Coping and Personal Growth

13Aug 2015

Illus-AmyWinehouseMovie Review by Richard J. Loebl, LCSW, BCD

“Amy”, the documentary feature film currently in theatres, is the heartbreaking story about Amy Winehouse, the English singer songwriter who struggled with addiction and bipolar disorder. Amy’s talent was unique – her creative fusion of jazz, R&B, reggae, and hip-hop, and her incredible vocal range and artistry made her one of the truly great musical talents of the contemporary era. After recording a duet with the great jazz singer Tony Bennett, he said that “She was really a great jazz singer. A true jazz singer.” This movie captures Amy’s brilliance and incredible talent – along with her tragic emotional problems, addiction, and early death. The movie also reveals some aspects of the trauma she experienced growing up, and during her musical career.

I found myself wanting more information about Amy’s experiences with emotional trauma (abuse and abandonment, especially during childhood). The movie could have revealed a more complete narrative to explain the singer’s troubled life and problems with bipolar disorder and addiction. There were many scenes that graphically illustrated the disturbing behavior of the paparazzi (photographers and reporters who relentlessly stalked her). Their abusive behavior – surrounding her almost daily with flashing cameras and incessant questions about her lifestyle – was certainly emotionally traumatic for Amy. But I have to wonder if that trauma was over-emphasized, particularly in comparison to her early childhood trauma. The documentary did show one or two brief home movies of a somewhat hyperactive child and her mother, who said that she (mother) gave up trying to control Amy’s behavior. Amy’s parents separated when she was 9, and the movie implied that Amy experienced a traumatic series of abandonments by her parents and other caretakers. There were also indications that her father was manipulative and tried to profit from Amy’s success.

Amy’s behavioral problems and addiction were consistent with a history of trauma. Her symptoms almost speak for themselves. At an early age, Amy’s behavior was out of control. She consistently defied authority and was expelled from school at the age of 16. The movie revealed some indications of a young woman with a terrible self-image. She doubted her own talent and she had a very negative body image. She developed bulimia, a serious eating disorder, and she had a long history of self-mutilating behavior (especially cutting her legs and arms). It was disturbing to watch scenes of this incredibly talented musician cycling between moods of joy and deep depression. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and there are clear indications of borderline personality disorder (fears of abandonment and frantic, co-dependent efforts to avoid abandonment; intense and unstable interpersonal relationships; impulsivity with drugs, sex and violent behavior toward others; and anger management problems). Karen Heller with The Philadelphia Inquirer described Amy’s turmoil:

She’s only 24 with six Grammy nominations, crashing headfirst into success and despair, with a codependent husband in jail, exhibitionist parents with questionable judgment, and the paparazzi documenting her emotional and physical distress.

One early result of Amy’s childhood trauma and problems with impulse control was her use of alcohol and drugs. Reliable reports indicate that she experimented with alcohol in her early teens, and was smoking marijuana on a regular basis by the age of 16. A regular pattern of chemical abuse developed by her early 20’s, and it’s evident that Amy was self-medicating to cope with her personal, emotional turmoil. Her addiction progressed to include cocaine, crack, and heroin. She was hospitalized in 2007 for an overdose of heroin, ecstasy, cocaine and alcohol. She refused admission to a rehabilitation program (which is quite common with addicts and those with bipolar disorder), writing the popular song “Rehab” as an act of defiance. Amy did enter rehab in 2008, and subsequently, when she was unable or unwilling to practice sobriety, she was involuntary committed to a treatment facility later that year.

Finally, in 2010 Amy quit using drugs completely. However, she continued to drink alcohol frequently and heavily. When she recorded the duet with Tony Bennett, he later said that

…I didn’t even know it when we were making the record, and now looking at the whole thing; she knew that she was in a lot of trouble; that she wasn’t going to live. And it wasn’t drugs. It was alcohol toward the end. . . . It was such a sad thing…

Amy saw a psychiatrist during that period of time, and he prescribed Librium for her addiction to alcohol and for her anxiety. However, Amy refused psychotherapy for her addiction and bipolar disorder. Tragically, Amy died in 2011 from accidental alcohol poisoning. At the time of her death, Amy’s blood alcohol level was 5 times the legal limit.

