This one is made from glass, not plastic. Beautiful in its own right, but will be majestical when the birds come to visit. A gift that will provide me with happiness for months to come (provided that I make the sugar water, put it outside, and remember to clean it out).
For most of my life, buying gifts for myself felt selfish. Actually, as a kid, when it came to anything besides basketball shoes, I even had a hard time allowing my parents to buy things for me. Even when I knew my mom really wanted to buy me that shirt, I just couldn’t say yes. Even now, gifts that don’t come on birthdays or holidays feel like too much.
I know I need to just accept the gift and say “thank you.” I know giving gifts makes the other person happy. But it’s challenging to accept them when my underlying story has always been that I don’t deserve it. I’m not worth it.
While I know logically and spiritually that the story is not true, I need to continue to unravel it so the story dismantles from my heart.
And so I buy myself, and the hummingbirds, a feeder. I also buy myself a new running shirt with birds on it, a shirt that I will probably wear several times a week, while still remaining grateful for all the hand-me-down clothes from my sister. Still sensible. A step outside of my practical*. But for me.
*The previous year I contemplated getting a hummingbird feeder, but rationalized that all my neighbors had them. Plus, I felt guilty about the plastic one that had been gifted to me that I had to throw out because I forgot/didn’t know I had to clean it. And planting flowers would be better anyway…but I’ve never been able to grow anything in my life.
Did I catch you with my title? Good. Now that I’ve got you hooked, I’ll admit it’s a bit misleading. That’s not to say I won’t give you some solid mental health tips, but we’re going to dive a bit deeper than that.
As a therapist, my job is not that of a fixer. I’m a healer. I don’t fix things that are broken; I help wounded people heal. Essentially, I use my curiosity to help my clients uncover what the root of their troubles are. And we heal from the ground up.
With that being said, what I want to explore with you in this article is what is at the root of winter blues, or what some people call seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
Until recently, most people thought that SAD was related directly to the amount of light, or rather lack thereof, each day. I’m sure anyone who’s moved to Estes Park from the midwest will tell you that they don’t miss the 3 straight months of grey skies and no sun. While I don’t discount the influence of light and think a supplement of Vitamin D would be beneficial for most people, that wouldn’t explain why the people of Tromso, Norway, where inhabitants receive only 2-3 hours of indirect sunlight November through January, see little difference in their mental health in the winter. Or why my own experience with SAD changed in my early twenties. Or why some people in Estes Park have SAD, and others don’t. To go one step deeper, I wonder if YOU have experienced SAD every year of your life, or only some years? And finally, why did the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM-5) decide to leave out SAD in their latest edition, and instead list it as a specifier (“with seasonal pattern”) to major depressive disorder?
Is it possible that in the winter something else changes besides how long the sun appears in the sky?
A quick side note on depression: To date in my career as a therapist, I have never met anyone who is depressed for no reason. There is ALWAYS a reason.
When I was an intern at Harmony Foundation, my supervisor theorized that SAD had to do more with lack of getting outside, rather than sunlight. That seemed like a pretty valid theory. Personally, I know that my own experience with SAD diminished when I started trail running outside in the winter rather than always being inside a gym (not to discredit the gym as research shows there are substantial mental health benefits to exercise). Plus, have you ever met one of the skiers or snowboarders in town? They are STOKED when the first big snowfall hits.
One other theory that I’ve read in various sources is that our social habits tend to change in the winter. Besides major holidays, people tend to gather less in the winter, and even that option wasn’t considered a possibility for many this past year. In his book “Lost Connections” Johann Hari theorized that most cases of depression and anxiety are due to disconnection in relationships. When I worked with people with alcohol addictions, I can’t recall any instance of a client saying they were an alcoholic and went to the bar everyday. Maybe that’s where the drinking started, but it didn’t become a problem until they started drinking at home every night, alone.
While I won’t claim here that I have THE answer to seasonal affective disorder or winter blues, I will say that lack of connection to Nature, to other people, and to ourselves might be at the root. However, I do want to clarify that connection is different from being at work or in a store and saying “hi” to people. Real connection means that when we are together, we have the space to truly be ourselves and allow for the others to truly be themselves as well. We can speak freely about our emotions and thoughts. It ensures empathy and an allowance for each person, animal, tree to be amazing just as they are. We connect, meaningfully, at our cores.
Before I move into ways to stay mentally healthy, or even improve mental health this winter, I won’t pretend that in the COVID era, things are tougher. Much tougher. As I wrote in an article last year for the EP Trail Gazette, it’s okay to grieve, to just allow the tears. Once we find that release, it creates space for other possibilities. For instance, re-reading what connection is, you may already be able to come up with different, creative ways to gather and connect with others.
