The topic of emotional intelligence has come up frequently as I live and grow with a three-year-old. From managing tantrums (both his and mine), finding words to express our feelings, to navigating a bully at childcare, social-emotional skills are paramount as they help us identify and manage our emotions, express empathy, form meaningful relationships, and cope with stress.
What I have learned is that emotional intelligence is a fundamental skill that starts in early childhood, develops and evolves over our lifetime, and is predictive of adult outcomes ranging from physical health, crime, and substance abuse by the time our kids are in kindergarten.
Emotional intelligence is shaped by the experiences children have with those who care for them. A caregiver’s ability to respond to their needs, share love, acceptance, and warmth sends our kids a message about their own self-worth and ability to trust others. It also fosters resilience and gives them the confidence to persevere when they face challenges.
As I grapple with the recent wave of mass shootings* and reflect on the startling increases in anxiety, depression and suicide in youth and adults, it is evident that fostering emotional intelligence in childhood is essential. Here are some ways we can help our kids (and each other) become more emotionally intelligent:
1. Get comfortable talking about feelings.
As I shared in a recent post, research finds that just naming our emotions can have a calming effect. Noticing and naming our emotions diminishes their intensity and gives us the chance to take a step back and make choices about what to do with them. It also helps builds a child’s emotional vocabulary, which enables them to perceive their own feelings and those of others.
There are everyday opportunities to talk to kids about emotions, but it all starts with us as caregivers. It isn’t always easy and the tendency to invalidate and suppress them is prevalent in our culture. Ask yourself, how did your parents (or caregivers) respond when you were upset? Did you feel like you could talk to them when you were angry, or you felt misunderstood? The chances are, if we struggle to talk about our feelings as adults it’s likely because we were never provided the space to do so as children.
At our home, we use a feelings chart to acknowledge and name our emotions. When I find myself frustrated at my son, I try to articulate what I am feeling and why, which in practice helps me calm down while role modeling healthy emotional regulation. We also use stuffed animals and toys to work through our emotions. When reading to our kids, we can also talk about how characters feel and what happened to cause their feelings.
2. Listen empathetically and acknowledge feelings
When a child is upset it can be tempting to be dismissive, telling them that it will be alright. In reality, this is sending them a message that that the way they're feeling is wrong. A better approach is to acknowledge their feelings and show empathy—even if we don’t understand why they're so upset. Children (and us adults) need to feel understood.
Take a deep breath, relax, and focus on them. They’ll notice if you’re impatient or frustrated and just going through the motions. Try sharing simple observations. Say, “I noticed that you frowned when I mentioned going to the party” and then wait for a response. Or “You look so sad. Let’s see if we can make you feel better.”
We can also make an effort to help kids challenge or reframe unhelpful negative self-talk as it appears. When a child says, "he/she doesn't want to be my friend" or “I can’t do math”, we can acknowledge the feeling (not the words), help them reframe it with more positive self-talk, and shift them into a growth mindset.
3. Teach and role model healthy coping skills
We’ve all experienced it. Those days where we are hungry or under slept we may act more impulsively or have a shorter fuse. When we are at our best, it’s easier to stay in control of our emotions. Good self-care and predictable routines help children feel secure and can boost resilience.
All of us need regular meals and adequate sleep. In addition, we can all benefit from learning how to take a few deep breaths when we’re angry or anxious. Role modeling these important behaviors sets an example for our kids and will support healthy habits that they’ll carry throughout their lives.
When experiencing tough emotions, we can ask them open ended questions or get clarity by using either or questions: "Did you feel more upset about THIS or THIS?" "Were you more angry OR worried?" We can encourage our kids to draw their feelings or write about them in a journal. Maybe they just need some fresh air! Time spent in nature has been shown to ease symptoms of stress and anxiety and help us feel happier and healthier. We also know that exercise boosts mood and is a good outlet for strong feelings; inspiring a love of movement is the greatest gift we can give our kids.
4. Practice problem-solving
Part of building emotional intelligence involves learning how to solve problems. When problems arise, we can’t always rush in to solve them for our kids. If your kid gets in trouble at school, breaks something, ore hurt themselves or someone else we can ask them “What can we do to make sure this doesn't happen again?". Of course, kids need consequences, but for real independence and self-efficacy to flourish we need to encourage them to make good decisions. And it's essential since research reveals that that kids who lack problem-solving skills are at higher risk of depression and suicidality.
