When Disaster Strikes

We have seen multiple examples of natural disasters in the past few weeks, and the resulting hardships for many people. There seem to be ripple effects throughout the country and world as hurricanes and earthquakes strike. The very visible signs of devastation are everywhere.

Emotionally, we experience devastating disasters as well, and they are not always so visible. They occur internally, and it’s possible few if any other people know or recognize the external signs of your internal distress. Some of us have become accustomed and quite skilled at masking or numbing emotional pain.

It’s essential that you let someone in. Allow some other person in your life to know what you are experiencing. We all go through times of receiving bad news, or experiencing a lack of meaning and purpose in our lives, or some other type of chronic concern. Tremendous relief comes when you can share your experience with a trusted, supportive person.

Just as we pack emergency kits for survivors of natural disasters, we can also be mindful and prepared for our own emotional emergencies. What would your emotional emergency kit look like? Here are a few ideas of emotional resources to keep on hand:

  1. A list of positive, trusted people to text or call. Make plans and just spend time with them.
  2. A list of self-care activities. These can be simple acts like taking a warm bath, listening to music, going for a walk, getting a babysitter for your children or carving out time in your work schedule so you can sit in a library or coffee shop and enjoy some silence,  or taking a nap.
  3. A journal. Write in it for a few minutes at the beginning or end of your day. Ask yourself how you’re really doing emotionally, on a scale of 1-10. Write down a commitment to take one step to actively address your struggle.

Keep your lists on an “emergency coping” note card that you can access when you need it. You may choose to keep it inside your journal.  None of us are at our best brainstorming during a crisis, so if you can do it beforehand, it can really help. Hang in there during emotional struggles, and seek help when needed.


Three Tips for Feeding Snacks To Your Children

I am currently reading one of the best books I’ve read on eating (Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family by Ellyn Satter). I’ve treated people with eating disorders for over twelve years, and I find her advice wise, research-based, and well-organized. In fact, I believe that following the advice in this book alone could prevent most eating disorders. If you’re having any struggles feeding your children, I highly recommend it.
Snacks can be one point of stress for parents. How much should they snack? Which snack foods should I allow? According to Satter, these are the wrong questions. Instead, we should take a look at how and when we are feeding our children. Try these three tips:
1. Choose structured snack times. Provide sit-down snacks at the table at predictable times each day. Don’t allow snacking in the 2-3 hours before dinner to ensure that your children come to the dinner table ready to eat.
2. Choose 2-3 enjoyable foods, in unlimited quantities. How much your child eats should not be up to you and will vary greatly from child to child, from day to day. Provide food that tastes good and includes protein, fats and carbohydrates (examples are oreos and milk, or cheese, grapes & crackers). Think of snacks as “little meals.” Provide your child with regular opportunities to eat until full and recognize his/her body’s signals for hunger and fullness. Know that if you’ve been restricting certain foods or food groups, children may eat a lot of those foods at first, but they will relax and eat normal portions when they learn to trust that those foods will continue to be available in the home.
3. Make it fun! If you are stressed about your child’s eating, your child will sense it. Normal eating is relaxed and flexible. Only part of meal and snack time is about the food. It’ s also about spending time together, building social skills, and modeling healthy enjoyment and balance in eating. Eat with your child, the same foods he/she is eating, and have fun with it!

A Time to Speak, A Time to Refrain

Taylor Swift recently spoke up in her defense when a radio DJ sought to take advantage of her. That person had already crossed boundaries with Swift that would make any person uncomfortable and angry. It was time for her to speak up, and she is a role model for many in doing so.
Tina Fey recently and famously ate almost an entire cake during her statement of frustration with the current political and cultural climate. She urged viewers to stay home rather than participate in a protest, but to take action in other ways, like supporting local, minority-owned businesses.
So who is right? Do we stand up and speak out against injustice, or refuse to engage with fools?
Both women had an important truth to share. I’ve been involved with church for most of my life as one part of my quest for wisdom. One thing I’ve noticed in the church is that we as Christians are often uncomfortable looking at contradictory statements that occur in the same Bible. I happen to find the inconsistencies intriguing, and one of my favorites is in the book of Proverbs. There are two directly contradictory verses, right there, back to back:
Proverbs 26:4: “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him.”
Proverbs 26:5: “Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.”
So which is it? Do we speak up against foolishness, or do we remain silent? To me, it’s as if God is speaking a clear message through King Solomon’s wisdom writings in Proverbs. The message is that there is a time for both. Maybe the question is not whether or not to speak out, but whether it is wise or not in the current situation to speak out or remain silent. Would speaking up cause you to lower your standards for peace? Or is speaking up necessary in order to expose and prevent further damaging messages and behaviors? Leave room for both, and work on discerning which is called for in any given moment.
A Question for Meditation: When do I need to speak up today? When do I need to remain silent?

