Uncertainty: The Only Certainty In Life

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“If you want to be successful in this field, you’d better learn to love ambiguity.”  A professor said this to her class 12 years ago.  As a student in that class, I can almost hear these words today as clearly as they were spoken over a decade ago.  This has stuck with me because it has proven to be true.

In my job I work closely with people, come to care for them deeply, watch them struggle and triumph.  And then, in the majority of cases, we stop seeing each-other.  This is the natural progression of therapy.  In the cold clinical sense it is meet, assess, treatment plan, intervene and then terminate.  I usually invite (if not outright plea for) follow-up calls, periodic check-ins.  Perhaps naturally, seldom is this invitation accepted.  Here is the ambiguity that my professor identified.  Did this person maintain their progress?  Did that issue ever resolve?  What happened with their spouse?  These questions rarely receive an answer.

But this post is not about me or the ambiguity that therapists encounter.  It is about how we all come to terms with the ambiguities and uncertainties in our own lives.

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The Search for the Positive

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This post is aimed at helping you through struggles.  Not of the external variety such as financial stress or interpersonal problems, but targeting those struggles that reside within our own minds.  This is about the way that we see and interpret the events that are happening around us.  The manifestations of these struggles may be as mild as being in a bad mood or a bit grumpy for a small spell all the way to a full-blown depression that lasts for months on end.  While these endpoints are quite different, the same process underlies both results.

On a surface level, you are likely familiar with what this discusses.  People may have told you to “search for the silver lining”.  Others may have attempted to encourage you by saying that “things are not as bad as they may seem.”  Heck, even Monty Python told you to “Always look on the bright side of life.”  While well intended and on the right track, these suggestions and advice have likely been ineffective in pulling you out of the negative that clouds your thinking when you are feeling down.  Why is this?

Basically, this is prescribing the very thing that is most out of reach to you at that moment.  It’s like telling someone who is lost in the desert and dying of thirst to “just drink some water.”  When this suggestion is presented without appreciating the difficulty it entails, we are likely to reject it out of hand.  This is quite unfortunate, because the wisdom behind the suggestion being offered actually has some value in terms of the behavioral health benefits.  I will attempt to dig beneath the surface of what is being said when someone offers this type of advice and transform it from quickly discarded tropes to something that may be meaningful and helpful.

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Should I Stay or Should I Go: How to Decide What to Do With An Unfulfilling Job

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Chances are, we’ve all been there: dreading to go to work the next day because we just absolutely despise our job.  Perhaps it is due to the work itself: too boring/unchallenging or stressful/overwhelming; perhaps it is due to your co-workers or boss; perhaps it is due to the clientele you deal with.  Whatever the reason, nothing can be more dispiriting and have a stronger impact on your overall well-being than being stuck in a job you hate.  The connection between work stress and negative effects on both mental and physical health is well established, even if all other aspects of your life are fulfilling and healthy.  Hopefully, these suggestions will help you to navigate what to do if you are currently in a negative work situation.  Instead of reading this article word for word (which you’re welcome to do if that is your style), I recommend that you skim through to the sections that apply to you and your particular brand of job dissatisfaction and then read the section on coping efforts.  After doing so, you will hopefully have a clear answer to the question posed by The Clash in their 1982 song “Should I Stay Or Should I Go.”

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Grief & Loss – Understanding and Coping with the Pain

There may be no life experience that is more profoundly painful than the loss of a loved one.  Unfortunately, it is an incident that we all must face at numerous stages in our lives.  Even though these are losses that we must all go through, we often find ourselves ill-equipped to deal with the depth of the suffering that we may experience.

While we will focus mainly on loss in terms of the death of a loved one, it is important to note that the grief and loss response can be triggered by the loss of anything we hold dear.  This could be loss of a valued job, moving away from a neighborhood that we were connected to, or the break-up of a relationship or friendship.

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Defeat the Worry Beast

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We have all, at one time or another, been overpowered by the beast that is worry.  We are bombarded by “what if” thoughts, attacked by nightmarish fantasies about every possible thing that could possibly go wrong.  This may be triggered by hearing an awful story, a stressful situation that has arisen, or just a random thought that comes to us, seemingly from nowhere.  We feel the weight of this worry: physically, emotionally and mentally.  We end up tense and exhausted, anxious and nervous, overwhelmed and fearful.  In short, the worry beast can wreak havoc in our life.

