‘Tis the Season of Gratitude

Archive for the ‘positive thinking’ Category

‘Tis the Season of Gratitude

Posted on: November 26th, 2019 by Lindsey Rogers, LCPC

Fall and winter can be a difficult time of year. There is a lot of pressure to feel joyful, and when the cheery décor surrounding our workplaces, homes, and city is a direct mismatch to how we are feeling, it can foster an even deeper sense of sadness. Thoughts like, “It’s the holidays and I still can’t be happy?!” can overwhelm us and trigger feelings of guilt and shame. Finding joy and happiness can feel like an insurmountable task. But a powerful step in the direction of positivity is gratitude. Psychologist Robert Emmons, PhD is an expert in gratitude and defines it as “a sense of wonder, thankfulness, and appreciation for life.” Dr. Emmons divides gratitude into two parts: (1) acknowledging the good in our lives; and (2) acknowledging that the source of that goodness is outside of ourselves. It may sound tough to think about giving when you feel empty, but tapping into feeling grateful or thankful allows us those pinpricks of light to change your otherwise gloomy perspective.

How An Attitude of Gratitude Works
Depression and negative emotions turn us inward. It is hard to consider others or anything outside of ourselves and how bad we feel. Our perspective is skewed to a catastrophizing state of what is terrible and how life is going to get worse. When we feel this way, it is common to think that the curated version on social media is actually true and everyone else is having a great time during the holidays. Feeling bad can make us think, “Look at that! Everyone in Chicago is at the Christkindlmarket enjoying all sorts of holiday fun with their significant others but me!” Yikes, that sounds super gloomy. But those are irrational and definitely unhelpful thoughts. Implementing gratitude can allow us to have a bigger perspective and shift away from negativity. If you are feeling thankful, you are glad something happened or even happy something is over. If you narrowly miss getting sideswiped on your commute, you likely take a beat and think, “Wow, that could have been bad.” Depressive thoughts would keep you stuck. Those thoughts might include, “I am so careless,” or, “Why are bad things always happening to me?” Taking on an attitude of gratitude, however, allows you to zoom out from your own experience to see the bigger picture, like changing the screen resolution on your thoughts. There is that sense of “Whew, I survived that!” That feeling is gratitude. We are able to affirm what is good in our lives or in the moment instead of getting stuck with negativity.

How to Get Started on Thankfulness
This time of year, there are likely plenty of school-aged children tracing their hand and then turning their handprints into turkeys. Joining the ranks with the hand turkey might also be the practice of going around the table at Thanksgiving dinner and saying what you are thankful for. If you have been part of this table scene, how many times have you said pumpkin pie? Or the Bears? Maybe those aren’t profound moments of gratitude for humanity but they’re a great start. A way to expand past the amazing stuffing or the scoreboard on Thanksgiving is to first find some time that you can collect your thoughts. Start by taking out a journal or a blank document on your computer screen. Try to start a list of things for which you are grateful. This can be a feeling or an actual event. It can be a person, place, or thing. You can experience gratitude for something very tiny or something huge. Maybe you structure your thoughts around what you are grateful for at a certain time of day or time of year. Maybe you consider who you are grateful for and think a little more deeply about why. You can write bullet points or a list. You can write a letter to express your thankfulness to someone and you don’t even have to send it. Journaling is a great practice but there is no one-size-fits-all, right-or-wrong way when it comes to gratitude. And these are your own thoughts so be honest. No one gets to tell you that you aren’t actually experiencing gratitude.

How to Expand on Gratefulness
Gratitude is about seeing the good in life, but ironically focusing on your challenges or hard times can also be a good place to start. Remember when we were talking about feeling depressed? Making a leap to feeling thankful during the holidays may be too much. But if you are struggling or have been challenged in the past, examining how you got through it or what you learned from it can be a great way to tap into gratitude. You don’t have to fully jump into joy and reverence. But acknowledging in even a small way how now is slightly better than then or how you have grown and learned since that previous bad time is a great way to change your perspective.

