things not to apologize for:

to your movement/wellness professional (yoga teacher, personal trainer, coach, etc.)

I wrote this post the other day after a few sessions with clients who have a deep-seated apology habit– even when there’s nothing to apologize for. I always express that there’s no need to apologize, and that my job is to help this process feel as supportive and useful as it can– but I also understand that many of us have been made to feel that it’s not okay to ask for “special” treatment, or that there’s something wrong with us if we need to have something adjusted. So many people I know have suffered through a class or session rather than feel as though they’re a burden, or not wanting to be the person who says, “that incense is making me sick, can you put it out?”

Each of us has a body, mind and system that is completely unique, and which responds best when it feels comfortable, safe and supported. With that in mind, I’ve put together a list of things that often come up for folks I work with of things not to apologize for:

1. YOUR BODY:

  • Your size, your shape, your mobility, your strength, your hearing, your vision, your abilities, your injuries, the noises your body makes, and anything else you can possibly think of that has to do with you, as you are.
  • This also includes anything you use to help you to use your body: wheelchair, hearing aids, prosthetics, etc.
  • Any involuntary sounds or movements of your body.
  • Needing to use the restroom; needing to pause (see #3);
  • And any props or assistance you require in your practice.

2. BEING SENSITIVE: Many of my clients are folks who live with ongoing pain or conditions that make them highly sensitive. Their systems respond more loudly to things that may not register with other folks. Here are some ways this might show up in their bodies:

  • being sensitive to hard surfaces under your joints– often folks may need to add some padding or a cushion to support themselves.
  • being sensitive to textures, or allergic to certain substances: the type of mat we use, the softness of a blanket– these can make a big difference and even trigger dangerous reactions.
  • being sensitive to scents like incense, essential oils or anything else in the air.
  • being sensitive to light, sound, temperature.
  • being emotionally sensitive: working with the body means that emotions are going to arise. It’s okay to feel and react to those moments.

3. NEEDING TO TAKE A BREAK/RESTING:

  • Sometimes your body might need an extra minute to rest before it can work again.
  • Sometimes your mind might need a minute to adjust mentally before you can move on to the next thing.
  • Sometimes you may not have enough energy or ability to do what you’re being asked you to do.
  • Our culture praises hard work and demonizes rest– but we are at our most effective and productive when we allow ourselves adequate time to rest before we work.

4. YOUR PARTICULAR LEARNING STYLE: We all have different brains and learning styles. This might look like:

  • Not understanding instructions; needing clarification.
  • Being slow at learning.
  • Not “getting it right.”
  • Needing to learn in a way other than the way it was taught (visually, kinesthetically, from diff. angles, etc).
  • Needing to practice alone or at home.
  • Needing to practice it without being watched.
  • Needing the coach to do it with them.

5. YOUR EMOTIONAL/MENTAL NEEDS:

  • Having “a bad day,” feeling low on energy, being depressed, feeling anxious, needing some support or validation.
  • Having challenging life circumstances.
  • Feeling affected by current events.
  • Your movement professional isn’t your mental health provider, but it should always be okay to show up as your whole self.

I hope this list is a starting place to start to normalize the diversity of the human experience, and to recognize the ways in which a fitness/wellness environment can feel more welcoming and accessible for all. We can only grow, learn and thrive in an environment that allows us to be unapologetically ourselves. If your yoga teacher, personal trainer,  movement coach, etc. makes you feel like you NEED to apologize for any of these things; or f they have not created an atmosphere in which you are able, comfortably, to show up as your whole self; if you do not feel seen, heard, validated, or appreciated as you are, they are not a good fit for you.

what is hypervigilance?

and how can we work with it in the body?

Have you ever found yourself feeling really jumpy, or on edge– for days, or weeks at a time? For some folks, this can become so common they don’t even notice it anymore.

Hypervigilance feels like you are always “on.”

