A New Group

On Friday, March 27th, online I convened a new group made up of individuals who either are working with me in therapy now or have worked with me in the past. They are all extraordinary individuals who are committed to their own psychological, intellectual, and spiritual development, and that of those around them. In addition, they are a highly accomplished group with many varied professions represented.

I want to share with you some of my takeaways:

  • By sheltering in place you ARE doing something in service to the community.
  • Through a dream the message came to us–it’s time to let go of what doesn’t serve you and also time to make way for something new.
  • Even though the external situation is serious, don’t feel guilty if you have fun and enjoy yourself.
  • Dancing (alone or with someone) lifts your spirits.
  • Here’s a new way to watch a movie: Watch a bit. Stop the movie. Discuss what you’ve seen with a partner who is sheltering with you, or arrange ahead of time to do this remotely with a friend. Then watch a little more. It will take awhile to complete the movie, but it’s a rich new experience.
  • Draw a big circle on a piece of paper. On the outside write the things you can’t control. On the inside write the things you can control. Take it from there.
  • If you’re angry, channel that powerful energy into action.
  • Music helps. Use it to chill and stay calm. Use it to crack your heart open so you can cry.
  • One of our group members shared a beautiful thought, “Make yourself a refuge.”

Meditate? Do What You Already Know

Most of us already know that a meditation or mindfulness practice serves good health and well being. When I’m working with clients, so often they say, “I’m just not good at meditating.” Well, I’m not either. I think that’s why they call it a practice!

The mind jumps around all over the place. A few breaths and then I’m thinking about the shopping list or who I forgot to call. Back to the breath. They call this “monkey mind.” I think of it like a disobedient puppy I’m trying to teach to heel. She wanders off to sniff an interesting smell, and I have to tug on the leash and pull her back to “Heel.” Again and again.

For now, do whatever is the smallest mindful practice you can muster. If you can only take 3 deep breaths, do that. If you can only listen to one soothing song, do that. Place one hand on your heart and the other on your belly and take one deep breath. When you can master the smallest increment, see if you can add something to it. Be gentle with yourself.

Here’s a skill you already have: you know how to focus your attention.

Use that skill to take charge of your monkey, puppy dog, anxious mind. Take charge of where you focus your attention. When your anxiety rises, treat that part of you like the disobedient puppy….no we’re not doing that right now. YOU decide what you want to focus on, and then use your skill to stay focused on the subject of your choice.

With so much going on outside to fear, and so much uncertainty about what’s coming next, it too easy to be overtaken by fear and anxiety. Exercise your ability and right to be in charge of your mind.

Don’t let those feelings drag you around like a disobedient pup!

Anxiety and Fear

Anxiety and fear are not the same things. Fear is what you feel when you perceive danger in your environment. Anxiety is a reaction to a potential threat that may or may not happen. The body reacts to both the same way and both trigger a cascade of bodily responses.

In our current situation fear and anxiety are legitimate and universal responses to the COVID 19 pandemic. There is a real external danger and it threatens consequences for each one of us that may or may not happen.

The limbic system signals DANGER and the cascade of internal reactions begins. The hippocampus, responsible for memory, becomes activated and the amygdala sounds the alarm. This leads to the hypothalamus beginning to dump hormones and neurotransmitter chemicals into the system. The autonomic nervous system prepares for fight, flight, or freeze.

“A review by psychologist Dana Rose Garfin, PhD, at the University of California, Irvine, and colleagues found people who experienced acute stress in the weeks after a traumatic event were more likely to have negative long-term mental and physical health outcomes, including poor general health; increased pain, disability and mortality; increased depression, anxiety and psychiatric disorders; and more family conflict.” (Journal of Psychosomatic Research, Vol. 112, No. 1, 2018).

Here’s the truth: we can’t help being triggered. But we CAN make choices about how we respond. We can interrupt this cascade and calm ourselves down. And when we do that we protect ourselves but we also protect those around us from the contagion of our anxiety.

