A Raleigh Therapist's Blog

Thoughts on counseling, healing, and creating the life you want

Driving with the Brakes on

“Driving with the brakes on,” is a rather lovely metaphor therapist Fred J. Hanna uses to describe individuals who would love to talk about their issues all day, but do not feel inclined to actively make any modifications.  I love this illustration because it defines one of the principle difficulties most individuals face at one time or another.

When you’re a new therapist, the client you hope for the most is the one who has a good deal of awareness about his or her issues and complaints. You love the individuals who present with beautifully-worded monologues about how these maladies have managed to hold them back. That is, until you realize that with many of those people the buck stops there. These are the daydreaming uber-clients who don’t really want to develop an ability to tolerate change. They just want to editorialize about it. In fact, therapy in the past may have been about endlessly analyzing the reasons for the trouble without making any concrete steps to forge a better life. We therapists can unwittingly reward this kind of perceptive client for standing still.  It’s like watching a carefully-planted garden wither and die when you’re standing right there with the watering hose. I believe that it’s that delicious moment of understanding paired with your own sense of agency that makes life really hum.

Make no mistake; sometimes, it makes good sense not to change. Life may be uncomfortable, but at least stable. You may have attached some piece of your identity to the issue that has gotten you under its thumb. Or, maybe you’re just scared. So, I challenge you to really take a look at your own self-work. Are you taking advantage of that big engine or driving with the brakes on?

Your Partner in Healing,  Holly

If you would like to scheudle and appointment or a free, 15-minute phone consultation please call 407.913.4988 or email holly@lotustherapycenter.com

 

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Carversity

I really love books on CD. I mean, I super-duper sundae with fudge on top love them. But the ones I love most are the inspirational titles about creating the life you want, becoming more spiritual, and in general liking yourself and your life. A short trip to the local library will find you nearly any topic your heart desires. But why should you bother? Read on.

I write a lot on this blog about taking responsibility for the way your thoughts shape your life. And, if I were you I would be thinking to myself, “Yeah lady, easier said than done.” I happen to agree with you on that count. It is difficult to reroute automatic impressions and patterns of thinking. But for those of you who are in the remotest way auditory learners, priming the pump by listening to positive materials is a quick shortcut to accomplishing a lot more.

I didn’t come up with the term “carversity” but I wish I had. It came from a CD I was listening to (name of author unfortunately forgotten) who stressed that the time you have in your car can become a laboratory or “university” for the concepts you want to incorporate in your life. When I am doing research, I almost always listen to Cd’s about time management and tenacity. When I am starting new business ventures I go for the selections that emphasize reaching a receptive audience. And, when I am worried I listen to stuff that helps me remember not to sweat the small stuff.

Anything you listen to over and over again will have an impact on your thinking. Why not take the time to put good stuff in so you can get the good stuff out?

Your Partner in Healing,   Holly

If you would like to schedule an appointment or a free, 15-minute phone consultation please call 407.913.4988 or email me at holly@nova.edu.

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You're a Perfect 10

Have you ever had that feeling that someone is looking over your shoulder all the time? Not just in that casual, “Hey buddy, whatcha up to” sort of way. But, I mean really examining what you do, taking notes worthy of a Times reporter, and then filing them away for a scathing critique that will be splashed on the front page of every daily rag in your state?

 

Welcome to the world of the perfectionist. It’s a place of hot fires at every turn that never get put out completely. It’s about never feeling good enough, and being terrified that other people will figure out you’re not good enough. Worst of all, it’s a place where you can never ask for help because then you would be back where you started—worried that others will find you sorely lacking. That’s to say nothing of the constant evaluation you may do of everyone else. It’s like having a built-in sonar for mistakes that never stops ringing in your ears. Really, a drive for perfection is anxiety dressed up in a fancy coat. See, what can you get from this blog if not strong clinical descriptions?

 

I’m not sure why this cultural phenomenon is happening, but I have noticed that a good deal of coverage has been cropping up about this topic in the media. From BBC reports to articles in pop-psychology magazines like Psychology Today, the world is starting to take notice. There is some debate about this compelling urge to master everything. Is it a socially constructed issue nurtured in the bosom of the family unit, or is it one of a genetic origin (which the big pharma companies would love)? For what it’s worth, my experience has been that it is probably a bit of both. Some folks are wired to be a bit more highly strung than others, and those traits can be developed just as any other could be depending on the values of the larger family system. At any rate, there is a growing hubbub about including this particular “problem” in the litany of maladies codified for our diagnosing pleasure in the big bible of mental health issues—the DSM-IV.

