will also help you keep your anxiety lower than it might be with more frequent information.
6) Connect with People you Care About
Humans are social creatures. We like to be around other people and feed off of this. Social distancing is very necessary right now, but it is difficult and can lead to feelings of loneliness or depression. Be in touch with friends and family. Stay in contact, and feel connected. You have many people in your life you care about and who care about you. This is an important time to call, text, email, Skype, etc. Schedule dates with family and friends, and if it’s possible, do it over video chat. This is the best way to connect with people if we can’t meet in person. This will help you feel better and less isolated.
7) Focus on what you can Control
There are still many unknowns with the coronavirus. Some things are within your control, and many others are not. Try to focus on the things you can control.
8) Take Good Care of your Body
Try to eat well and get enough rest. This is hugely important during a time of stress. And this keeps your immune system healthy.
9) Do Things that Bring you Pleasure
Make sure you are doing things that bring you pleasure. Read, listen to music, watch good shows and movies. Cook. Burn candles. Play games. Paint, draw, write. Be in nature. Whatever you enjoy- keep doing it.
10) Make and Stick to a Routine
This is not one snow day. This is a much longer period of uncertainty and possibly not working or having limited work. It is incredibly important that you have a daily routine and stick to it. Wake up at a decent time. Have time for all your meals. Schedule work or productive activities you can do. Schedule time to exercise, meditate, read, create, or do the pleasurable things you enjoy. And go to bed at a decent time. Make different schedules for weekdays and weekends if you’d like. And shower at least every day or two. All these activities will help you feel human and more normal during these very abnormal times. This is all part of controlling what you can control.
11) Be Grateful
Take time each night to reflect on the day and things for which you are grateful. They can be small or big things. When things feel scary overall, it’s even more important than usual to have gratitude. It’s powerful to reflect on what you appreciate each day and to let those positive feelings sink into your body and mind.
These are my top 10 ideas for helping you deal with anxiety. What else do you find helpful?