Lessons on Wildflowers and Gratitude on Mother’s Day

IMG_0398At a dinner party last night we discussed our mothers and what we had learned from them. I mentioned several lessons that I learned from my wonderful mother, Barbara, including hard work, courage and caring.

But while walking in the woods this morning I realized I also learned another important lesson that has helped me be emotionally healthy throughout my life. My mother taught me how to be grateful for the small wonders of life and this practice of gratitude has brought happiness to my life on a daily basis.

Yet my mother did not pontificate on philosophy, spiritualism or religion. How did she teach me this valuable lesson?

Every spring when I walk in the woods I think of my mother and search for the tiny spring beauties, the speckled dog-tooth violets and the reticent jack-in-the-pulpits on the woodland floor. She loved these May wildflowers and could identify so many plants, trees, birds and other natural wonders. A hike with her was a science lesson.

But most native wildflowers are not showy and are easily missed if one is not observant and patient. I realize now that a hike with my mother taught me to notice and appreciate even the most delicate and easily-over-looked delights. In this age of hyper-sonic movies and video games, this may be a lesson few learn today.

I believe these many woodland hikes with my mother were a training ground in gratitude. If we can notice tiny purple violets or experience the sound of raindrops on the leaf litter on the forest floor, perhaps this is preparation for recognizing and being joyful for other gifts — food, water, shelter, job, friends and love.

Of course, my mother also taught gratitude because she never said a negative thing about anyone and was rarely a complainer, despite many hardships, especially her many health conditions.

For years at the end of her life she had to wrap her arms and legs in heavy elastic bandages to prevent swelling from lymphedema and circulatory problems as a result of her breast cancer. Many others would have complained far more vocally. Yet she continued to garden, ride her bike daily, volunteer, travel and camp.

While I have many things to be thankful for — health, food, water, shelter, and a fulfilling career — I believe the practice of gratitude should begin with small things: the smell of apple blossoms on a damp spring day and thanks for being able to hike in the woods.

Too many of my patients over-focus on the negative aspects of their life, filling their brains with thoughts of real or imagined troubles and worries. They fail to notice the everyday parts of their lives that they may be grateful for. Perhaps they never had someone teach them this skill of noticing the wild violets and being grateful for another stroll in the spring woods.

Practice gratitude on this Mother’s Day! IMG_0398

Benzodiazepines linked to Alzheimer’s Disease

Doctors prescribe benzodiazepines like Xanax (alprazolam) and Klonopin (clonazepam) as if they have no side effects or long-term risk, but a new study links the use of these “benzos” to the development of Alzheimer’s disease. Just a 3-month course of benzos was related to a 51 percent increase in the likelihood of a dementia diagnosis. That’s significant! The disclaimer is that this is not a causal link, and that benzos are often used to treat the symptoms of dementia, but… why take the risk.

I’ve said for years that Big Pharma and Big Medicine are using psychotropic medications to treat emotional problems with a chemical solution. Why not try therapy FIRST to address issues of anxiety or depression, rather than just slather some chemicals on the brain? Anxiety and depression are merely the body and mind’s use of emotions, such as the alarm/fear response, that has gone into over-drive.

Another disclaimer if you are currently taking benzos:  Do not abruptly stop using these drugs. Work with your doctor to slowly wean off of them. And get a therapist!

Best Baby Shower Gift Ever

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Help new parents be better parents by giving them the book “The Science of Parenting,” by Margot Sunderland (DK Publishing, 2006, $16.95 paperback).  The title may be off-putting, but this book is beautifully designed, and is easy to read and understand.

Loaded with useful information and tips, it is based on the latest neuroscience on how parents can help raise happy, emotionally balanced children.

The book is based on the simple idea that parents are the key source for teaching children how to feel safe, especially in relationships — what in psychology we call “attachment.”  A securely attached child feels confident, relaxed, happy and is often more socially and intellectually intelligent. Insecurely attached children become anxious, depressed, angry, have difficulty learning, and often misbehave.

It gives solid evidence for exactly how to parent, including tips on handling tantrums, the co-sleeping debate, and when to use timeout (rarely!).

I very strongly recommend this book for any new parent or parents of toddlers or young children. I teach these ideas to parents in family therapy every day.

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Happy Birthday, Reilly!

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ReillyRiver1Reilly, the dog who was my muse for “Pack Leader Psychology,” celebrates her 10th birthday today. I have been so very, very fortunate to have this wise, old soul in my life.

However, I have some sad news to share. Reilly was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer a few weeks ago. Fortunately, she does not appear to be in pain and is doing fairly well. Anyone who has met her knows she is a force of nature and has tremendous strength of will. I’m hoping that will serve her now.

In honor of an authentic, emotionally balanced pack leader, I thought I’d share a bit from the introduction to “Pack Leader Psychology” about a few things Reilly taught me. (Of course, the entire book would not even be possible without her guidance.)

Reilly Tree JumpA growl instantly moved me from pack member to pack leader with my dog. Unfortunately, it was a bit more complicated for me to learn how to be a pack leader to the humans in my life. But without the lessons I learned from my dog, Reilly, I might never have transformed myself from a submissive, insecure, physically abused woman into the assertive “alpha” personality I am today.

How did I learn to claim my place in the human pack and stand up to those who wanted to dominate and control me? While I might have come to these insights on my own, it’s extremely unlikely. At the time that my second marriage was coming undone, I had the fabulous good fortune to adopt a smart, balanced dog by the name of Reilly. While it seems improbable, the spark for my life-changing insights was a German Shorthaired Pointer with a good Irish name.

My experiences living with and training Reilly taught me not just about dog behavior, but also about human behavior in ways that no self-help or psychology book ever had. What I would learn from her and because of her would rip blinders off my eyes that had blocked awareness of my behavior for more than 40 years. Reilly provided the code that unlocked my insight into why I had two failed marriages to alcoholic men, one an abuser; a meandering and unfulfilling career path; and distant relationships with family and friends.

Quite simply, Reilly’s lessons taught me how to assert myself and become a stronger person. Then I discovered that in the same way I had become a pack leader to my dog, I needed to become a pack leader with people. Once I learned that lesson, I also realized Reilly’s lessons gave me the keys to understanding the behavior of other people as well.

 Please keep Reilly in your hearts. I am so happy to have known her for more than 9 years. My life would not have been the same without her in it. Reilly laying portrait