Diminishers, Minimizers and Gross Oversimplifiers

Sometimes I think it’s no wonder that so many of us get stuck in bad habits when people in the position of authority often – and perhaps unwittingly – minimize our struggles. The best example I can think of is the “Just Say No” campaign introduced by Nancy Reagan back in the 1980’s. While I can appreciate the good intention, it definitely seemed to be a gross oversimplification of a massive problem that has only grown exponentially in the 30-plus years since the movement was introduced. Just Say No became a catchphrase for a decade and it’s interesting to think that this likely did nothing to help, and may have only worsened, the stigma surrounding mental health issues. Think about it: “the number of people incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses increased from 50,000 in 1980 to more than 400,000 by 1997.” If you can’t or don’t say no then what does this mean about you? You got duped? You’re a criminal? You deserve wherever it is you end up? Shame only keeps us stuck and it’s amazing how often we’re shamed for the things that we turn to, that get us through difficult situations. Whether it’s drugs, alcohol, sex, food (or lack of), you name it – sometimes these things can seem like the only viable relief out there. It’s not to say we don’t likely make bad decisions along the way, but when you look back it’s really not all that surprising to see how addiction set in when choices may have seemed limited. Maybe the problem is that we don’t always know how to ask for help, but regularly I hear stories of when someone did ask for help and didn’t get any, simply because the problem didn’t appear to be of significance at the time. In one way or another their story was diminished.

Addiction hits us hard in the reward centers of our brains. Of course we want to feel good, who doesn’t? Addiction is about taking the shortest point from A to B where A is pain and B is feeling better and our brains are really great about getting us there asap. The problem of course is that while this is super effective in the short term, few can anticipate the longer, harder and sometimes lonelier road it takes to get your life back on track once the cons of addiction become apparent (ie serious medical conditions, loss of relationships, loss of work, etc).

I think the danger is when we begin to minimize our own stories; we follow what was modeled for us and internalize the same message. And maybe it is because the struggle appears to be invisible. Or maybe because it feels too big for anyone to tackle on their own. When you take the time to connect with your Healthy Self, **You** know when something is a problem. And you know when it’s something bigger than others may be able to recognize at the moment. We don’t have to believe minimizers in the same way we don’t have to believe judgment – whether it comes from others or comes from within.

I’m bringing this up, not because I want to shame the diminishers, minimizers and gross oversimplifiers – as that would likely be counterproductive. My point is that throughout history we’ve seen how huge problems can go by seemingly unnoticed. And thankfully we can also look back and see that while the authority figures we hoped would address problems in a meaningful way but for whatever reason chose not to or were unable to, there was usually an unsuspecting someone (or many someones) who were more capable and who did take action. Just because no one has a quick fix, it doesn’t mean that the bigger problems can’t be solved. Bigger problems call for bigger solutions and this can mean turning to more than one person or place for help. Part of resilience is believing in yourself and not giving up no matter how long it takes – finding the resources that support you even if they don’t come in the form you may have wished.

One important thing to remember is that diminishing/minimizing/oversimplifying is only part of who we are, only a part of who anyone is. My hope is that when we begin to increase awareness of this phenomenon, we’ll also be better able to generate compassion towards self and others and use that as a way to move forward.

The Layers of Coping and Healing

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what helps in therapy and how many people, including me, have tended to dip their toes in and out of the process. There’s no simple solution obviously, or therapy wouldn’t be the big business that it is. But what’s important to me as a therapist is that I maintain faith that the process can be healing.  The fact that not only have I experienced levels of healing myself but also witnessed moments of healing with my clients, this makes me all the more motivated to spread light on the possibility of full recovery.

Sometimes the women I work with initially end up in treatment for an eating disorder with little to no insight about the underlying mechanisms that brought them there. I can’t even count how many times I’ve been told by women in recovery that they didn’t even think they had a problem to begin with. It’s only when they begin to explore questions about the impact of the ED on personal work, school, relationships, and mental health that it turns out yes, the concerns are valid. A wise woman recently shared about her frustration that the world view of EDs still seems to be categorized as a vanity issue and I was relieved to see that her artwork was able to reveal the knowledge of pain beneath it all. Not that I want anyone to feel pain mind you, quite the opposite. But the truth is that healing won’t likely take place until the pain is addressed in one way or another. And the irony is that as far I can see, EDs often begin as coping mechanisms to distract from the pain in the first place, with the intention of taking you as far away from it as possible.

