Mindful Holidays for a joyful year ending

Joyful holidays

Joy as a Mental Strategy

When I prepare mentally for the holiday season, I remind myself of one mindful attitude in particular: JOY. Joy is an attitude of the heart. The warm feeling we can choose to feel from inside with intention.

I am mindful of my intentions for the festive season. This includes my intention to engage with loved ones, with neighbours and strangers in soft and kind way. But even more so to engage with myself by pacing my levels of tension, impatience and striving.

Also setting an intention that makes a difference from other times of the year. I ask myself, looking back what is the one thing that I want to have accomplished (i.e. making some people happy with a poignant choice of gifts; having spent quality time with some people I love; having met with people without masks and little risk of infection).

Traps of mindlessness

Some of us seem to be driven by perfection, sometimes based on missed chances during our own childhood or due to chasing a nostalgic high we want to replicate. It is essential to bethink yourself of the purpose of the holidays and how you want to celebrate it.

Mindfulness suffers when we get ahead of ourselves, when we are not being present with all our senses.

Some of us want to please too many people or cater for too many needs (i.e. giving, meeting, singing, eating, resting, celebrating, reading, cheering, greeting, kissing, …). It can be difficult during these times of heightened expectations to allow yourself to be human.

Cultivate mindfulness over the holidays

In any culture, important holidays typically put a strain on families and relationships. Christmas being the one I grew up with. It is also a time when sadly I receive more enquiries from couples. Holidays come with cultural norms and obligations, loads of expectation regarding behaviour and family dynamics galvanise.

Being mindful means to pay attention from moment to moment without judging. The reward then is to be able to engage with each other in harmony without being carried away by our minds, our work or our (hi)story.

Coming back to Joy

Mindfulness can simply mean to practice joy, generating warmth from your heart. For some that might mean to be a bit less self-involved and for others that might mean to offer more of what one truly has to offer: their own joyful presence not “presents”. Please find free guided meditations, links to more and reading material on Counselling in Hong Kong website https://counsellinghongkong.com and contact counsellor Sebastian Droesler for more information.

Three simple practice during the festive season

  1. Choose to focus your attention on one thing or task at a time. Be fully present with the task at hand. When you speak to someone, think before you talk. When you eat, chew and taste before you swallow. When you drink, smell and savour the good stuff. When your attention is being pulled or your mind wanders, notice where it went and then bring it back.
  2. Expand your awareness without judgement without striving. Take a moment to observe yourself and your surroundings in stillness. Resist the temptation to leap forward into the next thing to do. What do you notice about yourself? Watch what is going on around you? No need to change anything. But if you choose to act, do it with elegance.
  3. Practice your Lovingkindness. Lovingkindness is the practice of wishing well. You can use phrases such as “may you be happy. May you be healthy.” that you can say in silence to yourself, loved ones, strangers and even people you find difficult. Connect with positive emotions of goodwill and benevolence. We’re not trying to manifest any reality (we’re not going to make anyone healthy by wishing that they are), but rather seeing how it feels to say these words to another person while genuinely meaning it.

If you are looking for counselling or coaching via in-person sessions with Sebastian, you can find his office conveniently in Lan Kwai Fong, Central Hong Kong.

A bundle of nerves to rule them all: Unpacking the vagus nerve.

The vagus nerve relates to our capacity to function as social beings through maintaining our emotional regulation, fear response and social connections. We all constantly cycle through stages of disconnection, mobilisation and social engagement.

Our Autonomic Nervous System adapts protection and connection from moment to moment. For many people, patterns of protection can compromise their social engagement system.

This article highlights some neuro-physiological explanations (polyvagal theory) for why we are often not smooth and balanced. It also addresses ways to regulate and staying connected.

Read Part 2 of my polyvagal theory article here … https://counsellinghongkong.com/2023/06/06/talking-ventral-vagal/?amp=1

What is so special about the vagus nerve?

