10 Things to Know if Your Baby is prescribed a Plagiocephaly Helmet

We knew our son’s head shape was “not quite right” when he was born. He was born at 35 weeks, and he had a moment of performance anxiety during the birth, which resulted in him getting stuck.

That was fun.

The combination of his early arrival (and even softer head than a full-term newborn) and his period of “stuckness” resulted in him being born with a flat head, or if you want to be fancy about it, “Plagiocephaly.” We didn’t know it at the time, but he was also born with “Torticollis” which is a stiff neck muscle. It meant he could only turn his head to one side.

Because we are avid rule abiders in this house, we followed all the safe sleeping guidelines. We put bubs to bed on his back for every sleep and nap. So slowly over the first weeks of his life, his soft little head pressing down on his firm little mattress got progressively flatter and flatter – not only on the back, but on the one side that his head naturally turned to. It now turned this way not only because of his stiff neck (we’d started doing stretches, so that was improving), but also then because of the flat spot. Think of it as cutting a segment out of an orange – the orange is always going to roll towards the flat surface and stay there.
I am a Googler (aren’t all of us new parents?), so I was pretty reassured when I saw that flat spots were pretty common and that “Plagiocephaly” is the most common craniofacial problem today (partly due to the safe sleeping guidelines – though it is infinitely better to have a baby with a flat head than one who can’t breathe, so I am definitely not advocating going against the guidelines). When I started attending a community “Mother’s Group” they covered Plagiocephaly. This was also reassuring, as a few other mums in the group raised their hands with similar concerns to me. So, I was feeling pretty good until the midwife caught sight of the side of my son’s head while we were having tea and biscuits after the meeting and said, “that’s actually a really remarkable case,” turning his head this way and that. Remarkable, really? I appreciated her candor, but I definitely started worrying again then.

She gave me a card of an Orthopedist who could assess my son and perhaps prescribe a “Plagiocephaly Helmet.” The helmet’s purpose is to alleviate pressure from the flat spots, allowing the skull to grow into the spaces provided inside the helmet – they make a cast of your baby’s head first, so the spaces in the helmet match the flat spots in your baby’s head. She said she wasn’t supposed to give out the contact information, because some doctors in our area did not agree with the helmets and thought they were a waste of time and money (they thought the problem would fix itself with time). I’ll never know, because my anxious personality propelled me towards this Orthopedist’s office as fast as my legs could take me (not that fast actually, as I was also dragging along a four-month-old).

The Orthopedist certainly did prescribe a helmet. He made the cast right there during the first appointment, and I’ve made a list of things to expect if you, too, find yourself in the position of being prescribed one for your bundle of joy.

1 | They are not super cheap, considering they are mostly foam

Our helmet set us back $500. I guess this is why some doctors will advise against them if they do feel the problem will correct itself in time. I felt it was worth it for us, for the peace of mind of knowing we were doing everything we could at the time. Also, this cost included all follow-up appointments and adjustments to the helmet every month (as his head changed shape) so it is actually pretty reasonable when you look at it like that.

2 | It is not about cosmetics

You may think it is a little over the top for me to have gotten so worked up about the fact that my baby would have a bit of a flat head. My main concerns were not cosmetic (though of course I don’t want him to look funny!) – I was thinking about stuff like him not being able to wear glasses comfortably (both hubby and I do, so it is pretty likely he will need them), or even sunglasses. Or not being able to wear safety helmets or hard hats without having specially made ones. This may not be an issue if the flat spot was just on the back, but because his head was asymmetrical (the flatness was on the back and one side) it would have been.

3 | They are not as uncomfortable as they look

I have to go by observation on this one, because my four-month-old didn’t actually turn around to me and say “hey, this isn’t so bad.” He wore his helmet 23 hours a day. It was only off to clean it and to give him a bath. He slept in it, and his sleep did not change or regress. He was a happy, giggly baby, and didn’t really even seem to have a major adjustment period to it. It was really, truly, so fine. And when he got it off, he adjusted well to that too.

4 | The earlier the better

The earlier the helmet is on, the shorter time period it needs to be on and the more effective it is. My son was in his helmet from four months old until about eight months old. This is around the earliest it can go on. Helmets are believed to work best between approximately the ages of five months and eight months. There was another young boy who came to the office around the same time as us who had gotten his helmet on much later, and it was on for ages longer and didn’t end up working as well. This is apparently to do with how fast our son’s skull bones fuse together and the head being more malleable at an earlier age.

5 | You may get some looks

Everywhere I went during the months of the helmet, I felt like I was being stared at. I tried to give people the benefit of the doubt, and assume they were staring because it looks so damn cute (it really does). They were also probably wondering what it was for, as the helmets aren’t super common where I live. Strangers were nice to me – they offered to let me go first in queues, asked how I was doing, or asked to carry things for me.

Sometimes people would ask what was “wrong” with my son. My usual answer was that “it’s just on to reshape his wonky head.” I would play it cool, but sometimes my feelings were quite hurt when they said that. Some people told me that they thought my son had a mental disability, or a developmental disorder and it was on for protection (for head banging). I’ll admit, it made me feel a bit self-conscious.

