February 3, 2012
Does anyone else think that it can be easy to start feeling a bit stagnant and dull by the time February rolls around in Minnesota? This winter has been much more mellow than most (probably the only perk of global warming), but we still have a long way to go before we’ll see leaves on the trees and feel green blades of grass under our toes. It is not uncommon for people to be feeling rather uninspired or even depressed at this time of year.
Moving along through the changing seasons can serve as a reminder that there are seasons in our lives as well. Winter represents those periods of life where we may feel dormant, almost like the joy of living seems to have vanished. It is during these times that we can learn to rest, restore, and rejuvenate ourselves to enable the next season to arrive. One way to do this is to tap into the wisdom of what we are experiencing in any given moment. This can pertain to noticing our own emotional state and using that information to guide us. It can also involve attending deliberately to our relationships with others, and making intentional changes based on our observations.
Being mindful of your experience right now can help you become newly aware of a different and healthier perspective. The valuable information you will discover by attending to your life in a deliberate way can bring moments of clarity and peace even during a season of struggle. We all need time to refresh.
Refresh your emotions
Refresh yourself by tuning in to the present moment. Are you feeling weary? Lonely? Agitated or overwhelmed? So often we are mindlessly plodding along trying to get to the next task, and are ignoring our experience from moment to moment. Our feelings serve as clues about what we need. If you aren’t aware of what you are feeling right now, it is unlikely that you will take steps that will move you toward greater contentment and peace.
For example, as you are sitting there at your computer, take a second or two to “check in” with yourself. Maybe you find yourself feeling a bit agitated or anxious, but you weren’t actively aware of it before. You can use this information to do something that you know helps you relax and unwind. If, on the other hand, you find yourself feeling slightly lonely and sad when you tune in to your experience, you might think about calling a good friend or writing an email to someone you care about to just say hello. These are examples of ways that you can use your experience of the present moment to reset and refresh. Noticing how you are feeling and then skillfully responding can bring a new perspective or an experience that helps you align with the healthiest version of yourself.
Refresh your relationships
Refresh a relationship by stepping back and assessing how you experience the connection. You may bring to mind a friend, partner, family member, or even a co-worker. Explore the relationship by curiously examining different aspects of it. What does this person bring to your life? What do you bring to theirs? How often do you show them that they matter to you? Are there any attitudes that you would like shift with regard to that person? Ask yourself if there are behaviors that you could alter that might improve the relationship. Or is it a relationship that you would be better off without? Maybe it would improve your connection to reach out to the person more often. Or perhaps when you take a new perspective, you see that this person is monopolizing your time and you need to branch out more. When you intentionally examine the relationship, perhaps you find that it would be beneficial to extend more forgiveness toward him or her. On the other hand, maybe you have been letting too much slide without standing up for yourself. Our relationships need attention to thrive. When we approach them like we are seeing them for the first time, it gives us the chance to engage on purpose in a way that can breathe new life into a stale relationship.
View your connection with the person with fresh eyes. Instead of operating on interpersonal autopilot, take a look at the state of the relationship and make positive changes in how you interact with him or her. Usually when we alter our orientation toward someone, the course of the relationship itself is also modified. Reviving our relationships even by making minor changes can dramatically shift our overall sense of well-being.
Almost like clicking the “refresh” button on the computer screen, we can find ways to reset, reinvigorate, and recharge ourselves so that we can emerge from a stale season of life. Whether it is through tapping into the wisdom of your emotions in the present moment, or by re-examining an important relationship, we can find a multitude of ways to break free and find life again.
Dr. Jenna Hobbs
December 16, 2011
Short post, important message. I came across this brief YouTube video that has some very useful information about wellness. I found it to be both informative and entertaining. Hint: it discusses an intervention that dramatically decreases many types of both physical and mental illness… Check it out, and forward it on!
November 29, 2011
Traveling around the holidays, despite the potential for stress, can provide the chance to be exposed to new environments and perspectives. I recently had the opportunity to venture out of the Minneapolis/St. Paul area to a place with MORE snow than home – I know, questionable decision. Regardless of the soundness of my decision-making skills, the trip provided some awe-inspiring encounters with the natural world. Winding through the mountains, I noticed this clear stream rushing alongside the road. I got out to explore. The first thing I became aware of was the gentle yet persistent rushing sound of the water swooshing by. The currents wove between the smooth rocks as warm sunlight reflected off the icy ripples. Immersing myself in the experience of the steadily gurgling water brought to mind the idea of flow, and how it relates to our thoughts and feelings.
Watching the water flowing downstream reminded me of a useful technique for managing distressing emotions like depression and anxiety. I often use it in therapy, as it has a lot of benefits for mental health. At this time of year, especially, it can be useful to have strategies on hand to effectively deal with stress. Burnt turkeys, squabbling family members, money problems, travel snafus, and loneliness can all take their toll. So here is an approach that can help us all cope a bit better – whether it’s something little like cranberry sauce spilled on your brand new white sweater, or something heavy like spending the first holiday with a conspicuously empty chair at the dinner table.