Cultivating good emotional health paves a path for long-term health and well-being. It starts at home. And we should demand that our schools and caregivers investing in more social and emotional learning to help prepare our kids to live not just a thriving life, but also a non-violent life.
*One final note about mass shooters. A database of every mass shooter dating back to 1966 found that that the majority experienced early childhood trauma and exposure to violence at a young age. Preventing childhood trauma may seem daunting, but we know from the research on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) that the presence of a reliable, sensitive, and nurturing adult is one of the strongest protective factor against childhood trauma. Just one caring adult can have a huge positive impact on a child’s well-being.
In addition, practically every mass shooter had reached an identifiable crisis point in the weeks or months leading up to the shooting. As a society, we need to be more proactive. Most mass public shooters are suicidal, and their crises are often well known to others before the shooting occurs.
Schools and workplaces should teach resilience and social emotional learning and implement policies and practices that decrease the stigma around mental illness. This could not only help prevent mass shootings, but will also help promote the social and emotional success of all Americans, which is suffering.
I am proud to work for an organization committed to supporting the health of its community. In my current role, I help businesses build a culture of health at work and promote resilience, trauma-informed care, and social and emotional learning in the school environment. My wish is for more workplaces, employees, schools, and teachers to advantage of our amazing resources. Please help spread the word!
Thrive at Work - Thriving Schools – Ready, Set, Rise! - Alliance for a Healthier Generation - More tips for early childhood teachers and providers here.
We all know the benefits of exercise. It helps controls weight, combats chronic disease, improves mood, strengthens our immune system, boosts brainpower, and promotes better sleep. It can also be fun and feels great! And when we exercise in nature it can evoke awe.
We also know we’re not getting enough of it. Even before the pandemic only 23% of Americans met Physical Activity Guidelines for both* aerobic and muscle-strengthening activity with 53% meeting the guidelines for aerobic activity.
Let's pause a moment and take in the good.
Close your eyes and think about the last time you got a little dose of movement and felt better. Hold on to that feeling and let that be your motivation to get you out the door. Even if it’s just a quick walk around your block to start.
The beauty of exercise is that it’s for everyone. No matter your age, health, or physical abilities, there are so many ways we can stay active and find joy in the process.
If your shoes have gathered dust during this pandemic, it’s all good. Especially during these times we need to be kind to ourselves and practice self-compassion. Start today. Hit up the trails, pump up your bike tires, tune into that yoga video. You’ll feel so much better I promise you.
*In addition to getting at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise most days of the week we should also do resistance training to build up muscle strength twice a week. But some exercise, even if it is pretty minimal, is better than none.
“There is no greater journey than the one that you must take to discover all of the mysteries that lie within you.” – Michelle Sandlin
A recent trip to the mountains enabled me to forest bathe beneath the trees with my journal. I know the benefits of journaling well, but honestly had not put pen to paper in some time. Taking time to self-reflect enables us to connect with and process our thoughts, emotions and motivations, and helps discover the “Why?” behind them. It provides an opportunity to pause amidst the chaos, sort through our observations and experiences, create meaning and deepen self-awareness.
In my small bout of reflection I uncovered a lot. I found peace with my recent decision to take on a new role at work and began to process some difficulties I’ve been experiencing parenting a two-year-old. I created a list of actions I could take, reflected on some key questions, on what was going well and felt a physical sense of relief when I closed my journal and capped my pen.
Writing down our experiences and feelings is a proven strategy for coping with anxiety and negative emotions. One meta-analysis found that expressive writing led to reduced blood pressure, improved immune system, fewer visits to the doctor and shorter stays in the hospital, improved mood, reduced symptoms of depression, improved memory, and more. The act of self-reflection is a powerful tool to add to our resilience bank account and is critical during this time of continued uncertainty, grief and anxiety amid the pandemic and political division in our country.
Research also shows that self-reflection is an essential part of our learning process. For example, one study found that employees who spent 15 minutes at the end of the day reflecting about lessons learned performed 23% better after 10 days than those who did not.
Ruminating on the negative, listing our complaints, unfulfilled desires, and regrets provides release, but may not be the most productive way to spend our time reflecting. We've got to reflect on the "Why?" behind what we do/did. What was going on for me when XX was happening? What went well? What did not go the way it was intended? What did I learn? What will I do differently next time? What do I need to let go of in order to move on? This process will lead to a plan of action and over time may uncover trends in your thinking and behavior.
