The Upside of Stress by Kelly McGonigal

There have only been a few times I’ve read a book that made me want to order a case and give it out to all of my friends and clients. This is one of those times. McGonigal asks in the introduction of her book (p. xi), “which statement would be more accurate?

  • Stress is harmful and should be avoided, reduced and managed.
  • Stress is helpful and should be accepted, utilized, and embraced.”

Most of us would say #1. And McGonigal based her entire health psychology practice on that premise until she came across research that convinced her otherwise. Her starting point is described in her TED talk that I blogged about last year. To summarize, she discovered that if people believe stress to be bad for them, it is. If they do not believe stress to be bad for them, it is actually good for them!

What McGonigal does in this book is spell out the ways that we can adjust our mindset about stress and thereby harness stress as a resource. Mindset is an interesting thing. When I think that my morning run is going to horrible and I’m probably too weak/tired/unmotivated to do it, then it usually turns into a pretty lazy run. Or, at the very least, my mindset has to be overcome to get to a more resourceful place. Similarly, one’s mindset about stress impacts “everything from your cardiovascular health to your ability to find meaning in life. The best way to manage stress isn’t to reduce or avoid it, but rather to rethink and even embrace it” (p.xvii).

McGonigal walks the reader through ways to get good at stress. “It’s not about being untouched by adversity or unruffled by difficulties. It’s about allowing stress to awaken in you these core human strengths of courage, connection, and growth. Whether you are looking at resilience in overworked executives or war-torn communities, the same themes emerge. People who are good at stress allow themselves to be changed by the experience of stress. They maintain a basic sense of trust in themselves and a connection to something bigger than themselves. They also find ways to make meaning out of suffering. To be good at stress is not to avoid stress, but to play an active role in how stress transforms you.” (p.94)

I’ll continue writing about these concepts in the next couple of months. To order the book, click here.

Enneagram Playlist

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I thought I’d share the playlist I used at a recent Enneagram training. Several folks gave me ideas and I’m always looking for new ones! These are the ones that I used this time, but keep them coming!

 

TYPE ONE: “Miss Halfway” Anya Marina

TYPE TWO: “I Want You to Want Me” Cheap Trick

TYPE THREE: “Taking Care of Business” Randy Bachman

TYPE FOUR: “Hooked on a Feeling” Blue Swede

TYPE FIVE: “I Am a Rock” Simon & Garfunkel, “Invisible” Bruce Hornsby & The Noisemakers

TYPE SIX: “Safe & Sound” Taylor Swift

TYPE SEVEN: “Happy” Pharrell Williams

TYPE EIGHT: “My Life” Billy Joel,

TYPE NINE: “Headphones” Jars of Clay, “This is Your Life” Switchfoot

Enjoy!!

Resource of the Month, August 2014

Gist: The Essence of Raising Life-Ready Kids by Michael W Anderson, LP and Timothy D Johanson, MD It has been many years since I have read a book that I recommend as strongly as Gist. I consider it a must-read for today’s parents. Anderson and Johanson, a psychologist and a pediatrician, have written a grounded and remarkable book that will challenge parents to the core. It did me. I loved that early in the book Anderson and Johanson explain how important it is that kids suffer as they grow up. It seems that in our culture, we have lost sight of this. If our kids aren’t invited to a birthday party, we may try to hide it, or call the parents. If our kid doesn’t make the show choir or the Varsity team, complaints are made and coaches are called. This foundational part of the book lays the groundwork for understanding that kids can tolerate painful consequences and actually need those consequences to play out in order to be ready for life.

Regarding self-esteem, the authors begin by defining it as “your journey toward liking who you are” (p.185) and set it in contrast to others’ esteem. While being esteemed by others can be addictive, it does not build self-esteem, which is ultimately what you think of yourself in spite of your performance or what others think of you. Sadly, so many parents believe that their child’s self-esteem will be high if they consider themselves exceptional, that an epidemic of excessive and exaggerated complimenting has spread in families. In fact, Anderson and Johanson suggest that the belief that we are not exceptional is one of the foundations of developing healthy self-esteem along with love, accurate self-assessment, resilience, and achievement. I think of the high school in my town. My friend teaches honors chemistry. Sounds like a class for exceptional students, doesn’t it? But it isn’t. Honors chemistry is regular old chemistry. But we wouldn’t want any student to feel normal or average, so someone decided to call regular chemistry “honors.”

