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How to Stay Motivated

My dad always says, “Find something that puts a fire in your belly.” Teenage Me would often roll my eyes, turn up the volume on my latest self-burned punk/emo mix CD and let Travis Barker’s drum beats muffle the unappreciated wise words of my father. As an adult, I can finally understand the sentiment of embracing motivation and passion while pursuing goals. I can also recognize a possibly unintentional deeper meaning here- if left without fuel, fires burn out.

Establishing a goal is the easy part. Hard work comes with actually following through with the steps required to achieve that goal. Maintaining motivation can be difficult, and I always say that building motivation is somewhat of a catch-22. The best way to increase motivation is to just do it (insert Nike symbol here). We feed motivation by reflecting on how we feel as we complete steps toward a goal. Even if the motivation begins as a small flame, we can turn it into a bonfire. Here are some tips for building and maintaining motivation while working toward goals:

  1. Remind yourself of your goals.
    • Write your goals down and display them in a place you look at often. Make sure they are specific and detailed to better organize steps necessary. Take away the “Oh, right, I forgot I wanted to do that” moment and shoot directly for goal achievement. Goals can be easily pushed to the side and forgotten about if we don’t make a point to keep them in our focus.
  2. Discover the WHY.
    • Any task has a number of good reasons behind it. Even small things can be analyzed to find something good. Consider washing dishes. We don’t complete the task for no reason- we complete the dishes in order to have a greater sense of cleanliness and organization (and it helps keep little pestering pests away, but that’s a different blog post). It’s all helpful in creating an image of the bigger picture we are striving for.
  3. Partialize your goals.
    • If we view our goals as one large chunk, it can become overwhelming and cause a person to shut down or give up. By breaking goals down into smaller pieces, we can more easily set targets and obtain a greater sense of achievement. Additionally, developing a deadline for each step can be crucial in maintaining momentum.
  4. Acknowledge your achievements.
    • Track your progress and celebrate benchmarks along the way. Congratulate yourself when you have completing a smaller chunk of the overall goal. Acknowledging progress made toward your goal can propel you forward to the next step.
  5. Be flexible.
    • I have said this so many times that I feel like it should be my new tag line, but: BE GENTLE WITH YOURSELF. If something is not working, be flexible and try it a different way. If you find yourself frustrated, stressed, or overwhelmed, be flexible enough with your deadlines that you can allow yourself a moment to step away and regroup. Achieving a goal looks differently for every person. Don’t just find a process, find YOUR process.

What helps you stay motivated?

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Training for a Half Marathon: What NOT To Do

Completing the 2019 Philadelphia Half Marathon is one of my greatest accomplishments. The race took place on a chilly November morning, but the bike ride from my apartment to the event site filled my body with warmth. At the starting line, I observed the nervous, excited energy of myself and the other runners as we absorbed the crowd’s encouragements. When the horns went off and the movement began, I felt unstoppable.

I had spent two days perfecting a playlist full of songs that would help propel me to the finish line, but I soon found that I didn’t need music to keep me focused. The cheers from the crowd fueled me, and there was a motivating sense of community among the runners as we moved together toward the finish line. There were countless spectators lining the course with hilarious signs showcasing pun-filled motivational phrases like, “Run like Kanye is gonna give your medal to Beyonce,” and “Always give 100% …. Except when giving blood.”

The unstoppable feeling lasted until around mile 7. At that point, I had already ripped off several layers of warmer clothing and flung them into the sea of onlookers, never to be seen again (luckily large clothing donation boxes were scattered along the race route). The finish line grew closer, but my miles eventually grew slower. Each mile brought a new set of aches, and I’m sure my hips, knees, and feet were plotting ways to detach themselves from the rest of my body. As I struggled through next few miles, a harsh realization came over me: I had not adequately prepared for this.

Don’t get me wrong, I had been preparing to run the Philadelphia Half Marathon for about 8 months. I had researched methods of building endurance and how to avoid injury and created a weekly training schedule. As I progressed in training, I even posted weekly training updates to share how I trained for the race that you can read here. However, my adherence to my pre-determined schedule lasted about 4 weeks before I began to run off the tracks and train to the beat of my own drum.

