FOMO Struggle Is Real: How The Best & Brightest SF Singles Are Still Missing Out

24 Feb

The Oxford English Dictionary definition of FOMO [Foe-Moe] is: “Anxiety that an exciting or interesting event may currently be happening elsewhere, often aroused by posts seen on a social media website.”

As an executive and personal coach to some of San Francisco’s most successful young tech entrepreneurs, I help them fight back their FOMO on an hourly basis.FOMO was first identified in the mid-1990s by marketing analysts as an acronym to explain how new media commerce was undermining traditional brand loyalties. Twenty years later, the FOMO phenomenon has infiltrated American culture with ‘choice overload’, impacting how we make decisions in both our personal and professional lives. Particularly in the Francisco Bay Area, where millions of investors come to place their bets on innovative young high achievers, it can be feel like life changing decisions are being made at every turn. Attractive, successful single people are everywhere. The whole world is open to them. Armed with an ample array of talents, access to top social networks for professional and dating opportunities, they just have to choose. But they struggle to do so with any permanency. The FOMO struggle is real.

In Barry Schwartz‘s eloquent Tedx talk “The Paradox of Choice“, he describes how western industrial societies have come to over value choice: “If we are interested in maximizing the welfare of our citizens, the way to do that is to maximize individual freedom. The reason for this is both that freedom is in and of itself good, valuable, worthwhile, essential to being human. And because if people have freedom, then each of us can act on our own to do the things that will maximize our welfare, and no one has to decide on our behalf. The way to maximize freedom is to maximize choice. He goes on to argue that instead of increasing our sense of well-being, an abundance of choice is increasing our levels of anxiety, depression, and wasted time. It leads us to set unreasonably high expectations, question our choices before we even make them, and blame our failures entirely on ourselves.

As an executive and personal coach, I help people explore the stress they feel when confronted with choice overload, the sense of regret from making decisions that lead to less-than-satisfactory outcomes, the cost of having relentlessly high expectations, chronic feelings of emptiness or disconnection from their current life circumstances, and the tarnished sense of self that comes from comparing one’s choices with the choices of others.

Most people have a wide range of professional passions, and are attracted to different types of people with various physical attributes, personal strengths and qualities. The fact remains, there aren’t enough hours in a day to pursue all of them at once. Further, if personal intimacy is on the goal list, it’s impossible to achieve that type of connection if one never gets beyond the ‘first 5 dates’ lifecycle. In an effort to not miss out, people pursue everything and everyone, and are left wondering why nothing ever evolves. By the time they come to me, they are overwhelmed, frustrated and unfulfilled; they want to pursue success professionally and/or in their dating pursuits, but with less stress and more direction. If you’re reading this, perhaps you can relate.

#BestAdvice:  How can I redirect my thinking to banish FOMO?

Remember: by saying “NO” to some things, you are saying “YES” to other high quality and equally important experiences.

  • Slow down your dating process. By taking the time to get to know one person at a time, you are being thorough in determining if there is genuine potential for a high quality romantic connection, and less likely to ‘let the right one slip by’. Be careful not to rule someone out if a potential red flag crops up. Anyone who’s been happily partnered for years will tell you, unsolvable differences exist between even the very best matched couples.
  • Balance your recreational activities and social plans with restful self care.By taking care of your body and mind by engaging in pleasurable, restful and restorative activities, you are shoring up your energy so that when you do engage in an outing that requires elevated energy, you are more likely to have it in store so that you actually enjoy it as it was meant to be enjoyed. Can you really expect to get the most enjoyment out of seeing your favorite musical artist perform live if you’re exhausted, irritable and physically uncomfortable?
  • Pay attention to what you enjoy doing most, and focus your career planning accordingly. Getting in on ‘the next big thing’ and making a lot of money while doing it are cool, I’ll admit. But don’t forget, even if you’re really good at doing something doesn’t mean you’re going to enjoy doing it for the long haul. By choosing to develop your skills and opportunities in a concentrated professional direction that you know you enjoy, you are more likely to reap the benefit of succeeding in that particular vein. If your career journey seems to be evolving more slowly than you’d like, remember, career success is rarely, if ever linear and constant. Genuine growth and success are never free of setbacks. Professional setbacks are opportunities to hone your attention to what is necessary for continued and elevated success.
  • When a choice results in an unexpected and/or poor outcome, don’t automatically think of it as a failure. Thinking “What a waste of time and energy!” keeps you from utilizing that experience in an advantageous way. Without valuing what you learned and integrating this information into your future decisions and endeavors, you miss out on the chance to execute with better aim and more fruitful outcomes. With dating, you may not see patterns in why your relationships end. I encourage people I’m coaching to get some information from their ex’s (if still on relatively good speaking terms). Ask them “What was it like to date me? What worked well? What did I do that made it difficult?” Admittedly, this is tough homework. Be sure to clarify you don’t want to rekindle things, you’re there to get information about what role you played in what when wrong, like an aviation black box. There’s a good chance there are some themes in how you behave in relationships that you are not aware of that could help you move forward in creating a healthy and long-lasting romantic relationship.
  • Learn to relish in the choices you DO make, and stop agonizing over the choices you DON’T make. It’s easy to go through life with ‘entree envy’, there are a lot of amazing choices out there! Life however, has a funny way of changing directions for us, outside of our control, and when you least expect it. So enjoy what you can, while you have it.