 

However, just for kicks and giggles, let’s say you don’t have a huge, looming disorder with a capital D. (Since I, for one, don’t think viewing it that way will be particularly helpful.) Let’s say that you have gotten too good at solving a problem, and have instead developed a solution that now bites you back rather than protecting you and stabilizing your world. Assuming that your drive to be the best of the rest is an adaptive response that has gotten out of hand, what to do?

 

  1. See it in Black and White: I usually don’t extend an invitation to either/or thinking, but consider this your one opportunity. It might be helpful to break your perfectionistic tendencies down into a series of pros and cons. There are probably some ways that these attributes work for you (great attention to detail) and others in which they don’t (you’re so bogged down in detail you can’t get anything done). Take a good look at how ready you are to release some of the control you associate with doing everything the “right way.” What are your very worst fears about what might happen if you soften your grip? Until you address those big fears about the ‘pros’ associated with perfectionism, you’re likely to be unable to step away from it.
  2. Perfect your technique: Consider the irony of the typical person who comes for therapy to address a great drive to perfect everything.  She doesn’t really want to be less perfect, she wants to be more perfect at not getting anxious about being perfect. (Go ahead, read that last sentence again.) Think about what therapy or any other form of relaxation and reflection is really meant to encourage in your life. Are you using it to plant more roses in your life garden or only to pull out a few vexing weeds? If you only do one without the other, your life will continue to be a barren landscape without much color. And, if being perfect does anything, it robs you of the ability to see the beauty of your own life. Everything gets funneled into a very narrow frame.
  3. Take of the Blinders: Being a perfectionist is like taking a drive in the country with all your windows blocked. Think about what might be/feel different if you were to focus on the process of something rather than the results. How would that make a difference in your anxiety?

Your Partner in healing,  Holly

 

If you would like to schedule an appointment or a free 15-minute phone consultation please feel free to phone 407.913.4988 or email holly@lotustherapycenter.com.

 

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Stress Test

I love busy, stressed-out people.  In some ways, they are the most fun clients with whom I get to work.  This is true for many reasons, but the most important one is that they are my own ghosts of workdays past.

Not long enough ago, I realized I was one French fry on the run away from not liking my life very much anymore. It was then I decided to make some changes. Of course, it wasn’t until about 3 months later that I implemented them, (I was too busy to not be busy) but I made the darn resolution. Do you recognize yourself yet?

Lots of my clients are like I was then. They insist they don’t have the time to devote to exercising, meditating, praying, journaling, art, music, or some other relaxing activity every day. However, they often come to therapy when exhaustion and panic attacks have forced them to skip important meetings, take time off of work, or simply avoid situations that would advance their careers. Somehow, the 20 minutes each day I recommend seems frivolous. But think of it this way instead: if you miss one 8-hour work day due to stress-related issues, that’s really 24 days you could have kept going strong if you had built 20-minute stress-management purposefully into your life every day. How do you like them apples? That’s to say nothing of the greater sense of direction, well-being, and general good health.

If you go to therapy to address this issue, your therapist might help you tackle your concerns in several ways. First, he or she will try to understand what your drive to achieve means to you, and what parts of your past and present belief system it reflects. Then, you two will talk about what specific things will be different when your life feels more in balance. Last, he or she will recommend some specific techniques to help you address these issues. If your therapist is trained in hypnotherapy as well, the two of you might do some guided relaxation or light hypnosis to address the physical symptoms of stress-related exhaustion. I know it sounds new-agey, but hypnosis and guided relaxation are good for helping your body to “remember” what it feels like to access a calm state. If you have been training it for the panicked American triathlon, it might be helpful to give it a head start in that regard.

Your Partner in Healing,    Holly

If you would like to  schedule an appointment or a free 15-minute phone consultation, please contact me at 407.913.4988 or holly@lotustherapycenter.com

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I think I can, I think I can

I was thinking today about the power of language, and that old adage about “sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me.” Someone wise should add an amendment to it that says, “Unless I think them about myself.” 

