Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Not Feeling Festive? Get Your Zzzzzzzzzzzs

You have probably read many articles about the importance of a good night sleep. Good sleep is not only important to your physical health, it is also key to a good mood. Getting plenty of sleep during this busy season is difficult, for sure.  However, it is essential. The holidays put extra emotional and physical demands on us, and sleep helps us bounce back, maintain perspective, and stay healthy.

Not only is the quantity of your sleep important, the quality of your sleep is, too. Sleep quality can be enhanced in many ways: a cool but not cold room temperature, a very dark bedroom, a comfortable bed without pets or children hogging the bed. Those of us who have reached - ahem - "middle age" have biological factors that make our sleep less sound than it used to be, and may need to take extra steps to insure a good night's sleep.

The first suggestions I make to clients who are frustrated by poor sleep are:
  • eliminate afternoon caffeine
  • limit alcohol to one (women) or two  (men) drinks
  • try deep breathing or alternate nostril breathing* when you can't sleep
  • turn off all electronics, including the TV, an hour before bed
  • keep a small journal or pad near your bed, and write down any thoughts or chores that are nagging at you
  • no vigorous exercise closer than three hours to bed time
If you have made these changes and are still having problems falling asleep or staying asleep, or usually feel grouchy or tired in the morning, it is probably time to get some help. I find clients often hesitate to see an internist or psychiatrist to discuss medical interventions for insomnia. However, I urge them to do so, as I have witnessed tremendous improvement in mood and stamina in those who have sought treatment.

Sleep can make the difference between a good day and a bad one
There are natural sleep remedies that are effective for many people. There are also several sleep medications that have been developed in the last decade that at the right dose do not leave people feeling groggy or "hungover".  I  prefer environmental and natural sleep interventions. However, the effect of sleep on quality of life is so profound that medication should be considered if other interventions fail to help.

If the shopping and wrapping are feeling more like torture than fun, crawl into bed early tonight and take a long winter's nap.

Wishing you more "ho ho ho's" and less stress;  good health, and peace this holiday season.

Be well,

For more information on alternate nostril breathing, go to:

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Giving Thanks

Wishing a peaceful, restful and happy Thanksgiving to my clients. 
I am inspired every day by your fortitude, bravery, intelligence, 
resilience and wonderful humor. 

Thank you for your trust and faith in me.

Be well,


Thursday, November 11, 2010

Everyone is an Artist

Art therapy is one of my preferred ways of working with clients. Almost everyone enjoys it, and it never fails to provide me with new insights about a client and how I can fine-tune our work together. It is often fun for the client and for me, and is a great way to strengthen our bond. Sometimes the drawing "assignment" will help a client realize that they are holding onto negative relationships or thought patterns.  Many times clients are able to not only identify that they are "stuck", but are also able to figure out what they need to do to move past these challenges. 

One common misconception about art therapy is that people need art "skills" to make therapy effective. This is absolutely not true. In fact, whether the end result is a few stick figures, a swath of color, or a more complex drawing, clients have equally powerful insights into what their art work is suggesting to them.

The creation of a 10 year-old client
Another misconception about art therapy is that the therapist will "interpret" the client's work, and proceed to tell the client what it means. Far more helpful is when clients tell me what their drawing means to them. 

Although I have already gotten to know a client through talk therapy by the time I introduce art therapy, I still have a lot to learn. Talk therapy primarily engages the left side of the brain. In most people, and in Western culture, the left brain is dominant, and focuses on  logic, reasoning, and details. We have difficulty accessing all of our wishes and true feelings by talking. Activities that involve the right hemisphere of the brain, such as art therapy, help people access imagination, big picture thinking, and creativity. Working in right brain mode helps clients break out of their everyday way of thinking. It is the powerful combination of insights from both sides of the brain  that can lead to faster healing and growth.

Be well,

Sunday, October 24, 2010

My Immersion in Mind-Body Medicine and Mindfulness Meditation

Earlier this month I had the good fortune to be able to attend a five day training in Mind-Body Medicine. The training was extensive, professional, personal, and inspiring. I have used bits and pieces of Mind-Body techniques with clients in the past, and knew by observation and client feedback that they are wonderful at reducing stress. I have done yoga poses with teens to begin or end a session, taught deep breathing, and used art to heal.

I enrolled in the training with The Center for Mind-Body Medicine because I was enthusiastic about learning more about the science behind the Mind-Body Connection. I am a scientist by nature, and although I had experienced the benefits of mind-body work myself, part of me was still holding out for "proof".