6 | You do miss the unrestricted snuggles and nuzzling against your baby’s head

This was the main thing I was excited for when I learned he could take his helmet off – the head nuzzles! Until then, we did lots of head nuzzling at bath-time, and at other times we snuggled him through the sometimes uncomfortable feeling of a hard block of foam on your face. He still felt cozy, warm, and snuggly, I’m sure. It was just us who were a tad more uncomfortable! Worth it!

7 | If you don’t clean the helmet every day, it will smell

All you have to do is wipe it down using rubbing alcohol and a cotton wool ball once a day (before bath time, so it has that half an hour to dry before he gets back into it). Leave it for a day and suffer the stench!

8 | You will get creative with tummy time

Even though the helmet is on, which relieves the pressure off the flat spots, we are still told to pay attention to positioning. So, stretches to help move his head both ways, repositioning the head on the mattress, and tummy time – lots of tummy time! If the child doesn’t like it (ours didn’t at first) this can be a challenge. We had to think of lots of ways to make it fun – think plastic sandwich bags filled with paint for him to squish, mirrors, music, blow up balls, and lying down with him making funny faces. It is actually quite fun to think of ways to extend the time they spend on their belly. And you get to lie down for a minute too! Bonus!

9 | You will miss it when it’s gone – a bit

This is similar to when you see someone you are close to without their glasses on. It just doesn’t look like “them” for a while, as you get used to its absence. Sure, we saw the “real him” every night at bath time, but he always looked just a little bit naked (that’s a bad example because he was in the bath, but you get the idea). It probably took a good two weeks for us to not feel like something was “missing.”

10 | It isn’t so bad

It’s just a few months, which pass by in the blink of an eye in infancy. It’s a bit of a cost, but that includes everything. The babies aren’t affected by it physically or emotionally, and it really doesn’t affect their mood or sleep or anything (at least in our experience, and in talking to other helmet parents).

The best part: It worked! My son now has a perfectly asymmetrical, round head. He is none the worse for wear.

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How to be Happy: Consider this.

Sitting around the board room table at work on Friday, somewhere between hearing about the “monthly updates” and eating my 14th Jelly Baby of the morning, I had an epiphany. My manager was talking about the book “How to be Happy at Work” by Annie McKee, and asking us to reflect on whether we were, in fact, happy at work, and how to utilize McKee’s principles in our jobs.

As it turns out, I am happy. I’ve never been happier at work, actually. I’m a psychologist and find it extremely rewarding, challenging, and fulfilling. But my reflection was on my “second job,” aka my life’s work, my main priority: parenting.

Don’t get me wrong, I am happy at home. I love my two-year-old son and my husband to the moon and back. I feel happy much of the time. But this book is about thriving, about long-term, sustainable, fulfillment within your employment. If I’m honest, sometimes this toddler parenting gig feels like a day-by-day type of “March to the finish line” (perhaps the finish of a seemingly unending whiny car ride, or to the blessed relief of bedtime). The principles that McKee refers to in her book are important pillars that she says must be present in our lives to find happiness at work and I guess I started reflecting on whether they were present for me in my most important work. Are they there within our parenting? I think we all need to reflect on that (well, I do, anyway). So what are the pillars?

1 | A sense of purpose

This is us needing to have the chance to contribute to something bigger than ourselves. Yes, arguably, being a parent is doing this in and of itself. But what about those things that we actually used to care about before becoming parents? Are they still a big part of our value system, and if so, are we still fully us if we are neglecting them? Are our kids and families seeing all of who we are and valuing that in us? Think about your passions, causes, the things that gave your life meaning BC (Before Children). The things that you used to happily debate with your loved ones.

Are we keeping up to date with the issues that we care about most? Whether it be the environment, social justice issues, health, hobbies, artistic endeavors, international aid, I bet most of us have something apart from parenting that weighs on our hearts daily. I feel like sometimes when we become parents our worlds suddenly shrink. We become fixed on debates like breast vs formula, co-sleeping or not, and yada yada yada, until we become personally offended if someone makes a different choice to us. We become fixated on all things parenting! We forget that the world is a larger place. That we are larger people.

What is our purpose, and who are we beyond parenting? How can we incorporate these things into our home lives and parenting, in order to be more fully engaged in ourselves, the world, and our families?

2 | Hope

We all need to have a vision that is personal to us. A vision that inspires hope in us. Not just hoping to make it to the next nap, or milestone, or next phase. At work, we often write down our vision statements, our goals, our five year plans. How often do we do that as parents? If every family is like ours (heaven help us all if that’s true) not very often.

Where do you see your family in one month, one year, or five years? What would you most like to accomplish within your home life? What would “success” look like, feel like, smell like even? Would you like to travel, gain a family hobby, support a charity, renovate your backyard as the kids grow, improve your communication? What would that be like? How would it make you feel?

Once you have reflected on this, visualize it – visualization and repetition of it actually work to increase the likelihood of something happening. This is because then our behavior is more likely to align to our vision (think motivation, perseverance, and self-fulfilling prophecies).