“Why is Everything So Heavy?”

I’ve been singing the lyrics to Chester Bennington’s song in my head this whole week, wondering what was going through his mind during his last moments, before his tragic suicide on July 20. Just a couple months earlier, Chris Cornell of Soundgarden also took his own life. Musical geniuses, master performers, both shockingly depressed.
Depression is a devastating reality, and when untreated and avoided, it is more likely to end with suicide. These recent, tragic deaths cannot be undone, but they can remind us all of the importance of talking about it if you’re feeling down or stressed out.
A recent, comprehensive study from Vanderbilt University revealed that children and teens struggle to manage stress, and that stress can be especially debilitating for them as their brains are still developing in the areas that influence attention, behavior, and learning. Among the most effective strategies in managing their stress were:
1. Viewing a problem in a new way
2. Communicating in constructive ways
3. Using problem-solving techniques
Suppressing and avoiding feelings did not work.
Let’s keep that in mind both for ourselves, and for our children. We need to validate others’ struggles and feelings. We can encourage others to problem-solve, rather than jumping to solve problems for them. We can help them consider multiple explanations for challenges when they are prone to ruminating on the same negative statements over and over. We can encourage them to talk to us and be patient listeners. We can use these strategies ourselves, too. If you or someone you know is feeling down or stressed, seek support and know that the pain can lessen, and there can be joy ahead.

A Time to Tear, A Time to Mend

Our basement flooded with water from a “Hotlanta” summer downpour yesterday. I walked downstairs and felt the squish of sopping wet carpet under my foot at the base of the stairs. The water soaked the carpet in half of a bedroom and in one other space. My husband Dusty and I needed to decide whether to tear up the carpet or try to salvage it. Could we get by with drying it out and salvaging it?

Too often we get by with emotional salvaging. We do the emotional band-aid fix and get on with things, because therapy and self-reflection get too messy, expensive and time-consuming. We dry things out, patch them up, and the exterior looks pretty much the same way it did before the storm.

But there is a time to tear up the carpet, examine the contents beneath, and assess the damage. It looks bad for awhile. It’s not pretty or polished. We may step on something sharp. We may need to invest some time and money in the process. There is a time to tear, and therapy works the same way.

Sometimes we uncover unexpected, added challenges in the therapy process. We discover another wet corner, or see some rotting baseboards. We need to pull back the carpet long enough to address the foundation of the problem, so we can move forward knowing that we are building something new that is going to last.

There is “a time to tear and time to mend.” This concept is mentioned in biblical literature, in the poetic book of Ecclesiastes, part of the Bible concerned with time, meaning, and purpose. When you see a problem in your life, address it. Tear it up if you need to and see what’s causing it. Replace the problem with solutions that are lasting and resilient, and learn how to care for yourself in ways that will help you thrive. The time to tear will lead to a time of mending and lasting healing.

One-Step Sparring When Life Throws a Punch

In taekwondo training, we learn a series of responses to an opponent’s punch, called “one-step sparring.” The self-defense moves involve one step, combined with a number of different motions. The easiest ones to learn are the white-belt one-steps. Then, the moves increase in complexity and difficulty at yellow, green, blue, red, and black belt.
I recently taught this concept and some of the basic one-steps to my “Breaking Through Fear” therapy group. One client had a particularly insightful response. I asked what everyone learned, and how the one-steps applied to the recovery process. The client said, “There is more than one way to solve a problem.”
Martial artists or not, we all face situations in life when a punch is thrown in our direction. Maybe that “punch” is the death of a loved one. Maybe it is a job change, or a child’s illness, or a troubled relationship. We all have to choose, sometimes quickly, how to respond to the punch.
When we have trained ourselves to respond to stress in effective ways, and practiced those strategies over and over again, they become easier to use and apply when a punch is thrown at us. If we’ve not trained effectively, the punch may take us down.
So what is an effective defense to the punches in your life? Is it meditation? yoga? a long talk with a friend? Be ready and equipped. Know your strengths and use them. You’ll face some punches, but they don’t have to take you down.

