One way to combat “Imposter Syndrome”

One way to combat “Imposter Syndrome”

An Exercise to Decrease Negative Self-Talk

Meltdowns: What are they and what can you do about them?

The Science Behind Your Childʼs Tantrums
And how to nip them in the bud before they start.

By Ashley Abramson

Published Oct. 15, 2020 Updated Oct. 16, 2020 in The New York Times

LeAnne Simpson’s 6-year-old daughter had thrown plenty of tantrums before the pandemic. But after a few weeks of lockdown, minor frustrations that used to lead to short-lived outbursts were now setting off writhing-on-the-floor freakouts.

“First, she’d get so frustrated she couldn’t talk,” Simpson said. “Then she would start screaming, drop to the floor and roll around flailing her arms, often kicking or hitting me if I came close to her.”

Simpson tried every tantrum-defusing strategy she could muster, from playing soft music and offering a snack to squeezing her daughter between couch cushions (a calming technique recommended by an occupational therapist).
But nothing worked except sitting quietly nearby, and occasionally consoling her with words or touch. In the aftermath, Simpson would often ask her daughter what had made her so mad. “She’d always say she didn’t know,” Simpson said.

Meltdowns, common as they are among young children, are a complicated physiological response related to the brain’s threat detection system. Mid-freakout, it’s helpful for parents to understand what’s going on beneath the surface, then to mitigate the “threat” by establishing a sense of safety.

The physiology of a meltdown

According to R. Douglas Fields, a neuroscientist and author of “Why We Snap: Understanding the Rage Circuit in Your Brain,” a temper tantrum involves two parts of the brain: the amygdala, which is primarily responsible for processing emotions like fear or anger; and the hypothalamus, which in part controls unconscious functions like heart rate or temperature. Think of the amygdala as the brain’s smoke detector and the hypothalamus as someone deciding whether to put gasoline or water on the fire — with hormones like adrenaline and cortisol.

When your daughter suddenly starts wailing about sleeping alone in her bed at night, she’s probably not consciously being difficult — her amygdala detected a threat and her hypothalamus caused her to snap.

During the stress response, your child might experience a racing heartbeat, sweaty palms and tense muscles (or just an overwhelming urge to punch you). As much as you may want to reason with your writhing child, don’t expect her to listen. For one thing, the stress response can dampen a child’s already-limited capacity for self-control, a function generally associated with the prefrontal cortex, or PFC.

“When you have a fire burning in your house, you don’t want to sit and ponder, you want your body to fire on all cylinders so you can escape,” said Dr. Carol Weitzman, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician and co-director of the Autism Spectrum Center at Boston Children’s Hospital.

With a bit of logical self-reflection, adults can hit the brakes on a stress response. “When a driver cuts you off on the highway and your blood begins to boil, it’s your prefrontal cortex that allows you to think, ʻWait a minute, I don’t have to act this way,’” said Dr. Weitzman.

But the prefrontal cortex doesn’t fully develop until adulthood and, according to Dr. Fields, inhibition and impulse control are among the PFC’s most complicated functions. “So when you try to reason with a child, you’re appealing to a part of the brain that isn’t fully functioning.”

Dr. Mary Margaret Gleason, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters in Virginia and a consultant at Tulane University, likens child meltdowns to a pot of boiling water, with the PFC acting as its lid. “In these moments, the intensity of the feeling overwhelms the child’s ability to organize it, so the feelings get stronger than the lid,” she said.

Fortunately, with your own developed brain, you can help your kid replace the lid on the pot during a meltdown moment by using your prefrontal cortex as a surrogate.

First, manage your own emotions

Before engaging with your upset child, it’s helpful to first regulate your own stress response, said Lisa Dion, a play therapist and founder of the Synergetic Play Therapy Institute in Boulder, Colo.

If your child is safe, leave the room to take a few deep breaths or confide in a partner — whatever you need to de-escalate your own frustration. This, according to Katie Rosanbalm, a senior research scientist at the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy, allows you to use your own calm state to calm your child.

It’s not completely clear how this works. There are likely several physiological components, but one might involve mirror neurons, brain cells that fire in response to your own and other people’s behaviors. Watching someone run, for instance, seems to activate a similar brain region as when you run yourself.

