The Power of Breathwork for Mental Health

Learning to breathe has been one of the most impactful tools for my healing.

When you experience trauma, on any level, the last thing you want to do is intentionally unite your body and mind. Stillness is scary; being present is scary. It is easier to run away, literally and figuratively, which sometimes can only lead to further dysregulation and disconnection between body and mind.

The connection is in the breath. Bringing balance to your breath impacts just about every single function of your body. For some reason, though, this tool goes underutilized by most people. Maybe it’s not “hard enough.” Maybe we don’t want to slow down long enough to try it. The excuses vary, but the takeaway must be – learn to breathe!

Top benefits of breathwork:

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Stress and Your Immune System

I’m going to keep this short and sweet, but it needs to be said.

When you’re stressed, your body isn’t prioritizing immune health.

When you’re stressed – and this includes physical stress as well as emotional – your body’s main job is prioritizing survival of the stressor. All other functions get altered in order to survive.

Healing can only occur in a parasympathetic state. Learning to manage stress and actively rest, limiting stressful external physical triggers as well as negative self-talk, gives your body a chance to heal…which optimizes immune function.

Some of us are living as if every day we are running from a saber tooth tiger. Your body doesn’t know you’re just stressed from kids’ schedules, relationship conflicts, pandemic fear, work, sleep issues, your dietary restrictions or nutrient deficiencies, and your stressful exercise routine (yeah, that’s a stressor).

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It’s Time to Befriend Your Body

“Self-regulation depends on having a friendly relationship with your body.” 

– Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score.

You can work with your body or against it. You can force it into eating patterns that don’t work for you and your natural hunger cues, or you can ignore your body’s core needs completely and have a food free-for-all, contributing to poor sleep, mood issues, and blood sugar roller coasters.

Whether you are deep into restriction and diet culture or on the “screw-it-all, I don’t care” train, your body is still fighting for you, looking for balance.

Your body needs to feel safe in order to keep functioning in a healthy way. Chronic stress, intense exercise, yo-yo dieting, busy schedules, constant phone alerts, and an inability to deal with unpleasant emotions will take a toll on your physical well-being. The fear center in your brain, primed for your survival, doesn’t know if you’re running from an invading army in 1406, or if you’re just living the typical overstressed lifestyle of the 21st century.

When you befriend your body and learn healthy emotional regulation, and you will see your mental health improve as well. It’s allll connected.

Here are some of my favorite ways to befriend your body:

  1. Lay off the intense exercise. I know, I know. Cardio is addictive and also feels productive. Getting your heart rate up so high you can barely hear yourself think is comforting for many of us wanting to escape real life anxiety. BUT. It is still a stressor, on top of dozens of other stressors. Depending on what kinds of signals your body is sending you, it may be time to re-evaluate your chronic cardio habits.
  2. Do a body scan and check in with yourself. This is the opposite of cardio, and I promise, it’s way harder than running 6 miles. Lay in a quiet place and close your eyes. Breathe deeply, flooding your body with oxygen. Start scanning down your body, checking in with various body parts as you go. Where are you feeling tension? Where are you feeling pain or discomfort? Breathe into it, and lean into the stillness, connecting with your body. This isn’t easy, and it may be helpful to download a meditation app or try restorative yoga if you need assistance with this.
  3. Schedule intentional down time. Whether you’re taking yourself out to lunch or dinner (without being on your phone), or you’re planning a morning to be lazy and lay around the house, plan it ahead of time, proactively. I like to set aside one day on the weekend for reading time, and by reading time, I’m talking about fiction, not the usual health/educational books I devour during the week. Taking time to remove yourself from the constant GOING will help you find balance in your nervous system.
  4. Stay off social media. This really causes a flare-up of those “I’m not good enough” thoughts. It’s hard to be present and at home in your own body and life, when you’re constantly surrounded by what everyone else’s lives (and bodies) look like. Plus, I don’t know about you, but I feel so much more anxiety when I’m regularly scrolling on Facebook or Instagram. It inspires the opposite of gratitude in me, and causes me to feel unsettled and annoyed, which flows into every aspect of my relationship with myself and others I care about.
  5. Make a nourishing meal at home – and eat it slowly. Food tells your body you’re safe. Period. Rushing through the drive through or mealtime may be a survival necessity at times, but it’s sending powerful messaging to your body. Eating nutrient-poor and quickly consumed foods tells our body we are stressed and that our body isn’t safe. Depriving ourselves of calories (energy) via dieting also sends unsafe messages to the body. Planning for a meal rich with nutrients and colors, food that may take a bit of chopping and prepping, prepares your body for digestion from the moment you start. I’ve found that while I often dread getting those first veggies chopped, once I’m doing it, I find it can take on almost a meditative state for me. Signing up for a meal kit delivery is a great way to provide intentional nourishment. (Note: Green Chef is one of my favorites, and by going here and using the code spark100 you can get $100 off and enjoy free shipping.)
  6. Start re-training your brain to take the negative thoughts captive. Your negative thoughts are toxic, and they send powerful chemical messages through every cell of your body. When you talk negatively to yourself about your life situation, your body, your food choices, the state of the world, etc – you are sending a cascade of stressful messages to your body. Unfortunately, negative thoughts are addictive because they are so familiar to our brains. It’s like Stockholm Syndrome of the mind. It’s important to find tools to break away from those habitual thoughts. Having a regular practice of gratitude, journaling often, practicing mindfulness and meditation, developing mantras or reminding yourself of verses or Scriptural truths are all ways to start retraining your brain away from the the negative. My recent podcast episode with Dr. Caroline Leaf also provides some helpful tools.