Volunteer work and contributing in a philanthropic way can help foster a sense of gratitude. You can acknowledge how others need your help and you can see how others in need feel grateful. You can see how thankful someone feels when they are in need and you give them something they need. Helping others can trigger you to think about how others have aided you or currently support you. In this way, you are giving back and getting all at once. What a great deal!

How to Manage Roadblocks with Giving Thanks
Sometimes, gratitude is hard to come by, such as when you find that you are getting stuck on journaling or find yourself feeling bored. If you are starting to check out and you find yourself wanting to say something like “blah, blah, blah,” then put down your gratitude journal. Because here’s the thing: Gratitude does not work if you are going through the motions. You may need to change it up. If writing down grateful thoughts does not trigger positive feelings, perhaps you need to say those thoughts aloud to yourself or mediate on those thoughts. Another way to freshen up your practice is to change your expectations—maybe daily gratitude practice feels thankless but taking time to journal once a month works much better for you. Gratitude can be a personal practice but you can also share your feelings with others. You can communicate to friends, family, strangers that you appreciate them. They’d probably appreciate your gratitude, too. And do not worry, you won’t run out of gratitude. This is an emotion that can replenish itself so there is plenty to go around.

An important trap to avoid with gratitude is judgment. If you are journaling and those nasty “shoulds” start appearing, do your best to reset yourself and challenge those unhelpful thoughts. When thoughts like, “Well, I should really be grateful for this nice house but I actually hate it” or anything that makes you feel stuck creep in, put away this exercise and try again another time. Or try to counter that thought with something like, “But I do really feel grateful for my neighbors.” Your feelings are valid and you get to appreciate and value and express gratitude for what matters to you. There are ways to expand or grow. You can work on being more mindful and changing what you notice around you. But gratitude is about you feeling what you feel and you are the expert when it comes to that. No pressure to be grateful for anything. First try to examine what you are grateful for and if you want that to expand, keep asking yourself how you feel until you locate the pieces that trigger gratitude in you.

Gratitude, like cooking a perfect turkey, takes practice and the right conditions. Use this time of year to start thinking about and noticing things you are grateful for and see this as an opportunity to change your perspective and your brain. You will be supporting yourself and the world around you, which is goodness you can get on board with regardless the time of year.

Dipping a Toe into the Mindful Waters

Posted on: July 30th, 2019 by Lindsey Rogers, LCPC

There is a Buddhist quote: “If you are quiet enough, you will hear the flow of the universe. You will feel its rhythm. Go with this flow. Happiness lies ahead. Meditation is key.” You might read that quote, take in a gentle breath, and feel validation radiate from within. You also might read that quote and have a reaction of intense frustration. You might think to yourself, “Oh great, I just have to clear my mind and be quiet and then I will be happy? Who has time and patience for that?!” Mindfulness can feel incompatible with our busy day-to-day routines or unobtainable in a lofty, self-help way. But there is a lot of evidence of how mindfulness and its formal practice, meditation, can have significant impacts on physical and mental health. Luckily, there are plenty of informal ways to explore mindfulness. So if you are in the non-Zen camp of feeling like meditation is impossible to achieve based on your lifestyle and how busy you are and how many thoughts you have all the time, take a breath (it doesn’t even have to be anything near a “deep, calming breath”) and consider some easy-to-use, practical ways to try on mindfulness. No yoga mat or headstands required.

Get in touch with your senses and inner child
Jon Kabat-Zinn, a professor and founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” When you think of mindfulness in this way, it does not have to seem so scary or unachievable. There is no requirement to clear your mind and void yourself of any thoughts. Formal practice of mindfulness involves guided or self-guided meditation for upwards of 45 minutes. However, being present and paying attention to your experience without judgment is something you can do at any point throughout the day.