Mirror neuron research on children is scant, and there’s still a lot to learn. But what scientists do know about this group of brain cells may help parents understand how their reactions affect their kids (and maybe even their newborn babies).
For example, mirror neurons have been found not only in the motor areas of the brain, but also in the areas that deal with emotion. The same part of your brain that lights up when you’re feeling happy may also light up when you observe happiness in others.

“So your child may not just do what you’re doing, but feel what you’re feeling,” said Dr. Marco Iacoboni, a neuroscientist and professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Next, manage your kid’s reaction

It’s also important to pair your calmness with warm and empathic cues, which can signal to the amygdala that there’s no danger, Dr. Rosanbalm said. “The amygdala stops sending out the alarm, which causes the stress response cascade to cease.”

In the calm-down process, focus more on your actions rather than your words: Your child can mirror your emotions just by looking at your nonverbal communication, like your body posture, vocal tone and facial expressions.

Dr. Charles Nelson, a professor of pediatrics and neuroscience at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital, suggested crouching down and making eye contact with your child during the tantrum, which shows you’re listening and engaged.

While some upset kids might like physical touch from a parent, others might find it overwhelming. You can also encourage your child to self-soothe with other types of calming sensory inputs. Offer her a fidget spinner or Silly Putty, have her push on a wall, or simply encourage her to take some slow, deep breaths. But try to introduce these coping skills before a meltdown hits, so they can manage a tantrum on their own once it happens.

Finally, validate your child’s feelings

As much as you might want to try explaining to your kid why they should calm down, behavior correction rarely works when stress is high.

Once your child’s partially-developed prefrontal cortex is back online, take the opportunity to help her form a story about the meltdown. Shanna Donhauser, a child and family therapist, suggested validating how hard the moment was and repeating back what happened.

“Then remind your child that you’re both OK and that you can still be close. You’re still there,” she said.

After exhausting all of the behavioral techniques she knew, Simpson tried focusing on connecting with her daughter during meltdowns instead of trying to change her behavior.

Back in the spring, when her daughter had a meltdown about the number of strawberries in her bowl just before she needed to log on to a virtual class meeting, Simpson held her 6-year-old close as she tried to stay calm herself.

It was then that her daughter managed to articulate what was really upsetting her — it wasn’t the fruit, she said; deep down, she was sad she couldn’t hug her teacher. The two shared tears and some snuggles, then moved on with their day.

“My daughter’s tantrums sucked every ounce of life out of me,” Simpson said. “But in the end, we understood each other better and grew closer.”

Saying good-bye


This past week I said a final good-bye to my sister, Leanne. She died in May, and after months of waiting for the coronavirus to abate enough for family and friends to get together for a memorial service, it was ultimately decided that it was time. Anyone willing to go was welcome and there were no hard feelings toward those who could not be there. My family and I decided that we needed the closure so we made the 20 hour drive to rural Minnesota.

In preparation for and throughout my time there, I found myself constantly reflecting on my sister and her life. I regret that I did not take more time to talk with her in her final months, yet I am aware that my fear of her reactions prevented me from doing so. Leanne was frequently angry and often lashed out, sometimes indiscriminately. Hers was a very personal anger. At times Leanne seemed to feel that she was being persecuted, conversely she believed that everything bad that happened in her life was connected to something she had or had not done. This sometimes made communicating with her a bit tricky, but it was how she adapted to our volatile upbringing.

My dad was often a scary and violent man. My mom was unable to stand up to him and protect herself or her children. In short, we had severely dysfunctional relationships in our family. As my older sister, Leanne alternated between hating me, getting me into trouble, and saving me from my dad’s wrath. I wasn’t always sure when or if to trust her — but I knew as long as she was around I could count on her to either run interference with or help me escape from my dad. After Leanne moved to central Minnesota upon graduating from high school , I found another means of escape — I got pregnant and ultimately moved out on my own. I still had to deal with my dad’s craziness, but at least I didn’t have to live with it. As soon as I could, I left Minnesota permanently and never looked back. My sister, on the other hand, had settled in central Minnesota and was raising her family.