It may not seem fair to generalize this when the experience of an ED is so individual, as is treatment. But still, in my experience as a therapist, I find time and again that somewhere beneath all the depression, anxiety and symptom use is a vulnerable place that is often avoided at all costs, and understandably so when you consider the shame and stigma associated with mental health disorders. It’s as if the whole process starts with the use of unhealthy coping mechanisms to move away from pain, and once in treatment new coping mechanisms are set in motion that take you on a path toward wellness. At times people may choose to stop there, but I think it’s important to point out that while healthy coping mechanisms can have healing qualities, healing is not a coping mechanism in and of itself.

It’s a slippery slope, this process of recovery. At times a well-meaning therapist may go too quickly into the pain, or conversely someone who is eager to get the process over with might go straight to the pain without being prepared to do so and either of these scenarios can be disastrous.

I find that healing is the thing that is supported by healthy coping mechanisms on either side, like little bundles of light that have a continuous need to be protected, cared for and nurtured. These moments of healing might come in the form of “a-ha” moments or a release of emotional tension from one’s body, and without these healing moments chances are you can remain in survival mode indefinitely. I often come across women who find themselves somewhere in the limbo of recovery who are “managing” symptoms to get by and yet feel there is much more therapeutic work to be done even after they’ve discharged from treatment centers, and I agree with them. There is more work, and there is more possibility for a better existence. It’s the difference between surviving and thriving.

Sometimes the healing process spans both time and a variety of therapists – where ideally one action builds on the other – but I truly do believe that for most, if not all, full recovery and healing is a possibility; it is an option.

Enhancing Intuition through Mindfulness and Art

Sometimes even the most “put together” people can get thrown off course and get swept up in the tide without even realizing it at first, me included. Recently I found myself being pulled in different directions between work, family and relationships and with so many “shoulds” running through my head, I felt the pressure – and desire – to keep up with obligations and others’ expectations of me and not really knowing how to make it all happen.

The other morning I did the best thing for myself that I’ve done in a long time. I created space for my intuition and invariably I find that it’s always, always the right thing to do. I had to get back to basics of course because it seemed that I’d been ignoring intuition for a while. In my yoga practice that morning, I allowed my body to dictate my needs. Before this I had been feeling the need to accomplish something – to push myself in some way that I didn’t necessarily want to be pushed. But something told me to stop. So I listened. I began to stretch my body in gentle, non-traditional yoga poses and while one voice in my head was saying “yeah, but this isn’t really yoga” I could also hear another compassionate voice echoing the encouragement of the more nurturing teachers who have said “it’s ok, do what your body tells you to do, just trust and listen.” And I can say that thankfully I have access to the latter and it worked. This gentle compassion led to a more fulfilling yoga experience that left me feeling satisfied and nurtured in a way that I’m sure I would’t have felt otherwise.

It’s sort of ironic to think that the intuitive path is less accessible at times you are faced with outside pressure, as judgment and comparison thoughts scream through one’s head. It seems that intuition may abandon us at times when we need it most. But maybe it’s the opposite – that we’ve abandoned it. So often we’re given the message that pushing through is the best approach, or the only approach, that we can’t even hear the wisdom of self-compassion when it knocks on our door.

But my belief is that as a life rule, it will always be important to take time to nurture and enhance intuition. And what are the benefits of listening to the the intuitive voice within? For one, I think it creates longevity – how many times has the pushing, punishing voice started you down a path only to have it falter and send you reeling backwards? I think intuition guides you to the best available path that life has to offer. I think that in the long run it makes life easier, not harder.

I write this because I know that so many women out there don’t have access to intuition in this way. So often life circumstances can lead to self-denial, impulsivity and/or self-doubt that intuition sadly gets left by the wayside. My belief though, is that we all have an inner voice that can guide us back to a healthy path and intuition, and that intuition can guide us towards a more fulfilling life.

