Life after Death

Life and death are of supreme importance. Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost. Each of us should strive to awaken. Awaken! Take heed, do not squander your life.
— Zen Master Dōgen
Photo by @Wonderlane, Courtesy of Flickr

Photo by @Wonderlane, Courtesy of Flickr

As a professor, some of my best learning lessons come from teaching. I recently started teaching a class on Death and Dying. This is a really weird move on my part. Although my first encounter with death happened very early in life, I did not feel comfortable with, or even accepting of, the subject of mortality. Like so many people in our culture, I felt disturbed by the seemingly cruel reality that everyone we love, including ourselves, are destined to perish.

After practicing mindfulness and yoga for many years, some of this feeling started to shift for me personally. Reading teachings from the masters, the subject of death is very clearly embedded in the subject of living. Like those beautiful Tibetan sand mandalas painstakingly crafted by monks only to be suddenly swept away in an instance, impermanence permeates all living beings.  

I wouldn’t say that my fear or sadness around death has been entirely relieved. But, as I am learning and teaching more about this subject, I have developed a more nuanced view. I have stopped fighting or denying the complex and difficult emotions that come with a losing life.  But I have also discovered an unexpected tenderness that comes from meditating on this reality daily. When we accept the truth that our lives are finite, and that the end may come suddenly, unexpectedly, and of course uncontrollably, every single moment becomes more precious. 

Here are some lessons I’ve learned so far.

1) Be clear about your intentions. I still make so many mistakes, I still waste time. But, whenever I can, I try to think about my intentions when interacting with people. When I consider the possibility that I might not get another chance to connect with this person ever again, I ask myself: what do I really want to say and share with this person? This has transformed my past attempts to try to prove my point and “win” an argument into seeking forgiveness, healing, and finding a loving connection. This doesn’t mean that my life is conflict-free. I still react. I still say stupid things that I regret. But, ultimately, I am getting more clear about my intentions and I am getting better at honoring them in my actions. 

2) Slather love and kindness onto everything you do.

I’ve been reading a lot about what dying people report as their greatest regrets. One of the recurring themes has to do with how well we love (others and ourselves). So I try to practice being more forgiving and kind whenever possible. It’s a simple concept, but it takes time to undo the years of programming that predispose us to be judgmental to ourselves and others. We must be patient and keep trying.  

3) Don’t hold back your joy. 

Another common regret people have is that they did not allow themselves the freedom to be who they wanted to be, to do the things that fill their lives with joy and purpose. So, I’m now in the practice of welcoming more joy whenever possible. I allow myself to take breaks, holidays, to put my work on pause and just savor a delicious meal or conversation. I try to seize opportunities to be outside and to move my body in a way that allows me to feel my aliveness. Instead of clinging to old images of my youth and creating a judgmental narrative around my body’s decline, I welcome and give thanks to the years of life that have been gifted to me. I try to live, and eat, and make decisions in a way that supports my life and wellbeing.

4) Awareness > Time.

Finally, contemplating life, death, and the timeline of relationships (some that persist well beyond the grave), I find peace in knowing that by slowing down and giving this moment my fullest attention, I am living in deep time. The past and future are experienced in terms of the present moment. By paying attention and allowing myself to be here in this moment, experiencing the fullness of emotions and sensations that drift in and out of awareness, I am able to hold the entire span of time with a deeper consciousness. 

A Visionary Timeline

Are you aware that rushing toward a goal is a sublimated death wish? It’s no coincidence we call them ‘deadlines.’
— Tom Robbins

Our personal goals are central to the pursuit of happiness, as they provide a sense of meaning and purpose [1]. But sometimes, our goals can be stifled by the deadlines we impose. Something I often hear people say (and sometimes I say it too) is that they imagined their lives would look so different at this age. We all have a trajectory that we imagine and hope for, complete with tangible, material milestones: by 30 years old, I’ll be married to the love of my life; by 35 I will secure a stable and fulfilling career, by 40 I will have a home and a family, etc…

The problem is that our lives almost never follow the same timelines we project and plan for, and sometimes these timelines make it harder to recognize our effort as meaningful or valuable. Perhaps, you won’t meet your soulmate by the time you are 30 (or even 50). However, this is not to say that you cannot or will not experience great love in your life. It make take years (or in some cases, lifetimes) to fully manifest our greatest aspirations.