In retrospect, sticking to my intended schedule would have been more of a priority. Training properly is necessary in allowing the body to adjust to performing at a greater intensity. A good training routine should include long rungs, rest days, cross training, and tapering miles. Although, I adhered to an appropriate regimen in the beginning, I royally failed at overall time management during my training. I made excuses and let things interfere of my training time. Instead of running several times per week, I performed just one long run once weekly. I didn’t adequately stretch, I failed to cross train effectively, and I didn’t pay attention to my diet. Needless to say, my training was lackluster.

Not properly training for my half marathon caused many challenges when it finally came to race day. During my long trek, the biggest problem was a pulled muscle in my groin area that had been taking a while to heal. It was the first thing that started to ache as I pounded the pavement. Eventually, my knees and my feet joined in the hurting. Although I gave my body a few brief rests at the hydration stations, eventually pausing to rest was no longer worth it to me. I couldn’t prolong finishing the race for longer than necessary. I forced myself to run, even at a snail’s pace. I no longer cared about my time or my form- I just knew that the sooner I crossed the finish line, the sooner I could sit down.

I was moving at a pace similar to a 104-year-old woman’s shuffle by the time the finish line entered my site. I bee-lined for the tiny woman dangling the slew of finisher medals from her arm. My gait resembling Frankenstein, I reached my claws forward to claim my shiny prize. I hobbled along and exited through a tent lined with mountains of snacks that I dove into gleefully. I ravenously gorged on bananas and granola bars as I basked in the glory of my achievement.

Despite the challenges I faced, I felt proud that I didn’t give up. I pushed myself, and it taught me that I am capable of so much more than I think I am. My adrenaline had me floating on Cloud Seventy while I navigated through the other exhausted runners. When I collected my bike from the lot, I realized that it was a miserable idea to use biking as my mode of transportation to a half marathon. After running over 13 miles, I now needed to ride another two miles back home. I gathered up the adrenaline I had left and pedaled like my life depended on it. That evening I celebrated my success with my family, but it didn’t take long for the physical and mental exertion to catch up with me.

My experience post-race can be likened to the “Lucky Penny” episode of How I met Your Mother. In the episode, Marshall is upset when a broken toe prevents him from running the New York Marathon, and his friend Barney mocks him by stating that running a marathon is easy even without training. When Marshall bets that Barney cannot finish the marathon, the gambling addict accepts. To everyone’s surprise, Barney finishes the race, adamant that it took little energy. Barney boasts confidently as he dons his medal, and then leaves after learning that marathon runners get to ride the subway for free that day. The scene flashes forward to Barney seemingly enjoying his free subway ride, but the audience quickly sees that Barney is unable to move his legs and, therefore, is stuck on the train.

Similarly, that evening my legs functioned so sorely that going down the stairs in my sister’s home was only bearable if I did it in slow motion, one step at a time. It seemed like each and every single muscle in my body ached, and the arches of my feet were so tight that it hurt to walk. I felt like I could have slept for a million years, which was an absolute outrage to my two-year-old nephew, who fully expected me to have enough energy to perform my auntly duties.

After putting my nephew to bed, I finally seized the opportunity to care for my body. My sister had given me epsom salt and bath bombs as a congratulatory gift, and her deep bath tub with high pressure jets was calling my name. As I prepared to sink in, I reflected on my journey.

There are many things I would have done differently. My body was counting on me to have its best interest, and in some ways I let it down. I had challenges focusing on my training, and I struggled to truly listen to my body. I think those held me back from performing to the fullest potential. Nevertheless, I learned so much about the sport of running and about myself. I learned that running is not easy, and it takes hard work and special care of the body to do it successfully. I also learned be confident and to trust that I can achieve my goals.

As the bathtub filled, my body vibrated with excitement like my muscles knew they were in for a treat. My body had worked hard, probably a little harder than it would have needed if I had trained properly. I made a promise to myself that if I wanted to continue running, I had to put honest work into training so I didn’t inadvertently kill myself in the process. I was already picturing google search phrases that might lead me to the rabbit holes of running how-to articles. I closed my eyes, stepped into the bath, and felt the heat of the water soothe my muscles. I sank down into the warm bath, and my body began to recover.

TLDR; train properly.

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Conquering Your Inner Critic: 7 Ways to Overcome Negative Thinking

I’m not worth it. There’s no use. I can’t do it. I’ll never follow through. People won’t like me. Others are better than I am. I am not enough. I must be perfect. I am a failure. The world is evil. All people are bad.