Maybe to start, you can begin to take a look at where those pressuring voices come from in the first place. The push voice might come from well-meaning teachers and coaches. It might also come from a misguided concept of tough love. Maybe it comes from the critical voices of family or peers. If you listen, can you hear who is saying those words to you – or maybe who is implying those words to you? Does it really come from within? I think it’s important to question that. When part of our brain – the amygdala – is actually built to detect danger as part of basic survival – including in social survival – it’s really not so surprising that this part can feel so much louder. “If you don’t do well in the game/match/race/performance then you will let your team down!” “If you don’t get an A on this test then your peers will surpass you and you’ll be left behind!”

Not to say that pushing through doesn’t have it’s time and place, because I believe that it can and does. But how do you know which way to go? When you’re in recovery for an eating disorder, there may be times when pushing through is a life-saving necessity and even though it may feel like crap, you can remind yourself that it’s temporary as you take steps to nurture healthy intuition all over again, or maybe for the first time.

I get that recovery can feel like all control is being taken away and that maybe the loss of control is one of the things you most feared to begin with. I believe you can still enhance intuition while you bring intention to work through recovery.

Next, try to identify your strengths, embrace them and build on them.

Let go of expectations and work with what is there in front of you.

Gradually you can learn to approach something instinctively rather than with conscious reasoning, because that’s literally what working intuitively is all about.

Nuances matter the way that brush strokes matter or the way composition matters through the lens of a camera.

Do this through mindfulness as you consider nuances in each part of your body, how it feels and how it works. As you consider your environment and take in what supports you and what doesn’t. As you consider your thoughts to identify what is helpful and what isn’t. As you look in the mirror and verbalize the things you can admire in all that you are and do in physicality, character, and style.

Do this through art making. Just because we can’t draw like Renoir, it doesn’t mean we can’t engage in self-expression that resonates with who we are, and open our eyes to what markings are still beautiful in their own right. Where would we be without people like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Willem De Kooning, and Ralph Stedman – artists who’s art might be considered perfectly imperfect? What would happen if you allowed yourself the same consideration?

Take watercolors for example, which can be one of the most frustrating mediums to work with. It’s only because I’ve learned to embrace all the nuances they have to offer that I’ve come to love the process. Painting on wet paper is a completely different experience than painting on dry, especially as you watch colors bleed into one another; when you allow water to create natural movement. Or when you learn to direct the water to concentrate flow and have pigment follow its path. Or when you allow one part to dry only to come back to it to later and create a sense of shadow and depth. To make each brushstroke thick with pigment or watery and translucent. To manipulate pigment with media like rubbing alcohol or sea salt.  Watercolor is my favorite “letting go” medium because there are so many factors that contribute to unpredictability and yet you can still create guidance within that realm that can feel so satisfying. It’s as though you let go of control while gaining a sense of control at the same time. It’s not about becoming a master watercolorist (though it may happen for some), it’s about paying attention. When you apply a similar approach to almost any other medium, it only gets easier. I know for me at least, that once I start practicing intuition with small decisions, I find that the big decisions can move intuitively as well.

Reawaken Your Healthy Self

I think that most people can identify with the feeling of being thrown off balance at given times throughout life. That feeling you get when you’re deep in a relationship, or work, school, trying to catch up with bills or just plain old busy – times when so much of your energy goes into just trying to keep your head above water. It can happen when life throws you off track – like when you experience the loss of a loved one, or you lose your job or go through a divorce – or even start a new job or get married. The worst of course is when trauma happens (little t or big T) and it truly does seem like you need to rely on time to heal wounds. But the more I do the work that I do in this field and the more that I learn about theoretical approaches, the more I recognize the need to help people become centered again and reestablish the sense of Self that seems to get lost. As Carolyn Costin says in her book, 8 Keys to Recovery from an Eating Disorder, “Your healthy Self will heal your E.D. self” and I couldn’t agree more. Of course that may be easier said than done when the act of reconnecting with one’s sense of Self often requires a lot of intention, and yes, sometimes a lot of time too.

For many people this act of centering is just a matter of grounding oneself through things like meditation or connecting with a similar sense of flow through loved activities such as sports or art making  🙂 . But for others, the process is a little more elaborate when Self seems to have taken a hiatus. I regularly meet women who are terrified of letting go of their eating disorders because they feel that their E.D. is their identity and what will become of them without it? I get it, I know it’s a lot of trust to ask for, but I truly believe that once you start looking for healthy Self, you will find it.