My two brothers had left years earlier so when I moved away it was just Leanne and Dad left in Minnesota. It’s a big state but it’s amazing how small it can feel when you have never felt safe. I didn’t stop to consider this nor how my leaving impacted Leanne until about ten years ago, when she told me how terrified she was of my dad. I was just starting as a trauma therapist at that time and my response was to assure Leanne that it was “her fear” of my dad, not any actual danger, that was causing her terror. She accused me of using psychobabble on her. She was right. My dad was and always had been a real threat.

I didn’t realize it until then but Leanne thought it was her responsibility to “take care of dad.” It was not until I told her her that no one expected her to take care of him that she seemed to feel relieved of that particular burden. Dad was, after all, capable of terrorizing Leanne and her family on a regular basis so he certainly could take care of himself. I guess Leanne had been seeking permission to stop protecting everyone else and start protecting herself from dad, because she filed for a restraining order shortly thereafter.

After her cancer diagnosis, Leanne apologized to me, as if it were her fault that she got cancer. That haunts me, and I wish I had taken the time to help her understand it wasn’t so. I wish I had taken the time to help her understand that so many of the things she blamed herself for were not her fault nor her responsibility.

More recently, Leanne confided in me that she never thought she meant very much to anyone, or that anyone really cared about her. I assured her that she was wrong — that she was loved and cared for deeply by family and friends. I don’t know if she believed me, but this time I know for a fact that I was right.


Zooming in on reality

It started with a Zoom call two weeks ago today. I didn’t realize how sick she had gotten. It’s easy to convince yourself that everything is the same when you aren’t witness to the changes. In that way, I suppose Covid-19 was a great excuse. As long as we were quarantined, I didn’t have to know.  Sure, I could have Zoomed more, or at least called. But texting was so easy. You can’t see the ravages of illness in a few sentences. Okay, so maybe I should have picked up on it when the the time between texts turned from hours to days and then weeks. But I was busy trying to survive the upheaval in my own life as a result of the virus. And then came the Zoom call.

I thought it would be fun. The family could all be on Zoom while we were making dinner. Everyone was up for it, and it had been so long since we were all together. She was still doing pretty well back then. She even walked across Chicago to take her grandchildren to Shedd’s Aquarium! How much could someone deteriorate in just two months?

She and her son were the first to join the Zoom meeting. The light was pretty bad but I could tell she was not the same. It seemed to take all of her energy just to sit there and speak. Her speech was so slow – it seemed like every word was being dredged through the mud. When I could finally see her, my first thought was: When did this 90 year old woman replace my sister? Her yellowed skin was pulled taut against her cheekbones, her hair was completely gray. Her shirt hung from her bony shoulders. My shock left me speechless, my excitement quickly replaced by waves of guilt and sadness. The price of denial.

I muddled through the Zoom meeting as best I could, my mind racing with panicked thoughts of the impeding loss of my big sister. How many days before she was gone? How many more weeks before it was safe to travel? If I went now, would flying be safe or would it be better to drive 20 hours? That’s a lot of stops for gas. Should I go alone or ask my daughters to come and share the driving? Was it fair to them or was I being selfish even entertaining the idea? Would they even be willing to go?

Before I could reach a reasoned decision, I heard myself ask “Is it okay if we come and visit?” and they immediately said yes. The minute I saw her I knew I was going, virus be damned. That’s just how it was. It was an impulsive decision, based purely on emotion, but the only one I could make. There would be no “do-overs,”  I had to get this right.

On Tuesday, my daughters and I hit the road. By Wednesday we were with my sister, who was still walking and cracking jokes. That Saturday she died. And we started home.

It’s been a week now, and I don’t regret going. For me, it was worth the risk. It was the only way for me to overcome my denial and start to grieve (although denial is still a stubborn companion – but that’s a subject for another time). I got to hold my sister’s hand and help her to the bathroom. I got to watch her rest peacefully after weeks of pain and anxiety. I got to kiss her good-bye.

I was lucky, I had a choice. Zoom is great for getting together with family to make dinner, but it is no way to say good-bye. My heart goes out to all those who have learned that already.

Rest in Peace Leanne, dear sister

Get dirty to feel better

I’ve been doing a lot of yard work since the Stay-at-Home order. I learned a few years ago that manual labor helps decrease my stress and improves my mood. Pulling weeds is a wonderful and productive exercise to relieve anger, too! I have even found that spending a few hours gardening has helped me resolve some vexing problems. Plus, right now I think it is especially important to get moving as much as possible.