6 #BestAdvice Ways to Use Your Wearable Device for Improved Mental Health

24 Feb

wearablepicSmartwatches. Health monitors. Pedometers. Activity trackers. Virtual reality headsets. They’re all part of the emerging landscape of wearable technology, developed to improve our total health functioning. With wearable technology, it’s become easier than ever to learn more about ourself- tracking how we eat, sleep, exercise, and react to our environmental surroundings in real time. With a touch of a button, we can even communicate and gain support from peer communities based on our specific health problems like anxiety, depression, eating disorders, substance abuse, and PTSD as well as a range of medical conditions including asthma, cancer, diabetes, smoking cessation, and weight management. While nearly 1 in 5 Americans suffer from anxiety disorders, and about 1 in 10 experience mood disorders like major depression, others of us experience a wide range of emotional challenges in our life, but do not require professional mental health treatment. Wearable technology is not meant to replace the keen eye of a health professional’s diagnostic and treatment abilities, but when utilized properly, the information it provides can be invaluable for maintaining optimal mental health. While most of us understand the basics- tracking our wearable data to ensure consistent and adequate sleep and regular exercise, what else can we track to stabilize and improve our emotional functioning?

Here are 6 #bestadvice ways you can put your wearable device to use for improved emotional health:

1) use physiological parameters measured by wearable sensors (such as ECG, accelerometers, EMG, body impedance, skin conductivity, heart rate variability, blood volume pulse, breathing rate and volume to determine nervous system reactions) to track when your body is experiencing ‘the stress response’, then plan to execute brief relaxation strategies to better regulate your body’s reactivity signals.

2) manually enter your mood and/or other personal self-ratings, such as productivity, or fatigue the same time each day, so you can start to better understand how your unique biological fluctuations pair with your emotional fluctuations

3) pair brief, self-administered mood interventions (such as diaphragmatic breathing, ergonomic stretches or social breaks) at preselected data points/targets on your wearable device

4) If you’re willing to try some simple programming for your wearable app, try using IFTTT. Thisfree consumer app allows you to create ‘recipes‘ which help to keep you emotionally/behaviorally motivated through your wearable device’s app.

5) Set up detailed behavioral reminders to engage in activities that contribute to optimal wellbeing based on your lifestyle. Simple yet effective, having an electronic reminder to ‘hydrate after being at a bar for 2 hours‘ might be the turning point to a much better ‘morning after’ happy hour. Download the ‘Do Button‘ on your mobile device to tell your loved one you’re on your way home, which might be the turning point to a peaceful reunion with your partner.

6) Share a summary of data from your wearable with your executive or personal coach, or other mental health professional to explore in your collaborative work together. This information can serve as a discussion guide for better understanding how your overall health functioning is shaping your emotional functioning.

The one habit keeping you from winning big(ger) in life, and how to change it.