Some of the wise women I’ve worked with have been able to describe the healthy Self as an inner spark that they’ve had a sense of since childhood – the part of themselves that knows right from wrong, that knows they are innately good, healthy and deserving people. Sometimes, I’ve been told, this part of themselves has had to be shelved in order to adequately deal with hostile environments – when using one’s voice may have meant violent repercussions. And so Self goes quiet, internally, perhaps until safety returns and treatment is sought, and only then is one able to take action.

As far as I can tell, curiosity and exploration are essential when it comes to reawakening Self. In Buddhism, Beginner’s Mind means cultivating an attitude of openness, eagerness and lack of preconceptions – and I believe these are absolutely qualities needed to discover Self again. Become curious as if you are exploring aspects of yourself for the first time – and know that Self is doing the exploring. What are your values as opposed to the values that may lead you towards dysfunction? What are some strengths that you have? Although it can be helpful at times, I believe that Self doesn’t ultimately need to rely on external validation to know its worth. Even the most rudimentary of strengths are worth identifying. Mindfulness teaches us to observe our thoughts as clouds going by in the sky. Self is the observer. Self is the one high up on the mountain where it can see clearly all that is happening below. True Self knows what feels toxic; it knows the difference between survival mode and thriving. It knows when competition feels healthy and when it’s more of a hindrance. The healthy Self is a like a good friend who wants to encourage you to do and have what’s best for you. It takes your physical, mental and emotional well-being into consideration and takes you down a path towards health and wellness. It might feel a little angelic or as though it’s a higher power. The healthy Self knows the difference between enabling and nurturing because it knows the values that are true to you. It knows your soul. It knows that living a life of secrets and lies will be more harmful than helpful in the long run. Your healthy Self knows what’s keeping you sick, and might also understand that there’s a reason for the actions you’ve taken in life and why things have played out in the way they have, and it can do this all with a sense of care and compassion.

If you’re not there yet, you can always try what Costin suggests and use your imagination: simply ask yourself, If I had a healthy voice, what would it say? I believe that most, if not all, people have access to Self that can lead them through recovery. It’s the place where you can find clarity, perspective and freedom, where you can be with yourself in the present; it’s calm and confident, open-hearted and lighthearted. And I believe that it’s from this place that all other work can be done.

Copyright 2018 ©  Rachel Braun, All rights reserved.

Rachel Braun, ATR-BC  Art Therapist Philadelphia, PA

Specializing in art therapy groups for women who experience depression, anxiety and eating disorders. 

Respect for Our Protectors

A couple of weeks ago several young wise women in an eating disorder group opened my eyes to the degree of hopelessness that their generation seems to face. I don’t mean to say that they weren’t willing to fight the fight, because there they were showing up to “feel the feels” as they say. But rather to them it seemed that they could show up and do the work and this fight would only continue indefinitely with little to no promise of a silver lining. What I heard was a desire to find healing and getting no glimpse of it. And it’s true…in the “soft science” of therapy, there are no absolutes. I can’t make the promise. As every therapist knows, we all want the magic wand that will make everything better and none of us seem to have it.

The good news is that there are some really brilliant  approaches to treatment these days, and in therapy, semantics is everything. In a recent training I found myself with ever increasing hope for the hopeless. As I learned more about the different parts of ourselves and how they interact with one another I came to have a newfound respect for our defenses (e.g. avoidance, projection, etc). Oftentimes defenses can be pretty innocuous with only minor inconveniences to communication in relationships and may even resolve naturally on their own with a little bit of insight. On the other end of the continuum however, defenses can become so strong that they might appear to turn against us, even creating scenarios of life and death situations. And here’s where it gets tricky, because then it seems there’s a tendency to turn against our defenses at all costs and demonize them. But if we step back for a minute to take a look at where the defenses come from in the first place, most likely you will find a source of hurt and pain that needed to be protected.