3 | Relationships

Resonant, friendly, deep relationships are another key to happiness. Relationships are a crucial component of our parenting journeys. We need friends! Not just people that we can hang out with occasionally and watch our kids play, or people we know because our kids are the same age. (Relationships of convenience, those are called.) We need deep, soul connections to thrive.

I have been guilty of not prioritizing these connections in life. I am an introvert and I have grown up really close to my family. I guess I have subconsciously been of the mindset that I don’t “need” anyone else apart from my husband and family. This mindset followed me when I moved two states away from my family. I have thought I did not need people. But I do. Not all the time … I definitely value my alone time! But I need them in my life. Without them I do feel lonely, separate, different, and lack that sense of belonging in a village that is so necessary. Not only for practical reasons (though they matter) but also for that feeling that is the world not on my shoulders alone.
As well as friends and family, we need positive relationships with our partners (if we have them). It is so, so common for our romantic relationships to be pushed to the sidelines when we have kids. Whether it is feelings of abandonment, neglect, feeling disrespected or put-upon, differing parenting ideals, exhaustion, different priorities, or simple lack of time, our relationships get put under a lot of pressure when we become parents. We need to put some thought into how we can prioritize our relationships, and keep them strong and growing for the sake of everyone’s happiness! It’s so toxic when they are not okay.
These three reasons, McKee concludes, are the keys to thriving and being happy at work. For many of us, parenting is our full-time 24/7 work. It can be incredibly difficult to suddenly be fully emerged in the lives of little humans, 24 hours a day. It can be easy to lose ourselves, our sense of purpose, of hope, of identity, and of our own relationships. For others, me included, parenting is still our 24/7 job – we just may not be physically with our kids for part of the day, while we go to paid work. It is also easy in this case to lose our identity, purpose, and hope, or for it to be directed into our employment rather than into ourselves, our home lives, and our job as parents. Whatever type of parent you are, can I encourage you to think about McKee’s proposed elements for happiness at work?

What is your purpose? What are you here for? What are you passionate about? What contributions do you want you and your family to make to the world? Who are you? What did you do before children that you miss, and want back?

What hope drives you? What is your vision, plan, mission statement for your family?

Who is important in your life? Who is your “person?” Who can you rely on? What do you need from them, and they from you? Have you guys communicated that to each other? What steps can you take to grow these relationships, and help them thrive? What are the barriers to that, and some potential fixes to these?

I think it would help to write these things down, talk about them, and reflect on them sometimes. Visualize yourself living in good relationship with your family and your people, living out your purpose and being hopeful for the future. Think of it often.

Be happy!

What Star Wars Teaches Us About the Growth Mindset.

I am a bit of a geek. I’m also a mum and a psychologist. So, it would stand to reason, that a lot of the time, my mind is on some pretty random stuff. The other day driving to day-care drop-off, it was on Star Wars, Anakin Skywalker (aka Darth Vader), and the growth mindset.

A “growth mindset” – what is it?

Well, for starters, it’s the opposite of having a “fixed mindset.” A fixed mindset is when someone believes that their intelligence, talents, and abilities are “just who they are.” Inherent, fixed, immovable. They spend their time stuck there. They don’t grow or change, because they don’t think they can.

A growth mindset holds that anything is possible with effort. It believes that there is always room for improvement. Challenges are good, because they are learning experiences. It embraces criticism because feedback is an excellent way to grow. It admires others, and seeks to emulate their good qualities, without becoming jealous of them. It is always learning, always growing and evolving.

Recent research in neuropsychology supports the validity of this mindset – the brain is always changing and evolving. Neuroscientists have discovered that the brain is indeed “plastic” in this way. We can train it and change it with effort.

A fixed mindset has an external “locus of control” – the control of your life is something external to you. A lack of opportunity perhaps, or genetics. A growth mindset believes that YOU control your destiny, and what you do, or don’t learn.

So, back to the other day. On the way to day-care, I started having a light bulb moment. Could learning about the growth mindset have saved Anakin Skywalker from turning to the Dark Side and becoming Darth Vader?! I think it could have!

His son Luke Skywalker developed a growth mindset throughout the Star Wars series. While he started out a little fixed, stubborn, and (let’s just go there) whiny, he developed into someone with the ability to change, to be taught, to develop, to grow. For a while, people were getting concerned about Luke’s mindset. Was he going to go the way of his Dad? It took a badass mentor (Yoda) to help him develop his growth mindset throughout the series. But he got there. There was an underlying flexibility there.

Luke grew up on a farm with his Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru. He came from nothing special, was nothing special really (that he knew of – turns out he was actually a Jedi). He had no specific talents or huge intellect. As a farmer, he would have been praised and thanked for hard-work, but not coddled. But he grew up to be one of the most amazing Jedis of all time! He did this through (eventually, once he got over himself a bit) training hard, listening to others, being teachable, and bouncing back after set-backs, again and again.

Anakin didn’t develop a growth mindset (well maybe at the end, when it was too late). Anakin (though he was a slave) was always “special.” He was “the one to bring balance to the force.” He built a flipping robot (C3PO) before age nine! He was a Pod Racer, and a prodigy. When the Jedi arrived on his planet,

they recognized it immediately, and whisked him away on their spaceship. He was always on a whole other level, and he knew it.

