Sleep, Dreams and Emotions

Have you ever gone to bed worried or angry and awakened feeling better about your circumstance? How about going to sleep while working on a project and waking with the answer in mind?  In recent years it has come to light that sleep is restorative for more than just your body and mind. REM sleep (the stage of sleep when you dream and your eyes twitch back and forth) is actually important for your emotional health.

I'm not talking about how rest improves mental health (although that's true too!) But we've heard that before. I'm talking about cutting edge research that suggests that sleep is needed to help your mind deal with your experiences. Psychologists and scientists alike believe that sleep "reorders" your feelings when you can't. It files them and categorizes them and makes sense of them. When you sleep, your brain is acutally doing important psychological work- and you get to sleep through it.

Once we realize that our brain is working hard all night- dreams begin to make more sense. They are (quite literally) pictures that represent emotions*. Most of the time the pictures are rather mundane housekeeping items. The represent nothing more than hum-drum mental filing. But every now and then we become plagued by repetitive or disturbing dreams and we can't shake them.

Dream analysis has been practiced perhaps forever. Since the dawn of man, we have struggled to make sense of what our mind does while we sleep. Kings often looked to dream interpreters to help them predict the future. Sometimes dreams were considered supernatural messages.

Modern dream understanding is less ethereal, but (I think) much more interesting! If dreams are nothing more than pictures which represent feelings, then our repetitive or bothersome dreams are simply HUGE METAPHORS. It's our mind sending up a flag to say, "Hello! Pay attention to this! You have an issue here!"

Let me give you an example: I once had a fish that I (sadly) knocked out of its bowl and didn't realize it for a while. The fish survived but I was quite upset by the image of my dear pet flopping and gasping for water. For years after, I would have (seemingly) random fish dreams. I know, its strange. But its a dream! The scenarios and settings differed, but in the dream I was always anxiety-ridden and searching for water for my fish.

I mostly dismissed these dreams until they became more frequent and upsetting. They finally had my attention. So I gave it some thought. I contemplated how I was feeling about life- what my stressors were. When that didn't work I thought about metaphors having to do with fish:

"Let's see... fish, water, can't breathe, gasping for air..... 'Fish out of water'!" Yup... the metaphor was GLARINGLY obvious. How could I have missed it? I had the dream because I was going through a time where I felt lost and out of place. I felt like I didn't belong and a sense of being out of my element. Additionally, I felt anxious and out of control of the situation- and I hadn't even given it much thought until my dream brought it to my attention!

Once I pinpointed the emotion, and began making positive changes in my life, the dreams went away as quickly as they had come.

So, my point is- sleep is good for more than the body. It can help regulate emotions and (sometimes) point us to address emotions we were unaware of. It allows us to categorize and make emotional sense of our experiences and feelings. In fact, what is blissful unconsciousness for us, is arguably when your brain works the hardest! So respect your bodies need for sleep. It is likely still more important than we realize.

And with that, I'm headed to enjoy my own sleep.


*I cannot take credit for that term. A good friend of mine used it today. I liked it, so I stole it!


Fostering Healthy Attachment

Mother, O Mother, come shake out your cloth,
Empty the dustpan, poison the moth,
Hang out the washing, make up the bed,
Sew on a button and butter the bread.

Where is the mother whose house is so shocking?
She's up in the nursery, blissfully rocking.

Oh, I've grown as shiftless as Little Boy Blue,
Lullabye, rockabye, lullabye loo.
Dishes are waiting and bills are past due
Pat-a-cake, darling, and peek, peekaboo

The shopping's not done and there's nothing for stew
And out in the yard there's a hullabaloo
But I'm playing Kanga and this is my Roo
Look! Aren't his eyes the most wonderful hue?
Lullabye, rockaby lullabye loo.

The cleaning and scrubbing can wait till tomorrow
But children grow up as I've learned to my sorrow.
So quiet down cobwebs; Dust go to sleep!
I'm rocking my baby and babies don't keep.

- Ruth Hulbert Hamilton

Its obvious: modern parenthood is not for sissies. The demands are mounting. I believe this is especially true for most moms, as they find themselves caught between historic expectations (the sole care for home and children) and new ones (wage earner, provider). Add suburban sprawl (extra driving), extra-curriculars and sports' schedules and its no wonder that moms (and dads) find themselves over-scheduled. And of course, amidst all the activity, parents are supposed to be sure their children are intellectually and emotionally nourished.