Proof I got. Every single session we had- on exercise, nutrition, guided imagery, drawing, spirituality, and meditation was supported by detailed written materials and well-done research. After the large group presentations, we went into small groups to learn more and practice the various techniques. A great way to learn by doing!
You don't have to meditate like this

At the beginning of every large and small group session we did a brief three minute Mindfulness Meditation. I was amazed at how calming yet energizing this simple practice was for me. I have always "fought" the concept of meditation, probably because years ago my first attempts at it were in Concentrative Meditation, meaning that the goal is to focus on a particular object or sound. Back then I also pictured that meditating "properly" needed to include burning incense on a shrine and wearing long flowing robes.
That was the end of my attempts at meditation for several decades. Instead I used running, walking or gardening as my meditative time.

Although those activities are extremely calming, I found I benefited tremendously from the brief, guided mindfulness meditation we were led through in regular hotel conference room chairs. It relaxed me after the morning rush to get to training at 8:30 a.m., and eliminated those annoying thoughts that are always flying through my head (did I pay the Mastercard bill, did I remember to reschedule the dentist appointment, have I forgotten my nieces birthday...)

After just three to four minutes of deep breathing and mindful meditation, I felt restored and ready to learn. Meditation is scientifically demonstrated to increase in the body's ability to heal,  and shift from a tendency to use the right prefrontal cortex to a tendency to use the left prefrontal cortex. Why care which cortex is being used?  Because this shift in cortical use is associated with a trend away from depression and anxiety and towards happiness, relaxation, and emotional balance. Not bad!

I came home from five days of 10 hours of learning  rested and calm. I attribute much of the calm to the practice of these brief meditations. It's been almost three weeks since I returned from the training program. I have worked hard to maintain my "new calm". I am not quite where I would like to be, but I much more relaxed than I was pre-trip. What I find to be amazing is that by simply reminding myself that I can feel better in just a few minutes, I regain much of the serenity I gained while I was meditating regularly.

It has been rewarding and fun to incorporate my new-found Mind-Body work into therapy sessions with the incredible clients that I work with.

Steps of Mindfulness Meditation

1. Sit comfortably, with your eyes closed and your spine reasonably straight.
2. Direct your attention to your breathing.
3. When thoughts, emotions, physical feelings or external sounds occur, simply accept them, giving them the space to come and go without judging or getting involved with them.
4. When you notice that your attention has drifted off and become engaged in thoughts or feelings, simply bring it back to your breathing and continue.

• Remember... it's ok and natural for thoughts to arise, and for your attention to follow them. No matter how many times this happens, just keep bringing your attention back to your breathing.

Try this even for three to four minutes once a day, and see how you feel. 
Let us know how it worked for you.



Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Have You Been Abandoned by a Friend During Rough Times?

By middle age, most people have dealt with one of the three big "D"'s: death, divorce or disaster. Unfortunately,  some friends disappear right when you need their support the most.

The following article provides excellent insights into this painful and confusing phenomenon, and also provides good tips on how to help others in need.

Thank you, Harriet Brown and the NY Times.

Be well,

Monday, August 16, 2010

Information Overload: Is Choosing How to De-Stress Stressing You Out?

Finding time to relax is hard enough, and to make matters worse, every lifestyle magazine cover, newspaper or TV newscast has different suggestions for managing stress. Here's some soothing news: results of a study in Behavior and Research Therapy (August 2010) show that breathing is the most effective relaxation strategy. Compared to progressive muscle relaxation and meditation, mindful breathing was the most calming activity.  A stand-out result of the study was how well mindful breathing helped reduce anxious thinking and limit the ability of negative thoughts to upset study participants.

If you have never tried breathing for relaxation, Dr. Andrew Weill gives great instructions:

This exercise is utterly simple, takes almost no time, requires no equipment and can be done anywhere. Although you can do the exercise in any position, sit with your back straight while learning the exercise. Place the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue just behind your upper front teeth, and keep it there through the entire exercise. You will be exhaling through your mouth around your tongue; try pursing your lips slightly if this seems awkward.
  • Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound.
  • Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four (your belly should expand).
  • Hold your breath for a count of seven.
  • Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of eight (your belly should contract as it pushes out the air).
  • This is one breath. Now inhale again and repeat the cycle three more times for a total of four breaths.
Note that you always inhale quietly through your nose and exhale audibly through your mouth. The tip of your tongue stays in position the whole time. Exhalation takes twice as long as inhalation. The absolute time you spend on each phase is not important; the ratio of 4:7:8 is important. If you have trouble holding your breath, speed the exercise up but keep to the ratio of 4:7:8 for the three phases. With practice you can slow it all down and get used to inhaling and exhaling more and more deeply.