The authors regard shame as a destroyer of families. And imagine my surprise when I read what they think to be the biggest culprit when it comes to building shame in our kids. Talking. The authors have an entire chapter entitled, “Just shut up!” and it is addressed directly to parents. So, all of those good long talks and explanations for punishments and making connections between behaviors……? They produce shame. The authors suggest any talk around consequences for behavior should be about 30 seconds or less. “Honest, straightforward, simple, and brief communications regarding their mistakes is the best way to reduce shame in [our kids’] lives. Keep it simple and to the point. Don’t contaminate it with other issues that are unrelated…..be hopeful in what you say…….convey that it is not the end of the world, and life will soon return to normal.” (p.217) I have already seen this wisdom change my parenting. I can’t believe how easy it is to say way too much.

These are just some of the gems of this book. You will be challenged by their encouragement to let your kids be bored and by their views on technology. You’ll be helped by their very practical suggestions and you’ll be encouraged to love well and love deeply. I urge you to get a copy and read it and share this review on all manner of social media. Let’s get the word out and grow life-ready kids!

“When kids feel average is an insult, they will aspire to being gifted, instead of working to be effective.”

“Wonderful is fulfilling; exceptional is draining.”

“Consequences change behavior and talking fosters shame.”

Click here to get the book.

Resource of the Month, May 2014

A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans

Every once in a while people have ideas that you just wish you’d had yourself. Rachel Held Evans set out to do her best to live the teachings given to women in the Bible for one year. She broke up the commands into themes that she attempted to implement for a month at a time. Here are some of the things she did:

  • Wore a head covering
  • Called her husband “master” and obeyed his every word for one month
  • Stayed in a tent in her front yard during her period
  • Visited a polygamist community
  • Sat on her roof
  • Observed a Sabbath Day and prepared a Passover Seder

What is compelling to me about this book is that Evans is so endearing as a person; funny, moody, self-effacing…..but, at the same time, she is a master strategist with an agenda to stir the reader’s thoughts. In her research on how to live out different sections of scripture, she learns that many traditional interpretations have little to nothing to do with the heart of the Biblical commands. So she winds up challenging widely held teachings of many churches as she is attempting to follow those same teachings.

One of my favorite examples is what she learns through rigorous study of Proverbs 31, a passage that describes the “virtuous woman”. Christians have used this passage as a prescription; a list of commands that a woman must live up to be virtuous. The problem is, the list is impossible. To do everything in it, one must wake before dawn, prepare breakfast, have children, run the family business, sew, care for the poor, make her own bedspreads, watch everything in the household, and is never be lazy. Evans dutifully woke before dawn even though she was a miserable morning person. She didn’t have children, so she ordered a “Baby-Think-It-Over” that took her through the nighttime parenting ringer. She got a friend to teach her to sew, made a dress that looked a little like a maternity jumper. She sold a couple of homemade items on EBay to try her hand at “running the family business”. In other words, she exhausted herself in an attempt to be faithful. In the process, however, she met an Orthodox Jewish woman who began to unveil a completely different spin on this passage.

The Jewish tradition that her new friend described does not hold this Proverb as a checklist, but rather, a list of categories to enjoy and praise in a woman. She explained how the Proverbs 31 tradition in her own family is applied as the family notices qualities they appreciate in her, and they exclaim, “woman of valor!”

As she reflects on the difference between how she internalized this passage out of her own background and how her Orthodox friend internalized it out of hers, she steps into a controversial space that she winningly maintains throughout her book. What does it actually mean to take the Bible seriously? The result is a thoroughly enjoyable book that invites believers to carefully consider their assumptions about men and women’s roles, modesty, motherhood, and results in a grounded and vital faith.

To find the book, click here

Resource of the Month–February, 2014

Things May Go Terribly, Horribly Wrong: A Guide to Life Liberated from Anxiety by Kelly G. Wilson, PH.D and Troy Dufrene

 “In this very moment,

will you accept the sad and the sweet,

hold lightly stories about what’s possible,

and be the author of a life that has meaning and purpose for you,

turning in kindness back to that life when you find yourself moving away from it?”

If you are open to a fresh perspective on your anxiety, this book is for you. Wilson and Dufrene give people what they need to live a purposeful and meaningful life that places experiences like anxiety in a whole new context. They describe the problem of anxiety well here, “If you house burns down or you lose your life saving in a stock market crash, you’re likely to be pretty upset. But you could also be out of sorts if your house might burn down or your finances might go wrong. (p.28) Anxiety tricks us into thinking that we need to think through every possible scary thing that pops into our minds. Using the principles of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Wilson and Dufrene challenge this assumption at its core.