These protectors show up when no one or nothing else has. Keep in mind that the source of pain is subject to individual perception – what may not seem particularly painful to some might be excruciating for others; it’s all about the felt experience. We all need protection in the face of overwhelm, otherwise how do we get through life at all? One of the first steps in this work as I’ve learned, is to have some respect for the mechanisms that stepped in to protect us in the first place. It doesn’t make sense after all, to simply bypass and condemn the rescuers that showed up when no one else was able. I suspect that there are more of us than not who are in need of this type of healing and in many ways it is a privilege to engage in this type of work (on both sides of the coin). My wish for those of you who are ready for the next step in the process of healing, is that it be performed, as much as possible, with precision and care, sensitivity and curiosity, and of course with kindness and respect.

“I didn’t ask for this role but I’ll play it” – one of my favorite lines from Frances McDormand’s protective mom character in the movie Almost Famous:

Parts of me and parts of you – a family dinner scene from Inside Out:

Copyright 2018 ©  Rachel Braun, All rights reserved.

Rachel Braun, ATR-BC  Art Therapist Philadelphia, PA

Specializing in art therapy groups for women who experience depression, anxiety and eating disorders. 

Food, Mood & Awareness – with free download

The more I learn about eating disorders, the clearer it becomes that food itself is rarely, if ever, the underlying main issue. It seems that more often than not eating patterns are somehow used to manage overwhelming emotions, and eventually habit sets in where eating becomes an equal part of the problem. And while there are varying approaches to treatment out there, I like to think that  most therapists are working towards the same goal – to help our clients find balance in everyday life with the ability to address and tend to emotional experiences in a healthy way. I love that there are so many apps available these days to help normalize eating behaviors and knowing that different approaches are helpful for different people, I thought I’d go ahead and put something out there myself. No, I shamefully admit that I have yet to become superwoman enough to devise my own app (jk) but I have decided to provide readers with a handout – the Food, Mood & Awareness Tracker – that you can print out and use as needed. My hope is that it will provide a visual for you over time – so you can see what your own behavior patterns are and how your actions affect your emotional experiences and possibly other aspects of your life as well. You can find the link for the handout below. But first, here’s how you use it:

The top section of the handout is in graph form to track your mood and energy level – use a blue dot to track your mood and a red dot to track your energy level. This is subjective input with 1 being the lowest, 10 the highest and 5 is average or neutral – it really just needs to make sense to you. For the greatest awareness, I suggest that you try tracking your mood before and after each meal and before and after each symptom use. I know this may sound a bit tedious, but you may learn a lot about your tendency toward certain behaviors. For energy level, probably tracking this 1-3 times a day would be enough.

The next section is food intake – be sure to create space for each meal, even if you don’t have one. Write down everything that you consume. And be sure to make note of any snacks, big or small.

Then there is symptom use – something that varies on an individual basis (restricting, binging, purging to name a few). These behaviors may or may not coincide with meal times. Don’t forget to include exercise if your team has determined that this is a form of purging for you.

The last section is where you outline significant events that take place. It might seem like a no-brainer to recognize that getting married, losing your job or a fight with a significant other may affect your mood. But to be fair, there are so many things we do while on auto pilot, that it just makes sense to jot them down anyway. I also strongly encourage you to take note of the things you do to care for others as well as the things you do for your own self-care.

I suggest that when you start using the FMA Tracker, you dedicate a page for each day, at least at the beginning. Maybe go for a full month of pages in this way, then if you like you can start using one page for a whole week – or not – whatever makes the most sense for you. I’m no psychic, but I suspect that over time this tool will help you identify possible triggers that may keep you in the habit of looking for a quick fix, and that in the long run the things that may be most helpful are those related to self-care. One caveat here: the FMA Tracker is intended to use in conjunction with a team effort (dietitian, therapist, psychiatrist, et al) – please don’t assume you can create lasting change all on your own. Try it for six months! I know this may sound like a long time, but when you consider the tenacity of eating disorders – sometimes ten, twenty, even forty or more years, six months is really just a drop in the bucket. I wish you all the best – let me know how it goes!

Click here for the Food, Mood & Awareness Tracker – free download!

Copyright 2018 ©  Rachel Braun, All rights reserved.