Hypervigilance is an enhanced state of sensory sensitivity and reactivity. Our nervous systems are always scanning for things that might be dangerous. If everything’s going pretty well in our lives, this is a pretty low-key function.

If we’re living with the effects of traumatic stress, anxiety, or feeling overwhelmed, we may find ourselves in a state of hypervigilance, in which our normal “scan for danger” system is on high alert.

Hypervigilance might feel like:

  • Jumpy, easily startled, surprised or frightened, irritable, tense, quick to anger or defensiveness
  • Over-reactive: “normal” sounds such as a horn beeping in traffic can cause a heightened stress response, pulse quickening, jaw clenching, feeling of heat in the body
  • Quick to feel frustration, reactivity or anger; an over-sized reaction to events
  • Difficulty relaxing or sitting still
  • Sensitive to noises, movement, or anything different in one’s environment
  • Feeling “fast” or urgent, heart pounding, heart rate elevated; rapid, shallow chest breathing; tight neck/shoulders
  • Feeling like you need to watch the door or have a plan for escape
  • Catastrophizing, planning for the worst

Others find that limiting their screen time (especially social media, news, etc) helps them to feel less overwhelmed or inundated, which can increase the feeling of danger and the need for vigilance.

Always being “on” and ready for danger means that our system is producing more stress hormones to keep us focused and ready to go. While adrenaline and cortisol are great for short-term situations, they can leave us feeling drained and exhausted. Sleep can be more difficult, and our body isn’t able to function as well as it can.

If you find yourself stuck in this state, it’s important to be sure you are well-resourced with mental health care. At the same time, from a somatic (body) point of view, it may be helpful to notice what seems to increase the feeling for you, and to limit your exposure. For example, cutting back on stimulants such as caffeine is useful for some folks.

Another way that we might work with hypervigilance in our body is to notice when it is present. Rather than trying to get rid of it, we can name it and think about adding supportive practices:

  • Time without screens, especially in nature
  • Movement practices that work for YOU:
    • Shaking, walking, dancing
    • Practices that are slower, mindful and grounding such as yoga or tai chi
    • Playing Frisbee or throwing a ball with a friend
    • Non-screen games (board games, or card games) that give your body and mind something to do. Bonus if it’s with a buddy for social engagement!

We also want to keep in mind that hypervigilance is part of a natural function of our nervous system. There’s nothing we’ve done “wrong” to create this effect; it’s often based on factors which are beyond our control.

While it’s still important to seek out resources and mental health care if you’re going through a state of ongoing hypervigilance, please remember that this is not a “you” problem.

Hypervigilance is an adaptive response to allostatic overload– a state in which your system is trying to recalibrate to handle stress, much of which may be beyond your control. That doesn’t mean that you can’t (or won’t) feel better, but you don’t need to feel like there’s something “wrong” with you.

do isometric contractions freak you out? here’s what to do.

Isometric contractions are a popular (and powerful) choice for mobility & strength work. They’re incredibly useful as a tool to both expand and strengthen ranges of motion. They teach the brain to recognize and respond to areas of our body where we may have limited awareness. They’re a brilliant strategy for stabilizing joints. And they can also have a short-term analgesic (pain-relieving) effect. 

What is an isometric contraction?

An isometric contraction is one in which the muscle engages, but doesn’t change its length. If you were to bring your two palms together in front of your chest and push them into each other, that would be an isometric contraction. You can feel your muscles working, but they’re not shortening (as the bicep does when you bring a dumbbell toward your shoulder in a bicep curl— that’s a concentric contraction), nor are they lengthening (as the bicep does when you begin to lower that dumbbell— that’s an eccentric contraction). 

So what’s the big deal?

Essentially, in an isometric contraction, we’re deliberately bringing the body into an activated state and holding it there. For some of us, this goes beyond muscular tension or discomfort; it feels overwhelming or even intolerable. It mimics the feeling of being caught in a dangerous situation and not being allowed to escape.

