How to Create Freedom? Embrace Limitations.

Life is so full of paradox, isn’t it?

My entire life, I have done my best to deny, run from, and rebel against limitations. My hippie parents taught me that the rules didn’t have to apply to me, and I still sometimes find myself believing in the fallacy of that sense of entitlement. I’ve always looked for ways out of the grindstone, and I have often found them.

I dropped out of high school after my junior year, took some time off to party and work and party some more, then I went directly to college. I’ve taken many extended vacations to travel and “find myself,” and my family repeatedly gave me a place to stay while I got back on my feet financially after each of these extended leaves. I didn’t experience consistent rules and consequences as a child, and learned to walk all over my mom as a result.

When I finally got my driver’s license at the age of 18, I learned that if I ignore tickets, they get bigger and bigger, and they turn into arrest warrants. This was when I began to learn that the rules do in fact apply to me. Still, I continued and continue to look for ways out. How can I support myself, make good money even, without having to work a grueling 8-5 job? How can I make a lot of money working just a little? How can I manifest a permanent vacation? I know it’s possible, and I am just the special person who will figure it out.

Not.

The longer I live, the more experiences I have that teach me the responsibilities continue to grow. More and more people grow to depend on me. What I considered stressful 10 years ago would feel like a vacation now. I’ve come to accept this little by little, yet I still fight it at times, in subtle ways, like in my habit of always running late.

Cut to an EMDR training I attended last weekend. Trainings are great in a therapist’s world, because not only do we learn new skills to help us become better practitioners, but we also get therapy in the process. We practice on each other, which is awesome, scary, and exhausting.

I can share more about EMDR at a later date if requested, but right now I just want to share my process as it relates to this post. As the “client,” my job was to come up with some kind of stress or trauma trigger that is current in my life. I chose the recurring experience of driving in traffic while running late. I create this scene in my life A LOT, and I am so over it.

The process: track my “therapist’s” fingers with my eyes as she moves them quickly side to side in front of my face while I hold the mental image, feelings, and negative belief about myself that correspond to driving in traffic while running late. After each set, describe what I see, think, or feel, “go with that,” and continue sets until I come to a place of resolution (or run out of time). Sounds strange, I know, but the shit works, and is evidence based to boost.

This process took me all over the place, from issues with my parents, to core issues with myself. Basically, it took me to the root of why I tend to run late. Here is an abbreviated version of my mental movie stream of consciousness: Running late, yelling at myself in my head, I’m a bad person, I always do this. That critical parent part of me yelling and the small child cowering in a corner. The rebellious adolescent popping up, yelling back at the critical parent, this is all bullshit. Fuck limitations anyway. I don’t need to deal with any of this. Tired. Don’t want to fight. This isn’t the way. Maybe this inner critic, that looks and acts like a monster has something valuable for me to learn, and I should try to listen. Don’t want to. Try. Try. This monster wants respect. This monster is here to teach me about limitations. Limits are real, and they do apply to me. I can be friends with them. When I work with them, life is better. I have more choices and mobility. This part of me that wants to throw them off and be on permanent vacation is dead energy. I thrive when I honor my commitments. Running late is how I try to deny limitations. That is dead energy. Life is less stressful, more relaxed and free, when I give myself extra time, when I respect and honor limitations.

I am an alchemist. I can manipulate limitations and create freedom. I am part of this web of life, but I am not trapped in it. I can move all around. It is a sacred honor to be responsible to others, to have that trust placed in me. And I am not alone. I can let go, and let others support me and help me. Limitations have to do with being connected. Rebelling against them is actually antisocial. Life is a dance of shared responsibility. I want to be responsible and I can still rest. Interdependence.

By respecting and learning to manipulate limitations, I become a magician, creating exactly what I want in my life. I build skills, which brings more cash flow into my life, which gives me more mobility and freedom. I can do all of this in an effortless manner, because I have support just as I undertake the joy of supporting others.

So you see: the paradox of limitation and freedom. One does not attain freedom by shirking off the limitations. One attains freedom by diving into the limitations, getting to know them intimately, weaving one’s own web of interconnectedness.

And so it goes. 

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How to Support Loved Ones in Grief

ImageGrief: an experience that many of us don’t know what to do with or how to react to when we come in contact with it. Before my recent experiences with grief, I really didn’t have much of an idea of how to support others in grief. I had my therapeutic training, but that only goes so far and doesn’t always translate to being there for loved ones. It seems to me that in Western culture, at least in the U.S., we are so far removed from the concept of death that we become extremely uncomfortable when it touches us. For this reason, I wasn’t surprised when many of those close to me had no idea how to support me in my grief after the loss of my mother. For those that did give me support that worked, I was pleasantly surprised. For those that didn’t, I mostly understood.

Below I have compiled a few pieces of advice for those close to someone grieving. These are things that did and didn’t work for me while I was (and continue to be) marching down the grief highway. They may or may not be true for others!