I think of the artist Antoni Gaudí who took over the project of constructing one of the most beautiful churches in the world, La Sagrada Familia, in Barcelona. He began in 1883. His vision was to create a space that echoed the grandeur of God’s creation. The architecture resembles all the shapes and textures he admired in the natural world: sculpted flowers and vines on the doors, columns towering like tall trees, staircases spiraling in the same sacred shape of seashells, vivid colors shining through the windows like a rainbow … too many details to recount! He wanted the beauty of the space to inspire all those that walked through its doors to become believers! So he worked fervently to create the plans, knowing that the construction would not be completed in his lifetime, because this kind of project could not be rushed. The construction is still going on today, more than 135 years after the foundation was laid! It is estimated to be completed in 2026.

Gaudí’s example reminds us that when it’s a project or goal that we feel deeply called to undertake, we owe ourselves time to honor the magnitude of its purpose. The lesson here is that when we have a vision for something truly great, we must commit ourselves faithfully, trusting that every hour brings us closer to our goals. There is no such thing as wasted time, and even failure benefits us. As the research fantastically demonstrates, the ability to continue learning and trying in the face of failure is one of the strongest predictors of achievement across multiple domains [2].

In this fast-paced society, it’s easy to feel rushed in everything that we do. In the hustle to pay bills and put food on the table, get fit, and find our perfect romantic partnerships, we lose sight of the greater personal reasons as to why we are working so hard. Too often, we forget to appreciate the process of learning and creating. Achievement is not always marked by an award, title, or finished product. Some of the greatest accomplishments are marked only by feeling or sense. There is a deep, subjective sense of knowing when we are living in accordance to our aspirations.

Our greatest visions come to life only when we expand our vision and commit our effort, however long it takes. Instead of trying to squeeze our lives into some previously stipulated trajectory, why not recalibrate the timeline to reflect the of magnitude of our goals?

1. Emmons, R. A. (2003). Personal goals, life meaning, and virtue: Wellsprings of a positive life. In C. L. M. Keyes, & J. Haidt (Eds.), Flourishing: Positive Psychology and the Life Well-Lived, (pp. 105-128). Washington DC: American Psychological Association.

2. Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 1087-1101.

Why Science?

Once you have an innovation culture, even those who are not scientists or engineers - poets, actors, journalists - they, as communities, embrace the meaning of what it is to be scientifically literate. They embrace the concept of an innovation culture. They vote in ways that promote it. They don't fight science and they don't fight technology.

Neil deGrasse Tyson


Last month I had the special pleasure of sharing some of my favorite research with a group of eager students who gathered together on a Saturday afternoon to learn more about the science of health and wellbeing. These were not college students taking a course for credit. These were members of my community who were interested in learning science to benefit their own lives. As a health psychologist, I research topics that are of interest to arguably any human. How can we motivate ourselves to make those big important changes we need to live happier and healthier lives? How can we use environment, behavior, and biology to elevate the quality of our lives? 

In this era of easily accessible (albeit often inaccurate) information, anyone can claim to be an expert. Anyone can write blogs or share their advice on the internet. Anyone can market or label their product in a way that appeals to our yearning and interest in health or self-improvement. However, decades of research clearly demonstrate that human perception, memory, and even attention is highly biased, subjective, and therefore subject to error [1]. Without the scientific method, we run the risk of understanding only the parts of an inquiry that we personally experience and only the information that fits into preconceived beliefs about a subject. In the early 60’s, medical doctors made recommendations on the “freshest” cigarette you can smoke. In certain cultures, folklore and myth still reign over science. Including the sad myth that one way of “curing” AIDS is to have sex with a virgin [2]. Throughout time, we have witnessed countless tragedies wherein people blindly followed a highly charismatic leader who led them into destructive behaviors including violence against themselves and others. Now more than ever, there are countless examples of “experts” who are ready to share their anecdotal accounts and opinions as facts, and push their personal beliefs as suggestions for the broader population. 

