Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Lincoln Tunnel

When I was a kid, my parents would take my sister and I down to Long Island a few times a year to visit relatives and go to the beach. Given that said relatives lived about 45 or 50 miles East of Manhattan, we usually took the George Washington or Tappan Zee Bridges as to avoid an unnecessary slog through Mid or Lower Manhattan traffic. 

On one occasion, though, for some reason I can't remember, we were indeed in Midtown Manhattan, and were taking the Lincoln Tunnel out of the city. (For those of you who aren't familiar with NYC, the Lincoln Tunnel connects Midtown Manhattan with New Jersey.) 

The Lincoln Tunnel is rather narrow, especially to the eyes of a seven-year-old kid who is unaccustomed to such sights and riding in the back seat of his Dad's car. I watched the wall -- so close, it seemed, I could touch it -- in amazement as we sped through the tunnel. My Dad's from Brooklyn, and I knew two relevant facts: 1) he knew exactly what he was doing; and 2) he had driven all over New York City. Still, I wondered, "How are we not crashing into the wall? It's so close!"

(image of Lincoln Tunnel from, "Weird New York"

So I asked him. Little did I know his response would become one of the most important working metaphors of my life -- and one that I'd pass along to countless friends, family, and clients. His response went something like this:

"It's easier than you think. When you're driving, you have a tendency to steer the car toward where you're looking. So when you're driving through the tunnel, all you have to do is look ahead at the road -- at where you want to go. Because if I were to look at the wall, I'd drive right into it, or come dangerously close."

It was an "Ah-ha!" moment for me ("Coooool!") -- I'd been given insider information on one of those super awesome grown-up mysteries: I now knew how to drive through the Lincoln Tunnel. And that was satisfaction enough for me.

It's curious, but I whereas I remember that early, simple memory with precision and clarity, I couldn't tell you much about the moment, years later, when I recognized the deeper brilliance of what my Dad told me that day. It boils down to this:

If you focus on what you don't want (to hit the tunnel wall), you're setting yourself up to get what you don't want. But if you focus instead on what you do want (drive safely through the tunnel), you're setting yourself up to get that

In other words, our actions, and all their consequences, tend to follow our focus. 

I think it's possible in just about any situation to identify something you don't want; heck, I'll go out on a limb and say that's even what most of us are trained to do automatically. Think of it. How often do we say, "This sucks!" or "I don't want to do that." How often do we focus on our problems? (Hint: very often.)

It is far more useful, productive, and pleasant, frankly, to give your attention to what you want, i.e., your goals, and the outcomes you desire. There will be challenges and obstacles, but if you remain persistent in your focus on what you want, you will seek, and find, solutions. 

I can't stress enough what a powerful life skill this is. And the good news is that this type of perspective reorientation is a very simple matter of choice. All you have to do is be willing to say to yourself, "Okay, I'm very clear on what I don't want. What is it that I do want?" That simple thought will propel you forward; and, as I recently said in another post, your life will open up to you.


Wednesday, March 27, 2013

My Affirmation Today

Snapshot: Loss and Grieving

Here's one of the takeaways from "Loss and Grieving," as I see it:

Loss and Grieving

Coping with the loss of someone or something important is one of the most difficult tasks a person can face. It is in our nature, after all, to get attached to things; and, to put it clinically, when the object of our attachment is gone, we suffer. Its absence leaves what feels like a gaping void in our hearts, and the grief can be overwhelming, all-encompassing.

We get attached to people, places, and things. We get attached to our routines, our opinions, our beliefs, our goals, our homes, our lifestyles, our expectations.

It's almost as if we're lined with an adhesive, we get so attached to things.

And that's okay.

Attachments really only become an evident issue for us when we experience suffering. Fortunately, the consideration of suffering is a road well-traveled by our forebears, and we can all lean on their wisdom and guidance for assistance. The Buddha, for example, addressed the matter of human suffering in great detail. Regardless of your religious or spiritual identity / orientation, and even regardless of whether you believe in a higher power, are agnostic, or are atheist, The Four Noble Truths are useful guides in view of suffering. I recommend taking a look at them.