Mental Health Tips for Winter (in the Covid Era)
Mindset: To Dread or To Find Opportunity this Winter?
One other thing I learned when reading about the people of Tromso, Norway, is that they use a mindset tip similar to what I use with the athletes I work with. When a race, or winter, is on the horizon, do you view it as a threat or a challenge? When we view things as a challenge, we also tend to see opportunities for play and for growth while a threat is scary and we either want to fight it, flee, or shut down (depression)…and good luck fighting snowflakes.
List Out Things You Are Looking Forward To
Remember that big snow storm we had in March? I deemed it “The Great Snuggle Weekend of 2021” and wrote a list of all the things I planned to do: play on my neighborhood hill, bake banana bread, read a book, and snuggle with my pup. Even if you are more like me, a summer person, there’s so much to look forward to in winter, especially in Estes Park. I’ll list a few below in more detail, but for starters, I’m looking forward to hot drinks at my favorite coffee shops in town and being able to walk into a restaurant without an hour wait!
In the mental health world, recent years have seen a boom of research and articles on the effect of nature and mental health. In short, nature has been shown to reduce stress, calm our buzzing brains, and boost mood, not unlike an antidepressant. You don’t have to be a skier or snowboarder to enjoy outdoor activities either. In town, there are still plenty of opportunities to hike, but just a simple walk around your neighborhood or bird watching from your deck will have benefits. The key is to see the beauty that is around you. If you can hike, you can also probably snowshoe. If you don’t want to invest in a pair, you can rent a pair for a whopping $5 at Estes Park Mountain Shop. If that’s not your speed, Trout Haven and the YMCA offer ice skating. Then there’s my personal favorite: good ol’ sledding, great for kids of all ages! And that leads to my next tip…
Perhaps my favorite part of winter is that it offers constant opportunities for warm drinks, either made at home or stopping at a coffee shop on the way home from an outing. I’m already day dreaming of finding a cozy spot upstairs at Inkwell & Brew and gazing out their large windows. Then there’s getting to wear oversized sweaters to work and calling it “fashion”, wrapping myself under blankets (or my dog, who sometimes pretends she is a weighted blanket), and fuzzy socks. Truly, all these things are a form of self-soothing. Still, if you have a partner, child, or fur-kid around, research suggests two is better than one. When we cuddle with someone we care about, we release what are known as the “feel good hormones” (serotonin, oxytocin, dopamine).
Connecting with Others
This, I believe, is the biggest one. Save for last year, I considered winter to be my favorite time to be a local in Estes Park because I could truly get the sense of being part of a small, mountain community. While nothing can fully replace in-person interactions or hugs, virtual interfaces did help many of us stay in touch with loved ones and I would heavily encourage anyone to use it who for various reasons can’t see loved ones in person. On the red-nosed reindeer side, I think there’s more hope this year with more education on the virus and treatment. Regardless, we beautiful humans in town have adapted as best we could, and when I simply asked in a locals online forum what community gathering opportunities were available, I received much more feedback than I expected. From trivia at Rock Cut Brewing to locals night at Chippers Lane and Dine Around Town in March, there was something for all ages and interests. If necessary, I know we’ll adapt and change again. The key is that we maintain and strengthen our ties to one another through whatever means necessary. We thrive in community through compassion, cooperation, and connection.
*I originally started writing this post as an article for my local paper several weeks back…and then, well, I fell off track. I finally finished getting my thoughts together and decided to post it here instead.
The other day, my partner and I were having a discussion on the mental health impacts of social distancing among people in the community. Actually, as a mental health professional, I lean towards the term “physical distancing” simply to highlight the fact that humans need social connection, even if it’s in alternate forms than what we’re used to.
That’s not to say we can’t all benefit from some solitude, especially in nature (I’m a nature-based therapist after all!). I’m guessing a lot of people in the Estes Park community have spent days to weeks by themself in nature as a way to renew their spirits. Still, we come back to people, community, the deep belly laughs we can only share in the presence of other kindred spirits. While Henry David Thoreau may have “went to the woods to live deliberately” he hardly did so without the companionship of friends and visitors.
What happens in the absence of connection? Depression, anxiety, addiction…
One of my favorite mental health quotes is found in the book “Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs” by Johan Hari where he said “The opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety, it’s connection.”
You see, humans are wired for intimate human relationships.