Falling on Purpose

One of my least favorite taekwondo drills is the one where we have to purposely fall down on the mat. We practice falling.
There is a right and a wrong way to fall down. The right way involves a type of rolling motion, minimizing pain and injury, and bringing a fighter to her feet again as soon as possible. The wrong way could result in injury or even death.
So we have to practice it. I roll to the floor, practicing the technique, always feeling a degree of pain, because it hurts to fall. My teammates and I hope that we will never fall, but because that is unrealistic to expect in a fight, we practice for it. By practicing, we find out the ways that falling can hurt less, the ways we can recover from the slip more quickly.
My clients with eating disorders do much better when they plan for a potential fall. Sometimes referred to as “relapse prevention,” clients use the practice falls they’ve endured as part of the recovery process to learn the most effective ways to get back up and minimize the damage done.
We all need to be aware of our vulnerabilities, and ready for a fall. When we pressure ourselves into a place where we believe we’re above falling, that is when the fall is most likely to occur. So by planning for it, we remain ready, we accept our vulnerabilities, and we minimize the negative effects of it for ourselves and those we love.
Falls happen, but we can all get back up and keep fighting for what is most important to us.

Small Shifts

We can become overwhelmed with the idea of change when it feels too big, and too insurmountable to overcome. We may become discouraged before we’ve even begun, or soon after we’ve begun when we see that the task before us will require greater effort and struggle than we imagined.
In those times, look for small shifts that are already happening. When did you have a success in the past week? Surely your problem was not occurring 100% of the time. If even 1% of the time you were doing something more effective, figure out what you did differently. The challenge is to continue those things you’re doing that are already effective.

Then, build on that foundation. Look for opportunities to make additional, small shifts in your behavior and thought patterns. While some people experience significant breakthroughs, more often change happens in small shifts that accumulate over time and result in eventual meaningful change. So look for the best way today to make a small shift. It may seem small now, but its impact can be significant and lasting.

High and Low Expectations

Expectations. We all have them, don’t we? We expect a friend to call, a spouse to remember, a neighbor to reach out, a child to behave, an employer to affirm us. Often we find ourselves disappointed when other do not come through for us in the ways we would most like them to do so.
I find that as I set my self-expectations higher, and my expectations of others lower, I am generally happier. I ask, “How can I create what I want to have happen in my own life?” This attitude is empowering and lets others off the hook. I can just keep trying to love them and practice radical acceptance. I can celebrate the times they do remember, do call, and do affirm and reach out. But I can let go of the other times, because ultimately I am responsible for living the kind of life I want to live, not them.
At the same time, I do have some expectations of others. I expect that they are capable. I expect that they will do, and are doing, their best. I expect that they treat me with respect. I push them to be better…I just don’t cling to the expectation that they will as the basis for my own happiness.
I also need to keep my self-expectations in check. There is a prerequisite of self-compassion as we set our self-expectations. Where there is a lack of compassion, we suffer. Where I push myself too hard with too little self-care, I feel it, and everyone around me feels it.
So I’ve found in order to live freely, and live out my calling without hindrance, I do best when I let go of unrealistically high expectations of others. They are not mind-readers. They are not God. Fortunately, neither am I, so when I can remember self-compassion in the midst of challenging myself, I open up space to thrive.

When Your Road Collapses

Yesterday a portion of interstate that runs straight through downtown Atlanta collapsed as a result of a fire. Interstate 85 looked like a lego structure with a big missing piece, replaced by billowing smoke and flames. Millions of people rely on this portion of the road to get to where they are going on a daily basis. As a result, schools are closed, events are cancelled, and many will have to re-route themselves for months.

Aren’t there times when an unexpected event in our lives causes a similar disruption? Maybe it is an eating disorder, an escalating addiction, a secret uncovered, a cancer diagnosis, or another cancer diagnosis. Maybe it’s a sudden loss, or a piece of news we find impossible to digest.