Take a moment to relax and breath
 This exercise is a natural tranquilizer for the nervous system. Unlike tranquilizing drugs, which are often effective when you first take them but then lose their power over time, this exercise is subtle when you first try it but gains in power with repetition and practice. Two times a day is a great goal, and you cannot do it too frequently. Do not do more than four breaths at one time for the first month of practice. Later, if you wish, you can extend it to eight breaths. If you feel a little lightheaded when you first breathe this way, do not be concerned; it will pass.
Once you develop this technique by practicing it every day, it will be a very useful tool that you will always have with you. Use it whenever anything upsetting happens - before you react. Use it whenever you are aware of internal tension. Use it to help you fall asleep. This exercise cannot be recommended too highly. Everyone can benefit from it.

Be well, and just breathe...

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

When Life Can’t Get Worse

As a therapist I often see people when they are juggling two or three major life problems. The barely-recovering economy makes financial challenges a given for most people right now. Add a seriously ill family member, and a relationship problem to the mix, and you have a recipe for a personal crisis. 

To quote Winston Churchill: 
“When you are going through hell, keep going"
However, we need a strategy, and the best way to survive a crisis is to SIMPLIFY. I mean really simplify. Take a very close look at your calendar and ask yourself what items are non-essential. At first glance, you may feel that everything on the calendar needs to stay. Look again. Anything that is not absolutely helpful for making you feel better or keeping you or a family member healthy has to go.

During a crisis our bodies and minds are tapped out. We need adequate sleep, nutritious food, and quiet time. The play-date for your four year-old, a trip to your cranky aunt's house, dinner with the neighbors- unless these events will restore your energy and perspective, cancel. No detailed explanations necessary, just a sincere apology.  Describing your reasoning or current situation takes valuable energy and can be very upsetting.
Calendar full? Pare it down a bit.

Use the time you freed up to take care of essentials. Sleep. Eat some fresh and tasty food. Do only the crucial household chores and then hang out with a child or a pet. Sit outside. If you are a loyal exerciser or yoga practitioner and you do not have the time or energy to get to class, let it go. You will not lose your fitness in a week. Your yoga practice can consist of a five-minute savasana for a while.  

 It may take longer than you expected, but the crisis will pass. Keep life slow and simple. When the crisis passes, you may even decide to keep some of your new habits.

Be well,


 Simplify Your Life: 100 Ways to Slow Down and Enjoy the Things That Really Matter

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Excellent Overview of Depression and Latest Research in Treatment

  • Did you know that depression is twice as common in women as it is in men?
  • Did you know that 80 % of those who seek treatment for depression get better?
  •  Did you knowthat hormonal changes that take place in the years leading up to menopause make women particularly vulnerable to depression? 

For more information,  the following slide show on WEB MD gives an excellent overview of the causes of depression and the most recent strategies for treatment:

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Surviving End-of-School Angst

Through experience we all know that the big transitions in life can be extremely stressful. Less discussed is the anxiety caused by seasonal transitions. Families with children of all ages often find the weeks around the end of the school year to be very challenging, and parenting teens through this time can be particularly trying. While May and June may bring us beautiful weather, baseball, and the beginning of beach season, it can also bring our children and ourselves major angst. Academic, social, or extracurricular commitments, as well as nerves about upcoming final exams, the lack of a Summer job, or serving too much bench time in a beloved sport can overwhelm teens at the end of the school year. Teachers can understandably get stressed (and sometimes cranky) as they try to instill the last bits of the curriculum to students under the spell of Spring fever. These myriad stressors can cause major tension and upset in a family. Ask any school psychologist or social worker, and they will tell you that many children are in distress at this time of year, and are in need of extra support.
Is your teen feeling like this?

How can parents offer this support and meet our other responsibilities? A seasoned, caring parent once shared her strategy for helping children and maintaining sanity during challenging times:

"Do not ride the roller-coaster".

This wonderful metaphor can help keep us on track when our teens feel out of control. So the question is, how do us parents stay off the roller coaster while keeping our kids safe and stable as they ride it?
  • Do not rush in to fix problems. Wait 12 hours, and if the problem still seems serious, re-evaluate.
  • Encourage teens to use an electronic or paper calendar, and work backwards, allowing time for upcoming priorities. Looking at a calendar together on paper can be helpful. An activity may have to "go" to allow for adequate time for the basics such as studying for exams and sleep.
  • Help kids refine tools that are already in their toolbox: they all have playlists, but do they have a relaxation playlist?
  • Model good coping skills. What do they see us do when the going gets tough? The driving range or pulling weeds can often cure what ails us, and prepare us for their next dip.
  • Be the enforcer. Parties and events abound at the end of the school year. Despite what your child says, "everybody" is not going, and you are not the only "horrible parent who is ruining my life and will never understand".
  • Do not pretend you are coasting along and everything is "FINE" when it is not. Although no one wants to be, or listen to, a "Doug or Wendy Whiner", admitting that you are facing challenges models honesty to your children and your peers. It may even help you make a more meaningful connection with an acquaintance.
  • Be present, but do not engage. A friend shared that her 17 year-old daughter recently tried to get her on the roller coaster by complaining incessantly about having to participate in an important family celebration. Mom's wise response? "I am going on a walk, would you like to join me?" Of course, the result was some much needed alone time for Mom.
  • Ask for help. Who cast you as superhero? Your partner, friend or relative will likely pleasantly surprise you when you tell them you are going through a tough time.
  • When all else fails, go to your room or a quiet place and take a 10 minute "vacation". Put on your headphones, close your eyes and pretend you are on your favorite beach or mountaintop.

