The Benefits of Laughter

We all know the benefits of laughter, but I discovered a new one last week. I was sitting with my husband, two old, dear friends and one new friend chatting about the Enneagram. A particularly wry and hilarious comment was made and I threw my head back and laughed—something I realize now that I do a great deal–and I saw something that took my breath away…….the stunning tree in the picture here. We were sitting at an outdoor table nestled between two buildings and I hadn’t looked up before we sat down.

In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet says, “what a shame, for I dearly love to laugh”. In special moments like this one, I remember how dearly I do love to laugh. In times of personal and societal heaviness, laughter can come in short supply. Especially the type that causes one to throw one’s head back!

What new things do you see when you really laugh hard….both figuratively and literally? I saw a huge, beautiful tree. But, when I laugh in the company of friends, I also see how utterly unique and enjoyable each person can be! I feel lightness and release in my body. And I feel the joyousness of God.

Yes’s and No’s

This is a shot I took of a comment a college student wrote at conference for leaders of a campus fellowship at James Madison University this weekend. The student group has over 600 members and just one paid staff worker. There were around 100 very impressive student leaders at this conference. My friend and fellow JMU grad says she can sniff out a JMU grad when she meets them: competent, social, winning, sincere, and so darn capable. Super students by any measure! And these students did not disappoint! Ironically, what these super-students wanted me to talk to them about was healthy boundaries in the midst of all of their commitments. Here’s what we did:

  • One session was titled “Say Yes!” Jesus had really packed days of ministry and didn’t seem worried that it would cause everyone to fall apart. We looked at the fact that oxytocin is actually a stress hormone that gives you the urge to reach out to others (thank you Kelly McGonigal!). So, basically, their ministry output and relational commitments can help them with their stress!
  • Another session was “Say No!” Jesus had personal prayer time and stuck to his agenda even when “whole towns” were coming to him for healing (see Mark 1). In other words, he knew what his no’s were because he was clear on the yes’s.
  • Then we spent the whole weekend trying to unpack the implications.

The tension comes when don’t allow ourselves to seriously consider the no’s that are implied by the yes’s. The implications are far-reaching and tough to stomach sometimes; from social engagements, to leadership positions, to jobs and marriages. And my, how the students wished God would hit them over the head with all the answers! I have the same wish sometimes, but have seen in life that behind that wish is often resistance to growing up, taking responsibility, and staying steady when I have to stand in the tension that comes with my decisions.

How do you stand in the tension of your yes’s and no’s?

Procrastination

Procrastinators will tell you that it is hard to live like they do. Cycles of delay and cramming leave procrastinators feeling worn out and hopeless. I’ve been putting off learning a computer system I need to know for a class because it feels utterly defeating to ever get started. If I wait too long, I will have a long night of cramming myself!

Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University, told Psychological Science. “To tell the chronic procrastinator to just do it would be like saying to a clinically depressed person, cheer up.” Many folks will say it’s poor time management or laziness that makes a procrastinator procrastinate. No wonder procrastinators can get so down on themselves! Like most long-term issues, the fixes aren’t usually quick and easy. Making a schedule doesn’t unmake a procrastinator.

“In the last few years……scientists have begun to think that procrastination might have less to do with time than emotions. Procrastination ‘really has nothing to do with time management,’ Joseph Ferrari adds.” Click here for the full Atlantic article. So, are you wondering what the culprits are? The same professor and others say that the two basic reasons for procrastination are:

1—We delay action because we feel like we’re in the wrong mood to complete a task, and

2—We assume that our mood will change in the near future.

These reasons confirm how our moods can tend to shape our actions. Who hasn’t slept in because then they might feel more up for work later? Or rearranged their desk so that the more favorable work environment will open up more creative energy? It can be really subtle or blatantly ridiculous—if I eat half a cake now, I’ll get all my binging out of my system and I’ll feel ready for this diet. We all do it, but chronic procrastinators do it a lot. And the lack of task completion builds guilt and anxiety and shame, which can make accessing one’s resources even more difficult. So, it builds on itself.

This article concludes that the most helpful way out of procrastination is having an external deadline. But when that isn’t possible, I’m wondering if part of the answer lies in really understanding the myth behind the reasons for procrastination listed above.