We are faced in those times with the need to re-route. Our usual paths and strategies no longer make sense or feel remotely relevant. The scenery is unfamiliar, foreign. We may get lost, or be faced with a need to rely more than usual on our support networks. An important goal is to keep going, to find your next best route, and have the courage to navigate the unfamiliar roads.

Find the road maps that serve you well- friends who will listen rather than judge and advise, coping strategies that bring peace. Experiment with prayer, meditation, movement, connecting with others who understand you. Eventually the interstate will be reconstructed. It will likely be stronger and more able to withstand future hazards. And we can be, too.

Now, Not When

“I’ll make a change just as soon as… (fill in the blank).” How often we view change as something that is a future endeavor, to be taken on as soon as a list of criteria have been met. Maybe the hoped for change involves better self-care, more time with loved ones, feeling less rushed. What is your goal?

I want to challenge you to start right now, in this moment, to meet your goal. Make life in this moment more of what you want to create for yourself. I have resolved recently not to say yes to so many commitments. So I have to make that a concrete rather than a general goal. That makes it more doable, and more measurable. So if I say, “I will say no to the next three things I am asked to take on,” it is easy to measure and know when I’ve reached the goal. Identify a goal for yourself and make it specific, not general. Maybe instead of “eat better” you could resolve to eat from all food groups at each meal (more specific), or instead of “exercise more” you could go for a walk three times per week first thing in the morning.

The more specific and measurable our goals are, the more likely we will achieve them. A goal needs to be hard enough that you’ll feel good if you achieve it, but not so difficult that you are immediately discouraged. As you achieve even what you perceive as “small” goals, these small shifts can become a series of shifts, and eventually a bigger shift in how you approach your life. Take one step now.

“Every Man Versus Himself”

While jumping on the trampoline with several older boys, my 3-year-old Zach bravely yelled, “It’s every man versus himself!”
One of the older boys quickly corrected him: “No, Zach, it’s every man for himself.”

Zach paused, then started jumping again and shouted, “It’s every man versus himself!”

It occurred to me as I listened to them that often our greatest battles are indeed within and “versus” ourselves. We battle insecurities, dilemmas and conflicting priorities and values. We are, at times, paralyzed by decision-making processes that lead to inaction and passivity. Or we can tire of the effort required in making thoughtful decisions and resort to impulsive and misguided living. We could all benefit in applying some of my three-year-old’s wisdom:

  1. Call it what it is. Maybe we need to yell it out, or simply acknowledge it quietly, but we need to be honest about the dilemmas that occur within us. (e.g., “I am lacking confidence, but I sense that taking this position could be a positive career move.”)
  2. Jump it out. The play and imagination of a young child is something we’d all do well to emulate. Jump on a trampoline, go for a walk or a run, or read a comic book- just be sure to carve out time for fun rather than taking yourself and your internal dilemmas so seriously.
  3. Stand by your truth. If you listen for the voices of correction and critique, you will hear them. Take them with a grain of salt. Listen and accept what is of value, and let the rest go. If you need to restate your perspective powerfully to clarify it, speak it out boldly and stand behind it.

Rattlers and Eagles

How do we reduce conflict between groups? This is a central question we are forced to confront, especially in light of the tragedies of the past few weeks. Gay Americans, Black Americans and Police Officers are groups who face heightened risks every day right now.

In a classic social psychology study called “Robber’s Cave” (Sherif, 1966), two groups of 11-12 year old boys were placed into two groups at a camp- the “Rattlers” and the “Eagles”. They were asked to compete for limited resources, and faced competitions where only one of the groups could win. As a result, they developed “wicked, disturbed, and vicious” behavior toward the opposing group. Various attempts to were made to resolve the conflict between the two groups- introducing a third group, introducing a common enemy, arranging for pleasant experiences to share together as one big group (e.g., watching a movie). None of these worked, and the conflicts and problematic behavior remained.

But one thing did work.

