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The Power of Play

The Power of Play

When was the last time you played–really played and had fun? Maybe it was recent; maybe you can’t remember the last time. Either way, let’s talk about why this therapist is coming to realize just how important play can be.

A couple of years ago, I decided to try winter hiking. I did a little research, collected some winter hiking gear, and ventured out into the snow. On one hike, I found myself alone at the trailhead. The freshly fallen blanket of powder covering the trail ahead of me was untouched, completely free of any human footprints. I had the trail to myself. I hiked up, admiring the almost surreal landscape of pristine snowdrifts, frozen streams, and tree branches adorned with glistening icicles.

After hiking up for a while, the snow became too deep for me to keep moving forward, since I only had boots, and no snow shoes. I turned around and headed back down the mountain, still with the trail completely to myself. The snow was so fresh, it felt like I was floating down the mountain, with puffs of powder flying up around my feet with each step. Spontaneously, I got the urge to run downhill. So I did! I ran, kicking up snow, feeling the spray of powder on my cheeks as I went. I found myself grinning, stretching my arms out to my sides as I ran, involuntarily laughing as I skidded and slipped along, my heart pounding and my lungs filling with cold mountain air. It was pure fun. With the trail to myself, I felt totally free to do what felt good, which apparently was to run down the mountain laughing like a little kid. 

Call it corny, but I felt SO ALIVE! By the time I neared the trailhead, a few other hikers were starting up the mountain. I slowed to a walk, but couldn’t stop myself from grinning ear to ear. I am not a naturally peppy person (like, really not), so it surprised me a bit to find myself so giddy, so energized, and so spontaneous. That, my friends, is the power of play.

My experience of cavorting down the mountain hasn’t turned into a typical occurrence, but it did provide me with an “aha” moment about the importance of adding play into my life. I’m finding that play can be a valuable element of maintaining mental wellness.

Kids, naturally, are the experts when it comes to playing and having fun. Research on play indicates a myriad of benefits for kids, including stronger development of social-emotional and problem-solving skills, more mental flexibility, and increased resilience against the effects of stress. Play has also been shown to help kids manage anxiety and worry, reduce the likelihood of experiencing depression, and foster creativity. Kids don’t care about the research, of course; they play because it’s fun, and because it’s natural.

Figuring out how to play as a grown-up has its fair share of challenges, but I’d argue that play is just as needed for adults as it is for children. Especially as we manage mental health challenges, the impact of world events, or the ever-present stresses of daily life, we could all use some of the benefits of play. When it comes to emotional wellness, play should be just as much a priority as any other form of basic self-care. Here are a few ideas to help you add more play into your grown-up life:

  • Move your body in fun ways. Dance while you clean up your kitchen. Skip instead of walking to the mailbox. Lay on the carpet and stretch in whatever way feels good.
  • Go outside and do what a kid would do. Sit on the ground and make a log cabin out of sticks. Roll down a grassy hill. Jump in a puddle, for crying out loud!
  • Play together with someone–your partner, a roommate, a friend, a niece or nephew. Make up a game together. Learn a Tik-Tok dance. Watch a movie with the sound muted and make up your own dialogue.
  • Ask your body, “What fun do you want to have?” Maybe your body wants to jump and move around. Maybe it wants to sing. Maybe it wants to flirt with your partner. Maybe it wants a spontaneous, delicious bite to eat.

Play can be like a rocket booster in times when we feel like we’re dragging ourselves through life. Those moments of true fun can feel elusive, but I believe there’s power in intentionally adding play to our lives. I hope you’ll find your “Running Down a Snowy Mountain” moments as you explore the possibilities of play!

 

References: The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children. Pediatrics September 2018 

A Letter to Myself in Recovery

A Letter to Myself in Recovery

One of the many reasons I cherish the opportunity to work with clients in recovery from eating concerns is that I have been on my own recovery journey. While my eating disorder does not play an active role in my life anymore, I still find it valuable to look back at my recovery process and reflect on the struggles, challenges, and changes of recovery. In today’s blog, I want to share a letter with you–one that I wish I could have read when I was in the trenches of my recovery battle. Even though everyone’s recovery journey is unique, I hope you’ll be able to find something that helps you, wherever you are on your recovery path.

