A little self-help

I’ll admit it.  I’m on a diet and have been since November.  But not a diet like one you might imagine.  I am not restricting myself to 1200 calories (far too low for most people).  I have no cut out carbs or sugar or fats.  It doesn’t have a ‘name’. I still drink beer & wine.  I eat chocolate.  And I love it.  My diet is one that I can follow for life.  I don’t feel deprived, don’t feel like binging and I’m losing weight, albeit slowly.  Very slowly.  In our world of fast movement and lack of patience, my diet has been one that has tested my resolve.  BUT, I’m seeing results.  Yay!  If you want to do something similar to me, then here are the resources I’m using:

  • MyFitnessPal -(MFP)  this is a website where you can post your food input and figure out if you are eating the right ‘macros’ (amounts of certain food elements, such as protein).  I’m focusing on eating under my calories and eating enough protein to protect my muscles.  What I like about it is that you can manipulate the numbers to your own needs.  I do NOT go by their numbers as they tend to give people too low calorie needs.  Most people also try to lose 2lb a week which is FAR TOO QUICK (unless you are about 100 lb overweight).  I also LOVE the forums.
  • Scooby Workshop – I use the TDEE method of losing/maintaining weight.  In this method, you figure out how many calories to eat daily based on your activity level.  I use an activity level of moderately active (between 3-5 hrs) as I lift 3x a week, run 2x a week, have a 2 hr field hockey practice, play 1x a week and walk a lot.  It is suggested that you do a deficit of between 15-20% – you’ll be better able to maintain your lean muscle mass (a good thing).  I do a 10% deficit as I’m close to my goal weight.  It’s suggested that the closer you get to your goal weight, the less you try to lose per week.  What’s good about doing this method is that you learn how to eat the way you should for life.
  • Eat More to Weigh Less  – I spent my teens and 20s doing crash diets and restrictive diets.  I was not healthy.  I was skinny but had a much higher body fat percentage as I had lost a lot of my lean body muscle.  I wish that this website has existed back then (well, actually the internet didn’t really exist to the same extent).  I’ve learned so much about how to eat at a healthier level, do the right things for my body and get the support I need.  They also have a group on the MFP website.
  • Stronglifts 5×5 – I have always done a bit of weight lifting.  But I used to use machines as they felt more ‘comfortable’.  They helped but I wasn’t seeing the gains I had hoped for.  And then I was introduced to the Stronglifts programme.  It’s changing my body.  It’s early days but I can see the muscles below my body fat.  And my body fat is starting to come off even though I’m eating around maintenance.  I’d rather get tighter, stronger and stay the same weight.  NO, I’m not getting bulky – while I do have a genetic gift to gain muscle more than many women (more testosterone I believe), I’m not getting big – I’d have to take drugs to do that.  It takes guys, who have a lot more testosterone years to build muscles naturally.  So lift weights!  Lift BIG weights and you’ll never regret it!

If you are an emotional eater like many of us (yup, I’ve been there), then I would love to share with you a few worksheets that have helped my clients and myself with all those negative thoughts that seem to come into our mind (and which we might not even recognise may change how we feel and behave):





Click to access CriticalVoiceTRS.pdf

No one worksheet is going to be the end all. If things are really bad, I’d suggest seeing a therapist, particularly one who uses CBT. But it’s a good start!


The past few months have been a bit hectic for me (hence the lack of tweeting and blog posting). I was finishing up my course at Oxford which included writing a case study, doing my last few weeks of course study, turning in a rated recording of a session and then finally writing my dissertation. In addition, we had to plan and go on a holiday back to the States to visit my family, which was lovely, but which also does include some stress (especially as we missed one flight due to major storms in Atlanta). Happily, it’s all finished! I’ll talk a bit more about my dissertation at another time, but I thought I’d share the meditation that I used throughout to remain calm and which helped remind me to live in the moment and let the little stuff just ‘float on by’.


The leaves on the stream meditation is one that I teach many of my clients and which I’ve posted about before, but I think it’s worth sharing again:

(1) Sit in a comfortable position and either close your eyes or rest them gently on a fixed spot in the room.

(2) Visualize yourself sitting beside a gently flowing stream with leaves floating along the surface of the water. Pause 10 seconds.

(3) For the next few minutes, take each thought that enters your mind and place it on a leaf… let it float by. Do this with each thought – pleasurable, painful, or neutral. Even if you have joyous or enthusiastic thoughts, place them on a leaf and let them float by.

(4) If your thoughts momentarily stop, continue to watch the stream. Sooner or later, your thoughts will start up again. Pause 20 seconds.

(5) Allow the stream to flow at its own pace. Don’t try to speed it up and rush your thoughts along. You’re not trying to rush the leaves along or “get rid” of your thoughts. You are allowing them to come and go at their own pace.