When shared goals were introduced to the groups, especially when there was a sense of emergency and urgency, everyone came together. For instance, the water supply broke down and the boys from both groups had to work together to solve the problem if they wanted water to drink. This concept of “superordinate goals” brought the boys together.
We already have an emergency- a country divided in politics, in prejudices, in identities. We already have wicked, disturbed, and vicious behavior. Weeping and grieving are not enough. Using our voices to cry for justice is not enough. Seeking pleasant experiences in diverse communities is not enough. We need to come together toward higher, common goals, and realize that we need not be threatened by groups who are different and unfamiliar to us. Make it your goal as you talk with others to find the goals you share, and put your energy behind these goals. Voice them. Come together around them. Let’s find the superordinate goals and pursue them.

How to Remove Unnecessary Obstacles

We create much of our own happiness, as well as much of our own distress. It’s true that circumstances can be extremely trying at times, unpredictable, and devastating. But sometimes we are unaware of the ways we add avoidable layers of distress on top of those that are unavoidable. A few ways we can add to our own distress include:

  1. Seeing only black and white when there is a gray solution. Many people feel unnecessarily trapped between two choices. If you find yourself in this situation, get creative and examine the multiple gray options that may be harder to see but equally valid.
  2. Too much helping. I recently heard that we do not get burned out by being busy, but by doing things we don’t really want to be doing. If it is a strong value you hold to be generous and helpful, do so. But do it in ways that maximize your gifts and desires. Chances are someone else loves doing the things you find draining, and you love some things that others would find draining.
  3. Engaging in self-criticism. Whatever you’ve done, it is okay to evaluate it by taking a curious, mindful step back from the situation and asking yourself what went well, what didn’t, and why. But to beat yourself up repeatedly for anything that’s been done will add distress and minimize your effectiveness.

By avoiding these common patterns, we may not be able to eliminate stress, but we may be able to substantially reduce its impact on us. This frees up energy that can be used in much better ways!

Teaching Your Children to Eat Well

Too often we can become convinced that teaching children to eat well is about following a prescribed plan of what to eat and what not to eat. After many years of helping people overcome problems with eating, I have seen the importance of having a healthy, balanced relationship with food, the same way you would have a healthy, balanced relationship with a person. If someone needed to follow a long list of rules in order to be in a relationship with you, it may not be a very satisfying relationship. Most likely, it would induce a lot of anxiety. Here are a few considerations for teaching your child to have a healthy relationship with food.

  1. Practice Ellyn Satter’s “division of responsibility.” Your job is to provide structure around meals and snacks. You choose what and when your child eats. Your child chooses if and how much she or he eats. Let them learn to trust what their body is telling them.
  2. Emphasize concepts of variety and balance rather than talking about certain food items as “good/bad” or “healthy/unhealthy.” Categorizing food often leads to shame when certain food is consumed, and shame interferes with having a healthy relationship.
  3. Encourage an internal awareness of hunger and fullness rather than an external preoccupation with calories or a prescribed set of rules around food.

I am hopeful that if you implement these suggestions that your child will be on his or her way to a healthy relationship with food- a great gift you can give that will prevent a lot of stress and anxiety in years to come!

For more information, visit Ellyn Satter’s site: http://www.ellynsatterinstitute.org/

Back to Basics

I took a belt test Tuesday night, the last one I need to do before my second degree black belt test in May. As usual, I prepared and practiced the techniques I would use for my board breaks: a knife hand strike, reverse knife hand strike, push kick, and a roundhouse kick/spin hook kick combination. Of the kicks, the most basic was the roundhouse kick, a kick I’ve been doing since my first Tae Kwon Do class over seventeen years ago.
As it turns out, I under-prepared for the most basic kick. The other, more advanced kicks went fine and I have a cool stack of broken boards now, but my first attempt at my roundhouse kick board break left a bruise on the top of my foot. I rushed through it the first time, already focusing on the spin hook kick I would do next. My foot aching, I had to take another kick at the board and fortunately it broke on my second try.

It’s often when we take things for granted that we can begin to slip and lose the foundation for the more advanced things we are doing in life. We all need to periodically reassess the basics. How are we doing with getting enough of the things we need, like food, sleep, rest, spiritual nourishment, and fun? Some of the most accomplished clients I know still lack the basics, and the basics set an important foundation for what is to come. Sooner or later people with eating disorders will experience loss of those more advanced things if they do not put the basics back in place. If my roundhouse kick is not effective, I cannot build on it in a way that is stable, strong, and lasting.