As infants, we learn soothing techniques from our parents. When a baby cries, the parent goes to comfort the baby. This often includes holding the baby close to the skin. In this moment, the hormone oxytocin (to name one) is released, which reduces stress levels and allows the infrant to feel safe. As we age and form more bonds through relationships, we still have chemical responses. Oxytocin, dopamine, (natural) opioids are released, combining to give us feelings of security and love.
Personally, as someone who has a naturally sensitive nervous system, I need these bonds to help me feel connected and to help regulate my emotions. For example, if I’m in tears, whether from receiving bad news or from watching a sad movie, my dog inevitably comes over and starts licking my face. Not only does this help me take the edge off my sadness, but it usually makes me laugh until I’m one blubbering, giggily, sniffling mess. Still, as much as I love my dog, I need human companionship too. When I come home anxious from what I perceived to be a stressful trip to the grocery store, or from spending too much time on social media, spending a few minutes talking to my partner or relaxing in his embrace can bring my heart rate back down. In other words, he helps regulate my nervous system. (The catch is that this works best when the “listener” stays relatively calm. If both people are feeling dysregulated, it may be best to take a break.)
When touch isn’t an option, simply expressing our worries can be therapeutic in any relationship. Expressing our fears and worries to others, even when hearing the same fears and worries back, can help us feel like we are not alone.
Humans also have these neat things called “mirror neurons”. Have you ever watched one of your favorite athletes win a big match or race? Did you watch as they cried happy tears as they tried to talk to a reporter minutes after the victory? Did you start crying too? Well, that’s because mirror neurons are at play. Watching someone else’s facial emotions may illicit similar feelings in yourself. So even if we can’t be with our friends or loved ones physically, seeing their face via Skype, Zoom, Facetime, etc. may be enough to restore a feeling of connectedness. Additionally, even hearing the voice of a friend can bring forth positive emotions.
Psychoeducation behind us, I’ll come back to our main point: we need connection and community now more than ever.
So what is connection?
In technical terms, it simply means being joined or linked together. In terms of human relationship and what we need to thrive, I’m going to add the words love, empathy, sacred, and shared humanity. Then the definition for human connection becomes: A sacred unity that revolves around love, empathy, and a shared humanity. (Again, I’m an animal and nature lover, so truly I rather use “shared living experience” but I don’t want to lose anyone or go on too much of a tangent.)
Community has a few different pieces to its definition, but in the case of Estes Park, the basic definition would include a body of people living within a defined area. But aren’t we more than that? We may have different interests and beliefs, but through our shared connection we can conjure up something much stronger. Truly, for me being part of a community means being something bigger than myself. On the hard days, knowing that is what helps me pull through.
Most of us have already found ways to connect using technological means: Skype, Facetime, text, phone calls, taking virtual classes, etc. I’m personally a big fan of old-fashioned letter writing too (taking proper precautions of course). Still, that’s not all we can do. When we pass people on the bike path or in the grocery store, we can look them in the eye, as if saying “I see and acknowledge you.” We can smile at them (true smiles come from the eyes) as if to say “I’m glad you’re part of this community.” When we speak, especially with those who have different viewpoints of us, we can check within ourselves to make sure we are speaking from our hearts. Then, not only seeing and speaking but acting. We change our attitude from “there might not be enough for everyone, so I’m going to make sure I have all that I need to survive, to something that more closely resembles the famous phrase of the three musketeers “all for one, and one for all.” When we look at each other as fellow community members, we lose the illusion of the separate self and that we must do it all on our own. Instead, we trust that there will always be a hand to pull us back up, and a promise we’ll do the same when it’s our turn to share our own blessings.
“When I confront a human being as my Thou and speak the basic word I-Thou to him, then he is no thing among things nor does he consist of things. He is no longer He or She, a dot in the world grid of space and time, nor a condition to be experienced and described, a loose bundle of named qualities. Neighborless and seamless, he is Thou and fills the firmament. Not as if there were nothing but he; but everything else lives in his light.” ― Martin Buber
(Me and a bunch of other goofballs who decided to get together for a very snow run in December.)
First of all, no one can actually be OCD, although someone can have OCD.
But let’s backtrack a bit. What actually is OCD? OCD stands for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. According to the National Institute of Mental Health Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is “a common, chronic, and long-lasting disorder in which a person has uncontrollable, reoccurring thoughts (obsessions) and/or behaviors (compulsions) that he or she feels the urge to repeat over and over.”