 

Clients come to therapy in part, yes, because of the intentional (or non-intentional) evil stuff other people have said to them. But those things morphed into the boogie man under your emotional bed when some part of you not just believed them, but began to repeat them to yourself as truths. After all, who has more keys to your storehouse of self-esteem than you? When did you start allowing your thoughts to make you a secret agent for the other side?

 

When we’re trying to make ourselves sound smart, we mental health folks explain that we will help you stop shooting yourself in the butt by doing CBT, SFBT, or any other number of acronym-rich techniques on you. But, what we’re actually doing (please do try this at home) is having a conversation with you about how your thoughts inform your feelings, and your feelings inform your worldview about yourself and others. My favorite question to ask clients about their self-defeating thoughts is, “What would it mean about you if that were true?”  Go ahead and give it a try. Then, give some thought to what you would prefer to be thinking about instead. When those negative thoughts are no longer allowed to be automatic, you start to have wiggle room.

 

Your Partner in Healing,    Holly

 

If you would like to schedule an appointment or a free 15-minute phone conversation call 407.913.4988 or email holly@lotustherapycenter.com.

 

 

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A Quick Note about Brief Therapy

If I thought something was going to take a long time, I would put it off until I was sure I had racked up enough hours on my schedule to do it the right way. I am, in fact, really familiar with this idea. It sort of permeates my long-term struggle to develop a strong taste for fitness and healthy eating. “Well,” I logic to myself, “I might as well get started out on the right foot—right after the New Year’s.” Has the New Year ever become July or October for you too?

In my experience, folks struggling with some sort of emotional or spiritual distress run up against this same dilemma when thinking about coming to therapy. It does make sense, if you think about it. Why start counseling when you are too stressed, frazzled, or over-committed to “really” take advantage of it? Why open up old wounds when you’re already spread thin and your resources are committed to just hanging in there? These are good questions; I have a few answers.

There is a mythology out there that therapy must be long, intense, and full of soggy Kleenex in order to be effective. While there are many instances in which it is helpful to get at the architecture of the bad stuff (the experiential and emotional blue prints informing the hurts so to speak) there is also something to be said for starting from the here and now. Therapy is not just about pathologies of individuals and relationships. It is also about figuring out what is already working, developing a plan to do more of that, and charting a course for the future based on the strengths you have right now, this very moment. That, you can start today. You don’t have to switch into your marathon gear. You don’t have to plan your next three years around it. Get started recognizing that nobody ever changes because he or she is too comfortable. You already have some knowing about what it will take to get back on track If you allow yourself to get in touch with it. Besides, some research shows that therapists are far more enraptured with long-term work than clients ever are.

Good luck giving yourself permission to accept that this moment is a good enough time to start.

Your Partner in Healing,   Holly

If you would like to schedule an appointment or a free 15-minute phone consultation call 407.913.4988 or email holly@lotustherapycenter.com.

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A Terrible Loss

It was with a heavy heart that I read last night about the murder of UCF graduate student Nicole Ganguzza. It is always horrible when someone so young and full of promise is taken from us. It seems more unfair still when that person is just embarking on her own life as a married woman and a vibrant, caring professional. From all accounts Nicole was already using her education in Marriage and Family Therapy to better the lives of everyone she touched. My prayers are with her family and husband as they attempt to pick up the pieces of this horrible tragedy, and with the brave Law Enforcement officers who are working to bring her killer to justice. 

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Anxiety Now: Redux

So here’s the funny thing about anxiety–it loves you. Anxiety wants to hang out with you all the time. It loves you when you’re home. It loves you when you’re at work. It even loves you when you’re out walking Fido, shopping for new underwear, or reading the paper. This is a companion that has all the tender affections of a really well-practiced stalker. Anxiety is concerned enough to leave its calling cards everywhere just so you won’t forget it for too long–muscle aches, stomach pains, blushing, sweating, and a host of others. Sound familiar?

Originally, anxiety wasn’t quite the social leper it is now. A fight-or-flight response is built into the human nervous system because it was useful in helping our ancestors to avoid becoming lunch for some saber-toothed beastie. In an evolutionary sense, those of us who are prone to anxiety are the descendents of the all-stars of the ancient world. Super sensitive, we would have been able to haul loin cloth when necessary. These days, it is hardly necessary to ramp up to full tiger avoidance response when our bills are due or the kids have smeared cheese on the walls.