Rachel Braun, ATR-BC  Art Therapist Philadelphia, PA

Specializing in art therapy groups for women who experience depression, anxiety and eating disorders. 

Getting Beyond Apathy – Why it Matters

At the beginning of my art therapy groups I often remind members that many people stop creating artwork between the ages of 10-12 and that for this reason it’s pretty normal for adults’ drawings to look like they were created by little kids. For those who can open up to this, there is often an element of relief as they allow themselves to create an image – even a scribble – that depicts a felt experience, especially when others can relate. It’s funny though isn’t it? That such important work is almost globally dismissed so early on in life. Self-expression takes back seat to more practical things like work and academics as we all do our best to conform to the high expectations of a money-driven society. Add to this the helplessness many people feel at the mercy of world leaders who seem to not have our best interests in mind, and it’s no wonder that a deep sense of apathy begins to set in. Why bother?

What I’ve noticed though, in my occupation – or maybe just from the wisdom acquired in old age 🙂 – is that the most significant work any of us do is the work that is so small that it’s hardly even noticeable. Everything that is so easily dismissed by so many almost across the board. Like expressing ourselves through child-like drawings. Or taking the time to figure out what our interests are – art or otherwise. Why should we bother to pay attention to the physical sensations that inform us how we’re feeling? Why is it important to recognize the strengths in ourselves as well as the strengths in those around us? It’s so easy to see all that is wrong with the world, because let’s face it, there’s a lot. But when you can begin to see some positives and the value in taking small steps, that’s when real change begins and you can only build up from there. When you start to let go of your defenses and honor your emotions, you can use them to guide you in your interests, in strengthening your relationships… you can allow anger to empower and mobilize you to respond to oppressive situations rather than turn them inward, which as we know would only contribute to depression. And when you begin to follow a healthy meal plan, you may have more energy and access to the emotions that can be used to guide you!

At times I think it’s been a mistake to encourage clients to begin this work by stating their interests…because even that may be too big of a step when stating interests makes the assumption that you even know this information about yourself. And time and again I hear women in recovery state that they don’t know who they would be without their disorder, that it’s become so entrenched in their identity.  Maybe the first step is really to bring some awareness to our defenses… especially to all that we dismiss. Maybe the small action you can take this week is to try catching yourself in dismissing mode. When you tell yourself that something doesn’t apply to you, that it’s stupid or has no value in moving forward in life – just catch yourself, maybe create some hatch marks to see how often you do this – and then pause for a second and ask yourself if it’s really true…what if it did apply to you, what if whatever it is that you’re dismissing could help you get ahead in some roundabout, convoluted way? What would be the pros and cons of allowing yourself to actually engage in whatever it is that you’re dismissing? What are the actual risks involved? Let’s start there and see where it takes you. Let me know how it goes!

Copyright 2018 ©  Rachel Braun, All rights reserved.

Rachel Braun, ATR-BC  Art Therapist Philadelphia, PA

Specializing in art therapy groups for women who experience depression, anxiety and eating disorders. 

The Part of You that Needs to be Cared For

I don’t think I need to outline for anyone all that a busy work, school, and/or family life entails. Time and again I am blown away by the accomplishments of the women I work with, on so many levels. And yet, the struggle still continues…to find time and balance…to find helpful support…to find a reason for self-care. It’s amazing to think how easy it is to put this off until later, when faced with so much to do. 

In some of my recent art therapy groups we explored these different aspects of ourselves; the manager side vs the part that needs to be cared for. And while it’s true that yes, accomplishments can make us feel valuable and confident, there remains the part that is quietly suffering behind the scenes, sometimes from neglect, sometimes from hopelessness or a desire to give up – especially when those whom we wish would support us are incapable of doing so. The good news is that even if we are lacking in this area there is still a solution, but as Albert Einstein said, “nothing happens until something moves” or in the words of a wise friend…”action alleviates anxiety.” And of course we know this means not doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results (thank you again Einstein for that one). What I mean is that it’s so important to thread self-care into our daily activity, our network, our foundation and to find the things that actually work for us and not against us. 