  • Do call and check in regularly. Ask if I need anything, including practical things like food or childcare. Keep calling after the loss happens. Keep checking in and offering help, regardless of whether or not I call you back. Don’t expect me to call you back. Hearing your voice and knowing you are here for me is worth so much, even if I don’t respond to you.
  • Don’t say you “can’t imagine” what I am going through. I know I’ve been guilty of saying this to people before I experienced major loss in my life. Having now been on the receiving end of this one, I can see it really doesn’t help. For me, when I heard this, I felt isolated and separate, as if I was going through it alone.
  • Do express to me your understanding that death is a natural and normal part of life. A friend of mine simply said about my experience, “We are all going to experience that.” Even though he hasn’t experienced it yet, and maybe can’t imagine it, I felt his solidarity with my experience. I felt supported.
  • Do share your grief stories with me. This has been one of the most valuable forms of support to me. Seeing other people who have come out the other side of grief helps immensely.
  • Don’t pay me unexpected visits. Give me space to be in my cave. Call if you want to visit, and wait for my response.
  • Do show up for me, especially if you are a close friend. I was really dismayed that a person I had considered one of my closest friends barely acknowledged the loss I experienced, and simply did not show up. I even confronted her about it. She promptly apologized, explained herself, and then continued to not show up. I was especially disappointed because she is one of the few people I know close to my age who has lost a parent, and she is someone I have felt very comfortable with in expressing these difficult emotions in the past. I can only guess that she either A) hasn’t dealt with her own grief around the loss of her father a few years back and is therefore not comfortable showing up, or B) is not as good of a friend as I once thought she was. I haven’t felt very compelled to reach out to learn which one it is. Okay, excuse the rant! Any feedback will be appreciated.
  • Don’t give me the sad face the first time you see me in passing after the loss. Seriously, this is the worst. I’m at the grocery store, in a great mood, weeks after my mom died, her death being the last thing on my mind at the moment. And there is my friend, who sees me and immediately associates me with all things tragic. The overly concerned, “How are you?” Well, I was just great, until I ran into you! I am absolutely sure I’ve done this in the past. I remember bringing it up to a friend who’d recently lost her dad the first time I saw her out at a concert after her loss, and she told me straight up not to talk about it. Understand, with grief come myriad emotions. It is not just about depression and despair. For me, there has been a surprising amount of joy in the release of my mom’s spirit. So, don’t project your idea of what grief is onto me. Instead, when you see me, greet me with an uplifting smile. Let me know how happy you are to see me. Tell me you heard about my loss and are available to talk or help out in any way. Pay attention and respond to my response. If I just nod and smile and say thank you, move on to the next subject.
  • Do share your memories with me. In the time of my mom’s passing, family and friends gathered together on several occasions. It was such a treat for me to hear stories about my mom from those in her generation, stories I had never heard that helped me get to know her in ways I never did before. Another extended family member sent me old pictures of my mom. These stories and mementos are such a sacrament, like healing salve on an open wound.

That’s all I’ve got for now. Please gift us with your contribution to this list, because I know that everyone has a different experience with grief. Thanks for reading!

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7 Ways to Heal from Stress and PTSD

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the damaging effects of chronic, overwhelming stress. Today, I will follow this up with some ways I learned to heal from these conditions. This all came from a very informative PTSD training with John Preston, Psy.D.

1. Hold and be held. Particularly with babies, tactile stimulation does wonders. In one study, a control group held babies for two hours a day while an experimental group held babies for four hours a day. After six weeks, the babies in the experimental group cried 43% less. This applies cross-culturally. Babies who are held more are least likely to develop PTSD or hypercortisolemia. While the first year is so critical for lifelong brain development, I don’t think human touch ever becomes less essential. Sure, maybe we don’t need four hours a day, but hugs, cuddles, and massages go a long way.

2. Medication. I am not one to believe in going straight for the magic pill, but there are several medications that can be helpful if you are feeling very overwhelmed or out of control. Several types of medication can activate Brain-Derived Neurotropic Factor (BDNF), which strengthens neural pathways and can protect the brain from damage by extreme stress. All antidepressants activate BDNF (this is their one common denominator). Others that can be used for this purpose are Lithium, Depakote, Tegratol, Lamictal, and Seroquel. And guess what? Omega-3 fatty acids are also neural-protective. If you think you may need medication, of course talk with your doctor or psychiatrist.

3. Movement. Exercise also activates the neural pathway protector BDNF. It increases seratonin levels as well. Much of the feeling of PTSD is that of being “frozen.” Movement of any kind can immediately snap one out of that feeling.

4. Make choices that increase safety and structure in your daily life. In events of trauma and abuse/neglect, a common theme is powerlessness. Looking at brain chemistry, BDNF decreases when an individual experiences perceived powerlessness. Of course, it is not possible to always be in control of one’s circumstances, but it is possible to make choices that increases the chances of safety. It is also possible to have a regular schedule that increases predictability in your daily life. This will help. If this point interests you, look into the Seeking Safety program.

5. Mindfulness-based stress reduction. I love this one. It is a form of meditation and  consists of simple exercises one can do  to increase one’s mindfulness, which strengthens the brain and increases one’s ability to have control over where attention is placed. There is a lot of good science out there showing that this stuff really works.

6. Facing fears. The act of facing fears actually increases the frontal lobe’s ability to dampen down anxiety. It also gives one a restored sense of self-efficacy and control. When I am at my best, I try to face one fear every day. it is amazingly uplifting.

7. Exposure therapy. This can be useful for people who have been traumatized and feel strong enough to face their trauma. It is one of the most common therapies used for PTSD. Research has shown that exposure therapy strengthens the Arterial Cingulate (AC) and expands neural pathways between the AC and amygdala (remember the top-down control dampening down the anxiety/arousal I talked about last time?). Being able to look at the traumatic event while calm and centered in the present gives one the ability to handle stressful situations more effectively. It also minimizes the effect of the trauma. However, this needs to be executed carefully. An individual needs to learn emotional management skills before he/she begins this work in order to avoid re-traumatization.