We tend to throw around the acronym OCD a lot. Sometimes, we’re partially accurate in describing the low-end of the spectrum, such as when someone needs his books in perfect order on the shelf or uses hand sanitizer everytime she shakes a few hands. Other times, we’re much less accurate, like when we say it to describe someone who always goes back to check to make sure their car door is locked. That actually has to do more with conscious memory. A lot of times when we go to lock our door, or put down our keys, we’re thinking about 10 other things and don’t consciously think about the action we’re doing. We’re so distracted that we don’t even remember doing it, so we go back and check. Really, this is more of a lesson in staying present.
I could go into a bit more of what qualifies as diagnosable OCD according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders-5 (DSM-V), but honestly, I don’t love using the DSM-V and I don’t want to bore you. The main thing you need to know is that what constitutes for clinical concern is when the behavior or habit negatively impacts a person’s everyday life. For example, if someone’s habit to keep his bookshelf in perfect order makes him feel better, even if it seems over-the-top to others, I’d consider it a positive or neutral coping mechanism. On the other hand, if someone needs to switch a light on and off 7x, or clean their house all day to make sure there is not a speck of dust on any surface, even if no one is coming over, and their thoughts are telling them they have to do this even though they’d rather go spend time with a friend, then I’d probably want to work with them figure out the better coping tools and see what’s at root of their habits.
Now that we have a little bit better understanding of OCD, let’s apply this to COVID-19. Right now, most of us are on high alert in fear we’ll come into contact with the virus. We’re washing our hands more, carefully dis-infecting our packages, keeping physical distance, covering our faces with masks, etc. This is all important, and taking action to prevent ourselves from getting sick may actually help reduce anxiety. But what happens when this is all done? (It will be, eventually.*)
*There may be a “new normal”, but we have the opportunity to make it a better normal. A bit more on that topic below.
We can acknowledge the good take-a-ways. Most of us, including myself, can afford to wash their hands a bit more and for a bit longer. Some of us can learn to be a bit more diligent about coughing or sneezing into a tissue or their elbow rather than into open air.
Also, a lot of us may remember from school that there’s a lot of good germs (bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoa) out there. Actually, as a nature-based therapist, I recommend digging your hand into the soil (some studies say that soil can act as an antidepressant).
So what’s going to keep us from compulsively washing and sanitizing our hands or obsessively thinking that everytime we go out we may contract a deadly virus?
Knowledge. Choice. Courage. Love.
Let me clarify, for someone who has a clinical form of OCD, it’s hardly a choice. It is, however, a fear-based coping mechanism that has roots, often in some traumatic experience. We also know that the symptoms of OCD can be greatly reduced with exposure and talk therapy.
* While many people do find our current pandemic traumatic, by working with our emotions and thoughts in the now, we can limit it’s impact on our mental health.
What irks me the most when I hear others say that “we’re all going to be OCD after this…” (besides the “be” vs. “have” part) is that it ignores human resilience. By saying everyone is destined to be OCD removes our ability to choose our paths forward. Sure, there are some things beyond our control, but whether it is by our actions, attitudes, or responses, we always have a choice. As Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Victor Frankle said “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
For us, if we can step away from our fear for a moment, we have the ability to look at our options for the future. To step back from our fear, we must first realize what it is: a natural and primal response to a threat. It activates our flight, fight, freeze response, which is a great response if we’re being attacked by a large predator, not so much if for an invisible-to-the-human-eye virus. In the brain, intense reactions to fear stem from the amygdala, while our prefrontal cortex, the thinking, rational part of our brain, goes offline. In order to get back into a prefrontal cortex, we often need to do an activity that helps us relax. There’s a ton of options, but physical exercise, deep breathing, going outside, and journaling are the tools I most often share with clients.
When we give ourselves this space, we can then start asking ourselves questions like: What does the science say about the spread of germs? How do we want to live our life and what is important to us? What behaviors are helpful, and what behaviors keep us from truly living? Collectively, are there any actions we can take to mitigate another pandemic or similar event? (Ex: Vote!)
That fear may still be there. It may not leave for a while. But remember, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear.” (Franklin D. Roosevelt).
If the fear and anxiety seem like too much right now, it also takes courage to ask for help. Actually, asking for help may be the most courageous act of all, so I encourage you to talk to a friend or seek out a therapist.
To end, my friends, wash your hands (20-30 seconds is just fine!), but remember to take the courage with you that lives deep inside your hearts.
First of all, let me highlight the title of this article “How to Manage Anxiety About the Coronavirus.” The key word here is “manage”, both because the article cannot offer a miracle cure, but also because anxiety in itself is not a bad feeling. In fact, anxiety is often a form of protection. It’s what we do with our anxiety and how we respond to events that matter.
Briefly, let’s take a look at what anxiety/fear/worry/stress is.