In any kind of recovery I believe that it’s a necessity to establish some sort of beginner mind – to ignite a curiosity about the world where exploration is filled with child-like joy and play in order to find these things that help us to feel cared for. Why not block out an hour or two in your schedule each week to do this? I get that time management might be one of those hindrances, but did you know that incorporating self-care routines on a regular basis can go a long way in reducing the fight / flight / freeze response? That means less anxiety, fewer panic attacks and  an increased ability to be present in work and relationships.

Try this: divide a piece of paper into 6 columns and label each with the following headers – nutritional, physical, mental, emotional, interpersonal and spiritual. Then while keeping in mind the image of yourself that remains uncared for, write down action steps you can try out in each category. For example, under nutritional you might want to outline a number of food options that you can take to work with you and plans to set aside time to actually eat. Or maybe even just identify a new recipe or two that you’d be willing to try at home.

Under physical, I know that at least some of you this means exercise, and sometimes in excess. And while it’s true that exercise can be one way to alleviate anxiety, we know that this can go overboard, tipping its way into unhealthy habits. Maybe just a nice 20 minute walk in the park will suffice. Physical activity doesn’t need to equate with beating yourself up. A massage is physical too – that doesn’t sound too bad does it?

A mental exercise can mean doing a crossword puzzle, or reading a book…or it might mean finding some ways to challenge those unhelpful thoughts in your head and put reframing into practice.

For emotional you get into my favorite category with using your creativity to express yourself in different ways – art of course, or you could also try dance, or writing, drama, music, you name it. Maybe even just start with identifying the emotion you see in others, or relating a song, a color or words to an emotion. I can’t even say enough here about how neglected this aspect of ourselves often gets – it’s quite possible that any attention here will be a boost to awareness. Try to identify how you might feel in your emotion in your body – that’s a big one.

The interpersonal category can help you take action around problem solving in your relationships. Is there someone you might want to reach out to but haven’t yet? Is there someone you can practice saying no to because it will benefit your well-being? Are there people with whom you’d feel comfortable and safe with sharing about your struggles? Can you identify different people to connect with different activities? Are there groups you might consider joining? A meetup?  

I know that the idea of spirituality at times might be a big turn off for some…but there’s almost always something to connect to no matter what your religious background. Nature, for one – maybe try sitting in a field on a sunny day and simply take in the beauty of your surroundings. Download a relaxation meditation and see what that’s like. Prayer in any form can be quite powerful. 

Try adding to this list as time goes on, I think you’ll find that it can grow quite extensive even if you only begin with just a few suggestions. Be sure not to censor yourself – go with intuition and see what comes up. Then just try one new thing each week and see what happens. I wish you all the best – let me know how it goes!

Copyright 2018 ©  Rachel Braun, All rights reserved.

Rachel Braun, ATR-BC  Art Therapist Philadelphia, PA

Specializing in art therapy groups for women who experience depression, anxiety and eating disorders. 

The Drive for Perfection

The olympics are coming to PyeongChang next month. Like much of the rest of the world, I expect that I’ll spend hours in front of the screen admiring the prowess of these hand-picked athletes and wonder as usual how they manage to accomplish so much. I always enjoy the backstory and learning about what drove them to such greatness to begin with…but eventually I begin to wonder about the other competitors who never quite make it into the limelight – the ones who are a fraction of a second off who aren’t worthy of a medal and all the attention and glory that comes with it. You have to wonder if it’s the result of a narcissistic society that drives people to such lengths, when there’s the very real possibility that they will never be one of the select few who receive such praise. And what’s more amazing is the number of us who hold ourselves to such high expectations in the everyday world, in everyday life.

You might be surprised to learn that the drive for perfection is often an attempt to ward off anxiety. It might seem unlikely, but actually it’s true. Think about it – if you do everything perfect then no one can touch you, right? You won’t be subject to things like criticism which for many of us is something of a source of shame and self-loathing. If you do happen to make it to the top of the pedestal, it’s true you may be “unscathed” but at the same time, it can be a pretty lonely place to be. We already know that true connection comes from a place of vulnerability. So why bother?

