Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Seriously, No Happy Pill

As a psychopharmacologist, I prescribe a lot of medications for people struggling with depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses. I have tried to become clear in recent years in describing what I expect these medications can and cannot do. Sometimes I forget to give the speech, but a lot of times people do not hear what they do not want to hear. I believe medications can save lives and can take a depressed person from complete despair to functional. Sometimes the results are nothing short of miraculous, most of the time they are not.
My short speech explains that medications can provide symptomatic relief for the illness they are intended to treat. They can make a person more energetic, sleep better, feel more engaged and less irritable, and reduce unwarranted crying spells. They will not, however, make a person happy. The pills cannot bring joy or love, they can't take away a terrible job or marriage, and they will not make every day a lovely party filled with sunshine. Ok, that last part I don't actually say, but it's implied. Yet at least every week, if not more often, I am told by formerly depressed people that they are not happy. Or worse from my standpoint, that they still have bad days now and then. Really? So do I... Life is full of ups and downs, and emotions will change with circumstances. If you have a lousy job, you will have to find a way to cope with it and not let it create despair, or you will have to find another job. Prozac will not change that fact.
I am on a roll on my good old soap box here, but I think this topic is so important, I named my blog after it! I have been reading a lot of so-called happiness psychology, and it makes serious sense to me. We have to choose each day to be in the moment, to not let the little things bring us down and to practice gratitude. These choices will help us stay afloat on the waves of circumstance and emotion that can affect our mood. Again, medications are necessary for some people to allow them to get to the point of being able to choose. That is their value. Then, as my speech usually ends, the real work begins. We can choose to exercise, breathe, practice a spiritual pursuit, eat well and find a way to give back to others. These plus many other positive experiences will help us choose happiness each and every day.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Self-Doubt

My son DJ is 8. There are days when he thinks he is the greatest thing ever to walk the earth. The smartest in his class, the best looking, the best athlete. Then there are days like today where he misses a fly ball and he thinks he is the biggest dork in the world. No amount of reassurance can convince him that he is a great ball player in spite of his error, and the great throw he made to get an out at second is completely irrelevant in his self-assessment. There are factors that make him more likely to doubt himself: being seen messing up by other people (especially his peers), being overtired, and really wanting to do well.
These seem to be fairly universal factors. If I wobble in tree pose in my home practice, I can shrug it off. If I'm in the front row in yoga class, I am likely to call myself an idiot for hours afterwards. So, fear of being judged harshly by others makes me doubt myself. The second factor, being overtired, is just another way of saying our defenses are down. Overtired, behind schedule, not enough prep time, my lucky socks were dirty, whatever, if the situation is less than ideal, I am less confident. The third factor, wanting it so badly, is also universal. DJ really wants to hit a home run. Hitting the fence is therefore a failure.
So let's put all of these together for a recent scenario in my life. I offered to teach a gentle yoga class to my parents in my basement. I didn't have enough time to practice beforehand, so I was nervous and doubting some parts of the class. I really wanted to do well in front of my parents so they would approve of my yoga teaching (yes I have mother issues), and my kids were taking my class as well. It was a perfect storm of factors to create self-doubt and criticism. I did come off nervous initially, and didn't present as well as I would've liked. The kids got squirrelly, and the middle of the class became a bit of a circus when our cat Jack Jack caught a mouse in the furnace room (I swear I'm not making this up) and ran toward the stairs. Afterwards, I felt I had let myself down. I didn't show myself as the teacher I'm striving to become, because the class completely dissolved into chaos. Ok, how could it not, after that? I can laugh about it, because it was clearly ridiculous, but that doesn't stop the self-questioning. How could I have prepared better? Why don't I practice mirroring more so I'm not confused in front of people? Why didn't I lock the cats in another room? Why was there a mouse in the basement?!
I don't know a way around the three factors I mentioned above, except to be aware of the traps that tend to create self-doubt in the first place. We cannot prepare for every scenario, and we cannot prevent crazy random things from going wrong (seriously, a mouse?). However, self-confidence doesn't have to come out of perfection. Being able to laugh at myself goes a long way towards recovering from embarrassment. Preparing properly allows me to feel confident no matter what the outcome, because I know I've tried my best. Walking tall in front of others shows that I recognize I am a strong and intelligent woman, even if I trip and fall. Letting go of a desired outcome lets me enjoy the ride rather than striving for something I cannot control. Now if only I can teach all that to DJ so he doesn't have to work on self-doubt when he gets to my age!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Breathe

