Grief Revolution: Part 1

Grief is everywhere. I am a therapist specializing in grief and loss, so I see it more, perhaps.  However, I amGrief (2)
also a relative, colleague, neighbor, and friend to grieving people. A few years ago, I ran a camp for grieving children– nearly 100 children and teens. We did not have trouble finding them. Grieving people are everywhere. I am a griever myself.

Despite how common grief is, there is a lot that is simply preposterous about how we approach grief in our society at large and at the micro-level one-to-one. This is more than a harmless misunderstanding. It can really hurt. The harm is done to grieving children who are not given the support they need to process their loss, to grieving spouses who are told to stick to a grief stage prescriptive, and to dying people who end up isolated because we can’t speak frankly about what they are going through. For these and many other reasons, I am talking about a Grief Revolution. The nice thing about this revolution is that there are no enemies or outsiders. This revolt is a gift we can give to those we love and to ourselves. 

As a health professional I have a few ideas for starting the revolution. The first most obvious one is what I am doing here… talking about it. Here is another one:  

Provide training in grief and loss to counseling and other health professionals. Many, if not most, graduate programs in mental health do not include training or coursework in grief and loss. Sometimes it is an elective. This is true despite the fact that–

  1. Grief is everywhere;
  2. The death of a family member can be THE most stressful of life’s events; and
  3. Navigating bereavement is key to mental health.

Similarly, doctors and nurses rarely receive this training, nor do they necessarily get any practice in talking about death and dying even though it is a major concern in their work. As a result, most clients and patients are receiving services from people who may know the same or only a little more than they do, themselves.  This is not acceptable.

I have many other ideas about what else we might do for this revolution including everything from pet peeves, serious frustrations, and broader social issues. I will be posting more about this in pages to come and invite readers to be part of the grief revolution. Feel free to email me ideas through the blog comments or my contact page.

We can learn to do this differently, but it is about time we got a little irate about it. 

Healthy Minds for All! Top 10 Reasons for Seeking Clarity and Support

Mind Health, and what I call healthy mind practices, are about optimizing balance, resilience, and happiness. It’s about living with clarity, vibrancy, and a sense of peace–and being present for ourselves and our relationships. That’s how I see it. 

However, when it comes to mental health, we hear more about mental illness. We know that mental illness and seeking treatment are still stigmatized in our culture. For starters, insurance companies mind with butterfliesinsist on a diagnosis from a manual (DSM-5) that catalogs “mental disorders” and people who use mental health services are called “patients.” People who might benefit from seeing counselors or therapists have concerns about having a mental health diagnosis as part of their permanent medical record. Others fear opening “old wounds,” favor a “go it alone” approach, or follow a family pattern of reluctance to get support. I hear about this daily: 

-the grieving person who waited 10 years to speak of her guilt;

-the ideal employee who is so stressed and anxious he can’t focus–let alone sleep–any more;

-the distant or anxious spouse who will not come to counseling despite a chaotic, joyless, and/or sexless home life;

-the disapproving parent who believes talking to strangers about problems is for weak or crazy people.

And my clients, themselves, who believe that last message a little bit, but had the courage to contact me anyway.

Mental illness IS a serious problem and needs care and treatment of course. But then there is everyone else who is not mentally ill and who would benefit from and find greater happiness by seeking out professional help to support a healthy mind. 

In honor of everyone who is in this category and the people who love them, I put together the following Top 10 list.

Top 10 Reasons For Seeking Clarity and Support 

# 10 Like most people, you have a habit or way of reacting to things you want to change, but haven’t been successful so far on your own. It may be something you don’t talk about much.

# 9  Life is challenging! It is normal to be unprepared for situations or crises that arise.

# 8  Not everyone has an airtight support system.

# 7  You want to be in a relationship, but were not taught how to choose a partner and make it work.

# 6  Healthy mind practices build resilience and can help prevent problems in the future. There is no vaccination against mental illness.

# 5  Relationship troubles are not necessarily because someone is mentally ill, but you still may need and want unbiased guidance to clear hurdles faster.

