(Becky, the Mama.)
We have all had times when our brain seems to get stuck in painful, upsetting thought loops. I’ve noticed this happens most often when there has been a deep loss (as in grief) or a slight or betrayal (perceived or real) in a significant relationship. Or if we feel wrongly accused and powerless to defend ourselves. Fear and worry can also kidnap us in a grip of terrorizing thought loops.
Often the brain goes back and forth in a ping-pong fashion, playing out imaginary scenarios or what we would say to someone — if only we could. Or how we wish things were as they once were, if only we could turn back the clock. Or how we could help or fix or cure… if only we were able to do so. Your body is in the world, but your mind is stuck in an alternate reality.
What can you do, today, to ease the pain in your brain?
I wrote of several techniques, in detail, that have proven helpful to many in our book Nourished, in a chapter titled “Nourishing the Brain in Pain.” If you were sitting at my kitchen table today and going through a rough time with a brain stuck on a Bad Thought Loop, here’s what I would share. (Based on a ton of research-based reading, good therapy and experimenting with what really worked for me.)
- Rock Your Soul. If you are in a state of exhaustion, overwhelm, upset, feeling triggered and perhaps shaky and unable to process, I’d urge you to do something physical that rocks your body back and forth, first. Get out on a porch swing, rock in a chair, talk a walk, swing your arms and head back and forth like rag doll. This technique works on adults the same way it works on a baby or child. We instinctively know to rock or swing a baby back and forth when it is upset. I won’t go into all the neurological reasons this helps, but trust me, any kind of rhythmic movement tends to release trauma.
- Healthy Distractions. Once calmer you can ask yourself, “Do I want to think about this situation right now, or can it wait until a better time?” If you don’t want to think about it right now, do a Healthy Distraction. Do something that is of great interest to you, something that absorbs your mind and focus. Or better yet, try to do or learn something brand new. This keeps the brain so busy it can’t ruminate. Take a painting class. Listen to an intriguing or uplifting Ted Talk for 20 minutes. Go to a brand new restaurant. Learn to tango. Volunteer at a homeless shelter. Adopt a pet. Whatever sounds fun and absorbs your mind and/or body. In fact, it is a good idea to make a list of Healthy Distractions so that when you find yourself kidnapped by a painful series of thoughts, you have some ideas to try at your fingertips.
- Self-Questioning/Processing. If you are in a good spot to process and think, then grab a pen and paper and get to a quiet place. Notice the feeling that is currently most painful. Is it jealousy? Anger? Hurt? Grief? Now follow that feeling down to just one thought that is underneath it all. It is often a thought that begins with, “(name of person) should not have…” or “(name of person) should have…” or (Event) should not have happened…” Or perhaps it is a worry. “I am afraid that if I don’t get this job…. I will…” Or “I worry that if my adult child doesn’t stop using drugs he will….” Don’t edit yourself to sound nicer or more spiritual, just write down the thought that is under the pain.
- Play with the Painful Thought. Now, play with that thought a bit. Try saying the opposite of it. Or switching up the sentence in various ways. Do any of these new sentences speak to you? Sound as true or truer than the painful thought, but make you feel lighter, more hopeful or happy? For example, let’s say you are feeling hurt and angry and beneath these feelings is the thought, “My brother should have given me something for my birthday.” You can play with this sentence in several ways. Here are a few examples:
* “My brother should NOT have given me something for my birthday.” – Stay with this thought for a bit. Can you think of anything positive that came from your brother NOT giving you something for your birthday? Could this event, however painful to you now, be leading you to a new level of freedom in learning to give up expectations of others? And wouldn’t you be happier if you stopped giving others the power of disappointing you? What if you stopped expecting them to be like some perceived image of a “good brother” or a “good person” – and just accepted and loved them as they are? Does that make you breathe a little easier?
* “I should give me something for my birthday.” — Hmmm…this is a great turn-around for many of us. Are we asking someone else to do what we could be doing to love and appreciate ourselves? Maybe you need to treat yourself to exactly the sort of gift you’d love. Afterall, who knows better what you really want than YOU I know someone who even planned her own surprise party! Had a blast.
* “I should give my brother something for my birthday.” – Well, there is an interesting thought. What could you give your brother to celebrate your birthday? What about the gift of letting it go and not holding this perceived slight against him, and therefore freeing yourself as well from the painful state of resentment? Can you give the gift of generous forgiveness to him, and for your own benefit, too? Or maybe you send HIM a card telling him all the things you remember that are good about him.