What this book does is teach and offer an attitude towards anxiety and suffering that we heap on ourselves by our thought processes. Whatever you may dream up that may go wrong could actually happen, but the encouragement to hold the stories we tell ourselves lightly (see opening quote) opens up the challenge embedded in this book; to look at the way anxious thoughts impact us rather than always drilling in to the content of the thoughts. One key tool is staying in contact with the present moment; “….anxiety is out of place in the present moment. It depends on the past and the future for its existence. This understanding matters if you hope to let go of your struggle with anxiety” (p.54).

The authors offers exercises that they call games throughout the book, adding to the books casual and sometimes chummy tone. But the serious reader is wise to practice the games and see which ones are worth incorporating into their lives. An example that I tried today with a client helps the individual use their imagination to “see” their thoughts coming out of the mouth of someone or something other than himself. Imagining your dreaded anxious thought—my boss thinks I’m lame—coming out of the mouth of an armadillo sheds a new light on it and creates some distance between you and the thought. Don’t get me wrong, the book is not full of techniques that encourage a cavalier attitude towards life’s challenges. Rather, Wilson and Dufrene help the reader with the important process of discrimination between which thoughts are helpful and workable and which are not.

I recommend this book because so many people think that the key to ending their suffering with anxiety lies in answering the question their anxiety is asking. My anxiety about whether I’ll marry my boyfriend will be fixed by getting engaged. The problem with that assumption is that anxiety will always ask another question. But does his mother like me more than his ex-girlfriend? This book reframes the struggle and offers a life guided by values rather than anxiety. I cannot say how often I do this work with my clients and how firmly I believe that there is life-altering liberation in understanding this distinction.

To find the book, CLICK HERE

Resource of the Month–August, 2014

Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon (click for official book trailer)

How often do you find a book that gives voice to so many of your challenges as a parent without trying to be a self-help strategy to fix things? Andrew Solomon has written a book that helps parents with challenging or unusual parenting situations to rest in the broad community of fellow-journeyers who have found love and meaning in some of the most stretching life-situations imaginable.

Far From the Tree is a carefully researched book about the experiences of families who have children with various “horizontal differences”. Solomon offers this broad categorization, “horizontal differences”, to describe the challenge people face that have any kind of distinction that sets them apart from their peers. He relates the term to himself, as a gay man, and to all the people he writes about in this book, which is a massive and impressive undertaking, as Solomon dives deeply into the experiences of families living with members who have a wide variety of horizontal differences. His research dives into the experiences of families with kids who have dwarfism, deafness, autism, down syndrome, schizophrenia, and who are navigating the paths of prodigies, disabilities, transgender, being/conceiving children of rape, and children who commit crimes. Each chapter is dedicated to one of these topics and has a mix of anecdotal experiences of parents and families mixed in with information about the treatments, politics, and even cultures of the different communities.

Solomon takes his research another step by including the experiences of the parents of children with horizontal differences and this is what made me pick up the book. Having felt very hurt by the way his own parents navigated their love for him mixed in with deep ambivalence about his homosexuality, Solomon undertook to explore, with great sensitivity, the experiences of parents who are trying to hold tensions with their own horizontally challenged children. I know for my own experience as a parent and for so many other parents with horizontally challenged kids, what Solomon offers is a wealth of raw and truthful reflections of what most would consider incredibly demanding parenting challenges.  Solomon does not offer a specific spiritual path, per se. He is not writing from that perspective. His own conclusions from his journey have led him to a picture of love and family that presses the boundaries of almost anyone’s conception of a traditional family. This may press some readers beyond their comfort zone and yet his undertaking has immense value for the way he opens up the idea that as parents, love truly is elastic and able to stretch around any child with any challenge. That’s the way God created us!

Solomon tackles important issues for those in these situations. Things like the paradigms of illness vs. difference and acceptance vs. recovery/repair. He says boldly that there is no contradiction between loving someone and feeling burdened by that person. He also suggests that resiliency with parents means developing the ability to rewrite the future and that disability is not predictive of happiness of either the parent or the child (location 496). All of this along with Solomon’s beautiful writing style makes the book a challenging, provocative, informative, and soul-stretching book to read. I highly, highly recommend it for all, but especially for parents with horizontally challenged children.

For a link to get the book, click here. For the official book trailer on Youtube, click here.

