Am I the only one who feels like this winter has been so rough? And it’s not even because of the cold, per se. I don’t hate the cold, and if it snows, you’ll find me bundled up in my backyard kicking up fresh powder with my dogs – one of my ultimate happy places. But this winter hasn’t brought snow. The older I get, the more global warming has turned my town into less of a winter wonderland and more of a gray, damp mud pit. It’s dark, wet, and just cold enough to be uncomfortable, but not cold enough to snow. Without having snow to get me through, this is the first year where I’m noticing seasonal depression is getting to me.
I realize, however, that many folks have seasonal depression every year, regardless of whether it snows or not. The lack of sunlight leads to staying indoors more, which leads to a more sedentary lifestyle, which leads to less socialization, ALL of which contribute to depression. I know many of us are struggling this time of year, counting down the days until Spring and Summer. But no one wants to live like that – waiting for the days to pass so we can finally feel a sense of peace. There are so many ways to combat Seasonal Affective Disorder (a fancy term for seasonal depression or the winter blues), so let’s get into it!
Go outside! Yes, it’s cold. Yes, it’s unpleasant. But part of the reason seasonal depression hits us so hard is because we become deficient in Vitamin D due to the lack of sunlight. So bundle up and get outside for a walk, even if it’s just for ten minutes during your lunch break. The more sunshine you can get, the better off you’ll be. Even on a cloudy day, if you go out for a walk, you’re still absorbing some sunlight and doing your mental health a world of good.
Adjust your circadian rhythm to be more aligned with daylight. Your circadian rhythm is your body’s natural sleep/wake cycle. In the winter, it gets dark early at night. If you can get to bed earlier and wake up with the sun, you’ll increase your daily sunlight intake and decrease your risk of depression and Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Buy yourself some indoor plants. You don’t have to be a plant expert to be able to take care of indoor plants. Some plants, like succulents or snake plants, require minimal care, but the presence of them in your home has been shown to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression.
Use a sun lamp. Sun lamps (and light therapy in general) have been shown to help with Seasonal Affective Disorder. Sun lamps are designed to mimic sunlight and can often provide great relief if you’re suffering from the winter blues.
Plant daffodils and hyacinths in your yard if you can! These are some of my favorite plants! Not only do they come back year after year, but they begin growing from the ground between the months of January-February, right in the dead of winter. There is something so refreshing about going outside and seeing the daffodils and hyacinths grow taller with every passing day. They bloom very early, when it’s usually still cold out. The bright blooms are one of the biggest comforts for me when I’m struggling with depression.
Buy yourself flowers each week. Winter is damp, gray, and dreary, but having fresh blooms in the house during the winter usually brightens my mood instantly!
You might notice that these recommendations have a common theme: Connecting with nature. We don’t talk nearly enough about how medicinal nature is for your mental health. In the spring and summer months, we are usually outside much more and are therefore connecting with nature without even realizing it most of the time. In the winter, however, we have to be more intentional about connecting with our planet. I have been religiously using almost all of the above recommendations and have noticed major improvements in my seasonal depression. If you, like me, have been struggling with Seasonal Affective Disorder, I hope that these tips can help provide you with the relief that you deserve.
Hey Everyone, after a year long hiatus, I am back. I’ll be sharing stories, tips, and other useful information that will hopefully leave you a bit better off than when you started reading this blog. So, on with the show.
Did you know that the diet industry is a $70 billion, that’s billion with a B, industry? Did you also know that 95% of diets fail? I’ll let that sink in for a second!
People spend more than $70 billion in a year on a product that will fail more than 95% of the time! Would you buy a car that wouldn’t work 95% of the time, a house that had a 95% chance of collapsing into a pile of rubble, or buy clothes that had a 95% chance of falling apart on the first wear? Of course not! Yet that’s what millions of people in America do each and every single day when they go on a diet. They’ll spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on something that will ultimately fail them.
