What Am I Saying to Myself?

December 8, 2023

Our minds are busy places (okay, busy is an understatement!). For those of us lacking Buddha-like mental discipline, it’s pretty much a ceaseless flow of words and images moving across our internal screen 24/7. Now some of this thinking falls into what you might call the neutral category–grocery lists, logistics, planning. It doesn't carry much weight or elicit any particular emotional response in us. But there's another brand of thought that does have emotional impact. It’s what I call self-messaging. Self-messages are those things we say to ourselves or picture that create or enhance either a positive or negative feeling (across a wide spectrum of course). 

Most of us are sending ourselves these verbal or visual notices all day, every day. And they tend to emerge around some pretty consistent themes–informed by any number of factors. We often hear this internal dialogue referred to as self-talk, and for the purposes of this post, I'll call our visual thinking, mental images.


Self-talk can come in the form of a phrase, a string of statements, a command or even a full-on conversation with ourselves, internally or aloud. Whatever the form, it is usually doing one of two things: helping or hurting us.

But how much time do we spend reflecting on what we say to ourselves? Usually, not much. Not nearly as much as we spend thinking about what we say to other people, and what they say to us (big one, this!). But outside of our biology, our self-talk is probably the greatest determining factor in our emotional state at any given time.

In 2005, the National Science Foundation published an article summarizing research on human thoughts per day. It was found that the average person has about 12,000 to 60,000 thoughts per day of which 80% were negative, and 95% were exactly the same thoughts as the day before. Now imagine if you were saying those 12-60 thousand negative thoughts aloud–how scary would that be??

Think about how many times you started to feel rotten and couldn’t figure out why. If you could trace your emotions back to their source, you’d likely find a negative self-message (or five!) in there somewhere. But with everything typically going on in our heads at any given time, destructive (or even just unhelpful) thoughts often fly under the radar of our conscious awareness. 

Mental Images—the other way we think

Mental images are essentially our thoughts in pictures, whether a static image or active scene. These “pictures” tend to be visual representations of our beliefs, desires, fears, experiences and goals. And they can be both conscious and unconscious. 

According to research using brain imagery, the neurons in our brains interpret our mental images as equivalent to real-life action. No joke. Our subconscious mind literally does not distinguish between images we conjure and images we actually see. In other words, the exact same stress response kicks in when there is real, present danger or if you’re imagining the danger—both flood our bodies with cortisol and adrenaline.


The power of imagery can either help or hurt us, depending on what we’re picturing and how often. When we’re replaying distressing scenes from the past for instance, or anticipating– (movie-style) unfortunate future events, we’re firing up the neural pathways that feed our negative psychological filters. And of course, making ourselves feel crappy in the process. However they emerge, the idea is to diminish or transform them.

With both self-messages and mental images, one thing that can help is taking a purposeful pause, quieting your mind as best you can and seeing if you can tune into that inner voice/picture. In this way you’re teaching yourself to listen, and these regular ‘check-in’s’ will train your mind over time, to notice negative self-messages and images more readily.  



Our Psychological Filters

June 28, 2023



The world floods our senses with more information than we can possibly process, so in order to manage that overflow, our brains are constantly "filtering" it through something called Psychological Filters. These filters are informed by the core beliefs, emotional experiences, and behavioral habits born of our biology, psychology, and life circumstances (that potent nature-nature combo). They color our experiences, then drop them promptly into categories to help us make sense of the world (usually outside of our conscious awareness).

Depending upon how entrenched these filters are in in our psyches, they get expressed to a greater or lesser degree through our thoughts, behaviors and emotions.  

Negative Filters: Damage, Disconnection, Disempowerment

Any combination of life stressors, mental health challenges, and our innate negativity bias, can nudge those psychological filters into the negative camp. You can think of the resulting negative filters as the emotional version of fun house mirrors. When we are seeing something through a negative filter, certain situational elements are thrown out of proportion in relation to others. Negative things look bigger, scarier and more powerful, while the positive elements seem small, insignificant and out of reach (or perhaps invisible altogether). 

When our filters cause negative things to get blown out of proportion or create the perception of negativity where none exists, we increase the likelihood of dysregulation. If for instance, our filter tells us that we are unlikeable, a mildly uncomfortable exchange with a friend might result in a panic attack; if our filter has us convinced of our inadequacy as a professional, a job rejection may lead us down the rabbit hole of self-loathing. 

Negative filters can come in a wide variety of unpleasant flavors. For instance, if someone struggles with low self-esteem, they may see the world through the lens of what I call Damage–meaning they see reflected back to them proof that something is inherently wrong with them. If we consistently feel cut off from needed support we may experience the filter of Disconnection, and a filter of Disempowerment may emerge when we experience a lack of control over our life circumstances.