We cannot afford to allow our health decisions to be ruled by the flashiest, most attractive, easy and instant ideas out there. As a scientist, I am skeptical of any “expert” or alternative “framework,” until I see the data to support it. Not just any information will suffice in creating a deep and adequate understanding of health and wellbeing. I want to know who is asking these questions, who is answering these questions, how do they measure it, have they been able to repeat this study, and what are the mechanisms that explain how this phenomenon works? Science offers a systematic approach in studying these big questions we all want to understand. Even after taking all of these measures to create the most objective type of approach possible, human subjectivity and bias can still trickle in. But scientific inquiry is a process that is beautifully alive, always helping us to uncover more and more of the big picture of health. 

I am so invigorated by these conversations in my own community about how to implement scientifically-backed strategies to improve our daily lives. It shows me that people care and we are willing to invest time and effort into learning a new approach that will create long lasting wellness. 

Thank you for your interest in these topics! For those of you that want to learn more, please feel free to email me with any inquiries. I look forward to more opportunities to empower my community with scientific knowledge and evidence-based strategies for greater wellbeing. 

  1. Kahneman, D., Slovic, P., and Tversky, A., eds. 1982. Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases. New York: Cambridge University Press.

  2. Leclerc-Madlala, S. (2002). On the virgin cleansing myth: gendered bodies, AIDS and ethnomedicine. African Journal of AIDS Research, 1(2), 87-95.

Falling in Self-Love

“how you love yourself is

how you teach others

to love you”

― Rupi Kaur

In honor of the upcoming Valentine’s Day holiday, I’d like to focus on the most powerful relationship you will ever experience: the relationship you have with yourself.

Being that we are social animals, we are neurobiologically attuned to other humans. Whether or not we are conscious of it, we are deeply sensitive to social dynamics. Much of our cognitive effort is directed at trying to interpret the social world around us, identifying potential dangers and potential connections (romantic or platonic) to provide us with a sense of belonging and purpose. We also spend a great amount of energy trying to manage or control how other people perceive us, highlighting the positive qualities about ourselves, and covering up the less desirable qualities to the extent that we can.

These days, it’s easy to get so distracted by the social world that we lose track of our own feelings. Much of our personal and professional lives are centered around social networking: where and how we are seen in the world. Either we try to be everywhere at once, never missing out on the opportunity to have fun or make a connection, or we can feel completely overwhelmed by the whole thing and choose to disengage entirely.

In the midst of these social demands, we might end up unwittingly forsaking our intuitive connection with our own bodies, prioritizing instead our need for relationships with others. For example, we might feel obligated to say yes to social events even when we are exhausted or not feeling well. As a result, we show up without the ability to be fully present in our relationships with others. I believe that we can create deeper connections with others by first cultivating the relationship we have with ourself. When you are nourished physically and emotionally (i.e., your personal needs are met), you are creating the conditions for more meaningful connections with others.

I am challenging you this Valentine’s Day to focus on actions that will sustain a plentiful relationship with yourself. After all, this relationship sets the tone for all other relationships we can experience. Find some simple strategies here to help you fall in self-love.

  • Strike up a conversation. We all know how important it is to have good communication in any relationship. We do it all the time with our friends and family, we check in with them regularly and we choose our words wisely. It is equally important to have a similar conversation with ourselves. Journaling is a great place to begin.

    Many of us still hold on to very outdated concepts of ourselves. So the first rule in striking up a conversation with yourself is to be curious. Ask yourself: How are you? What do you need? What makes you feel loved and supported? How can you offer yourself more love and support throughout the day? Your answers may vary day to day. The important thing is just to create space for this honest and friendly self-talk, becoming more aware of your personal needs without having to worry about what others expect of you or how others might react.

    The next most important rule for a successful conversation: be kind, choose your tone carefully. Implement gentle humor and give yourself plenty of grace.

  • Take a step back. Third person self-talk is the practice of talking to yourself as though you were talking to someone else. Instead of using pronouns such as “I” or “me,” you can refer to yourself in the third person, like “she” or even referring to yourself by your name, like “Nice work, Arezou! You are doing great.” Think of this as a reverse Golden Rule: treat yourself as you would want to treat others that you love.