It seems to be an eerie coincidence that some of the greatest, original musical talents of the last few generations died at such a young age with similar circumstances. For example, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Curt Cobain, and Amy Winehouse all suffered from bipolar disorder and addictions – all four of them dying at the age of 27. These tragedies are avoidable. Childhood trauma – abuse and abandonment – and the resulting problems of addiction, depression, eating disorders, and bipolar disorder can be successfully treated and healed. It’s been said that some of the greatest creative accomplishments stem from “insanity” or a disordered mind. I believe we are on the threshold of treatments that can effectively control or manage these emotional problems – and, at the same time, protect and nourish even the most productive, creative talents.

We only said goodbye with words
I died a hundred times
You go back to her
And I go back to black

“Back To Black”, Amy Winehouse, 2006

28Jul 2015

Mindfulness at Work-Image

Mindfulness at Work

How to use Mindfulness for Career Success

By Richard J. Loebl, LCSW, BCD

I’ve been a practicing psychotherapist for over 30 years – and I consider myself to be a successful entrepreneur. I credit much of my success to the use of mindfulness practices, which also help me to manage the stress that’s inevitable with many career and work issues. There are 5 proven, easy-to-use mindfulness based and stress management techniques to create success in any business or career.

First, to provide an example of career success achieved using mindfulness practices, I’ll brag a little about my Center. We have an excellent reputation and we’re highly visible in our community. It’s a busy psychotherapy practice with full caseloads, a staff that includes several therapists and a practice manager, and I rent office space to a psychiatrist and several other psychologists and counselors. I lease a large suite of upscale offices in the center of town, and manage an operating budget that includes sizable monthly expenses for marketing and promoting the practice.

Most definitions of the word entrepreneur emphasize the financial risk in starting and operating a business. Over the past 10 years I’ve personally assumed considerable financial risk to create the successful practice of my dreams. One of the biggest obstacles in taking this risk was my own fear and self-doubt. I faced these fears and overcame the doubts that limited my career success by using mindfulness methods and other stress management techniques.

One popular example of the successful use of mindfulness techniques is Phil Jackson, the professional basketball coach who has won 11 NBA titles. His use of mindfulness meditation with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls resulted in a great deal of media attention in the 1980’s into the 1990’s. Jackson encouraged his players to meditate; he led the team in group meditations, and taught them to use a variety of mindfulness techniques. Jackson spoke about a mindful approach to career success and winning so many championships:

…I know that being fixated on winning (or more likely, not losing) is counterproductive, especially when it causes you to lose control of your emotions. What’s more, obsessing about winning is a loser’s game: The most we can hope for is to create the best possible conditions for success, then let go of the outcome.

Mindfulness, quite simply, is awareness without judgment. Mindfulness methods include a focus on breath work, meditation, and a focus on the here and now. Many stress management practices incorporate mindfulness methods – such as relaxation exercises, emotional detachment and the rational use of objective problem solving. I’ve grouped together the 5 most effective methods useful in career success and stress management in the workplace:

1. Meditation and Journaling – There are many types of meditation, and there’s no right or wrong way to meditate. Mindfulness meditation most commonly involves sitting in an upright position in a quiet room for 15-20 minutes without interruption. The body is relaxed and the mind is alert and focused. The most classic, effective type of meditation begins with a focus on normal, regular breathing – following the air as it comes into the lungs and out through the nostrils. Our minds will rapidly shift to some other thought or sensation. We simply notice the feeling or the thought, let it pass by, and refocus on the breath.

Journaling immediately following the meditation can be quite helpful and productive when dealing with work or career issues. When I decided to develop my practice, I meditated in a more focused manner by simply asking myself what I wanted – my vision for the future. Then I allowed for the thoughts and fantasies to surface without intentionally guiding the process. After each mindfulness session, I wrote out all the ideas that came to mind.