At best, we may attempt to distract or calm ourselves from this onslaught of negativity, but there is a nagging feeling that our efforts have been futile and we will be a victim of these thoughts indefinitely.  It is difficult not to feel despair when this seems to be the case.

However, the good news is that there is a way to defeat the worry beast.  We can learn to work through our worried thoughts to where they are not out of control and creating these negative side-effects.  Before we can get to the specifics of what to do to handle worry, we first must understand a little bit about what worry is.

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From My Bookshelf: A Review of the Most Often Recommended Books

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Books have tremendous power.  They can move us to feel deep emotion.  They can educate us.  They can allow us to travel back or forward in time.  They can help us address and overcome challenges we may face. There are countless excellent books available that address behavioral health issues.  This post is here to highlight some of the best of those works that I have read.

I am nearly constantly reading books from the field of behavioral health, reading novels only when on vacation.  The bookshelves in my office are full of the titles I have read and there is a special section in my bookshelves where I keep the books that I have found to be particularly enlightening and helpful.  It is from this selection that I culled my “most recommended” titles to review and share with you.  While I probably could have done a write-up on each of these books, I have limited myself to a “Top 10” listing.

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Stress Management

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         Stress:  that ever-present, life-span shortening, ulcer-inducing, pull-out your-hair condition that is part and parcel of our modern lives.  If there is one issue that I seem to talk about with every client, this is it.  Stress has an immediate impact on our well-being and is therefore one of the most vitally important things to learn to manage as well as we possibly can.  This article will help you to learn more about what stress is and how to work towards minimizing its negative impact on our lives and our health.

 

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A New Adventure: My Journey Toward Becoming A Blogger (And Why You Should Try New Things Too)

New Year

     We just (somewhat recently) rang in 2016 and while I don’t personally do the whole New Year’s resolution thing, I do appreciate it as a cultural phenomenon.  As a licensed professional counselor, I am in the business of helping people change and therefore am interested in how to capitalize on the pro-change vibe that the New Year brings.  So while it is not necessarily a resolution, this year I have challenged myself to take on the new adventure of writing a blog.

Introduce

Please allow me to introduce myself (and my blog)

     This blog will be, very broadly, about behavioral health issues.  I will likely post about a wide variety of topics and issues but all will be in the vein of topics that relate to wellness and behavioral health.  This initial post is both an introduction to the blog and a topic in and of itself: trying new things.

Learn

We learn by learning

     Overall, we are beings who thrive when presented with challenges.  As children, we are learning new things all the time:

  • learning facts and skills at school (like how to read, write, add and subtract, how to use money, and where Lithuania is on a map)
  • learning life skills at home (like how to make our bed, how to wash dishes, how not to bite our sibling when they make us mad, and how to be kind and loving to others)
  • learning about the world by playing outside (gravity makes us fall off the monkey bars, how physics relates to kicking a soccer ball, and how it smells bad if we step in dog poop)
  • learning social skills by playing with our friends (people get mad if we don’t play nicely, our culture ascribes gender roles in that boys are expected to play certain games and girls are expected to play others, and that there is a pecking order of dominance and power when groups of people get together)

Sadly, as adults, we often get to the point where we aren’t learning much new stuff anymore.  Sure, there is the saying “we learn something new every day,” but that pales in comparison to the immense amount of learning that we do as children on a daily basis.

“What’s the big deal if we are not learning?” you may ask.  Excellent question!  It is actually a pretty big deal.  Think of any muscle in your body.  It gets stronger the more that you use it and it atrophies (or weakens) if you neglect to use it.  In a way, this is the same with our brain.  You can see how this is acknowledged in the recent suggestion for elderly people to do things that challenge their brains (like crossword puzzles or Sudoku) or in the popularity of sites like lumosity.com.  There is a bit of a “use it or lose it” dynamic with our cognitive power.