    Researchers examined brain activity of people who practiced silent third person self-talk as they were presented with emotionally painful images or asked to recall painful past experiences. Studies find that those who practiced third person self-talk showed less distress in response to these emotionally challenging tasks. Researchers believe that this kind of self –talk allows us to take a little bit of distance from our problems, taking on a bigger, less egocentric perspective. Unlike other efforts to control our emotions, third person self-talk requires relatively little cognitive effort; part of the reason why this strategy is successful might be because it is so simple to do. [1]

  • Take a hands on approach. However you can get it, physical, soothing touch is not just a special treat, it is a vital component of health. It is linked to the development and survival of newborn babies [2] and a major buffer of stress in adults [3]. As we experience stressful events in our lives, the fascia or deep tissues that wrap around our muscles, are often imprinted with the patterns of chronic tension, resulting in scar tissue. Regular maintenance of the body requires that we address these areas of pain. Whether it is a professional massage, a big hug from a friend, or some nice smelling essential oils and a self-massage, we all benefit from more soothing touch. Soothing touch provides us with a dose of oxytocin “the love hormone, ” which buffers against inflammation and helps to keep our physiological reactions to stress healthy [4]

1. Moser, J. S., Dougherty, A., Mattson, W. I., Katz, B., Moran, T. P., Guevarra, D., Shablack, H., Ayduk, O., Jonides, J., Berman, M.G., & Kross, E. (2017). Third-person self-talk facilitates emotion regulation without engaging cognitive control: Converging evidence from ERP and fMRI. Scientific Reports, 7(1), 4519.

2. Field, T. M., Schanberg, S. M., Scafidi, F., Bauer, C. R., Vega-Lahr, N., Garcia, R., Nystrom, J., & Kuhn, C. M. (1986). Tactile/kinesthetic stimulation effects on preterm neonates. Pediatrics, 77(5), 654-658.

3. Cohen, S., Janicki-Deverts, D., Turner, R. B., & Doyle, W. J. (2015). Does hugging provide stress-buffering social support? A study of susceptibility to upper respiratory infection and illness. Psychological Science, 26(2), 135-147.

4. Uvnäs-Moberg, K., Handlin, L., & Petersson, M. (2015). Self-soothing behaviors with particular reference to oxytocin release induced by non-noxious sensory stimulation. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 1529.

Strategies for Spring Rejuvenation


I can see it in my students, clients, and even in myself this time of year: spring slugishness. This trend is also reflected in the natural world, as flora and fauna begin to reawaken from their hibernation, just beginning to peek their heads out from the soil and from their shelters. Perhaps it is the change in seasons and times, perhaps it is the timeline of our work projects, or the season for lots of social happenings. Whatever the cause, you might be feeling a little tired, foggy, and even depleted these days. You are not alone. 

Below you will find some helpful strategies to rejuvenate and reset your body and mind. Beyond these steps, I recommend also giving your body time and space to adapt to changes in the environment. We are only human! Sometimes the demands that we place on ourselves can be downright unrealistic. Give yourself time and space to rest as needed.