The vagus nerve connects the brain with the heart and other major organs and runs on autopilot without requiring intervention. This system regulates our heartbeat, breathing and other autonomous body functions such as digestion, body temperature and sexual arousal.

“… These stages reflect the emergence of three distinct subsystems, which are phylogenetically ordered and behaviourally linked to social communication (e.g., facial expression, vocalization, …), mobilization (e.g., fight-or-flight), and immobilization (e.g. feigning death and behavioural shutdown). 

Porges, Stephen W. (2010). The Polyvagal Theory.

Vagal branches are related to unique adaptive behavioural strategies that are essential for our survival. These strategies developed in three stages from immobilisation to mobilisation to social communication.

As part of the autonomic nervous system, it is triggering the human defence mechanism that consists of fight, flight and freeze when there is danger or perceived threat.

It stimulates the body’s response when put under STRESS and it goes into shut-down mode when overwhelmed. However, our stress response is essential for survival, but needs to be tamed to enable social engagement.

How to understand your states of arousal?

The human survival mechanism is an integral part of our physiology. As such, the ability to sense and identify danger is inherently a valuable tool in our biological makeup and is termed “neuroception“.

However, due to experienced trauma for example, the brain can map irregular associations resulting in a dysregulated nervous system. The first step, then is to recognise that this is happening.

“Trauma compromises our ability to engage with others by replacing patterns of connection with patterns of protection.”

Dana, Deb (2018). The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy

Paying attention to states of arousal is vital, either in the moment or retrospectively. Consciously acknowledging when you experience one of the three defence mechanisms can make all the difference.

If you find yourself uncharacteristically defensive (fight), feeling the overwhelming need to escape from a situation (flight), or rooted to the spot in a blind panic (freeze), it’s essential to understand the reasons behind these reactions.

Psychology and physiology merge in stages of the vagus nerve

Social Engagement or Ventral Vagal state

My clients easily relate to the different stages of their vagal activation which can be described in terms of body and mind. The ventral vagal activation is represented by an open mind (“I may”, “may you be happy”) and an orientation towards others and the environment (posture, tone of voice, feeling warm).

Sympathetic Arousal state

Sympathetic arousal is reported as an increasingly narrowed mind with thoughts about taking action ranging from “I can” to “I should” to “I must” and simultaneously from feeling concerned/activated to anxious/angry to panic-fuelled/acting up. Body sensations include elevated heart rate, heavy breathing and feeling hot.

Overwhelmed or Dorsal Vagal state

When the system becomes overwhelmed the dorsal vagal state of “I can’t” (“I collapse”, “I shut down”) takes over and clients of mine report to withdraw, self-medicate or zone out. This state is also characterised by a lack of connection, presence and self-control.

Due to the nature of the nervous system, we can feel each of these responses in varying degrees. A workaholic may have an active “flight” response, feeling a need to keep busy and seemingly unable to slow down. In someone else, a flight response may result in addictions – fleeing from emotions by making them go away with substances. 

Once identified, we can then understand what triggered the episode. Try to determine what happened immediately before the incident. Was it a comment, a specific tone of voice that someone used? Perhaps a smell or a particular situation made you feel overwhelmed.

Using polyvagal theory in coaching and counselling

In these three short videos I explain how we deviate from the social engagement system under stress. The second video highlights the psychological states going hand in hand with nervous arousal. The third video explores how we can detect freeze and collapse states.

How to cultivate the social engagement system?

We can take some steps to regulate and manage our nervous system. With a bit of practice using exercises that calm the nervous system and target the vagus nerve, we can maintain a healthy emotional balance.

In order to improve emotional wellbeing, it is important to understand how both internal and external factors impact mental health. Start by looking at your immediate surroundings. What elements spark joy for you? What aspects of your environment make you feel uncomfortable or overwhelmed? Think about what you can do to improve this environment. 