Of course, these are just a few of the many possible varieties of filters–everyone has their own unique filter profile–and of course there are positive filters too! The good news is, we have the ability to build positive filters, which, in addition to coloring our world a rosier shade, also mitigate the deleterious effect of those negative filters.

Proof of Your Positive Filters


While I believe that our true nature is inclusive of what we experience as negative (an acceptance of which is essential to our well-being), the question is, how can we recognize and elevate those aspects of ourselves that promote a better quality of mental and emotional health? How do we engage with and build Positive Psychological Filters? First, we need proof that they exist and are able to be accessed, which is what the following exercise will help you do. Fill in the blank with the first thing that comes to mind.

I feel most grounded when I__________________________.

___________________ is the healthiest way I've gotten myself through hard times.

________________________is proof of my inner strength.

Even when things aren't going well, _________________can usually make me smile.

 ______________ reminds me of what I'm capable of.

Some of the ways I've taken care of myself are:

Some of the ways I've taken care of other people are:

Thinking about __________________ reminds me that there is good in the world.

____________________ has given me a sense of hope when I've most needed it.

_________________ is one thing/person I will always be grateful for.

I’ll never forget what _____________ did for me.

One of the best days/times I can remember was _______________ .


(You can write about the place, activities, and anything else that contributed to the good-feeling of that day)


Positive Filters: Okayness, Connection, Empowerment                    

Chances are you've had some (hopefully many!) moments in your life when you felt truly happy, at peace, totally well. Perhaps you’d just fallen in love; gotten a great job; were looking out over a beautiful view after hiking to the top of a mountain. Or maybe it was something more subtle, like a great conversation with a friend or a relaxing massage. Whatever it was, those moments—even if they were fleeting—are proof that the positive feelings, and all the internal conditions that gave rise to them, exist within you. 

Over the years, I’ve tended to dismiss my own good-feeling states as just a fortunate coalescence of unrelated elements. It eventually occurred to me though, that I might gain some insights by taking a closer look at what actually went into creating this sense of well-being. Because as random as the good feelings seem, they are in fact rooted in something real—something we can potentially recreate the conditions for with our thoughts and actions. 

I’ve been able to identify some “ingredients” common to my own ‘good days’: time spent with people I enjoy, a sense of accomplishment, and an element of self-care–exercise and baths topping the list. Now of course everyone’s ‘good-day/moment’ ingredients will be unique to them, but in my years of research–both the formal and informal variety–I’ve found that there are three feeling-states consistently present during the good times: a sense of Okayness, a sense of Connectedness (to someone or something), and/or a sense of Empowerment. 

These are not only as defining states for the good days and moments, but the psychological filters of mental wellness.  Positive Psychological Filters being the lens through which we see the positive more readily, clearly, and convincingly than the negative. Just as with the negative, each of these filters is informed by common core beliefs and experiences that shape our view of reality. And just like the negative filters, they are reinforced by our thoughts and actions. 

Building Positive Filters

While some people have a natural bent toward Positive Psychological Filters, many don’t, and just as many started off with a positive self-perception and outlook, only to have them altered as a result of unfortunate nature and/or nurture influences. The good news is that Positive Filters are buildable. By consistently replacing our habituated negative thoughts and actions with conscious positive ones, we can ‘re-nurture’ ourselves into a more positively-filtered state of mind and being.                                        

You literally can “fake it til you make it”

Of course, you can’t simply swap out your negative filters for positive ones and call it a day. Those negative filters are deeply embedded and take some time and conscious effort to alter. It is an ongoing process, and they may rear up again during stressful or difficult times. But know that you are not stuck. It’s a process, and if you stick with it, you will (I can pretty much guarantee!) start thinking and acting in new and healthier ways. 

While for some, the core beliefs and behaviors of Positive Filters may be more familiar and readily accessed; for others of us, some ‘fake it til you make it’ is required.

Scientists say that acting a certain way for a prolonged period of time even fools your own brain (through rehearsal) into a fresh way of thinking — kind of like what you’re pretending to be is actually who you really are.”

This is similar to the “placebo effect” which researchers have repeatedly found to be just as effective as traditional treatments under the right circumstances. That’s because a neurobiological reaction tells your body that you are, or will soon be OK, through the release of neurotransmitters like endorphins and dopamine. “Fake it till you make it” is a way of doing the same thing, but for your mental wellness. You can, in effect, trick your mind and body into being healthier.

And that is mighty good news!

How Nature Heals

May 23, 2023


Now I see the secret of making the best person: it is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.” Walt Whitman

Even if you don’t consider yourself a ‘nature-person’, being amidst trees, watching the ocean, strolling through a park, really, being in any natural environs, can give you a sense of ease like nothing else. And there’s good reason for this.

