Letter Writing-a Path to Self Discovery

Connection. It’s a word we hear a lot today, but what does it really mean? We’re all so “connected” digitally–we text, we chat and share photos via social media, we FaceTime…but are those really the best ways we can connect?

During these unprecedented and uncertain times, it’s more important than ever to not only stay connected with the people we love, but to stay connected to ourselves and what is most important to us. Writing letters, especially writing a letter to ourselves, is one wonderful way to do that. 

On January 1, 2019, I started a rather unusual project: I set out to write one letter every day for an entire year. I wrote to my family, dear friends near and far, authors who have influenced me and even an old college professor. The project changed me. I became more likely to send thank you notes and letters for all sorts of things I typically took for granted. I noticed traits that I love about people I know and then told them about those things in a letter delivered right to their house. 

But the letter I wrote that made the most impact was the letter I wrote to myself. 

At first, it seems a bit odd. Sit down and write a letter…to myself? How could that make a difference in my life?

A letter to yourself helps in a few different ways. First, it helps you remember. We are so forgetful, aren’t we? We want to change our lives and improve our habits and stop wasting time on the unimportant things, but time slips by and we inevitably find ourselves back in our old grooves, doing the easy things we want to stop doing. It can feel so hard to change that it seems impossible at times. 

When you write a letter to yourself, include what is important to you–truly important. If you’re embarking on a big goal (like I was when I wrote my letter), write about why it’s important, and how you expect to feel once you’ve achieved what you set out to do. Be very specific. The more details you include in your reasons why you’re trying to change or achieve a specific goal, the more motivating it will be to re-read that letter. Which you should do, often. Read the letter every day if you’re serious about achieving your goal!

A letter is tangible–you can hold it in your hands and store it somewhere safe. I know that some people like to write important things on the notes app in their phones, but I think a hard copy, a handwritten letter is much more powerful. How many notes have you written to yourself on your phone that you’ve never read again? A letter in your own handwriting feels more personal, because it is more personal. A note on your phone is easy to ignore; a handwritten letter is impossible to ignore. And because it’s in an envelope with your name on it, it feels like a small gift to yourself (which it absolutely is). 

A letter to yourself is one of the most powerful antidotes against the hard, depressing times that are inevitable for all of us. When I first set my goal to write a daily letter, I was elated. I thought it was going to be wonderful to start on my project and write my letter each day. However, as January 1st approached, and the date when I had planned to begin the project drew nearer, I started to have serious doubts about the whole thing. I felt afraid of what other people might think of me. I wasn’t sure I had what it would take to see my goal through to the end.

Throughout 2019, my attitude and thoughts towards my letter writing project ebbed and flowed. Some days I thought I was amazing for writing my letter each day! Other days (and even weeks, or longer) I wanted to quit because it got hard. But because I had that letter to myself reminding me of why I started the project in the first place, it was a simple but powerful motivator to just keep going. Because the letter to myself reminded me of my why behind the project, reading it propelled me forward on the hard days when I just wanted to throw in the towel and leave the whole thing behind.

I hope you feel inspired to pick up a pen and paper and write a letter to yourself, today. Write about all the things that are going well in your life. Write about your recent successes. Then write about what your goals and dreams are, and remember to include your why behind those goals. And lastly (and perhaps most importantly)–read the letter you wrote again and again, especially on the hard days. 

I would love to hear about your letter writing to yourself if you choose to do it! Feel free to email me at: shannon@aforeverletter.com and tell me your story. 

Shannon Hood is the founder of A Forever Letter, a blog focused on inspiring people to set aside their phones and pick up a pen and write a letter to connect with the people they love. She also started a line of elegant stationery for letter writing which you can browse on her website. Find her online at www.aforeverletter.com or connect via Instagram @aforeverletter.

Staying Connected with Yourself During Quarantine


For many of my readers, quarantine has meant an increase in responsibilities–helping everyone else survive. How are you helping YOURSELF, though? This edition of Quarantine Talk is dedicated to ways to show yourself love during quarantine.

Quarantine has really been something, huh? If you are working from home, you have had to deal with distractions, balance at-home relationships with work productivity, and stay motivated in a space you normally relax in. Some of you have children who are out of school for “summer”; your responsibilities have quadrupled as you have involuntarily taken on homeschooling on top of everything else you have to do (including your own work in many cases!). Others still are out of work and struggling to make it through this time of great uncertainty and hardship. And many of you are sick yourselves, have a loved one that is sick, or are trying to be cautious in order to stay healthy. Every single one of you has taken on more responsibility than you had before COVID-19, but let me ask you this– what are you doing to release the stress brought on by this increase in responsibility? What are you doing to show yourself some compassion during all this craziness?

I have a dear friend several states away who regularly sees a therapist. When quarantine hit where she lives, her therapist recommended she do 5 acts of self-care every day. EVERY DAY! When my friend initially heard this, she laughed out loud; no mother with a busy toddler has time for that! She and I then had a conversation about self-care and self-love, and the takeaway of our talk is what I want to share with you today. I think everyone can benefit from making self-care a priority during quarantine.