Building time into our day for self-reflection helps us learn from our experiences, notice our habits and focus on what is important in life. It also provides an opportunity to practice other resilience-boosting activities, like deep breathing, gratitude and self-compassion.
As American philosopher and psychologist John Dewey shared “We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.” May we regularly take time to quiet our mind and take stock of where we are. May we devote time to focus on our breath and let our mind rest. May we slow down to go further. And may we be gentle with ourselves and each other along the way.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, 'You become what you think about all day long.' Since our thoughts shape our reality, improving the quality of our life often starts with improving the quality of our thoughts. And that can be accomplished with reframing and reshaping the way we view ourselves and the world.
As of late, some of my thoughts have been in need of reframing. And it's amazing how quickly my experiences can change when I embark on the practice.
I have written before about our hardwired negativity bias. As part of our evolutionary experience, remembering the negative contributed to our survival. But constant negative thinking (aka rumination) is damaging to our health. When we ruminate, we activate the stress response. And chronic activation of the stress response can suppress our immune system, increase our risk for heart disease and gastrointestinal complications, impair memory and cognition, and more.
As I type we are all continuing to be affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Half a million deaths worldwide, record breaking unemployment, and the grief we all feel around our unique losses. There is no way of sugarcoating it, times are tough.
Amid these challenges we are being called upon to become resilient. Of the many practices that foster resilience, one is the ability to reframe and challenge our negative thoughts. When we are personally affected by life's difficulties, it can be hard to challenge our thoughts; we may find ourselves ruminating - and that is normal. Fortunately there are some ways we can overcome our negative thoughts. Here are a few tips:
1. Become aware of your thoughts
An important step is in challenging our thoughts is to understand where they come from. More often than not, negative thoughts arise from our various cognitive distortions like polarized or black and white thinking, overgeneralization, catastrophizing, labeling, discounting the positive, etc. Becoming familiar with these common cognitive distortions enables us to challenge them and think more critically.
We should also remember that thoughts are not facts and they are not permanent. They also don’t benefit from our judgment. Just notice the thought, let it be, and continue on. The more we practice this non-judgmental awareness, the easier it becomes and the more we can take our thoughts less seriously.
2. Come to your senses
When caught up in the cycle of rumination, we tend to lose touch with what is actually happening in the present moment. Coming to our senses calms the mind and grounds us in the present moment. Something that helps me come to my senses is taking a moment to STOP:
- Stop. Whatever you’re doing, just pause momentarily.
- Take a breath. Re-connect with your breath. The breath is our anchor to the present moment.
- Observe. Notice what is happening in your body. What do you see, feel, taste, small, hear? Notice any emotions you may be feeling and just name them. Research out of UCLA says that just naming our emotions can have a calming effect.
- Proceed. Use this new awareness to inform how you proceed into your day.
3. Seek nature
I recently wrote about the healing power of nature. An additional healing power of nature is its ability to reduce rumination and activity in a part of our brain that's linked with an increased risk for depression. Whether you simply head outside to sit on a bench under a tree or strap on your boots for a hike, spending time in nature enables us to detach from our monkey mind and experience awe, helping us realize how insignificant our thoughts and problems often are in the grand scheme of it all.
4. Take in the good
Making a conscious effort to take in the good is a powerful way to challenge our negativity bias. Taking in the good can look like many things, such as practicing gratitude or recalling positive memories, perhaps a situation where we felt success, love, or joy. We can take in the good while engaging in activities that make us feel good, like listening to music, playing games, spending time with others, or creating art. Whatever good you take in, past or present, according to Dr. Rick Hanson, it’s important to take time (20-30 seconds) to really let these good experiences to sink in.
5. Set aside time for reflection and problem solving
Negative thoughts don’t always arise due to cognitive distortions or a bad mood. Sometimes they are caused by real problems that we can address with problem solving. Set aside time for reflection and problem-solving, perhaps 15-20 minutes when you have some peace and privacy to consider what's bothering you and what you can do about it. Whether you are experiencing issues with your occupation, relationship, location, health, or education, there can be steps you can take today to make a positive change.