I'm not here to promote Buddhism, though. I'm here to talk about what it feels like to lose something, to grieve, and to heal.

Loss can make one feel utterly empty. It can feel shocking, unreal, and overwhelming. Loss can incite feelings of incredible sadness and longing. It can feel as if one's entire world has ended, and has been swallowed up, furthermore, by some deep and terrible void. It can feel like it's never going to end, and that there's no hope. Chances are good, actually, that a major loss will incite any combination of those experiences in a person. 

Grieving -- something which follows and emerges from loss -- is a process. And as with any emotional process, it's a safe bet to expect some tumult; that is, a person who is grieving will probably experience a wide spectrum of feelings, and will very possibly be on the proverbial emotional roller coaster. What's more, each person's grieving process will "look" different, and will span any number of days, weeks, months, or years, even.

Are you familiar with the concept of the Five Stages of Grief (as articulated by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross)? They can be a useful guide for better-understanding the grieving process. One thing I learned, though, is that the stages do not necessarily occur in order. Oftentimes, a person who is grieving will, for example, experience several stages simultaneously, or will revisit stages as time goes on. That fluidity between the stages is important to keep in mind, because it can otherwise be very confusing and disappointing if one finds themselves "regressing."

Another important consideration is that different cultures have different perspectives on loss and grieving. ("Culture," in this case, can refer to groups big and small, from entire populations on down to families.) There is extraordinary diversity among attitudes toward death, for example. There are rules and guidelines among different cultures, both written and unwritten, which inform the processes of grieving and letting go.

At any rate, that brings us to the question, what does it mean to heal in the wake of a loss? The thing that keeps returning to my mind around this question is a metaphor I learned as an intern mental health counselor:

Imagine your heart (not the organ; rather, your center of feeling) is a glass. When you suffer a major loss, it's as if a large, foreign object is uncomfortably wedged into the glass. What many people hope for is that, over time, the foreign object -- the burden of the loss, the pain and suffering -- will shrink. While that may be so, there's a better way to think about it: imagine that the glass, your heart, expands over time, thereby more comfortably accommodating the sense of loss.

I love that metaphor, because it's true: Loss doesn't entirely go away, but our abilities to accommodate it and integrate it into our daily lives do expand.

We cannot help but be indelibly changed when we experience loss. But we aren't forever diminished by loss, either. No. Instead, we are transformed by loss. If we attend to our suffering in a compassionate manner, we are transformed into beings with greater capacities for love, peace, self-knowledge, understanding, forgiveness, acceptance, and compassion. We are transformed into more complete versions of ourselves -- as if a layer of steam has been wiped off a window.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013


For us human beings, mental health is everything. It's omnipresent. Even, and maybe especially, for people who don't think it affects them, I'm telling you -- mental health is everything. Consider this: if you took someone who loved their work, and you took their work away from them, and you left them in an existence devoid of that work, that person would be affected. They would almost certainly be unhappy. They might even feel despondent and lost. Their psychological life, then -- their mental health -- would be affected. And as a result, other parts of their life would be affected, too. So, I repeat: mental health is everything -- it's omnipresent.

I named this blog "Mental Health for Humans" on a lark. I'm not thrilled with the name, but it works for now. Besides, "what's in a name?" I'm not a media strategist, I'm not a slogan-writer, and I'm not prone to snappy witticisms, especially when I'm trying to come up with snappy witticisms. What I knew, prior to launching this blog, was that I had a lot to say about mental health in general, because I had studied it, practiced it as a therapist, and had my own struggles with it.