If these phrases sound similar to your thoughts, you may struggle with unhelpful thinking patterns. Often unhelpful thoughts stem from negative perceptions of ourselves and the world around us. Negative perceptions can directly influence our thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and reactions to life events. It is unrealistic to expect that we can think happy thoughts all the time. However, we can train our brain to adopt a more realistic and healthy mindset. After all, spiraling into unhelpful thought patterns may increase feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression.

For more detailed explanation of unhelpful thought patterns, check out this psychoeducational worksheet that describes commonly used thinking errors.

After learning more about common thinking errors, keep scrolling to check out some useful tips for conquering your inner critic and decreasing negative thinking habits.

Catch Your Thoughts

Our thought patterns can eventually become habitual. This means that we can experience unhelpful thought styles without being aware of it. The first step in gaining control over our thoughts is to notice them. I encourage my Wellness Warriors out there to pay attention to your thoughts and attempt to label them. Learning about your negative thought patterns (triggers, related emotions, etc.) can give you the power to overcome them.

As a therapist, I love teaching clients to utilize an automatic thought record. This simple worksheet begins by allowing one to identify negative thoughts while encouraging further exploration and processing. To take catching your thoughts a step further, you can practice categorizing your thoughts using labels from the commonly used thinking errors worksheet.

Play out the Narrative

Often times, unhelpful thoughts can present in the form of chronic worries and “what if” statements. What if I fail? What if I get sick? What if my partner gets angry with me? Chronic worrying can send us into a negative thought spiral.

To combat this, consider what would happen if your worry came true. Ask yourself what you would do to address the situation. Developing a plan of action can be incredibly useful; if we have a plan, we naturally tend to stress less.

Practice Thought Stopping

If I tell you to think of a pink elephant, what do you think of? Most often, it is, indeed, a pink elephant.

After you catch your unhelpful thought, utilizing thought stopping techniques can help you break the cycle of negative thinking.

Common thought stopping techniques include finding a replacement thought or visual image, such as counting to ten or visualizing a scene from your favorite movie. One can also simply yell or think “Stop!” and find an alternate activity for a distraction.

Check the Evidence

There is no better way to challenge an unhelpful thought than to examine it. Remember, we are not attempting to exclude all negative thoughts. Instead, we are training our brains to think more realistically. We can achieve this by putting our thoughts on trial and exploring the evidence.

I often use this example: Imagine you are about to take a test. Your thought is, “I am going to fail.” Naturally, we may identify this thought as negative and engage in thought challenging and ask, “What evidence do I have that supports the thought that I am going to fail?” List all of the reasons why that thought might come true. Did you prepare for the test? Did you study for an adequate amount of time? Did you pay attention in class? Did you take notes? Did you study in a way that is effective for you? Do you feel focused?

If the evidence we identify supports the negative thought, it may just be that the thought is realistic. If the evidence contradicts our thought, consider that this thought is likely unrealistic and untrue.

Reframe Negative Thoughts

After we identify negative thoughts, we can reframe them to appear more balanced and realistic. Reframing simply means creating alternative, more helpful thoughts. By doing this, we begin to change our perceptions of events, experiences, or emotions.

In the earlier example, we established that the thought, “I am going to fail,” is likely true. It is important to recognize that we can still reframe negative thoughts if they appear to be true. Instead of thinking, “I am going to fail,” we might consider the reframe, “I will do the best I can.”

Take your own advice

It is so much easier to give advice than it is to take our own. Taking our own advice is challenging, but it is a critical step to overcoming unhelpful thinking habits. A helpful practice is pretending you are giving advice to your best friend. Consider the following: Would you try to get more information about what happened? Are you considering other’s perspectives? What are the different ways the situation might unfold? Finally, what advice would you give him or her?

Allowing yourself to step away from the experience and explore it objectively is amazingly simple, yet incredibly effective.

Find Gratitude

Gratitude is strongly associated with greater happiness and contentment. Practicing gratitude increases our ability to see that there is good in the world. Check out this previous post where I practice gratitude after a series of hard events and negative thought spirals.

To incorporate gratitude into our daily routines, we can keep a gratitude journal, write gratitude letters, or use visual reminders (like sticky notes on your mirror).