6. Practice self-compassion
The truth is that all of us experience negative thinking to some degree. It’s a part of the human experience living with a complex brain. I wrote previously about the power of self-compassion and more research reveals its link to greater life satisfaction. Rather than wishing away our negative thoughts, let’s just become aware of them, at ease with them, and cultivate empathy knowing that others experience them too. This alone can help us feel less isolated.
Reframing negative thoughts does not mean denying the difficulty of our current circumstances. There is transformative power in our suffering as it can push us to grow and improve our life along the way. As we deepen the awareness of our thoughts and emotions we engage our discomfort and build resilience, the ability to bounce back and adapt to life’s difficulties. May we all strive to reframe our negative thoughts and accept that this is a moment of suffering. May we accept that suffering is a part of life. May we offer ourselves the kindness and compassion that we need.
In closing, I want to extend gratitude to my life partner for he is the one who reminded me of the power of reframing negative thought patterns this week. I am indebted to his perception, wisdom, and counsel.
I’ve been drafting and deleting blog posts for the past two months. Wanting to bring light to the world during this unprecedented time and find meaning in my struggles with work and life while parenting an energetic two year old in quarantine.
As we navigate the continued uncertainty and fear around coronavirus, our country is on fire protesting against police brutality and discrimination. As Trevor Noah shared, while everyone is facing a battle against coronavirus, African Americans are facing the battle against racism and the coronavirus.
As we continue to learn more about the coronavirus, we see that it too discriminates.
It's clear that people with chronic health conditions are being hit harder. While many people experience mild illness, 89% of people with COVID-19 who were sick enough to be hospitalized had at least one chronic condition. About half had high blood pressure and obesity, and about a third had diabetes and heart disease according to data from the CDC.
This data should be a wakeup call for us all. Wearing personal protective equipment and practicing social distancing are paramount in our efforts to avoid infection from COVID-19, but good health is what will keep us alive if and when we do contract the virus.
Currently, 43% of American adults are obese, 6 in 10 have one chronic disease, and 4 in 10 have two or more. The roots of obesity and chronic illness stem from lifestyle, but it's not always about personal responsibility. Growing research reveals that the environments where we live, work, and play shape our health. In fact, our lifespan and risk for chronic disease can be predicted by our zip code.
Though every community is experiencing harm in this pandemic, certain groups are suffering disproportionately, including people of color and those who were already struggling financially before the pandemic hit.
African Americans suffer from the highest rates of obesity and chorionic disease compared to other groups in the United States, increasing their risk for complications when infected by COVID-19. Because of this African Americans account for 13% of our population, but at least 25% of our 100,000 COVID-19 deaths. The same disproportionate death rate prevails among African Americans being killed by police.
As we search for treatments and a vaccine for the coronavirus, we should also be talking about health equity.
According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, “Health equity means that everyone has a fair and just opportunity to be as healthy as possible. This requires removing obstacles to health such as poverty, discrimination, and their consequences, including powerlessness and lack of access to good jobs with fair pay, quality education and housing, safe environments, and health care.”
Coronavirus has exposed our nation's racial inequities. It has exposed that in our nation we are not all treated fairly --- from law enforcement, from a virus, and by eachother.
When faced with such seemingly large forces like racism, discrimination, and health disparities it's easy to feel powerless. But as people riot and black Americans continue to die at disproportional rates from chronic illness, police brutality, and now COVID-19 I think we all can agree that its time for change.
As Dr. Camara Jones, past president of the American Public Health Association, shared years ago, we need to address structural racism. Please watch her powerful allegory called The Gardener's Tale if you have not yet. Her Cliff of Good Health analogy is equally as powerful and worth of watching.
Protecting our nation against this virus and into the future will require us to ask uncomfortable questions around our role in maintaining the structural barriers that lead to health inequity, and ponder upon ways that we can dismantle them. We should all examine our biases and consider where they may have originated, call out racist jokes or statements, and validate the experiences and feelings of people of color. We can apply an equity lens to our life and find out what our workplaces, schools, community, congregations, etc. are doing to create equity and become part of the change and join them.
And when we can, we can all lead by example eating a healthy diet, staying physically active and finding ways to reduce stress -- all of which will reduce our vulnerability to COVID-19, enhance the quality of our life, and build a healthier generation to come. We are all in this together.
I recently finished an online Lifestyle Medicine Course from the American College of Lifestyle Medicine and Wellcoaches and wanted to share some quick tips in this post.