Now, try telling your body that. I’ll wait. Really, go ahead. Still anxious? Read on.

What we’re talking about here is one of the questions most central to making sense of modern life in a body that’s hard-wired for the African savannah. How can we partner with our bodies to so that our stress responses don’t take over? How can we honor the messages we receive from both our physical and mental selves?

Our bodies and our minds (some would add spirits or souls) are riding along together. There is nothing that happens for one that does not occur for the other as well. When we speak of finding “balance” in our lives it is more than beautiful language. It is a way of acknowledging the integration of all aspects of our lived experience. Without that integration we feel lost, tired, and yes, anxious. 

What are some ways we can mediate the effects of stress and tension? There are many good techniques to manage the fear and panic that are central to anxiety. Often, the best ones are unique to you. Good therapy can help you identify ways you have been successful in negotiating the throes of anxiety in the past, and it can assist you in building new individualized strategies. But just to get you started, here a few that most clients find helpful.

1) When you’re anxious, stay in the now– That sounds silly, right? But, as human beings most of our time is split between life in this moment, plans for the future, and thoughts of the past. There is nothing wrong with that very reasonable use of our big brain’s ability to deal in abstractions.
Nothing, that is, until those images conjure up a maelstrom of fear and doubt. Your body will become sympathetic to this and tense up to mirror your cognitive landscape. If you continue to hang onto those terrifying thoughts, your body will continue to provide a complimentary response. What now? Return your attention to your body as it is just at that moment. (If you want a $10 expression for Trivial Pursuit, we therapists sometimes call your body experience ‘the somatic self.’) When you are able to pay attention to the thoughts that fuel your body response and accept the somatic self as it is, you will be able to be able to be responsive rather than reactive.

2) Let’s get physical–I’m not talking about that compulsive, “I need abs like Brittney Spears,” kind of exercise. I’m talking about the sweaty goodness that helps you to wring the stress out of your body by moving all those tensed-up muscles and kick-starting the feel-good chemicals in
 your body. If step class isn’t your thing, other forms of physical movement like yoga and dance are also effective, and require you to pay attention to your body in the present moment (see above). Some studies have even found links between rigorous exercise and improved concentration. Since a huge part of anxiety can be based in fears related to perfectionism, what could be bad about having more mental resources?

3) Stick out your tongue and say “Om”- Daily meditation or prayer are fantastic ways to slow down and reconnect the pieces. The fear that fuels anxiety is anything but a slow emotion. It’s like a biker gang with souped-up hogs heading down the superhighway of your body/mind connection. Meditation can help you install some toll plazas, stop lights, and traffic cops to put the brakes on runaway anxiety responses.

4) Believe it’s your lucky day- Wait, before you think I’m the hokiest shrink ever, check this out: research has demonstrated that when test subjects experienced positive emotions, their problem-solving ability and mental focus increased. This, in turn, increased their levels of the feel-good neurotransmitter, dopamine. You can think about anything you want. It’s up to you to decide if you’re going to dwell on vinegar or honey. Though it can be tough to concentrate on the positive, setting even a few minutes aside to do this could change your life. While you’re at it, include some good reading material. If I could plug just one book to all my clients it would be “What Happy People Know” by psychologist Dan Baker.

Your Partner in Healing,   Holly

If you would like to schedule an appointment or a free 15-minute phone consultation please write holly@lotustherapycenter.com or phone 407.913.4988.

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Mixed Nuts:Managing children in blended families