Inner state

Even more important than the external environment is the internal struggle. One problem you may face is an abundance of self-criticism, overthinking and perfectionism. Practice snapping out of negative mental loops by

  • Simply letting your experience be: When you stub your toe, pause and feel the pain. No need to express it, stay with it – it is already there.
  • Simply letting go of any add-on experience: When you stub your toe, there is no need for anger, no need for cursing, no need for writing a screenplay about it.
  • Simply develop a more helpful attitude: When you stub your toe, pause and change your attitude. Does the leg of the kitchen table ask you to be more cautious or even to refurbish?

Direct stimulation

Directly Stimulating the vagus nerve can have tremendous effects on your reaction to stress. Breathing practices, yoga, physical movement, humming or singing, grounding exercises or working with temperature changes can all be valuable tools to help regulate your body when you catch yourself in a fight, flight or freeze response.

There is a wealth of information available for a more in-depth explanation of polyvagal theory and methods you can use to improve emotional well-being. Deb Dana has written an informative and helpful book on the subject, called “The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy.” Irene Lyon runs an exceptional YouTube channel outlining methods for improving mental health.

Happy Birthday Pandemic! One year of mental health struggles

Happy Birthday Pandemic! You brought us one year of mental health challenges and the stress of just wanting to make it through somehow – knowing that this is the least empowered mindset to be in.

Congratulations, you grew bigger and already developed a real character full of surprises. With only one year of existence you keep everyone on their feet. You manage to draw attention 24hrs a day and need a whole new infrastructure just to cater for your needs. Unfortunately you also caused a majority of us a steep decline in mental and physical well-being.

Several surveys confirm that your birth of COVID-19 caused “postpartum” stresses like breakdowns, burnout, anxiety, low mood, depression, insomnia for many. Your unpredictable and sleepless nature required us to redefine our caring responsibilities. And believe me, we would not always agree and oftentimes slip. We had to rearrange work, cancel play, socially distance and adapt new standards of hygiene only for you.

A recent free article in the FT highlights a survey on the effects of the pandemic on office workers’ mental well-being around the globe. The UK and Hong Kong ranking top and second on mental health being most negatively affected. Financial Services and media being represented industries amongst others.

While for many participants flexible work arrangements also brought upsides like reduced time to commute, the possibility to workout during daytime and engaging more with family, the same circumstances of “flexible” arrangements led to physical stress and emotional and mental imbalance.

Negative effects showed in unhealthy lifestyle choices, overworking and the dissolution of boundaries regarding time, space and social environment. Moreover, restrictions to public life and leisure activities contributed heavily to the feeling of being trapped at home, limited in self-care choices and the pursuit of hobbies.

My experience with clients mainly in Hong Kong, but also via Zoom from Australia, Japan, Singapore, India, Europe and Central America goes hand in hand with the findings of the survey. However, a few big stressors have to be added from my professional perspective. Many struggle with:

  • Worrying, anxiety and sadness about the impossibility to see and involve their family and friends. Zoom does not help to look after children or to accompany someone to the hospital or a doctors visit. Stress is often exacerbated when we have not heard from loved ones in a while or can’t reach them. Leaving us helpless and powerless.
  • The lack of support from educators and employers regarding the setup and proper management of working and learning remotely with proper parental control and at times always-on expectations – Sunday like Monday. An avalanche of adjustments to life has to be dealt with and often within the shortest timeframe.
  • Long distance relationship being emotionally tested by the uncertainty of travel restrictions, tough cash-flow decisions when considering to move or to stay and the nightmare of literally feeling out of touch. Spontaneity is a concept long gone, the zest of life often losing the battle with mechanically functioning along the scheduled tasks lined up from morning to nighttime.
  • Short distance relationships being tested by simply having nowhere to go, for example when one partner takes a few days off – at home. The unfulfilled longing for a few hours of solitude and creative expression. But also the unfulfilled longing for being able to miss our partners and our craving for romance.