Even though we live in the year 2020, our brain still acts as if we lived in the Stone Age when under threat. For example, if we were being chased by a bear, it would immediately tell us to go into a flight, fight, or freeze response depending on which action would be most likely to keep us alive. Then, after the situation was over and we made it out alive, our brain would tell us that we were out of immediate danger and our body would relax.*
*The freeze response is a little bit different, but for the sake of brevity in this article, I won’t go into detail here.
Now looking at the coronavirus, or COVID-19, we can see that it brings with it the additional issues of being a long-term and uncertain event that makes direct action difficult. However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t things we can do. In fact, our anxiety has most likely already been a protective factor, making us more mindful of frequent hand-washing and keeping us away from physical contact with people we don’t know. In other words, thank your anxiety!
Still, we don’t want to let our anxiety get out of hand, making us react rather than respond or completely take control of our thoughts. When I’m feeling anxious or worried, I like to ask myself a few questions in addition to what we just covered.
What part of the worry is realistic? What is unrealistic? (Many of us tend to instantly go to the worst case scenario, without knowing the facts or taking into account how resilient we are.)
What can you control? What is out of your control?
For what you can control, what actions are possible? (More on these last two in a bit!)
Okay, we’ve broken down some of the basics around anxiety, so let’s move on to other actionable steps specifically related to the coronavirus.
Practice social distancing, but make sure you connect! This means talking to family and friends who you love and feel safe speaking to. Even if we are all feeling a little anxious, talking to others we love can help us regulate emotions and let us know we are not alone.
If you need additional help sorting through your thoughts and emotions, reach out to a therapist. Many therapists are currently offering teletherapy sessions for clients.
Get your news from reputable sources. For information on the virus and the best ways to protect yourself and others, the best source is the CDC.
Limit your screen time. This includes social media and the news. Pertaining to social media, there is a lot of misinformation out there, as well as a lot of well-intentioned friends continually participating in re-active posting that can elevate our anxiety. As for news, even if it is 100% trustworthy, our minds and bodies need a break from the constant flow of information, especially before bed time. This is going to be different for everyone, especially due to different jobs, but I would try to keep social media use down to 20 minutes per day and news to 1 hour per day.
Don’t rush into big decisions. At Girls on the Run, we teach “Stop and Take a BrThRR” (Stop, Breathe, Think, Respond, Review). This will keep us from thinking with our primal brain and back into our prefrontal cortex, the rational part of our brain.
Make time to let your body calm down. This may mean time outdoors, Yoga, or meditation. In particular, body-centered meditations that guide you through relaxing each body part will be particularly helpful during this time and many great videos can be found on YouTube.
When possible, take action. For many of us, this is as simple as washing our hands, covering coughs and sneezes with tissues or your elbow, avoiding close contact with people we don’t know, and seeking medical care early if sick. For those of us who may be feeling sick, your best action is truly to self-quarantine and get better! (Also, I still recommend connection, even if it is through FaceTime or Skype…we need each other!) For those of us who are healthy and have time, we can be helpers in our community, offering to get our more vulnerable neighbors groceries, shoveling driveways when it snows, etc.
Find the light in the darkness. Laughing and doing things we enjoy does not mean we are ignoring the immensity of our current situation. As human beings, we have the capability and capacity to hold the good and the bad. In order to keep the bad from overwhelming us, it is even more important that we find the enjoyment of playing board games with our family, taking a solitary stroll outside, or read that book we’ve been meaning to get to.
Finally, just be kind! Smile at others. Be mindful when shopping and your impact on others. Support local businesses while continuing to care for the earth. Truly, the health and well-being of our community does not lie in the false notion of “survival of the fittest” but “survival of the kindest.”
While the government closure goes on into it’s 4th week, the once protected National Parks are left vulnerable without rangers, volunteers, and respectful citizens to protect them. Like many of my Facebook friends, I’ve been both angrily and sadly watching my feed with updates on more news of parks getting trashed, human waste building up, and even trees being cut down. Why, why is this happening? What would make a human so lazy as not pack out their trash, or be so motivated to take a saw into the park and cut down it’s historic trees?
Over the past few years, I’ve been observing and studying what I have dubbed “Mother Nature Attachment Theory.” This is based on human attachment theory that, in short, states our earliest relationships to our caregivers affects how we attach, securely or insecurely, in our other relationships throughout life. In other words, if you have a negative relationship with your mother, or maybe she was never there, or sometimes there, or was always there looking at you for comfort rather than vice versa, then as adult you might either embody these same characteristics or go overboard in the opposite direction. The underlying feeling left is often one of fear or distrust. (That’s just a brief summary of attachment theory).