Dear Recovering Me,

It’s me (you), from the future. I wish so badly that I could invite you here for a visit, so you could see everything that is waiting for you. As I think about you and the struggle you’re going through, trying so hard to recover, I have so many things I want you to know. Here are just a few:

1. Recovery won’t always feel as hard as it does right now. I know it feels like the daily battle will never get easier, and will never change, but I can promise you that it will feel better someday. I won’t lie to you and say that things will get easy quickly; I can promise you that someday, it will feel easier to unhook yourself from those eating disorder thoughts and behaviors. Not all of the challenges of your eating disorder will disappear in the future, but you will be stronger and more capable of handling them. Even if it doesn’t feel like it, sticking with recovery is helping you grow.

2. Recovery really will be worth it! I know everyone is saying that to you, and I get that it can feel frustrating to be told “it will be worth it” when it feels like recovery is an impossible battle to fight. You can trust me–I am living in your future, and it is better than you can imagine.

Picture this: making and eating delicious homemade pizza with your new husband every night for almost two weeks (the two of you will call it “The Twelve Days of Pizza”), and truly enjoying every bit of the experience without guilt, worry, or eating disorder behaviors. Another one for you: looking down at your round, saggy, stretch-marked belly after giving birth to a baby, and crying tears of sincere gratitude, awe, and love for your amazing body. There are so many gifts of recovery, big and small. It will be worth it!

3. In the future, there will be times when you don’t like how your body looks… but that won’t matter to you the way it does now. I know you probably wish I were saying something like, “You are going to LOVE the way your body looks in recovery. You’ll for sure be happy with how it looks all the time.” Sorry, that’s not the truth that’s waiting for you. The real truth is that you’ll still have bad body image days sometimes, and your recovered body is not the “goal body” you’re working toward right now. What makes the difference is that you’re at peace with that. You’re ok with not loving your body’s appearance all the time, because you see your body as more than what it looks like. You’ll have so many other things that you want to give your time and attention to, besides having food and your body take up every bit of your focus. When negative body image moments come up, you’ll feel able to move on from them without turning to your eating disorder.

There are so many other things I wish I could tell you from where I am on the other side of recovery. Keep holding on, and keep trying!

With love,

Me

Thanks for reading along. If you feel inclined to, writing a letter of your own could be a helpful and insightful experience. Writing a letter to a past version of yourself, maybe the version that was just beginning to develop an eating disorder, or the version that is in a tough period of recovery, can be a powerful way to acknowledge the growth and perspective you’re gaining. It can also be a way to remind yourself that where you are now is not where you’ll be forever. And if writing a letter of your own doesn’t feel helpful right now, feel free to borrow whatever pieces of mine you want to take with you. I am rooting for you!

 

Protect Your Recovery

Protect Your Recovery

A phrase I often repeat with my clients is “Protect your recovery.” Picture it like this: when you go to a museum to see artistic masterpieces, you see all kinds of protection set up to keep the artwork safe and in lasting good condition. UV-filtering windows, temperature- and humidity-controlled rooms, velvet ropes to help people keep their distance from the art, and anti-theft systems are all in place to preserve the artwork. Likewise, your recovery is a precious and hard-earned treasure that deserves protection.

​One of the most important parts of protecting your recovery is having a schedule that safeguards you against slipping into unhelpful patterns. Doing your best to create a daily schedule that protects your recovery is essential to making your recovery last. Here are a couple of practical ways you can do this:

1. Prioritize meal times and snack times like you would prioritize a job interview.

If you had an interview for a job you really wanted or needed, how would you schedule your day? Would that interview be high or low on your priority list? High, of course. You’d probably make sure nothing got in the way of you being on time, prepared, and present for that interview. In eating disorder recovery, you must prioritize meals and snacks like you would a job interview. Your #1 job, especially in the beginning stages of recovery, is to nourish your body consistently. If other parts of life start to take precedence over meal and snack times, making progress in recovery will be much harder. 