Practice Mindfulness

Practicing mindfulness can help relieve stress, regulate emotions, and remain nonjudgmental. Mindfulness involves simply observing, not judging, our thoughts. Imagine your thoughts are like cars passing at a busy intersection. When cars arrive at the intersection, sometimes they just pass by and sometimes they stop for a while. If we get stuck on a negative thought, we can simply engage in deep breathing while focusing on the breath, not the thought. In time, just like the cars, our thoughts pass by.

Okay, Warriors, it’s your turn: What negative thoughts have you been struggling with? How have negative thinking patterns impacted your life? What have you done to overcome your inner critic?

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Can Yoga Help Depression?

Yoga students may present with a variety of physical health concerns, such as chronic pain or injury. As a yoga instructor, it is important to become familiar with student histories so that the teacher can ensure the yoga studio remains a safe space for students. Overall, engagement in yoga practice has been consistently increasing in frequency across the United States. To accommodate the growing practice, yoga sequences can be specifically adapted to serve various populations, such as older individuals, children, or those with physical ailments. This makes it critical that a yoga teacher learn about students in order to provide them with the safest and most inclusive practice (Stephens, 309).

The practice of yoga can be utilized to address and treat many ailments, such as physical health concerns. While some individuals use yoga to treat physical conditions, some find that yoga is a positive tool in treatment emotional and mental health conditions (Stephens, 324). The physical and mindful components of yoga are thought to be meaningful practices for those experiencing emotional disturbances. Students of yoga can utilize the mind-body connection to address mental health concerns, such as anxiety and stress. Breathing techniques and mindfulness can assist in decreasing anxiety. Most commonly among mental health conditions, Americans utilize yoga practice to manage symptoms of depression.

Depression is one of the most common psychological disorders and involves symptoms such as changes in mood, low energy and motivation, loss of interest in preferred activities, increased irritability, physical aches and pains, and changes in sleep and appetite. These symptoms can be acute and can severely impact one’s ability to manage areas of daily life, such as nutrition and sleep. Though depression is incredibly is incredibly common, the causes of depression vary among an array of environmental, biological, or psychological factors. Traditional, evidence-based treatments for depression include medication management and/or psychotherapy. However, there are some barriers that individuals may face when seeking to participate in traditional mental health treatments. Many individuals never receive formal treatment for depression due to various limitations, such as limited access to resources, stigma associated with mental health treatment, or experiencing unwanted side effects of medication (Bridges & Sharma). Additionally, lack of follow through with treatment may be due to financial stressors or poor connection with treatment teams (Prathikanti, et. al.).

Depression that is left untreated may result in worsening chronic symptoms, such as suicidality or psychosis. These symptoms can impact career, education, family life, or interpersonal life, which can cause an individual intense distress. On average, a depressive episode can last from 6-12 months, with some individuals experiencing symptoms of chronic depression lasting several years. Although patterns of depression vary between each person, most individuals who experience one depressive episode in their lives will eventually experience a recurrent episode (Prathikanti, et. al.). The high relapse rate among those who experience depressive symptoms may also contribute to the lack of follow through with traditional treatments.

It is well known that yoga promotes a variety of physical health benefits. Regular yoga practice can improve flexibility, lower heart rate, decrease stress and anxiety, and reduce aches and pains (Bridges $ Sharma). It can also assist in digestion and other areas of physical wellness. However, yoga can also be beneficial in promoting emotional wellness. Where traditional mental health therapies focus on teaching mindfulness, deep breathing techniques, and relaxation skills, these are also important foundational aspects of yoga (Prathikanti, et. al.). This similarity in techniques means that yoga involves many of the skills taught among traditional therapies that treat depression. For example, mindfulness-based therapy focuses on deep breathing, relaxation skills, and mindfulness toward the present moment. These are also factors that are of focus in yoga practice.