Taking time to slow down and be present, in the body you’re in, with whatever state of mind you have, will make a huge impact on your body’s intuitive need to regain homeostasis. It’s okay if you have built up coping mechanisms of constant activity and commitment. Those behaviors were probably really helpful at one point. But over time, your body will likely get worn down and need some new tools for long-term support… tools that will make you more resilient to stressors in the long run.

Your body sends you signals every day. Are you listening?

I have multiple opportunities for one-on-one coaching, as well as group sessions. Message me if you’re struggling. I’m here to listen and support you on your journey to wholeness!

Movement Matters

You have the freedom to move your body in a way that feels good for you!

If you want to lift weights, lift weights. If you want to run, run. If you want to dance, dance. If you want to practice yoga, practice yoga. If you want to hit snooze, or take a nap, you have freedom to do that too.

Your body loves movement. Our ancestors weren’t sitting in cubicles under artificial lighting all day. Movement is crucial for detoxification, heart health, stress management, sleep support, blood sugar regulation, and all that other stuff other people have already written articles about.

The problem is that because we have all the information and all the experts talking about it, most of us engage in exercise as a “have to,” and not as a “want to.” We let other people tell us what’s best for our bodies, or we use it as punishment for caving into a craving or to beat our bodies into submission to our idealized versions of ourselves.

We get on running kicks, weight lifting kicks, kickboxing kicks, Zumba kicks, or whatever seems to be the trending activity of the season. We go hard on one activity, make our exercise schedule, then don’t sustain it.

This month, we celebrated freedom. Yet I know so many people who live enslaved to other people’s instructions and expectations about what they need to do for their bodies.

I want you to realize that you have freedom to choose what is best for your unique body – in movement, nutrition, activities, routines, relationships, whatever it is you are doing!

You are the expert on your body. Nobody else knows your body like you do, and nobody else has walked the same road that you have walked with your body. Depending on where you are in your life, the movement you choose can change. It can change seasonally. And that is OKAY!

I used to think running was the ultimate exercise for me, and it was therapeutic for me during a season in my life. Now, I like to change it up, and I like to make sure I’m incorporating some kind of movement once a day, most days. Yoga has been a beautiful way for me to tune in with the needs of my body and slow things down. Instead of running away from my problems with cardio, I’m forced into stillness and awareness. I feel the same about walking. I’m tempted to pick up the pace and start jogging, but being intentional with walking, staying present, is a good way to keep my mind engaged and my inhales and exhales in a rhythm.

