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What My Photo Albums Taught me About PTSD

I was recently dusting off shelves at my mother's house, and several photo albums, strategically stacked on a shelf in the corner, suddenly caught my attention. The albums had probably been placed there over a decade ago when my mother first moved into her house, so I must have walked by them, and dusted around them many, many times. On this particular day, I noticed them with interest, and decided to sit down to go through a couple. I imagined spending a few minutes with the albums, and I ended up spending several hours (and I am not finished yet).

The way I do everything in my life changed when I began practicing mindfulness several years ago. The act of noticing has changed my experience of being with whatever I am present with. Kabat-Zinn reminds us that it is in the nature of the mind to wander, and my mind certainly loves to do that. As I sat with the albums, slowly turning each plastic coated page, I noticed my mind moving towards the past or the future. I was able to come back into each moment using a multi-sensory approach of being present in the room, doing what I was doing: I noticed the feel of the diverse textures of each album; the smell of dust and decaying paper; the sound of each page gently landing on another as I flipped through; the sights of people and places I had known through the years, and the taste of green tea that I sipped on as I looked at pictures.

Then I noticed something happening. The photos, themselves, were taking me back into the multi-sensory experience of the moments at the time each image was captured. As I examined the picture of my family standing somewhere on the coast near Monterey, I could suddenly feel the crisp air whipping off the ocean. The steady sound of waves rolling onto shore seemed to come to life in the room, and I could smell hot dogs grilling on the portable barbeque we used that day. I looked at colors of the sky, and water, and even clothing of everyone in the picture. I recognized the purse I was carrying, and I could taste the mint gum that I always stored in a zippered compartment. I was reminded of the power of imagery, to take us to places within our minds - places that may be considered positive, negative, or anywhere in-between.  

As I continued through the albums, I noticed that some pictures initiated feelings of warmth, safety and connection. Others left me with a sense of apprehension, sadness and/or loss. I carefully examined a photo of a large dog (that bit my hand once), and I noticed I was experiencing fear sensations: My heart began to beat faster and I felt my stomach turn as I imagined how I could get away from the perceived threat. Even the significant degree of separation that existed between myself and the dog in the picture did not prevent heightened response. In the moment, my sense of reasoning kicked in and I reminded myself that the dog-biting event had taken place years ago; therefore, a the threat no longer existed and there would be no need for the uncomfortable survival response to continue. Unfortunately my body was already in response mode and wasn’t quite getting the message. So I did what I encourage all of my clients to do when they are experiencing heightened states: Move focus to something interesting, entertaining, and preferably, funny. We can use the mind’s tendency to wander to our benefit – we can encourage it to wander to positive memories and imagery. Moving our mind’s focus is a skill that we can develop for ourselves, and hopefully teach our children.

I worked with a soldier who told me that the PTSD evaluations performed by healthcare providers initiates multi-sensory recall of events, leading to activation of the body’s fight-or-flight response. In the same way that my mind and body registered the threat of the dog in the picture, frightening images found in the photo albums of the mind may lead to unnecessary responses – leaving body and mind depleted. The confusion and exhaustion that comes from fight-or-fight responses that occur out of the context of an actual threat, can lead to fears of “I must be crazy” and then a sense of hopelessness.

By engaging in a multi-sensory experience of a positive image/memory, the mind and body are able to move to a state of calm. I encourage people to have a positive image in mind ahead of time so they are not scrambling to think of something at the last minute. Find a picture associated with a very happy memory and carry it with you. Make it part of your keychain, or glue it to a page in your day timer.

Obviously, if you are facing a very real threat, in the moment, this would not be the time to pull our your happy memory picture. You will know when the time is right to look to your positive imagery. Give it a try – and remember you have to practice. There are wonderful mindfulness and relaxation/guided imagery videos on YouTube. Practice with your partners and children.

I wish everyone a mindful March!


Look for my mindfulness/art therapy workshop in the spring.