Different systems will respond differently. Some folks may feel like they need to “get out of there immediately,” and will come out of the position or engagement. Others might express frustration or anger. Others might feel things that seem confusing– nausea, dizziness. And some people just dissociate– they “leave the building” of their body, because it no longer feels like a safe place to be.

All of these are totally normal responses. An isometric contraction asks us to do something that goes against our most basic nature– to make ourselves uncomfortable and then not to move. Our systems are designed to avoid anything that feels uncomfortable or dangerous; our instinct is to move! Being activated and not moving is hard, even in a well-resourced nervous system.

So how do we work with isometric contractions in a way that doesn’t flood the system?

As coaches, the first thing we can do is to create an atmosphere where the client has complete agency— that they understand they can say, “no,” stop at any time, and there are no negative consequences. This keeps the client from pushing through, which will only reinforce the reaction and exacerbate the issue. 

As clients, we can remember that we are in charge of our own bodies, and that any resistance our nervous system is offering is there for a good reason. Stopping if something feels wrong is really important.

Second, we can work at a lower intensity— cueing 5, 10, or 15% may be enough for a first session. This gives our system a chance to breathe with and adjust to the activation. Pushing through nervous system resistance is not the way to make gains. We actually make real change when we work up to our capacity without pushing past it. The next time we attempt the contraction, our nervous system is more likely to recognize it as an okay place to be, and it will allow us to go a little further.

Slowing down the pace of this work is crucial as well. If I am teaching isometric contractions in a new body part, I can expect it to take most of the session. We may need to pause and move around, or find ways to center and ground. We’re moving at the speed of trust (as adrienne mares brown says)— only going as fast as the nervous system will allow us, so that our system recognizes it as safe.

Slowing down and backing off can feel frustrating or counter-intuitive for many coaches (and clients), but there’s a huge payoff. Think of the nervous system as a scared and defensive child— it’s been hurt before, and it’s doing its best to be sure that doesn’t happen again. As we teach it that we’re going to listen to its needs (slowing down, not pushing past what it can handle), it will slowly loosen its grasp. The body will be able to handle more intensity for greater lengths of time without triggering that freak-out reaction. 

I believe that isometric training is worth this extra time and effort because it teaches something that we all need. This training is a practice in being present with activation, challenge and tension in a non-reactive way. The same patterns we initially experience in an isometric muscular contraction— frustration, irritation, inability to stay with— are present when we experience the psychic tension of dealing with complexity, difficulty, or discomfort in our lives. Learning to recognize our own embodied patterns of reactivity gives us great information to work with when we come up against those moments outside our training space. 

Oatmeal “Everything” Breakfast Cookies

Who doesn’t love cookies for breakfast? This is adapted from a friend’s recipe to include vegan options. It’s pretty forgiving– feel free to play around and adjust to your family’s tastes!

  • 3/4 cup flour (regular or your favorite GF blend)
  • 1 1/4 cups oats
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon 
  • 1/2 cup of your favorite nut butter– I used a mix of peanut butter and Nuttzo
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1.5 T flax seeds (or 1 egg, or 1.5 T chia seeds, or 1/3 cup aquafaba)
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 medium mashed banana
  • 1 peeled, shredded apple
  • 1/3 cup water if you are using flax or chia seeds. If using egg or aquafaba, omit
  • Optional add-ins: up to 1/2 cup raisins, dried fruits, coconut, nuts, chocolate chips. I used raisins


Preheat oven to 350°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment and set aside.In a small bowl, blend the pb and brown sugar till creamy. Add the vanilla and mashed banana. If you are using chia seeds or flax seeds, add 1/3 cup water here. Otherwise, add egg or aquafaba here. In a separate bowl, mix flour, chia or flax seeds, oats, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon. Stir in apple and any add-ins.Form 3-4 tablespoons of dough into large balls and place a few inches apart on the prepared baking sheets. Flatten each ball of dough slightly. Bake for 15ish minutes until slightly browned. Let cool on cookie sheets for 10 minutes before transferring to wire racks to cool completely. The texture will be a little bit muffin-like. 