When I begin treatment with clients who have an eating disorder, like Anorexia; Binge Eating Disorders; or Bulimia, one of things I introduce to clients is Poodle Science. I was introduced to this concept by Tianna Smith, a a wonderful dietitian based in California. For the non-dog lovers out there, a Bullmastiff is a HUGE dog that usually weighs 100 pounds or more while a Chihuahua is a small dog that usually weighs around 6-7 pounds. Because of genetics, it would not matter what kind of diet or exercise you did with a Bullmastiff, it would NEVER weigh anywhere close to the 6-7 pounds of Chihauhua. Not only that, that Bullmastiff would probably be pretty miserable from the lack of food and constant exercise. And yet, it would never come close to having the bodily figure of a Chihuahua.
When I work with my clients in therapy, I talk to them about Poodle Science because the same concept applies to humans. We have a biological blueprint based on our genetics that determines the shape and size of our body. Some people will naturally be 100 pounds while others will naturally be 150 pounds or more. Like the Bullmastiff and the Chihuahua, it’s an impossible fight for a 150-pound person to try and get down to 100 pounds. All you will do is fail, be miserable, and in some cases do incredible harm to your body.
Accepting Your Biological Blueprint
After explaining Poodle Science to my clients, I then work with them in therapy to help them accept that they are beautifully unique individuals no matter the shape or size that their genetics have given them. By accepting their biological blueprint and working with me on techniques like Intuitive Eating, my clients begin to lead happier and healthier lives! So, the next time you see or hear the diet culture in the media, brush it aside and be proud of the beautiful body you have!
Want to read more from Alyssa? Check out her other blog posts here.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made me forget part of the reason why I love traveling so much – the unexpected lessons, the character sculpting, and the major moments of insight and awareness that come from being in a completely different place.
This past weekend, David and I finally got to go away together to a place neither of us had ever even heard of: Skaneateles, NY. We’ve heard of the Finger Lakes, but we had never heard of specifically the Skaneateles Lake/Town. I cannot say enough great things about this town! It was both stuck in the past and way ahead of its time in all the best ways. As we soaked in the views from the lake, hiked up mountains with dozens of waterfalls, and explored various nature preserves, I realized that this was the most at peace I have felt in a long time.
And then, on one of our last days in Skaneateles, I found myself standing on the dock, peering down at the fish swimming in the lake below as we prepared to take a boat tour. Suddenly I was hit with a feeling that I still don’t really have words for. All I know is that the feeling was so strong, it nearly took my breath away. The wind suddenly picked up, the water from the lake sprayed my face, and, almost involuntarily, I whispered to myself “It’s time.”
“It’s time? Time for what?” I asked myself almost immediately. And then, a few moments later, I understood what was happening.
In this midst of moving to a new state, selling our current house, recovering from health issues, watching my business change, and adjusting to post-pandemic life, I’ve done a lot of fighting – fighting for relationships, fighting to keep certain friendships, fighting because it felt like something I “should” do. Or perhaps I have been fighting to keep these relationships so I could avoid the grief that comes with letting go. Either way – the last few months have found me holding so tightly to the people who continuously seem to be slipping through my hands.
While I know I’m on the right path for myself, I also recognize that I have been pushing away the fact that this path I am taking means I will be saying goodbye to people I once held close to my heart. The fact of the matter is that not everyone is meant to stay in our lives forever; and, perhaps most importantly, not everyone is meant to fill the role that we think they should fill.
For years I’ve held on to certain hopes and expectations about what some of the relationships in my life should look like, and doing so has often sent me into bitterness, anxiety, and depression. When I fight to keep a relationship that simply isn’t meant to be, I end up abandoning myself. And in this last year of my 20’s, I made a promise to never abandon myself again.
I have spent far too many years sacrificing my own needs, blaming myself for miscommunications, and overlooking painful moments just so I can maintain communication with people who I thought I needed in my life. Over the last several months, as I fall more in love with the woman I have become, I am realizing I cannot have it both ways. I cannot please others just to avoid confrontation or abandonment AND honor my own needs. While I know this on an intellectual level, emotionally speaking it has still been very difficult for me to let go of the things/people that need letting go. But leave it to traveling to teach me some of life’s most difficult lessons; for when I was standing on the dock taking in some of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen, my gut told me it was time. It’s time to release my grip. It’s time to grieve over what happened, because I can’t change it. It’s also time to grieve over what won’t ever happen, because I can no longer operate in relationships that aren’t two-way streets.
