Category: Self-Growth

The Science of Acceptance (and How to Get “Unstuck”)

By Aliza Dinerstein, LMSW

Throughout life, many of us experience periods of time when we find ourselves feeling stuck. We may feel stuck in an unfulfilling job, stuck in a conflict with a good friend, or even stuck in our own feelings of depression, panic, or fear. Understandably, our instinctual response is to try everything in our power to fight the reality as it is, in the hopes of rewriting the past and present according to the script of what we feel reality should be. Although on the surface this approach appears to be constructive, it is often the very act of not accepting the facts of reality which can cause us to become even more fastened to the problems that we are trying to rid ourselves of.

What is Acceptance?

Acceptance, the willingness to fully experience reality as it is, is a fundamental aspect of evidence-based psychotherapy. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a behaviorally oriented approach to psychotherapy that places emphasis on the combination of acceptance and behavioral change. Within the ACT framework, acceptance is considered the impetus of change in regards to our actions, thoughts, and feelings. Similarly, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) also focuses heavily on “radical acceptance” as a primary intervention for tolerating, decreasing suffering, and increasing our capacity for change.

Why is accepting reality so important?

When we reject reality we focus our energies on trying to change things that are beyond our control, which then causes us to feel stuck and helpless. Non-acceptance leads us to getting tangled up in our distressing thoughts and feelings, and we may notice ourselves trying to undo the past and control the future. Furthermore, refusal to accept our challenges causes us to avoid experiences of pain or fear, and before we know it we are no longer able to do the things that matter to us most. This concept is illustrated with the following metaphor (adapted from ACT): Imagine that you were blindfolded and placed in a large field, and you were given a small bag with some items to help you in the darkness. Unbeknownst to you, this very field was full of large holes, and soon after you began walking around the land you fall into a deep pit. You don’t know how to get out, so you take out your bag and find a shovel. You feel a sense of relief knowing that you have found the “perfect” tool, and you began to dig. However, as time passes, you realize that not only are you still in the hole, but it is actually much bigger. You continue to dig, even more fervently, but somehow the hole just continues to grow… Non-acceptance of reality may seem like the only tool we have, but it only creates the illusion that we are working towards solving our problem while we are actually just digging ourselves deeper into a hole.

How can I start to work on Acceptance?

Here are four steps you can take today:

  1. Accept with your whole self. Instead of just thinking, practice acceptance by engaging your heart and your body, as well as your mind. Use relaxation techniques (such as mindfully counting your breath), prayer, or go to a place that makes you feel calm while you think about the challenge of fully accepting reality for what it is.
  2. Use an acceptance (or self-acceptance) statement. Choose a phrase that helps you feel closer to accepting reality such as “this is what it is”  or “I accept myself as I am.”
  3. Fake it until you make it. List the things you would actually do if you were more accepting, and then act as if you have already accepted the unpleasant realities in your life. Choose one thing on the list and do it each day, even if you don’t feel motivated in the moment.
  4. Ride the wave. Allow sadness, disappointment, and/or grief to rise within you, while acknowledging that life can be worth living, even with pain. Often, after the emotions heighten they will naturally fall again, just like a wave.

Accepting reality is both a choice and a skill. The more we engage in the practices of acceptance we can build resilience to handle life’s challenges without getting “stuck,” and increase our capacity to not only tolerate difficulty but to grow through it as well.

9 Tips for a Productive School Year

by Yoni Sobin, PsyD

The beginning of the school year brings many challenges for children and parents alike. Perhaps most of all is the challenge of staying on top of all the tasks that need to get done! For some, staying productive may feel overwhelming, for others it may seem impossible – we stay on top of things for a few days, a week or two, maybe close to a month, yet eventually we find ourselves falling behind and overwhelmed once more. These tips can help make this coming school year your most productive one yet:

  1. Consistency

Humans work well with schedules. Wake up, brush teeth, eat, work, come home, eat, sleep, rinse, repeat. Performing a behavior consistently daily for a month is usually enough to set a habit. One great trick is to make sure you start the day with a consistent routine. For example, make your bed every morning. Starting every day with a small accomplishment sets you up to feel productive and ready to tackle the day’s challenges.

  1. Set one alarm (at most)

Alarms, especially multiple alarms, interfere with our circadian rhythm. So, at most set just one for the (actual) time you need to get up, and try not to snooze it. Even better, set a bedtime 7.5-8.5 hours before you need to get up, and let yourself wake up sans an alarm. If you get to bed on time and live somewhere with natural light in the mornings, let that be your alarm clock. By helping your body to learn to sleep when it’s dark and awaken when it’s light, you’ll maximize your productivity throughout each day.

  1. Delay morning phone/email use

This helps you to focus on priorities – getting kids out of the house, getting to work on time, and eating breakfast. It reduces your level of overall stress. Your most pressing needs in the morning are the immediate proximal stressors in your environment. Check the time, clean yourself up, and eat. Distal stressors can usually wait 20 minutes until you are more alert. No need to add stress the moment you wake up. Relatedly…

  1. Disable push notifications

Even when we quickly check a message notification without responding, it can take up to 10 minutes to reorient to another task. All that distracted time adds up throughout the day. Unless your job requires it, disable notifications for all social media, and any other distractions that are not essential to the day. Then, set aside time each day to allow yourself to govern your social media, instead of letting it govern you.