There is something about the term “blended family” that makes me hungry. It sounds like something I could go down to my local smoothie shack and order up with extra strawberries and whipped cream. If I ever open that combination café / therapy office I have been dreaming about for so long, you can guarantee that’s the first thing I’ll have on the menu.We would all agree that human beings are complicated critters. Though the care and keeping of the young aliens we call children is outlined in many good parenting self-help books, the actual process of shepherding the next generation towards tomorrow is still a daunting one. It’s a journey that despite our most cleverly-designed time outs and well-delivered imperatives, still sometimes ends in tearful fits and slamming doors. (And, that’s just for the adults.)
So, what then is any reasonable person to do when attempting to establish a home with a new partner and become a parent to Jr.? Here are a few tips on how to make the adjustment.
1. Rome wasn’t built in a day: I know you’re thinking about skipping over this one to something about disciplining a stepchild who calls you “dog breath” to your face. But, this one is first for a reason. Give yourself and the child permission to take it slowly. Children have some important work to do when accepting a step parent. This may include resolving guilt feelings about their parents’ separation and negotiating an understanding that they can both have loyalty to their biological parents and accept you at the same time. From a child’s perspective, that’s like emotional calculus. It will take a while to figure out, and they might get frustrated with it. Sometimes, rejection by one of your stepchildren is not a rejection of you, but rather a rejection of the situation, the loss of any potential for their biological parents to reunite. You will also need time, and a safe space to talk about what it means to become a parent to children who are not your own. Therapy, support groups, and clergy members can all provide a forum for this kind of discussion. But if you can remain consistent, and most of all interested in getting to know the child during this process, you might be surprised by the results.
2. Present a united front: Children in any new situation will look around to find the boundaries and the loop holes. That’s not just kid nature, that’s human nature. Children in both first and blended families feel safe by knowing that they are not responsible for the structure of the household. It is particularly important for blended families to have open discussions about the rules of the home, and how they will be enforced. Write out the rules and post them somewhere in the home. This will not just save you some heartache in the household, but will enrich a sense of partnership in the couple. Kids are master detectives when it comes to figuring out how to play any set of parents, biological or not, against one another. Protect your union by sorting out parenting issues behind closed doors.
3. Taming the tiger: Discipline–see, told you I would get there. It’s not uncommon for adults in new partnerships to feel guilty about the effects the dissolution of the first family might be having on their kids. This is normal, and only becomes a problem if it leads to pardoning behavior in your children that you would have otherwise considered unacceptable. At first, primary responsibility for disciplining the children should belong to the biological parent. This is particularly true if the relationship between stepparent and child is shaky. As the relationship builds, the step parent can take on more and more
responsibility and authority. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to have clear house rules. In that manner, when the stepparent hands out discipline, he or she can rightly point out that the child has run afoul of the house rules, not the stepparent’s arbitrary preferences. No matter how well you get along, you can expect to hear at least once, “You can’t tell me what to do; you’re not my mom/dad.” Go ahead and count on it.
4. Who’s your daddy: Never, never, never (never to infinity) force a child to call the step parent mom or dad if the child does not want to do so. That particular title has already been reserved for the biological parent. A child may very well grow to know and love the step parent so much that she or he will want to use those terms. However, that should always be the child’s individual choice. Pushing this issue early on will prevent the relationship between step parent and child from growing and maturing naturally.

5. Ignore the Fairytales: Many beloved stories contain some interesting stereotypes about step parents. Don’t you ever wonder what Snow White did to push her step mother towards that poison apple? Or, what Carol Brady did to earn the immediate love and obedience of her three rowdy stepsons? Don’t fall prey to the mythology that abounds about wicked step parents. Step parents are just people; people who are stepping into complex roles and struggling to cope with grace and humor. Look for support from understanding friends and family or a trusted therapist. Children might also benefit from a safe place where they can express feelings related to their biological family and the new blended family.

Your Partner in Healing,  Holly

If you would like to schedule an appointment or a free 15-minute phone consultation please feel free to write holly@lotustherapycenter.com or phone 407.913.4988.

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Anger Management: Battle Stations!

Usually, when I stop for coffee in the morning I needed to be at work 5 minutes ago. You would think that I would learn to get up earlier, schedule my first appointment for later, or—gasp—actually prepare myself for the day the night before. Honestly, I will probably never do any of that stuff successfully. (Don’t tell—we therapists often like to pretend like we’re above that kind of thing.) So there I am, sitting in bumper to bumper traffic, fighting mad with anyone who gets in my way. This might sound like the start to a treatise about stress management through better time management. But it’s not. It’s about one of the calling cards of stress of any kind—anger.