I always assumed that gardening benefits me for obvious reasons. The quiet, peaceful hours provides time for me to engage in mindfulness,  think about personal issues, and generate ideas. In addition, the physical exercise probably kicks in some endorphins to improve my mood. Not to mention the satisfaction I feel when I view the results of my hard work. Then I ran across this article that explains how actual dirt contributes to my positive state of mind. I was intrigued. Here’s the article.

Antidepressant Microbes In Soil: How Dirt Makes You Happy

Prozac may not be the only way to get rid of your serious blues. Soil microbes have been found to have similar effects on the brain and are without side effects and chemical dependency potential. Learn how to harness the natural antidepressant in soil and make yourself happier and healthier. Read on to see how dirt makes you happy.

Natural remedies have been around for untold centuries. These natural remedies included cures for almost any physical ailment as well as mental and emotional afflictions. Ancient healers may not have known why something worked but simply that it did. Modern scientists have unraveled the why of many medicinal plants and practices but only recently are they finding remedies that were previously unknown and yet, still a part of the natural life cycle. Soil microbes and human health now have a positive link which has been studied and found to be verifiable.

Soil Microbes and Human Health

Did you know that there’s a natural antidepressant in soil? It’s true. Mycobacterium vaccae is the substance under study and has indeed been found to mirror the effect on neurons that drugs like Prozac provide. The bacterium is found in soil and may stimulate serotonin production, which makes you relaxed and happier. Studies were conducted on cancer patients and they reported a better quality of life and less stress.
Lack of serotonin has been linked to depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder and bipolar problems. The bacterium appears to be a natural antidepressant in soil and has no adverse health effects. These antidepressant microbes in soil may be as easy to use as just playing in the dirt.

Most avid gardeners will tell you that their landscape is their “happy place” and the actual physical act of gardening is a stress reducer and mood lifter. The fact that there is some science behind it adds additional credibility to these garden addicts’ claims. The presence of a soil bacteria antidepressant is not a surprise to many of us who have experienced the phenomenon ourselves. Backing it up with science is fascinating, but not shocking, to the happy gardener.

Mycobacterium antidepressant microbes in soil are also being investigated for improving cognitive function, Crohn’s disease and even rheumatoid arthritis.

How Dirt Makes You Happy

Antidepressant microbes in soil cause cytokine levels to rise, which results in the production of higher levels of serotonin. The bacterium was tested both by injection and ingestion on rats, and the results were increased cognitive ability, lower stress and better concentration on tasks than a control group.

Gardeners inhale the bacteria, have topical contact with it and get it into their bloodstreams when there is a cut or other pathway for infection. The natural effects of the soil bacteria antidepressant can be felt for up to 3 weeks if the experiments with rats are any indication. So get out and play in the dirt and improve your mood and your life.

Watch this video about how gardening makes you happy:


“Identification of an Immune-Responsive Mesolimbocortical Serotonergic System: Potential Role in Regulation of Emotional Behavior,” by Christopher Lowry et al., published online on March 28, 2007 in Neuroscience. [1]
Mind & Brain/Depression and Happiness – Raw Data “Is Dirt the New Prozac?” by Josie Glausiusz, Discover Magazine, July 2007 Issue. [2]

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Keeping It Together While You’re Together

I’ve been thinking a lot about families stuck inside, especially those with kids who have nothing to do. It doesn’t take long to start going stir-crazy — it brings to mind those never-ending last few weeks of summer. Given that this is an unplanned and unexpected event, and there is no Florida vacation to look forward to, I anticipate some pretty tense moments while we all hunker down.

Importantly, I want to assure you that whatever you are feeling is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. We all respond to stress in unique ways. This situation is completely foreign and also frightening. Keep in mind that your kids are feeling the same way. Unfortunately they have less ability to process what is happening and make meaning of it. Instead, kids may be more emotionally reactive (even if they deny that they are affected by recent events). This is different than 9/11 or a school shooting. We can’t see the danger in front of us but we know that it is out there, and could be anywhere, just waiting to make us sick. This is hard for an adult to believe and accept sometimes. I imagine it must be confusing and even terrifying for a child.