18 Feb
Vulnerability, just ahead.

Vulnerability, just ahead.
AP Photo

What keeps you up at night? All of us have something in our life we’d like to see come to fruition. Sometimes we want this thing badly. It can weigh heavily upon us, especially when we feel it’s just outside of our reach. Anxiety, sadness or resentment can set in when other people manage to pull it off, seemingly without a hitch. A startup idea that takes off, a well-timed promotion, a romance that seems like the perfect match. ‘Why not me?’ you wonder. ‘What am I missing?’ In the 10+ years I’ve spent assessing and treating people as a mental health professional, one common habit stands out among the people who struggle to make lasting progress towards their life goals.

They avoid feeling things.

‘Feeling things’ seems kind of like a simple and obvious part of life (doesn’t it?) But it isn’t.

I know you resist feeling things, we all do. It’s an unavoidable habit of modern culture. Any emotion that causes us the slightest displeasure can easily be evaded by numbing our emotions with media, caffeine, booze, retail therapy, recreational drugs like marijuana, Chipotle, to name just a few. If you spend your life constantly avoiding uncomfortable feelings you will remain exactly where you are, but older and likely more bitter (choke back sob) as you see others achieve the things you want all around you.

Opening yourself up to feeling things you most hope to avoid (a.k.a. vulnerability) will afford you the opportunity to make gains in the direction you want most. When Dr. Brené Brown spoke atTEDx about the power of vulnerability in 2010, her viral talk garnered more than 7 million views on TED.com. Dr. Brown says that losing our vulnerability isn’t something to take lightly; vulnerability is power. “Vulnerability is not about fear and grief and disappointment. It’s the birthplace of everything we’re hungry for: joy, creativity, faith, love, spirituality,” she says. “And the whole thing is, there is no innovation and creativity without failure.” The bottom line?

You must be willing to tolerate some emotional discomfort to win big(ger) in life.

Allow yourself to face the prospects of rejection if you want love, mental/physical exhaustion if you want to achieve, disappointment if you want to ‘win’ positive growth and change in your life. Emotional discomfort will not kill you. In fact, without it you’re likely not challenging yourself to reach your full potential. I promise, you will survive feeling emotionally vulnerable. Some tactics for tolerating this discomfort on the path to becoming more awesome:

  • Create incentives for yourself to take emotional risks. Rewards work just as effectively for adults as they do for kids, only you have to enlist yourself with the responsibility of doling them out in an effective manner. Choose wisely, and even if you cheat a little, it feels much better to ‘earn’ something indulgent while making progress towards your goals.
  • You may need to exchange some of your old habits for a healthier list of coping strategies that allow you to feel safe/calm/supported without damaging consequences.
  • Selectively participate in activities that shore up your confidence- put a plan in place to do these things routinely as a coping strategy for surviving disappointments along the way.
  • Enlist others for support! A client of mine shares “weekly wins” with a good friend- they text each other micro successes that occur while making strides towards their goals. This tactic is a win-win because it not only drawing your attention towards the positive, it connects you with someone who’s in your corner, strengthening your courage to keep going.

If we’re going to find the way to our own personal version of success, vulnerability is going to be on that path. As much as we want to remain impervious to failure, growth and positive change don’t happen that way. Even if it were possible to be ‘perfect’ that’s not what draws people to respect and love you. People are most often pulled in to care and invest in you when they can see your courage and willingness to take risks; share that process, and connect with them through common disappointments.

Dr. Christina Villarreal is a mental health expert, coach, consultant, educator and entrepreneur in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Break Glass In Case Of Emergency: Disrupt and Take Over Your Bad Mood

9 Feb
Break Glass In Case of Emergency

Break Glass In Case of Emergency

We all have them. Days when we are short on sleep, patience, time, and energy, and it goes swiftly downhill from there. Sometimes it starts with one thing going wrong, lowering our frustration tolerance and ability to handle subsequent challenges. Let’s face it, many of us are in challenging phases of our life, not just an occasional challenging day here and there. The consequences of not effectively managing our worst days means we are less motivated, less productive and more likely to fall short of others’ expectations. Our relationships at work and home suffer, bearing the brunt of our stressed out mood. Most of us do our best to prevent a bad mood from spiraling out of control, but wouldn’t it be great if you could do it more effectively; before too much damage is done? Wouldn’t it be awesome if you had a ‘Break Glass In Case of Emergency: Disrupt and Take Over Your Bad Mood’ plan of action? Read on. Because I have just the thing for you.