You can love yourself by practicing self-care. I love talking about self-care because I truly believe taking time for yourself better enables you to give more in every other aspect of your life. I have written quite a bit about self-care on my blog, have shared a plethora of ideas (including unique ones!), and continually encourage my readers to make self-care a priority. Let me use an analogy to explain the importance of self-care.  When a violin bow is not in use, the strings ought to be loosened. If you leave a bow under tension too long, it will lose its camber (or bend) faster, which will affect its music quality and will decrease the lifespan of the bow–eventually necessitate you purchasing a new bow. As any string instrumentalist knows: You get in the habit of loosening the bow.

This analogy applies to real life: If you are going, going, going, full speed ahead 24 hours a day seven days a week all year long, you are going to break! You need to figuratively loosen your bow. The therapist who advised my friend to practice five acts of self-care a day was essentially instructing my friend to loosen the bow. This is not just for fun or to “treat yo self”; no, it is necessary for your overall well being (and for that of your family members)!

Even though we are in quarantine, time, especially quality time, has become more precious than ever. So how on earth are you supposed to fit in five acts of self-care each day? Make your self-care small, manageable, and attainable. Here are some ideas that will only take minutes, but make a HUGE difference:

  1. Spend a moment outside (be it running, hiking, walking, sitting, meditating, even a few minutes in nature can help heal your soul)
  2. Practice gratitude your way
  3. Eat a balanced meal
  4. Exercise (even 20 minutes working out at home will boost your mood!)
  5. Get ready and dressed (jammies are nice, but you are not going to feel great about yourself if you prolong the Netflix + Chill trend all quarantine long!) 
  6. Paint your nails
  7. Take a bath
  8. Wash your hair
  9. Eat or make a fun treat
  10. Plan for 10 minutes of alone time at the end of the day
  11. Journal
  12. Create something
  13. Practice spirituality (whether that is praying, reading sacred text, meditating–connect with something bigger than yourself!)
  14. Repeat positive affirmations
  15. Sit and take deep breaths
  16. Review/revise goals/resolutions
  17. Talk with a friend or loved one on the phone (more on this next week!)

Quarantine was unexpected and not something anyone expected in 2020. I ask you to please take care of yourself. Remember self-care is not selfish; you can best take care of those around you only when you take care of yourself. You deserve to take a few minutes for yourself each day!

Good luck to all my readers out there. Quarantine is hard, but we can do this! You are not alone. I would love to hear from you; do not hesitate to contact me with any questions you may have, or if you would like to schedule an online session. Onward!

Melissa Cluff is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist based in North Texas, providing face-to-face and telehealth therapy options to clients in Texas.

Questions to Get You Out of the Quarantine Slump

The days seem to blend together in this Groundhog Day that is COVID-19 quarantine. I would like to suggest six questions that will cause introspection and perhaps prompt you to certain actions that will lift your spirits. 

Hi, again. It’s me, still in quarantine. How are you doing? Hanging in there? I know, this entire situation is crazy and uncertain and continues to cause anxiety for everyone on so many levels. Hopefully we are getting closer to having some light at the end of the tunnel!

Until then, I want to urge you to continue to take good care of yourselves. I have spoken with friends, neighbors, family members and clients who have collectively said that the days blend together and leave them in a slump. It is so easy to feel that way when you are living the real Groundhog Day! Here are some questions to ask yourself daily to help make the most of this time in quarantine:

  1. What am I grateful for today? I have written at length about gratitude because I firmly believe in the power gratitude has on the mind. Seeing the silver lining, or the good in any given situation, can change your attitude or feelings about something–even something difficult like being in isolation for weeks on end. So ask yourself, what good has come from today? Was there a peaceful moment with children? Did you enjoy a nice meal in which you were not rushed? Were you able to be productive while working in the quiet of your own home? No matter your circumstances, you can find something to be grateful for–even if it is simply being healthy and alive. I encourage you to do this exercise every day!
  2. Who am I checking in on or connecting with today? I spoke with a friend who told me she was checking her phone more often than usual. She thought about why she was doing this, and realized it was because she was hoping to hear from someone. She was craving interaction with another human. I have written about the Japanese concept of amae which describes the human necessity to connect with and feel love from others. We are all hard-wired to have meaningful connection with those in our lives, and it can be challenging when the natural occurrence of physical contact is completely removed from your life. So, be like my friend: Instead of wallowing in your loneliness, recognize that you want contact with the outside world, and make contact. Check in on a family member, friend, coworker, or neighbor. I promise you that connecting with others will give you a helpful emotional boost!
  3. What expectations of “normal” am I letting go of today? Whew, this one has been hard for me.  I thrive off of being productive–which I thought came from being outside the home working, running errands, meeting up with people, etc. I have had to adjust my expectations and set aside some of those past perceptions. My big shift came when I realized I could be productive at home. I do not have to be outside the house to be productive, and neither do you. I have actually found it nice to hunker down and enjoy some time at home!  So, if you are feeling frustrated because of the changes isolation has brought, try to let go of some of your expectations (and then refer to number one). Leaning into this new isolation “normal” is really all we can do right now! Just for the record: I am not suggesting we let ourselves go and Netflix + chill all day. As an example, my brother is feeling depressed because he cannot go to the gym and work out. I urged him to let go of that expectation of his old daily normal, and adapt/adjust. Go on a walk or a bike ride, create a home gym with what you have, or access any of a million free at-home workouts. Resenting quarantine will do you no good; let go of your past expectations for a moment and make the most of what you have today.
  4. How am I moving my body today? I wrote about quarantine exercise last week.  The fact is, physical exercise can and will be your saving grace during quarantine. The benefits to exercising in general are endless: Reducing your risk of disease, increasing energy levels and boosting productivity, ameliorating mental health, enhancing sleep quality, boosting creativity, upgrading sex life, raising mood and body image, and fostering happiness. This is because exercising has a beneficial physiological effect on the brain and the body. Whether you have a vigorous exercise regimen, or take power walks around your neighborhood, there are many ways to exercise and your day will certainly be brightened as you make time to do so!
  5. How am I getting outside today? I will admit, the first part of quarantine was particularly difficult for me. Amidst all the confusion and worry that came with COVID-19, the weather was crummy and I was not able to spend time healing in nature. But now that things are literally brightening up with springtime, I invite you to spend more time outside. Being outdoors can clear your mind, lift your spirits, motivate you, improve your mental health, and better your mood. Rest assured, getting outdoors during quarantine will do wonders for you! Just today I enjoyed exploring some new trails by my house and found a new secret place of beauty. I can not wait to go back and visit it and find other hidden gems that I have missed.
  6. What beauty am I creating or inviting into my life today?  I follow a DIY extraordinare on Instagram who lives by the phrase, “Less scrolling, more creating,” and I love that. She recounts a time where she scrolled through her feed a lot. Though she was admiring everyone else’s home DIY accomplishments, she realized it totally zapped her creativity…as well as her confidence and happiness. Once she realized this, she started limiting her social media time and coined that phrase she now lives by. Happiness comes from being creative–either by creating it or viewing it. So ask yourself–how can I be creative during quarantine? Is there an activity that you used to wish you had time for that you can do now? Maybe it’s painting, calligraphy, writing, playing a musical instrument, or a million other creative outlets, spending time being creative is sure to boost your happiness!