"Mental health" was, and is, important to me. I feel an urgency about it, in large part because I know that suffering can be assuaged. I know that this earthly existence of ours can feel rather strange and uncertain and mysterious; but I know we can all proceed through it with a greater degree of grounding and happiness. That means a lot to me. I want good things for us. I want us to learn from our problems; I want us to study ourselves, and our universe; and I want us to grow. I want us, collectively and individually, to achieve deeper levels of awareness, and higher levels of consciousness.

The thing is, I'm not really sure that the stuff I write about, and the stuff I want to write about, fits all that neatly into the mental health "bucket." I've never been much of a fan of buckets in the categorical sense, anyway. (Actual, literal buckets are fine, I should note.) I'd rather honor my many and varied interests by drawing connections between them in considering a topic of import; and I'd rather draw strength and passion from them as I pursue a sharper image in my craft (i.e., writing). Besides, there are plenty of people who do a really good job disseminating straight-up, traditional "mental health" content.

I want people to read what I write, and I know there needs to be a thematic orientation for people to "get" my work. So while well-being is extremely important to me, and probably always will be, I may occasionally -- or often, even -- stray out of traditional bounds to discuss it.

For example, I love baseball. I love food. I love architecture, city planning, personal finance, spirituality, literature, theater, art, music, science, culture, etc. It all ties in for me, and each of those things fuels my interest in the other. At a given moment, tattoos and beards might capture my interest and set me off on an exploration of ideas and themes I couldn't have otherwise accessed without their foundational support.

In other words, folks, please take note that I'm going to give myself the space and freedom to explore that which lies beyond the conventional walls of the "mental health" realm. It, mental health, will remain a primary orientation, but even that -- the definition, that is -- is probably broader, for me, than for many.

I hope you enjoy it. If not, that's okay, of course. You need to do what works for you. You need to find content that appeals to you. I'm confident I have something to offer, though, and I invite you in for a look.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Releasing the Grip of Anxiety: Acceptance & Compassion

I want to write about anxiety. First of all, everyone feels anxious periodically. It's part of caring about things, and it's part of being human. Like other emotional experiences, anxiety provides us with important feedback in a given situation. It's adaptive, it's necessary to our well-being, it's valuable, and it's good. There's nothing wrong with anxiety in and of itself.

Some of us, though, experience anxiety to a disruptive, invasive, and even debilitating extent. And of course, this can be an occasional experience, or a persistent one, or one that waxes and wanes, or one that eventually disappears altogether, etc. There's a lot of variation with it.

Anyway, how do we differentiate between normal/healthy anxiety and problematic anxiety? My view, in general terms, is that anxiety (or any experience, really) is an issue when it persistently, invasively interferes with one's ability to function in a personally satisfying way.

(Incidentally, my view is pretty common among mental health professionals, and it more or less jives with how the various mental health "disorders" are defined by the DSM-IV-TR, which is the clinical reference guide used by mental health professionals in the USA [and some other parts of the world].)

There are many so-called Anxiety Disorders in the DSM, and for brevity's sake, I will not discuss them all here. And besides, that's enough about the problem of anxiety -- let's move into a discussion of ideas and solutions.

I think anxiety's roots are in avoidance. That is NOT to say I think it is a person's "fault" for having a problem with anxiety -- not at all!! Here's the thing: I think we all want to feel good. So when something really bad happens to a person, they do the best they can to move on with their life. And sometimes that entails developing new sets of beliefs about themselves, and about life in general; and sometimes it also entails compartmentalizing or otherwise pushing aside one's thoughts and feelings.

That all makes sense, especially in view of our intuitive desire to feel good. "Avoidance," then, in this case, is about avoiding that which causes suffering. The problem, though, is that it doesn't really work -- at least, not when it comes to the often messy reality of our inner lives. That's what I meant when I posted this image a few weeks ago:

What disruptive anxiety "says" to me, then, is that the sufferer probably has some inner "stuff" they need to approach and consider in order to truly move on. In other words, one's past must be accepted and released before one can truly occupy the present in happiness and health.