The best way to start is to get better acquainted with your five senses. Remember those guys (and can you do it without counting on your hand)? Experiencing moments on a sensory level is a great way to tap into mindfulness. When you are outside, you are bombarded with a sensory experience. We can hear birds, traffic, and the wind through the trees; perhaps smell the grass or flowers in the air when we step outside; and see all of this nature that is moving and changing around us. It is possible to get in those remaining senses of touch and taste outside, too. When we focus on our sensory experience, we can get into that state of paying attention in the present moment. Exploring our sensory experience can, of course, happen inside as well. Eating is a total sensory undertaking and doesn’t just exist for our taste buds. So consider trying out some mindful eating. Can you pause before eating and look at your food, taking it all in visually, or really take in the smells of the various components of your meal? A huge part of Rice Krispies’ appeal is the sound it makes, and the squishiness and texture of a marshmallow definitely make it taste better, right? Appreciate the experience of eating your food for the way it looks and feels in that moment and before you know it, you are being mindful.

Another way to start this mindfulness journey is to put yourself back in the mindset of being a child. If you spend time with children, you know that they see the world with an experience of newness and wonder. Everything is an adventure and an amazing event to explore. Clouds become furry animals or cotton candy confections and a puddle is an ocean inhabited by sea creatures. Kids have a vantage point of always looking up and seeing the world as this big, curious place and they are experts at not judging their own experiences. Watch a toddler bust a move and you will see how they are just feeling that music, feeling themselves, never mind the audience. Children are not worried about the future or caught up in their previous experiences; they are living in the moment and their pursuit is happiness. We can learn a lot from this perspective because of its focus on the now. Okay, okay, we can’t shrink ourselves to a toddler’s size and obviously there are large benefits to maturity, but we can take a lesson from our younger selves to work on embodying the gentle curiosity that comes with mindfulness.

Unplug while you are still plugged in
We spend so much time on our phones and computers and there are a lot of benefits to being so connected throughout the day. We can work from anywhere, anytime, anyplace. We can stay in touch with family and friends despite geographic distance. However, the downside to the technology we are so attached to is that it causes us to feel less present and more detached from ourselves. The more we are present, the less we do things automatically. When we are on autopilot, we are often not fully experiencing a moment. Oftentimes we are looking at all of the emails and texts and social media posts and start to experience negative emotions such as frustration, guilt, or even shame. If we set some healthy boundaries with our technology, we can possibly avoid the negativity that comes with not being present. There are tons of mindfulness applications on your phone so set aside any worries that mindfulness and technology don’t mix.

We can choose to use technology in a mindful way by exerting intention and purpose with it. Instead of constantly looking at your texts and emails without paying attention or even having time to respond, try carving out time to focus on that technology. Maybe you can start a routine of waking up in the morning and delaying looking at your phone until you are out of bed. Maybe you then log on when you are ready to respond and can be aware of what you want to say versus being careless in your responses. Because how many times have you sent off a text while barely paying attention to it? How could your communications be different or better if you took the time to be more focused? Maybe you can shift to having phone-free mealtimes or checking in with yourself first before looking at social media. You don’t have to rid yourself of technology, but if it is keeping you from experiencing something like a nature preserve because you are too busy looking at your phone in order to get the best selfie in front of said nature, then perhaps take a break so you can tap into having a sensory experience. Next time you reach for your phone, first take a breath and notice how your phone feels in your hand before you actually use it. Before you know it, you will be feeling more present even when you are online.

Pay attention to the characters in your world
Another way to get into a state of mindfulness is to examine how we are communicating. We can definitely go on autopilot in the way that we speak or listen in our day-to-day tasks, especially with the people around us who are part of our routine. How often do you mindlessly answer your partner or family member? Or how many times have you been speaking to someone and felt unheard and detached from the conversation? We can spend more time focusing on characters in a movie or television show than we do in our own lives. We can take for granted the importance of active listening and being present in our communication. This is why the active listening that happens in psychotherapy can feel so new and validating. Mindful communication means listening when someone is speaking to you and taking in the whole experience of what they are saying, tone of voice, and body language. It sounds simple, but so often we are thinking about what we are going to say next instead of really listening and being present to whoever is speaking to us. Try out a conversation with someone important to you that involves giving eye contact and really focusing on what they are saying. Then notice what it feels like when you feel heard by someone else. Again, being present in the moments with people around you does not have to be extreme or void of distractions and thoughts. It is simply putting in a little more effort to focus and pay attention.