  • Take a Vacation/Staycation. Too many people wait until they are long overdue, often totally frayed and burned out, before they give themselves permission to take a holiday. Don't let this be you! Take just one day this month to go and visit your favorite pool or beach, take a weekend excursion to a new city, go explore a new museum and eat a delicious meal, or gift yourself a spa day.
  • Pay attention. Often when we are faced with symptoms like fatigue or depressed mood, we tend to chase the symptoms away with caffeine or substances, or we try to ignore them and get lost in distraction. But, if we can listen closely, we find that our symptoms tell important stories. Interoception is a human sensory ability to pick up on subtle changes in the body, which includes a basic awareness of changes to breathing, heart rate, or body temperature [1-3].  Few people are aware of their own interoceptive ability, and fewer people consciously use this sense to moderate their psychological and emotional experience. It is an ability that we all possess, but we can all use a little training in strengthening this skill.  Next time you are feeling the spring sluggishness, see if you can pay attention to what you are experiencing. Maybe you can write a list of the physiological characteristics. How do these moments feel in your body? Research finds that another great way to sharpen this sensitivity is through the practice of mindfulness meditation [4]. By tuning into the subtle changes that naturally take place in the body during emotional arousal, you can detect early signs of distress and discomfort, thereby allowing for a mindful pause before forming a reaction.
  • Breathe. Research finds an undeniable connection between our psychological/emotional states and the way we breathe [5-6]. When you find out that your project deadline was a week earlier than you anticipated, you might feel your breath become rapid and shallow. In times of fatigue or depressed mood, your breath becomes shallow and slow. When you feel calm, you might feel your breath becoming slow and deep. Your breath is not just a byproduct of how you are feeling; it's also a form of communication between body and mind. What is the emotional state you wish to cultivate? How can you begin to change your breath to reflect your desired emotional state?
  • Circadian reset. Humans, just like all living beings, coordinate bodily functions via circadian rhythms, Circadian rhythms can be thought of as the body’s internal clock, which functions on a 24-hour scale and correspond to cycles of sleep/wake, light/darkness, temperature, activity, and consumption. This internal clock is endogenous, meaning that it originates in the body. One pathway runs from your eyes to the suprachiasmatic nuclei in the brain, which explains why light plays such an important role in setting our internal clocks. But, our circadian rhythms are also affected by our behaviors. Some of our behaviors and lifestyles can sustain healthy circadian rhythms, while others can disrupt them, thereby increasing susceptibility to disease. It’s a great reminder that we as human beings are not beyond the rules and rhythms of the natural world, and when we choose to live in harmony with these rhythms, we can live healthier lives. If you are experiencing fatigue, sluggishness, or difficulty losing weight, it is possible that your body could benefit from a circadian reset. This includes eating on a set schedule during the hours of natural light and highest activity (usually early midday), avoiding eating and high intensity activities later on at night [7].  We can also train our bodies to be more attuned to naturally occurring signals in the environment (like light) [8]. One trick is to soak in natural morning light right when you wake up, sending a signal to your brain that you are entering a wakeful state. As much as possible, you can also try to avoid exposure to bright light in the evening (i.e., cell phones, computers, t.v. screens), thereby prompting your body to prepare for sleep.
  • Turn it upside down. Sometimes the only tool we have when we're super tired and overwhelmed is to just deal with life moment by moment. A quick fix for me and many of my fellow yogis is to spend some time upside down. An inversion is any posture where you raise your heart above your head. This can be a simple ragdoll pose, where you take a forward fold, bending into the knees and let your head dangle. Or a more advanced inversion, like a shoulder stand, headstand, or handstand. It's really surprising how refreshing it can be to spend just a few minutes in a new perspective. When all else fails, try turning the situation (and your physical body) upside down!



1.     Craig, A. D. (2002). How do you feel? Interoception: the sense of the physiological condition of the body. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 655-666.

2.     Wiens, S. (2005). Interoception in emotional experience. Current Opinion in Neurology, 442-447.

3.     Dunn, B. D., Galton, H. C., Morgan, R., Evans, D., Oliver, C., Meyer, M., ... & Dalgleish, T. (2010). Listening to your heart: How interoception shapes emotion experience and intuitive decision making. Psychological Science, 1835-1844.

4.     Farb, N. A., Segal, Z. V., & Anderson, A. K. (2012). Mindfulness meditation training alters cortical representations of interoceptive attention. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 15-26.

5.     Philippot, P. & Chapelle, G. & Blairy, S. (2010). Respiratory feedback in the generation of emotion. Cognition & Emotion, 605-627.

6.     Seppälä, E,  Nitschke, J.,  Tudorascu, D.,  Hayes, A.,  Goldstein, M. & Nguyen, D., Perlman, D., & Davidson, R. (2014). Breathing-Based Meditation Decreases Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Symptoms in U.S. Military Veterans: A Randomized Controlled Longitudinal Study. Journal of Traumatic Stress. 397-405.

7.     Manoogian, E. N., & Panda, S. (2017). Circadian rhythms, time-restricted feeding, and healthy aging. Ageing Research Reviews39, 59-67.

8.     Wright Jr, K. P., McHill, A. W., Birks, B. R., Griffin, B. R., Rusterholz, T., & Chinoy, E. D. (2013). Entrainment of the human circadian clock to the natural light-dark cycle. Current Biology23, 1554-1558.





Taking Self More Seriously


I think one of the biggest obstacles to creating healthy self-care habits is to breakdown our own resistance to the process. For whatever reason, even the words "self-care" and “self-love” can feel hokey or disingenuous. But, we all crave quality relationships with other people and that can be really hard to find when we haven't yet set a precedence of love within. The poet Rumi famously said, "Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it." 