Notes: Because there are many variables that can change depending on your ingredients, the bake time can vary. The original recipe calls for a 10-12 minute bake time, but mine took 20. This recipe yields between 12-15 cookies for me. 

your hackable brain: why knowing yourself is more important than ever

The other day I was listening to a podcast. The “commercial break” was 30 seconds of “the sounds of nature.” As I listened to the sounds of a woodland scene (birds, trees, wind), I felt my body softening and relaxing unconsciously. I didn’t need to make anything happen– it happened naturally.

Then, the sounds faded, and a voice told me that the 30 seconds of nature was brought to me by Nature Valley Granola Bars.

I had an instant reaction of being super pissed off. I felt like my body had been hacked without my permission– and by the crumbliest granola bar company on the planet, no less.

It reminded me that ALL advertising– and social media algorithms– are designed to hack directly into our systems, feeding our needs to feel security, comfort, pleasure, belonging and connection.

Most of the time this operates so insidiously that we’re not even aware of it– we just keep scanning for the next dopamine hit. But in this case, the marketing was so directly somatic (I felt it in my body, rather than thinking about it with my mind)– that I had the experience of FEELING that false sense of ease in my body that was designed to sell me something.

a block showing an image of a person meditating beside the words,  Practices like meditation, mindful movement and somatic exercises can help us to be more aware of our inner experience (so that we are more likely to be aware of outside manipulation)." 
Below, an image of a person on a therapist's couch looking upset, with the words, "Work with a therapist/analyst or other mental health provider can help us to understand ourselves, so that we are less vulnerable to being "hacked."

In a sobering talk with Wired, “How Humans Get Hacked,” Yuval Noah Harari ( historian and best-selling author of Sapiens, Homo Deus and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century) along with Tristan Harris (co-founder and executive director of the Center for Humane Technology) tell us that this we are at a crucial moment because the technology to “hack” humans is now so advanced that it knows us “better than we know ourselves.” But, Harari says, there is something we can do:

They know you better than you know yourself. So (we have to) run a little. Run a little faster. There are many ways you can run faster, meaning getting to know yourself a bit better. Meditation is one way, there are hundreds of techniques of meditation, different works for different people. You can go to therapy, you can use art, you can use sport, whatever works for you. But it’s now becoming much more important than ever before. It’s the oldest advice in the book. Know yourself.

My meditation and embodiment training have given me the tools to be aware of at least some of the time when my inner buttons are being pushed. I recognize that when my psychic defenses are not as robust– that is, I’m tired, sick, or feeling sad, or overworked– that I am more vulnerable to being hacked, and it’s best to stay away from social media completely if I don’t want to feel worse or make some poor decisions.

Our bodies/souls long to feel plugged in and connected, and the algorithms understand how to use this to their benefit. Natural feelings like loneliness or a sense of not being whole in some way can leave us prey for those who will attempt to fill that need by helping us to “belong” to a certain group. This could mean buying a new car, getting us to donate to a cause, or becoming politically aligned with others in some way. When we experience strong feelings while using social media or even watching television, we can learn to be aware that these may be coming from outside ourselves– especially if they’re feeling overly big or urgent (“I have to do something about this right now”).

How can we practice greater self-knowledge? In addition to important practices like therapy, meditation or mindful movement, we have to be sure we are plugging more directly into the sources that provide us with a true sense of security, comfort, pleasure, belonging and connection. Real experiences look like:

  • Connection with friends
  • A walk in nature
  • Time with animal companions
  • Cooking/eating a meal w/o devices
  • Your favorite movement practice
  • Creativity: writing, drawing, singing, gardening
  • Reading a book
  • ….and are not sponsored by granola, cars, or politicians.