(Cuyahoga Valley National Park)
In my own Mother Nature Attachment Theory, I see this in a similar way. If a child doesn’t grow up spending time outside, climbing trees, building forts with sticks, then the child didn’t grow up with an attachment to Nature. Or, maybe the child was told “don’t get dirty”, “it’s not safe out there”, and handed an iPad to keep busy, then the child grew up without trusting Nature, and an insecurity to it. Then, there might be the child who was given a dirt bike before ever taking a hike in the woods, never recycled, or grew up with the perspective from parents that we must dominate Nature. Again, this kind of relationship creates another form of insecurity. These types of attachment to Mother Nature create not only a fear but both a disconnection to the land and to the self, for all of us who have grown up with a secure attachment to Nature knows that we are all connected.
If you didn’t grow up with the view that nature is an abstract object, then leaving a wrapper behind is no big deal. If you grew up fearing nature or with the a privileged view of separate equals better than, than the damage of cutting down a tree might not be worth a second thought. Actually, those acts might be your way of trying to cope from that missing connection with the Earth. Temporarily, it might make you feel better.
The sad thing is for the people who grew up with an insecure attachment to Mother Nature is that their outward destruction usually reflects their own inward pain. While I’ve only been interning as a therapist at a substance abuse center for 6 months now, I’ve clearly witnessed the turmoil many of our clients face from growing up with an insecure attachment to their early caregivers. Most of them self-destruct with drugs and alcohol, don’t trust others, and don’t trust the world. It’s a tough, unbearable way to live. While I’m still angry at the people trashing our National Parks, I can find a little sympathy and sadness for them because I have a sense of what they’re lacking. Having lived several year’s by Ohio’s Cuyahoga Valley National Park and now next to Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Parks, I have re-gained a sense of wonder and awe, felt at home, found my Higher Power, and cried in the beauty mountain shadows. Just thinking of my life without Nature leaves me feeling like I have void centered in my chest.
Rocky Mountain National Park
If your feeling sad or angry about the state of our National Parks, that is actually a positive feeling. It shows your love and secure attachment to Mother Nature, and a justifiable angst that She is not being respected or taken care of. These feelings can either eat at us, or motivate us to do something. What can we do? For those of us who don’t live by National Parks* and can’t inform visitors or trail or park etiquette at this time (which may be dangerous and I don’t necessarily suggest) or clean up like this little boy, we can support our National Parks with donations, visit them the next time we are on vacation, and speak with our actions by recycling and trying to reduce of consumption of heavily packed products. We can also get to the heart of the matter by encouraging others to have a secure attachment with Mother Nature. If we have or work with children it’s a bit easier. We can encourage kids to get dirty, to sit outside when they need to calm down or had a bad day, or make comparisons like “wow, that flower needs food and water just like I do!”. It’s a bit trickier with adults, and we already know preaching usually doesn’t work, but we can sneak in comments, maybe at work, such as “Whew! I had a really tough day. I need to make sure I get outside for a run today.” or “I had a great weekend hiking with my family. I feel so much more energized now.” We can also use our actions like recycling or bringing in re-usable silverware to eat lunch with. If you have time, I suggest volunteering for your local or National Park a few times a year too.
I’m also going to keep praying to my Higher Power, Mother Nature, that the parks re-open ASAP. And when they do, profusely thank the rangers for all that they do. I’m going to count my lucky stars (which, by the way, are amazing living right next to a National Park) that I”m blessed enough to live in the mountains and that I grew up with parents who allowed me to play in the mud and build tree forts. Last, I’n going to try to send a little love to those who haven’t been as blessed, as angry as I am by their actions, because I know what they are doing on the outside is a mirror of what is going on inside.
*While I live right next to Rocky Mountain National Park, I’m very fortunate to not have witnessed any damage from my outings, which may speak to the community of Estes Park whose residents see themselves as the parks caregivers.
**I have to add this Rich Roll podcast with Zach Bush, MD of Food Independence & Planetary Revolution because it is relevant, both from a scientific and spiritual standpoint.
Months ago, I remember hearing this statistic in a podcast*: 1/3 of people with an eating disorder (ED) never recover (and many die), 1/3 of people recover, and 1/3 of people stay in a gray area.
This gray area is what I want to explore.
The gray area goes largely unmentioned (and possibly unnoticed) by professionals in the field, though a few forward-thinking therapist and psychiatrist have recently looked into the matter more. Just as bad for those “in recovery”, this issue also goes largely ignored and misunderstood by family, friends, and mainstream society.