1—We think we need to or are entitled to feel a certain way to do things.

2—We falsely believe the right feeling or mood will come along eventually.

What if we got underneath these false beliefs and came to the realization that to be the person we want to be, we need to develop the skill of feeling bad and doing stuff anyway. I talk about this skill with clients a lot and struggle to apply it myself.

Who has had success in this area? I’d love to hear your stories.

The Power of Sleep

 

This morning the most forwarded NY Times article was about meditation and sleep problems. It seems that people are catching on—SLEEP IS IMPORTANT!!! For anyone who has suffered from sleep problems, you know just how horrible it is. Inadequate sleep:

  • Makes us more prone to rumination and worry
  • Leaves us emotional fragile
  • Seriously alters one’s perspective and outlook
  • Makes weight loss more difficult
  • Limits our ability to access our functional resources for problem solving and emotional regulation
  • Increases irritability and irrationality

Sometimes clients come to me with some other presenting problem and when I explore the person’s disrupted sleep patterns, we wind up starting there knowing that all the other work will be far easier to tackle when sleep is regulated. Getting help with sleep regulation is not only wise, but sometimes really necessary. People don’t realize that what they do to make up for sleep problems sometimes makes the problem worse. Sleeping in and long naps can wind up exacerbating nighttime sleep issues, and lying in bed awake isn’t “helpful resting” like some of us would like to believe.

A few thoughts to get you moving towards better sleep:

  • Don’t lie in bed awake more than about 20-30 minutes. Get up, read a bit, and try again in a half hour. Lying in bed awake trains you to lie in bed awake.
  • Wake up at approximately the same time every day no matter how disrupted your sleep was the night before. You may be tired for a day, but you will be more likely to sleep at night after that.
  • Watch for anxiety about whether you are sleeping. Nothing makes sleep harder than stressing about whether you are sleeping. Get up and do something else if you find yourself in that state of mind. Try to sleep again when you feel tired and are no longer anxious.
  • Racing thoughts in bed can be a sign of a larger anxiety problem that may merit treatment.
  • When you wake at night, remember that the parts of your brain don’t wake up at the same rate. The fear center of the brain wakes up faster than your capacity to reason. So, the middle of the night is rarely a good time to do any productive processing about your life. I don’t know how many hours I’ve spent in existential angst in the middle of the night only to wake up and wonder what my fretting was all about.
  • Research is showing that rigorous daily exercise and meditation/contemplative prayer practices are helpful. Check out the NY Times article I mentioned earlier.

Let’s make March “Better Sleep Month” and start really working on getting better (and more) sleep!

A Prayer of Hope

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oh God, let something essential happen to me, something more than interesting or entertaining or thoughtful.

Oh God. Let something essential happen to me, something awesome, something real. Speak to my condition, Lord, and change me somewhere inside where it matters.

Let something happen which is my real self, Oh God.

Ted Loder, Guerrillas of Grace

I meet regularly with a group of folks to grow in our faith together and we pondered this prayer last night. It’s funny, I’ve had this book in my house for quite a while, but I was put off by the title. It was only in a Lenten mailing that I saw it.

This prayer challenges me to hope. And hope can be scary……and vulnerable. Truth be told, I feel safer with more general, open-ended prayers where most anything could be considered an answer. Praying like this puts my heart and risk and opens me not only to a potential radical process of transformation, but also to disappointment. What if nothing happens that I can see or discern?

The most real and gritty prayers get us to this place with God. When we are honest with our truest desires and most desperate wants we open ourselves up in the most vulnerable way! I think that our most desperate surrender places us in the tenderest place of faith. We are in a Divine story that unfolds in a frustratingly human way. We can’t see the whys or how things fit together at many points and that sometimes makes it harder to ask God for real things.

I think that I am going to sit with this prayer for a while. It challenges me and causes me to lean into the mystery of faith.

Questions To Live By

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 Great Questions

A colleague tipped me off to these great questions, from The Happiness Trap News

Am I Present? Am I Open? Am I Doing What Matters? 

AM I PRESENT?