  There is a generally accepted notion in the psychological community that anger is a secondary emotion. That means it never rides in on its white horse alone. In fact, it’s never even at the head of the calvary. It’s actually somewhere near the back holding the flag and lookin’ tough. But, the big, flashy banner means you’ll sure notice it .You might even think the army is bigger than it really is.  In your body, you notice anger by the “banner” physical symptoms of stress gone wild. Your fists might tighten, your face becomes red. You feel like hitting that guy right in the face, and then drawing back and doing it one more time. That’s not to mention your poor shoulder muscles holding on to the tension, your palms that are slick with sweat, or the curse words that keep on rolling off your tongue.  So if anger isn’t first, what is? Fear. (Stay with me now, this is going to get deep.) If anger is the car, fear is the fuel that runs it. This is complicated by the fact that fear has many faces like: shame, low self-esteem, and a terror of abandonment. I once had a very intelligent and well-respect colleague who quickly became overwhelmed and verbally aggressive each time someone asked her even a simple question about the way she managed her staff. Was she angry at being questioned? Of course—we all get a little self-righteous sometimes. But what she was really afraid of was looking stupid and inept, or the rest of the team ganging up on her. She didn’t want to be ashamed or alone.

These very same themes play out all the time in intimate and parental relationships. They show up as an abuser isolating a domestic violence victim. They are there when a drug addict has to be committed against her will to save her life. Fear. Anger.  In small, manageable doses, anger is catalytic. It causes change and change is very often good. It only becomes a problem when it is expressed by violence or emotional terrorism. Rage is particularly virulent when it is allowed to make its bearer physically, mentally, or spiritually ill.

Fortunately, there are many ways to give anger a run for its money. Here are a few: 

1) Become Assertive: I put this one first because it sounds almost counter-intuitive. But, anger can arise out of feelings of being misunderstood or stymied in interpersonal communications. Yelling, threatening, or intimidating usually only reward you with a form of coerced cooperation. They do not help you solve problems that you could otherwise address with conversational tools that make a space for collaboration. And, reacting in an aggressive manner almost guarantees that you are teaching people to handle you with kid gloves—a recipe for feeling left out and abandoned. Guess what feelings of abandonment (sometimes experienced as being “not important enough” to treat well) lead to? That’s right—anger. It’s always interesting to meet people who get angry lots and lots because other people just don’t “get” them. If you’re finding that you’re one of those mysterious people, come down from your high horse and slowly back away. People don’t “get” you because you’re not giving them any help in understanding you. Focus on learning some skills that will help you get what you want by asking for it in appropriate and palatable ways. 

2) Deep Breathing: I can hear the sigh of “yeah, right,” across the miles. But, if you allow yourself to continue to breathe shallowly and rapidly, you are continuing to tell your body that this is a danger situation. Your body will respond really effectively with increased symptoms of anxiety. When you take a few seconds to breathe deeply from your diaphragm, you are alerting your whole system that physical reactivity is not required. If you are able to make your mental state and physical state more congruent, it will be easier to calm down and communicate well. 

3)  Walk Away:  This one is kind of a “duh” suggestion. But, you will be surprised by how many people sit in my office and have an “ah-ha” moment around learning to disengage. Your past relationships may have taught you that it is bad, cowardly, or even mean to walk away from confrontation. You can usually tell if you are one of these people because the folks around you often say, “Why can’t you just let it go?” If this is the case, you need to take a good look at how that belief system emerged in your life. If you can’t see the pattern, you won’t have any good starting place for changing it. 

4) Develop a Sense of Humor: There is a book that I almost always lend to clients who come to me because their anger is getting the best of them. It’s called, rather simply, “Anger,” and is by a guy named Thich Nhat Hanh. I give this book to even the baddest of the bad because it teaches you how to have a sense of humor about the ways you let yourself get really knotted up in rage. It usually doesn’t come back to me (you know who you are) because folks find it so helpful they just keep it. It is one of my greatest joys to see clients experience themselves as fallible, funny, and altogether interesting creatures.

5) Exercise: If you read these newsletters with any regularity, you’ll remember that I am forever recommending this. You don’t have to be preparing for the next Victoria’s Secret runway show. But, you do have to give your body an outlet for all the stuff you ask it to manage for you during the day. Even if you do nothing more than walk Fido around the block or do a Yoga tape after the kids go to bed, do something.

Your Partner in Healing,   Holly

If you would like to schedule an appointment or a free 15-minute phone consultation please write to holly@lotustherapycenter.com or call 407.913.4988

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