I was exposed to Lifestyle Medicine by two amazing physicians that I work with who recently got board certified. The idea is simple: treat, reverse, and prevent chronic disease by addressing the root cause: lifestyle.
Why is this important and why now?
Chronic disease (such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes) is the leading cause of death and disability in the U.S. Almost 60 percent of American adults have at least one chronic condition and 42 percent have more than one, accounting for 90% of healthcare spending. Beyond the cost to our economy, chronic disease imparts an emotional toll that is often overlooked. Managing a chronic condition imparts suffering to say the least, and any empathetic health care professional should want to reduce and prevent suffering.
The big picture:
The silver lining:
According to the World Health Organization, 80% of heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes and 40% of cancer could be prevented, primarily with improvements to diet and lifestyle.
Start with Lifestyle
Lifestyle Medicine is the use of a whole food, plant-focused diet, regular physical activity, restorative sleep, stress management, avoidance of risky substances and positive social connection as a primary means to treat and reverse of chronic disease.
Here’s a quick summary:
1. Feet. Decades of research has clearly documented the many health benefits of physical activity. Despite this knowledge, the majority of us remain physically inactive. Less than 5% of adults participate in 30 minutes of physical activity each day and only one in three adults receive the recommended amount of physical activity each week. The goal is to get 30 minutes or more of moderate intensity exercise most days of the week. Resistance exercise is also essential. Reflect on your barriers and start where you’re at. More is better, but some is better than none.
2. Forks. When looking at the literature, the evidence is strongest for a predominantly whole food, plant-based. The best advice we can all follows was crafted by Michael Pollan, one of my favorite authors and activists: Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.
Fact: More than 80 percent of Americans fail to eat the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables. A plant-based diet isn’t all or nothing and it isn’t “vegan”. It just means that we put plants (vegetables, fruits, grains, beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds) first.
Opt for whole grains, add more plant-based proteins to your plate and/or decrease your serving an animal-based foods, and avoid food items with added sugars.
Download the Plantrician Project’s Quick Start Guide and try one or more of the tips it suggests for transitioning to a plant-based diet.
3. Fingers. Don't smoke. Decrease alcohol (1 a day for women,2 a day for men) to balance the risks and benefits.
4. Sleep. More than a third of American adults are not getting enough sleep and the consequences are surprising, including weight gain, depression, and decreased libido. Get the proper amount of sleep for your age:
5. Stress. Americans are among the most stressed people in the world. But not all stress is bad. Mindset is essential in our efforts to buffer the stress in life. As well as a exploring the variety of strategies to manage it:
6. Love. Social connection is a pillar of lifestyle medicine. Humans are wired to connect, and this connection affects our health. There is significant evidence that social support and feeling connected can help people maintain a healthy BMI, control blood sugars, improve cancer survival, decrease heart disease, mitigate symptoms of PTSD, and improve overall mental health. Just as we need vitamin C each day, we also need a dose of the human moment—positive contact with other people. Here are 5 ways to increase social connection.
The ideas behind Lifestyle Medicine are simple and we’ve heard most of them before. So why is it so hard to implement these basic healthy habits? Researchers have been grappling with the science of behavior change since the 1960’s. Inspiring change in others is an age-old challenge. The reality is that the patient (you) have to be ready and willing to change. Some of the tools shared in this certification program to help facilitate behavior change included the SHARE model around Shared Decision Making, practicing empathy, reflective listening and other elements of Motivational Interviewing, and helping patients set SMART goals.
In summary, Lifestyle Medicine treats the underlying cause of disease rather than its symptoms, which are too often addressed with pills and procedures. You don’t have to look at the statistics to know that the prevalence of chronic illness in our nation is a problem. Too many of us are suffering from preventable conditions. So share the power of and science behind Lifestyle Medicine to your friends, family, and colleagues today.
And please leave a comment if you’d like me to email you some of the resources shared in my certification program. One of the more valuable tools I received was Wellbeing Playbook that gives solid tips on how to boost positive emotion, engagement, relationships, and meaning in life from Michelle McQuaid’s Wellbeing Lab.
"Nature itself is the best physician.” – Hippocrates
There’s something about time spent in nature that makes us feel better. I’m sure you’ve experienced it. Whether it’s a quick stroll around the block, stopping to watch the rustling leaves of a nearby tree, or marveling at the view on a hike, being in nature makes us feel restored. It clears our mind and helps remind us that we’re a part of something bigger than ourselves.