It’s time to acknowledge the hurt and rejection I feel instead of pushing it down, telling myself that if I just try harder, I’ll get the acceptance I’ve been craving from the people I’ve been craving it from.
The fact is that I am so loved. I am loved by people who see my light and celebrate it in ways I never imagined. And I am so grateful for it – for my friends and family, for my dogs, for my clients, for the podcast listeners, the blog readers, and all the supporters in my life – each and every single one of you!
All of these feelings seemed to hit me at once, and I found myself both smiling and crying at the same time. While I know that so many good things await me on the other side of letting go, it’s still a sad process. I wiped my tears away, stepped onto the boat, and climbed my way to the second floor (for the best views of course!). I peered back at the little village of Skaneateles as the engine revved and we started gliding across the lake. I know the path ahead of me, and I know with absolute certainty that what is behind me is no longer meant for me. I turned my head up to the sky and let the sunshine dry the remainder of the tears on my face as a mixture of grief, gratitude, and relief flooded my soul. I know that it’s not just time to let go of the past – it’s also time to move forward to the next part of my career. This strong intuition has been simmering just beneath the surface for some time now, but I wasn’t ready to acknowledge any of it until this moment.
How will I make it happen? How do I move through the grief? Where do I even begin with the next chapter of my career? God only knows. The only thing I am certain of right now is this:
I really wish that we were talking about Pascal, the chameleon from Rapunzel. He is one of my favorite Disney characters! Has anybody ever discovered a stuffed animal Pascal? I’ve looked high and low but cannot find one anywhere! So if you know where I can buy one, please let me know. Clearly it’s a very urgent matter!
But I digress. What I really want to talk about today are the human versions of chameleons – those whose thoughts, beliefs, and opinions can change depending on their environment. Pete Walker, author of Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving, first coined the term “fawning” as a trauma response. Fawning is essentially described as being a chronic people pleaser. Some trauma survivors will engage in fawning, or people pleasing, as a way to diffuse tension if they feel unsafe or uncomfortable. But what I don’t think many people know is that fawning extends beyond saying “yes” to everything and everyone’s requests. People pleasers are also the kind of folks mentioned above – the ones who tend to have different beliefs or different personalities depending on who they are around.
For example, someone who is fawning could look like your friend that tells you all the time she is a Democrat, but in a room full of Republicans she will quickly turn into one of the most passionate Republicans the world has ever seen. Someone who is fawning might also look like that cousin of yours who complains constantly about how much she hates this one person in her friend group, but the second she hangs out with that person she acts like the two of them are best friends.
As a whole, the public generally doesn’t take kindly to people who behave like this. It creates a sense of mistrust and frustration among people when they see that somebody acts one way one minute, and is completely different the next minute.
Now I am not saying that every single person who engages in these types of behaviors is fawning, because that simply isn’t the case. But what I am trying to say is that sometimes people aren’t trying to copy others and sometimes people aren’t changing their beliefs and values out of a desperation to fit in. What this behavior actually could be is fawning, or in other words, a type of trauma response.
I myself can be like this when I feel threatened in some ways. Recently, I found myself in a situation that felt tense, uncomfortable, and downright awkward. The topic of conversation was very triggering to me, and I had many triggering events take place in the hours leading up to this conversation. Thus, I was already on edge. The people around me were in a heated discussion about something that I actually found offensive. On a good day, or even a so-so day, I might have chimed in and dared to have an opposing viewpoint. But on this day in particular, I was already having such a bad day, and between the topic of conversation and the harsh tone of everyone’s voices, I was triggered beyond belief. I did the only thing I could do to try to get the conversation to come to a close: I simply agreed with them. Yep, against everything I believe in, I became the person that I thought that they wanted me to be and I agreed with what they were saying, even though, if you were to ask me to speak on that same subject any other day of the week, I would have given you a completely different opinion.
I didn’t agree with them because I had an overwhelming desire to fit in, and I didn’t pacify them by siding with their beliefs because I wanted to make friends with them. It was more so that I felt emotionally unsafe, and feeling that way put me in such a high state of emotional distress that I said whatever I could to get myself away from the situation. Fawning, like fight or freeze or flight or any of the other trauma responses, is a survival tactic. I wasn’t able to fight or flee the situation, so I became a chameleon and I blended in with my surroundings in the best way that I knew how.