A healthier mindset

It is all too easy being absorbed by a one year old, in particular if the baby is a superhuman pandemic. This birthday also marks one year of great and skilful adjustment. Discovering energy and the ability to deal with problems we did not know we possessed. Here is to not forgetting ourselves, our self-care and dignity!! Here is to celebrate one year of upholding, growth and wisdom. Cheers to having been able to adjust to the great challenges, to newly found strengths and to rediscovery of our true priorities like family and friendship.

Lovingkindness – The neuroscience of wishing well

In this blog you will learn what Lovingkindness is and how evidence-based science demonstrates the psychological benefits for your well-being.

Added bonus: Understand what’s in for you to wish people well that you don’t like that much or let’s say would not vote for.

What is Lovingkindness?

Lovingkindness is the practice of wishing well. It is typically done as a guided meditation in feelings of goodwill and benevolence. The practice uses a set of phrases (such as “may you be at peace. May you be healthy.”) that we imagine saying to ourselves, loved ones, strangers, and even people we find difficult.

As we imagine saying these sentences, the goal is to connect with the positive emotions that arise. We’re not trying to manifest any reality (we’re not going to make anyone healthy by wishing that they are), but rather seeing how it feels to say these words to another person and genuinely mean it.

Lovingkindness is the translation of the Pali word “metta.” It is one of the four Brahmaviharas in Buddhism – the others are compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity.

Academic interest in lovingkindness meditation keeps growing. Researchers are conducting experiments regarding the benefits of lovingkindness for various disorders, including depression and anxiety and everyday issues like anger and relational conflict. The studies appear promising, showing a positive effect on happiness, self-compassion, and general wellbeing.

What are the benefits?

When we practice lovingkindness consistently, we might find that our positive feelings multiply in our day-to-day life. In turn, it can serve as an antidote for difficult emotions such as anger, depression, anxiety, and self-criticism. Note that practicing lovingkindness doesn’t mean that we are trying to hide our “bad” emotions or plastering a bandaid of positivity over them. Instead, we are trying to water and nurture the seeds of love, joy, kindness, and acceptance. We learn to divert our attention to the positive and expand those emotions.

Stephen Hofmann calls lovingkindness a practice that “leads to the path of happiness.” He notes that psychology has focused on trying to reduce negative emotions rather than increasing the positive. In a literature review, he and Paul Grossman and Devon E.Hinton conclude that lovingkindness can help treat social anxiety, marital conflict, and anger.

A randomized experiment on 38 individuals high in self-criticism showed the effects of lovingkindness in practice. The participants showed increases in positive emotion and self-compassion and reduced depression and self-criticism (Shahar et al. 2015). The effects lasted three months after the intervention. 

Another study on the long-term effects of lovingkindness meditation on PTSD and depression found similar benefits. After three months, there was a significant reduction in PTSD symptoms as well as depressive symptoms (Kearney et al., 2013). Similar benefits have been found in individuals dealing with Borderline Personality Disorder.

It’s becoming apparent that lovingkindness practice can be a powerful intervention.

Lovingkindness changes the brain

Practicing lovingkindness meditation doesn’t just make us feel good. It can have significant and long-lasting impacts on the brain. 

One brain imaging study examined expert and novice meditators as they engaged in lovingkindness meditation. The researchers introduced emotional and neutral sounds during meditation and found that the expert meditators had increased activation in brain areas associated with empathy and theory of mind (Lutz, Brefcynski, Johnstone, Davidson 2008). 

A 2012 experiment by Lee et al. went further and looked at the differences in brain activity when practicing lovingkindness meditation as opposed to concentration meditation. They found that experts in lovingkindness meditation showed a distinct neural response to sad pictures that was more in line with empathy and emotional regulation. That means that when we practice lovingkindness meditation consistently, we’re training our brain to be more compassionate in the future. 