2. Nurturing a Mindset of Creation & Intention – The process of mindfulness meditation and journaling will reveal your current mindset. Is it positive, creative, motivated and purposeful? If negative thoughts and feelings are present, observe them dispassionately, without judgment, and imagine those thoughts and feelings floating away and dissipating, like clouds in the sky. Record the negative thoughts in your journal, along with cognitive corrections. For example, if fear thoughts or self-doubts come up, correct those thoughts with a written challenge based on personal experience in facing fears and positive accomplishments.

The use of positive affirmations can be helpful in nurturing a mindset of creation and intention. Write a list of at least 7 affirmations and repeat these daily as you look into the mirror. Examples include “I am creative and inventive; I am accomplished in my career; I will create success in my business/work”. Mindfully focus on the reality of abundance – there are plentiful resources available when we believe in opportunity and possibility. The so called “Law of Attraction” is based on the belief that we create our own experience and outcomes. My use of mindfulness practices included all of these methods. I believe my success as an entrepreneur resulted mostly from this positive mindset of abundance, creation and intention.

3. Mindful Business Plan – The process for creating my Center included a formal, written business plan. This plan resulted from a process that included the use of mindfulness methods. My focused meditations and journaling was the basis for writing out a vision statement. This was one of the most helpful and revealing exercises in creating a successful practice. I suggest writing your vision of future work or career success as a current reality, in the present tense. For example, it’s now 3-5 years from now, and you are describing the level of success or achievement you have intended. Write several pages with full details of where you are, what you are doing, and who is with you. Include specifics such as the location(s) of your office(s), your home, what they look like, the number and type of people you work with, your business and personal income, and the type of work you’re doing. Be optimistic, and create a vision based on an abundance mentality.

4. Daily Mindfulness Practice – The daily use of mindfulness methods is highly effective in creating success and stress management at work. Daily practice includes morning meditations, objective review of work and career issues with honest reflection and non-judgmental acceptance, and moment to moment awareness using emotional detachment. Work problems or issues are managed most effectively one day at a time with a level of emotional equanimity.

5. Mindful Stress Management – Stress occurs in all careers and work environments. We can’t control stress, but we can manage it with the use of mindfulness methods. Work stress, like all other forms of stress, is generated from both external and internal sources. External sources of stress include co-workers, the office environment (noise, crowded conditions, etc.), customers and clients. Internal stress is something we generate ourselves – for example, when we make unreasonable demands on ourselves, or when we perceive situations as threatening or overwhelming and we react with anxiety and anger.

Several proven, easy-to-use methods of mindful stress management are suggested:

o Use the breath – Breathe in deeply through your nose, expanding your diaphragm (the area around your stomach), and blow the air out through your mouth. One or two of these breaths provide a calming and centering experience, clearing the way for other mindfulness methods.

o Detach emotionally – don’t react – mindfully know that there is no need or benefit from taking anything personally.

o Use progressive relaxation exercises – tense and release each part of your body from the feet up to the neck and shoulders and facial muscles.

o Daily physical exercise, balanced diet, and limit the use of alcohol

o Take frequent breaks from your normal work routine (brief, focused time outs for breath work, relaxation, detachment, review and planning)

o Use affirmations and gratitude exercises

Remember to practice these mindfulness methods on a daily basis. It takes very little time and effort, and your work, your career, and your peace of mind is well worth the effort.

21Jul 2015

martian (2)-page-0

Martian Coping Skills

For Humans Dealing with Stress, Trauma, and Depression

By Richard J. Loebl, LCSW, BCD

Spoiler Alert: This article will reveal some basic plot information about The Martian, a movie to be released in October, 2015. However, I promise not to spoil the ending, and I will only describe the coping skills used on Mars for dealing with trauma, stress and for dealing with depression.)

A couple months ago I finished reading The Martian, an exciting and fascinating novel written by Andy Weir, and published in 2014. I was thrilled to learn that a movie version of this book will be released this October. The movie, directed by Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise), has a cast that includes Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristin Wiig, Jeff Daniels, and Kate Mara.