Growing up, Anakin developed a fixed mindset. He believed he was special – unparalleled in his level of awesome (and Midichlorians, apparently). When he was denied the rank of Master by the Jedi Council, because the Council didn’t trust him, he said this: “What!? How can you do this? This is outrageous, it’s unfair…” and later “I’ve become more powerful than any Jedi has ever dreamed.” He had developed the mindset that he was naturally entitled to power, and he did not deal with the rejection well. Rather than ask questions like “what could I do to improve their trust in me?” or “what qualities in my Master Obi Wan can I emulate to one day become a Master?” or even “is there something in me that I could improve?” he remained stuck in his beliefs, and began to spiral downward, eventually turning to the one person who continued to flatter and fawn over him, and who promised him power: the evil Emperor Palpatine. He turned to the Dark Side, and became (spoiler alert) Darth Vader.

Luke, however, learned to deal with setbacks differently through the series. He learned that he could do anything he wanted to, even though he had little evidence to base his confidence on. He just needed the right attitude, effort, and a growth mindset. Yoda mentored him in this mindset. Luke ended up persisting when people laughed at him for trying to be a Jedi. He became teachable. He learned from criticism. A lot. He found inspiration in others. He did not become jealous or get angry when things weren’t handed to him on a silver platter. He developed an internal locus of control: “This is only going to happen for me if I make it happen.” As Yoda instructed him: “Try not. Do, or do not do … There is no try.”

Isn’t this similar to our kids? They can get so fixed on whether they are “smart or dumb,” “sporty or nerdy,” “popular or a loner,” and it can become “just who they are.” We see so many kids who are really “smart” in primary school, who fail once in high school, and then continue to fail, because it is no longer “easy,” and they haven’t developed the tools for when things aren’t easy! Like Anakin, they have always thought they were smart, and been told they were special, so what does it mean for them if they fail? Who are they now?

How do we encourage and develop a growth mindset in our kids? So that they know that if they get one failing grade, or someone rejects them, it is not the end of the world? That they can grow from the experience and still become whoever they want to be?

Here are three ideas.

1 | Praise the process

As we learned from Anakin’s upbringing, let’s try praising kids differently. Let’s praise the process, not the person. Instead of “you’re so smart at Maths” we could say “you studied really hard for that test, and your results prove it.” Instead of “you’re so strong” we might say “you’ve been working really hard in training and I noticed you threw the ball even further than last time!”

2 | Give opportunities to grow

Let’s look for opportunities to stretch our children. Rather than always doing activities that they are good at, or excel at, let’s let them try things they have never done before, or things that may be an area of development for them. Let’s give them opportunities wherever possible to learn and grow.

3 | Give honest feedback

We don’t always have to tell our kids they’re perfect. We can refrain from the “oh that’s so beautiful, you’re so talented” associated with every smear of paint they bring home from school. This is an uncomfortable one, because we don’t want to trample our kids “self-esteem,” but what if the old school methods of bolstering self-esteem got it wrong? What if it is not helpful to praise everything our kids do? Is it perhaps more helpful to help them develop a growth mindset by showing them that they don’t have to be great at everything straight away? Or even at all? It’s okay to do some things just for fun? We might even give some constructive feedback of where they could improve (sensitively of course)!

While these ideas can take time we sometimes don’t have, and extra thought, and can even be a bit uncomfortable, their purpose is to help our kids develop a growth mindset. Their brains are plastic, and we want to help them take advantage of that over the span of their lives, instead of being limited by their own self-beliefs.

I want my kids to be like Luke Skywalker, who, even with no particular advantages (okay, he was a Jedi, but he didn’t know it growing up) became a powerful Jedi and saved the world. He do so through effort, hard-work, resilience, and being teachable. I don’t want them to “turn to the Dark Side” like Anakin did. I don’t want them to lose out on opportunities because they are stuck on the idea of being something or other, whether that is “special” or “nerdy” or “dumb” or “popular.” I don’t want them to be unequipped when the world doesn’t meet their expectations. I want them to know the truth: That anything is possible with the right mindset.

What Harry Potter Teaches Us About Mindfulness.

I’m a clinical psychologist who has worked extensively with children and young people. My patients come to me seeking help for prevalent mental health concerns, such as anxiety and depression. I’m also a mum and a huge Harry Potter fan!

The struggle is real when it comes to explaining a concept like mindfulness to young children, and often to parents too. It may seem too abstract, too complicated, or too “hippy-dippy” to be effective in their lives with their very real and present problems – you know, the ones they came in to get actual, realistic help with? Uttering the words “meditation” or “mindfulness” is a quick way to see glazed-over kiddie eyes, and a flash of disappointment cross the parents’ faces while they mentally scroll the yellow pages for someone who is going to provide “an actual fix” for the presenting issue.

Perhaps part of the issue is the way we are communicating what mindfulness is, and the profession’s own difficulty in describing it. Another issue is that mindfulness has become such a trend in pop psychology (think coloring books) that it’s not deemed serious or academic enough to help in any real way.

I do think that as far as treatment plans go, mindfulness-related strategies hold the potential to help kids with a myriad of concerns, whether they be clinical presentations or simply as a way to live in a more positive, engaged way.