I have been using these six questions as a trial run in my personal life, and I can attest to their efficacy. There have been several times when I used these to check in with myself, and I realized that getting outside or connecting with someone was exactly what I needed at that moment. So please, write these questions down on a sticky note and place it somewhere you will see it often. As you continue to take good care of yourself, you will make the most of this uncertain quarantine time. Let’s be able to look back on 2020’s quarantine and know we did the best we could with the time and resources we had!

Melissa Cluff is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist based in North Texas, providing face-to-face and telehealth therapy options to clients in Texas.

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Therapy is the New Self-Care


“Discovering the truth about ourselves is a lifetime’s work, but it’s worth the effort.” ~ Fred Rogers

Life can be draining. We are constantly surrounded by a barrage of common, everyday stressors like financial strain; employment, unemployment or deployment; addiction; sickness; or familial discord. If we are not careful, life’s demands can overwhelm, frustrate, and discourage us. Self-care is a tried-and-true method prescribed by therapists and other professionals to help clients improve their overall health. And, thankfully, the recent focus on self-care has placed importance on taking stock in what you need to fill your cup, feel happy and less stressed, and be more capable of tackling life’s challenges. I have a suggestion that ticks all those boxes: Therapy as self-care.

Benefits to Self-Care

You may already have a self-care regimen. It likely includes bubble baths, rigorous workouts, spa days, creative or musical outlets, spending time outdoors, meditation, repeating empowering mantras, practicing gratitude… the options are endless. Self-care is the art of taking an active role in protecting your own well-being and happiness–especially during periods of stress. Self-care is how you unwind, how you recharge, how you work through emotions; it is how you connect with yourself and your inner needs. Self-care is beneficial for you and is always worth the time you put into it. 

Benefits to Therapy

Therapy gives you the opportunity to focus on yourself. Instead of repressing emotions, you work through them. Therapy connects you to the capable, grateful, calm side of yourself. Therapists are not there to solve your problems; instead, they help you develop tools for dealing with particularly tough emotions. Abraham Maslow once said, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.” Therapy gives you additional tools you need for when a hammer is not working. Therapy enables you to lead your best life, overcome any obstacles that come your way, and helps you take care of yourself so you can take care of everyone and everything that depends on you. 

Sound familiar?

The benefits of self-care and therapy are strikingly similar; that is because therapy is a form of self-care. Yes, therapy is yet another way to practice self-care! We often overlook or ignore it because of the stigma that therapy is shameful and should only be used as a last resort. This could not be farther from the truth! Therapy should not be a last resort, and it most certainly is not reserved only for those who have suffered a trauma or loss. Rather, therapy can benefit anyone trying to better manage the challenges of being a human in this complex world. Mental health and self-care are important, regardless of whether that includes regular girls’ nights out and yoga, or weekly therapy sessions and medication. We should never be ashamed of doing what we need to do to be healthy and happy so we can live our best lives and be our best selves. 

Yes, you could talk with your mother or best friend(s) about what is weighing you down (it might seem easier to talk with someone you know about your innermost thoughts and fears). Or, you could try therapy and see that being vulnerable gets easier with time — even easier, in fact, than confessing your musings to those closest to you. Your therapist will not judge or try to fix you, nor will he/she compare or one-up his/her own experiences with yours (like sometimes your friends and family might). Your therapist will listen and offer guidelines for how to navigate your complex emotions.  The skills you learn in therapy can be carried over into every aspect of your life. The ROI from therapy is unmatched!