Imagine what can happen when we train our brains to react with kindness instead of judgment and fear. Implications can include less conflict with our friends, family, and partner; fewer instances of road rage; more measured responses when a coworker annoys us. We can instinctively offer better emotional support. As our self-compassion grows, we learn to make healthier choices and forgive ourselves for making mistakes. A lovingkindness presence can feel like magic.

How to practice lovingkindness in daily life? 

There are several ways to practice lovingkindness meditation. The primary way they differ is by the first object of lovingkindness. Some people start by sending lovingkindness to a loved one, then moving on to themselves, and then turning to a difficult person. Others say that we should always begin with sending lovingkindness to ourselves. 

Both types of practice start by sitting in an upright but comfortable position. You can also practice lying down if that’s more comfortable for you. You can close your eyes or leave them open. Take a few deep breaths to calm down the body. Then, let go of trying to control your breath. 

Starting With Yourself

If you want to start with yourself, imagine that you were sitting across from yourself. As you do, repeat sentences such as “may I be well. May I be safe. May I accept myself just as I am.”

There are many phrases you can use, but try not to pick too many. Keep it simple. Stay with this feeling for a while. If you find that it is too difficult, try to imagine yourself as a young child.

After a few minutes of this, you can choose to practice sending your lovingkindness feelings to a benefactor, an acquaintance, a stranger, or someone you find difficult.

Starting With a Loved One

Some people find it too challenging to start with sending lovingkindness to themselves. An excellent way to change this is to begin by imagining a good friend, benefactor or loved one. You can picture your pet or anyone else whose presence inspires feelings of warmth in you. Repeat the phrases as you imagine your loved one in front of you (“may you be at peace…”). After several minutes, try to turn the warm feelings you’ve gathered towards yourself and then towards a challenging person.

As you will see, different people practice lovingkindness differently. You might focus on one or two people at a time or try to send out lovingkindness towards the world. Some people find this to be a very emotional practice, but it’s OK if you don’t feel anything in particular. It can be helpful to use a guided recording in the beginning. You can find a 20-minute Lovingkindness meditation guided by Sharon Salzberg here.

Bonus: Turning towards the difficult – wishing your enemy well

Some people report difficulty to wish others well, whom they deem not worthy or deserving. I can very well relate to this attitude and was grappling with it for long time – even questioning my capacity for compassion. However, it became clear to me that I can find the ability to wish well to actually everyone. Here the rational:

  1. If others – liked or not liked people – live healthier, live with more peace, find ease or may be with calm, the world in total will be healthier, more at peace and more calm and at ease. I am certain of that.
  2. If others – liked or not liked people – live happier, that does not mean that I lose part of my happiness or really that I lose anything at all. It’s not a trade off. If I wish you good health, then I will not be more ill due to my wish. It’s not a give and take situation. It truly is a win-win.
  3. If you want to be skilfully wishing well, first you need consider what actually moves and motivates malice, violence and wrong doing. Then you can counter the driving energy with your tailored wish. For example: aiming at narcissism would sound a bit like this perhaps: “May you live with ease, may you find happiness, may you find confidence (in someone else), …”

Note: here we must assume that this is a question of true, genuine, authentic happiness to be found and not a shallow “happiness” that some wear in disguise.

Hugging – think Minuet not Tango

We are currently facing two pandemics that came along hand-in-hand: COVID-19 and the epidemic of loneliness and disconnection. As the worldwide death toll surpasses one million (nytimes.com 28/9) international travel has come to a standstill. Several countries around the world have enacted lockdowns of varying severity. Many adults who live alone went from seeing people every day to going weeks without talking to another person.

For the elderly, this isolation and loneliness are even more extreme, as many struggle to use technological tools to keep in contact with family and friends. While young adults used video calls and social media to stay in touch, many older adults went days without conversation or eye contact. This loneliness, in addition to anxiety about health and the state of the world plunged many into depression.

The majority of my clients in Asia, Europe and North America is disconnected from family and friends. Some of them and myself had to travel for sad and mournful occasions.

