Noe Valley Voice February 2007

Therapists Tell Us: Little Steps Go a Long Way

By Laura McHale Holland

We've all experienced it. We ring in a new year with relish. We make big plans. As the weeks wear on, we get absorbed in our routines, responsibilities, and vexations. Then, if we're at all a thinking human, certain harsh realities start monopolizing our thoughts: war in Iraq, terrorist bombings, global warming, Darfur, Katrina, AIDS, and let's not forget the ever-rising cost of living. The news is so alarming, the future looks hopeless. Should we bury our head in the sand? Go watch American Idol?

Well, that's one answer. But to find out some better ways to buck up, the Voice turned to the experts. We asked several mental health practitioners to respond to the question: How do you hold on to your optimism throughout the year, even while continuing to read the headlines? Here's what they had to say.

Katrina Child

Marriage and Family Therapist

24th Street


The beginning of a new year is often symbolically important to people. It's a time of renewed optimism and efforts. To sustain optimism about the world throughout the year, there are a number of things you can do. It's really important that we do things that we find meaningful. That can be involvement in activities like volunteer work, being politically active, doing work that you believe in or love, challenging yourself to try new things--and surprising yourself.

It can be really helpful to experience oneself continuing to grow and change in positive ways. Spending time with animals, with children and the people you love is really important. So is having genuine connections with people you can talk freely with about how you're feeling about the world and your place in it.

And sometimes taking a break from the news media can be soothing when you're really finding yourself getting pretty down. It can help you experience the world through different lenses. Another thing is to be very selective about your sources of information. It's also important to sometimes remind oneself to actually sit back and consider some of the positive changes that are happening in the world, whether it's environmental legislation or civil rights legislation that may have changed for the better recently, or something small in your community.

We are in a period of so much change. I can't emphasize enough the importance of being involved, even on a really small scale, donating time or money to local causes or writing letters. It's important to stay connected to the political process in some way.

A lot of people feel really isolated when experiencing the difficult facets of what's happening in the world. My experience, especially as a therapist, is that many people are feeling these things very deeply. So, when feeling troubled, upset, or affected by bigger political issues, connecting with other people who are thinking about the same things is really essential--and doing something, taking action.

Koen Baum

Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

24th Street


We all, in general, as human beings want to feel like we have been useful, productive, or contributing in some way to humanity or to the people in our lives. That's how we feel worthwhile and sense that our time is not being wasted. Most of us want to feel like we are part of the solution rather than part of the problem. And in a time where there is so much difficulty or turmoil--whether it's in politics or the environment or the high cost of living--and where every day we're all walking around with a lot of stress and a lot of things on our minds, if we do something that we feel contributes to humanity, even if it's a really small thing, we can feel like we are a part of the solution. This is true even if it's showing somebody compassion or not arguing with somebody when we could argue with them.

Even if we don't give a homeless person some money, for example, if we say something kind or we look into the person's eyes, it connects us to our own spirituality or our own humanity, and we feel positive about it. A lot of times nowadays, we feel things are so out of our control, and there's a longing for us as human beings to feel like even if somebody blows the world up, or even if we don't have control over global warming, we want to feel like, at least, we did some small thing to have somebody feel a little more positive while this earth is still spinning and we are still alive.

As much as negativity and stress there is, there's also a lot of beauty in life. And there are people working on large scales and smaller scales for equality and justice. But even if you do something on a small scale like go home to your partners or children or parents and just say," I really appreciate your taking out the garbage," you're contributing to the positiveness of life in the midst of so many things that can get you down.

If you find yourself sitting and stewing either in traffic or at home, one thing to do is make a gratitude list of what you are thankful for today. Name 10 things. It could be your children or your job, any kind of thing that you are grateful for. Also, in stalled traffic, try to looking over at somebody else in a car and smile, or look up in the sky. Think of one of your favorite places to be, and just imagine the serenity that you get being in that place. Or, if you're at home and stewing, and it's hard to motivate yourself to do something, put on a favorite piece of music that you haven't listened to for a long time.

Alan Wolf

Psychotherapist and Licensed Clinical Social Worker

Dolores Street


Self-care is really important. Nurture yourself. Know when to turn the news off if it gets to be too overwhelming, and nourish yourself with some positive activities.