Mindfulness requires slowing things down and that can be hard to do. We are busy people and the automatic nature of the world can push back on a desire to be present. But by trying out mindfulness here and there, in these small ways as you go about your typical day, you can experience more focus and calmness. Start small and find ways you can be more present in your life.

To all the sleepyheads out there

Posted on: May 6th, 2019 by Lindsey Rogers, LCPC

If you have ever tried to sleep-train a baby, you have probably experienced a high level of ineffectiveness and loss of control when it comes to sleep. The idea of “sleeping like a baby” can feel like a real misnomer. There is a plethora of sleep accessories, from swaddles to sleep sacks to a wonder called the Baby Merlin Magic Sleepsuit (which, to sleep-deprived parents, really does seem otherworldly if it works for your little one), all of which are marketed to get your baby sleeping through the night and napping on cue. From the jump, sleep is something that seems challenging and a struggle to obtain. Babies are even labeled as good or bad sleepers, which can result in a look of envy and awe or a knowing, exhausted nod from fellow new parents, depending on what is happening in your home. If we take some insight about what helps kids actually effectively learn to sleep, it’s that the environment, timing, and routine have to be right. New parents are told all the time to be intentional about a winding-down routine at night. Just lower the lights, after a calming bath, play soothing music and put on one of those aforementioned suits on to keep your kid from moving and waking themselves up. Whether you have done it for a child or someone spent nights trying to lull you to slumber, the truth is we put a ton of time and energy into teaching children how to put themselves to sleep.

Maybe it has been a very long time since you have been given the nightly bath-story-and-lullaby routine, yet perhaps you are still identifying yourself as a bad sleeper and you dread your bed. Perhaps this is more your familiar routine: You have been tossing and turning. There are no more sheep to count. You are watching the clock tick by and know as each minute passes, you are going to get less and less sleep and your anxiety grows and grows. If so, you likely characterize yourself as a bad sleeper or describe always have a hard time sleeping. But here’s the thing: If we take a page from sleep-training infants, there is hope that good sleep habits can be learned and a restful night is possible.

Set yourself up for rest

A good place to start when you are trying to improve your sleep is to first examine your sleeping conditions and sleep hygiene. Ideally you are sleeping in a room that is comfortable, quiet, cool, and dark. What your bedroom looks like can matter when you are awake and the lights are on, but when you are trying to get a good night’s sleep, what your bedroom feels like is the big concern. Whatever you can do to make it a pleasing sensory experience, the better. Maybe disarray in your bedroom causes you to struggle to fall asleep because it triggers negative thoughts. Perhaps you need a firmer pillow. Maybe a sound machine can help. When you are getting into bed, what sorts of thoughts do you have attached to your sensory experience? This will give you a good sense of whether your detergent actually doesn’t smell that great or the light from across the street annoys you. When you go to bed tonight, be mindful of your experience, both the good and the bad, to gauge what you might need to improve. Consistency is key when it comes to sleep so you want to make sure you are going to bed and getting up around the same time each day—even on weekends. Avoid large meals, caffeine, or alcohol before bedtime. Daily exercise can also aid you in feeling fatigued and ready for bedtime. Another important aspect of a good sleeping environment is the lack of stimulus. Cutting out electronics 30 minutes before bed is a great idea. Reading is a great activity before bed provided you are not using an e-reader or your phone that may stimulate you to stay awake, so keep that habit old school and use actual books in bed. If you watch your alarm clock and it causes you to panic, see if turning the clock around can give you some relief.

Okay, so ideal situations are, well, ideal and often unobtainable. It’s totally understandable that you may not have a perfect sleep environment if you live on a busy street in Chicago with lots of lights and sounds and you share a bed with your heat-rock of a partner or your wiggly toddler. A top of the line memory-foam mattress is no match for snores, elbows to the face, and a lousy ventilation system. But take some time to think about your environment and what changes you can make to your room, your bed, or your routine to help yourself get closer to that ideal. What can you control? If you are in the mindset of positivity and problem solving, you will already be moving away from labeling yourself a bad sleeper.