Self-regulation vs. interpersonal regulation

Individual ways we can take to calm ourselves: Yoga, breathing techniques, and grounding exercises can all be practiced during isolation. However, co-regulation (or interpersonal regulation) is also essential for all human beings – especially for young children with developing brains, who do not yet have self-regulation capacity. As all social beings we are wired for connection.

When we see someone act, our mirror neurons fire as though we were the actor. When we feel unsafe, a reassuring smile and the calming voice of a loved one can help calm our body down. Touch is a core aspect of this co-regulation process. One study found that holding hands with a loved one decreased the amount of pain a woman felt while receiving an electrical shock.

The truth is, we just can’t separate our mental health from the physical. Stress and loneliness affect our physical body directly. Studies show that loneliness can increase the likelihood of various diseases, from heart disease to Alzheimer’s. Hugging is a form of touch that helps us feel connected to others. When we hug, we feel loved, seen, safe, soothed and secure.

Today, the main wrench of the pandemic is: Just when we need human connection the most, we are told to socially distance.

Of course, we want to keep our loved ones safe and avoid unnecessary risks. And yet, the benefits of touch and human connection are more important than ever. Is there a way we can balance these two contrasting positions?

Approaching hugging rules scientifically

  • First, use common sense to determine when a hug or touch is actually needed. Now is not the time for networking and social niceties. If you meet someone new, hugs and kisses probably aren’t essential. Supporting a friend who is going through a hard time might be a different situation.
  • Wear a mask. The mask will be an extra layer of protection against respiratory droplets that you breathe out. In doing so, it will help protect your hugging partner.
  • Make sure you’re crossing over – both on their left or both on their right shoulder side (think Minuet not Tango). That way, you’re not breathing in each other’s exhaled air. 
  • Avoid touching each other’s faces while you hug. 
  • Don’t talk while you are hugging. Keep the conversation to before and after the hug.
  • If possible, hold your breath during the hug. 
  • Keep your hug brief. You can have an extremely effective hug in ten seconds. Hold each other tight, relax, and then let go.
  • Let children hug you at their level, rather than coming down to their height. That way, their faces should be at your knee, waist, or possibly chest level, making it less likely to spread germs in the air.
  • Don’t hug while either of you is crying, or if you have a cough or runny nose. 
  • Step away after the hug, and continue your conversation when you are standing several feet apart. 
  • Wash your hands after hugging, and avoid touching your face.

When Hugging Is Not An Option

There are other ways to calm your nervous system and get similar benefits that touch provides. If you have a pet, you can co-regulate with them. A study on the effects of human-animal relationships in children found that “touch, proximity, and mind-body interaction with animals have been found to contribute to stress reduction and trauma recovery.” 

Make sure to check in and keep in touch with loved ones, even when you’re not able to meet face-to-face. Text messages are great. Voice or video calls will be even better, as they will activate more of your senses as well as your mirror neurons. You can use this time to find alternative methods of showing care and keeping in touch. Try writing physical letters or even creating a scrapbook with memories and shared jokes.

If you don’t have an animal that you can interact with, hugging a stuffed animal or pillow can also simulate the feelings of safety and warmth you would get from human touch. Even if this hasn’t been your previous practice, we are in a unique set of circumstances. 

The benefits you will receive from gardening or taking care of indoor plants can also mimic some of the same bodily responses you get when caring for a loved one. 

Self-regulation techniques to calm your nervous system include stretching, humming, and embodied movement practices such as tai chi. Experiment with several different ones until you find those that work for you. 

During times of uncertainty and panic, it’s important to take precautions and stay safe. We don’t want to put our loved ones in harm’s way. Exercise caution, but remember to keep your emotional and mental health a priority. Keep touch and connection alive in your life as much as you safely can, for the benefit of us all. 

Investing in yourself is the biggest gift to your loved ones

In this article I explain easy to adapt alternatives for making a difference with your close ones and how you can yield surprising returns on your personal investments.