A simple way to explain mindfulness is to notice what’s happening right now. Notice what your body is doing. Notice what your mind is doing. Be present in the moment. It’s about paying attention in a specific way, on purpose.

This is not often a concept that reads well with young kids. But in re-reading Harry Potter for the umpteenth time (I’m not proud of the number), I began to notice some parallels between the Harry Potter stories and mindfulness strategies. I started to think about ways to explain mindfulness to kids using Harry Potter language (provided they’ve either read the books or watched the movies).

The following parts of the series do, I believe, teach us something about mindfulness strategies and techniques. There are so many strategies relating to mindfulness that it would be impossible to cover them all in one post, so I’m going to write about some of my favorites (and most effective, based on my own clinical population).

Contentment and gratitude

When Harry stumbles across an ornate, ancient mirror, the Mirror of Erised, on one of his nightly wanderings through Hogwarts, he sees an image of himself surrounded by both of his parents, smiling, happy, and most importantly, alive. For Harry, whose parents are both gone, this was a stunningly emotional moment. He tells his friend Ron to have a look and see his own family, but Ron sees himself as head boy and winning the Quiddich Cup. Confused, Harry comes to realize that the mirror reflects one’s deepest desires. Ron, who is constantly surrounded by his large family, deeply desires to stand out and achieve as his own person even more than his high-achieving brothers. Harry, who’s already famous, just wants his parents back.

Later, Professor Dumbledore confides in Harry that the most well-adjusted, content person would simply see an image of herself, as she is today, with no embellishments. What does this mean?

We spend the majority of our waking moments awash in thoughts of “What if” or “If only.” Regret, envy, and discontent follow us through our days, rendering us stuck and blind to the present moments that we are told to “cherish.” We’re not cherishing them, are we?

An important component of mindfulness is to be aware when our thoughts are going down these tracks, to stop and ask ourselves what are some things we are grateful for, to remind ourselves that the big and the small things matter. People find journaling a beneficial way

to do this. Listing five things we are grateful for each day is a good place to start. Gratefulness leads to contentment when we see that our grass is just as green as the grass next door, we just have to water it! Think of thoughts as seeds, the ones we “water” (pay attention to) are the ones that grow. Water gratefulness!

Defusion techniques

Russ Harris, author of “The Happiness Trap,” talks about defusion as a way to detach or step back from our thoughts. The kids in Harry Potter learn to do this with the help of Professor Lupin and his Boggart, a dark, immortal, non-being who shape-shifts to take on the appearance of the darkest fear of whomever is closest to it.

As an example: Ron, Harry’s friend who is deathly afraid of spiders, gets confronted with the Boggart, which becomes a spider. His challenge is to picture the spider in a funny way, using humur as his weapon. He pictures it with roller-skates on and the Boggart changes into a clumsy object of fun. When Ron laughs, the fear is banished and the Boggart leaves him alone.

When our kids are learning to “defuse” from their thoughts, they can be taught to look at their fears from a distance. Their thoughts about their object of fear are not necessarily the truth, more a story that they are telling themselves. If they can look at the fear in another way (say wearing roller-skates), the story can change and their fear can shift. “The Happiness Trap” has some really good techniques for learning the skill of defusion. In the meantime, an effective question to ask is, “What are some other ways of looking at that?”

Mindfulness meditation

The Dementors are dark creatures who suck out your soul through your mouth. (Yes, this is a kid’s series, but when I write it like that it does seem a bit morbid.) In the Harry Potter series, Dementors bring about a sense of fear and hopelessness, much like the experience of someone going through anxiety or depression. After encountering a Dementor, one feels better by eating chocolate. I like this idea.

Practitioners who utilize mindfulness techniques teach us about “mindfulness meditation,” which focuses our whole attention on our sensory experiences. It may be leaving a piece of chocolate (yum!) or a raisin (less interesting but okay) in our mouths, and focusing our attention on that for a window of time, noting the taste, feeling, sensation, and so on. When our intrusive, worried “what-if” or hopeless “if-only” feelings come in (our Dementor thoughts), we are not to judge or pay attention to them (don’t water them!), but to let them pass us by, bringing our attention back to the piece of chocolate instead. People also do this by focusing on their breathing, but chocolate is yummier than air.
In starting to write this piece, I’m thinking of more and more examples of mindfulness in Harry Potter. I could go on all day! This is just a taste of the types of things mindfulness encompasses (besides coloring books!). It is really worth looking into, for both us parents and our kids. And Harry Potter provides a really good way to explain the concepts to them. Perhaps a good place to start is by reading a book about mindfulness (I recommend “The Happiness Trap” by Russ Harris) and then reading or watching (or re-reading or re-watching) Harry Potter with your kids. Mindfulness is truly a ground-breaking way to live in the moment and learn to let go of intrusive and unwanted thinking patterns.
As Dumbledore would say, “Happiness can be found in the darkest of times…if one only remembers to turn on the light.”

The Link Between Emotional Eating and Parenthood.

I feel particularly vulnerable writing this piece, because it’s about somewhat of a secret shame for me: Eating. Nay, emotional eating. Since having my baby two years ago, eating has become a friend, an activity, a form of relaxation, and basically something that I don’t feel completely in control of. It’s kind of embarrassing.