* “I should let God give me something for my birthday.” What do you think God is wanting to give you that is better than any human being could give you today? Can you see it? Accept it? Be thankful for this gift? Is it a sunset? The taste of a just ripe mango? A baby’s laugh? Now that you aren’t focusing on what someone else should have done, it allows room to open your eyes to the gift God is handing to you today. Is there a verse of scripture or phrase from a song or hymn that comes to mind as you pray and ask God what He longs to give you?
5. Create a comforting image to go with the thought that lifts your mood. When we create a word picture the thought becomes “stickier” to the mind and it will give the new positive thought more power over the old, painful one. So, in the example above perhaps you visualize God handing you a sunset wrapped in a bow with your name written across the sky. Perhaps attached to the sunset is a verse of scripture chosen just for you – your “birthday card” from heaven. Whenever you start to think a thought leading to a painful loop (“my brother should have given me a present, he doesn’t love me, he is so unthoughtful” ) switch to this clear image of God handing you a gift from heaven. Or perhaps the image is of you giving your brother a gift of a card that says, “I love you without expecting anything in return.” Or an image of you lovingly and cheerfully buying yourself a bouquet of Gerber daisies or a pair of earrings or a new computer gadget or workshop tool.
6. Practice Self-Care. Ask yourself, without judgment, “What do I need right now?” And continue to ask this question as you regularly check in on yourself. This is how we heal bodies and brains after a slight or trauma or loss. The worse the painful event, the more you need to tend to and pamper yourself. Do you need to sit in the sunshine and do nothing at all for 30 minutes? Do you need to nap? A hike? To watch a silly comedy? Meet a caring friend for lunch? Go on a mini-vacation? Browse a bookstore? Go on a bike ride? Did you remember to eat well? Take your vitamins or supplements? Reading Matthew 6 and Philippians 4 and of course Psalm 23, are go-to comforting scriptures for me. (Try reading old familiar passages in a new version sometimes. It may awaken you to fresh thoughts.) Finally, practice the art of saying no, with grace and without guilt. Remember: you do not need to burn yourself out in order to be a warm presence for others.
During the writing of the book Nourished, with my daughter, Rachel, I experienced a long season of multiple crises and burn-out from chronic over-giving and over-doing. (Note to self: be careful what you write about or God will take you much deeper into the subject than you want to go!) But of course, it was in this very valley that I eventually grew stronger and a little wiser and learned something about compassion and joy no matter what. I shared with our readers all that I gleaned about how to nourish a “brain in pain” in that chapter — but I am still an eager student, curious as to why suffering (given some time) turns some folks heroic, yet makes other perpetual victims.
After watching the fascinating Ken Burns series on The Roosevelts this Fall, I began to read everything I could find on the lives of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. (I came to it late, but thanks to my husband’s lifelong interest in WW2 era, I have now caught the history bug in earnest.) Reading a good biography about flawed, complex, great men and women can be more inspiring than essays or devotionals. It is the difference between reading C.S. Lewis describe the four kinds of love versus reading A Grief Observed – the poignant, personal story of falling in love with, then losing, his beloved wife. One tells, one shows. One hits our brain, the other our heart. Opinions are observed, stories are felt.
Before polio struck FDR – at the very beginnings of his political career – he was wealthy, handsome, proud, narcissistic and aloof, even haughty. Spoiled by a doting mother. And in fact, if his pride had been left unchecked, his mother might have been the only person who could love him. However, after being struck down at the prime of his life, his athletic frame crippled over night, he changed. And thank goodness for our nation, he changed for the better. His compassion for other polio sufferers became legendary; his newfound empathy led to personal action. He befriended, helped and encouraged hundreds of fellow polio victims at the rehab-resort in Warm Springs, Georgia, and did not forget them once he was in the White House.
After Hitler began his first unspeakable extermination… burning houses, killing Jews and sending them to concentration camps, FDR was the ONLY world leader to publicly condemn this first wave of horrific crimes against humanity. I can’t help but wonder if his own personal understanding, from his experience with polio and the fight against prejudice of the physically-challenged, played a part in his courage to speak up for those who could not. His famous line, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself!” wasn’t just political rhetoric; it burst from his heart, echoing his personal hard-won victory over defeat and despair. The courage he gleaned from his very personal challenges, would inspired an entire nation with bravery in critical days.
We may never understand the reasons for suffering. But when seen from a broad view of history, I can see that those who allowed suffering to change them, for the better, instead of for the bitter…. became wiser, more compassionate, courageous. It clarified their spiritual purpose. People who allow themselves to be refined in the fire of suffering, eventually discover within themselves the stuff of which heroes are made.
