Noticing the New: How Thankful Thoughts Build Your Happy

German postcardAn anonymous German postcard (1888) was the source for the first optical illusion of the “Old Woman/Young Woman.” Which do you see?

I recently heard that what we concentrate on has this strange way of growing bigger, whether that is our stress, our work load, our weight or even our bliss.  What we put our attention into is what begins to take up rental space in not only our minds, but in our reality.  Truth be told, when two people are standing next to each other concentrating on the same event, they will pick up different pieces of the event, depending on their perspective…what they concentrate on or what they pick up according to their own background and individuality. 

Negative Space, not the glass half-empty kind, but negative space in art and dance is what we often think of as “the background.”  This is the space that we generally don’t concentrate on so much because we are looking at the “positive space” (again not the half-full kind but..), the space where the dancers are moving or the parts of the canvas that the paint has touched.  My first year in college, I took a dance class and was utterly befuddled when my professor told me to step in and fill in the negative space in the studio.  What space? There was nothing there but empty air? She told me to look at the negative space and see ONLY the negative space…the shape, the lighting, the overall presence of the space where nothing appeared to be and THEN to become a part of it, shaping it to become a new type of space.  Whoa. Man.  Although at first, I felt a bit like I was being tricked, like in the storybook, “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” the shape of what wasn’t there slowly started to form and it gave me a new found freedom to imagine new possibilities within the space in front of me.   

Our lives are every bit a piece of art that unfolds in new ways every day.  Love, loss, grief, pain, stress, fatigue, rush, joy, beauty all take the stage at various points leaving us at times sweating, unable to see the full picture.   The deadlines at work, the fears and worries about our families, our own inadequacies take shape as a hulking beast, and we often can’t see the other, more subtle pieces around them, because our worries and stress seem so large and overwhelming.  Part of this is a survival mechanism…we can only take in so much and thus have to divide our attention so that what we take in with our senses is not so overwhelming.  So those “crises,” those things that cause us biological stress end up taking center stage.  But how do we shift our focus to the negative space?

Gratitude.  I wish I had something a bit more kitschy or new to give to you, but study after study, culture, spiritual background, one after another all say the same thing; that when we concentrate on what we are thankful for, our attention shifts to those things, and that we become happier.   It is like noticing the quiet girl in your high school that ends up being your best friend or your soul mate…you were here this whole time??? Well, yes she was, but it wasn’t that she didn’t say anything, it was that you just didn’t notice.  We get to decide where our focus goes, which is good news for us, because that gives a little bit more control in this emotional whack-a-mole game we play.  So then how do we get started?

If you are serious about shifting your focus let me challenge you to start a gratitude journal.  I know that you have probably already heard of doing this and may be having a reaction to the word “journal” like you are going to suddenly turn into a Judy Bloom character; so let’s call it the Neuron Reshaping Documentation Portfolio.  WHATEVER WORKS.  This is a place where you are going to keep track of what you notice during the day, that is new and different that causes you an increase in joy…even a slight increase in joy.   The smell of a new book, that tree that you pass by every day that you never noticed before,  the things your kids say, the high five your husband gives you as you wish each other good luck on the day (hey, sometimes it is a good-bye, sometimes it is a good-luck!).  Whatever these things are, just note them and at various times during the day say thank you and put 15 minutes into your planner to list those things, those new things that you notice.  They may have been there the whole time hanging out in the negative space, making it all that more beautiful and unique than what you have seen before. 

 Here are some questions to get you started:

What are some things that I like about myself? Not even just like…LOVE about yourself.  (This can be anything from I like my eyes, to I love that I am adventurous, to I love that am the only one in my office who sets their ringtone to The Lord of the Rings theme). Noticing new things that you like about yourself can increase your self-appreciation.

What are some things on my way to work that are beautiful?  Yes, it can feel at first a little like the License Plate game growing up…you may have to look hard at first, but once you start, these things have a way of snowballing.  Once you get going, start saying “Thank you for” before each thing or each person. 