From the moment we are born to the moment our souls leave our bodies, we are breathing. It is the one constant thing in our lives, yet our breath is also ever-changing. If we are calm and relaxed, it is slow and deep. If we are anxious or upset, it can be shallow, gasping and tight. We have to breathe, and if we try to stop, eventually our brain will force the issue, making us take an involuntary breath. Yet we can control our breathing to some extent, unlike most other biological functions. Behavioral techniques can lengthen the breath and calm the body, reducing tension and slowing the heart rate. So, we can affect how we feel by changing our breath!
I hardly ever give a thought to my breathing. I don't notice it until I'm feeling short of breath, quite frankly, then I wonder if I'll ever feel full of oxygen again! The typical posture of a stressed out American works against getting a full breath into the lungs. Our shoulders slump forward, our chest caves in and our neck collapses. This reduces our lung capacity significantly and leads to shallow breaths into our upper chest, which only perpetuates tension in our muscles. I feel the effects of a day slumped over my desk in my neck and shoulders, and I bet you have felt it, too! Taking time to stretch the shoulders, open the chest, and take some deep breaths can restore energy during a mid-day slump. Our minds can refocus because our oxygen saturation goes up. All this from a simple stretch at the desk!
The other wonderful thing about the breath is it's constancy. I am working on becoming more mindful, and one way I can come back to this moment at any time is to stop and notice my breath. Listening and feeling the air going in and out of my nostrils grounds my flighty thoughts and zaps me back into the now. This is actually a simple form of meditation anyone can perform, simply sit quietly and "watch" the breath. Notice the air as it flows in and out, and let all other thoughts simply drift away with your exhales. Try this the next time you're living in the future, worrying about all you have to get done. See if it doesn't ground you back into the present. The breath is a gift, keeping our bodies alive and our minds calm and focused, if we use it wisely.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Beauty

Beauty is all around us, and some days the brillance just dazzles me. I'm not certain if it is the sun and blue sky after so much rain, the amazing yoga class this morning, or the nice woman who painted flowers on my toes at the nail salon, but I'm feeling the sweetness today. Some days we keep our heads down and avoid looking at anything. Our shoulders slump and it gets harder to feel our heart energy. Today I'm standing tall!
We can find beauty all around us, if we look. The women trying to lift off into crow pose for the first time, and the pros flying high, they all shine. The warmth of a smile and a kind word from a stranger shows me their beauty, no matter what they look like. I believe my open heart today will draw kindness to me from others. Smiles are meant to be returned, whether or not you belive in the law of attraction. Join me in keeping your heart open and your eyes lifted today, enjoy the beauty around you!

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Take Time

Every summer I try to schedule a few extra days off to enjoy myself. Every year, I wish I had blocked out more time. Summer is short in the Midwest, and we pack it full of art fests, outdoor ballgames and fireworks. This year, we already have something planned every weekend in July! Our schedule is packed! When I am on the go so much, it becomes more of a challenge to remember to breathe and enjoy myself. Even if we are headed somewhere fun, it becomes an item on the calendar, rather than a Cubs' game. I get cranky if we don't get out the door when I expected, or if someone forgets their water bottle. I lose sight of the entire objective: a good time!
I am still a novice at staying in the moment. I spend a lot of time planning and expecting, when I should be relaxing and letting it be. I work every day on staying present and not projecting into the future. It's not easy for me, though! Shopping for groceries the other day was a perfect example. I was racing around the store trying to remember every item we needed. I looked over, and couldn't find my daughter Zee for a moment. I turned and saw her, back by the front of the store, and started to yell at her to keep up. Then I noticed she was smelling the flowers. Literally. The big buckets of them in the front of the produce section. Wow, didn't that bring me up short. There was absolutely no reason for my hurry, and she was just enjoying her surroundings in this moment, rather than anticipating what was coming in the next one.
My goal this summer is to take more time. Time off, time doing what I enjoy, and yes, time smelling the flowers. I have a lot of commitments scheduled, and I will accomplish what needs to be done. In between, I will enjoy the moment, hopefully outdoors in the sunshine! Summer vacation is upon us, and even though we don't get three months off, we can still savor the fun we find time for, even if it is scheduled in advance.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Balance