Time in nature is time spent outside of our various four walls and away from our multiple screens. It gives us a break from the rush of our daily lives, fosters presence and inspires awe.
There is abundant research that confirms the profoundly healing and restorative effects of nature on our mind and body. Exposure to nature:
A new meta-analysis compiling evidence from over 140 studies involving more than 290 million people from 20 countries found that spending time in, or living close to, natural green spaces: reduces the risk of type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, premature death, preterm birth, and increases sleep duration.
The research on Japanese “forest bathing” suggests that health-boosting effects of being around trees (like reduced levels of cortisol, reduction in blood pressure and improved immunity) could be explained by phytoncides -- organic compounds with antibacterial properties -- released by trees.
Whether it’s the arena for physical activity that nature provides, mindfulness that it inspires, community it connects us to or microbes and plant compounds that it exposes us to, the research is clear: nature heals. And the beautiful thing is that it doesn’t take long. Another recent study reveals that just 20 minutes of contact with nature is enough time for significant decreases in cortisol.
Humans flourish in nature. And this is especially true for our children. As Richard Louv writes in Last Child in the Woods, time in nature is an essential investment in our children’s health (and our own). All of us, especially children, are spending more time indoors, which makes us feel alienated from nature and more vulnerable to negative moods and reduced attention spans. Nature-Deficit Disorder (NDD) may not be a recognized medical condition, but it’s pervasive as our rates of screen time continue to rise. As with most healthy habits, they start in childhood. It’s even more important that we inspire a love for nature while children are young so they can develop into thriving adults. Perhaps it would inspire these younger generations to be better stewards of the land to boot!
With the winter solstice behind us we know that longer days are ahead. Go outside today and rediscover that sense of wonder that nature provides. And share it with all of the kids in your life. Prescribe yourself with nature and feel restored. The beautiful thing about it is that you don’t have to go hike to a mountain peak. Any green space provides benefits to our mental and physical well-being. Whether it’s the quiet corner with a tree, neighborhood park, vegetable garden, or a peaceful place with a view of the sky and clouds above, nature is available to us all and it patiently waits.
“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.” – Anthony Bourdain
We recently returned from a 16 day adventure to Mexico. I would not call it a vacation as we had our now two year old son in tow. As some friends have shared, traveling with a kid is just parenting in a different location. True. But it was more than that. For me, this was the most time I had spent with my family since maternity leave. It was a beautiful time of connection and intimacy, vulnerability and exertion.
We fell in love with Guadalajara while looking out from the 15th floor of our rented condo. We watched the construction of a new building as Augustine yelled “cement!” (a new word) in the cutest way possible and were engrossed by the constant stream of cars, busses, and motorcycles circling the Glorieta de Los Ninos Heroes on Avenida Chapultepec. We rode our first carousel at a carnival during Dia de Los Muertos and enjoyed morning swims in a beautiful (and perfectly shallow) saltwater pool at our airbnb in Puerto Vallarta. We were entertained by humping dogs at Boca de Tomatlan and caught hermit crabs on the beach in Nayarit. Augustine learned how to say si, hola, and gracias and got way too many compliments on his hair and eyes.
But as Anthony Bourdain’s beautiful quote reveals, travel is not always pretty. There was a lot of parenting on this trip. A lot of tiring communication and requests for understanding. Many big emotions. We explored, but also surrendered our individual desires scheduling our days around our son’s nap and visits to local playgrounds. Towards the end of our trip the three of us also shared the helplessness and discomfort of Montezuma's Revenge. It was heartbreaking to see my son refuse food and at times ridiculous as watery stools and diapers were no good match. Overcoming this small bout of illness brought us all together though and reaffirmed my ability as a parent to stay calm and love unconditionally.
Augustine could have cared less that we were in another country. As with all young children (and adults…) they thrive on undivided attention (presence) and love. And without the distractions of work I was able to provide that. Not all days were perfect and some days were draining. But as I make progress on becoming a more conscious parent and spouse (more on that book in a future post) this trip was an opportunity to practice - to accept and enjoy life as is, to relinquish control, and practice patience.