What do you love about your home?  This is an interesting one because at first, when we look closely, we may just see how messy it is, or what needs to be fixed, but shifting your focus to what you truly like about where you live can give you more peace about the long list of to-dos.

What do you love about your loved ones?  This is an advanced practice one, because while we can practice on noticing the beauty of “things” in our lives, what we haven’t noticed before, we need to have exercised our gratitude muscles in order to feel what kind of depth of gratitude we have for our loved ones.  I would recommend picking a loved one of focus each day and writing what you absolutely love about them, what is unique and special and what your first memories are of that person.  After you write those things you may feel compelled to write them a letter to tell them those things.  Be brave enough to do it and if it is safe, send it. 

This has been a hard year for many of us and this is by no means a call to forget your grief, loss or acknowledge your pain.  Gratitude is not an evasive maneuver for running from what is right there in front but in tiny intervals can help us to notice those small things that still give us a little hope and a little joy.  You may be surprised about what takes shape and how your life starts shifting to something you never thought was there.

Picture from:

Weisstein, Eric W. “Young Girl-Old Woman Illusion.” From MathWorld–A Wolfram Web Resource.

Risky Business: Some Risks Lead to Big Gains

risky businessMany of us have seen that iconic scene where Tom Cruise slides across the floor in Risky Business. It gives a pretty solid picture of taking advantage of the moment, doing something risky and legendary and worrying about the consequences later. Ferris Bueller did the same thing. If only I had been as skilled in faking sick 101.

Please don’t think I am commending these guys for breaking a lot of rules and doing things they shouldn’t have been doing. What I want to highlight is how the risks they took lead to once in a lifetime experiences and a years worth of interesting stories. Had they played it safe two things would have happened.

  1. We would have had to watch a really boring movie
  2. They would have missed out on those experiences that I would venture to say were impactful on their lives

We don’t need to do anything illegal or sneak around to take risks and have life-changing experiences. But we do need to get a little uncomfortable. If you are someone who plays it safe you probably always know what to expect, you can plan for it and life feels safe. Maybe you play it safe because you worry about what would happen if you deviated from the norm. You lack the support or confidence to step outside the box. And as a result you are comfortable, but maybe you are also predictable and left a little wanting. You know there is more to life than this – that you can be more and that you can do more. 

Taking the plunge, taking a risk can be one of the most terrifying things you do. But it also has the potential to be very rewarding, the possibilities for you double when you decide to get a little uncomfortable and take a risk.

What is your risk? Where do you see your life becoming stale? Where you are left comfortable and safe but without room to grow and become the more that you know you can be?

Risks are uncomfortable because risks lead to change which is the golden opportunity for growth and that doesn’t always feel good. Anybody heard of growing pains? It is an uncomfortable process but when you come out on the other side you are more than you were when you went in. If you choose the risks you will take with care and execute them with support you will have achieved something very exciting – you will have stepped out of your comfort zone successfully and the world will present more opportunities for you.  It’s all about the first step. Are you ready for some risky business?1


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Easing stress around the holidays: Readjust your Expectations on the “Perfect” Holiday

Sure, we would love to have a holiday where there is a magical glow of perfectly placed ornaments and the scent of cinnamon and pine lingering in the doorways and sparkling in the eaves.  But, let’s face it, sometimes the glow gets out-shined by the perspiration on our faces, or our hot-tempered bursts as we try and create the most magical of holidays.  Unless you have a big secret, not one of us is a magical creature, therefore creating the “magic” of Christmas, either needs to be outsourced to a multitude of elves or you need to lower your expectations.   