Father Tree in February

During February we settle in for the remainder of the winter, anticipating first signs of leaves and buds nudging their way into the world. As I drive through the country on my way to work, I am in awe of the nature that surrounds me. Here in the central valley, there are thousands of almond trees poking their stickly fingers up towards the sky. Other trees, of all imaginable shapes and sizes, reflect a steadiness and sturdiness, and sometimes a vulnerability, as they hover over the valley. In a couple of months Mother Nature will show her full glory in all manifestations of spring. This is a perfect time to reflect upon the presence of father in nature, and the presence of father in our own minds and hearts.

Over the past couple of weeks, as I sat with my clients (male and female), I was intrigued by a common theme of conversation focused on the child-father relationship. In the process of preparing to explore the relationship (or absence of a relationship) with the father, there is a particular stillness in the room - a space that invites expression of emotions that are likely to come forward. Father time, represented by the steady clicking of the clock, aligns with the stillness, giving us permission to step outside of the present moment to reflect upon the story lines of our lives. I believe that relationships with fathers are like fingerprints - they are unique to each individual and there are no two exactly alike in the world. I feel deeply honored to hear each story, and witness the creative process that brings thoughts and feelings to life in imagery. 

One very cold afternoon in late January I was sitting in my office with a warm cup of tea, and I found myself thinking about the relationship I had with my father. My mind thinks in terms of images, always, so I began to look around the room for a metaphoric representation of my dad to use in an art process. I stood up to take a closer look at the natural world outside of my window and I focused on the amazing trees hiding in plain sight. The first similarity came to mind: My father had a strong physical presence because he was tall; however he was quiet and reflective and I was often not very aware of his presence either. I decided I liked the idea of a tree as a metaphor for my father, but the tree would have to be as unique as my father and my relationship with him, so it would have to be created in my own mind.

During the past two weeks, my office space has come to life with images of father trees. The stories run through the veins of the trees. Some have a continuity established in a root system and some are free floating. If I had a thousand different colors available to my clients, there would surely be a thousand colors used in the drawings. The process itself is simple - the emotions that come forward are not. I recommend that any person who decides to do this process have someone they can share with: a friend, family member, counselor or any trusted person.


Mandala (circle) to draw on. I used cardboard circles purchased from the local take-and-bake pizza parlor, but you can also cut a circle from paper.

Drawing materials (pencils, watercolors, paints, pastels, etc.)

Collage materials if you have them (magazines, pictures, etc.)

Directive: Depict your father using the image of a tree. Write about this process, and whatever comes to mind if you would like. 

Happy February!




The Beauty of Art in January

During the holidays we enjoy sensory experiences associated with tastes, smells, sights and sounds of the season. The lights adorning trees, houses and buildings remind us that there is life and hope in the dullness and dampness of winter. The smells of cookies and goodies baking in the oven initiates a sense of excitement in anticipation of tastes and "comfort" soon to be experienced. Do you recall the last Christmas song you heard this year? As annoying as the music may have become (as it was regularly pumped over store speakers and radio stations), the ending of the music put an exclamation on our realization "It is done!" The deflated santas and snowmen, sprawled across once festive lawns, reinforce this awareness of saying goodbye to another season, another year. The holiday season, typically associated with hope and happiness, is also a time when we may become flooded by sad memories or fears: love lost, or never found; disappointment in family relationships; fears of being unworthy of love and respect from others and uncertainty of the great unknown in the year to come. Reading over journal entries from years past, I notice that I express hope and optimism I feel in the month of January. However, looking back at the art I create at the beginning of each year, I notice more expression of fears and apprehension. This January, I have decided to do one of my favorite art processes and invite any thoughts, feelings, memories to come forward and be present. I just noticed I am using the word "present" so I guess I truly am giving myself a present. I hope you can do the same for yourself. Join me in this art process and see what comes forward for you. The focus of this process is the here and the now; enjoying the beauty of nature and reminding ourselves that our multi-sensory nature allows us to be present in each moment we are in. Art reminds us of who we are.  


Mandala (circle). I buy white cardboard mandalas from the local take and bake pizza parlor. You may also draw a circle (using the outline of a bowl or other round object) on a piece of paper and cut it out. Larger circles allow for more work space - try to let go of concern there will be "empty space" - truly there is no empty space.

Pencil or pen and paper.