Wanting to learn more about supporting nervous system health and working with anxiety and stress in the body? Join me for “Robust and Resourced,” live in Stuart FL January 2022. Click here for more information.

peanut butter black bean brownie bites

This is another one of my favorite recipes– quick, easy (you don’t even need a bowl– just a food processor), and they’re packed with fiber and protein. For those of you who care, there’s no refined sugar and no flour. These are vegan; you can use gluten-free oats to make them GF.

You can watch me bake them here, or just scroll to the recipe below!

Ingredients:

these peanut butter black bean brownies are simple and delicious!
  • 1 can of black beans (or 1.5 cups of cooked black beans), drained and rinsed
  • 1/2 cup oats
  • 1/2 cup maple syrup
  • 2 teaspoons of vanilla
  • 1/4 cup of peanut butter
  • 2 tablespoons cocoa powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup of chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Add all ingredients to a food processor and let it rip. That is, blend until the beans are no longer distinguishable. We’re trying to eliminate as much of that bean-graininess as possible, so more time is better than less.

Line a muffin tin with cupcake liners, or spray with nonstick spray. I recommend spraying the liners if you use them, too– they tend to stick a bit, otherwise.

Mine typically take about 12 minutes. Check them at 10, if you like, and err on the side of underdone– overcooking these brownies results in a grainy, dry product.

These are best eaten within 5 days (they don’t usually last that long in my house).

charisma vs. trust

A few weeks ago, I was on my way to get a massage and reflecting on the fifteen years I have had with my massage therapist (if you’re in Martin County, Florida, Beverly is where it’s at). Not only is she experienced, professional, and intuitive, but I also feel such an incredible amount of trust and love in our relationship– it’s a rare and wonderful thing.

Throughout my career as a coach, yoga student, teacher, and studio owner, I’ve known a lot of wellness professionals. Many of them have been what I think of as super charismatic. Their personality is immediately attractive in some way– they speak the right jargon, they dress the right way, they have very white teeth– whatever it is, they’re appealing. In meeting them, you might think, “man, I want some of that.” Some of them have a gift for seeming to see into your soul, or to talk to your innermost desires.

Charisma– however undefinable it is– is an asset. I know that I (along with many other yoga teachers that I know) have a certain amount of charisma, and I’m grateful for that. Especially as a “new” yoga teacher, it was helpful to seem likable and friendly; it made my mistakes or lack of knowledge more forgivable.

But if charisma is all that we have– or if we’re using it to mask our own neuroses, or lack of skill, or to manipulate– then it’s a problem, especially if that person holds a position of power.

I’m remembering several teachers that I’ve known whose charisma shone like the gleam of their coconut-oiled skin. Part of the magic I felt in their presence was that they were so unshakeable in their assuredness. They knew they were right (about every topic you can imagine), and they could point out exactly where others were wrong. I was grateful to give my time, devotion, and money to them in order to buy myself a little bit of that magic.

Sometimes, in the yoga world, they call this kind of charisma “shakti,” which is a Sanskrit word that (in one sense, at least) means “power.” Teachers with this kind of power could not only mesmerize with their presence, but they could encourage students to move into poses they might never be able to do on their own. For an example of how very problematic this can be, we can look at two quite infamous examples (please know before you click on these links that they include graphic and disturbing accounts of sexual assault): Bikram Choudary and Patthabi Jois.

In my own experience, I found that the charisma that attracted me was an unsustainable facade– all shine, no substance– and I began to cultivate and appreciate relationships with teachers that were more wholesome and trustworthy.

The following graphics illustrate a few of the differences I’ve encountered between what I’m calling “the charismatic professional” and “the trustworthy professional.” I’m aware that I’m creating a binary here that does not always exist in the wild– but I’m hopeful that it might stimulate some thoughts or discussion.