It isn’t about weight maintenance or about needing to “make up” for what I eat. Some of my favorite benefits of movement that have zero to do with how I look include and everything to with my brain include: endorphins, dopamine, tryptophan, serotonin, BDNF, autophagy, GABA, glutamate, and oxygenation of the prefrontal cortex.

Different life seasons call for different solutions. Movement is a wonderful way to find awareness and peace in the body you have, so find that thing that you love to do… and do it!

Five Common Myths About Mental Health

As we continue to suffer from a growing epidemic of mental illness in this country, and creating awareness is trending, we must take time to re-evaluate the way we handle this mental health conversation. As renowned psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Amen often says, mental health outcomes haven’t changed since the 1950s. Treatment options appear to be limited, because while we have plenty of medications, cases are skyrocketing.

However, there are new discussions happening, and a growing number of practitioners are seeking to support mental health with tools that were previously brushed aside. In order to move forward in our thinking about mental health, we need to dispel the myths that are often perpetuated by antiquated mentality on the topic.

Warning: some of these will be tough pills to swallow (pun intended), but they are all backed by the latest research. Please drop me a line if anything is questionable to you or you need further clarification. I’d love to have a longer discussion on the topic.

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More Stories from the Mental Illness Memory Vault – My Surprise Pregnancy

My baby graduated high school this weekend! It brought up so many emotions for me. I can’t help but feel weepy and nostalgic as I reflect on her life – and who I was when she entered my life.

In case you don’t know my story… I found out I was pregnant with her my senior year of college.

I was not stable mentally and taking a pretty heavy dose of Depakote at that time – something you definitely should not be on if you’re going to get pregnant, due to major risk of birth defects. I was encouraged to terminate the pregnancy.

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Top Brain Health Killers and How to Flip the Script

Five things will always sabotage your mental well-being:

  1. Lack of sleep.
  2. Lack of nutrients.
  3. Lack of sunshine.
  4. Lack of movement.
  5. Lack of community.

I could leave it at that. It’s a whole post in itself.

But I want to flip this, because most of us know these things on some level. However, during times of stress, we often forget to take care of ourselves. We forget that we humans are basically just plants, and plants left without care will wither and die.

We were not designed to stay inside all day, blinking back at a screen with artificial light, head and neck perpetually tilted downward while the rest of our body is unmoving, eating food that is filled with hard-to-digest chemicals and additives, with a schedule so packed we don’t make time for people who are important to us.

Yes, I know that was a massive run-on sentence. It was exhausting (and convicting) typing it out.

Times of brief stress and opposition can be helpful for the body, but when we are continuously stressed, doggy-paddling up to the surface of the water all day long, we will start to feel side effects. It will impact our physical body’s health, and it will most definitely affect our brain’s health. It will cause us to be unable to make clear decisions, show empathy, and connect well with others – because we are in survival mode.

Our bodies are amazing at survival – that’s why you’re here. You’re here because your ancestors survived during difficult times. You gain weight after you diet because your ancestors were able to store weight during famine and not die. Your digestive discomfort is physical evidence that your body knows how to respond to mental stress and anxiety. Your blood sugar fluctuates in order to adapt to emotional stressors and physical stressors on your body. Your hormones are wacky, because duh, it’s never optimal to reproduce when there is a famine or threat to your safety (remember – your body doesn’t know the difference between a stressful job or a T rex chasing you). Even your afternoon fatigue that hits you like a load is a sign that you are overflowing with stress chemicals, and your body’s response system is working properly.

Your body is doing all the right things it is supposed to do. Your body is on your side.

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Moving and My Mental Health

A few years ago, I said to my husband Richard, “Wouldn’t it be cool to have a type of counseling center that has regular counseling, all the helpful therapy support, along with nutrition, yoga, and other tools for healing?” He agreed it would be a great idea, and we said… “one day.”

Well that one day is here! We are so thrilled to follow the path that we believe has been so clearly laid out for us. We are going to be working together at a holistic counseling and wellness center in East Texas, called Living Well Tyler.