It pulls people from depression to have a proponent or advocate. I work as a clinical social worker, and part of the view of clinical social work is context. We look not just at ways to help engage people in the process of personal change but also at how to connect with others to facilitate change in society as far as inequities go, of which there are so many, unfortunately. So, the more people can actually participate in some sort of social transaction, it gives them an opportunity to feel more personally empowered, connected to others and less isolated. And, in general, it just feeds the soul. That's one approach to maintaining your optimism in the face of lots of dispiriting circumstances. It's also good to surround yourself with people who are hopeful and actually doing something that makes a difference. It's not always easy.

There's reason to be hopeful. There appears to be a sea change with the change in the control of the Senate and the House. So, that's always good. It's important to look at the positive things that are occurring and to gain some sense of strength and momentum from that.

Susan Frankel

Marriage and Family Therapist and Life Coach

24th Street


A lot of maintaining a sense of optimism is about taking one piece at a time, in a sense, managing things in small bits, and trusting yourself. It starts with faith, and it's faith in a lot of different ways, not necessarily spiritual. But it certainly can anchor people to have faith in something a little larger than the self, whatever it might be. Being able to make an impact, even in a small way, so you don't lose sight of the possibility of being able to impact your life and your community, keeps people hopeful. The larger picture does seem enormous when thinking about the state of the world right now. But if you keep it small, and keep one foot in front of the other, there are lots of ways the world is hopeful and lots of ways you make ripples in a small pond. That's what I try to encourage people to do, take a little bite out of things.

I feel pretty hopeful, even in light of a lot of treacherous things. I was watching Gerald Ford's funeral, and I remember that time, and all the people involved in that period of time, which was both very hopeful and hopeless, politically and universally. There was so much going on the 1960s and 1970s. People made big strides in government, changed things, and got more hopeful. I tend to have a more positive perspective on things. Otherwise, I couldn't do this work.

If you're feeling hopeless, you have to go out and change your perspective. People do that differently, for instance, going to the ocean, climbing a mountain, taking your dog out for a walk, doing volunteer work, or stretching yourself a little bit. All of these can get you out of the box you get in when you feel hopeless. It can be as simple as saying hello to somebody you wouldn't say hello to, reading a book about faith, or going to church, temple, or synagogue. You have to ask yourself what it is that makes you feel alive. What is it that makes you bubble and simmer? If people can get in touch with that, they can spark a different perspective.

When you feel deprived, give something to someone else. Give a little bit of your own energy. Doing volunteer work is a classic way. Cook a meal for someone who's homeless. Be generous. Spark a smile on somebody else. That can change your whole mood. When people feel hopeless, they are looking at huge, big-picture things instead of realizing you can impact the world in tiny ways and change everything.

Dean Abramson

Marriage and Family Therapist

24th Street


My background is in transpersonal psychology, which uses Eastern and Western psychological approaches. I work with people on self-empowerment, helping them see what they can do and how they can influence and affect the people around them. It's almost a kind of "think globally, but act locally," where you are able to be more of a positive influence on the people around you, and that, hopefully, can spread.

I also work with people in terms of creativity. When people tap into their creativity, they feel as if they're making a difference, not just in themselves but also in the world. It's a way of looking at things spiritually, too. Politics is not all of life, but just a part of life. We have a much larger spiritual presence. But if enough people get involved in local political activities, going to protests, writing letters to Congress, and that kind of thing, it's empowering.

I also just let people talk about their anger regarding the situation and being able to get some perspective, because people can be overwhelmed by the news. It's important to realize that the news is a big part of life, but it isn't everything. I worked with one client who said, "I've been really depressed." I asked, "How long have you been depressed?" "Ever since Bush became president," he said. We found ways to help him feel more involved in the community and in the political sphere, so he felt that, at least, his voice was being heard.

I also encourage people to get out in nature, realizing that nature is much bigger than the politicians who are trying to run our lives. I think by empowering ourselves, we take away that sense of empowering these leaders. If you think about them all the time and get depressed about it, essentially you're giving them the power they want over you. I try to help people take back their own power, finding ways to make it more internal.