Health Matters: Lasting Change—Taking One Step at a Time

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December 2018

Here we are at the beginning of another year, a good time for reflection. If New Year’s resolutions are not for you, consider focusing on lifestyle changes that are lasting. With that, I invite you think about what went well last year and what areas leave room for improvement. As you engage in this process of self-reflection, it is only natural for The Inner Critic to have a say. This is the voice that only points out the negative aspects of your life and what you did not accomplish. This voice may say things like, “Wow, you still did not quit smoking, your exercise habits suck, you’re still too heavy,” and so on. Listening only to this voice will leave you feeling defeated and add to low self-esteem already experienced in these areas.

One way to approach The Inner Critic is to practice positive re-frames. Ask yourself, “What went well?” If you’re trying to quit smoking, was there a day you smoked less? How did that feel? What would it take for you to continue the decrease?  Think “harm reduction” and celebrate even small successes, concentrate on how they made you feel. If tuning out the critical voice inside of you seems impossible, allow yourself to go there for about five minutes, set a timer if necessary. Once the timer goes off, focus on positive things in your life or engage in grounding yourself to the present moment.

 The notions of mindfulness and self-love or self-care are buzz words these days, but they carry an important message: we need to take care of ourselves for our emotional wellbeing.  Most of us know we need to eat nutritious meals, get enough sleep, exercise, and avoid unhealthy habits. Practicing self-love is a way to make space in our lives for activities that bring us joy. Think back to when you were young. What did you used to enjoy? If nothing comes to mind, then consider what you have always wanted to try. Do you want to dance? Make art? Learn to weld? Go fishing? Ride a horse? See if you can build some of this into your life. If taking on a new activity feels too overwhelming, start with baby steps – maybe five minutes to yourself to listen to your favorite song, or take deep breaths and have a cup of tea.

Many of the people I work with face overwhelming challenges that seem unsurmountable: chronic pain, traumatic experiences, losses, disorganized family dynamics, chemical imbalances such as depression, anxiety and substance abuse. Effective counseling can help people feel seen and validated for who they are without judgment. Being witnessed authentically has great healing potential and can make room for new possibilities. A counselor also provides tools to help you recognize when the emotional part of your brain (the amygdala) is hijacking the rational part of your brain (the prefrontal cortex) and provide ways to regain balance and control. If you are not quite ready for counseling or coaching, consider browsing the self-help section at your local bookstore or library. There are ample books with great ideas on self-improvement and ways to bring about lasting change.

Mindfulness is the practice of bringing your awareness to the present moment and acknowledging all feelings and body sensations that are present. Grounding exercises can assist in regaining control. They focus on the five senses: sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch. Create a calm space in your environment you can use for practicing. By producing sensations in the here and now that are difficult to ignore, you distract yourself from what's going on in your mind. Techniques include activities as simple as taking in enjoyable smells like essential oils or spices, listening to a favorite playlist, feeling smooth rocks, drinking tea, or going for a short walk (or a hard run).

Be gentle with yourself and if you need help overcoming life’s challenges, consider counseling.

Karin Hudson is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist at MCHC Health Centers—a local, non-profit, federally qualified health center offering medical, dental and behavioral health care to people in Lake and Mendocino Counties.

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