Self-care is about setting aside time to understand your issues, take a break, heal, and empower yourself.  Doing planks while working out strengthens your core muscles. Repeating empowering mantras lifts you up. Going through therapy strengthens your hope that life can get better. Working with a therapist supplies you with strategies to deal with the bad days. Therapy is self-care; though I am biased, I might argue that therapy is one of the best forms of self-care. Start the new year right by adding therapy to your self-care regimen. Contact me today to get started!

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

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Yoga: Changing How You See Yourself

“Yoga is the journey of the self, through the self, to the self.” – Bhagavad Gita.

Yoga is more than stretching, deep breaths and handstands. It is not just for those who are flexible or have good balance. It has been said that it can change your life. I decided to do some personal research for this post because I wanted to know more for myself. How could yoga change a person’s life so profoundly? The answer is that the physical part of yoga is only a small part of this practice, and when you truly understand and apply what yoga teaches, it can actually change your life!

Trees are a symbol in yoga. The body is a tree. The mind is a tree. The teachings of Ashtanga yoga itself is also described as a tree, and it has eight limbs:

  1. Yama. This first limb is your attitude towards the environment. It includes ethical standards, integrity, focusing on your behavior and how you conduct yourself in life. Examples are nonviolence, truthfulness, not stealing, and not coveting others. Essentially the golden rule–doing to others as you would like done to you.
  2. Niyama. This is your attitude towards yourself. It includes self-discipline and spiritual observances (like regularly attending temple or church services, saying grace before meals, developing your own personal meditation practices, or making a habit of taking contemplative walks alone), as well as cleanliness, gratitude, and surrender to a God.
  3. Asana. This is what everyone thinks of when yoga comes up–the physical postures. In yogic beliefs, the body is a temple of spirit, and caring for it is an important stage of spiritual growth. Through the practice of asanas–also known as “flows” in yogi tongue–you develop the habit of discipline and the ability to concentrate, both of which are necessary for meditation.
  4. Pranayama. In hindu yoga, this step is the regulation of the breath through certain techniques, exercises, breathing practices. Long term, this practice can help with anxiety, stress, depression, insomnia, improved focus, and increased self-awareness.
  5. Pratyahara is sense restraint. This limb is about withdrawing yourself from any external information so you can draw attention internally to hear the sounds from within. The practice of pratyahara allows you to step back and take a look at yourself and objectively observe your cravings: habits that are perhaps detrimental to your health and which likely interfere with your inner growth.
  6. Dharana. This limb is centered on extended periods of concentration which then naturally lead to meditation. In the practice of concentration, which precedes meditation, you learn how to slow down the thinking process by concentrating on a single mental object: a specific energetic center in the body, an image of a deity, or the silent repetition of a sound. 
  7. Dhyana. Meditation or contemplation, the seventh stage of ashtanga, is the uninterrupted flow of concentration. Although concentration (dharana) and meditation (dhyana) may appear to be one and the same, a fine line of distinction exists between these two stages. Where dharana practices one-pointed attention, dhyana is ultimately a state of being keenly aware without focus. At this stage, the mind has been quieted, and in the stillness it produces few or no thoughts at all.
  8. Samadhi. This final limb is appointed to be integration of the other limbs. It is a complete stage of ecstasy. What Patanjali has described as the completion of the yogic path is what, deep down, all human beings aspire to: peace. We also might give some thought to the fact that this ultimate stage of yoga—enlightenment—can neither be bought nor possessed. It can only be experienced, the price of which is the continual devotion of the aspirant.

As you can see, the practice of yoga is so much more than stretching in downward dog. It is a journey of self control and self-enlightenment. It is being at peace with the world and striving to make it a better place. It is listening to your body’s needs and what the universe needs from you. It is a form of exercise that is incredibly beneficial for stamina, endurance and flexibility. It is the ability to be content with oneself as well as a degree of self-mastery. My favorite part about yoga is that it truly is a journey for each individual. Everyone is at a different level, and that is okay! This is the best metaphor for life; while one yogi is working on her lotus press, you might be working on not falling over in your warrior two lunge. Yoga teaches self-compassion; it teaches you to start where you stand and be grateful for each breath. It teaches you to honor all you do have and all you can do. 

Grab a mat, and give it a try! See what your body can do. Start by simply stretching to get more connected with your body. Then download an application, like Daily Yoga or Yoga for Beginners to get acquainted with some basic yoga poses. You may even want to find a yoga class in your area. And if you love it, buy a membership to a yoga studio, find a friend you can do yoga with, or discover another way to you can bring the practice of yoga into your daily life!  You will not regret it! Please feel free to contact me with any questions or if you would like to schedule a session!

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Reconnecting with Reality: 10 Tips to Kick A Phone Addiction

“The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

A survey was recently conducted where participants were asked, “If you had to break a bone or break your phone what would you prefer?” The results were astounding: 46% percent of people would prefer to have a broken bone than a broken phone! Before the smartphone era, the average American spent just 18 minutes a day on the phone; today that figure is up to three hours. Three out of 24 hours of our day is being spent staring at a tiny screen…that is 1/8th of our day! Is that how we would prefer to spend our time or would we like to break that cycle and spend our valuable time on something more productive and satisfying?