The goal of yoga in minimizing symptoms of depression is to assist students in reaching santosa, or contentment. Traditional yoga views depression as a result of an individual experiencing either a rajastic state or a tamasic state. A rajastic state is one in which an individual experiences anxiety and restlessness. An individual experiencing a rajastic state may benefit from yoga practice that includes a slower flow with long holds. Meditation and calming breaths utilized in these types of sequences can assist in alleivating troublesome feelings of anxiety and restlessness. A tamasic state is one in which an individual experiences low energy and hopelessness, which are symptoms most commonly reported among individuals experiencing a depressive episode. An individual experiencing a tamasic state may benefit from a yoga practice that involves more active and stimulating poses, along with encouragement to keep the eyes open and awake (Stephens, 324). This appears to counteract the low energy experienced by individuals struggling with symptoms of depression.

With the growing rate of public interest in yoga, research related to the efficacy of yoga in promoting health and wellness has dramatically increased. According to Pathikanti, et. al., yoga may be a valuable alternative treatment in addressing depression. During a study of the efficacy of treating clinical depression using yoga, 38 individuals were screened to participate in an 8-week Hatha yoga program. These individuals were those who met the diagnostic criteria for major depressive disorder and were not currently receiving any treatment for the condition. Individuals were randomly divided into two groups: a yoga practice group and a yoga education group.

Those who participated in the Hatha yoga practive group participated in a 90-minute yoga practice two times per week for eight weeks. This practice group included breathing techniques and poses that promoted relaxation and mindfulness, with the same yoga sequence being used for each session. The yoga sequence used featured chest-opening poses, which are traditionally incorporated into yoga practice to decrease feelings of depression. The group who participated in the education group completed modules related to yoga history and practice for 90 minutes two times per week. Depression was assessed every two weeks throughout the research study using evidence-based depression scales (Prathikanti, et. al.).

Results indicated that depression decreased among the group that participated in yoga practice when compared to those who participated in the education group. However, researchers noted that the differences in rates did not change until the eighth week of practice, suggesting that consistent and prolonged yoga practice is most effective in promoting positive mood changes. The delay in results also suggests that one requires time to adequately learn and practice yoga poses and skills in order for their practice to be effective in alleviating depressive symptoms (Prathikanti, et. al.).

In another study of the efficacy of yoga in treating depression, a literature review was completed to compare outcomes among several research studies that explored the use of yoga in depression treatment. Eighteen published studies, all of which took place in various yoga studios, were assessed. The most common of these schools were ones that primarily taught from the school of Hatha yoga. In this literature review, interventions that were over the course of 6 weeks or more on average were studied, and measuring tools were used to monitor depression over the course of practice.

These schools utilized different structures of practice over the course of the research. Most schools encouraged participants to practice yoga at least once per week for a duration of time ranging from 12 minutes to 90 minutes (Bridges & Sharma). Although numerous differing yoga methods were used in these studies, results showed that all methods, even those in shorter duration, included participants who reported reductions in depression levels. Although, there was no evidence that showed that one method might be more effective than the others in reducing depression symptoms the study could suggest that regular practice of yoga and meditative skills may relate to decreased depressive symptoms. These results indicate a growing need for more research into the efficacy of mind-body interventions in treating clinical depression (Bridges & Sharma).

More specifically, the literature review found that a study by Marafet, et. al., researched an experimental group and a control group. The experimental group participated in three 60-minute yoga sessions, which included breathing exercises, meditation, relaxation, and physical exercise, while the control group participated in assessments only. The results of the study showed that those who participated in the yoga group experienced markedly decreased depressive symptoms. The outcome determined that yoga interventions were effective in decreasing depressive symptoms. Therefore, while traditional therapies and interventions are recommended, mind-body interventions appear to be an effective complementary interventions (Bridges & Sharma).

Depression is the most commonly diagnosed mental health condition. Although many individuals struggle with symptoms of depression, many do not receive traditional evidence-based treatments to assist with alleviating symptoms. However, studies show that regular practice of yoga and meditation may assist in minimizing symptoms of depression. This may broaden access to mental health treatment among those who experience barriers in accessing traditional therapies. Several research studies show that regular yoga practice has been effective in alleviating depressive symptoms.

References:

Bridges, Ledetra and Manoj Sharma. “The Efficacy of Yoga as a Form of Treatment for Depression. Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary & Alternative Medicine, 30 June 2017.

Prathikanti, Sudha, et. al. “Treating Major Depression With Yoga: A Prospective Randomized, Controlled Pilot Trial.” PLoS One, 16 Mar 2017.

Stephens, Mark. Teaching Yoga: Essential Foundations and Techniques. North Atlantic, 2010.