The charismatic professional: 

Says their way is the right way. No proof required
 
Is always unconditionally"right."  No space for inquiry or other opinion


Always has an answer


Openly criticizes other viewpoints or models, sometimes for entertainment value/"likes" 

The trustworthy professional: 

Demonstrates "their way" through actions, not words 


No need to protect position; open to other viewpoints, thoughts, opinions. 


Willing to say, "I don't know."


Neutral/ open with regard to other viewpoints or models; values learning & growth
the charismatic professional:
Personality feels instantly attractive, interesting. "I want what they have!"  


Appearances  are important; they "look" the part
 

It is very clear what they are selling or representing


Relationship/sales move quickly (feel urgent)

the trustworthy professional:
Personality may feel a little boring, quiet or understated; not actively selling selves 


Appearance may not be the first thing that draws you in  


"Sales" happen organically;  demonstrate through action 


Relationship/sales develop slowly
the charismatic professional:
Feels exciting, urgent, clingy, desperate or chaotic 

You may feel jealousy/ competition with others; need to be "the most special" 
 

Need to prove loyalty or buy in to program to gain approval 


Fears loss of connection

 The trustworthy professional: 
Feels solid, dependable, consistent,  even boring.   
 

Client knows that all patients, clients or students are equally valued 



Relationships are valued for their own sake, unconditionally 

Trusts in growing connection

One more quick note: when I wrote this as an initial post for instagram, one of my friends commented that she’d been able to find a way to work with some folks who initially felt problematic due to their charisma. This got me thinking– without the power differential inherent in a teacher/student (or coach/client, doctor/patient) relationship, is the compensating charismatic figure as problematic? I can recall car salesmen, realtors, and other professionals whose initial charisma wasn’t backed with the substance I require to feel real trust– but I’m also aware that I may be biased due to my experiences! Feel free to leave a comment and share your own thoughts and experience– I always appreciate your input, and your support.

mindful anger

What’s your capacity to be embodied, present and engaged with anger?

Before we jump into this topic, it might be helpful to reflect for a moment on your relationship with anger:

  • When you read or hear the word “anger,” what do you notice in your body?
  • In your personal history, what has happened when you experience or display anger?
  • What do you feel or notice in yourself when someone around you is angry? Do you feel like you need to get away, or fix the the problem for them?
  • Do you feel like anger is related to violence or aggression?
  • How was anger treated in your spiritual or religious background, or in your current spiritual practice?
  • Does anger feel uncomfortable, scary, wrong, or like something that needs to be soothed or solved?
  • Are there potentially negative consequences when someone who looks like you (or who is part of a group that you identify with) displays anger?

While each of us will have a different response to these questions, I hope they’ve triggered some interesting inquiries for you. Anger is a complicated emotion, and it’s not an easy one. Many of us tend to think of anger as something that is negative, or an emotion that we want to stop as quickly as possible.

But anger is a powerful and motivational emotion. It arises to help us protect and defend:

  • when a boundary has been crossed
  • when something under our protection is threatened
  • when we perceive danger
  • when we feel that our values, dignity, body, soul,  wellbeing, or community are not respected.

Anger is not the same as violence or aggression. It is an emotion, not an action. It’s possible to be simultaneously angry, loving, and completely functional.

Many of us have not learned how to safely experience anger in our bodies. 

There are many reasons why this might be the case. For example, abuse or trauma may have taught us that any anger is dangerous. In this case, the experience of anger can feel literally unbearable. We will do anything to avoid anger– our own or others’. We might feel like we need to appease or engage in codependent behaviors. Or we will flee or shut down if anger arises. Our own anger can be numbed, suppressed, or bypassed.

It’s also possible that our culture or family values may have taught us that we should not express anger. What messages do you remember receiving about anger? Were you allowed or encouraged to express anger as a child, or were you taught (implicitly, if not explicitly) that anger was not acceptable?

a mindful movement practice can increase your capacity to be present with difficult emotions like anger.