Now the challenge is how can I continue to provide my family these gifts with the competing priorities and demands of the real world? Much research points to mindfulness. The more we practice mindfulness in our day the more we can begin to bring that awareness into our everyday life and in our interactions with the ones we love. One simple practice is to take in the good. Mindfulness also helps us shift away from the ego (the “I”) that creates resistance in life and in parenting. I am working on this. Gratitude is another powerful ally in our efforts to maintain loving presence and strengthen our relationships.
That is another beauty of travel – you see, taste and experience things you want to incorporate in your life and you realize what you can leave behind upon your return. It was a gift to leave work for so long and to grow alongside my husband and child. It was a gift to participate in the family-oriented culture that we love so much about Mexico. Where else in the States can you go at night and see young people, old people, parents, kids and babies sharing the streets? It was a beautiful and exhausting adventure, but I wouldn’t have changed it. Thank you Mexico for your beauty and wonder, for your culinary inspiration, and for bringing me and my family together.
And Happy 2nd Birthday Augustine!! Thank you for being another launch pad and partner in our growth and evolution. And thank you Albert for paving the way.
Been inspired to write about presence lately as my son (and husband) reminds me when I am not daily. Its a challenge to attain, but a worthwhile endeavor as it benefits both the giver and receiver. Presence let's us thrive. Do you struggle with presence too? Let me know what you think!. #topnotchwellness
“If you love someone, the greatest gift you can give them is your presence" ― Thich Nhat Hanh
There are hundreds of books on how to optimize the relationship with your child and foster their development. Even more on healthy relationships and sustaining long lasting love. But there is one fundamental element to being with your child, life partner, family, and friends that cannot be read - it must be practiced. It is called presence And it's harder than it seems.
Presence occurs when we are grounded in the moment. To be present, we need to detach from our to-do's, expectations, judgements, and thoughts of the future or past. Sharing presence is a magical thing felt by both parties. It's essential for children to experience as they grow and in reality is vital for us all. Beneath our many layers we adults are in need of presence too. We need to be understood and seen. To be taken in without exception. All relationships thrive from presence.
In an age of instant information, constant feedback, and the "hit" of social stimuli our moment to moment awareness is constantly pulled from the present moment. Tack on a career that commands your attention it's easy to feel attention fatigue. This is a part of normal life -- lets take a moment to acknowledge this with self-compassion. But there are some straightforward avenues to pursue and practice presence.
Put the phone away (or develop family tech etiquette). Smartphones are an integral part of our life. They have brought so much convenience and prosperity, but heavy use of smartphones is linked to greater risk for anxiety, depression, and loneliness. Demonstrate your own mindfulness by putting down your phone during meals or whenever someone needs your attention, especially a child. Come up with family rules on acceptable use of technology and screens (great ideas here).
Practice Gratitude. Gratitude practices help us to be in the present moment, seeing what there is to be grateful for and focusing on that, rather than on what’s missing or still left to accomplish. Find ways to ritualize gratitude to embed this important habit in your life.
Use your five senses. Coming to your senses is a grounding exercise. Deter from any thoughts or anxieties. Stop, breathe, and take a moment to notice what's happening in this moment. What do you see/hear/feel/taste/smell? Ask your child to join you in this practice of mindfulness.
Listen with your eyes — When someone asks you a question, look at them and listen to their words. If you are truly too busy to stop and look at them, ask them to wait until you can fully listen. This is a constant struggle for me (and one that my husband constantly remind me of) and it can truly pay off. We all - especially children - want to be heard. Receiving full and undivided attention is to be loved.
Savor Mealtime. Eating together can be a mindful moment, even if it's just snack time. It has other benefits, too. Studies show that children whose families regularly eat dinner together benefit in many ways, from improved eating habits to better physical and mental health. Eating together regularly contributes to sense of belonging, of being safe and grounded.
Cultivating loving presence plays a key factor in providing emotional support to another, which is protective for health. As we all know health is our greatest gift. So take a moment today. With your child, with your loved one, your friend. Take a moment and be there. Sit in awareness rather than moving onto your desired destination or task. Listen with your eyes. Without judgment or expectation.
As Dr. Rick Hanson mentions in his book Just One Thing, practice is key. It's about rewiring our brains for the good. A fascinating topic worthy of a post itself that I have written about before. For me, it's often a rhythm of becoming conscious of my unconsciousness and finally bringing my attention back to that moment, offering the gift of my presence (more on this in a future post). Our minds will often be distracted, but we can always return to the moment. Its challenging and uncomfortable, but achieving this mindful state of presence is a worthy endeavor as it positively impacts the well-being of its giver and receiver. Presence lets us thrive.