The urge to pick up our devices is similar to other forms of behavioral addiction. Like gambling or shopping addiction, a small shot of dopamine is released in various regions of the brain through phone usage. That is what keeps us coming back for more, even when we know it is not in our best interest to do so. Instead of improving our lives, technology is actually getting in the way of us living and enjoying our lives. How can we overcome our addiction to distraction so we can focus on the things that actually matter? Here are ten practical suggestions we can implement immediately:

  1. Scheduled screen time. Set a timer for 15 minutes. When it goes off, spend a quick minute checking your phone’s notifications and be done. Push back the alarm to go off every 30, 45, or 60 minutes. You can even ask for help and accountability from your friends and family; tell them you will not be responding to messages as frequently as you used to.
  2. Remove distractions from the home screen. Most of us have Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, etc at the forefront of our screens. If we make those apps less accessible, we will not use them as much. Keep the apps that you want to encourage yourself to use (like those for reading or learning a new language) front and center, and banish anything you want to limit your time with to folders on your second page of apps (or if you have an Android phone, off the screen entirely).
  3. Disable push. An incredibly simple way to cut down on distractions is to turn off “push” notifications for as many apps as you can. Just head to Settings > Notifications to control your preferences. 
  4. Moon mode. On iPhones, there is a little icon of a moon if you swipe up to control brightness and wifi and whatnot. That little moon represents “do not disturb,” and it is kind of magical. It is a glorified silent mode, ideal for nighttime settings or undistracted time at work. Use DND and airplane mode to silence incoming distractions. 
  5. Use a filler. Instead of opening social media to scroll aimlessly, open a different app and be productive. Replace bad habits with good ones like learning a new language through Duolingo, creating flashcards for anything with Anki, self-reflection journaling with Vertellis, or using any number of apps to read or listen to a good book.
  6. Go old school. Many people use their phones as an alarm clock. But because the phone is easily within reach while in bed, many people find themselves scrolling right before bed and first thing in the morning. Cut that bad habit by reinstating your old-school alarm clock.
  7. “Alexa, do what my phone used to do for me.” You can ask these smart devices to play music for you, to check the weather, to read you a text,…the list goes on and on. Use Alexa instead of your screen!
  8. Grayscale. Time Well Spent, a nonprofit focused on changing our relationships to technology, recommends switching your phone to grayscale to make it less appealing. On an iPhone, find “Display Accommodations” and then turn on “Color Filters.” On a Samsung device, find “Vision” and then scroll down to “Grayscale.”
  9. Put it away. Unless there is an important phone call we are waiting for, we really do not need our phones within arms reach at all times. My dad leaves his phone on top of the refrigerator unless he needs it. Think about it–a smoker trying to kick the habit will still reach for a cigarette if it is sitting right in front of him. Ditto for phones; remove the temptation by stashing yours in your bag while at work or in a drawer when you want to have a real conversation at home.
  10. Don’t stop! Keep trying. Stay accountable. iPhones come with a built-in tracking system so we can see just how much time we have spent on any given app each day. There are also apps like Freedom, Moment, and Space that can help us see where we are spending our time and help us set limits. 

No doubt, Steve Jobs’ inventions, in the field of technology, have changed the world. But what most people do not know is he would not even let his children use an iPad. He told The New York Times, “We limit how much technology our kids use in the home.” Steve knew the power and addictive nature of these devices. So let’s be like Steve and limit our use of technology and break the cycle of addiction. The ten suggestions above can get us well on our way to getting off the phone and back to real life connection. If you are reading this on your phone, text or email someone you are thinking about. Let them know you care. Set a time to see them.  And then put the phone away.

(As always, if you find you have questions or would like to schedule a session, please do not hesitate to contact me today!)

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Exercise….It’s Not Just Good for the Body!

“It is a shame for a man to grow old without seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable.” ~ Socrates

One of my good friends detests exercising and will complain if I suggest doing anything remotely active together. Even though it is far from enjoyable for her, she cannot deny that exercising leaves a person feeling awesome and is totally worth the pain and hassle. I personally look forward to my weekly group training sessions with my physical trainer and frequently use these sessions in analogies with my clients.  I enjoy being active; the outlet of physical activity is invaluable. I find it so motivating and empowering when I am able to do an exercise or surpass a weight goal that once seemed impossible. There are a myriad of ways to exercise, and even more benefits that come from moving your body!

Exercise is defined as any movement that makes your muscles work and requires your body to burn calories. The most common include swimming, running, jogging, walking, biking and dancing. There are a million ways to be physically active; one day I will dedicate an entire post to listing as many ways to exercise as I can possibly think of!