So my foot still hurts a little, but the good news is that I will do my roundhouse kicks more intentionally and accurately going forward. I plan to get the basics back into place. I plan to keep assessing and adjusting, and strengthening the foundation. And if I bruise my foot again, there is always a second try.

What Do You Know You Want?

In “Breaking Through Fear,” the martial arts therapy group I lead every Saturday, one client commented that breaking her board at the end of group was the first thing she could remember in a long time that she had not hesitated to do. She knew she wanted to do it.
How many things in life do we know for certain that we want? Knowing what we want is the first step in getting what we want. Focusing in on what is truly important allows extraneous and unnecessary details to blur into the sidelines of our life journey. We can move forward in a refreshingly simplistic and focused way, less pulled in multiple directions, less distracted, less confused.
Focus on what you know you want, and don’t hesitate. Grab hold of it, move forward in spite of the inevitable fears that will arise, and break through in the name of what you value most.

Checking a Third Box

In high school, I participated in marching band and concert band. One spring, our band director asked us to fill out a small slip of paper at the end of class regarding our plans to attend a summer band camp. We were given one of two boxes to check. One checked box would indicate that we were available and would attend the camp. The alternative checked box would indicate that we had a conflict and could not attend the camp. I found myself in the midst of a dilemma, because I did not have a conflict, and also did not want to attend the camp. So I drew in a third box, checked it, and wrote next to it, “I am available but not interested in attending the camp.” I got reprimanded after class for not adhering to one of the two categories offered to me.
I have often thought of that experience and the many times since that day when I’ve desired to find a third box to check. One of the problematic thinking patterns I seek to help people challenge in therapy is “dichotomous” or “black-and-white” thinking. Examples include: “I am perfect or I am a failure. I’ll get this project exactly right or it will be a complete disaster.” The challenge is to find the gray area, and create a third box. Maybe a person begins to say instead, “I may not get this perfectly right, but I can do it well and learn from the parts that don’t go well.”
It is the human tendency to use mental shortcuts, or heuristics, that categorize ourselves and other people. But such categories often falsely simplify the complex, multidimensional nature of human beings. I challenge you today, if you are caught between two options, to consider creating a third for yourself. See the option that may not be clearly defined for you by others, but that is the truly unique and right choice for you.

Observer of Girl Power

The other day I was at the park with one of my sons, and I saw two little girls playing together with dolls. Relational play. Dolls. It all felt pretty stereotypical, but as I listened in passing to their discussion, I noticed something interesting. In their imaginary play, the girls were giving the dolls super-powers. They were discussing which bad guys the dolls were about to conquer. Go girls!
I started a self-defense/therapy group at Atlanta Center for Eating Disorders this Saturday, and I saw some powerful kicks and elbow strikes from members of the group as they struck the targets. These brave young women spoke of feeling empowered, and feeling better connected with their internal experiences and emotions.
My hope is that girls and women will keep seeking out what empowers them, what allows them to see their superhero potential, and what allows them to defeat the “bad guys.” The “bad guys,” I believe are not guys at all, but rather any notion in our culture that you have to be something you are not, that you need to adapt to an external, visible standard to feel good enough.
So often, eating disorders are fueled by these kind of “bad guy” thoughts, cultural trends, and comments from others. We can all help zap these bad guys by looking at our family and friends as more than they are externally. Let’s help each other access the super-hero parts of ourselves and move forward in a more empowered way.

Breaking Through Fear

This week I will start a new group at Atlanta Center for Eating Disorders entitled, “Breaking Through Fear.” The group will integrate martial arts concepts and techniques into a group therapy experience. Group members will explore the role of fear in their lives, and become empowered to face and overcome their fears. They will learn to do some basic kicks, punches, and self-defense, and become empowered to carry themselves with confidence and greater self-awareness. Since becoming a black belt in Taekwondo in April, I feel more empowered than ever and want to help others reach their potential, see the power that is available to them, and learn some practical ways to protect their bodies, minds, and spirits. Many times people struggling with eating disorders lose a positive connection with their bodies and lose a sense of empowerment. By realizing that fear can actually be a gift that alerts you to true risks, and sorting through which are real versus imagined fears, people have great potential to predict problem situations and protect themselves. Check out this group if you feel you could use some extra tools for strengthening your mind and body!