Look at the reasons behind what you are doing in trying to create the “perfect holiday”:

Are you competitive?  Realize that this is coming from a person who was in such denial of her Type A tendencies that her Ph.D. adviser laughed in her face when she said she was Type B.  I mean this in the most kind way.  Some of us wear our competitive spirit on our sleeves like we were endorsed by Nike, while others of us are more like Competitive Ninjas in a holiday Fight Club: we come, we conquer, and we never talk about it and we certainly don’t like to admit (even to ourselves) that we are competitive…especially with things like the holidays!!!  Are we known in our circles as the “Perfect Present Gifter,” “The Gourmet Chef,” “The Decorator” “The Designer Present Wrapper” (watch out Vera Wang), “The Christmas Tree Lady,” or the “I-don’t-know-how-she-does-it-with-a-career-and-family-Christmas-Fantasma”?  When we come together have we spent countless hours sweating in a sea of Christmas drenched saline only to arrive in a teetering tense tinsel-toting exhaustion, triumphantly announcing “It was no big deal, just threw this together.”  If so, you may be a Competitive Ninja, in which case, you are asking for some tense times around the corner.  Acknowledge your efforts, even to yourself, and ease up on your expectations.  Evaluate why it is that people truly love you, and if you feel safe, ask them.  It may be the gusto of your laughter at their jokes or your kind and generous heart, and not the height of your altitude-defying bows.     

Are you trying to relive good memories & traditions? Was there a special holiday that you would like to re-create for your children or for yourself?  Look at what truly made it special.  Was it the decorations? The perfectly cooked food? The rituals of lighting the menorah? The presents?  The midnight candlelight church service?  Extra attention by family members?  Recognizing exactly what it was that made the holiday special can help you hone in on what exactly you want for that day or days to be about…then focus on that.  You don’t need to have EVERYTHING perfect, concentrate on those things that are important to you and your family and let the rest go.  You and your family will be relieved when there is more of you to go around, rather than the 8-step gourmet stuffing found on the latest cooking challenge show.   

Do childhood holidays seem bigger than what you can feasibly recreate for your family?  Recognize that events in our past can become grander over time as well.  There are very good reasons for this!  When we are children we are smaller, so everything is going to seem much bigger.  Aunt Harriet literally looked 9 feet tall.  And the presents under the tree literally looked like an ocean.  When we are children we are also making brand new neural pathways based on new information, so that when we see something new and cool, like a tree growing in our living room, or our family gathered around a menorah of nine beautiful glowing lights, everything is going to seem that much more spectacular.  There is also a sense of anticipation when we are younger, partly due to us being so much more trusting of the unknown.  Big guy with presents coming into our house that we have never met?  That’s cool.  Aunts and Uncles who we have never seen before coming to stay in our house and using our towels? That works….minus the lipstick kisses on our cheeks.   As we get older, we trust the unknown and uncertain less and less and while when we are a kid the unknown may seem “magical,” to many of us adults, the unknown needs to be mapped out, organized and conquered.  That is why the holidays can seem like an endless list of to-dos and tasks.  Things don’t magically appear anymore, you are the elf. 

Are we trying to rewrite a traumatic past while suffering through it? On the other hand, maybe you are trying to create an intensely wonderful holiday for you and your family because you had the opposite experience growing up, and the holidays bring up painful memories from the past.  As in relationships, we either relive or rewrite the past.  Sometimes, in trying to rewrite the past, we try to make the perfect holiday that we never had, while working through out trauma and reliving past pain.  This can be extremely taxing, emotionally, psychologically and physically and we may think that this goes unnoticed by those closest to us.  Unfortunately, suffering in silence will make you feel more isolated and alone, and those closest to you will be confused when you fervently insist that everything is okay.  Significant traumas can be reawakened through holiday traditions and rituals that may have been the same at the time of the trauma.  Maybe when you look at a specific holiday symbol, painful memories reawaken of events in the past.  This is a normal piece of the trauma cycle for those that have experienced past traumas, and much like Scrooge in A Christmas Story, the scenes can come back to us quite vividly, as if we were there; and put us in a state of pain, anger, grief, anxiety and/or depression.   Although clinically this is a recognized piece of trauma cycle, it is not healthy to go without help, suffer through alone or be left unaddressed.  Seek attention from a qualified, professional mental health provider to help you work through the trauma. It is a sign of strength to recognize that you need that support, and you will be more authentically available to those you love.     