# 4  Grief reactions mimic so-called mental illness symptoms. Grieving people are not mentally ill, but may need a guide to navigate the upheaval a loss can cause.

# 3  Stress is an epidemic and impacts mind, body, spirit, and relationships. Healthy mind practices counteract all of the cultural norms in place (job overload, technology, etc) for chronic stress.

# 2  Unlike previous generations, we know that stress can cause or aggravate health problems. If we don’t resolve stress, we become physically ill.

# 1  A healthy mind is the best predictor of a happy life!  A healthy mind brings a sense of vibrancy, clarity, and peace. It makes us present for ourselves and for relationships.

To find out more about mind health and healthy mind practices and what that could mean for you, check out my web-site and blog posts.



Yes, I AM Emotional

“We shouldn’t let emotion sway us,” or “You are too emotional!”

I hear these and their variations in many settings both personal and professional. The first is a directive to others to avoid feelings in favor of a singularly logical solution which is perceived as better.Yes I am Emotional

The second is often proffered as a criticism. Sometimes it is said in a tone of anger or even disgust. If you have ever been admonished in this way, you may know the sting of judgment and the shame such words can elicit.

How did we get to this place where we dismiss or degrade such important messengers? I say “messengers” because we feel emotions as a result of chemical messengers in the brain AND because emotions provide vital information.  Here are some simple messages and their emotions for example:

I love this! = Happy

I don’t want this! = Anger

This is dangerous! = Fear

Something terrible happened. = Sadness

We can’t forego these certainly. These messages help us make good choices. When we pick up these signals from another person, we get information about whether to move closer or move away.  These signals can actually keep us safe. In other situations, seeing the tears of another can impel us to feel that emotion empathically and we move in to help. This is successful socialization in action.

Emotion is difficult to define because it really is a process. It is a reaction to sensory information (a very broad spectrum) and internal processes like memory.  Neuroscience identifies the limbic system as the seat of emotions—this includes the amygdala, hippocampus, and thalamus. The limbic system takes up a significant amount of space in the central brain. In humans there is a great deal of activity between the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex (PFR). The PFR is known for executive functioning and has many jobs including mediating emotions and calming fear.

In session, I often hear my clients say the internalized version of the admonition: “I shouldn’t be upset.” “But,” I say, “you are upset.  Let’s figure this out.” Are these emotions providing good information? If we aren’t curious and just try to shut them down—how can we learn anything about ourselves and this process?

Can emotion be too much? Yes, of course, particularly if it is a negative emotion that is hanging on too long or turning into a dark mood we can’t shake. Emotions running rampant over all reason (hijacking the PFR, you could say) can cause big problems. But emotions on their own pose no danger if we can ride them out, understand them, and derive the good information they offer.

Emotions also offer the opportunity for us to learn and practice mediating them effectively and to know from the inside out what we can handle and what is actually “too emotional” for us. No one else can tell us that.

If we avoid emotions:

  • We don’t get to practice meditating and integrating them effectively.
  • We don’t find out what we can handle in the present and for future reference to move forward with confidence.
  • We limit access to vital information about ourselves and others.

Finally, by avoiding or degrading emotions, we give up  the vitality they provide to energize a healthy mind and happy life.

So the next time someone tells you you are too emotional, tell them “Thanks! I got this.”

Inspiration—Power-Up Your Mood in 5 Steps

Webster’s defines the word “inspiration” as follows:  
something that gives someone an idea about what to do or create : a force or influence that inspires someone

This is true, but there is more. Inspiration is a feeling too. Take a moment and think about something that inspires you or simply recall and imagine yourself inspired. What do you feel in your body?  Maybe a fullness in your chest, a tingling sensation, a feeling of excitement.. How do you imagine yourself sitting or standing when inspired? I am certain no one reading this is picturing themselves slumped over, right?  It is a power pose! Inspiration is, in fact, a great mood enhancer. It is a mood power-up if you will.Inspiration—Power-Up Your Mood in 5 Steps Elise Gaul

Seeking inspiration is a healthy mind practice—especially when you shift into lower gear and need a boost. Use it! Here is how..