I'll be straight-up with you: The process of approaching one's "stuff" is usually pretty scary and uncomfortable; and that can seem a little counter-intuitive, of course, seeing as how the ultimate goal is achieving a greater measure of peace. 

The thing is, that's okay. Sometimes, that which seems paradoxical conceals a deeper truth. 

Take it slow. Whether you choose to undertake the process on your own, or with another person's assistance (i.e., a counselor), make sure you're in a safe, secure place in which you feel as free as possible to express anything that comes up. Also, set an expectation for yourself that it won't necessarily be a linear, quick-fix process -- and setting that expectation is important, by the way, because it invokes the keys to release: Acceptance and Compassion.

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that self-directed Acceptance and Compassion are ALWAYS harbingers of positive things to come in terms of peace, happiness, well-being, clarity, balance, and achievement. 

Here's the beautiful thing: we don't necessarily have to like something in order to accept it; and we don't necessarily have to agree with someone's actions in order to show them compassion. 

In other words, it's okay to say, "Wow, that thing that happened was really unpleasant. It was really painful. I really wish it hadn't happened." You can retain that basic attitude and still, at the end of the day, augment it with acceptance: "But it did happen. It happened. I survived it, and I'm sitting here right now."

We all have aspects of ourselves which we don't like. We've all done things we regret. We've all done things which, even today, make us feel sad and guilty to ponder. We've all done things in violation of our senses of right and wrong. And we've all had bad things done to us.

While that stuff isn't great, it doesn't mean we deserve to forever languish under the burden of displaced torment.

I firmly believe that we are all worthy of happiness and peace -- which means that we are worthy of acceptance, worthy of compassion, and worthy of forgiveness. 

After all, none of us is perfect. Let me repeat that (in all caps): NONE OF US IS PERFECT. (You might not like it, but you have to accept it.) What that means, in part, is that we periodically make big mistakes. Sometimes we screw up and hurt other people; sometimes other people screw up and hurt us.

The only thing to do is practice acceptance and compassion.

And it starts with us. It starts with each of us giving those things to ourselves, first and foremost. It starts with each of us being the kindest, most loving friend to ourselves that we can imagine. 

You, Dear Reader, are worth it. I know it in my bones. 

Thank you for reading this post. I hope you have an awesome day. 

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Leaving Hell

I've made several prolonged trips to Hell. Each visit was quite terrible in its own way, and I realize, as a result, just what a vast, dynamic place Hell really is. My tour bus took me from solitary wastelands to crowded peaks, and everywhere in between. (I hope you realize I'm not speaking literally.)

Hell is the capital-w Worst, it really is. It seems to have an ability to customize itself to fit precisely the vulnerabilities of each of its visitors. It is such a torturous, despairing place, and there are some -- many -- who don't make it out alive.

I made it out alive, obviously. And I've been determined, in recent years, to make efforts which might help others who are going through their own versions of Hell, whatever that looks like. Hence, this blog, for example.

If you've been following along here in recent times, you'll have noticed I've created a number of what I call "snapshots" -- images, with several lines of pointed or inspirational text superimposed thereon. Snapshots like the ones I've been creating are nothing new, of course, and anyone who spends any time whatsoever online -- whether on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Reddit, etc. -- is familiar with the medium. I had mixed feelings about creating them at first, because I'm a bit of a traditionalist in that I think there is real value in taking the time to sit down, read a document in its entirety, and derive meaning.

I realized two things, however, that changed my mind and helped me take the plunge into single-shot media. First, I realized it is quite natural for people to want a distilled, simple, readily accessed message -- especially on the Internet. Time is of the essence today more than ever, it seems; and content-browsing online, furthermore, usually lends itself to short bursts of attention. I know that's true for me, most of the time. Second, I remembered that it was a series of very choice quotes, and extractions from larger bodies of text, which helped rescue me from the depths of my own version of Hell.