In his article How Nature Helps Us Heal, family doctor Leif Hass, asserts “since we evolved in nature, our senses and body rhythms are best suited for that environment”. According to biologist E. O. Wilson, known for developing the field of sociobiology, there is an “innate emotional affiliation with other living organisms” that creates a sense of calm and comfort. That is to say, the sights, sounds, and smells of nature are deeply, evolutionarily, familiar to us. Good news, as that means we always have a healer at hand!

And of course, nature is a place free of triggers and free of demands. While sitting by the water, or walking through the woods, we have no emails to answer, no calls to return. Nothing to do but just ‘be’. And what a relief that is.

And there’s a good bit of research supporting nature as a healer too.

According to the Yale School of the Environment, studies have shown that time in nature is not only an antidote for stress, it can also lower blood pressure, reduce nervous system arousal, enhance immune system function, reduce anxiety, improve mood, and lessen the symptoms of ADHD in children. Not too shabby!

Forest Bathing

The Japanese have long recognized the healing power of nature. Case in point, in the 1980s, the Forest Agency of Japan began recommending that people take walks in the woods to improve their health, eventually incorporating it into the country’s health program. This push began both to counter the effects of tech overload and to encourage citizens to reconnect with, and protect the country’s forests. And it worked! (PROOF?)

It was then that the term Shinrin-yoku or forest bathing, was coined by the head of the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries, Tomohide Akiyama.

The Power of Awe

Nature gives us something else as well. Something most of us don’t think much about: Awe.


Awe is the experience we have when in the presence of something that stuns and amazes us. Awe holds us in an exalted state as it challenges our understanding of the world. It’s a feeling we often have when encountering the beauty and mystery of the natural world, whether gazing up at the infinite-seeming expanse of stars in the night sky or looking out from the top of a mountain. But awe is not just reserved for the big ‘wow’s’; awe can emerge anytime we are drawn into a state of complete awareness. I can’t count how many times I’ve been held captive simply by the movement of a body of water.


According to Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life, awe can has positive effects beyond the immediate as well. As it helps to distract us away from our daily stressors, we shift our focus from self, to the larger world in which we’re immersed, thus creating in us a greater generosity of spirit.

An added bonus

Further, it was discovered by researcher Dr. Qing Li, a professor at the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, that “trees and plants emit aromatic compounds called phytoncides that, when inhaled, can spur healthy biological changes.” In his studies, Li showed that when people spend time in forests, they often exhibit changes in the blood that are associated with protection against cancer, better immunity and lower blood pressure. So, if the smell of the woods has always had an effect on you, now you know why! 

What a nature Rx looks like

Dr Qing Li president of the Society for Forest Medicine in Japan, and the author of Shinrin-Yoku: The Art and Science of Forest Bathing, offers a recommendation for walking in the woods that gives you the true benefits of nature:

“Make sure you have left your phone and camera behind. You are going to be walking aimlessly and slowly. You don’t need any devices. Let your body be your guide. Listen to where it wants to take you. Follow your nose. And take your time. It doesn’t matter if you don’t get anywhere. You are not going anywhere. You are savouring the sounds, smells and sights of nature and letting the forest in.”

Of course, the woods aren’t your only nature-boost option; there’s ample evidence that you can get a range of benefits from any of the following:

·  time spent gazing out the window at trees

·  playing nature sounds over headphones

·  having house plants in your home and office

·  taking breaks for a walk anywhere you can see some greenery

·  using a diffuser with woodsy scents (think pine, cedar, cypress)

And believe it or not, watching nature videos has been shown to have similarly beneficial effects. Even simply viewing Planet Earth for five minutes led participants in one study to report feeling like they were a part of something larger than themselves, and that their concerns were less significant.


With all that nature has to offer, consider incorporating a little ‘green time’ into your life; you will surely be glad you did!

Turning Your Home into Your Haven

April 24, 2023

For some of us it’s a natural inclination– the desire to make our living spaces a place of refuge, to make them a haven. Kids, for instance, are naturally inclined to create cozy spaces – building pillow forts, filling their beds with stuffed animals or crafting blanket houses. Yet as we get older, we may forget how good it feels to curl up in a space that feels warm and welcoming. We may not realize just how much of an impact our physical space still has on our mental state. But think about how differently you feel entering a dark, cluttered room as opposed to a bright and airy one. 

“It takes a lot for people to recognize the affect their space has on them, to essentially put themselves first and focus on the importance of their own space,” says Mika Mclane, MPS, LCAT, ATR, CCLS, of Westchester Creative Arts Therapy. “I encourage everyone to ask themselves: Have I taken the time to create an environment where I can thrive?”