But research is now showing that old-fashioned wisdom (once again) turns out to be true. A child's emotional well-being and even scholastic aptitude can be predicted (to an extent) by the quality of their emotional attachment to caregivers.

Before you panic, here's the good news: good attachment can be fostered while you run through your day! Rather than being something to add to your growing "to do" list, it is something that can add meaning to the daily living you do now. Rather than any one set of responsibilities, attachment is a foundation for interaction. Which is to say: You can start fostering a healthy attachment with your child RIGHT NOW, while still running like mad!

The truth is, we all need attachment (or connection) with our loved ones. Parents' cups' run low too. A little love and connection can go a long way toward shoring up our motivation to keep going. Sometimes we just don't know how to give or get it.

So, to help your creative juices flow, I've created

Ways To Foster Healthy Attachment In Daily Life

  • Babywearing while on the go
  • Eye contact with baby while waiting in line
  • Mimic faces and sounds back and forth
  • Singing (especially with hand motions)
  • Rocking to sleep
  • Holding baby close so s/he can smell and hear your voice
  • Describe what you're doing and where you're going while driving
  • Any of the "infant" ideas, plus:
  • Try counting things to your toddler as you walk by it (an excuse for interaction)
  • Describe what you see your toddler doing (it makes them feel important to you)
  • Prepare your toddler for what will happen next and where you're going (when running errands for instance). It helps them feel calm and lets them feel secure (no surprises!)
  • Repeated rituals are very important to toddlers and let them feel secure with you. Singing the same song while diaper changing or waking up, and saying goodnight to all stuffed animals are good examples.
  • When waiting in line, try naming things for them, and letting them have a try. Congratulate any efforts!
Young Children-
  • Any "toddler" ideas, plus:
  • When picking up from school or activities, ask them about their day. If they need direction, try "hi/lo"- where they get to tell their "high" and their "low" for the day. Show you're listening by reflecting their feelings, "It sounds like that hurt your feelings." or "Wow, you sound like you felt special when she did that!"
  • Attend activities where they get to "shine" (sports, school plays etc...) Make an effort to make a big deal about their participation (regardless of winning/losing). Bring flowers, take out for ice cream- anything to make them feel "special" for their effort.
  • For chores, create a "chore chart" where they get a sticker or smiley for their day's effort. It affirms that you see them and their efforts are noticed and appreciated!
  • Give them chances to practice what they're learning in school. The car is a great place for this- sing the ABCs, work on addition/multiplication tables. Big congratulations for things they learn!
  • Take the time to answer the incessant "why?" questions. Not only does it help their brains grow, but it often is an excuse to interact with you when they don't know how else to get your attention.
  • If you struggle with your child interrupting, create a "signal" that shows that you heard them, and will get back to them quickly (like a finger in the air). Discuss it ahead of time. This helps them know that they have been heard, and helps them work on patience. Congratulate ANY patience they show while waiting!
  • Bedtime is a great time for special routines that you share. Its also a great time to talk about tomorrow- and what will be happening. Again, this is an excuse to interact with your child- but it also helps them to develop a sense of security and permanence because they know what is coming!
  • Take turns making up a story while waiting or driving. For instance, you start with "Once upon a time there was a dragon...." Let your child fill in the next sentence or two, and then you add to the story. Let the story get as silly as the child likes!

Hopefully this has gotten your creative juices flowing. In future articles, I'll be sure to discuss How To Foster Healthy Attachment Through Discipline. But for now, enjoy those little ones. Unfortunately, they "don't keep".


Technology and Mental Health

Yahoo was formed in 1995 and went public in 1996- immediately becoming a part of every young person's vocabulary. Offering free email addresses and a search engine, Yahoo was "it". Until...

Google files for incorporation Sep 1998, and not long after- everyone who's anyone "googles" their questions online.

In 2003 "Tom" created Myspace- arguably the first widespread social networking site. Old friends reunite and anyone "cool" has a Myspace page. Until...

Facebook (although created earlier) became open to everyone over age 13 in 2006. Offering status updates among other things, it becomes the newest "to the minute" way to keep in touch with friends.

Don't even get me started on Twitter...