Since we're all different, not every story, quote, image, axiom, etc. is going to resonate equally among us. And something which resonates powerfully with a person one day may not have the same impact a day or two later.

That's beside the point.

The point is in the willingness to seek and consider new ways of life -- from a new way of looking at the world all the way on up to major lifestyle changes. I'll repeat: it's in the willingness to seek and consider new ways of life -- of being.

Those who seek will find. That I can promise you. It may not be what was originally sought after (or it may); but the journey will provide. The journey will provide the tools and lessons that a person needs in order to get where they want and need to go in life. It's what all the great stories are about, and it's what all the great religions are about. Life is our teacher; we must only be willing to listen.

I'll start to wrap up this post with a few quotes which have been especially helpful to me (one of which is my own):

"It is never too late to be what you might have been." -- George Eliot
"You are never too old to set another goal or dream another dream." -- C. S. Lewis
"Life beats down and crushes the soul, and art reminds you that you have one." -- Stella Adler
"Go confidently in the direction of your dreams!" -- Henry David Thoreau
"The cure for grief is motion." -- Elbert Hubbard
"If you want to conquer fear, don't sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy." -- Dale Carnegie

And a metaphor I developed which has proven useful on a few occasions:

"If you leave your car in the garage, it won't ever get dented or wrecked; you'll be protecting it, and you'll be protecting yourself from those headaches. That is true. But you also won't ever get anywhere. Take a chance: give primacy to your desire to get where you want to go, and take the car out of the garage." -- Yours Truly

These are but a few of the many which have helped me over the years. I encourage you to seek, collect, and create your own. Develop some metaphors -- they're amazing teachers. Maybe create a file for them on your computer (that's what I did), or a folder to keep in your desk, for quick reference.

There is an ocean of wisdom available to us, and it can be accessed just about anywhere. Anything we see, do, and experience can teach us, if only we let it -- even Hell.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Rumination and Depression

One of the common features of depression is ruminative thought. "Rumination" is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as follows:

1. to go over in the mind repeatedly and often casually or slowly
2. to chew repeatedly for an extended period

The problematic fixture of rumination, when featured in depression, is its compulsive nature. Compulsive behaviors (thinking included) are characterized by obsession, repetition, automation, and a lack of choice on the part of the the individual.

Unfortunately, the thoughts, images, memories, and ideas upon which a person ruminates are usually unpleasant.

It can be easy for an outsider to consider these points and say, "Ok, just stop ruminating on that stuff." If only it were so easy. Chances are good that the person suffering from depression has tried that -- "just stopping" -- to no avail. The fact is, one usually cannot simply "stop" a compulsive behavior like rumination; rather, one (usually) must learn a new, more functional (and satisfying) behavior to replace its compulsive cousin.

I think the human mind is a diligent problem-solver. By extension, then, rumination, to me, is a process (not necessarily consciously understood) by which the mind is seeking to solve a problem. Rumination acts like quicksand, though, in that a person's thoughts get pulled into, and stuck upon, the object of rumination -- and this makes it difficult or impossible to clearly identify and solve the underlying issue. This isn't pleasant, it is usually unwelcome, and it can be highly frustrating; but it is, nevertheless, a signal from the mind that a problem exists and requires attention.

I think the intention of problem-solving in and of itself is awesome; and I think, furthermore, such intention is to be partnered with in seeking to proceed out of one's depression. In other words, embrace it, pat it on the back, and get crackin'!

The first step is to put on your Sherlock Holmes deerstalker hat and get curious about the deeper problem your rumination is seeking to solve.

(This is why I'm a big believer in therapy, incidentally. This stuff can be very difficult to recognize and describe on one's own. An impartial, external party, then, can be of incredible value to a person.)

It's impossible for me to speak in anything but general terms at this point, because everyone's problems are different. Often, however, people find that their rumination is trying to solve the following issues (which are also general terms): guilt, shame, anger, and/or frustration. People also find, sometimes, their rumination is a defense mechanism against feelings of worry, doubt, fear, powerlessness, and/or vulnerability.