The science behind it all

Science has proven that your mental health is affected by your physical environment. Researchers have studied everything from how neat or messy a space is to the amount of light and the color on the walls. Even textures and sounds play a part. Creating a safe, comfortable place where you can relax and recharge is proven to boost your mood. Here’s how.

Out with the old, in with the new

Your home should be a place of comfort and contentment, not a source of stress. And while it may seem overwhelming to clear out all the piles and get organized, once done, you’ll feel a greater sense of ease every time you walk through your home.


“If our space is chaotic or cluttered, it’s a microcosm of what’s really operating inside our heads – it’s telling us that we need to make some space in our minds, clear out the excess,” explains Jennifer Zauner LCSW, clinical director of Sirona Therapy in Mount Kisco. “A great way to start that process is by clearing out our physical space.”


After you’ve cleared out and organized your spaces, slowly bring new items in:

·  Keep it simple; don’t over-decorate.

·  Only fill your space with objects that are uplifting or meaningful; sell or donate items

that aren’t.

·  Remember that your house is meant to be a living-space, not storage for the stuff you

don’t use.

Brighten and lighten your rooms

According to the Newport Institute, light plays an important role in physical and mental health. Light tells us when it’s time to sleep and wake, and our sleep habits are closely linked to our mood. Too little natural and/or artificial light in your room can increase your stress and anxiety, while light that’s too bright at night disrupts sleep, which also alters our mood.

To improve your lighting:

·  Use lamps or overhead lighting that you find soothing. For example, soft light bulbs

produce a more yellow light, which is warmer and cozier.

·  Keep curtains open or replace curtains with blinds.

·  Position mirrors on walls across from windows to double the natural light that comes in.


Colors create the mood in your home,” McLane explains. ““There is research to support that different colors have varying affects a person's mood. Healing and soothing colors are soft, warmer tones (like cream and beige). For a livelier, more energetic feel, you’ll want to go with the richer, brighter colors. Look at how you feel when you see the color bright red versus calming blue. When you think about the color of your space, ask yourself what kind of environment you’re trying to create – energized or calming?” 


If you’re going for a more peaceful vibe, a good first step is to paint one wall of your bedroom a soft shade of white or pastel to reflect light and create a sense of calm. If you’re drawn to cooler or bright colors, then see how it feels to add some neutral-colored throw pillows, blankets, decor pieces, artwork or other accents while keeping your walls a brighter shade.


Create ambiance with scents
We’ve all had the experience of smelling something that calls up a positive memory and lifts our mood, even if just for a moment. And that’s no accident; our sense of smell lives in the same part of the brain that processes our emotions. To find the right scents for your home, some experimenting may be necessary! Check out shops that sell perfumes or essential oils and see which ones elicit positive feelings for you. Once you find your ideal scents, look for diffusers, incense, candles, and room sprays that contain one or more of those fragrances.

Add some texture

The right tactile elements can really enhance the coziness of your interior; they feel good in your hands and on your body, and can also create a sense of depth and warmth in your space.


“Texture is important because touch is part of our five senses,” Zauner explains. “At Sirona Therapy our clients have many things to touch, including soft blankets on the chairs and couches, aesthetically pleasing pillows that are soft to the touch, stones and rocks, fidget spinners, crystals and pottery pieces.”


Some ideas for incorporating texture in your home include: adding a textured wool throw or knit blanket on your sofa, a wooden table, chairs with textured upholstery, grass cloth wallpaper, textured ceramic pieces, and/or faux sheepskin rugs.

Bring the outside in

We live in an overly connected world, and have fewer and fewer moments of quiet and stillness these days. Nature helps! If you can’t get out into nature as much as you’d like, or you just want a more grounding home, try bringing nature inside.


Elements that can add an earthy feel:

·   Ceramics

·   Photos of nature

·   Plants & flowers

·   Small herb gardens

·   Table-top water fountains

·   Unfinished wood pieces

·   Wood floors

Take your time

Most people can’t turn their home into a haven overnight, especially if children and animals are in the mix.


“Take it slow, don’t try to transform your whole space all at once” says Zauner. “Even simple things can have an impact. You can add accent accessories (such as a throw pillow, a rug or flowers in a pretty vase), put candles in every room, and hang art you love on the walls. You can also arrange your seating area in a way that facilitates conversation.”


But don’t feel like you need to spend a fortune – this shouldn’t break the bank!


“Your investment in your space doesn’t have to mean spending a lot of money," says Mclane.  “It’s more a matter of investing the time to determine what you really want from your space.”


Haven-ing your space should be an enjoyable project, so give yourself the time to enjoy it and do it right!