 Be well,

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A helpful model for recovering from depression from Positive Psychology News

In working with clients, I help them try many different techniques to start their recovery from depression.
One strategy that is helpful for some people is a cognitive behavioral technique called structured writing.
Another technique,  described in the excellent article I have linked you to, is to "re-write" your own life in a more helpful way. The article also has an excellent visual model of depression that you may find helpful.

Be well,

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Give Anxiety the Axe

We all struggle with anxiety from time to time. When anxiety gets the best of me, I try to remind myself of some basic tips, many of which are in this helpful article from our friends at Real Simple magazine:

10 Ways to Cope With Anxiety

Be well,

Friday, March 26, 2010

What's on your "I-Do" List?

What’s on your “I-Do” list?
Relationship Skills Training You Need Before the Vows
“Wedding Preparation: Before You Get The Band”
A six-hour investment that can enhance and fortify
your partnership for the journey that begins when the wedding ends.
Saturday, April 24, 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.
The Life Solution Center of Darien
Facilitated by Laura van Riper, MSW
Learn the most effective ways to strengthen your problem solving, mutual and individual goal setting and partner communication skills at this essential relationship skills training program
This program is for you if:
  • You are considering moving in together or getting engaged
  • You are planning on getting married within the next year
  • You have recently gotten married and have hit a “few bumps”
  • Five critical conversations you must have before you make the leap
  • The myths around romantic love
  • Communication styles: ways to make both sides feel like a “win”
  • Managing the in-laws
Program Fee: $199.00/couple
Limited to six couples
For more information, contact Rick LaBella or Laura van Riper at (203) 636-0080 or

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Beating the Winter Blues

With three times the normal amount of snowfall already recorded for January, many of us are feeling desperate for warmth and sunshine. Unless you have the good fortune to be able to flee to a tropical hideaway, it's a good idea to shake up your routine. 
  • Humor is healing. Seek out a funny friend or a favorite comedy.
  • If you have children, remember that you are not responsible for entertaining them. Challenge them to come up with new games and to entertain themselves. A great book full of old school, inexpensive activities is "The Orange Mama Laid", by Kirsten Denny. (Available on Amazon)
  • Get outside on sunny days. Even better, leave your sunscreen off for 15 minutes to maximize absorption of Vitamin D.
  • If you exercise, try a new sport or class to create some novelty for your body and brain.
  • Plan your real or imagined spring garden. Consider starting seedlings indoors in March. Visualizing a bountiful garden and planning for fresh food will lift your spirits.
  • Do a good deed. Even small acts like offering a smile to a cranky neighbor or letting someone into traffic have been scientifically proven to reduce stress and create a feeling of well-being.
  • Check your caffeine intake. We often unconsciously increase our caffeine consumption during the Winter to keep the cold at bay. If this is the case for you, gradually bring it back down to no more than two to three cups a day. More than that can cause irritability and interfere with sleep.
  • More hours indoors can lead to more hot Toddys and wine by the fire. If you are prone to the blues, limit your alcohol intake as much as possible- it's a depressant, and it interferes with sleep. 
  • Low folic acid levels are associated with depression. A good source of folic acid is found in leafy green veggies. If they aren't your top food choice, chop them and add them to soups and stews for the last five to ten minutes of cooking. This works well with swiss chard and spinach.
  • You've heard it before, but I would be remiss if I did not mention Omega 3 fatty acids, which play a crucial role in overall health. However, Omega 3's are found in greater concentrations in the brain than in other parts of the body, and have been shown to alleviate depression. Omega-3s can be found in fatty fish like wild salmon, sardines, Atlantic mackerel, and in lower quantities in ground flaxseeds, walnuts and omega-3 fortified eggs. Ground flaxseeds can be substituted for small portions of flour or pancake mix without sacrificing taste.
Making all these changes would be daunting. Try choosing a few that appeal to you, and monitor your mood, health and overall level of functioning for the next four to six weeks. Hopefully you will see some positive results. And if you happen to have that tropical hideaway, count me in.