The biggest enemy of presence is living in our heads. Distraction with worry and rumination are big culprits. I have a book in my office with the title Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life. That about says it all. We can be so caught up in our thoughts that we miss the life that is happening in front of us!

AM I OPEN?

By open, I mean are you open to whatever inner experiences may be happening or are you fighting them? Are you able to see, acknowledge and allow whatever emotions or thoughts are coming up for you without needing to change them? This might mean talking to yourself in this way, “ah, there’s some anger. OK, makes sense that would be there, now how might I respond well rather than let this eat me up?”

AM I DOING WHAT MATTERS?

Is what you are doing aligned with the person you want to be? Is what you’re doing contributing to the rich, full, and meaningful life you value? Of course, this may be more challenging when you find yourself folding laundry, sitting in the carpool line, or working at a job you don’t like. But acknowledging the mundane realities required for your life can be a discipline that increases your patience for those tasks.

These questions can spur us out of our automatic processes that impact our moods negatively. Again and again I see how the discipline of these questions can help me experience God’s presence more readily and appreciate my current experiences more fully. Or, if my present situation is a horrid one, these questions help me stay in my best place to deal with it.

For more from Russ Harris, the author of The Happiness Trap, check out this website.

Success Measured by Growth

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I came across an interesting list from www.lifehack.org that someone posted on Facebook called “20 Signs You’re Succeeding In Life Even If You Don’t Feel You Are.” Here are a few of them that caught my attention:

  • Your relationships are less dramatic than they used to be.
  • You are not afraid to ask for help and support any more.
  • You have learned that setbacks and failure are part of self-growth.
  • You have a support system that includes people who would do anything for you.
  • You don’t complain much.
  • You can celebrate others’ success.
  • You have things to look forward to.
  • You love deeply and open yourself up to be loved by others.
  • You refuse to be a victim.
  • You accept what you can’t change.
  • You change what you can.

These signs seem to describe a life with less resistance and more humility. I like it. One thing I look for in therapy with my clients is a growing sense of ease and peace with oneself and with life itself. That inner ease or peace may not mean there is less conflict or challenge in life, but the conflict and challenge is experienced differently. Rather than shaking people off their moorings, resiliency comes in and people are able to weather it differently.

 

What challenges you about this list? How could you grow into one or two of the items here?

Talking to Yourself: Mental Health’s Best Tool

Whoever said talking to yourself was a sign of insanity sold us a bill of goods! In Tim Keller’s book, Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering, he writes about the role of our inner dialogue in our own personal well being. The quote I liked best from his musings was actually from D.M. Lloyd-Jones, “We must talk to ourselves instead of allowing “ourselves” to talk to us.  In spiritual depression we allow our self to talk to us instead of talking to our self…Have you realized that so much of the unhappiness in your life is due to the fact you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself?” Many of us have some kind of critical or anxious inner voice that chatters at us incessantly. Listening to that voice without interruption or intervention inevitably leads to feeling low or anxious.

A lot of the therapy that has really helped me and that I do with my clients is around how to talk to oneself with compassion and wisdom and to bring spiritual truth into the inner dialogue.

Examples of “ourselves” talking to us:

  • You’re such a screw up! Why’d you have to do that?
  • What if no one speaks to me at the party and everyone thinks I’m a pariah?

Examples of talking to yourself:

  • You’re OK; it’s OK to feel this.
  • That’s an interesting thought brain, thank you. I’m going to focus on what I’m doing now.
  • Breath prayer: “Lord Jesus, have mercy.”

Sometimes the thinking that feels least conscious and most automatic is the least helpful for us. The first step is learning to recognize the automatic inner dialogue. The next step is to bring in the voice of your conscious and awake self. If you think about it much of the Christian discipleship is a process of learning what to say to yourself when your inner chatter takes over.

I’m curious how you experience talking to yourself in away that helps you. What are the best things you’ve learned to say to yourself to stay in a good place internally? Please share your best practices!

The Language of Depression

Do you know that research indicates that thinking more concretely can halve levels of depression? This research suggests that the way our inner voice talks can make us more depressed. The language of depression is global, general, and vast. Whenever you notice yourself using “always”, “never”, or “most”, you might be falling prey to the language of depression. It’s easy enough to do. If something happens more than once, it feels like it ALWAYS happens. If we can’t get out of a rut, we can worry the pain will NEVER end. But here is what the research shows; whether or not you figure out if something ALWAYS happens, thinking about how it ALWAYS happens will not help you feel better. Getting specific and concrete helps much more.