The end of year is the time to reflect on your SELF. Questions like “Was I successful in achieving what I wanted?” And “How content am I with the way I have lived?” can be a good starting point. However, gaining insight into how you are socially perceived is a much more powerful and transformative effort. What do people around you say about your conduct, energy, balance and presence? And how do you want to be seen and perceived in your interactions with others going forward?

People in our proximity are affected by the different states we are operating in. And often not in a good way. Clinical psychologist Paul Gilbert* differentiates three emotional regulation systems: DRIVE, SOOTHE, THREAT. Each system is associated with the activation of different regions of the brain and a signature brain chemistry. These operating systems can be seen and felt by others around us. The chronic and exaggerated activation of a system often strains individuals and relationships in families, marriages, friendships and at work.

People I am working with report to be most satisfied with life due to motivation and achievement …

  • when they perform using their strengths and feeling in their element
  • when they feel excited, focused and curious
  • when they pursue activities together with likeminded others

My clients also emphasise the contentment that arises …

  • when they get out of their heads and connect with their senses
  • when they are slowing down, taking care of their minds and bodies
  • when they bond emotionally and physically with partners, friends and people

Most people show an under-development of the soothe system and an over-reliance on the drive system which often leads to an imbalance that goes hand in hand with the activation of the threat system.

Although the threat system aims at protecting us from physical danger, it also gets activated in less helpful ways …

  • when we worry, procrastinate or experience anger and frustration
  • when we try too hard to succeed or get into a frenzy
  • when external events and adversities trigger fear, anxiety and unrest

Each individual’s emotion regulation map is unique. The first step to reach noticeable results is to map and understand in detail what your individual system-triangle looks like. The next and most important step is to implement sustainable improvements. It is recommended to address both steps with professional and emotionally safe support.

Although the following measures are commitments to self-care and self-development, the benefits go beyond individual well-being and performance.

Coaching for performance

With Coaching you will carve out what drives you and how rewards can help you to achieve. A Life Coach supports a healthy relationship with your motivation, values and strengths. Coaching is a relationship based on respect and challenge with an eye on realistic and organic growth that enables to stay open and with clear intentions.

Mindfulness for insight and attention

Becoming aware of the different experience in each of the three systems is essential for a more visible balance. Certified mindfulness teachers are able to instruct and guide formal and informal practices to train the attentional ‘muscle’ and foster self-awareness and insight through skilful enquiry.

Counselling for stability

The activation of threat is often a focus for counselling. A Counsellor helps to explore threats can be be triggered. For example by unhelpful personality patterns and maladaptive beliefs, by older or more recent trauma, by adversities in the environment (economical downturn, political crises, …) and through adjustment that comes with biological and psychological changes of the living situation (i.e. meaning, empty nest, …)

Groups for blank spots

Joining a group of likeminded people outside your usual circles is a great way to get familiar with how you are perceived by others. Participants of encounter groups seldom regret the challenge and almost always testify personal growth and gratitude for their peers.

*Paul R. Gilbert (2009) The Compassionate Mind: A new approach to life’s challenges. London: Constable and Robins

Marital Analysis – self-test intended

In my counselling work with individuals and couples my clients often address their closest committed relationships. Amongst them are typically marriage, parent/children, partnerships, siblings and friendships. When I ask people to describe the way they relate to each other, I hear for example “loving”, “explosive”, “happy”, “disciplined”, “authoritarian” or “caring”. And while we could leave it at that, I often wonder if those are really descriptions of the relationship or rather characterising the style, behaviour and personality of one or both persons involved.
It is much more difficult to hone in on the qualities of the connection or disconnection that we have with one another. In particular in couples counselling and marriage therapy it is absolutely worth to invest some thinking effort and to carve out and define what we have created with the other person. How we relate, how relations shift over time and the difference in relationships we form provides valuable insight into our live patterns, struggles and worn-out comfort zones.
A deeper analysis and understanding of the qualities and nature of a relationship with another person helps us to better manage dynamics and boundaries. Taking marriage for example: describing the marital state as “broken”, “dysfunctional, “close”, “intimate”, “illicit” or “unhealthy” seems to be valid, as neither of the partners has to be “unhealthy” or physically close to be in a close or unhealthy relationship. Or take “platonic” for that matter. Your relationship might not be sexual but rather friendly close, but that does not mean YOU are not sexual about the very same relationship.