Learning to establish and nurture an honest and loving relationship with oneself is a process, full of its own hardships. Nobody is without these challenges. This can be especially challenging for those battling depression, anxiety, or other forms of mental disorder. In fact, I just read about the tragic passing of one of the most articulate Buddhist scholars of our time, Michael Stone, who lost his battle with Bipolar Disorder. This was a great reminder that self-care is not just a hokey self-help industry catchphrase; it is a necessary tool for survival in a chaotic and complicated world.  

There are so many considerations in the process of developing an effective self-care practice, but you can begin by noticing the tendency to always put others first. The desire to be of service is a noble one, but just imagine how much more you can give when you draw from a well of energy that is constantly being replenished with small acts of self-care. It is unreasonable to expect anybody to have the capacity to selflessly serve others without also receiving the personal care and support that all humans require. 

The area of research that has really highlighted the value of establishing a healthy relationship with the self comes from Dr. Kristin Neff's work on self-compassion. This research finds that self-compassion practice is linked with increased happiness, optimism, curiosity and connectedness, as well as decreased anxiety, depression, rumination and fear of failure [1]. The benefits of this practice are not entirely self-serving. In fact, this practice has been shown to increase motivation and mastery of learning [2], and it is linked with maturity and emotional intelligence [3]. 

It's important to note that this practice goes beyond just boosting self-esteem. Self-compassion isn’t just about always feeling “good” or having unwavering confidence. Self-compassion is a matter of recognizing and accepting ourselves fully, allowing for imperfections and mistakes as inherent in all humans, and practicing mindful awareness of our needs.

Self-love, in the sense that I refer to it, incorporates the practices and principles of self-compassion, while celebrating what Eastern philosophers refer to as the "basic goodness" of all human beings (thereby making everyone worthy of loving kindness). Without falling into the ego trap of narcissism and obsession with self-esteem, can we manage to savor and revel in that which makes us good? Can we inspire others around us to embrace their true selves and shine brighter by embodying a deeper quality of confidence? I believe we can. 

How can you begin to take Self more seriously? I’ve listed some basic principles to put into action below. I also wanted to invite you all to join me this month on my social media channels. Every day of this month I will highlight one small, easy, and free act of self-love that you can complete on your own. 

You can use these basic self-care principles and actions to implement in your life: 
    Make time. There is so much talk about work/life balance, but in reality it ends up feeling more like we have to choose one. Sometimes, we might not even feel like we have a choice. I mean, we all have to work to survive, right? But, it doesn’t have to be that way. Why is it that when it comes to scheduling and managing time, most of us find it easiest to cut out the portion of the day when we were planning to do something good for ourselves (e.g., getting exercise, visiting a friend, getting rest, cooking a home-cooked meal)? How can we expect to feel centered and balanced without ever having time to recharge? It doesn't have to take that long, but we should all have at least 15-20 mins a day for self-care (the website Statista states that Americans spend an average of 135 minutes a day just browsing social media). You have to make time, and stick to it. Sit with your schedule and see if you can give yourself at least 15 minutes every day to do something good for yourself. I like to color code my daily activities in my planner so that I can see the percentage of my day I spend working, showing up for social commitments, and taking care of myself. If I see multiple days in a row without any self-care practices, I make it my priority to find a way to make it happen, even if it means cancelling or moving something else on the books. It’s possible, I promise. You just have to decide that it’s important enough to you to make it happen. 
•    Say “No, thank you” when you mean it. How many times have you agreed to attend an event or take on a new project that you were not feeling truly excited about or interested in because you didn’t want to disappoint others? So many people are in the practice of ignoring their gut feelings and saying yes because it’s what they think they “should” do. So many of my college students spend years trying to pursue the degrees and careers their parents want them to. So many of my friends stay in jobs or relationships that make them really unhappy just because they feel guilty walking away. There are countless examples of the plague of indifference! But learning how to respectfully decline an invitation or walk away from situations that do not align with your best interest is a way to develop the voice of authentic desire. 

•    Practice self-compassion. Thanks to the work of Dr. Kristin Neff and colleagues, there are so many resources available to those looking to develop a self-compassion practice.