(6) If your mind says “This is dumb,” “I’m bored,” or “I’m not doing this right” place those thoughts on leaves, too, and let them pass. Pause 20 seconds.

(7) If a leaf gets stuck, allow it to hang around until it’s ready to float by. If the thought comes up again, watch it float by another time. Pause 20 seconds.

(8) If a difficult or painful feeling arises, simply acknowledge it. Say to yourself, “I notice myself having a feeling of boredom/impatience/frustration.” Place those thoughts on leaves and allow them float along.

(9) From time to time, your thoughts may hook you and distract you from being fully present in this exercise. This is normal. As soon as you realize that you have become side-tracked, gently bring your attention back to the visualization exercise.

Taken from: Harris, R. (2009). ACT made simple. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

How do you handle chronic illness?

There are a multitude of chronic illnesses in the world, from diabetes to M.E.  And while we’re making strides in finding a cure for many of these, we may be ignoring one aspect of these disorders…mental health.  A chronic illness has many components to it that may contribute to anxiety and depressions, from not knowing what’s going to happen day-to-day to having to deal with not having enough support through friends or family.  Lack of progress in treating symptomology or not knowing how long certain side effects are going to be part of your life can trigger potential anxious or depressed thoughts.

Per the American Psychological Association (APA), the best way to deal with the emotional side of a chronic disease requires an approach that is “realistic but positive.”  What that means for you may mean something different for others.  A therapist can help with this approach, but there are a few other ideas that the APA suggest:

1. Stay connected.  If you can find supportive friends and family.  If they are not around, search for support groups, or at the very least go online as you can find many support forums.

2. Take care of yourself.  Don’t be ashamed to ask for help or to push if you aren’t getting the care you need.  You won’t be seen as a hypochondriac if you are feeling symptomology and need some help.  Eat well, exercise if you can and find time for yourself.

3. Maintain a routine.  When depression hits, the first thing that goes are pleasurable activities or even those you might do on a daily basis.  Get up, do errands, go to work, go to the gym…just do.

I have several friends who have chronic illnesses.  One has dedicated herself to finding a cure by working in a lab that focuses on her disease.  She does Crossfit and runs.  And she tries her darndest to maintain a normal life.  Another friend found humour as her way to deal with some of the toughest aspects of her illness.  She’s gone so far as to write a book called “Prescription for Disaster: the funny side of falling apart” (which is also available in the US).  It doesn’t matter how you choose to make your way through life with a chronic disorder or disease as long as you keep moving forward.  It’s not easy but as others have shown, it is doable.



As the gyms start to slowly empty of those who had such great plans, and the diets begin to fail of those who just want a bit of chocolate, along comes a fabulous article from TED.  Kelly McGonigal talks about why it’s just so darned tough to stick to a resolution…or the science of willpower.  You can find the original here, or snippets below taken from the article:

I define willpower as the ability to do what matters most, even when it’s difficult or when some part of you doesn’t want to. That begins to capture why it’s so difficult — because everything we think of as requiring willpower is usually a competition between two conflicting selves. There’s a part of you who is looking to the long-term and thinking about certain goals, and then another part of you that has a completely different agenda and wants to maximize current pleasure and minimize current stress, pain and discomfort. The things that require willpower pit those competing selves against each other. Willpower is the ability to align yourself with the brain system that is thinking about long-term goals — that is thinking about big values rather than short-term needs or desires.

People come up with resolutions that don’t reflect what matters most to them, and that makes them almost guaranteed to fail. Even if that behavior could be very valuable and helpful — like exercise — if you start from the point of view of thinking about what it is you don’t really want to do, it’s very hard to tap into willpower. If there’s no really important “want” driving it, the brain system of self-control has nothing to hold on to.

Things to think about…At the end of 2014 — on January 1st, 2015, looking backwards — what are you seriously going to be grateful that you did? Is there a change you know that you’re going to be glad you made? What would that feel like? That can tap into something that feels really authentic.

One of the things I always encourage people to do is to not try to do things alone, and to start outsourcing their willpower a little bit.  Another thing I encourage people to do is — if there’s a behavior that they put off or don’t do because of anxiety or self-doubt or because it’s boring or uncomfortable — bribe yourself. If you hate exercise but truly, truly want the consequences of exercising, you should give yourself permission to do whatever you don’t want to let yourself do — like read trashy gossip magazines, or download a whole series of a TV show that you can plop on in front of you on the treadmill. As long as it doesn’t conflict with your goal, then you should go ahead and pair the thing you don’t want to do with a reward that you might otherwise not give yourself permission for. That can be very effective for beginning to prioritize and make time for things.  Also, give yourself permission to do small steps rather than think that there’s an ideal you need to meet.

I think that from top to bottom, making your resolution social allows you to access different supports, both internal and external. One more reason to go public — being a role model for someone. People will do things when they know that they’re inspiring change in others. It’s a natural progression that you see in many areas — whether it’s people who are recovering from addiction, or someone embarking on a physical challenge. This is what people naturally do.