Take this evening, for example. My kids and I are at odds and my mind starts going, “It is always like this. I won’t ever figure out how to avoid these arguments. My kids will remember me as always nagging them and will tell their future therapists that I’m the cause of all of their problems.” One evening becomes a global indictment against myself as a parent! How can I get out of the language of depression and into concrete thinking? Here’s how that shift from the language of depression to concreteness might work;

  • “It is always like this.” >>>> ”This has been a really rough evening. Were there warning signs I could have noticed?”
  • “I won’t ever figure out how to avoid these arguments.” >>>> ”Tonight I got into an argument I didn’t want to have. How did I get sucked in?”
  • “My kids will remember me always nagging them.” >>>> ”I do not want this evening to be a pattern. What steps can I take to change things next time?”
  • “I’m the cause of all their problems.” >>>> ”Tonight I hurt them by raising my voice. When can I sit down with them and apologize?”

Here’s how the researchers instructed participants to think concretely:

  • First, focus on sensory experiences. What do I see, hear, and notice?
  • Second, notice how events unfolded. How did this unfold? What are warning signs? What might change the outcome?
  • Third, focus on how you can move forward. Break things down into discrete manageable steps. How can I move forward? What are the steps? What is the first step I can take?

Researchers noticed that asking “why?” is a telltale depressive question. Shifting to “how?” moved people away from rumination and depression. I hope that you find this as helpful as I have. I was able to end the evening very well with my kids; group hug and all! How we handle our inner voice is one of the most critical influences on our long-term spiritual/emotional health and long-term flourishing.

The research behind this article is found in the article: How to Reduce Worry and Rumination 1: Become More Specific Published on July 21, 2013 by Edward R. Watkins, PhD. in Mood for Thought.

A Makeover with Meaning

I visited my college roommate, Susie, last weekend and we gave her back deck a makeover. This space went from a plastic, dog-chewed wasteland to a very pretty place to spend time. Both of us were giddy from the experience: me, because I love making things beautiful and Susie, because she had never seen her deck or yard in this light and she never would have done it on her own. We had both been through times of acute suffering, and the deck quickly became  a metaphor for newness and fresh beauty in our lives.

My spiritual director once told me during one of my darkest moments that I would look back on that time of suffering and be able to see the beauty in it. Since her assurance, I would often look back and check…..beauty? Can I see it? Hmmmm…… Now I think I can, in a makeover sort of way. I can see that my time of desolation opened me up to reconfiguring my thought processes, something I had no idea I needed to change. Just like Susie hadn’t really thought that her plastic, dog-chewed chairs that scraped her arms could do with some replacing, I hadn’t ever considered that the way I worked through times of suffering could be better. Even though it invariably dragged my mood to an even lower level than the current crisis merited!

One of the fundamental problems with Susie’s original “design concept” on her deck was that she really didn’t like her yard, so her chairs faced the back of the house. We really needed to shift the entire orientation of the seating to give her new eyes to see her yard, which is a beautiful green space with lovely trees! In life, I have come to believe that sometimes only suffering will compel us to look at something differently. Only sitting in the darkness made me willing to consider my “mental make-over.” I can see that through suffering and reconfiguring/redecorating, I have now found the gift of equanimity (evenness/steadiness) in a way I never had it before. This doesn’t mean I don’t struggle and suffer, but I add to my struggle less by doing different things with my focus and attention throughout.

For both my personal shift and for the deck project, there was a catalyst for considering the makeover. Personally, it was seeing that the way I processed suffering didn’t work. For the deck project, it was when I looked at Susie over a glass of wine and asked, “what do you think of a deck makeover?” What is happening in your life right now that might actually be an invitation to a complete reorientation, reconfiguring or makeover? Are you open to turning those chairs around and checking out the view you thought you hated? God’s movements in our lives can be sometimes very obvious and blunt. It’s such a loss when we miss the signs.

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