The goal is to learn to separate ourselves from our thoughts as if we are sitting on the bank of a flowing brook and each leaf that floats past represents a thought. Instead of diving in the river with our thoughts (the leaves) and getting carried away downstream with them (thus risking the potential of “drowning” in our upsetting thoughts), we observe them. Noticing when each thought comes into our awareness, identifying it as a thought (and not necessarily fact), and letting it go frees us from the cloud of unconscious processing in our own minds. Since our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are all interconnected and influence each other, learning to notice when we’re having unhelpful thoughts AND learning to let them flow past us positively impacts our mood and our actions.
Here’s an example. Let’s say that on Friday, my husband asked me to pick up a gift on my way home from work for a holiday gathering we were attending that night. I arrive home without the gift – it didn’t even cross my mind as I was driving home that I had planned to stop at the store. When I realized my error, all sorts of thoughts began popping up in my head. These included (but were not limited to), “You’re such a useless idiot!” “How could you be so forgetful?!” “There is something wrong with your brain!” “You’re doomed to be a bad wife for all eternity!” and so on. Now, it didn’t help that it had been a long and stressful day, but nevertheless, I was swept down the river of these thoughts pretty quickly. Can you guess what sorts of emotions arose as a result of thinking these things? Yep… I was feeling pretty bad until I realized that I was being carried down the river. Noticing this enabled me to take a step back and notice the thoughts like, “You’re a useless idiot” and see them as just thoughts, not necessarily as facts. Once I was able to separate myself and realize that I am not my thoughts, it gave me the breathing room to observe the thinking without drowning in it. “Hmm… I’m having the thought that I’m a useless idiot,” feels a lot different than, “I am a useless idiot.” See the subtle difference? Being mindful of our thoughts in this way can be incredibly helpful skill. I began to see the big picture which let me understand that it wasn’t really a big deal, and forgetting didn’t mean I was a worthless moron.
Play around with it. Next time you find yourself feeling anxious, sad, hopeless, worthless, or whatever, see if you can identify what some of the related thoughts may be. Instead of buying into each thought as if it’s a certain fact, step back and see it as ‘just a thought’, and let the thought flow past you as it is carried downstream. Just like the leaf. It can take a lot of practice, and doesn’t generally come naturally. But once you get the hang of it, it is likely to increase your ‘comfort and joy,’ and leave you feeling a bit more merry.
Dr. Jenna Hobbs
October 12, 2011
The October weather has been so glorious here in Minneapolis-St. Paul (at least for one who enjoys warm sunshine and the smell of crunchy leaves). Yesterday, the clouds rolled in. Even though it was evident that rain was not an unheard-of possibility, I had been sitting lump-like all day and a walk sounded too appealing to pass up. Strolling around the lake, I was about twenty minutes from home when the first raindrop plopped onto my shoulder. I was about twenty one minutes from home when it started pouring.
My first thought was, “Of course! My only opportunity this week to get outside and enjoy the fall weather is ruined! And I’m drenched!” After a thoughtful pause, my second thought was, “Wait, it’s actually kind of a pleasant, peaceful rain. And it’s not even chilly!” Even though I would have preferred a blue sky and a sunny breeze whisking fallen leaves across my path, sometimes life doesn’t give us a blue sky and a sunny breeze. The mellow, gray dreariness was had an oddly nurturing quality to it. I allowed myself to experience the soothing, gentle rain on my skin, and listened to how the drops sounded as they connected with the dry leaves collected at the edges of the sidewalk. Instead of fighting the undeniable reality that I was going to get soaked, I surrendered to it and found a way to embrace it. My rainy outing brought to mind the concept of radical acceptance.
Radical acceptance is a term that psychology borrowed from the meditation world. The essence of the concept is that much of our suffering in life stems not from what we are experiencing per se, but from wishing our experience was different. Accepting the current reality does not mean that we have to like it, or even that we cease to try to change it. It simply means that in the moment, we acknowledge “it is what it is.” The concept can apply to something as small as being in a bit of a bad mood, to something as monumental as receiving a life-threatening diagnosis.
In the ‘bad mood’ example, a person is likely going to feel even worse by continually saying to him/herself, “I shouldn’t be feeling bummed out. What is wrong with me for not being able to snap out of it? This is not okay.” In the ‘big diagnosis’ example, a person will probably have a more difficult time coping if (s)he persists in saying, “This can’t be happening. I can’t tolerate this! It is unbearable. I won’t accept it!” Accepting does not mean giving up. It does not mean giving in. In the words of the Serenity Prayer, it just implies that we learn to “accept the things we cannot change,” find the “courage to change the things we can,” and seek the “wisdom to know the difference.” If we fight things that we cannot change in the current moment, is going to make the current moment a lot more distressing than it needs to be.