The great thing is that this Sherlock Holmes process represents real hope for the sufferer. Once a person's underlying problem is understood, it is possible -- very possible -- to begin the process of resolving it. For example, if a person is struggling with shame and guilt, it is possible for that person to achieve self-forgiveness.

A really nice byproduct of all this, incidentally, is that people often learn so, so much about themselves when they go through it. They often come to a deeper understanding of "what makes them tick," their needs, their values, their relationships, etc. They learn skills and tools which help them manage future struggles more efficiently. They learn acceptance and compassion.

And that, as Martha Stewart puts it, is a good thing.

Monday, March 4, 2013


Today, I'm going to write about CRISIS.

I don't think it's a stretch to say most of us have experienced crises of some sort. They occur when the proverbial straw breaks the camel's back, or when an unexpected, major event occurs. Either way, when a crisis happens, it changes things -- maybe everything, or close to it -- and it cannot be ignored.

I don't have a ton of insight to share on managing crises; after all, they're each their own unique little bundle of joy (haha). Crises also tend to induce varying degrees of "survival mode" in people, and that, pretty much, is what it is. Crises can be pretty unpleasant, and all those involved do the best they can with them. 

That all being said, when a crisis occurs, the people who have to take action seem to dissociate a little bit, generally speaking, and interestingly enough. In other words, they detach a bit from the emotional impact of the event in order to preserve their decision-making abilities and get things done; and that's a good thing, in my opinion, because after all, in times of crisis, things have to get done.

(Image from Google Image search "git er done"...I couldn't help myself)

I experienced a bit of a family crisis over the weekend. (I'll refrain from sharing details, but thankfully, everyone involved is alive and relatively well.) When the crisis was at its peak, I found myself in an Action Mode state very similar to what I described above. And it was necessary and good, believe me.

What I took note of, though, and what I'd like to underscore here, was the stuff that happened after the crisis -- that is, once the situation had stabilized. 

Generally speaking, the immediate aftermath was, for me, almost equally as dicey as the crisis itself, but in a different sense. My dissociation had faded; but while there was still plenty of business to attend to, I no longer had the luxury of operating with that nice little buffer zone between myself and my emotions. Instead, I suddenly found myself having to manage my tumultuous, intense, and crisis-induced emotional responses along with my need to take care of business. 

Everyone experiences and expresses their emotions differently, especially in times of stress. I did notice, though, that it was tempting to indulge catastrophic thinking. After all, I was worried; my system was flooded with adrenaline; and my brain was teeming with unusual levels of neurotransmitters. In other words, everything in me was ready to FREAK OUT. Hell, everything in me WANTED to freak out. So whenever there was a new development, I felt myself escalating. Minor annoyances became Big Deals; passing, innocuous thoughts were Urgent Matters. 

It was exhausting, and it was unpleasant. After all, I was aware of what was happening with me, and I initially tried to do exactly what I recently warned against: forcefully change my thoughts and feelings. Oy. Mercifully, I soon realized that all I could really do was to breathe, let myself experience whatever came up, and be my own best friend. That helped -- a lot.

So. In the aftermath of a crisis, be extra compassionate and forgiving with yourself. Let yourself experience whatever it is you’re experiencing. Know that you're probably going to think and feel a lot of contradictory things, or things that surprise you, or things you wish you wouldn't. You might even feel yourself regressing, or being pulled into old, unwanted habits of communication and behavior. Whatever the case may be, have patience with yourself, give yourself “space” to exist, and know that “this, too, shall pass.” 

A few closing thoughts. If other people are involved with you in a crisis, know that they’re going through their own versions of the experience, and that they, too, are probably thinking, feeling, saying, and doing things that are unusual, unwelcome, or unfamiliar. Or maybe not. Either way, extend to them the same senses of compassion and forgiveness I described above.