Most adjectives are broad and remain superficial with regard to their level of information gained. Think “healthy”, “troublesome”, “beautiful” or “committed”. However! We start to gain value and insight exactly here. By asking further questions and allowing ourselves to be curious with an open heart. Can you allow yourself to be that way?
Besides the validity of your description, how precise is it? I like to think of any relationship as a bridge and when I look at my own bridges, I am often describing them very visually and in technical terms. That doesn’t mean a bridge can’t be symbolic, metaphoric or even poetic in your own words. Check for yourself from the following list of pairs and decide in each case towards which side you are leaning to.
absorbing – unforgiving
balanced – imbalanced
close – distant
natural – high-maintenance
heavy-travelled – via ferrata
historical – modern
longstanding – makeshift
romantic – functional
stable – shaking
solid – troublesome
weatherproof – season
Here are a few of my favorites (also thinking of real bridges)
convenient – life-saving
enabling – risky
exciting – boring
reciprocal – unilateral
safe – dangerous
symbiotic – differentiated

5 Reasons why New Year’s resolutions fail

New Year’s Resolutions will fail

This is the time of year when many of us take time to reflect on the past year. We think about making adjustments to life or to set off to new endeavours. Some of us are sitting on the same list of things to change year after year. We realise that another year has past without significant alterations or growth.
Why is it, that change seems so difficult to implement and what’s more, to make it last?In my work with clients I come across the following five reasons that make change very difficult and often impossible to happen.
1. You are over-promising
We think we found clarity in what we “need” to change, which spurs enthusiasm. Now with this sense of commitment that quic. our drive for action we over-promise. We declare to ourtselves and others that “…from now on, I will hit the gym 5 times a week” or “…will renovate the apartment in one weekend”.
2. You are idealising the big bang
The idealisation is often hidden in a thought pattern that goes like this “If only I have all of such-and-such in place, THEN I can finally pull the trigger and realise the change I aspire”. Does that sound familiar? “In order to write my first novel, I need a quiet office space with a desk and a brand new computer.” Or “If only I could find the perfect support (Yoga studio, Mandarin teacher, Nutritionist, …), then I could finally start living healthier.”
3. You are lacking an understanding of your motivation
I often hear people say “I need to do more workout”, “I should drink less” or “I must go to bed earlier”. Really? Do you? Using this nagging language tends to increase your sense of self-blame. It chore-izes whatever you actually wanted to do. Ask yourself instead: “Do I have to do this or do I want to?
4. You are not managing your time
If your ambition is to take on an MBA, to get some overdue paperwork done or just to declutter your desk, you need to plan for it. The time you need for each task can’t be found in the your days or weeks as you live them. You have to make it. If you fail to make time appropriately, your projects will fail or leed to dissatisfaction in other areas – like lack of sleep, increased stress, weight gain and social isolation.
5. You are being too harsh on yourself
Procrastination feeds on our inner conflict of knowing the waiting task and deferring the doing. In our minds we don’t allow the things to be just the way they are. Instead we constantly want things to be different than they are. With a rigid mindset it seems impossible to give ourselves permission to rest or to do things differently.
In order to make personal growth sustainable it is inevitable to understand the roots of your motivation – the values and preferences for life, that you carry. Furthermore, it is essential to transform and replace bad habits with good ones. In order to do so, we must understand fully what holds us back, what keeps us stuck and what it is inside of us that works against us.
May you be happy and well.