For now, I want to focus on the benefits of exercising. Many of these benefits are not visible from the outside as working out affects humans physically and mentally. Here are just some of the ways being active will profit you:

  • Makes you feel happier. Exercise increases the production of endorphins, which help produce positive feelings. This is the feeling my friend who hates exercising admittedly enjoys. You cannot beat that post-workout high! 
  • Improves overall health. There are a million ways exercising benefits a person’s overall health. It burns calories to help lose or maintain healthy weight, as well as aides in the process of digesting food. Researchers say exercising fosters increased hydration and better dietary intake, which in turn positively affect healthy weight. Physical activity–like weight lifting–can stimulate muscle building when paired with adequate protein intake. Additionally, if you are exercising and stretching regularly, your flexibility will improve. This helps prevent injuries. Exercise also increases your heart rate, promoting the flow of blood and oxygen to your brain. Another benefit to overall health from exercise is that it serves as a distraction from pain as it reduces your perception of pain. It seems counter-intuitive, but–when done correctly–exercising can be an effective way to manage pain. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, exercising helps maintain vital body functions like breathing and a healthy heartbeat. In short, these overall health benefits combine to provide a prolonged life!
  • Reduces risk of disease. Lack of regular physical activity is a primary cause of chronic disease. Regular exercise has been shown to improve insulin sensitivity, cardiovascular fitness and body composition, while decreasing blood pressure and blood fat levels. It can reduce your risk of certain serious health conditions, including heart disease, diabetes and colon, breast, uterine, and lung cancer. Additionally, exercising boosts immunity and decreases your chances of developing (and getting stuck with) more common illnesses, like flus and colds. 
  • Increases energy levels and boosts productivity. Piggybacking off of #1, the endorphins released during exercise also fill you with energy. How many times have you come home from a walk or a game of tennis ready to tackle that pile of laundry or stack of paperwork? Research shows that those who take time for exercise on a regular basis are more productive and have more energy than their more sedentary peers.
  • Improves mental health. Exercising literally changes the part of the brain that regulates stress. Working out increases brain sensitivity for the hormones serotonin and norepinephrine, which relieve feelings of depression.  Exercise has been shown to reduce symptoms in people suffering from anxiety. Ever notice that you can start a workout feeling stressed and anxious, and end it feeling good? This is not just in your head. Exercise changes the chemistry of the brain by causing the release of GABA, a neurotransmitter that helps quiet brain activity and minimize anxiety. 
  • Improves sleep quality. By being active during the day, the body is more ready to sleep at night. If you struggle with insomnia or other sleep-related issues, regular exercise is one of the first suggestions to better sleep because your body will be ready to rest. 
  • Boosts creativity. A heart-pumping gym session can boost creativity for up to two hours afterwards! It is as if exercising clears your mind and enables you to tap into your full creative powers. Don’t believe me? Try it!
  • Improves sex life. Engaging in regular exercise can strengthen the cardiovascular system, improve blood circulation, tone muscles and enhance flexibility, all of which can improve your sex life.
  • Improves mood and body image. Need an emotional lift? Or need to blow off some steam after a stressful day? A gym session or brisk walk can help. Interestingly, it does matter how intense your workout is; your mood will be improved from any kind of physical activity! Exercising will also cause you to experience a boost to your confidence and self-esteem.
  • It’s fun and social! Many of the women in my neighborhood get together regularly to exercise in the morning. This keeps us all accountable, but even more so is that it is fun to work out and strengthens my relationships with them!

With all those benefits to exercising…why are we not all working out right now?! I have experienced most of these benefits firsthand and hope you have, too. Let’s make a goal to start the next week by giving our minds and our bodies what they need…exercise! I wrote a post at the beginning of the summer where I shared some simple ideas to fit exercise into your day. I promise you will feel better for it! As always, if you find you need additional assistance, please contact me. My door is always open!

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

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Self-Care is for Men Too!

“When you recover or discover something that nourishes your soul and brings joy, care enough about yourself to make room for it in your life.” ~ Jean Shinoda Bolen

Everywhere you look there are articles, blogs, advertisements, and pictures about how women can become more beautiful or healthy or happy. Just as important, but receiving much less attention, is the topic of self-care for men. 

Self-care is defined as the practice of taking action to preserve and/or improve your health. It has a renewing, refreshing, and sharpening effect. There are many practical benefits to regularly implemented self-care: Improved overall health, sharpened mental health, decreased stress levels, heightened focus, greater levels of resilience, broadened creativity, and a myriad of other advantages. 

Self-care has many faces. Women think of chocolate, sleep, massages, shopping, relaxing by the pool… When men think of self-care, they may not immediately picture a bubble bath with essential oils. So what’s a guy to do for self-care? Here are four practical suggestions:

  1. Make yourself a priority. Sounds simple enough, right? Maybe you really enjoy music: listen to your favorite album on your daily commute. Maybe you know you feel better physically and mentally when you exercise: take a few hours a week to get to the gym. Making time for yourself is not selfish, it is necessary to being at your best…which unavoidably seeps into every other aspect of your life! Making yourself a priority does not mean that you sit lazily on the couch, ignore the important people in your life, or allow screen time to absorb your stress.  It means being intentional with your time and doing what will refuel, refresh, and reinvigorate you for another day. Know what brings you joy, and be proactive about practicing or engaging with these aspects of your life. 
  2. Interact with others. Having meaningful relationships positively influences mental health. These relationships will allow you to share aspects of your own life and also escape from your day to day routine. This might mean grabbing wings during game time from Buffalo Wild Wings, going hunting or fishing, grilling or smoking the results of said hunting or fishing outings, shooting hoops at the gym, or a myriad of other options!
  3. Be healthy. Both men and women need to take care of themselves physically; this is self-care 101. By this I mean eating a balanced diet, getting adequate sleep, exercising regularly, etc. It might also include meditation, practicing gratitude, regularly assessing goals/resolutions, and any form of stress management. Additionally, be sure to make yearly doctors’ appointments with both your primary care physician and specialists (where applicable).  Take care of your body and brain and you will be better equipped to perform to the best of your abilities! 
  4. Recognize burn-out signs. We all have them. Maybe you get snappy, easily irritated, on edge. Or maybe you feel exhausted, lethargic, or depressed. Such symptoms may serve as warning signs that you need to put on the brakes and take a personal day. This is where you might return to number one and repeat the cycle of making yourself a priority, investing time in meaningful relationships, and taking care of your physical and mental health. As you do so, the time in between your warning signs and necessary “reset” will lessen because your manly self-care will become more instinctive and effective.