One of the big lessons from The Science of Willpower is if you really fight the inner experiences, it’s not going to end well. If you decide you’re going to fight cravings, fight thoughts, fight emotions, you put all your energy and attention into trying to change the inner experiences. People tend to get more stuck, and more overwhelmed. When you try to control the things that aren’t really under your control, you get to feeling more out of control. Whereas where you really have the freedom is in your choices.

Where do you struggle with will power? What tips do you have for others?

It takes willpower

The Power of Finding Positives About Yourself

When working with a client using CBT, one of the things we try to do is understand the person’s core belief(s).  Core beliefs are the very essence of how we see ourselves, the world and the future.  These tend to develop over time through our experiences.  They are strongly held, rigid and inflexible.  We tend to maintain them by focusing on information that supports the belief and filtering out that which doesn’t.

Here is an example:  Jane has grown up with the core belief of, “I am unlovable.”  Jane really focuses on those moments when she feels unlovable, like when her flatmate says something about how Jane forgot to do the dishes, but doesn’t pay attention to the fact that the flatmate also said that Jane did a great job of cleaning the bathroom.

In CBT, we try to figure out what the core belief is, what is maintaining it and feeding it, and then work to change the self-belief.  One of the ways we do this is to come up with a new core belief that the client would like to have.  So in Jane’s situation, she might come up with a new core belief of “I am lovable.”  Because her view of the world and others is so skewed toward the negative, we have to start having her find positive evidence about this belief.  It’s not easy, but it’s doable.  One way of doing this is to use a Positive Personal Qualities worksheet.

As you can see, you are looking for situations where positive things about the person have happened.  We tend to start in the sessions as people will filter out info, so that they can practice seeing themselves in a positive light.   Over time, as you filter out the negative and focus on the positive, you will eventually start to develop a new core belief.  There is power in finding positives!

Using Thought Records

One of the most useful tools in CBT is a thought record. Why would this be helpful? In CBT, the belief is that thoughts, feelings/emotions, behaviours and physical symptomology are all tied together and influence each other:

Unhelpful thoughts can trigger unhelpful behaviours, emotions and physical symptoms. So if you change those unhelpful thoughts (sometimes called irrational thoughts), you will end up changing your emotions, behaviours and physical symptoms.

In the beginning of CBT, most therapists will ask a client to fill out a simple thought record. Here’s an example:

By filling this out, the therapist will get to have an idea of what unhelpful thoughts a client has.  Then in session, they may begin to work with these thoughts and see if there are more helpful alternatives.  Here’s an example of an unhelpful thought that I had the other day (because, honestly, we all have them…but they may not be so bad or so numerous as to influence our mental state): “I am so clumsy.” It was not helpful as it didn’t add anything to my life but it made me feel slightly less good about myself. I had tripped and the thought came to mind. It wasn’t a huge deal as it was just one random thought and after I thought it, I countered it with something else (which I can’t remember, but was probably something along the lines of ‘yup, and that’s okay cause you’re still good at sports’.)

As the client gets practiced at it in session, the client will then be asked to fill out a more intensive form and do the work on their own, trying to find evidence for and against the thought, and then coming up with a more helpful thought.

Even if you are not doing CBT with a therapist, you can use these forms to help yourself. There are several self-help websites, but the one that I’ve found most helpful is http://www.get.gg/. If you are really struggling, I would seek out a professional to help you with your issue. But if the problem seems to have just begun or you are in a long wait for a therapist, you could use these resources to start looking at how your thinking might be influencing your life in a not so great way. Another fabulous resource is a book called “Mind Over Mood” by Greenberger & Padesky. It’s a book that I’ve suggested to clients who I can only see for a few sessions so they can continue to work on their issues on their own.

Parenting on the Edge

I’m not a parent. I’ll put that out there right now. But I have studied developmental psychology, worked with multiple child and adolescent therapists, gotten further training in working with children and am a parent educator. I’m sure that experience would help me dramatically, but then again, each parent’s experience is unique to their own child and so may not give me any info about children in general.

One thing I have noticed in my readings about child-raising over the years is that parents are getting more and more fearful about everything their child might do that could harm them in any way. I see more parents attempting to wrap their children in ‘cotton wool’, hoping that they will never get hurt or make a mistake. And that, my friends, IS a mistake. Do you remember learning to climb a tree or ride a bike or any other fun thing you did as a child which could have caused you some harm? What did you learn? That you shouldn’t go up too high, or that you might fall and get hurt…but you also learned that you could still dust yourself off, deal with the pain and be okay. You learned. Again, YOU LEARNED! And by not allowing our children to make mistakes, to potentially get hurt in some ways, you are keeping your child from developing that lovely key word floating around right now – resilience. Clearly, we want to try to teach our children to not put themselves in major harm’s way – I don’t want any child to be maimed or to die. But we can’t stop everything. And sometimes we go to far to try to keep them from it all.