And so what does this mean to us? To you and me, today? It means that when suffering is allowed to have its way in our lives, when we choose to let it soften and strengthen and expand us, instead of harden and weaken and shrink us…. something heroic happens within. In short, suffering can be the very thing that prepares us for, and increases our capacity for our greatest calling. What seems so random and crippling today, in the long view of your life, maybe the very experience you needed to fulfill your greatest purpose for being put on this earth.
”Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way.”
James 1:2-4 The Message
I want to dedicate this blog to my dear friend, Michele Cushatt today, whose courage and spirit while battling cancer inspires me daily. She’s my hero of the hour!
A bit about our friendship is written in Nourished, and you will love Michele’s upcoming book (to be released in early March), also with Zondervan, titled Undone: A Story of Making Peace With An Unexpected Life)
We are guest-posting at the lovely Ann Voskamp’s blog today. A story from one of my oldest and dearest friends, Shawn, who had every right to be bitter after losing two beloved husbands, both named Ron, in the span of five years. One day Shawn emailed me about an image God had given to her that was profoundly beautiful and comforting. I’ve turned to it time and again in my own dark hours, and shared it with many others as well. It is always soothing to the soul.
I hope it might bless you as well today. Simply click on Ann’s picture above or the link below to read more.
(Nourishing Smiles, by Becky Johnson)
Sometimes words just get in the way, especially when pictures tell their own story so well. Here is a series of snapshots that my daughter (and co-author), Rachel, took one morning as we sat visiting and clowning around the dining room table where our big blended family had played a rousing game of poker on New Year’s Eve, the night before. To set the scene: I had been drinking coffee in the kitchen, when Rachel’s three-and-a-half year old son Jackson hollered, “Hey Nonny, there are cup holders in here!” (Meaning, “Come put your coffee in one of the cup holders around the table and play with me.”How could I resist?)
Rach happened to have her camera handy and here is what happened next.
Victor Borge once said, “The closest distance between two people is a laugh.” I have discovered this to be unfailingly true. Not just with friends, but also with my kids and grandkids. In the excerpt below, from our newly released book,Nourished: A Search for Health, Happiness and a Full Night’s Sleep, I expound a little on the blessing of laughter to both grease the skids and brighten the joy of parenting and grandparenting.
(Excerpt from Nourished…)
I’ve discovered that a kid will follow you to the ends of the earth if you make them laugh. And I will follow any child who makes me laugh to the ends of the earth as well. There’s something irresistibly contagious and fun about parents and kids who enjoy comedic repartee.
I read that comedian Billy Crystal used to wash and blow dry his two little daughters’ hair. Using the voice of Jose Eber he invented a flamboyant personality he called Mr. Phyllis. He would style their wet their hair into funny forms. Twisting it into a horn for example, he’d say, “This is a good look for you. I call it the unicorn.”
Let’s face it: there is no better audience in the world for adult silliness than children. As tiring as little children are, they give us regular endorphin boosts with their smiles, giggles, and funny antics. When my kids were young I scribbled the cute, funny things they did in a blank book. Over time, I began to look at everything my children did through the eyes of Erma Bombeck or Dave Barry (the 80’s & 90’s version of today’s Jim Gaffigan), imagining how the latest maddening or messy event might be funny if I wrote about it later.
So the day I found my two-year-old pouring the contents of a large box of powdered milk on the head of his seven-month-old little brother, who sat on the floor blinking like a bewildered snow baby, I grabbed my journal and jotted notes about what I was seeing, before stepping in to clean up the mess. Those few seconds bought me time to think, and often to chuckle, before reacting. Over time, searching for the “funny” in the frustrating became a habit and not only helped me find more fun in mothering, but eventually led to a career in writing humor.
These days I try to “catch and keep” the cute things my grandchildren say and do on Facebook, knowing I have a treasury of their “adorable funnies” to re-read, enjoy and share. One of my favorite funny grandkid quips was when my oldest grandson, Nate, was young and asked me, very seriously, if I knew that TV could “rot your brain.”
“Oh, dear,” I said. “Should I turn it off then?”
He answered, “Yes.” Then, wrinkling his brow he appeared to be studying me with concern. Finally shaking his head slowly, he added, “I just hope it’s not too late.”