If activities or commitments are getting in the way of your meals or snacks, work with your support system to find ways to stay consistent, either by eating meals during those activities, or shifting your schedule so nothing gets in the way. Set reminder alarms in your phone, cancel plans that would cause you to skip a meal, bring food with you everywhere, ask your professors for permission to step out and eat a snack during class, etc. That might sound intense, I know, but your recovery is worth protecting. And rest assured, as you make progress in recovery, more flexibility can come as you learn to respect and respond to your body’s needs consistently.

2. Get serious about your sleep habits.

Sleep might not seem like a recovery tool at first glance, but healthy sleep habits are an important part of protecting your eating recovery. Getting enough rest can help you manage emotions, and use healthy coping skills instead of turning to your eating disorder. Not getting enough sleep sets you up to be more susceptible to anxiety and depression symptoms, as well as eating disorder urges.

One of the most important parts of healthy sleep is setting a consistent wake time and bedtime, even on the weekends (see https://sleepeducation.org/healthy-sleep/healthy-sleep-habits/ for more info). Having a consistent sleep schedule helps your body get better quality sleep, and also makes scheduling meals and snacks easier. Getting good sleep can be tough for a number of reasons, especially if you are battling health issues in recovery, dealing with anxiety or depression, have a variable work schedule, are in school, or have young kids (and the list goes on). Sleep might not ever be 100% in your control (if only it could be! I have two little kids and haven’t slept through the night consistently in over 5 years!), but do your best to protect your recovery process by improving your sleep habits.

There are many ways to protect your recovery, and your daily schedule is one of them. Your eating disorder recovery is a precious, intricate masterpiece made up of hard-earned triumphs, meaningful struggle, and priceless effort. Every piece of your recovery is worth protecting.

Discovering Comfort in Eating Recovery

Discovering Comfort in Eating Recovery

 

Did you have a comfort object as a young kid? Maybe a special blanket, or a stuffed animal? When I was little, my aunt gave me a small, white teddy bear named Theodore. Theodore went with me everywhere. Theodore was not only the stuffie I slept with every night, but he was also my companion on road trips, campouts, and trips to Taiwan. As a college student, I snuggled him through homesickness and post-breakup woes. Theodore has been around for nearly 30 years, and he now​ belongs to my son. My heart swells when I see my little boy hug and talk to his teddy bear. Theodore was (and is) very important to me, first because he was my favorite toy, and later because he came to represent home, safety, and comfort for me (and now for my son). We all need a “Theodore” in our lives–something constant and comforting to turn to when we feel vulnerable, hurt, or alone.

Recently, in a group therapy session I was leading, I asked group members to write down what their eating disorders have given them. On this occasion, every group member listed the word “comfort.” An eating disorder often emerges, and persists, in times when you need comfort the most. It might be something you turn to for soothing and relief when life is painful, or for control when life is chaotic and overwhelming. Your eating disorder might feel like the only thing that can make you feel better when things are at their worst.

If your eating disorder wasn’t comforting in some way, you probably wouldn’t have it in the first place. As safe as your eating disorder might feel sometimes, it is not a harmless teddy bear. It will ultimately create more pain and damage the longer it stays in your life. Not only that, it keeps you from finding and using other sources of comfort. As long as you are tied to your eating disorder, you aren’t free to explore what other things in this world might bring you a sense of comfort and safety. Clinging to your eating disorder makes it harder to care for and nourish the relationships and experiences that can make your life more meaningful.

There are other sources of real, meaningful, healing comfort available to you outside of the eating disorder. There are people who are willing and yearning to support you and help you feel safe. There are experiences full of beauty, purpose, and peace that are waiting for you in recovery. Even if comfort and safety have been scarce in your past, the healing in your future can be so much bigger than what your eating disorder promises you.

It can feel terrifying to think about saying goodbye to your eating disorder, especially if it has been your most reliable source of soothing in the past. I promise you that letting go of your eating disorder will be worth it. Recovery won’t mean you’ll never struggle to find comfort again; what it will mean is that you’ll be able to find comfort from sources that expand and enrich your life, instead of making your life smaller and more painful. It’s ok to need comfort. It’s ok to need some “Theodores” in your life. Recovery will help you find them.