Millions of folks do this. I’ve watched it time and time again, and while a younger version of me might get annoyed and accuse that person of not being genuine, the person I am today realizes that so many people engage in fawning because they have found themselves in situations that trigger their previous traumas.
While I have come a very long way in my PTSD recovery, I was reminded by this event that there is more work to be done. Even though I am tempted to sit in a pit of shame and self-loathing, I’m refusing to do so because my brain did whatever it could to keep me safe in the moment, and that is no reason to feel ashamed. So here I sit, pouring vulnerability onto the page in the hopes that I can educate other people on this type of trauma response, as I think it is often misunderstood and creates a lot of tension in relationships.
To those of you who have never engaged in fawning and don’t quite get it, please be patient with us.
And to those of us who struggle with fawning, let us try to have more compassion for ourselves. We have brilliant minds, built for survival. And although fawning doesn’t always serve us well, it did keep us safe and alive for many years. We are all a work in progress, but please oh please, don’t forget to love yourself throughout the journey just as much as you’ll love yourself once you’ve arrived at your destination.
I am quite guilty about having talked like this in the past: “I’m so OCD about it.” About what? How clean I like my house to be, how I organize my closet, etc. I can even recount many times at the gym where I would be in the middle of a fitness class – God forbid the instructor accidentally lost her place and we ended up doing 11 kettlebell swings with the right hand and 10 kettlebell swings with the left hand. I’d be the first to say out loud: “Oh my gosh, we’re uneven, we have to do one more one this side – I’m so OCD about it!”
A lot of us do this, but as I got older and started becoming more seasoned as a therapist, I realized how wrong those comments were. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) can be a crippling mental health disorder in which we find ourselves having to act on certain impulses in order to quiet the thoughts in our head that just won’t seem to stop.
Yes, people can develop OCD symptoms around cleanliness, disorganization, and numbers, like I mentioned above, but the obsessive thoughts can also be much more than that. You see, when I would make those comments like the ones I mentioned above, I would laugh, my friends would laugh, and we would go about our day. But the truth is, I was joking about an issue that runs so much deeper and is more serious than most folks know. While many of us joke about having OCD, the truest form of the disorder is brutal.
Of all the issues I have been battling, one of the ones I talk about the least is my OCD, mostly because I know that my OCD is a result of my trauma and in treating the trauma, I am also treating the OCD.
But truth be told, OCD is an absolute beast, one that lives with you, follows you everywhere you go, and keeps you from sleeping at night. It’s the worst friend you’ve ever had, but cannot seem to get rid of. It’s counting how many times you chew your food before you swallow, it’s making sure you step on the scale 3 times just to make sure the scale is right. It’s this irresistible compulsion to say your prayers exactly the same way every night, fearing that something bad will happen to you if you don’t.
This elusive beast comes in many forms, and what I named above are only a few symptoms that people with OCD may struggle with. Looking back on my childhood, I know that my OCD began as early as 3rd grade, where I remember washing my hands so much and for so long that my skin would bleed. As I got older, my obsessions then became about people breaking into our home. I would have to check the doors at night, dis-arm the alarm that my mom already armed, check to ensure the garage door was shut, and then re-arm the alarm. After about 3-4 rounds of doing this each night, only then could I be assured that the doors were truly locked and the alarm was truly set.
My symptoms have come and gone throughout my life, worsening during times of extreme stress. COVID 19 of course sent my obsessions and compulsions through the roof. I would cry if anyone came too close to me, I refused to see anyone but David for months on end, and any time I needed to go anywhere, I would come home and strip at the front door, throwing my clothes immediately in the washer and jumping into the shower to scrub my skin raw. We even used disinfectant to wipe down every grocery item that we bought before allowing it into the house. It was exhausting, time consuming, and needless to say, very rough on my skin.
And have I mentioned intrusive thoughts? I could write an entire blog post on intrusive thoughts so I won’t dive too deeply into this, but they often couple with OCD. For example, if you’ve ever been driving your car on a highway and suddenly thought to yourself: “What if the car next to me runs me off the road and I crash into a tree and die?”, this is an intrusive thought. Or maybe worse, you’ve even pictured the entire event taking place in your head. This is also an intrusive thought, and you are not alone if you have them.