I learned some of the best strategies for mood management while treating chronic pain sufferers. If anyone has cause for a bad mood, it’s people with chronic pain- they’re already distressed, and then a pain ‘flare-up’ hits. More pain meds aren’t always an option, so mental health professionals developed behavioral medicine as a way to empower them and improve their coping. Having a well tailored ‘emergency plan of action’ in place before stress take overs is key to disrupting a bad mood.

This is how you can develop your own plan of action:

First, figure out what you’re feeling. This seems like a no-brainer, right? ‘Yeah I feel like crap’ I hear you mutter. But actually ‘crap’ is not specific enough. You need to get more specific in order to target exactly what you need to feel better. We can get in the habit of using the same strategy to feel better, because it works really well in some situations. But when we keep applying that same tactic like a ‘one size fits all’ mood band-aid, we’re missing an opportunity to get it exactly right. Sometimes our favorite mood booster can even start to lose it’s efficacy or become harmful if we overuse it (runners, drinkers, cupcake eaters- you CAN have too much of a good, or even a ‘healthy’ thing.) So instead of rushing for a quick fix, take pause and figure out: How am I FEELING? Drained. Anxious. Lonely. Bored. Overwhelmed. Rejected. Furious. Lost.All potentially bad mood inducing feelings, but each may warrant a different response for feeling better.

Next, start sorting out which tactics best remedy different feelings/situations. This can look very different for different people. Some people may want to create a flow chart, excel spreadsheet, decision tree, or Ven diagram. Honestly my brain doesn’t really work like that, but Bay Area programmers and gamers I’ve worked with seem to enjoy confusing the hell out of me with their own complex versions that work for them. I commend them for it! I keep it on the simple side, and use what I call a virtual “Break Glass In Case Of Emergency” tool box. Inside, I imagine neatly organized shelves of all the things that help me feel better, waiting to pulled out as needed. After describing this to one young woman, she stood up during our session and pretended to swing a glass-shattering sledgehammer, calling out “Break Glass In Case of Emergency Horniness!” We both had a laugh over that one. In order for it to work best, it has to reflect how you best organize things in your mind. When all else fails, make a list, or set of lists. As long as you’ve figured out which tactics best remedy your feelings during low moods, it doesn’t matter how it’s organized.

Make sure your range of mood lifting tactics appeal to all 5 of your senses, and allow for a full range of budget, social, time requirement, and environmental differences.

  • Sensory indulgent- things that boost your mood because you’re choosing things that please your sense of taste, smell, touch, sound.
  • Get out of your head, and into your body- (endorphin boosting exercise, relaxing stretches, feel-good grooming (massage, haircut, steam, mani/pedi) other resting/restorative behaviors
  • Social- take a break from people who historically ramp UP your stress level, and reach out/immerse yourself in socially restorative settings. Maybe it’s not directly social, but reduces your sense of isolation. Try getting out of the house/office and into a semi-social setting (parks, bookstores, non-work related cafes)
  • Sexual- break glass for #friendswithbenefits endeavors carefully. Take a moment to anticipate how you’re going to feel emotionally afterwards. If your hook up plans falls through, will you end up feeling even worse? If you have a situation that’s stable and safe, have at it!
  • Playful- Reunite with a type of play that you favored as a kid, but got lost along the way to #adulthood
  • Conversational- reach out to your most sympathetic family member, chat with a neighbor who’s good for cheering you up/making you smile, etc.
  • Comical- plan a (funny,good spirited) practical joke
  • Wardrobe selection- Choose clothes that can help you feel better: aka your#lookoftheday. What will help you feel better? Comfy, forgiving clothes, or dressed to kill. Have both ready and on hand for exactly those moments.
  • Become one with nature- I just learned the Japanese phrase Shinrin-yoku (森林浴) which means ‘forest bathing’. I know, right?
  • 5 minute mental resets: Try clearing the clutter in front of you- empty the trash. Clear off a good deal of your work space. Breathe. When all else fails, check your favorite time-suck websites. Take a ridiculous Buzz Feed Quiz. There’s a reason they’re so popular! I just took a break from writing this, and took “Which Foreign Actor Is Your Soulmate?” and “Can We Guess What Clique You Belonged To In High School?” Aim to not exceed 10 minutes for these sort of breaks, or risk contributing to feeling even more unproductive.