For marginalized or minority groups, expressing anger can be dangerous or hold one back from social advantages (progressing in a career, etc). These folks will have learned that in order to survive or succeed in life, anger must be suppressed.

But all of us experience anger in some way, even if we are not allowed to express it overtly. It leaks into other areas of our life and cause serious issues— ranging from physical illness to painful mental states like depression.

Learning to embody anger helps to restore our sense of wholeness & dignity.

When anger arises, it’s possible to experience it as a generative emotion, rather than something to be avoided. Embodying anger– that is, experiencing it in our bodies in a way that does not overwhelm us– gives us the opportunity to use it wisely. We are better able to understand when a boundary is crossed, or when we need to defend ourselves or something we value. 

Learning to experience anger in this way gives us the opportunity to integrate the parts of ourselves that we have had to hide or deny. It can help us to recover our sense of our own value and worth. 

We can also increase our capacity to be present (and not flee or fix) when others are angry.

We can train our capacity for embodied anger.

There are many ways to improve our capacity to hold and experience anger in our bodies. Like any other training, it takes time and patience. It’s also crucial that we work with someone who is able to experience and be present with our emotions in a neutral way. 

I am not talking about those places where you go in with a hammer and break a bunch of stuff– that can be overwhelming, which does nothing to increase our capacity and can be more detrimental than beneficial.

Nor am I interested in a practice that encourages “letting go,” “releasing,” or otherwise soothing anger away. This bypasses our own potential for growth (and often reinforces harmful cultural ideas about anger).

My experience is that through embodiment and movement practices, folks learn that not only is their anger not inherently problematic– it is profoundly healing.

taking control of the narrative

sometimes our deeply held beliefs about ourselves don’t hold up to scrutiny.

For years, I’d been sure that I was not getting enough sleep. I would wake up in the morning feeling tired, often disturbed by the vivid dreams I experienced. If I woke up in the middle of the night, I’d anxiously count the hours that I could still earn if I fell asleep right then. How many hours short of the magical eight would I be? Would I be able to function?

Sometime during 2020, this all changed.

This is interesting, because I wouldn’t say I’m getting more sleep. My dreams are not less vivid, and I still wake up frequently. So, my sleep habits themselves aren’t different– but my experience of them is. So, how is this possible? I’ve taken control of the narrative. Let me explain.

How much sleep was I getting? My perception was wrong.

As a Buddhist practitioner, I’ve been taught to be skeptical of my own perceptions. Reality, after all, is completely subjective. I love cilantro, but to others it tastes like soap. You might think lizards are cute, while someone else finds them terrifying, etc. And perhaps you remember this 2019 phenomena in which we all debated the color of the shoe. But when it comes to certain experiences, we have our blind spots, and it can be very hard to even notice that our perception is simply a perception– and not factual reality.

One morning, as we were walking the dogs, and I was lamenting my sleep habits, my partner said, “Why don’t you wear your Apple watch to bed and use it to track your sleep? Maybe it’ll give you some good information.” I was initially skeptical (this should have been a sign– I’m often resistant to challenge things I really want to believe in!), but decided to give it a try.

What happens when we examine our reality?

I had an outdated and incorrect perception of myself as tossing and turning, when the reality was that I was sleeping for long undisturbed stretches of time.

After a week of tracking, I couldn’t deny that I was just plain wrong about my sleep. The results almost shocked me. The truth was that I was getting eight hours of sleep almost every night. When I woke up, it was for a short time, and then I fell right back asleep. I had an outdated and incorrect perception of myself as tossing and turning, when the reality was that I was sleeping for long undisturbed stretches of time.

Changed perception changes reality.

Once I saw that my perception was incorrect, my experience with my sleep changed almost immediately. I no longer had the middle-of-the-night-anxiety about getting back to sleep. On waking, I didn’t fret if I hadn’t gotten eight hours– the data showed me that I could do just fine on less. I no longer identified with myself as a sleep sufferer.