Often times we develop compulsions to quell our obsessive and intrusive thoughts. Over the last few years, my obsessions and compulsions have come back in more crippling waves, likely due to extreme stress. Back in 2018 when my mom was severely ill and in the ICU, I believed that I caused her sickness. I recall sitting in the spiritual room of the hospital, feeling the urge to pray the same exact prayer, in the same way, for the same amount of time, because somehow, I believed that would save my mother. I remember those dreadful times when I would have to leave the hospital after spending a day with her in the ICU, I would make sure I didn’t step on a single crack on the floor as I walked down the hallways, because I thought that if I stepped on a crack it would be the reason why my mom didn’t survive.
In more recent months, I have been battling health issues, including an autoimmune disease that is – to put it lightly – excruciatingly painful, rendering me, at times, incapable of even breathing without severe, nauseating pain. I have also had multiple tests done on my eyes, as doctors were concerned that I had inflammation in my optic nerves that were being cause by a brain tumor. I was referred to one of the best neuro-opthamologists in the country, but had to wait nearly two months for an appointment. (I just had my appointment this week – no brain tumor!) Naturally, these last two months have been wrought with compulsion after compulsion to try to quell the obsessive thoughts about dying. Some examples:
-Driving to work: Did I check the stove to make sure the gas isn’t on? (after having checked it 20 times before leaving) Am I sure my dogs are safely in their crates? What if there is a fire and my house burns down? My dogs will die. Oh god, I can’t go to work. What if David dies? Let me call him to make sure he and the dogs are okay. NO, don’t call him. Don’t give into the compulsion.
-Driving home from work: Did I really blow that candle out in my office or did I just imagine it? Let me turn around, I have to check, I can’t be responsible for burning down the building. *drives back to office, confirms that the candle is blown out, starts driving home again* Okay but what if I imagined that? Did I really blow out that candle? *Gets home from work 45-60 min later than expected because I have to act on my compulsions*
-Getting ready for bed: *Hears David cough* He must have COVID. Oh God I probably gave it to him. He’s going to die and it’s going to be my fault. He can’t die, because I’m going to die because I probably have a brain tumor. He has to live because someone needs to take care of the dogs. Speaking of dogs, are mine safe? I know I checked earlier but let me check on them again to make sure they are breathing. While I’m at it, let me check the locks on the doors again. If I don’t, something bad will happen and everyone I love will die and it will be my fault.
It’s terrible. It’s exhausting. And sometimes I so desperately want out of this head of mine. This is the case for so many folks with OCD. It’s not just about wanting your house to be neat and orderly. It’s about needing to do certain things to avoid horrible things from happening and to quiet the brain.
I understand things so much differently now. I used to have the attitude of “I’m not changing the way I speak just to save other’s feelings” but the older I get, the more I realize how much of an impact words have on myself and others (I am a therapist, after all!). Intent does not equal impact – and even if I was just joking all those times when I said “I am so OCD about it”, I realize that it is nothing to joke about.
1. If you have been diagnosed with OCD, know you’re not alone and there is no shame in sharing the thoughts and compulsions you are having. In fact, speaking them out loud takes the power away from them.
2. If you have never been diagnosed with OCD, but resonate with some of what I’m saying in this post, please reach out for help. You don’t have to live like this forever and managing the symptoms truly does get much easier.
3. If you have no experience battling OCD, but often say phrases like “I’m really OCD about it”, maybe consider trying to change your words. What else could you say instead? “It makes me feel frazzled and disorganized when my house is a mess” or “I prefer my closet to be organized by color because it makes me happy” are just a few examples. The beautiful thing about language is that there are millions of ways to say something without using words that might minimize the beast that is OCD.
If I hear the phrase “unprecedented times” one more time…..
Now let me just preface the remainder of this post by saying that I am eternally grateful that my loved ones have not yet lost their lives to coronavirus, and therefore, my intention is not to come off as inconsiderate or selfish when I say the following:
UGH! I miss going out to eat. Especially Zahavs (to die for) in Philly. My husband and I went on our first date there, celebrated our engagement there, and continue to go there every year on our anniversary, with the exception of last year and most likely this year due to Covid. What I wouldn’t give to be able to hop on a train and head into the city, where I can stroll carefree from one historic monument to the next, enjoying the sights and sounds and, most importantly, the delectable cuisine!