Bed equals sleep

If your environment is pro-slumber and you are still tossing and turning, take some time to create a sleep log. Try to keep track of when you go to bed, when you fall asleep, the duration of your sleep, and how you are feeling when you wake up. If your pattern is that you go to bed at 10:00 p.m. but you toss and turn and eventually fall asleep at midnight and sleep until 6:00 a.m., maybe you should try consolidating your sleep. If you are only getting 6 hours of sleep a night, get into bed closer to when you are typically falling asleep. Perhaps this sounds counterintuitive, but we want to pair the thought of your bed with sleep instead of sleeplessness. Tossing and turning and being a bad sleeper can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. So if you figure out your sleep pattern and you adjust your timing and you are still not catching those ZZZs, get out of your bed. If you are not sleeping for more than 15 minutes, get up and go do something to fatigue yourself. Maybe it is a boring task like unloading the dishwasher or getting a glass of water or doing some light yoga. Whatever is going to tire you out versus stimulate you is a great idea; then try going to bed again. Bed should equal comfort and restful sleep so if that is not your equation, get up for a bit and then start again.

Hoping for sweeter dreams

Often bedtime can be rough because it signals the end of the day and offers lots of time to process what happened. Anxiety or negative self-talk are like, woohoo, time to join this party! No distractions leave you alone with thoughts and feelings about what happened today and what will happen tomorrow. Yikes, that is a nightmare! Before you get into that close-to-ideal bed situation, give yourself some time to write down your thoughts. Journaling is a great tool to beat anxiety, to give yourself processing time of which you are in control. Write down some thoughts about your day, what you are proud of or grateful for, and/or even a to-do list if you are thinking about tomorrow. And then literally close up that book, fold up that paper, or at least move the post-it away from your bed. Make the act of putting away your thoughts (good, bad, and otherwise) intentional as you get into bed. Perhaps do some deep breathing as you cover yourself with your blankets and think about covering yourself with calming, restful, positive feelings.

Sometimes despite our best efforts, we wake up after an actual nightmare or just find ourselves awake in the middle of the night. Again, if the tossing and turning is prolonged, get out of bed and give yourself a new sensory experience like a drink of water and then try to get back into bed when you feel tired. If you are overwhelmed by images in your dream, try to write them down and then close them up in a notebook, or just visualize putting that thought or feeling away again to signal to yourself that you should compartmentalize and focus on sleep again.

Get ready for a snoozefest

If you are struggling with sleep and some behavioral or cognitive changes are not giving you relief, please get yourself checked out by a medical professional to determine if your symptoms are related to a physical ailment or could be treated with medication. There are sleep centers that can help determine causes for insomnia and provide treatment for sleeping issues. There are also helpful apps out there that use guided meditation to increase relaxation as you try to fall asleep. If anxious thoughts are overwhelming you, please consider psychotherapy or at least talking with friends and family about what is bothering you and perhaps keeping you up at night.

Sleep does not have to be a far-fetched goal that you have no control over, whether you’re an infant learning to sleep for the first time or an adult battling nightly bouts of restlessness. With some effort and consistency, it is possible to improve your attachment to sleeping. You started out as a tiny human who had no idea when it was the right time to be awake and someone likely helped you to learn to self-soothe and go to sleep. So help yourself re-learn that same self-soothing behavior. Take care of yourself and good night!

Talking to the Man in the Mirror: The Importance of Positive Self-Talk

Posted on: April 13th, 2018 by Justin Tobin

By Lindsey Rogers, LCPC

Perhaps you have heard it before, from belittling comments made under the breath and muttered statements that discount achievements to loudly judging, criticizing, and even name-calling. The victim is left feeling discouraged, wounded, and weak. There is no motivation to do better or be better if you are cut down by biting statements. Hearing this type of verbal abuse makes us want to yell at the victim to leave, get out, and do not take this kind of treatment. Yet this is not the dialogue from a Lifetime movie depicting domestic abuse. What I am describing is a voice that is more powerful, more intrusive, and utterly inescapable: I am talking about the voice in our heads, our self-talk. Self-talk is our internal chatter and it can cause significant psychological effects on self-esteem and confidence if it is constantly negative and self-defeating. Luckily there are ways to change the bullying aspects of self-talk to a more supportive and encouraging voice.