Tyler is a place that contains sad memories for me, but it is also filled with memories of so much hope and redemption. I first moved there at nine years old, fresh from the Bay Area of California, and six months later I witnessed the death of my grandfather on my front lawn. I spent my mentally tumultuous teen years in Tyler, but I also met my best friends there. I graduated college there. My first child was born there. I went on my first date with my husband there. Almost two decades after leaving, It feels special and fitting to be able to move our family there at this time.

This verse was read during a contemplative prayer session with the soul care director at Living Well a couple months ago, and it has been such a source of comfort as I process this transition:

“Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” – ‭Isaiah‬ ‭43:16-19‬

Any kind of change – even good change – is a trigger for my mental health. The unknown, the “what ifs,” can heighten worry and anxiety.

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Acknowledging Trauma, 30 Years Later

30 years ago, I stood at the bay window behind my left shoulder, and I watched my grandpa die on our front lawn. This was a pivotal moment for me.

This is the reason that I freeze up when there’s an emergency – even a mild one, like when my child gets a nosebleed. This is the reason that I space out from time to time. This is the reason I can’t have a proper reaction to sudden loss and I dissociate (as if there even is such a thing as a proper reaction to loss).

I spent a good 25 of these last 30 years kind of thinking that watching someone die at a young age is normal, that it’s my life’s burden, and I should just get over it and power through.

But my body knows better. Spring carries an undercurrent of sadness within the blooming beauty. When I smell honeysuckles, I experience fear, betrayal, abandonment, and sadness all over again. Every year since 1991, I typically find myself teary at some point in the middle of the month of April. The tears come without warning. And then I remember what month it is.

I don’t share this simply to bleed vulnerability all over the internet and incite sympathy. I say this because I know many of you have also experienced trauma, something that makes you feel alone at times, or different, or a shell of who you are.

Just like with mental health and nutrition, there is no one-size-fits-all to trauma. You may not be even be able to acknowledge it consciously. It may be showing up in ways you don’t expect; it may manifest as a chronic mental health issue or a physical ailment.

While 100% healing may never be a guarantee on this earth, a path to healing IS possible. Part of my path is sharing my story, hoping that it makes someone else who is struggling feel heard and understood. Even if our traumas are different.

Your pain is real. Your feelings are real. Your mystery symptoms are real.

April 16, 1991 was a cruelly tumultuous day in my childhood. While it’s a day that forever shaped my perspective of this world, it also brought restoration and healing and purpose I wouldn’t have had without it. It brought me to where I am today, fiercely advocating for wholeness and healing – mind, body and soul.

Stress Awareness Month: Products I’m Loving to Support STRESS Management

April is Stress Awareness Month, and wow, what a year for stress, right? After devoting several presentations and podcast episodes to the importance of stress management, I’ve learned that the topic never gets old…because as much as we can manage it, stress never goes away.

Your body experiences stress on a physiological level. Every thought you think is a chemical messenger to your body, so when you are in “fight or flight” mode in your brain, the rest of your body listens and acts accordingly. Digestion may shut down, reproductive function can be altered, your blood sugar response may be affected, and your blood pressure will send signals as well.

Learning to manage stress matters, and it’s not something we are taught growing up. In fact, we often get the opposite messaging. Culture tells us to push through, work harder, and there aren’t enough hours. We’re led to believe that poor sleep, afternoon fatigue, and relying on caffeine for energy is normal. It may be common, but it should never be normal.

I say this all the time, but if we don’t learn to manage stress, our stress WILL manage us. It will show up in our bodies and cause all kinds of health problems. Stress creates inflammation, and inflammation creates chronic disease.

This is why I’ve created a list of my favorite stress-supporting products. If we can decrease our response to stress, we can decrease the effect stress has on our bodies.

To be clear, I often get to to try out lots of cool new products, whether it’s for social media promotion or podcast sponsors or podcast guests’ companies or suggestions. I’ve sorted through what I’ve been trying lately, and what follows are my favorites. Do you have to try them all, like me? Of course not! There is no one size fits all to health, and our bodies will all respond to products differently. I believe many supplements should be rotated seasonally, and sometimes it will even depend on the time of month – or even what phase of your menstrual cycle you’re in.

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