The Martian is Mark Watney (Damon), an American astronaut stranded on Mars, who uses incredible coping skills for dealing with trauma, tremendous stress, and to avoid succumbing to hopelessness and depression. Self-help books and psychotherapists (like myself) could not do a better job of describing effective coping skills, stress management, surviving emotional trauma, and escaping the black hole of depression.

Years of psychological research and clinical observation have clarified several important coping skills for dealing with stress, emotional and physical trauma (including childhood abuse and abandonment). We have also learned a great deal about coping skills to manage, minimize or prevent depression. The Martian accurately depicts healthy coping skills for survival on Mars or on Earth – these strategies include:

o Positive attitude and beliefs – One of the most endearing and entertaining aspects of The Martian is Watney’s unwavering sense of humor and his positive, mostly optimistic attitude. Certainly not an easily available attribute if you’re stranded on Mars! The fictional Watney may have been blessed with a positive personality and a natural sense of humor. It’s also true that he consciously used that personal trait to stay alive. He did struggle at times with some feelings of hopelessness and depression. But he mostly approached his situation with an attitude of acceptance and a belief in possibilities. Almost all of us have some capacity for developing and maintaining a positive attitude during times of stress – even when we cope with trauma in our lives. Correcting negative and self-defeating beliefs are a key stress management strategy. Maintaining a realistic attitude of optimism, flexibility and adaptability can be practiced using mindfulness techniques (see Mindfulness, below).

o Meaning & Purpose – Watney knew that he needed to make sense of and understand a totally unique situation that no human had ever experienced before. He used an organized and rational thought process to gain clarity – so that he could cope with odds that seemed insurmountable. He was aware of his trauma-based emotional reactions – mostly fear, feelings of hopelessness, some depression and anger. But he would not succumb to those feelings. He used coping skills described so eloquently by Viktor Frankl in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, published in 1946. Frankl was a neurologist and psychiatrist who survived the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II. Frankl found that we not only survive trauma and stress – we thrive and find meaning – by identifying our purpose in life and creating or own experience and outcomes. Watney challenged his negative thoughts and created adaptive beliefs about his abandonment on Mars. Then he identified his purpose – actually, several reasons for living, and specific goals and strategies to survive, and hopefully to return to Earth.

o Mindfulness – Andy Weir didn’t use this term in The Martian. However, he accurately described Watney’s use of mindfulness (simply, awareness without judgment). Watney used this coping skill for dealing with every aspect of his situation – surviving the trauma of isolation and a life threatening situation, and coping with relentless stress and periods of depression. His use of rational observation, objectivity, and emotional detachment helped him to regulate his internal experience (thoughts and feelings). Like all of us, there were times he felt hopeless, scared, sad and angry. But he found ways to diminish these feelings by using the power of his mind to find the solutions he needed to survive.

o Positive Action, Priorities & Solutions – When I was in my early 20’s, struggling at times with the demands of graduate school and a negative income, my father once told me that he fought off depression by staying busy and working. That worked for me! Taking positive action is one of the most important coping skills for dealing with stress and depression. Watney was all about that. He was determined to survive and return to Earth. With the mess he was left with on Mars (broken equipment and machines, inadequate supplies, and the ever present life threatening environment) he knew he had to establish priorities. Basic survival came first. Then he planned ahead to determine each sequential step he needed to find solutions to all of the problems and challenges ahead.

o Reaching Out For Support – One of the most important coping skills for surviving all types of trauma (e.g., war, serious accidents, life-threatening disease, bullying or assault), and for managing stress or depression. So how do you reach out for support when you’re all alone on another planet? I won’t spoil the fun by telling you how Watney managed this. However, it did become one of his highest priorities – certainly it was a survival strategy, but it’s quite clear he needed connection with other humans for emotional support. He had an emotionally-based need to know that there were people back on Earth who knew and understood his situation. Even though he was stranded on Mars he needed to know he wasn’t alone in the universe. All of us have that need, and reaching out for support is an essential coping strategy during difficult and challenging times.