Studies show that optimists enjoy better health than those with a pessimistic outlook. (Of course, as a recovering pessimist, my initial reaction to those statistics was, “well, THAT’s great. I’m screwed!”). Thankfully, our brains can change, as can our thought patterns. That’s the magic of neuroplasticity. Even if you’ve always been a pessimist, it’s possible to become more optimistic– and to positively impact your health.

We can control our own narrative.

One of the incredible gifts of our giant human brain is that we have the power to control the narrative of our lives. While we may not be able to affect the events of our lives, we do have the power to change how we’re perceiving it.

Journaling can be one way to regain control of our narrative.

I recently heard journalist Suleika Jaouad recalling how she first began chronicling her battle with leukemia. “Something about the act of putting pen to paper, in the privacy of a notebook, gave me a sense of narrative control at a time when I’d had to cede so much control to others,” she said.

At the same time that I’d begun tracking my sleep, I also began keeping a morning journal. I’d wake up, write for 20-30 minutes, and then move on to meditation, dog walking, and breakfast. This has been a really powerful tool for me. Remember those vivid dreams? The journal’s a place where I can set them down (for later analysis, if I want) or leave them behind. It’s also a place where I can make conscious choices about my interpretation of the prior day’s events, or my feelings about the day to come. I’m not denying my reality– these are tough times, globally– but I’m able to remember that I control the narrative.

Our imaginations are incredibly powerful. Left unchecked, along with our unexamined beliefs, we can find ourselves living our lives as a character in a story we aren’t enjoying. Challenging our perceptions gives us a chance to explore new ways of being in our lives.

pyschosomatic doesn’t mean imaginary

Just because it doesn’t “make sense,” doesn’t mean it’s not real. 

Psychosomatic symptoms are caused by a complex constellation of factors, including mental, emotional or social conditions. They are as harmful or dangerous as any medically-diagnosed condition. 

When I was 13 years old, I had all of the symptoms of mononucleosis. After being tested by our family doctor, I was told that my symptoms were psychosomatic, so it wasn’t “real” and there wasn’t anything to be done about it. 

The truth was that I was struggling so hard with mental, social, and emotional issues that my body became sick– but it was treated as though it was imaginary.

This was the first time that I experienced the shame and the stigma of pyschosomatic illness, but it wasn’t the last. I recall the frustration in his voice as my OBGYN told me me, after my second surgery to remove endometriosis, that I “should be feeling better by now,” and “there isn’t anything else we can do.” The hot humiliation in my body hearing my supervisor say that I was out of sick time and in danger of losing my job.

Folks who are living with medically unexplained symptoms are often made to feel shame, like they’re a failure in some way for having these experiences. In my case, I felt that I was so morally weak or lazy that I couldn’t “tough out” difficult situations and I “made up” these illnesses to get out of them. The underlying message is, “but there’s nothing really wrong with you, is there?” 

We’ve come a long way toward validation and understanding mental illness, but somehow psychosomatic illness seems to fall between the cracks. It seems like there must be something physically wrong, but there’s not. We want to cure the physical problem with a physical solution– but we have a hard time seeing the link to other factors. Of course, this attitude of gaslighting and disbelief compounds the problem and causes more suffering. 

While we tend to think of this as a medical issue, it also shows up in the yoga classroom, at the gym with a personal trainer, and in our physical therapy treatment. Sometimes a movement will hurt when it “shouldn’t.” Or someone becomes inexplicably nauseous. Or they have intense tightness, or a feeling that their body just doesn’t want to do something. Maybe it’s a a sudden headache or need to go to the bathroom every time they start to do a particular exercise. 

Each of these reactions is displaying for a valid (and important) reason, even if they don’t make any logical sense. By treating all of our clients with unconditional belief, validation and respect, we honor their lived experience and make space for real growth and healing. Encouraging curiosity and kindness goes much further toward addressing the underlying issues than pushing through a “stop” signal or invalidating the experience.