For awhile, our grandson Georgie lived with us and it like having a short, bright, happy Forrest Gump in the house. He never tried to be funny, his innocence was complete and sincere. Which made him endearingly hilarious. Even this day-dreamy six year old was impressed by how many things his grown-up grandmother could lose or forget in one day. So he was always on his toes with me. The first week I drove him to Kindergarten, I missed the entrance and had to loop back a couple of times. By the second week, he was sitting up in a state of alert as we neared the school. “Nonny! We’re almost at the turn-in place to my school! Stop! LAND HO!”
I cracked up, remembering he’d been watching a lot of Jake and the Neverland Pirates. “Georgie,” I said pulling over into the drop off zone, “I am sorry Nonny is so bad about forgetting things.”
Always looking for a way to encourage me he cheerfully said, “Actually, Nonny. You are really GOOD at forgetting. You are a GREAT forgetter!”
A good laugh is sunshine in the house. William Makepeace Thackeray
Read more about our book, Nourished, and find ordering information by clicking the link on the picture below:
(Becky, the Mama)
In a week like this one, in a world like ours, sometimes we just need to turn off the TV, shut down the social media, get still and reach for a tall drink of Peace.
In truth, the only guarantee we have for peace, have ever had really, is peace from God that blankets our minds and heart no matter what is happening around us. (In fact, we are guaranteed that “in this world you WILL have trouble.”)
This peace is found in images of Christ asleep in the boat in the midst of a storm, in birds that don’t worry about where or whether they’ll find food, and flowers that don’t fuss about what they will wear. It is found in not worrying about tomorrow because we only get 24 hours worth of grace at a time, like manna. (Matthew 6).
“I am leaving you with a gift–peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid.” John 24:27 33
“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” John 16:33
The best thing we can do in times of overwhelm is find our center of peace in Christ’s example and his words; ask the Holy Spirit to fill us with peace beyond human understanding, and then become Living, Breathing, Relaxed, Trusting, Walking Peace in and to a troubled world.
“Peace, Be Still”
(Becky, the Mama.)
Departing from recipes for yummy healthy food, I had to offer this recipe for nourishing relationships –especially after reading some fascinating research making the news today.
I love it when science finally catches up with my long-held theories. In my experience, the happiest marriages I have seen have been marriages of two optimists. A new study out of the University of Michigan has found this to be true, with some additional benefits as well: “Having an optimistic spouse predicted better mobility and fewer chronic illnesses over time, even above and beyond a person’s own level of optimism. The study tracked adults over age 50 for four years and reported on their mobility, health and number of chronic illnesses.”
There is a growing body of research shows that the people in our lives can have a profoundly positive influence on our health and well-being, but this is the “first study to show that someone’s else optimism could be impacting your own health.”
The opposite has already proven to be true. In the book I co-wrote with Dr. Earl Henslin, This is Your Brain in Love, we spent a chapter warning of the health risks for a spouse who is married to an Eeyore-at-the-Core. As it turns out, depression and pessimism can be catching in marriages. A pessimist partner can pull their once-optimistic mate down into the mire of despondency as well, over time.
My husband, Greg, easily qualifies as one of the most perpetually upbeat, positive people I have ever known. Being married to him these past ten years has easily been the most joyful time of my life, thus far. Until I married Greg, I assumed what so many of us hear: “Marriage is hard work.” It was certainly my experience until I married Mr. Positive, later in life.
This doesn’t mean our life has been easy. As a couple, Greg and I have been through some terrible trials and sorrowful times, but 99% of these times were due to difficulties outside our marriage. My husband has always been my safest haven, and inside his arms is the Happiest Place on Earth. He tells me often that “Loving you, Becky, is the easiest thing I have ever done.” We each brought our own naturally sunny temperaments into our union, and the resulting happiness has been significant.
I must confess, however, that this past year brought a season of profound grief as we suffered the loss of a precious and significant relationship in our family. It was my first experience with months of chronic “situational depression” and it took its toll on both of our normal levels of joy. In fact, we both experienced significant stress-related health issues as a result. Thankfully, the worst of this sorrow is fading — and as we are both prioritizing a “return to joy,” we are experiencing more emotionally sunny days again, and our good health has also returned.
A close friend of mine went from a painful marriage to a classic Eeyore, to marriage to a man who took responsibility for his own joy and took difficulties in stride. Like Greg, her husband saw the best in my friend and downplayed her flaws. We conversed about this one day over the phone. Both of us, stuck in amazement, were having the same reaction: “Wow. Love can be easy? Really?”
We decided right then, if we were to give young women and men advice on who to marry in order to enjoy their life to the hilt; both of us would say, “Marry a guy who makes his own sunshine. Love a person you can lean on for both comfort and joy. Marry a woman who smiles a lot, who has a reputation for kindness and optimism. If you want a happy marriage, do all you can to be a happy person and marry a naturally happy partner.”