Who is on your mental guest list?
We are constantly processing and interpreting the world around us. However, our mental filters and core beliefs about ourselves have a huge impact. The self-talk we experience is impacted by and then perpetuates either a positive dynamic or (as described above) a really bad relationship with ourselves. So let’s figure out how to make this relationship a lot healthier. Imagine that your thoughts and feelings represent “guests” at a party. Every thought and feeling is a person who shows up to this epic mental shindig in your head (and this party is happening all the time). Think about whom you are inviting to your party. So much of how we talk, think, and feel about ourselves is automatic or longstanding. It can be difficult to slow things down and think about self-talk and how we got to this place. So maybe some of the names on this mental guest list are grandfathered in. Maybe they represent thoughts and feelings from our families and upbringing and have become internalized. Maybe some of these guests are total bullies who are occupying your mental space and are making you feel bad about yourself. They are totally ruining your party.

Evict the bullies from your mental space
So the party is happening in your head and suddenly one of these bullies shows up, walks in the door, and gets in your face. You know this guy and you may know he is a bully but yet again, like every party, here he is on your guest list. The bully walks up to you and starts spouting terrible stuff to you about you. And here is the clincher: You actually listen. You don’t just listen; you eat up this garbage. You give all of your attention to this terrible guest, this awful bully within your head, to the point that you ignore the rest of the guests at your party. You don’t care about what the other partygoers have to say; you have allowed this bully to dominate your time. That bully, that awful party guest, that guy is negative self-talk. He shoves his way in the door and dominates the room. Well, this visitor sucks and is not doing you any favors. He is the worst! So here’s the thing: Nothing is worse than a bad party guest overstaying his welcome. So it is time to evict that rude attendee, stop the internal bullying, and turn the destructive self-talk into something much more positive. Bullies feed off of attention so the first way to improve that mental party is to stop giving so much of your time to that bad party guest, that negative self-talk. That guy may show up to your party; he may even talk to you. But you have the power to ignore him, “walk away” so to speak, and focus on the other guests at your party who have much more positive and realistic things to say. Give less attention to the damaging self-talk, that bully at your mental party. Challenge those thoughts and quiet the negative self-talk.

Cheerleaders welcome here
So maybe you have started to do some spring cleaning of the negative voices in your head. Good riddance! Now is the time to invite a lot more cheerleaders to your mental party. Maybe you are struggling with finding some positive guests to invite. It can be hard to switch the script to positive self-talk when the harmful voices are so much more familiar. Affirmations are a great way to dip your toe into a more positive inner dialogue. They are positive statements that are typically short and focused (e.g., “I am enough” or “I am worthy”). Work on saying affirmations to yourself aloud. Repetition is key to change them from mere words to internal thoughts and feelings you have about yourself.

Positive visualization can help guide that inner chatter. Imagine yourself reaching your goals. If you can see it, you are working on believing it. Another way to work on positive self-talk is to change that negative thought into a positive one. If that awful guest starts spewing nasty stuff at your party, can you change that undermining talk into something brighter, or at least neutralize it? Maybe the negative self-talk is, “I just messed up that project.” Try reframing the story to focus on the positive aspects: “Maybe I didn’t completely screw that up. Maybe I can fix this.” If you feel overwhelmed by the future, try to keep that positive self-talk focused on the present and what you can do now versus the pressure of what to do to reach those future goals. Keep that inner dialogue positive and focused on obtainable goals. Allow yourself to be successful.

You are worthy and capable of a good, healthy relationship with yourself. Take time to take stock of what is going on in your head and whether your self-talk tends to be more positive or negative. Know that you can change that destructive chatter by challenging those thoughts and making room for much more affirming dialogue. Treat yourself the way you would treat someone you love and that mental party in your head will start to be an amazing celebration!

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