Once upon a time we lived in a land where decades (or more!) passed between technological inventions. Whole (short) lifetimes existed, and for the most part, the old people didn't have to learn a whole lot "new". A father could pass on his knowledge about carpentry for example, and his son could continue the tradition more or less the way his dad did it. This was the case with most of human history. Change came slowly....

Let me make an obvious statement: this is not true any longer.

What was once the "it" invention, quickly becomes outdated. Inventors extol the virtue of their latest innovations, only to be outdone by competitors 6 months later. The Iphone becomes cheaper and outdated almost the second you buy it (grumble). It's an incredibly exciting time to be alive if you have a technologically gifted mind.

But what about the rest of us?

Throughout human history, we have evolved to accept a certain pace of life. Our minds, our understanding, our perspective are all based on a lifestyle that traveled (at fastest) by horse. To travel from A to B, took time. Your mind was free to wander. You breathed fresh air. Definitions of "road trip" did not include drive thrus, loud music, or speed traps. I would imagine that time spent getting from A to B allowed reflection, decompression, imagination, and if you were lucky- conversation.

So the question I want to pose is- how do you think it affects our minds that many of us literally never sit in silence without a monitor in front of us. Very few of us enjoy more than a few minutes of outside air a day (and usually only when walking from our cars). Our idea of "decompression" is to get Starbucks. Our idea of conversation is now often- text messages, status updates or email.

I enjoy modern comforts as much as anyone. I enjoy starbucks, road trips, facebook and blogging (clearly! ha!) But I'm left to wonder: what is it doing to me?

The human creature adapts slowly. It always has. A great example of this is our obesity epidemic. Our bodies have adapted since the beginning of time- to make the most out of every calorie. To store fat from foods so that we have it in famine. To prevent starvation. To give us energy for the next hunt. To ensure survival. Try telling your body, "I actually don't need you to store fat any longer and if you could just ignore the calories I'm sending- it would be great!" It won't listen (I've tried.)

It is no stretch to see that the human mind is likely the same. While we travel at 80 mph, drinking caffeine, sitting by artificial light until late at night, listening to music or tv constantly... what is our mind making of all this noise? Does our mind know what to do with it? Watching TV feels like rest at the time. But strangely, I don't walk away feeling rested.

Someday, one of the many things I would like to study is just that. We already know that exercise is good for the mind (see my earlier blog). What about fresh air? What about a slower pace? What about sunshine?

The mind is an organ that succumbs to physical realities just like your heart. If you abuse it endlessly- there must ultimately be a consequence. So what is that consequence?

All I know is, that when I get going really fast- I crave the technology. It is a struggle to push that power button off. But once I do, when I'm on the other side, I'm so grateful I did. I feel rested, calmer, happier, and more connected to my loved ones.

The irony that I write this on a blog is not lost on me. Ha! I love technology and love the additions it has brought to my life. So (like most things) it will have to be a balancing act. Anything short of living on a compound will require that I make friends with technology.

But I think the balance is worth striving for....

I'm curious- what is your experience with this? Do you feel technology has helped or harmed your emotional well-being? What do you do to decompress in a real way?


New Website


I wanted to take a moment to let you know that I've been working on a website for the nonprofit where I work. It's my first time publishing a website and I'm simultaneously proud and nervous about it. I feel like I must be missing something. If you'd take a moment to look at it (and share any thoughts on it). I'd be very grateful!


The Mind Body Connection

The other day I was talking with a client about his anxiety. I always like to give as much information (when appropriate) as I have in my brain when it comes to mental illness. (After all, what is this education good for if I don't share it with my clients when needed? Right?) And just as I geared up (mini white board and all) he asked me the most simple and astute question of all:

"What causes it?"

For all my knowledge, I had to sadly say, "We don't exactly know."

You see, until very recently our discipline relied heavily on cause and effect types of research. Science knows very little still about the human mind, and therefore we were left with our own observations of behavior... but very little information about what actually was occurring on a neurological level. Part of what makes this tragic (in my opinion) is that mental illness was often dismissed as "all in your head".

Well yes, it is "in your head". But you get my point!

Only through recent advancements (about the last 10 years) in science have we had the technology to actually WATCH a live brain working. This has blown open the field and the data has started pouring in. Suddenly, we are able to actually see the difference between a depressed and non depressed person's brain. We are able to see things like schizophrenia. We may not know exactly what it all means yet- but it's thrilling none the less.