Self-compassion is comprised of three parts:
1) Self-kindness: (as opposed to self-judgment or criticism). This means giving yourself grace when you fall short of your goals or ideals. Responding to ourselves in the same way that we would respond to a dear friend. 2) Common humanity: recognizing that all humans are imperfect, make mistakes, and experience suffering, therefore you do not need to feel alone or different because of your imperfections. Rather, this can become an opportunity for empathy and better connection in how we relate to others. 3) Mindfulness: learning to acknowledge our feelings (like pain or sadness) without pushing them away but also without getting stuck in them. Acknowledging the ever-changing tides of experiencing the present moment, we witness our thoughts and experience shift constantly, and maintain a loving awareness of what is taking place at all times.  

I would love to hear about your process! Where are you on this journey of the Self? 

1.    Neff, K. D. (2009). The role of self-compassion in development: A healthier way to relate to oneself. Human Development, 52(4), 211-214.
2.    Neff, K. D., Hsieh, Y. P., & Dejitterat, K. (2005). Self-compassion, achievement goals, and coping with academic failure. Self and Identity, 4(3), 263-287.
3.    Neff, K. D., & Vonk, R. (2009). Self-compassion versus global self-esteem: Two different ways of relating to oneself. Journal of Personality, 77(1), 23-50.

The Psychology of Food and Mindful Eating


One great way to understand eating behavior is to examine it at its most raw, unfiltered form: How do most animals eat? Let’s take my cat, Roxy. My husband rescued her from the streets where she was susceptible to famine and other evolutionary threats. She now lives in our safe, cushy home, where she is provided with cans of seafood every day. Yet, she still approaches each meal like a race for consumption. She competes with her sisters to eat as fast as she can, so that she can linger around and eat any of their leftovers! She eats fast until her bowl is completely bare. She often eats to the point of nausea.

Now, maybe we aren’t quite desperate as Roxy. However, like Roxy and other animals, we are still influenced by some primitive eating habits. Our brains are hard-wired to seek high caloric foods, foods with greater variety of flavor and scent (often an indication that food contains a diversity of nutrients), and we have a tendency to eat excessively. These habits are rooted in our earliest human experiences, which were also often characterized by scarcity of resources and even famine.  Although you may have never had a personal experience or conscious memory of starvation, your genes still carry these impressions.

Consuming so much food that we feel painfully stuffed at a gathering or potluck is a predictably human response to being surrounded by so many options for high calorie, salty, sweet, and diverse food options. So, how can we protect ourselves from these mindless habits that can sometimes overwhelm us?

Check out these scientifically based suggestions to use psychology as a tool for wellness and mindful eating:

·      Go in with a plan or intention. Most people wait until they sit down to eat before making any decisions. By this time, we might be really hungry and tempted to opt for a huge portion or really high calorie meal. If we are going out to eat, we might be persuaded to make decisions based on the social pressures of those around us. If your friend asks you “Hey do you want to split the nachos?” ... how hard is it to refuse that offer?! We might also be swayed by marketing, like the delicious smells, plating, and descriptions of our favorite foods on the menu. Personally, there will always be a part of me that is tempted by any combination of carbs and cheese: mac and cheese, grilled cheese, loaded French fries, pizza, etc. So, it’s always a good practice to check in with yourself, before you sit down to eat. Ask yourself: What would I like to experience from this meal? Do I want to indulge and if so, where is my limit? Am I planning to drink tonight? If so, how many glasses of wine would I like to consume?

·      Declare your plan. It may also help to just let your friends know so that they can support you in sticking to your goals. “Hey guys, I’m really trying not to drink tonight.” We all know that things don’t always go according to plan. That is ok, because we are only human. However, by beginning with a plan or intention, we are less likely to be distracted by external factors. When we share our plan, we are enlisting the support of our friends to help us adhere to our goals. 

·      Have a backup plan. Let’s say you go into a company potluck with the best of intentions: salads, water, no sweets. But, you arrive after a grueling workday and find your favorite comfort foods and your favorite people gathered around them. Perhaps, you might have a backup plan.  For example “If I plan to indulge, I will only grab a small plate.” You might even plan to take small breaks from eating, or set a goal to consume a glass of water in between each serving. In this way, can you can still have a little bit of structure and organization, even when you feel like indulging. 