o Journaling – Often recommended by counselors and therapists, journaling is an important coping skill for managing stress, anxiety and depression. Journaling helps us to clarify and understand our thoughts and feelings – even to find solutions to our problems and internal struggles. Watney made a journal entry almost every day on Mars. (I won’t tell you how he did that – I hope you read the book or see the movie.) Consciously, his reason for keeping a journal was to communicate his experience to other Earthlings (assuming they would find it someday). I believe he also kept a journal to help him stay alive, to cope with the trauma, and maybe to keep him sane.

o Self Care – Proper nutrition, adequate sleep and exercise are important coping skills. Recent studies show that people who get regular exercise tend to be less depressed – and when they are depressed they recover more quickly. Good nutrition and healthy sleep patterns are important tools for coping with stress. Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk, a psychiatrist who specializes in the research and treatment of trauma, has found after years of studies that certain types of physical exercise (including yoga, tai chi, and even boxing) are very effective in the trauma recovery process. Self-care on Mars became a daily challenge for Watney. He knew right away that he must attend to his nutritional needs, and it wasn’t close to easy. There were times he knew he had to sleep, even when he was hungry and scared – and had far too many things to do to stay alive. So he slept. Exercise was almost impossible – but he had to stay active anyway, and the physical nature of his activity on Mars was certainly helpful.

o Diversions and Time-Outs – The final coping skill needed to deal with stress, anxiety and depression is the most enjoyable. Even on Mars, Mark Watney needed to take a time out from his efforts to survive –especially on such a lonely planet. His use of recorded music and old videos kept his spirits up and helped to distract him from his endless problems and challenges. It’s worth noting that we can also over-use or abuse these diversions. For example, video games and the internet can become a pattern of avoidance, even an addiction. Watney didn’t have to worry about that – he didn’t have enough reserve energy in his limited batteries!

The Martian is basically a survival story. Many, possibly most of us are survivors in our own right. We have survived the trauma of childhood abuse or abandonment, wars, death of loved ones, separation and divorce, business and financial loss, and other serious stress in our lives. Mark Watney’s ability to employ coping skills with ingenuity, rational planning, courage and his amazing sense of humor is a testament to the human spirit alive in all of us. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this article as much as I enjoyed writing it. And I hope you enjoy reading or watching The Martian – a true celebration of human resilience.

09Apr 2014


A Time For Hope And Renewal

The winter of 2014 has been difficult for many people. Our economic recovery continues to be sluggish. The world news is full of war, poverty, and human rights violations. Divorce, infidelity, addiction, crime, abuse… it sounds pretty grim. Spring is often referred to as a time of hope and renewal. Is it reasonable to be optimistic in the Spring of 2014?

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11Feb 2013


Meditation and Mindfulness Practice

Studies Prove the Healing Power of Mindfulness

Not long ago, meditation was widely generally considered to be an exotic, frivolous practice reserved for Buddhists, hippies, artists, musicians, and the like. Do you remember George Harrison and the Beatles, who were trained to meditate by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi at an Indian ashram in 1968? They were at the height of their popularity, and later in his career, Harrison attributed much of his extraordinary musical creativity to meditation and related practices.

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21Jan 2013

How do you want to start your New Year? Could this be the best year of your life?

The years go by so fast. Why not make 2014 the best year of your life by becoming unconditionally happy? That means deciding to be happy without needing a reason or external circumstances. Even people who struggle with anxiety and depression can learn to become happy. Research studies tell us that lasting happiness can be cultivated by focusing attention on positive states of mind like compassion, loving- kindness forgiveness and acceptance. A truly happy new year can be achieved by practicing these 3 simple steps every day:

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07Jan 2013


Personal Growth & Happiness

Hope for the New Year

“Hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come,

Whispering ‘it will be happier’…” Alfred Tennyson

Is it reasonable to hope for a better year in 2014? As we look back on the events of 2013 there are good reasons for disappointment, grief and despair. We experienced government gridlock in the midst of a slow and frustrating economic recovery. Our nation has one of the highest murder rates, and children continue to perish in their own school rooms. We continue to experience the pain of divorce, abuse and neglect at an alarming rate. Is there any reason to hope for a better year ahead?

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