I’m a psychologist and feel like I “should” really know better (we’re not supposed to use the word “should” – it’s an unhelpful thinking style – but there it is in my brain anyway). I know about how addictions are formed.

Gordon Bruin talks about it particularly eloquently in his book “The Language of Recovery.” To surmise:

We experience something pleasurable (food, alcohol, drugs) and our brain stores it away for safekeeping. When we experience an unpleasant emotion (boredom, loneliness, anger, stress, tiredness), the part of our brain responsible for our emotions, (limbic system) interprets it as pain and potentially threatening to our survival. Our brain tries to distract us from our unpleasant emotion by

accessing the pleasurable memory and forcing us to crave it. When we use that pleasurable memory to distract us from our unpleasant emotion, a new neurological pathway is formed. Each time we distract ourselves with that pleasurable memory, the pathway is strengthened. Eventually, the brain thinks that the pleasurable memory is necessary for its survival and voilà! We are addicted. For me, it is to food.

Since having my son, food has become somewhat of a crutch to me. This makes sense when I think about the acronym Bruin uses to describe people’s “triggers” – unpleasant emotions that cause us to crave whatever we are addicted to. I was having these emotions in spades when my son was born, and still to this day, though some of the initial adjustment (aka shock) has worn off.

The Acronym is BLAST: It stands for Bored. Lonely. Angry. Stressed. Tired.

Since becoming a mum two years ago, I would be hard pressed to find a day when I’m not at least one of these things. Especially when I was a new mum and this food addiction was first forming. Here are some examples of how the emotions messed me around back then.

Bored

Babies are cute, but they can be very boring. It’s a pretty one sided relationship for a while there, with several long weeks of thanklessly wiping bums, feeding bellies, bathing, massaging, and rocking to sleep before you even get so much as a hint of a smile, which is probably just gas anyway. The days feel really long when you are doing everything in a 90-minute “feed – play – sleep” cycle. There are a lot of 90-minute periods in a day and they don’t end at 8:30 p.m. like my day used to! The nights can be super long and lonely … which brings me to my next point.

Lonely

I am quite introverted, so you would think loneliness wouldn’t be such a big deal for me. Not the case. Loneliness is not the same as solitude. I see solitude as intentional, a space between me and the world. A way to recharge, to connect with the energy inside myself and remain grounded. But loneliness isn’t that. Loneliness is separateness. Everyone else is the same as they were; I am different.

Everyone else is asleep; I am awake. Everyone else is at work; I am at home. When hubby had to go back to work after two weeks home with us, this got particularly bad.

Angry

I am often prone to fits of anger. I think it is the way my anxiety manifests. The rages were particularly bad when my son was a newborn, probably because of the sleep deprivation, hormones, unrealistic expectations and phenomenal mental load cocktail.

Stress

I feel like stress is a constant companion. When my son was a newborn it was about the amount of new information you have to learn when you have a newborn at home, and the responsibility of keeping a tiny human being alive. It’s really unbelievable! I felt quite stressed, especially when hubby went back to work and I was on my own with bub. Mind meltdown and brain overload. Stress! When I went back to work when he was five months old, my job in a demanding, people focused role added a whole other layer on top of that. Even when away from work and my son, the mental load does not go away. We are constantly “on” as parents.

Tired

This one is self-explanatory … I never slept. Never. Now that he’s two, I sleep better. Thank goodness.

Those were just some examples of the unpleasant emotions that triggered me to overeat (my brain’s way of distracting me from pain) when my son was little.

The eating patterns that formed while my son was a newborn are hanging on. When I feel frustrated, tired and I need of a break, I’m likely to go to the pantry and look for something crunchy to crunch my frustration out on. When I actually get some “me time” I do not feel like the relaxation can be complete without some chocolate to luxuriate with. This is all subconscious; I’m not aware I’m doing it at the time.

I’d like to become more aware; so that I can create a space between the trigger emotion and the reaction (emotional eating). Enough space to ask myself if I really need to eat right now? Am I making the best choice for my body? Will this make me feel good in half an hour? Some ideas I am considering are motivational signs on the fridge, meal planning (including healthy snacks), drinking water, and going for a walk in “me-time” instead of crashing on the couch (less proximity to the kitchen, see).
That is my goal: to “weaken” the neurological pathways that have built up in my brain. To change my brain’s default settings; each time I make a better choice for myself, it stands to reason that the cravings will lessen, and I will become more in control of my eating.

How to Free Your Kids from “Sticky Thoughts” Using Mindfulness.

As a clinical psychologist, I see a lot of kids (and adults for that matter) get “stuck.” Through experiences, the words of others, or just by temperament, they become stuck in their thoughts about themselves, others, and the world. A lot of prevalent clinical presentations (think anxiety, depression, and oppositional/defiant behavior) come down to this type of “sticky” thinking.

Psychologists have long used the Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) idea of “thought challenging” to “get rid of” these types of thoughts. After explaining an “unhelpful” or “negative” thought to a psychologist, one may be met with a barrage of questions: “How likely is that to happen?” “Is that a helpful thought?” or “Is it true?” While helpful for some, CBT can place a lot of attention on our less helpful thoughts, even while trying to eliminate them. The more we push them away, the tougher they get.