I read somewhere that a balanced life looks different to different people. Sounds strange, but I think we can find truth in that statement. Balance to me means enough time for each sphere of my life: family, work, yoga, and maybe some left over for me. Maybe I ought to move myself up in the priority list :) Finding balance is a challenge for most people, I hear about it all day long. We work too much, and let the demands of career overtake everything else. There's no time for exercise, no time for simple pleasures like coffee with friends, and there is never time to make and prepare nutritious food. All of these things would fall under the "me" category, I believe!
In yoga, when we are doing balancing poses, we find a steady gaze, or dristi. We keep our eyes focused softly on one point and it helps keep us upright. A single focus allows the extraneous stuff to become less of a distraction, and our minds calm, too. However, what if our focus is too one-pointed? I have recognized in a challenging balance sequence that I'm staring at the dot on the Buddha tapestry for all I'm worth. I forget to notice my hip in tree pose, and sink into it instead of lifting out and allowing some sway. Eventually it becomes more likely that I'll topple over, not less! So, I have to find balance in my focus, as well.
In real life, this can mean keeping a goal in sight, but not at the expense of everything else. We have to allow for the flow, sway with the breeze a little bit, and remember that balance is never static. In every pose, we have some movement, little corrections that redirect our energy and weight. We may appear to be quite still, but our body is always balancing effort with relaxation and finding the best way to keep us upright.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Expectations

I read a wonderful blog post today that concluded with these words: "...the ability to be happy and experience peace at any given moment is not contingent on how I expected an event to occur. We all have the ability to manage expectations, change our state of mind and ultimately be happy regardless of how we expect things will unfold." (Posted on tinybuddha.com by Jared Akers, author of the blog spiritualzen.net)
This article came to my inbox at the perfect time, as I am feeling disappointed because my expectations are not going to be met. I have made great progress on my spiritual path, but this is my biggest sticking point. I want things the way I want them, and right now. Maybe it's growing up an only child in America. Maybe it's my inner control freak, or my vata-pitta nature. Whatever the reason, it's hard for me to avoid projecting my wants onto most situations. I didn't want to be stuck in traffic on the way to the dance recital last night. I don't want to cancel my upcoming lunch with a friend. But these things are out of my control, and I have to change my state of mind here! (You can hear the "dammit" at the end of that statement, can't you? I'll leave it off then.) The only control I have right now is over my reaction. I know this is true, and eventually I will get back to my breath and recognize that I can still be happy even though things will not go the way I would like.
Expectations creep up for me all day long. I expect sunshine, happy children and Life cereal for breakfast. Now you can see how I've set myself up to be disappointed all day long. Clouds, my son coming off the wrong side of the bed and something as silly as running out of my favorite cereal will bring me crashing down. I can roll with it and stay on top of the water, or I can sink into the muck. Some days I have to work much, much harder at changing my state of mind. Other days I have the fortitude to recognize the outcome of any given situation is beyond my control. Then I can stay in the joy that is my true nature no matter what is happening around me. I am hopeful these days will become more frequent, but I won't say that I expect it...
Much thanks to tinybuddha.com and Jared Akers of spiritualzen.net for the slap of perspective :) I really love the tinybuddha emails, you can sign up on their website if you're interested.