Not only is learning beneficial for our brains but it is also beneficial for our psyche.  A lack of trying new things can lead to us feeling stale and stuck.  In fact, many of the people who come to see me in my counseling practice are looking for ways to get out of a rut that they have been in for some time.  Life seems lackluster and dull for them.  As we work together to get them out of this state, it is typically through efforts to try new things which will challenge them to learn new things that improvement occurs.

 Failure

Failure is always an option 

     I love the show Mythbusters and one of their sayings is that “failure is always an option.”  They seem to embrace failure as a reality and are not discouraged when it happens.  To them, any outcome, even if not what they were hoping for, is informative.

I would recommend taking this approach to your attempts at trying something new.  You are likely to try something that you think will be engaging, fulfilling, and invigorating.  But what if it isn’t?  What if the thing you have tried is dull and uninteresting to you?  Should you hang your head in failure and not try anything else because of this “bad” outcome?  Absolutely not!  Instead, I would encourage you to focus on what you learned from this experience.

For one, you crossed one potential activity off of your list and that means that the odds of one of the remaining items being successful has now increased.  You know that this attempted thing is not going to work for you for whatever reason.  If you can identify why it was not a good fit for you, you can apply that knowledge to the next activity that you choose.

The main thing is for us not to get discouraged and give up on our pursuit if we “fail.”  We can learn from our attempt and apply that new understanding as we continue moving forward.

Perspective

New perspectives on old stuff 

         Another benefit to trying new things is that it provides us with new perspectives.  We can learn new things about ourselves, our interests, our capabilities and limits, and the world around us.  The really great aspect about trying new things is that it can lend a new luster to the other things in our lives.  Even that thing which has become dull and routine for us can have new life breathed into it by the fresh outlook that newness can bring.

In this way, the benefits of challenging yourself to try and learn new things is twofold.  On the one hand we have the obvious direct benefits of the effort made and the enjoyment that can come from new pursuits.  On the other hand you have a generalizing effect where all other areas of your life will enjoy the spillover benefits of these efforts.  This is the value of living a balanced life.  We are better able to handle setbacks and stresses when we are feeling fulfilled in all areas of our lives.

What to try

So what to try? 

          If you are with me in seeing the benefits of taking on new challenges but are unsure of what exactly to do, I’ve got some good news for you: there are no wrong answers.  You can literally try anything.  As we discussed in the “failure is always an option” section, even efforts that do not succeed are beneficial.  It is more about the process of attempting new things as opposed to the outcomes.

Keeping in mind that the process is the more important factor, I did want to give you some ideas as far as specific things you could try.

  • Pursue an active activity: try a new sport (or resume playing one that you used to play), go on a hike, go for a bike ride, get into a daily walking routine, etc.
  • Get into a hobby: paint, learn an instrument, go to an art museum to learn about art, tour a winery to learn about wine making, take a pottery class, get a camera and start photography, learn to play chess (or checkers if that is more your speed), take up adult coloring, get into cosplay, learn to juggle, fish, read comic books, etc. (more ideas at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_hobbies)
  • Find an opportunity to volunteer: at your local food bank, a local soup kitchen, hospitals, the Red Cross, United Way, a local school, library, YMCA, an animal rescue facility, etc.
  • Take on a challenge: commit to a 5k run, start a blog, write a book, learn to cook, take a college course, etc.

In taking on something new, recall that ideally there is a balance between challenge and enjoyment.  In fact, there is even a term for this ideal state when undertaking a new venture and it is called flow.  Flow is a term that is widely used in positive psychology and refers to the state where one is fully immersed in and absorbed by what they are doing due to an ideal balance between challenge and pleasure.  As defined by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (I dare you to try to say that one out loud!), flow is a state of mind associated with both physical and mental health benefits.

 

Recap

  • Our cognitive ability is enhanced by providing novel challenges to our brain.
  • Tackling new challenges prevents life from getting stale and dull.
  • Any attempt at new things is successful even if it ends up being a “failure.”
  • The process is more important than the outcome.
  • Flow is the state where we are absorbed by the challenge that we are taking on and this is a very healthy state of mind.

In closing…

         While this was written in the weeks following the New Year of 2016, even if you are reading it mid or late year, consider making a resolution to try something new in the coming weeks.  Your renewed outlook on life and overall sense of wellness will be your reward.

Edited by Shirley Sachs

Written January 11, 2016