Readjusting our expectations of what the holidays are about, what we are capable of, and what we want to create during this time, is not easy and can take some quiet time to really focus and reflect.  This can be difficult when our senses are bombarded and our time is demanded.  Circle the wagons around your time and your family and let some of your expectations go.  If you do this, I promise it will be a holiday to remember: Even if it is only because you will actually have the time and mental energy to remember it.   

Oooh – You Feel Tense!

tenseHave you noticed that more and more often we feel uncomfortable? Sometimes that is due to natural aging (you know bodies weren’t meant to last forever) and sometimes that is due to stress. Because anxiety takes a physical toll on our bodies the more we are mentally tense the more we are physically tense too.

If your body is very tense and sore with uncomfortable muscles then you might be experiencing anxiety and you didn’t even realize it. You might be clenching your jaw or tightening your shoulders and neck. Often we notice our physical symptoms before we realize there is something to be done about our mental wellbeing.

Take an inventory of your body. Do you have chronic tightness or soreness in any area of your body? Focus on your chest, shoulders, neck, and jaw. Did you find anything? Can you attribute that discomfort to anything else? If you work on a computer all day you probably have tight shoulders and a sore back, so work conditions may be contributing to your physical discomfort without any mental discomfort underlying that.

If or when you notice that you are carrying tension in your body as a result of anxiety or stress then make note of that and bring that to your attention. Work to relax the area of your body that you are tensing (you’ll find that your whole body will relax too!).

Do some shoulder rolls, forward and back moving your shoulder blades around and over the socket where your arm meets your shoulder.

Do slow head rolls tilting your right ear to right shoulder and then rolling your head around to the front where your chin is to your chest then continue rolling to the left side, ear to shoulder again. When you have moved from right to left move from left to right, rotating forward and around until you feel a release. If there is any tight space move slower and slower in that area to give it extra attention.

When you catch yourself clenching release your jaw muscles so your teeth are not resting on each other. Take your hands and massage the joint at the back of your jaw where the jaw bone connects to the rest of your face (just in front of the ear). Feel free to move your jaw from side to side with your hands, gently and slowly.

Find a place where you can lay on the floor and spread your arms out in a big T or out to goal post arms (some people call them cactus arms – just make a T and bend at the elbow). Spend a few good minutes breathing into your chest. Take the tension out of that space and let it melt down through your arms.

These tricks are great for relaxing a specific muscle group on the spot when you feel tension. In order to really relax and keep your body more comfortable and in control when you feel very stressed try progressive muscle relaxation (more on that later!) or anything else that you find very relaxing. Massage anyone!?1


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Small Annoyances Can Lead to Big Pain

wellnessI have heard a lot about health care reform in the past few days. Well . . . past few years is more accurate I guess. But at any rate the message that I keep taking home is that health is important – we need to have the ability to take care of ourselves. That not only includes taking care of our bodies but also taking care of our minds so that we are better able to deal with the stresses that sometimes impact our physical health as well.

Wellness starts with prevention, you don’t really want to wait until you are in severe pain to look into getting help for something that could have been taken care of when it was a minor annoyance. The same goes for mental health. Do you have any small annoyances or small discomforts right now? Are you brushing them off?

It is so easy to take a small bother and tell ourselves that we just need to get over it, that it will pass, this is just a phase, this will be gone next week. Whatever we are saying there is a need we have that we are actively neglecting. Wishful thinking says that:

Things will get better on their own.

Wise thinking says:

I need to look into this and see what I can do to make myself feel better.

That is the beauty of this! You don’t have to sit and wait for a situation to take care of itself – these are your feelings and you can make yourself feel better!

  • Where can you do something now to make yourself feel better?
  • What steps do you need to take to accomplish this?
  • Who do you need to tell so you have support and guidance as you work through this small problem to keep it from becoming a big problem?

This is really self-advocacy. When we are stressed, sad, mad, annoyed, worried, afraid, or another emotion that is uncomfortable you don’t earn brownie points for sitting in that uncomfortable space and just dealing with it. That is how people bottle up their feelings and explode, making the whole thing much worse and much more painful. Haw can you work towards comfort and wellness and avoid larger pain?1


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