It might be worthwhile to pause and think about some of the costs of striving for perfection. Maybe notice that feeling of being kept on a tight rope – one wrong move and you fall – a pretty rigid place to be, no? This can lead to chronic exhaustion, stress and burnout. I think that the need for perfection keeps us from taking necessary risks and learning important lessons in life. And perhaps more importantly, it keeps us from seeing all of our accomplishments, all that we are actually doing right and all that is good in the world. I mean, how many babies would never learn to walk had they been too ashamed to fall? Perfectionism keeps you in a bubble and that can only be so comfortable for so long. On the other hand, think about all that you gain when you allow yourself to be perfectly imperfect. Freedom maybe? An ability to learn and grow stronger in some ways? The flexibility to fully engage and enjoy life without relying on external validation? What if the key to success isn’t about being hard on yourself and beating yourself up, but rather in learning to give yourself some slack?

The truth is, no one is above reproach. Just ask any celebrity. Time and again we see highly talented people rise to the height of stardom only to come crashing down at the hands of their critics. And there are always critics. Do you really want to let society have the last say in your value as a person? Unless you’re a brain surgeon, there probably isn’t such need for absolute precision. So the next time you get a A- or (gasp!) a B on an exam, rest assured that you’re in good company. Like with all those truly amazing athletes who make it to the olympics and don’t happen to win the medal. Maybe it’s just a hunch, but my guess is that the gold medal winners will be right there with you too – I’m pretty sure that all of them can find something else to be happy about. Maybe the secret is in knowing that you are lovable just as you are.

Speaking of critics…some wise women pointed me in the direction of this gem:

And subsequently, this one:

Copyright 2018 ©  Rachel Braun, All rights reserved.

Rachel Braun, ATR-BC  Art Therapist Philadelphia, PA

Specializing in art therapy groups for women who experience depression, anxiety and eating disorders. 

Coping Through the Holidays Tip #5: Honor Your Truth

For my final tip of this holiday season, I’m dedicating it to those of you who struggle to differentiate your desires, thoughts and opinions from that of those around you. This might be someone you love, distant acquaintances, or even the voices calling out to you from advertisements in magazines. I think that this time of year is especially rife with shoulds and shouldn’ts – about what you’re supposed to be doing with your life, what you should be feeling, who you should or shouldn’t be hanging out with, how you should look, what movies, books and music you should or shouldn’t be paying attention to. But I say it’s all bunk if you’re not following through with what actually resonates within you. The problem sometimes is that we get so used to denying our own feelings and opinions that we can lose sight of them altogether.

So this year, give yourself the gift of pausing – a moment to check within yourself, maybe deep, deep down, to see what’s really there – before answering yes to everything. Do you really want to go to that New Year’s Eve party that will likely end in drunken brawls, or would it be more fun to simply invite a few friends over and drink hot cocoa while playing cards in front of the fireplace as you watch the ball drop on tv? Or maybe you’re at the party and you happen to like the movie that everyone is bashing. What would happen if you shared your reasons why?

Don’t get me wrong, connection is great and I’m not suggesting that you go against the grain just for the sake of going against the grain. There will always be plenty of opportunity to agree with what everyone is saying and/or doing if that’s what you want to do. But just for a night, try experimenting and honor what is true for you just to see what happens. Just once. Or twice. Maybe you’ll feel just a little bit less anxious. Or maybe you’ll wake up feeling slightly less depressed the next day. I can’t promise anything, but I suspect that there’s a part of you that will be really thankful.

If you’re still feeling a little hesitant about all this, rest assured that while you’re taking that introspective pause, you can also do a bit of pros and cons work using a few simple goals to guide you: Will my response effect my health in some way? Will it keep me safe? Will my response improve my relationships somehow, or let people get to know me in a more authentic way? Feel free to add your own concerns here, but I strongly urge you to base your decisions on a path of health and wellness. Safety should come first of course, so even if you have to make a contrary decision based on keeping yourself safe, it’s still helpful for you to know your truth and it may help to guide you in taking action at other times down the road. There are always opportunities to make wise decisions – we may not get it right every time, but I believe that when you honor your truth, over time you’ll be headed in the right direction.

Here’s to seeing more of all that is you in 2018 – Happy New Year everyone!

Copyright 2017 ©  Rachel Braun, All rights reserved.

Rachel Braun, ATR-BC  Art Therapist Philadelphia, PA

Specializing in art therapy groups for women who experience depression, anxiety and eating disorders.