In order to promote our own and the health of others, let’s do what we can to quell anxiety.

Here are 3 things you can do:

Take a deep breath through your nose to the count of 4, then exhale through your mouth to the count of 6. Do this at least 3 times. Keep doing this until you begin to feel your anxiety abate. If you already have a meditation practice, draw on that.

Develop a self-soothing physical practice or ritual. A ritual is a practice that very quickly creates a state of mind. For example, when a person enters a church and blesses herself, she signals that change. Develop a calming ritual for yourself. Light a candle, make a cup of tea. Wrap a cozy blanket around yourself. Play soft music. Massage the back of your neck. Place one hand on your heart and the other below your belly.

Turn to music.

Try these:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PYuE2roIkH0&list=RDPYuE2roIkH0&start_radio=1&t=0

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bmx–WjeN7o

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vh_rhnI0g0kc:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kbJcQYVtZMo

Use this situation to nurture and soothe yourself and those around you.

Dreams and COVID 19

After the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, as a therapist I heard that many folks had prescient dreams about the event. I decided to give a workshop for those dreamers. Thanks to the Jung Foundation, I spend an entire Saturday with an auditorium full of 9/11 dreamers. Many had dreamed images of towers collapsing, blackbirds flying into the towers, people falling from tall buildings. It was amazing how vivid and specific the images were. You didn’t need a psychoanalyst to interpret them!

What have you been dreaming about?

When I spoke with my daughter this morning she told me she’d been dreaming of snakes, and specifically a snake bite. A snake bite is often the image that occurs in dreams at the beginning of a healing cycle. That’s why both the Caduceus with its double snake and the Rod of Aesclepius with its single snake are used as symbols for medical signification.

Dreaming of snake venom at a time like this is pointing to the healing of our situation. Those infected with the COVID 19 virus “bitten,” may be the ones to provide the healing cure. All dreams are aimed at healing. They are meant to be shared, and the community benefits from the collective gathering of dreams. My daughter’s dream is such a good example of that.

I would love to know what you are dreaming so that I can gather the images our collective unconscious is producing. Please feel free to send them as comments here, or directly to my email at katherineolivetti@gmail.com.

New Normal with COVID 19

In only a few days our ordinary, everyday normal has drastically changed, and we don’t know whether this is a long or short term situation. Regardless of how long this lasts, we are all challenged to adapt to these unexpected, unwanted circumstances.I want to share some thoughts with you. Years ago I lived in Manhattan. When my aging mom who lived in New Jersey was sick, she most often came to New York to be treated at New York University Hospital (a superb institution.) Rather than send her home upon discharge, she would come and stay with me in my apartment until we were sure she was stable enough to go home. Mom’s hearing wasn’t great and she wasn’t very mobile at the time, so she spent most of her time in the apartment with the television blaring. Honestly, it drove me crazy, but since it was time limited, I put up with it. Always relieved when she was well enough to head home.

Years later, I was still in Manhattan at the time of the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001. In the days afterwards, I noticed that every time I went to my office I tried to insert the key to my home apartment in the keyhole. It told me that something in me just wanted to be safely home. One of the other things I noticed was that I kept the television on day and night, often drifting off to sleep with CNN blaring. You know what insight I gained from that? I remembered my mom and gleaned this–the blaring television was a way of staying connected and dealing with anxiety.

Since then, I have learned that it isn’t the best strategy. In fact, the constancy of the television juices up anxiety, so there’s more need for quelling it. One of the most important things is to keep your anxiety in check. Increased anxiety is not good for your overall health, especially your immune system, so anything that brings it down–GO FOR IT! Remember anxiety is almost always focused on fear about the future. It ruins the present. Even under difficult circumstances, you can make the most of the present. Buddhist priest Pema Chodron teaches–in the present moment everything is as it should be. Believe her. I want to share with you some of the strategies I’ve learned, ones I’m trying to practice myself.

–Limit your exposure to televised news. Read the newspaper either on line or paper. If you tune in, limit the time.