Take a walk out in nature. This can be on your deck or porch, in your backyard, around the block, or anywhere that you have access to. 

Pay attention to the things that you see: trees, buildings, bushes, flowers, the sky -  whatever is around you. Notice how the change of light affects the colors. Notice the sameness, and the difference, of colors. What do you smell? Notice the intensity and fluctuation of the smells; some may be desirable, some not. What do you hear? Some sounds are from nature, some are man-made. Notice how they change, or stay the same. Notice the textures of the objects around you - is there anything that you can touch? Notice the taste in your mouth and pay attention to how that taste changes

As thoughts, feelings, memories, dreams come into your mind, acknowledge their presence and then allow them to move through your mind and body. Breathe, and picture them floating away on the clouds, or being carried away by a bird.

Begin to gather objects - I often gather leaves, rocks, sticks, flowers and shells (if I am at the ocean). Nature leaves all kinds of things around for us to notice.      

Once you have gathered your objects and finished your walk, return to your mandala.

I enjoy soothing music in this process, but everyone is different and some prefer to work in silence. One of my favorite Pandora stations is Earthscape.

Light a candle or put turn on your favorite light.

Sometimes I incorporate smells of nature by placing sage, rosemary or lavender out on the table.

The idea is to create an environment that feels comfortable for you.

Using the objects you gathered from nature, create a design on your mandala (circle). You may arrange the objects many times until you create a design that feels like you have arrived at a place you would like to explore. Remember that art is like life - you rarely come to a place where you feel completely comfortable and in this process, your art helps you practice sitting with that discomfort. Do not glue the objects onto the mandala. 

Begin to write about your design - and write whatever comes to mind. Try not to edit, or even think about what you are writing. Just let the thoughts (and feelings) flow onto the paper. Give your art a name, if possible, and remember to put the date on your paper somewhere. This becomes a historical document for you.

You may want to draw a picture of the image you created, or take a picture.

Keep the design for as long as you like - this could be a few minutes, an hour, a week, a year. Whatever feels right for you.

When you are ready to let the image go, take the objects you found in nature and return them to nature. You may want to scatter them, bury them, or leave them in a place that feels special.

Wish yourself a happy new year - for all the joy and sorrow and everything in-between it will bring. Hold to the positive people and energy in your life and know that you can get through anything. 




Holiday Tips for Eating Disorders


What Music Teaches Us About Plastic Surgery

I have so many thoughts and feelings about plastic surgery. So many, in fact, that I have not been able to organize my thoughts on the topic enough to write a post. That all changed, yesterday, when I saw Joe Walsh (of the Eagles) being interviewed on Guitar Center Sessions. He was not talking about body image or plastic surgery, he was talking about the state of music in the era of digital technology. Everything he said seemed to apply to how we view our bodies in relation to advancements in plastic surgery. There are so many positives that have come from the way that music is made today, as well as developments in surgical correction procedures: I am in no way suggesting it is all-bad. However it seems that we have become conditioned to, and dependent on, the idea of "perfection" in so many aspects of our lives. How far can we go with this? It is scary to think about. When I was growing up in the 60s and 70s, musicians taught us to think about issues from a different viewpoint; from the artistic perspective.  When Joe Walsh talks about music, he is describing how we view ourselves, and how we are developing a way of being in the world that does not fit for us because it does not allow for the true human experience which involves human imperfection: 

"You can fix anything. You can make anything perfect. There's a great temptation to fix everything because you can. Perfect records don't sound good. There is a lot of stuff that doesn't need fixing. That's the magic of all the old records that we all love. Every time you fix something or make it perfect, you lose the Mojo...it goes away." 

Tonight I will listen to an old Eagles album...I will enjoy the scratchy, imperfect sound of fingers sliding up and down the neck of the guitar. I will feel the emotions, and let myself be carried away. And when I go to the mirror, I will think about what Walsh said about the music. I will think about feelings evoked as I listed to each perfectly flawed song. And instead of staying stuck (like a broken record) on what I don't like about my body, I will feel the feeling of being alive and get carried away into the world of self-appreciation, and self acceptance... if only for one beautiful moment. 

Thank you, Joe.