But to get back to my client's question, matters like depression and anxiety are very caught up in the "chicken or the egg" paradox. Is a depressed person's brain biologically different and therefore they experience depression? Or does a thought process like depression change your brain chemistry over time? And of course: are we born with this or is it our environment or both?

These questions are not simple and will take time to answer. They are part science and part philosophy- two fields that never come to answers quickly.

Additionally, we are just beginning to discover a whole body connection with things like depression. For example- inflammation and depression have a strong link. So can we treat things like depression or anxiety by improving the body's health on a molecular level?

All I know is, I am optimistic about the future of my profession. And even more importantly, I am thrilled that those who suffer in silence with serious mental illness might finally be shown proof that they have nothing to be ashamed of. And better yet, that what they suffer with may definitively be cured or even prevented! Wouldn't that be amazing?

In the meantime, we're slogging through the mess of conjecture and a long history of trying to treat illness without all the facts. Sometimes that is difficult to accept for me- because I want to know the "answers" darn it! But imperfect help will have to suffice. I can only anticipate the day when finally we will know "what causes it" once and for all- and people will have definitive answers.


Like Learning To Walk

One of my clients said something that stuck with me. She was comparing her counseling process to learning to walk. Having a small child, this image really connected with me.

In any process of change, there comes a point in time where we've prepared in every way possible- and all that's left is to take that step, to act. The problem is, taking that first step requires us to let go of our support. It requires us to step out into the open air, with nothing to lean on.

You can't have both. You have to pick. There is no way to learn to walk while you still hold on to the familiar. There is no way to learn to walk if you are still leaning on a support.

But the familiar supports keep us back from our next step, prevent us from growing- if we clutch them too tightly.

So in many ways, I think she's right. Personal growth and mental health is just like an infant learning to walk. And just like the infant, we cannot imagine the freedom that waits on the other side. It's all just abstract faith, until we actually act. But the reward is better than we could ever imagine!

It leads me to introspection- what things am I afraid to let go of in my journey? What fear is holding me back from the amazing?

Physical Fitness and Mental Health

I am not naturally thin. It was a sad realization for me as a young teen. I will never look like a supermodel. I will never be "thin" easily or without effort. I will never be one of those who complains "I eat, I just can't gain weight!" (I've been told this is a frustrating and painful experience, but I must say it looks so appealing from my position).

Much of my young adulthood my weight has varied slightly, depending on my motivation level. And of course, every time I hit the gym, it was with great irritation at myself. My only physical activity was motivated by a sense of shame and self-loathing. I do not say this proudly. I wished to be one of those people who craved physical activity- one of those who had experienced the elusive "runner's high". But that just didn't seem to be in my physiology. And so it was with a great (self-punitive) effort that I ever brought myself to a sweat.

That is, until I was pregnant with my son. Pregnancy was very hard for me. I will spare the details, but among other things I had a condition known as SPD (pelvic separation). Walking became excruciating, and I quickly learned that exercise only exacerbated the condition. I spent most of my pregnancy sitting and/or lying down (luckily my job easily accommodates this- I even have a sofa in my office- ha!)

You know how it is often said "Youth is wasted on the young"? Well, I think its true because the young have no perspective. They only know vitality. For me, pregnancy made me instantly much, much older. Almost overnight I went from a (somewhat) young woman to a hobbled, ill one.

Why do I share this (you might be thinking I lost my point here)? Because that experience (lasting well over a year when all was said and done) forever changed my perspective on my body. Health and fitness was no longer totally about being physically attractive. Suddenly, I experienced joy in the movement! The fact that my body could move, walk, run, jump, lift weights, swim, throw a ball, roll around on the floor and sleep without pain- was like a sudden return to youth.

The euphoria by no means stayed as strong... time has a way of dampening these things. But I still carry a part of that lesson with me now. I am not naturally thin... but I can move. And as I move more and more now, I am aware of its impact on my mental health. My mood, my energy, my emotional output is better on days when my body gets out and moves! Research backs these findings- even mild to moderate depression in women can be helped or cured by activity!

And I wonder how many of you approach exercise in that punitive, "I-hate-my-#$%-body" way that I am all too familiar with. What would it take to shift your thinking to health as a whole body concept, instead of just one more way to see yourself as lacking?