–While sheltering in place, create projects. Clean a closet, organize your desk, sew on buttons, paint a room, get to a small repair job, knit, cook, get a head start on your taxes, organize your photos. Any project that has been waiting–now’s an opportunity to do it.

–Do something for other people. Start a group chat. Make a donation to charity. Foster a pet. Pay your helpers for the month. Send a care package to someone who needs it.

–If you don’t already have a meditation practice, begin one. There are lots of online apps. One of my favorites is through Deepak Chopra called Ananda. Headspace and Calm are both good also.

–For those of you who struggle with a formal meditation practice, try this. Lie down for a few minutes. Bring to mind a place you love. Imagine yourself there. Take 3 deep breaths. With each out breath say to yourself, “For this moment everything is as it should be.”

–Start a family group chat so you can meet online. We met one night “for drinks.” It was kind of crazy, but fun.

–Play with your pets. If you don’t have one, foster one. Connecting with animals lowers blood pressure and can you believe this? Those who sleep with dogs get better sleep!

–Teach Fido a new trick.

–Tap into your creative talents. Write a short story. Compose a piece of music or poem. Make a collage. Sketch your favorite landscape or design a new outfit.

–Write down your dreams and keep a journal of this time.

–Play family games. Do a jigsaw puzzle. Play pictionary or charades (if you need the rules, email me–katherineolivetti@gmail.com)

–If you have small children, take all the bedclothes and make a fort where you can read stories, eat cookies, and be safe together.

–Walk outdoors. Plant bulbs.

–Download pictures from art history . The Louvre is closed but is allowing its collection to be available online. Make your own anthology of the art you love. Beauty is a great healer.

–Music is a healer also. Make a special play list of music that raises your spirits.

You probably can think of other creative endeavors that you could deploy during this time. What is most important is to keep your spirit lively, continue moving forward in your life, seize this as an opportunity to do something you might not have done, cherish those you love and find a way to keep them close, and figure out a way to be of service to others. I’d love to hear how you’re doing. Sending love to you and yours.

Why Make the Bed?

 

 

 

I am not a naturally neat person, so tasks like making the bed, doing the dishes, tidying up after myself do not come easily.  In fact, sometimes I think I’m like a walking tornado because a totally picked-up house can become a disaster in such a short time if I’m around–3 pair on shoes by the couch, two glasses and a dirty plate on the coffee table, a sweater draped on the chair…you get the picture…a wake of Katherine’s been here!  In childhood, my sister, who was really neat, and today is the tidiest person I know, put up a barrier to keep me off her side of the room!

 

               Well…maybe not quite that bad!

 

Today, I work hard at doing things like, make the bed, clean up the kitchen, hang up the clothes.  Not because I make a judgment, moral or otherwise, about this, but because the environment impacts me, and when the experience is positive it actually registers in the body, and likewise, when it’s negative that impacts too.

POSITIVE EXPERIENCE IS NURTURING

You wouldn’t think anything as mundane as making the bed could have any psychological relevance at all, but it does.  Every experience of perception impacts us, so, for example, walking into a chaotic  bedroom gives you a little dose of negativity.  Those dishes that are still in the TV room the day after–a little dose of negativity.  Believe me, I am not rooting for obsessional cleanliness, but I am suggesting that one of the ways you can improve self care is to think about how you arrange your environment to give you a little burst of  positive impact. And, for example, by cleaning up the kitchen before going to bed–there’s a double impact:  you eliminate one negative and trade it for a positive.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Make the bed
  • Do the dishes before you go to sleep
  • Put a flower in a vase
  • Display a favorite photo
  • Get a dog
  • Take a minute to look at a tree
  • Watch the sun set
  • Go for a walk and pick up something that catches your interest.  Put it on the window sill in the kitchen.
  • Use the good china for dinner
  • Light a candle
  • Bathe in lavender scented water
  • Burn incense
  • Weed the garden
  • Sweep the deck

You can add many small things to the list.  Anything that makes you smile is worth the effort which I why I include “get a dog” on the list.  Cats will also do.  Either will make you smile a hundred times a day.  See how creative you can be by devising little splashes of positive impact in your life.  It’s all about genuine self care–not about anything else!