I think of it like a garden: A seed that is watered grows into a tree, right? It grows bigger, stronger, and more permanent. That’s also what happens when we “water” (pay attention to) our thoughts. The neural pathway associated with the thought grows in strength, accessibility, and permanency. So, what if by engaging in CBT, the very act of challenging our thoughts to try to reduce them, is actually watering them instead?

Cue mindfulness and acceptance and commitment therapy. Mindfulness is really growing in popularity, but it is often seen as a bit of a minefield, perhaps even a bit flakey or “hippie.” It can be especially hard to explain it to young people. Basically, mindfulness is about being in the present moment, becoming aware of what’s happening in your mind (and body), but not judging your thoughts or trying to “get rid of them.” It’s about not “fusing” too strongly with them.

An example of being fused with a thought is this: I have a good friend who has a seven-year-old son. This kid is a complete champ. The top reader in his class, popular, and an absolute flipping expert on dinosaurs. But he doesn’t try anything new. Like, ever. He is so fused with the idea that he is good at everything, that something inside him doesn’t want to change that idea, so he doesn’t try anything that he may not be immediately good at. This type of fusion can cause kids to become “stuck.” Not only is he stuck on the idea that he needs to be good at everything all the time, but he’s also stuck in life, unable to enjoy new and exciting activities.

Enter defusion! Defusion can be next to impossible to explain without just doing it, especially to kids. Rather than go too scientifically into what it is, I’m just going to list some activities to practice it with your kids. By hearing about the activities, I think you’ll then know exactly what defusion is. In short, it’s the act of becoming less attached (fused) with your thoughts. Noticing them, but having them mean less, and thus not watering them into big, strong, hard-to-move trees.

Here we go!

1 | Write down everything you think of in one minute

Set a timer and have your kid write down whatever comes to mind in this time. No checking for spelling or grammar or worrying about handwriting. It’s best to handwrite and not type if possible. This stream of consciousness activity is a real winner. Writing down everything you think of in a minute can be hilarious and surprising. It also serves to help us to see that we can move past thoughts that we have and not get stuck in them.

In reading back what your kid has written with her, you’ll hopefully be able to identify positive thoughts (I can’t wait to go to the zoo tomorrow), neutral thoughts (that curtain is green), and negative thoughts (I hate my sister). We can teach our kids that when any of these thoughts come up, it’s possible to notice them, be aware what we’re thinking, and then move on to another aspect of our lives . We can then move in a valued direction, rather than watering the thoughts that we don’t want to grow.

We can teach them that it’s not only possible, but that they have already done it through the writing exercise. This exercise is the first step towards learning to accept thoughts without becoming fused with them. Older kids may move on to “Mindfulness Meditation” in time.

2 | Name that story

When you notice a specific pattern in your kid’s thinking (whether this be through the writing exercise or just in general conversation), it may be a good idea to put a name to it. Does he often talk about how he is “hopeless” or “no-one loves me”? That may be his “not good enough” story. This helps separate his thoughts (story) from who he is. It also stops both him and you from becoming fused with the thought.

I bet you’ve found yourself fused with your kid’s thoughts before, right? This might have looked like a long argument, such as: “Lots of people love you. I love you. Daddy loves you. Mr Biggles the cat loves you.” Or trying to convince him that the rollercoaster ride is not that scary with: “Look how much fun everyone else is having on it.” This is you stuck on his sticky thoughts, on his story. This arguing is similar to a CBT practice.

Rather than engaging in an argument and trying to convince him that his thoughts are not true, next time why not try giving the thought a name, and asking him, “Wow, here’s your ‘I’m not good enough’ story again – what do you want to do with it?” and see how that goes? You may just find that when the seed stops being watered, it shrinks.

3 | I am!

Kids can get stuck on their “I am” stories, like my seven-year-old buddy. “I am good at everything; I am an achiever,” or “I am anxious” or “I am naughty.” An idea to move past these sticky “I am” thoughts is to have your child write out on some poster paper all of the “I am” statements she can think of. I am a friend, I am an animal lover, I am a good basketball player, I am cheeky, I am scared sometimes. She can even draw pictures that go with each “I am.” Then explain: “I worry sometimes that you are getting a bit ‘stuck’ on this ‘I am.’”

It may be that she’s stuck on having to be good at everything, or it may be that she’s stuck on being anxious and generalizes this to being “just who she is.” Learning to let go of stuck “I ams” is such a valuable life skill.

Mindfulness folk would say that it’s important not to fuse too strongly to any particular thought or any particular aspect of who we are. It’s important to be flexible in our thinking and in our lives, to not water the seeds of unhelpful thoughts, and hopefully to see them shrink!

How to Let it Go When All You Want to Do is Stew

Recently I was at Aldi, shopping for food with my toddler. He was screaming the place down, because I looked at him. Seems reasonable! Anyway we finally got to the checkout, when the checkout lady said to the man behind me, “Oh you come through first, that lady will take ages to unpack and you don’t have that much stuff.”