 

 

Eyes on Your Own Path: Dealing with Comparison in Recovery

Eyes on Your Own Path: Dealing with Comparison in Recovery

Recently I’ve been reading Atlas of the Heart by Dr. Brené Brown. In this book, Brené Brown explores words describing human emotions and experiences and shows how these definitions shape our existence and relationships. When I got to her exploration of the word “comparison,” I knew I had to share it in a blog. She says:

Comparison is the crush of conformity from one side and competition from the other–it’s trying to simultaneously fit in and stand out. Comparison says, “Be like everyone else, but better.”

Wow, right?

When I read this mic-drop of a definition, I think about how comparison shows up in eating and body image recovery. It shows up in ways that might seem obvious: comparing your body to other peoples’ bodies, comparing what you’re eating to what everyone else is eating, comparing your workout routine to everyone else’s, and on and on. And then there are the comparisons between your current body and your past body–“before and after” pictures, items of clothing that used to fit differently, etc. Comparison can feel motivating at times (for better or for worse), but for most people, the end result of comparison is a sense of inadequacy and exhaustion.

Comparison can also show up in eating recovery in more covert ways. Like Brené Brown says, comparison might whisper in your ear, “Be like everyone else, but better” when it comes to how sick you are. The eating disorder can turn comparison into competition. Comparison might make you feel worthless or invalidated because you are not “sick enough” compared to others, or even to yourself in recovery at different times of your life. Comparison might cause you to look sideways at others’ recovery journeys instead of being able to focus your eyes ahead on your own path. You might find yourself checking the pace of your recovery against someone else’s, and then wondering what’s wrong with you for not moving at the same speed as them.

However it shows up in your recovery process, comparison can end up creating pain on top of pain–an extra layer of suffering on top of the already intense challenges of recovery. And you might be thinking to yourself, “Yeah, I shouldn’t compare myself to others.” And maybe people in your life are saying the same thing: “Don’t compare yourself to others.” And sure, stopping comparison would be great, but HOW?

Here’s my take (and Brené Brown and her research team can back me up on this–check it out in Atlas of the Heart): Don’t expect to be able to just stop comparing yourself to others. Instead, when you find yourself comparing, bring your focus back to your own path. Comparison is almost for sure going to happen to you, and to all of us, automatically, without you really choosing to compare. It’s a mental reflex that is only human. When you notice yourself comparing, it’s up to you to either choose to stay on the path of comparison, or pick another path.

One of the alternative paths to comparison that Brené Brown suggests is CREATIVITY. In her book The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené says, “Creativity, which is the expression of our originality, helps us stay mindful that what we bring to the world is completely original and cannot be compared.”  You are unique, and what you can create and contribute is entirely your own.

Living life through comparison is like being a measuring stick–rigid, limited, and in a constant state of calculation. Living life through creativity is like being a paintbrush–flexible, unbounded, and in a state of inventiveness. If you find yourself comparing yourself to others to see how you measure up, keep that image in your mind and turn that measuring stick into a paintbrush and create the life you want for yourself.

Another alternative path to comparison: CONNECTION. There are some great thoughts on this alternative in Atlas of the Heart. (Can you tell by now that I want you to go read some Brené Brown?) When you feel the urge to compare or compete with others, think about what it might look like to connect with your own humanity, and the humanity of others. Here are a couple examples that came to my mind when I think of how connection can help you manage comparison:

Comparison says: “She looks so good. I hate my body. I feel disgusting standing next to her.”

Connection says: “She is more than her appearance, and I am more than mine.”

Comparison: “He is so much smarter than me. I’ll never be good enough.”

Connection: “I can appreciate his strengths while honoring and developing my own.”

Comparison: “I am so awkward. Everyone else is so much more confident than me.”

Connection: “It’s human nature to feel self-conscious sometimes. I can be kind to myself when I’m feeling vulnerable.”

If you find yourself struggling with comparison, please remember that it’s nothing to be ashamed of. We’re all bound to compare ourselves to others sometimes. Especially in recovery, comparison will happen. Remember this: you can choose the direction you want to turn when comparison tries to pull you off course. That direction might guide you toward creativity, connection, self-compassion, or some other value you hold close to your heart. When comparison tries to pull your focus sideways towards others’ journeys, turn your eyes forward to look at your own path. That path is where you will find your unique self, the healing you personally need, and the singular, beautiful contributions you can make to the world.