    ONE LITTLE JOLT OF BEAUTY!

Medications for Psychological or Psychiatric Issues

 

I have to write about something that really upsets me.

Just the other day I was working with a couple who had come to me because their sixteen year old daughter was having problems in school, at home, and overall seemed unhappy.  They discovered she had been drinking to the point of getting drunk, and when they made that discovery, they took her to their family doctor.  The family doctor put her on an antidepressant medication, Prozac. It wasn’t the correct medication.

If you had cancer would you let a cardiologist treat you? 

If you had a heart problem would you ask an a dermatologist to figure out how to cope with your heart condition?

The questions are ridiculous because we all know that medicine is very specialized, and we want the right person to address the situation that that person was trained to treat.

Family physicians need to refer patients to psychiatrists when there is a need for psychiatric medication–even short term medication that seems obvious.  For example, often after the death of a loved one, a person might feel unusually anxious or depressed.  Family doctors prescribe medications for these conditions all the time.  Psychiatric medications are vast and have become more particular over the years.  While family practitioners mean well, they often choose the most common medication and don’t fully evaluate the patient to make sure that person gets on the specific medication that is right for him or her.

I believe family doctors and patients collude to avoid a trip to the psychiatrist.  The stigma of “mental illness” is attached to receiving medication from a psychiatrist rather than from your friendly family doc.  This mutual collusion does not help patients and it fosters a continuing stigma against proper mental health care.  I am not a fan of excessive use of mediation, but I know that the right medication at the right time can be salvation to a person who is suffering.

Please–if you or someone you love needs psychiatric medication, make sure they get it from the right person. 

Guilt—Appropriate and Inappropriate

 

Feeling guilty is ubiquitous.

You feel it in small ways and big ones.

I was recently with some friends who were trying to decide on a restaurant for dinner.  One of the women said she didn’t like Greek food, and naturally her preference organized us.  We didn’t go to a Greek restaurant.  Once we were all sitting at the table of an Italian restaurant, she announced how guilty she felt.

Maybe she had stepped on someone’s toes?  Maybe somebody wanted to go Greek?  Did she have a right to organize the group?  Of course this group of great women reassured her that we were all happy to have accommodated to her preference.

Her guilt falls in the category of INAPPROPRIATE GUILT.  Had she announced that last night she had a little too much to drink, scraped the side of her car, and felt guilty, her guilt would have been APPROPRIATE GUILT.

What’s the difference?

Guilt is always a sign that some rule, value, guideline, or belief has been violated.

 

When I asked my friend what rule or value she had transgressed, she said she had grown up with the idea that she should always consider other people’s feelings before her own.  I wondered out loud if she had signed up for that rule?  Did she believe that she was supposed to be oriented in that way?  Was she not supposed to take note of her own preferences, desires, or needs?  Naturally she knew that this was not the case, but having grown up with a sister who had special needs, it was easy to understand how she came into ownership of this rule.

I am not a big fan of individuals who are “all about me.”  Self care doesn’t mean being a narcissist or trampling on other people’s needs and desires. But representing your own wishes, desires, values, and needs–if you don’t do it, who will?

Guilt has  a huge value for individual psychology.  The bad feeling has a purpose–to keep us from repeating something that transgresses important values.  It’s like a signal that says:  Something’s wrong here.  It is always worth paying attention to it, taking note.  Ah, I feel guilty.  Then it’s important to reflect on the transgression–what rule did I break?

Guilt will get your attention, and in that way can be helpful getting you to understand what rules organize you. If you ask yourself each time you feel guilty–what’s the rule?–when you reflect, you can figure out if they are rules you actually want to embrace, or are they rules that someone else imposed on you?  In small appropriate doses, guilt keeps you honest and on the right track.  Overdone, it erodes your spirit.