When we practice acceptance (it often isn’t easy and certainly requires practice), it can be an effective tool to help manage the emotional distress associated with daily living. It can also alleviate some of the pain of depression, anxiety and other mental health problems. If fact, it is one of the core components of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) which are types of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy shown by research to be very effective for treating numerous psychological disorders. I have attached an article that explains ACT and provides some interesting metaphors demonstrating ways in which acceptance can free us to live according to our values, despite challenging circumstances. It is written for mental health practitioners and is a bit “jargon-y,” but could be interesting to check out. Also, the book Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach is excellent, and I highly recommend it for anyone struggling with emotional distress who is drawn to mindfulness concepts.
Next time you find yourself caught in the rain, be it literally or figuratively, challenge yourself to practice acceptance. You may find that your experience becomes surprisingly more tolerable and meaningful. If not, keep practicing. Acceptance is a journey, not a destination.
Dr. Jenna Hobbs
October 4, 2011
It is interesting how an experience can be both relaxing and energizing – two seemingly incompatible states.
After spending several long and sedentary hours working on an upcoming presentation, I had found myself feeling lethargic and out of sorts. My instinct was to lay around the house, feeling unsettled and foggy. Instead, I summoned the energy to wheel out my bike and go for a leisurely ride around one of the Twin Cities’ lakes. Funny how sometimes we just need to overcome the initial sluggishness, and then the energy we need shows up. The excursion ended up being delightful. The fall colors, warm breeze, and physical activity lifted my spirits and I felt like myself again. The above image was captured on that day – mellow and calm infused with vitality and energy. I felt an aliveness that was a welcome shift from the earlier enveloping cloud of discontent.
I think sometimes we forget how much our moods can be impacted (for better or for worse) by our choices and our way of perceiving events. It can feel like we are “stuck” in a funk – an anxious or depressed or otherwise uncomfortable emotional state – and we just have to bide our time until the tides turn. Occasionally this is true, but I think that we often miss opportunities to “shift” because we are held captive by our beliefs that keep us in our discomfort. Whether the belief is “I deserve to feel bad” or “Nothing I do will change it,” these thoughts can shape our reality. Switching it up, getting outside, being active, and countless other actions can help us find a sense of balance and get back on track emotionally.
This is actually the premise of cognitive-behavioral therapy. Changing our perceptions of reality and shifting out of unhealthy habits can bring a greater sense of emotional wellbeing. In fact, studies show that being physically active a few times a week has the same benefit as antidepressant medication for people with mild to moderate depression! (See article 1 below) Further, when that activity is outside in a natural setting, the benefits for wellbeing increase. (See article 2 below) We humans are actually biologically hardwired to feel better physically and mentally when we are exposed to nature (a phenomenon called biophilia). A study even showed that people recovered faster from surgery when they were in rooms with a green, leafy view from their window compared to a view of a brick wall (R.S. Ulrich, 1984). So, next time you find yourself feeling out of sorts, get up, get out, and move! (even if you don’t exactly feel like it). Your body, mind and spirit will thank you.
Dr. Jenna Hobbs
September 22, 2011
It was one of those warm afternoons in late summer (or early autumn – it’s hard to say in Minnesota). I decided to take a quick walk to get a sandwich at the nearby Minneapolis cafe, and cut through a city park to save some time. I was rushing to get there, eat, and get back to my busy day when I saw someone on the far side of the park silently (but frantically) waving their arms above their head – pointing vigorously. I looked to my left, and saw a knobby-legged yet stunningly graceful fawn – seemingly oblivious to the fact that it was surrounded by the frenzy and chaos of the city. I stopped. Stood there transfixed. Transported. Noticing the deer’s ears perk – tail twitch. Feeling the rays of filtered sun make their way through the leaves onto my face. The subtle, earthy smell that rises up out of damp, sunny ground permeated my awareness.
It reminds me of how important it is to stop. To notice. To slow down and actually experience life, rather than always pushing through to the next item on the lengthy to-do list (which never seems to get shorter). Think about how often our minds are planning and worrying about the future, or rehashing the past – limiting our awareness of the moment we have right in front of us. In fact, research (click below to see two examples) shows that taking time each day to slow down and be mindfully alert to the present moment actually improves mental wellbeing AND physical health! People who take time to allow a break from the frenetic pace of life and just BE – to notice what is happening around and within them without judging – report decreases in depression, anxiety, chronic pain, and have better immune responses. So… go for a stroll and take in the experience, listen to a favorite song (and really LISTEN to it), notice the freckles on your child’s nose, breathe deeply, and allow yourself find a moment of peace amidst it all.
~ Dr. Jenna Hobbs
September 21, 2011
Welcome! I hope this space serves as a venue to share what will ideally be inspiring little tidbits. As a person who seeks to guide others toward whole-person wellness, I am looking forward to the opportunity to share my insights, links to thought-provoking articles, and glimpses of beauty in nature. I believe that we as humans find moments of balance, peace, and joy when we discover ways to nurture our mental, physical, and spiritual health. I welcome your thoughts. Be well.
~ Dr. Jenna Hobbs