Resource of the Month–May, 2013

The Defining Decade: Why your twenties matter—and how to make the most of them now by Meg Jay, PhD.

“Thirty is the new twenty.”

“You can do anything you want!”

“You’ve got plenty of time to get serious later!”

What other utterly unhelpful things are we saying to people in their 20’s? Meg Jay, in her important new book, reframes the 20’s as absolutely foundational and important for 20-somethings and challenges the notion of prolonged adolescence as the operating norm.

Half of my clients are in their 20’s and I see certain themes and realities in my work with them; underemployment, dating down, prolonged unhelpful romances, lostness, directionlessness, disappointment, and losing focus on larger goals. I find that the ideas in this book are exactly what many of my clients need. They, along with we older ones in our society, have been convinced somehow that waiting until the 30’s to start things like marriage, having children, and developing one’s career is a good idea. Dr. Jay tackles this myth with some surprising ideas.

  • “80% of life’s most significant events take place by age 35, as 30somethings and beyond we largely either continue with, or correct for, the moves we made during our 20something years.” (p.xii)
  • “The 20something years are real time and ought to be lived that way.” (p.xvii)
  • “You can’t pull some great career our of a hat in your 30’s, you have to start in your 20’s.” (p.58)
  • The best time to start preparing for marriage is before you are married.

Many late-20 and 30somethings wind up wishing that they had been more intentional during their 20’s. And this book explains what that can look like in real life. She takes the avoidance of not making decisions head on and she does it with real sensitivity to the economic and trending realities of this day and age. She gives good language to the challenges that I see in my office and in the larger community.

I’m suggesting that every person in his or her 20’s listen to Meg Jay’s TED Talk and read this book and grapple with the ideas it presents. The 20’s aren’t a time to postpone life, it is a decade meant to be lived meaningfully and with the rest of life in mind!

To purchase the book, click here.

Resource of the Month–April, 2013

Triggered: A Memoir of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder by Fletcher Wortmann 

“What if I pushed that woman down this flight of stairs?”

“What if I drop my baby off this balcony?”

“What if I strangle my spouse in his sleep?”

“What if I cut my finger off with this butcher knife?”

These are examples of the kind of intrusive thoughts that torture some people with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Most of us can probably relate to occasionally having thoughts like these, but imagine being tortured every day, or every hour or every minute by them!  I heard about an interesting study of the intrusive thoughts of people with and without OCD. The lists were identical! But people with OCD have a particular challenge when it comes to letting the thought go.

What Fletcher does in his memoir is to explain, with wit and honestly, his life with intrusive thought OCD. He spent most of his life misdiagnosed—even the professionals that he saw did not know how to identify OCD without obvious external compulsions that are more well known, like hand washing or checking light switches. The result was years of suffering with intrusive violent and catastrophic thoughts with no knowledge of what to do about them. Wortmann, like so many sufferers, worried that he was some kind of deviant!

The story unfolds and eventually Wortmann is appropriately diagnosed and finds appropriate treatment—the kind of treatment that I do for OCD. This book struck a chord with me as I have experienced with my clients the relief of an accurate diagnosis and the pain of this particular disorder. I have had clients who have been in previous treatments with practitioners who didn’t understand this type of OCD. Their experiences vary from therapists listening empathetically to their obsessions to prescribing snapping their wrists with rubber bands!

The book is entertaining and very educational. In our recent climate of increased sensitivity to mental illness and the need for appropriate treatments, this memoir strikes a chord. If there were greater understanding of intrusive thought OCD even in the professional community, Wortmann may have had a much better childhood and adolescence. And certainly we could all stand to grow our awareness of others’ suffering. And on top of all that, this book is entertaining! You’ll laugh and cringe with Wortmann as he shares his sarcastic sense of humor without minimizing the pain. It is important to see his model of experiencing his illness with both humor and sensitivity.

For an article and an NPR interview with Wortmann, CLICK HERE.

Resource of the Month–October, 2012

Intimacy and Desire: Awaken the Passion in your Relationship by Dr. David Schnarch

If you are serious about wanting better sex in your marriage, growing intimacy in your marriage, or if you are wondering if there is any hope for your marriage, this book is a must-read. Dr. Schnarch, spells out a truly fresh approach to saving and deepening your marriage in this outstanding book.