There are several reasons why men do not practice self-care regularly: First, it is not considered to be terribly masculine in our society, and some men worry it will make them appear weak if they take time for themselves. Also, some men might think it is not for them because not many men are promoting it. Lastly, and most commonly, many men may find it difficult to prioritize self-care with work/life being too demanding, or they may not understand the need. 

Self-care is not just an activity you simply schedule into your daily life (though that is a great place to start if you are not currently doing any self-care!). It is a mindset that requires listening to what your body and mind need, and then regularly practicing those things. As you put yourself first, foster meaningful relationships, live a healthy lifestyle, and avoid burn-out, you will see the many benefits of self-care. Women swear by it…and so should men! In fact, I firmly believe that many of the issues that we face in our relationships would be alleviated if we all simply practiced self-care! If you have questions or feel you need assistance implementing self-care into your life, please do not hesitate to contact me or schedule a session. You will not regret making self-care an important part of your life!

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

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The Life Defining Practice of Positivity

 Research is revealing that positive thinking is about much more than just being happy or displaying an upbeat attitude. Positive thoughts can create real value in your life and help you build skills that last longer than a smile.

Instead of worrying about what you cannot control, shift your energy to what you can create.”
― Roy T. Bennett

Every single day you face a myriad of situations that will test and prove your outlook on life. Is your glass half-empty or half-full? Do you see changes as setbacks or opportunities? Do you see weakness as a nuisance or a chance to grow? Would you consider yourself to be more of an optimist or a pessimist? Regardless of where you currently stand, you can start today to implement positivity into your life. Everything from your work to your health to your relationships will improve as you try to see the world through an optimistic lens!

Here is the 101 on positive thinking. It helps with stress management and improves your overall physical health (even resistance to the common cold!), it increases your lifespan, lowers your rates of depression and stress, offers greater immunity and better cardiovascular health, and results in more effective and efficient coping skills during hardships and times of stress. In other words, there are no cons to positivity.

Positive thinking does not mean you simply stick your head in the sand and proceed to ignore all of life’s less-than-pleasant situations. No, quite the contrary. Positive thinking simply means that you approach said unpleasantness in a more positive and productive way: You assume the best is going to happen instead of expecting the worst.

If you want to be a more optimistic person, you can! You can learn to turn negative thinking into positive thinking. The process is simple, but it does take time, patience, and practice…after all, you are creating a new habit. Here are some ways to start living a more positive lifestyle:

  1. Start small. If you want to employ more positive thinking, first identify areas of your life that you usually think negatively about. This may be work, your daily commute or a relationship. Start small by focusing on one area to approach in a more positive way.
  2. Have checkpoints. Periodically during the day, stop and evaluate what you are thinking. If you find that your thoughts are mainly negative, try to put a positive spin on them.
  3. Positive self-talk. Self-talk is the endless stream of unspoken thoughts that run through your head. This is where positive thinking often starts. Be careful to not say anything to yourself that you would not say to someone else you care about! Shed the weight that comes from thinking unkindly of others by speaking kindly to yourself.
  4. Follow a healthy lifestyle. Exercise, adequate rest, and a healthy diet can positively affect your stress levels. A healthy body and regulated stress will help you see the world differently.
  5. Try meditation. Recent research has revealed that people who meditate regularly display more positive emotions than those who do not. Meditation can result in mindfulness, purpose in life, social support, and decreased illness symptoms.
  6. Practice gratitude. It is easy to get caught up in the things that are wrong or that you lack in life. But instead, take a look around and count your blessings. Think about the many things you are thankful for. Making a daily list is a great way to practice gratitude!
  7. Try humor. Give yourself permission to smile or laugh, especially during difficult times. Seek humor in everyday happenings. Laughing at life will decrease stress!
  8. Play/decompress. Before a violin is stored, the strings are loosened. If it is put away with the strings tight enough to play, the strings will eventually stretch and snap. You need periodical breaks to have fun and decompress. You will be better able to see life from an optimistic viewpoint if you take time to blow off steam!
  9. Surround yourself with positive people (read: stay away from toxic people). Make sure the people you choose to surround yourself with are positive, happy, and supportive. Negative people may increase your stress level and make you doubt your ability to manage stress in healthy ways.
  10. Be happy NOW. It is easy to think you will be happy when you get that promotion or move out of your apartment or when your kids are out of diapers. I know I am guilty of putting off happiness until I achieve some arbitrary goal. But you can be happy NOW. You can choose to be optimistic and see life with an optimistic perspective now!