Who Am I in My Dream?

 

Thank goodness we are not held accountable for the things we do in our dreams!  Most of us have indulged in violent or antisocial behavior, been promiscuous, or conducted a business meeting topless!  These images can be frightening and shame producing if we identify with the self who shows up in the dream.

Identifying with the figure who represents you in a dream sometimes makes it impossible to deepen the understanding of the message of the dream because you feel so squeamish about what happened in the dream.  The most important thing to remember is that the figure who is YOU in the dream is not actually YOU.  That figure represents the current state of identity–the YOU you know yourself to be today or the night you had the dream.Many times the dream  is the harbinger of new and unfolding aspects of identity.  Those emerging aspects of self are always frightening or disgusting or upsetting to the self you are today.  For example, a woman who was very quiet and retiring was on the cusp of speaking up more for herself.  She dreamed that she was growing claws and fangs.  She woke horrified.  To the self she knew herself to be–retiring, quiet, and unable to express aggression, the new emerging self who would be able to do that was horrifying.

So when you find yourself doing something unexpected, or embarrassing or criminal or shocking–remember it’s only relative to an established sense of self.  The new parts of self often come in as exaggerated or extreme.  Your own wise psyche is preparing you for a change and getting your more staid, familiar self ready.  Be curious about what’s coming in, and why it might appear so shocking to your familiar identity.

Learn More About Savoring

 

The ventral striatum is a part of the brain where positive emotional responses are experienced.

Most of us are aware that the human brain is hard wired to remember negative experiences much better than positive ones. Our survival heritage makes sure we remember in what corner of the jungle the perilous creatures hung out. It turns out that the positive memory seat is weak.  The Journal of Neuroscience published a study titled: The Neurodynamics of Affect in the Laboratory Predicts Persistence of Real-World Emotional Responses

What the researchers found was that “Sustained ventral striatum engagement in the laboratory positively predicted the duration of real-world positive emotional responses.” This means that the folks who remembered positive experiences longer were happier.

What excites me about this is that each one of us can use this research to our own benefit.  We can work at increasing the pleasure sustaining capacity of our brains and thus open the door to being happier overall.

 The practice of lengthening pleasure–savoring. 

Try this when you are eating a strawberry…or it could be a peach or any other piece of fruit.

 

The key is to go slowly and notice the details.  Feel the beautiful speckled surface of the strawberry.  Smell its fresh scent.  Take in the bright ruby color.  Do all of this before you take a single bite.  Imagine the plant as it was bearing fruit in the sunny field, sending off runners to make more fruit.  Then when you are ready, bite into the strawberry.  What is the texture of its flesh?  What happens in your mouth?  Where in the mouth does the taste hit?  What do you note?  Tartness?  Sweetness?

The practice of savoring brings many experiences into high relief, and when we begin to do this over a longer period of time, we are strengthening that part of the brain.

An exercise that will help you is to make a list of 10 experiences that gave you pleasure and/or joy.  The list should include a variety of events–big events like the birth of a child and small ones like opening an Amazon box that brought a book you really wanted.  Create your list of 10 events that you would like to mine for their pleasure sustaining potential.

Then begin with one of the events, and do a savoring exercise.  It is similar to a meditation, but instead of clearing the mind, you will be focusing.  Close your eyes and bring the memory of the event back.  Bring back all of the details, as many as you can, until the feeling you had wakes up again.  Give yourself permission to come back to it several times.  If the feeling won’t arise, move on to another experience.

The key is to bring the pleasure of something that you experienced back to life.  Return to this experience and practice sustaining the pleasure.  You will be building up that part of the brain that is associated with positive emotions out in the real world. When you have successfully done one, try another.  One of the bonuses of this exercise, in addition to building up that ventral striatum, is that at other times, when you are blue, irritated, tired, or experiencing some other less that pleasurable feeling, you can pull this out of your back pocket and shift your mood.

Send me an email and let me know how you are doing with this.