There are a few ways to help your kids feel more secure and cared for as we muddle through. For example, limit your child’s exposure to the news. I don’t know about you but at times I feel overwhelmed by what I am hearing. I would even think about limiting your child’s exposure to other frightening stimuli, such as scary movies and video games, especially if they seem to be on edge or anxious. TV and games can be great diversions but you may want to be selective about what your kids are exposed to right now. Or perhaps limit their watch time or game play time and definitely don’t allow it before bed.

Also, have some structure for your kids during the day. If they have online learning, create a schedule for them to do their schoolwork. We will eventually be returning to “normal” life and the transition will be easier if your child has had some structure all along. I know that some of the kids are really struggling with the online school, so please be patient and supportive. In the best of circumstances kids can have a lot of trouble with this form of learning and in this environment it is much harder to adapt. If you are working from home this will make your life a little easier too.

When you can, spend some “downtime” with your kids. Play a game, read a story, do a craft. This will bring you closer together and relieve both your stress.

Above all, listen to your kids and talk to them too. Often we believe that if we don’t let our kids know what is going on they won’t know any different, or we think we can hide our feelings from our children and somehow that protects them. Kids are much more perceptive than we give them credit for. They may not know exactly what’s happening, but they know when something is not right. Trying to keep it from them just creates confusion and fear. Of course, kids only need to know what they are able to understand, so share only what they are old enough to hear. Similar to when they ask about sex: answer their questions but don’t go into detail if they don’t ask. It’s okay to tell your kids that you are feeling anxious too. Let them know that this is hard for you and that you understand this is really hard for them. But then reassure them that “everything is going to be okay” even if you aren’t sure this is the case. As a parent, it’s your job to let your kids know that when things are scary or dangerous, you are there to protect them and keep them safe. You can do this with your actions AND with your words.

One more thing…be sure to hug your kids and tell them that you love them. Even after the toughest day, they can use a little tenderness and so can you.

***BTW, if you or your kids need additional support during this stressful time, please reach out to a professional. You can contact me or another mental health professional for help. We are making ourselves available via video or phone. We are all in this together and we are here to help you through this.***

Drowning in Grief until the Wave Subsides

I was driving home the other night after a long weekend with most of my extended family when suddenly I started crying and couldn’t stop. We had all gathered together in Chicago as it was a good midpoint place to meet for everyone. We had not been together for several years. The reason for this family gathering was bittersweet, my sister was recently diagnosed with Stage 4 Pancreatic Cancer. She had asked everyone to come and be together one last time. She was not going to have treatment.

When my sister first told me a few weeks ago, I was deeply depressed. For days I would start sobbing suddenly, without warning, and then have trouble stopping. I envision this as literal waves of grief coming over me and drowning me. For those few days I worried that I would never feel okay again. Part of my fear was that I had suddenly lost my capacity to do my job as a therapist, especially as a trauma therapist. After all, I need to be able to rein in my emotions and be a safe, grounded, empathetic support for my clients. When I fall apart at the drop of a hat I question my ability to maintain my equilibrium during a difficult session. When I made it through a day without crying, I really felt like the worst was over. It’s not easy getting hit over and over by walls of sadness and I finally had some control over my emotions again.

By the weekend get-together, I was in a better place. In terms of my emotional equilibrium, that is. I wasn’t crying anymore. I didn’t want to get hit by those waves of sadness again. Most of us present seemed to feel the same way. Yes, there were tears, but no one suffered from sudden waves of unrelenting grief (at least not in public). My brother-in-law expressed how he and my sister’s children went through an experience similar to mine after learning the diagnoses. For about two weeks, they were knocked out by the news and couldn’t get back on their feet. Still, somehow, we all managed to catch our breath and swim to the surface.

So when a wave hit me again as I was driving home, I wasn’t ready for it. The wave of sadness and grief was just as cold and strong as the day I learned the news. I guess I was just hoping it was all over. My sister’s going to die and there’s nothing I can do to stop it. Waves of sadness and grief are going to pull me under, for a little while, and it might feel like I am drowning, but I won’t. I will eventually fight my way back to the surface and be able to breathe again.