(If being positive and joyful is a struggle for you, I would unabashedly recommend the books I wrote with Dr. Henslin a few years ago: This is Your Brain on Joy and This is Your Brain in Love. And if you want to read something humorous and uplifting, that will just generally add to your joy bank, I gotta recommend We Laugh, We Cry, We Cook!)
My parents, blissfully married almost 60 years now, are living examples of the fun, health, and longevity that comes from a union of two natural optimists.
A few years ago I came across a old poem that sounded as if it were written for my husband. I want to share it here as a toast to those people in our lives who are “pleasant to live with” and bring us joy, comfort and, as the latest research shows, good health as well!
(I dedicate this poem to my husband, Greg; my father, George; my mother, Ruthie; my sister, Rachel Ann; my daughter (and co-blogger and co-writer), Rachel Praise and her happy husband, Jared; to my youngest son, Gabe and his cheerful bride-to-be, Aleks – people in my family who are the epitome of this poem in my life, who beckon me onward and upward, consistently, to The Sunny Side of the Street. I love you all!)
Blessed Are They
Blessed are they who are pleasant to live with —
Blessed are they who sing in the morning;
Whose faces have smiles for their early adorning;
Who come down to breakfast companioned by cheer;
Who don’t dwell on troubles or entertain fear;
Whose eyes smile forth bravely; whose lips curve to say:
“Life, I salute you! Good morrow, new day!”
Blessed are they who are pleasant to live with —
Blessed are they who treat one another,
Though merely a sister, a father or brother,
With the very same courtesy they would extend
To a casual acquaintance or dearly loved friend;
Who choose for the telling encouraging things;
Who choke back the bitter, the sharp word that stings;
Who bestow love on others through the long day —
Pleasant to live with and blessed are they. Wilhemina Stitch
One of Jackson’s first phrases was “Hair back.” Before this, he would point to my hair and just say, “Back. Back.” And now, still, at 2 1/2, he cares just as much. We have a morning ritual. I come in his room and lean over his crib and say “Good morning baby. How was your night?” And he responds with one of two phrases. He’ll either say with a disappointed, slightly surprised look, as if he can’t believe we are still going over this, “Put your hair up, mommy,” or with a smile of approval and gratitude, he’ll exclaim “Your hair’s up!”
Yesterday we went through this conversation again after a breakfast of blueberry waffles (recipe to come soon). He asked me out of the blue, “Is daddy going to pick me up from school tomorrow.” “No, I will, like I always do,” I told him. “And you’ll wear your hair up?” he asked. (Seriously? I thought I had at least another year or two before he cared what I looked like in front of his school friends! What kind of pressure is being put on two year olds these days?)
Tuesday I wore my hair down, but before cooking dinner I went to my room to put it up. Jackson and I bumped into each other as I was walking out of the room. He stumbled backwards, looked up and grinned sheepishly, almost blushing, “You put your hair up for me.” And then I knelt down to my knees, looked him in the eyes and asked, “Do you like when I wear my hair up?” “Yes, I like it.” “Then yes, it was for you. Thank you for thinking I look pretty with my hair up.”
You see, wearing my hair up is the tell-tale sign that I haven’t washed my hair today. It says I’ve been too busy to stop and take care of myself or that I don’t value my appearance. Every mom book out there suggests, “Even if you can’t do it all, at the very least, take a shower, wash your hair and get dressed for the day.” This is bare minimum self-care 101 folks…and I so often don’t get to it.
But Jackson sees the mop of curls wrapped up and twisted in a messy pile on top of my head as beautiful. That messy updo is the sign of a lady who spent breakfast sitting across from her son telling him made up stories about his Adventures on the Construction Site. It’s the sign of a woman who, on at least a weekly basis, snoozes her alarm because her boy woke up asking to sleep in mommy’s bed and she doesn’t want to wake him. It’s evidence she spent her morning pretending to fix the toy weedeater (that isn’t actually broken), instead of leaving him to play alone while she showered.
In reality, it probably all began because he didn’t like how my hair tickled his face when I rocked him as a baby or because on a bad hair day, I closely resemble Medusa. A few days ago, a picture of Prince was up on the tv screen, and he told me matter of factly, sure as could be, “That’s a monster.” We had a talk about all of God’s people being beautiful…but in truth, I might actually terrify him with my wild curls coming out of my head like tentacles looking for prey. Either way, it’s nice to be looked at in awe in my natural too tired for style mama state.
He loves my hair up.