  1. Buy a planner / notebook

When were you last able to remember everything to do in one day without writing something down? Well, that’s because our brain is not designed to remember lists of tasks. Numerous studies have shown we can hold in mind a maximum of 7±2 units of information at a time. The solution is to get something simple;a weekly planner with a monthly page for long term planning should suffice. Use only one planner and stick to it, and get into the habit (see item 1) of looking at that planner several times daily and adding to it ANYTHING that needs doing. A task that is not completed must carry over to the next day.

  1. One planner only

One planner means one place to look and find out what you need to accomplish. With Google, Outlook, Slack, sticky notes, and more, we get overwhelmed trying to keep it all together. Consolidate everything in one place. Studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of a handwritten planner over digital tasks. The simple aspect of writing down tasks makes you remember them better. Digital means distraction.

  1. Break it down

It helps to break tasks down into manageable pieces. Manageable goals leave you satisfied and accomplished; overly optimistic goals result in feeling overwhelmed and procrastination, furthering a cycle of feeling overwhelmed, stressed, and being unproductive. When you finish a task, cross it off the list, physically, and then smile J The act of removing it from the list and rejoicing in small accomplishments serves to reinforce further completion of tasks.

  1. Ask for help

Do not be afraid to ask for help. If you do not like asking for help from other people, get help from digital aides like StayFocusd and Boomerang for Gmail. StayFocusd lets you choose how much time you will let yourself spend on distraction websites; once you have hit that cap, the application will block further access to your distraction website. Boomerang for Gmail helps keep your inbox clean, allowing you to “boomerang” messages you do not need to deal with now, and schedule them to return days, hours, or even weeks later when they are more important or pressing. You can also schedule messages to send later, helpful for night owls or for dealing with something in advance you worry you might forget about.

  1. Batch tasks to be more productive

When planning your day, batch similar tasks together. For example, don’t make a phone call, then answer an email, then eat lunch, then deal with 2 other phone calls. Plan to make all 3 phone calls together, then deal with emails, then eat lunch as a reward. This will help you stay further focused.

Stress-free living may not be possible, especially in this ever-changing, ever-complicated era of history. But by employing these 9 tips you will certainly find yourself more productive and relaxed. Try it for a month…

How to Conquer Difficult Emotions with Dialectical Behavior Therapy

By Aliza Dinerstein, LMSW

Throughout life individuals encounter a kaleidoscope of experiences,
each one eliciting a specific emotional reaction ranging from joy,
love and hope, to anxiety, anger, or fear. Although one instinctively
strives to increase positive feelings and decrease negative ones, it
is important to remember that, at times, encountering painful emotions
is an inevitable part of life. Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), a
composite of therapeutic interventions geared toward helping
individuals build a life worth living, focuses on the science of
‘emotion regulation,’ i.e., one’s capacity to work through difficult
emotions in an effective way. DBT provides concrete, empirically based
practices such as building awareness, mindfulness skills, and specific
behavioral change that can be utilized in day to day life, helping
individuals approach challenging emotions in constructive and
rewarding ways.

The first step is to increase emotional awareness. Oftentimes, strong
emotional reactions occur and individuals are unable to identify their
own emotions or recognize their impact on thoughts and actions.
Therefore, one of the most fundamental tools in responding effectively
to difficult feelings is learning to identify and label present
emotions as they arise, while gaining an understanding of how those
feelings work in conjunction with one’s thoughts and behaviors.
Emotional awareness is developed through monitoring five specific
elements: 1) events that trigger emotional responses, 2) one’s
thoughts and cognitive interpretations of these event, 3)
physiological reactions and bodily sensations, 4) behavioral response
(i.e., actions), and 5) most important, the outcome of one’s
emotional, cognitive and behavioral responses – also known as
“effectiveness”. Building emotional awareness is a skill that takes
time and practice to acquire through the use of daily monitoring. But
this is the foundation of DBT, as it enables us to develop emotional
mastery and regulation.

Another core concept in DBT is to grant yourself the freedom to feel.
Usually, people try to avoid painful feelings such as anger, sadness,
fear and anxiety. However, inhibiting these emotions does not make
them disappear and in fact it usually makes them worse. Thus, DBT
emphasizes the importance of “mindfulness” which involves truly
experiencing emotions instead of blocking, suppressing, or avoiding
them. In mindfulness practice, emotions are understood as waves that
naturally rise and fall. When we allow our emotions to operate
naturally, the intensity of the feelings are minimized and we can move
through strong emotional responses in a more healthy and integrative
way. A related DBT concept is that one should aim to radically accept
each emotion without judgement. Mindful awareness is a key element for
truly allowing one’s self to feel, and mindfulness practice enables
us to work through emotions with mindfulness, presence, and
acceptance.

A third key DBT principal is learning to take care of the body in
order to take of the mind. Our capacity to cope with challenges in
moments of adversity is impacted not only by one’s emotional health,
but also by the condition of one’s physical wellbeing. DBT’s  emotion
regulation ‘PLEASE’ skill encapsulates these very dimensions of
physiology, which include 1) treating any existing Physical iLlness,
2) maintaining balanced Eating, 3) avoiding mood Altering drugs, 4)
creating healthy Sleep habits, and 5) engaging in regular Exercise.
Although these targets may seem simplistic, research shows that the
more one decreases physical and environmental stressors, the less
prone to emotional reactivity one becomes.

Although experiencing painful emotions is unavoidable over the course
of life, it does not mean that anyone must suffer through them. These
and other principals of DBT explain that one can change maladaptive
behavioral, emotional, and cognitive responses while mindfully
experiencing life in the present and accepting reality as it is. This
understanding, coupled with the skills that DBT provides, can help us
cultivate awareness, acceptance, resilience, and growth.