1. Set an intention to seek inspiration every day (or every week).

2. Discover ways to get your daily/weekly inspiration power-up. Short readings, TED talks, quotes, the image of an inspiring person, music.. Some people get inspired during their morning exercise when they feel their physical strength most acutely.  Find a variety of sources.

3. Pay attention to how you feel physically as you experience inspiration. Hold onto that feeling a little longer. This enhances the effect.

4. Don’t judge whatever works for you. If you like Oprah, a walk in the woods, Vivaldi.. Seeking inspiration boosts mood and is indicative of a significant neurochemical effect. It is real!

5. Notice also when there is too much. If we get inspired from too many sources, we can actually get over-whelmed and in need of a break.  Keeping a healthy mind means knowing our limits and when we need to power-down too.

How Stress Keeps Us Apart

Stress is no friend to love and connection.

When we are stressed, our nervous system turns up the volume. We are wired to respond with the fight-flight response–increased heart rate, quickened breathing, increase in muscle tension, activation of the sweat glands—all in the service of reacting quickly and getting out of danger. We are supposedto get out of danger and then return to a more rested (parasympathetic) state. As you may have noticed by now, the body can overreact to stressors that are not life-threatening, such as traffic jams, job pressure, an imagined slight, or family conflict. The stress response can get stuck on the “on” position and those stress hormones keep flowing well past their usefulness.How Stress Keeps Us Apart Elise Gaul

When escaping danger—eyes darting, bodies in motion, thoughts racing, in urgency and emergency mode—are we able to tune into another person? Can we receive support and soothing from another? There is evidence, in fact, that we can’t. The social engagement system, a neural network characterized by nurturing and social connection behaviors, simply cannot be turned on at the same time as a vigorous stress response (Dr. Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory).

Meanwhile, our stress is contagious and will turn on our partner’s stress response– or friend’s, roommate’s, family member’s alike. As social creatures, we seek out others to relieve stress and find comfort. That’s what we did at the beginning when we instinctively sought soothing from our first caregivers. Sadly, the very thing that relieves stress may flee or fight with us.What to do?

  1. Know that your stress can turn on your partner’s fight or flight response in a split second and they can turn on yours. It can happen the second you walk in the door and before you have said a word.
  1. Set an intention to Turn OFF your stress response. You can do this by having a few minutes of alone or quiet time. Take a few minutes to take a few deep breaths to calm your body. Your mind and brain will follow.
  1. Set an intention to Turn ON your social engagement system. Relaxed eye contact, touch, open body posture, slower pacing physically, and a soft voice go far in activating the soothing benefits of a relationship.
  1. Plan activities together that involve eye contact and relaxed body–i.e. dine without screens on for example.
  1. Talk about how you can turn off the stress and turn on the relationship together when you are both calm.

We can never eliminate stress from our lives. We can live more harmoniously by turning down the volume and making ourselves available for the support and nurturing that make it all worthwhile.

Benefits of a Mindful Mind

One trait of a healthy mind is the ability to pay attention and focus. When we are unable to focus and our mind is racing, we can feel overwhelmed, anxious, irritable, or even frozen. Meanwhile, we live in a culture that values busyness and multitasking. Our jobs are particularly demanding, and our electronic devices keep us hopping. How can we make this work? It’s simple– we can’t. It’s not sustainable because too much stress makes us sleepless, angry, unhappy, and eventually makes us ill. This is where mindfulness comes in.

Benefits of a Mindful Mind

Elise Gaul with Jon Kabat-Zinn

Mindfulness means paying attention moment to moment. Basically, it means being able to perform the healthy mind skill of focusing attention. However, the benefits go way, way beyond improving attention (thanks to neuroplasticity). Research has shown that mindfulness practice benefits include:

  • Reducing rumination
  • Stress reduction
  • Boosting working memory
  • Decreasing emotional reactivity
  • Increasing cognitive flexibility
  • Increasing relationship satisfaction