 ·      Pay attention to the consequences.  If you do cross the line, eating too much, eating poorly, or drinking to excess, try to pay attention to how you feel afterwards. Begin to take notice of how your moods, thoughts, and energy levels are affected by what you put in your body. For example, if you spend an entire day drinking only coffee and wine (no water), notice how this might affect the way your skin looks and feels, and any other symptoms of your dehydration, like migraines or headaches, fatigue, and your cravings/thirst.

 ·      Create a ritual around eating.  It’s common in many cultures to say a prayer before eating. Many people have other basic little rituals, like shaking a sugar packet, or swirling wine in the glass before taking a sip. Recent studies find that practicing little rituals around food can actually enhance your experience of the flavor of food [1]. So, whenever possible, avoid eating in the car or while multitasking. Take time to pause and give thanks before you eat, or maybe light a candle. Pay extra care to create an environment that will allow you to fully enjoy your food.

 ·      Keep it simple: Less variety.  We’ve all experienced buffets or potlucks where we find so many options for food that we eat way more than we need to. Research finds that people eat less and report being satiated (feeling “full”) more quickly when there is less variety [2,3]. Perhaps you can develop a tactic to curate your plate when you are faced with a lot of variety. Stick to a theme or decide on a system in advance (e.g., 70-80% veggies, 30-20% other). If your friend is eager for you to try their yummy homemade creation at the potluck, you can still go for it but opt for a smaller spoonful.

 ·      Small portions! So much of our eating experience is visual. Much like Roxy the cat, we tend to eat until the plate is clean. This is a visual cue that we are finished with our food [4]. One simple way to prevent from excessive eating is to choose smaller plates. Most plates at restaurants carry portions big enough for 2 or 3. When you go to a restaurant, ask for a smaller appetizer plate to eat from, or better yet, ask for a “to go” container and place half of your food in the container, before you even begin to eat! This will help you have a natural opportunity to check in and make a more conscious decision about how much more you want to consume (if any). This is also quite cost effective: you often end up making two meals for the price of one! 

·      Make the healthy stuff accessible, the decadent stuff harder to reach. It’s simple psychology. We live busy lives! When we come home after a busy day and we’re hungry, chances are we will opt for the easiest foods to prepare and consume. Therefore, it’s a really great idea to clean and cut veggies in advance and keep them handy for quick and easy consumption.  Conversely, make it harder to access the “treats.” My husband and I store some of our favorite guilty pleasures, like cookies or chips, in the garage. This way, they are less visible, less accessible, and we actually have to think before reaching into a bag of yummy snacks and finding ourselves half-way finished with it’s contents!

·      Savor. I hate the tone of guilt and shame in our language around food. If you absolutely love and cherish the experience of decadent foods, you should be able to enjoy them. Food is a vital part of life, it is one of the many ways we experience pleasure. That said, when you sit down to your favorite piece of cake, take your time to be fully present with it. Express your gratitude for it. Look at it, smell it, and really taste it. Let it roll around in your mouth.  Feel all of its textures on your tongue. Take your time! Don't watch T.V. or look at your phone while you eat. Let yourself experience every morsel with all of your senses. You will likely find that by slowing down and approaching food in a more mindful way, you can be satisfied with a more modest serving [5]. Eat, enjoy, and be grateful. 

1.     Vohs, K. D., Wang, Y., Gino, F., & Norton, M. I. (2013). Rituals enhance consumption. Psychological Science24, 1714-1721.

2.     Wansink, B. (2004). Environmental factors that increase the food intake and consumption volume of unknowing consumers. Annual Review of Nutrition24, 455-479.

3.     Raynor, H. A., Niemeier, H. M., & Wing, R. R. (2006). Effect of limiting snack food variety on long-term sensory-specific satiety and monotony during obesity treatment. Eating Behaviors7, 1-14.

4.     Wansink, B., Painter, J. E., & North, J. (2005). Bottomless bowls: Why visual cues of portion size may influence intake. Obesity13, 93-100.

5.     Timmerman, G. M., & Brown, A. (2012). The effect of a mindful restaurant eating intervention on weight management in women. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior44, 22-28.