I put “in recovery” in quotes for a reason because that is nearly impossibly to define.
This is where the gray comes in.
“What does recovery mean?” asked a classmate of mine, repeating a question her boss, Dorie McCubbery and founder of the EDIT program, gave to her staff at Positive Pathways.
This question encapsulated my mind. I had recently been exploring it on my own in regards to my own journey after dealing with and getting over the symptoms of Anorexia from 6th grade to my freshman year of high school. (At the time, I was also exploring my body in a different way, having gone from ultra-runner to lucky-to-run.)
The symptoms, of course, involved being significantly underweight, severely limiting my intake of food, and needing to exercise everyday.
After threats of “we’ll stuff a tube down your throat”, “you’ll heart will stop” and “you’ll never play basketball again” I played the game. I fooled my therapist (despite giving her the silent treatment for the majority of my sessions), my doctor, and my parents. I gained the weight. They got off my back.
But my mind remained in shatters. My thoughts were still occupied non-stop by food and how my body looked. When I became a tinge overweight during my senior year of high school, stuffing down my emotions after another bad basketball performance with peanut butter and jelly bagels with an extra side of peanut butter, I wanted to crawl out of my skin. Once I even tried to cut myself out of my skin, but I lost the nerve and admitted not being brave enough to actually do it. (Now, I realize this was a positive sign that somewhere in me, I still had enough self-love to keep me from damaging my body.)
So what remained after the outward symptoms of the eating disorder disappeared?
The actual causes.
The OCD, the anxiety, the perfectionism, the depression.
Under that remained the underlying root: I believed I wasn’t enough. And I felt guilty for who I was.
No one ever addressed these issues with me. No one understood that Anorexia-Nervosa isn’t a disorder of low body weight, but of low self-esteem. A lack of self-love. It’s about the games the mind plays, the things it suggest you do to “make you worthy”, that you can never really live up to. This is what drives a person crazy.**
The majority of my causes remained until my early twenties. The healing process only began when I realized I had no other choice. It was either figure out a plan to get better or go back down the dark path I had been keeping a toe down for years.
There were several things that occurred when I chose*** to get better, I wrote in my journal, I repeated mantras, read self-help books, spent time in nature, and I started volunteering. But the main thing is, I chose to get better. I wanted more for myself.
Clearly, at least in my mind (contrary to the opinion of many traditional doctors), I was in the gray area the nearly 10 years between gaining an acceptable weight and deciding on my own to get better.
So where am I now? Sometimes the answer to that changes by the day. Normally I think of it as sunny skies (recovered) with passing gray clouds. And honestly, sadly, I don’t think I’m that far off from how most women think of their bodies.
Most of the time, I’m pretty accepting of my body. I appreciate what it does for me. I thank it for the runs it gives me and even praise my legs for getting me up mountains. I try to treat it well, feeding it plant-based foods. I still push it hard sometimes, but I try to balance it out with Yoga, foam rolling, and rest.
My best times are when I’m in the woods, no mirror, when I can only judge my body by what it can do (taking me to some of the most beautiful places on Earth) and for how it feels out there in the wild: strong, powerful, beautiful.
But then I get back to civilization, to full-length mirrors, to pictures of sleek runners with rock hard abs on my Facebook feed. I upload the pictures of Supergirl and myself from our adventure and force myself to post the ones where I think my legs look to large.**** I eat too much, following my dinner an hour later with a large snack and extra chocolate. I try not to cringe when the man I’m dating touches my bare thighs, where my stretch marks are highlighted by my Colorado sun tanned legs.
I’ve even dropped so low, last year during my brief relapse with depression, as to wish I was Anorexic again, or at least had the same will power to stay away from food. But that’s what mental health challenges do to a person. One can lose all rational, lose sight of the light that lies within.
Recently, my sister recommended to me a new movie out on Netflix, To the Bone, which portrays the story of a female with Anorexia and some of her struggles. She wanted to know if I thought anything was triggering*****, both of us knowing that many well-intentioned movies, articles, and speakers can set off many negative habits, like talking about weight and “tricks” used (when hearing of another’s low weight, a person with an ED may make their goal to reach that weight or one lower.) While there were several triggers (though I believe necessary to portray at least a partial true picture), Sandi may not have guessed the one that I found personally reminiscent, though not triggering (obviously, Sandi knows I am healthy and happy in who I am, now being on the path to obtain my master’s in counseling so I can help others who face the same challenges I once did): the lead character Ellen/Eli often measured her arm by wrapping her thumb and pointer finger around her bicep. I used to do the same thing, taking pride when my finger and thumb met. It’s a habit I still catch myself doing from time to time. I still have to remind myself that it is muscle that inhibits my hand from completing the full circle. (All in all, I found the film to be a hopeful vision to a path of recovery and a much better start to telling the story that some documentaries I have watched.)