I saw red! I couldn’t believe it. I thought to myself, “I’m going to let her have it.” In reality this is what I said, with flickering eye contact and shaky voice: “I really would have preferred you to ask me before letting someone else through. I have a really sore back, and have the baby with me and I am actually in a bit of a hurry.”

So assertive! She must have been terrified, not.

Anyway, it didn’t really work, because she just said, “Well, we always do that as a courtesy to our customers.” I repeated, “I just think asking the person if they mind would be better, or letting the person offer it themselves,” to which she replied, “I’m not here to argue with you, I did the right thing.”

What the actual…?! Seems little now, but yeah I was pretty annoyed.

So, I stewed on it all day (as you do), considered making a complaint to Aldi (never did, because lazy) and then let it all out to hubby when he walked in the door that night. I looked at him expectantly when I had finished my tale of woe, waiting for I don’t know what exactly – maybe some form of sympathy or outrage, I guess. He looked at me, genuinely befuddled, and asked a one-word question: “So?”

Well! I drew my breath, and puffed my chest out ready to tell him exactly why “so,” Mister! And then I stopped. I stopped because the question had just sunk in and I didn’t have an answer to it. In what way was that event actually going to affect my life? What was I gaining by holding onto it and wasting time thinking about and even talking about it? In other words, as he so eloquently put it: “So?”

I have actually heard this lesson before, in a different way. My dad’s favorite saying is, “Oh well.” (Is it maybe a male thing?) It hasn’t sunk in for me yet. I like justice, damn it!

There is some comfort in holding tight onto things that offend you. You feel as though the offenders are paying for their “crimes,” so long as you don’t let go. If you forget it, they are getting away with it.

There is a saying: “Resentment is like drinking poison and hoping the other person dies.” And another: “Forgiveness is setting someone free, and then finding out it was you.” Sometimes (most of the time) little things people do are just that: little things. Things they possibly don’t even remember, and probably didn’t mean. Yes, sometimes they are big things, and sometimes they are intentional, and that is harder. But it is still worth it to try hard to let it go. For your sake. Because you deserve to live your best life, and harboring resentment and negativity isn’t it. I’ve spent (wasted) too much time thinking about inconsequential negative moments, and I’m tired, and I bet I’m not alone.

A friend recently commented to me that it is more comfortable to think about the “little” things in life than to “go there” with the big stuff. It gets us out of thinking about the major life issues, the uncontrollable things, and the stuff that actually does require our time and energy. In the midst of raising a toddler, keeping a marriage alive, having a demanding people-focused job, buying a house and moving into it, dealing with a chronic back condition, and being away from my family, on top of some other personal issues that are really draining, why do I spend time focusing on this crap? Because it’s comfortable? It’s not, really. It’s not comfortable, but it’s easy and it’s automatic. That’s how our brains are wired: for survival.

We are wired to see the potential threat in everything, at least according to evolutionary psychology. And we keep these potential threats at the forefront of our minds, to keep us alert, alive and “safe.” Even though we don’t often encounter actual threats to our survival in Australia in 2017. If someone looks at us funny it doesn’t usually mean we are going to lose our tribe and be left to fend for ourselves in the woods and then probably die of starvation. It probably just means someone has on their resting bitchy face, or something equally benign.

The things we tend to focus on are more perceived threats than actual ones, and they are not worth holding onto so tightly. What was I afraid of in Aldi that morning? What was the “threat to my survival?” Well, I guess I felt embarrassed about my screaming kid, and worried that if I had to stand another minute I may not have had the strength left to pack the groceries and get them to the car and still drive home.

Was that likely to happen? No. There were plenty of people around to help me if need-be, and I even had my phone on me for any worst case scenarios. But the anxiety was automatic, and I guess in writing this I’m just realizing that this is the way I am wired. I’m normal. Woohoo!

But there are ways to soften the blow of this automatic reaction. There is a term “Metacognition,” which means “thinking about thinking.” It’s having the awareness of your own thought processes. Once we are aware of not only what we are thinking but how we are thinking and why we are thinking it, it is possible to use certain strategies to alter the neural pathways in our brains, so that our automatic pilots aren’t always set to fear and anxiety. This is a very basic example of something called neuroplasticity, which is so fascinating I might talk about more another time.

So what sorts of things should we set our minds to instead of fear and negativity?

Many studies have been done about the “key to a happy life.” One theme that runs throughout them all is thankfulness and contentment. Be thankful and content where you are, rather than always wanting things to be different, or wanting more, or striving to be better at this or that. Don’t be stuck in the past with an “it’s not fair” victim mentality, or stuck in the future with “what if,” worst-case-scenario anxiety. Just be where you are, be grateful for it, and be content in it. Let the other stuff – the negative stuff, the unfair stuff, the scary stuff – go.

Next time I will try not to think about the Aldi lady all day, I will not make myself more and more angry and worked up. I will pretend I am a duck and let it roll right off my back. I will be like that movie Pollyanna and think about what I have to be “glad” about. I will concentrate on things I am thankful for every day. I’ll sit still and be in the moment. I won’t drink any more poison. And then I’ll hopefully be set free. Well, I will try anyway. I’m sure it will be a work in progress!