I had a tough day last week. It can be hard wearing so many hats, having a kid who still doesn't sleep through the night, and an absorbing career. I know I am not alone in these struggles.
Fortunately I woke up the next morning to a loving and wise note from my husband Albert. He wrote reminding me to share the same love and compassion that I give to others with myself. And boy is he right.
Parenting provides so many moments of joy and love and laughter, but also moments of frustration and guilt. We can be so hard on ourselves as parents - for missing time with our children while at work, for lashing out, losing our patience, missing their cues. Beyond our parenting dilemmas there always seems to be something that self-critical voice in the back of our mind is saying, reminding of us of our faults and imperfections. Whatever struggles we are navigating in life - parents or non-parents - it's easy to be hard on ourselves.
Self-compassion can help.
Self-compassion is a fairly new concept to me. I was exposed to it last year by my amazing colleague Dr. Jonah Paquette, author and Manager of Clinical Training at Kaiser Vallejo. Jonah exposed me to the growing research behind self-compassion and its many surprising benefits, which include:
What is self-compassion?
Self-compassion is a way of relating to ourselves kindly and embracing ourselves as we are, flaws and all. According to Kristin Neff, Ph.D. one of the world’s leading experts on self-compassion, there are three core components of self-compassion:
Self-compassion first requires a mindful awareness that we are suffering (rather than ignoring our pain or sticking it out). This elements is key since, as I have written before, research reveals that avoiding our feelings can negatively impact our health. It also involves recognizing that suffering and personal inadequacy is part of the shared human experience – something that we all go through rather than being something that happens to “me” alone. Finally, self-compassion means we are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings or disappointment instead of judging and criticizing ourselves.
One of the health benefits behind self-compassion is a reduction in the stress response. When we are self-critical we activate our body's fight or flight system, releasing stress hormones. As we all know, elevated stress has been associated with a range of negative physical and psychological outcomes. Self-compassion, by reducing self-criticism, may relieve our self-inflicted state of chronic stress. Turning towards compassion stops the broken record of negativity and rumination and moves us towards mindful acceptance.
Related to my tough day, additional research shows that self-compassion is an important parenting trait as it increases resilience and coping skills, enhances perspective, forgiveness and compassion for others. As we all know, children are ever so observant so practicing self-compassion (even if it's hard at first) is so important as our children will learn to treat themselves kindly by seeing how we handle our own mistakes. Beyond parenting, self-compassionate people are also less anxious and depressed and have more motivation to change for the better, try harder to learn, and avoid repeating past mistakes (Neff, 2015)
Tips for practice
Research shows that the more we practice being kind and compassionate with ourselves the more we’ll increase the habit of self-compassion. Of course this is the case with all behavior change! Consistency is key (and so hard!).
I myself have only tried a few self-compassion exercises so far. Below is one that I enjoy most from Dr. Neff. As she describes, this practice only takes a minute, can be used any time of day or night, and is available when we need it most – when we fail, make mistakes, or struggle in life.
Self-Compassion in Action: The Self-Compassion Break
Think of a situation in your life that is difficult, that is causing you stress. Call the situation to mind, and see if you can actually feel the stress and emotional discomfort in your body. Now, say to yourself:
1. This is a moment of suffering (this is the mindfulness part - acknowledging our pain)
Other options include:
2. Suffering is a part of life (common humanity)
Other options include:
3. Now, put your hands over your heart, feel the warmth of your hands and the gentle touch of your hands on your chest. Or adopt the soothing touch you discovered felt right for you. Say to yourself: May I be kind to myself.
You can also ask yourself, “What do I need to hear right now to express kindness to myself?” Is there a phrase that speaks to you in your particular situation, such as:
It is clear that treating ourselves with care and compassion is a powerful way to enhance well-being. I hope you give it a try next time you hear that inner voice of yourself being self-critical. Let me know how it goes!
Hello and welcome! My name is Andrea Notch Mayzeles. I am a Certified Health Education Specialist, Mom, and Master of Public Health dedicated to the path of well-being. As a wellness professional I am committed to continued learning and am here to share research, recipes and musings on health, psychology, personal development, and parenting. I hope you enjoy!