I won’t sit here and go through all of the things that I miss, because it’s not news to anybody. I know we are all on the same boat when it comes to missing our pre-covid lives. But what I will say is this: Being stuck inside has forced me to re-evaluate what I’m doing to take care of myself. If you had asked me a few years ago, I would tell you that self care was going out for an expensive date or a pricey spa day. I would tell you that self care is being able to hop on a plane and go to your favorite vacation spot whenever you want. Or I might tell you that self-care is forcing yourself to wake up at 5 AM so you can get to the gym even though you only got three hours of sleep the entire night.
Some part of me always believed that self care should have an emphasis on spending money or looking a certain way. But I didn’t have an opportunity to do any of that this past year. I had to actually stay in my house and figure out how I was going to take care of myself, because going on vacations or strolling the mall or hitting the gym excessively was not an option for me. Looking back, I see now that those things weren’t truly self care at all. The only purpose that all of those things served was to be a giant distraction for the painful feelings that were surfacing as a result of my PTSD.
With all of that being said, I thought I might take a moment to share on the blog some of what I’ve been doing to keep myself sane over the last year. It has nothing to do with spending big bucks or trying to make my body meet some impossible standard. Ready? Let’s go!
1. Puzzles. Don’t you roll your eyes at me! I hated puzzles up until this year. You know why I hated them? They forced me to be still and process all of the intense feelings that were coming up. Since quarantine, I have completed about ten 1000-piece puzzles. When I’m having some big feelings, I shut all of my technology down and I work on my puzzle. It keeps my hands busy, and keeps my brain distracted while allowing space to process my emotions at the same time. I highly recommend!
2. Painting. Again with the eye rolls?! I’m telling you, it works! I have zero artistic talent, and that’s putting it nicely. But a few months ago, one of my clients introduced me to “Canvas by Numbers”, which has been so satisfying to work on! Not only do all of the colors soothe my soul, but just like with puzzles, it keeps my hands busy and keeps me focused, while also allowing me to process other things.
3. Epsom salt. People who struggle with anxiety and depression tend to have lower magnesium levels, which can be found in Epsom salt. Magnesium is best absorbed through the skin, and there are now different types of Epsom salts that are infused with essential oils (which is really the icing on the cake if you ask me). If you are not a person who enjoys taking baths, I have also found it to be extremely soothing to put some Epsom salt in a cup and bring it in the shower with you. You can scoop it out with your hands and rub it into your body, using it as an exfoliant. It certainly helps with aches and sore muscles, but also with anxiety and depression. It’s one of those instant fixes for me when I’m really depressed or dissociated.
4. Essential oil diffuser. When I am dissociated or anxious, I need all of my senses on deck to pull me out of the funk that I am in. So my diffuser doesn’t just give off incredible scents, but it’s also a 3-D light-up diffuser. I found it on Amazon! Between the amazing smells from the essential oils and the pretty lights, I find this to be a very grounding tool for me.
5. Movement. And I don’t mean exercise, although this can include exercise if you would like it to. If you have a yoga mat, roll it out and sit on it. Do some light stretches, some neck rolls, some lower back stretches, and even give yourself a foot massage. There are parts of the feet that are directly connected to your organs (more on that later), which is partially why some spots on your feet are more tender than other spots. There are a million free videos on the internet with guided stretches if you need a bit of assistance. The goal here is not to lose weight or change your body. It is simply to allow the emotions that are stuck inside of you to start moving through you.
6. Animals. Do you have a fish? A cat? A dog? A bearded dragon? Whatever you may have, interact with him/her/them. Yes, even your fish. Feed your fish, clean the tank, walk your dog, etc. When I force myself to put my phone down and play with my dogs, it often pulls me out of my depression and brings some laughter into my days.
This self-care list is drastically different from the list I would have given you two years ago. One of the most important differences between what I did back then and what I do now is that my current self care tools are all about moving through the feelings instead of trying to avoid the feelings. If you’re struggling in these (dare I say it?!) ~unprecedented times~, I hope that this list can help you make a giant leap towards taking better care of yourself. You one thousand percent deserve it!