Despite my idiosyncrasies, I still allow myself the label of “recovered-with some clouds”. After reading of my nuances above, some might think this is a bit of a stretch (while, on the other end of the spectrum, others may feel this whole blog is a stretch as my eating and body weight are relatively “normal”). However, I have not mentioned the key factor, the factor that will keep me from every going back to an eating disorder:
I love myself.
And because, after years of searching, I have found that unconditional love****** for myself, I only want health and happiness for myself. I may be disgruntled when I feel like I am on my heavier side, but because my heart is rooted in love, I can handle it. I also know that my life has a greater purpose. I’m still here so I can help others spread their wings, to realize their own strength and beauty, and to reach their highest peak. I know I am more than my body, that I only shine bright when my soul is on fire with passion and purpose.
I had one profound experience this past spring, nearing the end of my first semester at Naropa. I was in session with my practice student therapist, who I had spent several sessions with talking about physical challenges (athletic injuries) and past history. As usual, she asked me how I was feeling about my body. Before I even processed my response, the words “I love my body” came spilling from my lips. I was surprised. Not because this was the first time I had ever said this (I had repeated this line to myself in front of my mirror many times) but because I actually meant it.
I still think of myself as flawed. I may have done irreversible damage to my body. I have big feet. My mind spins and I get lost inside of it. But my flaws are part what make me, ME. My flaws have helped me grow. They enhance my light. In spite of them I shine.
And if some clouds comes in, I can deal with that too.
But that is because I chose this path for myself. I worked for it. I have a sister and a dog who showered me with love. Not all people with EDs have that.
Still, there is hope. There’s YOU. You can shower others, not just those with EDs, with your love and light. Letting then know the are ENOUGH, just by being who they are, no strings attached.
One last note: Not all women/men who are pressured with ideals of a specific body image get EDS, nor does all people who try a drug or drink alcohol become addicted. Contrary to the sad but popular opinion that this is because those people are weak, I would suggest that it is because that these people are especially sensitive, suffering, and have a huge capacity to feel in all depths. These people are actually like barometesr to what is going on in their lives and in society at large. If, at the beginning, we start honoring these people and their gift, they can help show the rest of the world when things are off-balance. *******
Love & Light,
*I have to say more about this podcast as I believe it is one of the best out there on eating disorders. This discussion was held by Running on Om and features Lauren Fleshman and Melody Moore. While it is directed towards female runners, it holds lessons on how we treat ourselves and talk to all people in regards to body image. The quote begins at 1:02:45.
**Some people who put a lot of weight into semantics would be indignant with my use of the word crazy. Thanks to my therapist who, when I apologized for using the word”, told me I can say what I want, I really don’t care. In my personal dictionary, I consider crazy to be defined as a feeling of losing control, not necessarily or always related to mental illness.
***This is important for any family member dealing with someone with an ED/addiction. Recovery has to be a choice. Until a person makes that choice for themselves, all you can do is offer them your unconditional love for them (though I realize that for some, needing to step away from the person with addiction may be necessary for ones’ own self-care. It’s not selfish, because when the person does decide they want to get better, you’ll be able to offer your full self and support.) If you are able to love her/him despite the ED/addiction, they might be able to find love for themselves too.
****It’s true, I often still wear short-shorts that really only (but fully) cover my booty. But I am still often uncomfortable in these shorts, especially when I see myself wearing them in pictures. “Then why wear them?” you may wonder. Because they give me some sense of being attractive enough, fit enough, to wear them. So next time you see a girl walking down the street wearing shorts that you think are way too short for her, realize that she probably has a more meaningful reason to be wearing them that most would care to acknowledge.
*****The truth is, everything is triggering for someone with an eating disorder. Food is everywhere. Images of perfect bodies is everywhere. And, most likely, reminders of “not being enough” are everywhere. No film that discusses the subject could ever not be triggering nor would I recommend watching this film with someone currently with an eating disorder, at least not without supervision and leaving time to talk about emotional scenes. While the film was limited to the struggles and journeys of someone with and ED, I believe it gave an accurate portrayal and kept in touch with the film makers and actress’s personal stories. No film on this difficult subject matter will ever be perfect, but lets applaud those willing to take the risk and keep the conversation going.
******Special thanks to Supergirl for her lessons on unconditional love.