Recently, I saw a small article in the Huffington Post, in their Ted Weekends section, on some things that parents should let their kids do that might just hurt them. And it was interesting. I hope you’ll watch the video and comment upon it. I don’t have a child, but I hope I would let them do the 5 Dangerous Things. Honestly, I’m not sure I would…but I like to think that I would let them climb trees and play sports which might make me squirm.

Raising Resilient Adults

It’s easy for parents to think just in the moment.  To want to save their kids from pain and worry. I know my parents did. I know that I certainly would a lot of the time. And sometimes we lose the fact that what we really should be doing is raising our children to be the way we want them to be at age 25. What life skills and characteristics do you want your children to have when they hit 25? From working with parents, they want their kids to be resilient, kind, strong, happy, honest and many other very positive qualities. So, how do you get there?

This article, written by Mickey Goodman, points out that we need to let our children fail and learn when they are young to develop many of these skills. What? Failure can lead to happiness? Amazingly enough, yes. When you fail, you have to look for alternative ways to deal with the problem. Sometimes, you learn that giving up is the best option, because you don’t have a strength in that area. Sometimes, you learn to struggle through without the aim of success but with the aim of just doing. Sometimes, you learn to do something in a new and different way. Each of these allow you to learn about yourself, about what makes you stronger, about what makes you happier. You learn resilience, which gives you power.

As a 16 year old, I had rarely failed at anything. I expected that when I took my driving test that I would pass straight away. I was smart. I had practiced. Those two things should lead to success, right? Nope. I failed it twice. I was embarrassed. But I learned. Sometimes, it takes a lot of work to get to where you want to get, and sometimes you have to fail along the way. My dad watched me fail the second time and heard the driving evaluator tell me that I did fine but that he felt I just needed a bit more practice on the stick before he felt comfortable passing me. He could have stepped in and argued with the guy, telling him that the car shuttered in the best of times and it wasn’t my fault. But he didn’t. He let me fail, again. And while I cried and was unhappy for a while, I learned. Happily, this was not the last time I failed at something. And I am constantly learning about myself and the world. Without those failures, I would most likely have never taken the risks I did – including moving overseas to a city where I knew no one for a job at a school I had never visited.

Here are a few of the suggestions that the article gives to parents for raising strong 25 year olds (and note, they call them painful, because they are):
“We need to let our kids fail at 12 – which is far better than at 42,” he says. “We need to tell them the truth (with grace) that the notion of ‘you can do anything you want’ is not necessarily true.”

Kids need to align their dreams with their gifts. Every girl with a lovely voice won’t sing at the Met; every Little League baseball star won’t play for the major leagues.

• Allow them to get into trouble and accept the consequences. It’s okay to make a “C-.” Next time, they’ll try harder to make an “A”.

• Balance autonomy with responsibility. If your son borrows the car, he also has to re-fill the tank.

• Collaborate with the teacher, but don’t do the work for your child. If he fails a test, let him take the consequences.

“We need to … allow children to fail while they are young in order to succeed when they are adults.”

The Brain – a few resources

One of my areas of interest has been the brain. There are all sorts of cool books about the brain. Mapping the Mind by Rita Carter is one of the books I’ve really enjoyed reading. The book talks about how brain scans explain our behaviours, particularly those which are different from the norm. If you are teaching an AP Psychology course, you can find some fabulous information to share with students during the Brain & Behaviour or Development sections (you can use it in Intro Psych too at the high school level but some of it may be a bit too deep). My particularly favourite chapter is called Higher Ground, which focuses on consciousness and the processes involved.

My favourite book on the brain is by V.S. Ramachandran, Phantoms in the Brain. V.S. Ramachandran addresses some questions that we all ask ourselves – “What is the self?” and “Why do we see things the way we do?”. He talks about his experiences with patients who have some type of brain injury. These patients have helped him understand how the brain works. My favourite chapter is Zombies in the Brain, where he speaks about seeing and understanding what we see – and that sometimes we don’t clearly interpret what is in front of us. It’s very cool!

The other area of interest for me is in the teenage brain, since that is who I tend to work with most. I found a great Ted Talk by Sarah-Jayne Blakemore. She talks about the dramatic changes that the brain undergoes during this period. The information that we are exposed to determines which synapses are strengthened and which are pruned. I think this would be a great conversation starter with teenagers…so what experiences do you think would be best for you to experience during the time between your childhood and adulthood to allow your brain to develop the best?

There are so many other resources out there about the brain depending on your area of interest and much of it is easy to digest for the average person. I can’t wait to see what new information comes to light as researches continue the quest to understand how we think, feel and behave!