If you tend to have a negative outlook on life, take heart. The fact that you are reading this post speaks to your motivation to be a more optimistic person. And it will happen–with practice and patience. You can learn to see life through a positive, glass-half-full lens. You will start to see setbacks, weaknesses, trials, miscommunications, and failures for what they really are: opportunities for growth and happiness.  Practicing positive thinking will also help you become less critical of the world and the people around you. You will notice that positive thinking will bleed into every aspect of your life–including and especially your relationship with yourself. Positive thinking really is the practice that will change your life…for the better! Please feel free to contact me or schedule a session for additional assistance.

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

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#optoutside

“I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright.” ~ Walden by Henry David Thoreau

Summer is nigh upon us! Stores nationwide have their swimsuits and outdoor pools at the forefront of their aisles. Most places in the United States are warming up and there is a buzz in the air that comes from the excitement summer brings. I want to share some ideas to help you make the most of the great outdoors this summer!

But first, let’s go over the power of being outside. Not too long ago, I wrote a blog post called, “Outdoor Therapy: Nature’s Cure.” In it, I shared that studies are repeatedly showing that being outside has positive psychological and physiological benefits. Ecotherapy (also known as green therapy, nature therapy, and earth-centered therapy) is contact with nature and is a powerful new kind of therapy. This type of therapy with nature has been found to be just as effective against depression as traditional psychotherapy or medication! And the amazing thing about ecotherapy is that it is free. Not only that, but it is completely accessible to anyone at anytime!

I know what you are thinking. I have a job and/or kids and a life with so much to do that makes it impossible to be outside all the time! I hear you. I know that it is not easy to make time to do something elective. Regardless, we need to put down our paperwork, pause our housework, and turn off our computer and get outside. Yes, we have many obligations and responsibilities that demand our attention, and making time for self-care seems like one more thing to squeeze into our overbooked schedules (to learn more about self-care, read this post). I have personally found it therapeutic to walk a trail near my home multiple times a week. I am refreshed and rejuvenated when I get outside, breathe in the air, smell the fresh honeysuckle, observe the dogs and their owners, and feel my body moving (especially helpful since I spend the majority of my day sitting for hours at a time). I can assure you that you will be better off because of the time you spend outside!

The following 55 ideas will jumpstart your summer and up the time you spend outdoors (and none of them require a great amount of time nor a large amount of money):

  1. Walk your dog (or get a dog!)
  2. Count your steps. Iphones, outdoor apps, fitbits, and so many other technological advancements make it incredibly easy to use an activity tracker.
  3. Listen or watch for birds
  4. Look for shooting stars
  5. Camping (or glamping if that is more your style!)
  6. Hike or run a local trail
  7. Chase waterfalls, soak in some hot springs, or visit a local swimming hole, river, or lake
  8. Go fishing
  9. Plant a garden
  10. Pick fresh flowers outside
  11. Pick up landscape photography
  12. Have a picnic
  13. Go tubing, kayaking, or rafting
  14. Visit local farmers’ market
  15. Fly a kite
  16. Set up a hammock and relax!
  17. Have a bonfire (don’t forget the s’mores!)
  18. Go geocaching or letterboxing
  19. Go hot air ballooning
  20. Walk instead of driving (when possible)
  21. Ride your bike
  22. Take up mountain biking
  23. Rent local scooters
  24. Visit a new park
  25. Go on a run
  26. Walk a mile
  27. Explore a new neighborhood or houses under construction
  28. Dance in the rain
  29. Follow a rainbow
  30. Swing on a swing
  31. Play on a playground
  32. Go swimming (and jump off the diving board)
  33. Go surfing
  34. Watch the sunrise or sunset
  35. Try bouldering or rock climbing
  36. Visit a National Park
  37. Take a walk at lunch
  38. Sit on a sandy beach
  39. Plant a tree
  40. Outdoor BBQ
  41. Summer chairlift ride (preferably during the full moon!)
  42. Stroll around the city
  43. Play catch, basketball, kickball, or any outdoor yard game
  44. Get lawn seats to a concert
  45. Stand on a summit
  46. Go boating or sailing
  47. Listen to the ocean
  48. Organize an outdoor scavenger hunt
  49. Color with sidewalk chalk
  50. Wash your own car
  51. Participate in a park clean-up
  52. Try outdoor yoga (for the sunrise!)
  53. Collect seashells or build a sand castle
  54. Sand volleyball
  55. Set up an outdoor movie with a projector + sheet

Which ones will you do first? Consider making a list of these ideas (plus any others you might have!) and crossing them off as you complete them. Put them on the calendar and make them happen! Allow yourself to enjoy the beautiful warm weather this summer.

If you find yourself feeling frustrated with life, discouraged, or lonely this summer, I encourage you to reach for your tennis shoes before medication. Enjoying a healthy dose of mother nature does incredible good for both your mind and body.  I offer walk and talk therapy for some of my clients; it is amazing what can be accomplished when I spend just 20 minutes outside walking with my clients at the beginning of a session! Please do not hesitate to contact me today to schedule your first personalized session.

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

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