Schnarch begins with what he has learned through doing counseling with hundreds of couples complaining about sexual desire problems. He comes at this issue with a rather surprising slant. Sexual desire problems may be evidence of a lack of differentiation in the couple rather than a lack of connection or a lack of attachment. To one couple whose story he recounts in his book, he says, “The problem isn’t that you’re ‘too close.’ It’s that you are too dependent on each other for your emotional balance.” (p.49) His unique approach creates a template for couples from which they can grow as individuals in order to grow to new heights of true intimacy and much better sex.

Schnarch’s approach helps individuals learn to interact with their partners in a cleaner, less needy way. Rather than trying to get certain reactions from their partners that make them feel secure, individuals are shown how to find that security within themselves so that they can approach their partners without their expectations and needs coloring the interactions in an unhelpful way. As Schnarch puts it, “We don’t desire partners we constantly have to validate.” (p.115) We’d rather have sex with someone who wants rather than needs the other.  He calls his building blocks for getting there the Four Points of Balance: (p.72)

  • Solid Flexible Self:  The ability to be clear about who you are and what you’re about, especially when your partner pressures you to adapt and conform.
  • Quiet Mind-Calm Heart:  Being able to calm yourself down, sooth your own hurts, and regulate your own anxieties.
  • Grounded Responding:  The ability to stay calm and not overreact, rather than creating distance or running away when your partner gets anxious or upset.
  • Meaningful Endurance:  Being able to step up and face the issues that bedevil you and your relationship, and the ability to tolerate discomfort for the sake of growth.

I like that being willing and able to tolerate discomfort is a part of his description of meaningful endurance. The author knows something of the discomfort that real growth requires. The four points of balance are neither simple nor easy to achieve and sometimes take folks to the very limit of their willingness to deal with themselves!  The revolutionary (albeit threatening to some) part of his thinking is that we are all better off if we stop demanding that our spouses and partners make us feel more stable! But that is an exciting invitation if you value this kind of soul-liberating transformation.

Schnarch’s book is very well researched and his experience working with couples gives him credibility. He is not afraid of talking graphically and explicitly about sex (be forewarned, R-rated book!) but he does so in a way that is real and useful if the whole book is taken into account. He writes from a psychological and evolutionary perspective mixed in with anecdotal dialogue lifted from his therapy sessions and I appreciate the way the stories fill out his evidence-based descriptions.  The book is dense and requires digesting along the way. I have worked with couples that read the book along with our sessions and some of them really needed the additional help of the therapy to do the internal work required. For those of you considering marriage counseling, Schnarch gives helpful advice about finding a therapist in Appendix A.

Let me know how your reading goes! This is an excellent resource and I hope you’ll pass it along. Buy your own copy here.

Resource of the Month–September, 2012

The Confidence Gap by Russ Harris

I have recommended this book to clients more than any other.  In it, Russ Harris addresses the question of what to do with our thoughts. And since so many folks who come to therapy are plagued with worrisome, negative, or self-condemning thoughts, I wind up talking about the principles from this book all the time!

Russ Harris, a therapist and practitioner of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, tackles this important topic through the subject of confidence. He suggests that most people want to feel confident so that they can do all the things they wish. He turns this desire on its ear by suggesting that the feeling of confidence is not found by having a conversation in a therapist’s office. Confidence only comes as people do the things they wish they could, succeed and fail, interpret and learn. Confidence will develop only after that. So, Harris tackles the notion of doing stuff while feeling a clear lack of confidence. That’s where thought work comes in.

Even if your starting point is not the issue of confidence, this book is helpful to anyone who is sick and tired of the story playing in his or her heads. Those fretful, judgmental, or defeatist thoughts are very difficult, if not impossible, to abolish. So, what does one do with them? Harris teaches a concept I bring to session regularly– thought defusion. Every person could use teaching about how to treat thoughts.

Here is a selection of my favorite of his main teaching points:

  • The action of confidence comes first; the feelings of confidence come later.
  • Genuine confidence is not the absence of fear; it is a transformed relationship with fear.
  • Negative thoughts are normal. Don’t fight them; defuse them.
  • Don’t obsess about the outcome. Get passionate about the process.
  • Don’t fight your fear; allow it, befriend it, and channel it.
  • Failure hurts—but if we’re willing to learn, it’s a wonderful teacher.

(All of these points are found on p. 246 of Harris’ book.)

Harris’ book has several exercises along the way and his writing style is clear and practical. He could be accused of being a little peppy, in the spirit of self-help authors, but the wisdom of his message comes through clearly. His practical style challenges the reader to actually engage the material, so the possibility of a true-life change is greater.

You can find the book at the library, or purchase a copy by clicking HERE 

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