Now practice visualizing yourself “hitting your stride” and getting back to your most awesome self (this can include special effects in your mind). Draw a simple stick figure cartoon of what that would look like. Use captions. Now tape it where you and everyone else can see it. You’ve effectively disrupted your bad mood- onward and upward!

Handle your relationship status like a boss: single, searching or settled

2 Feb
Handle your business.

Handle your business.

The New York Times recently published an article titled ‘Line Up, Children, Single File‘, discussing the growing number of families across the United States in which all of the adult children are single. According to a survey released by the Pew Research Center in September, 25 percent of Americans are expected to be single into their mid-40s and mid-50s, and are unlikely to have ever been married. As of 2013, there were over 100 million single people in the country. Of that number, 53 percent were women, and 47 percent were men. Today’s newsfeed on all fronts has no shortage of opinion articles comparing the lifestyles, functionality and happiness of single people versus partnered. The topic remains unavoidable, with various countries taking different stances on their citizens’ marital status and proliferation.

A large portion of my mental health practice in the San Francisco Bay Area consists of men and women of varying ages and cultural backgrounds seeking professional help to figure out “why they’re still single.” Even typing that phrase induces an instant urge in me to clarify: there is no reason to believe something is wrong with you, or your life if you remain single or unmarried until the end of your days. Okay carry on.

Mostly, people share with me that remaining single has been a great way to focus on personal goals, explore life’s choices with freedom, and experience a range of romantic undertakings. Undoubtedly, today’s generation of American youth benefit from a longer period of socially acceptable time in which to delay settling down romantically. Even with this cultural shift in marital expectations, many still feel pressured to figure out their romantic future. One young woman’s social media success has spawned from capitalizing on her ‘crazy Jewish mom’s‘ comical text rants about her dating life and overzealous attempts to find her daughter an ideal match. Some of #crazyjewishmom‘s texts to her daughter:

“Happy birthday spawn. Welcome to the wrong side of 25. The expiration date on your eggs is officially in sight. Tick Tock.”

NO RING ON THE FINGER YOU MUST NOT LINGER”

“Exactly how long have you two been dating? I don’t want you to become the girl who stayed too long and then ‘OMG, I’m 40 and I forgot to get married and have babies.’ YOU WILL GIVE ME GRANDCHILDREN.”

This type of societal pressure can fall especially hard upon women. I’ve had no less than a dozen women of all racial backgrounds come into my office (all well under the age of 28!) to discuss freezing their eggs, panicked about their single status and how this may impact the future of their fertility. They worry: “What if I never find someone I’m attracted to enough to want to marry? I don’t want to end up alone. I have friends who’ve spent years with someone, gotten engaged and then it goes south before they even make it to the alter. Having to start over like that, what a nightmare!”

Many men well under 35, but also into their 40’s come in for professional help concerned that the woman they’re seriously dating or living with “might not be the one.” Guys tend to not dissect their relationships with their friends the way women do, but they still worry. “There’s this expectation that we get engaged; get married. Her friends, our parents, all expect me to pop the question, but doc, I just don’t know if it’s the right thing for me. Especially right now. Maybe my feelings will change in the future, I don’t know. The pressure to be financially ready feels overwhelming, and I’m I’m not sure if my feelings for her are strong enough to make a marriage work well, or last for that matter. I feel guilty because I care a lot about her, and I don’t want to waste her time. She wants a marital commitment now, and I’m just not there yet.”

My perspective as the ‘expert’ in the room is informed by both my personal and professional experiences. I’ve navigated the ups and downs of my own 20 year relationship shaped by racial/cultural differences, bi-coastal dating, completing graduate schools, marriage, and balancing two demanding careers while co-parenting (not to mention other curveballs life has thrown us!) Professionally, I’ve spent 10 years helping people gain insight and direction, inter-personal growth and resilience through virtually all stages of singlehood or commitment. These are some of the most salient tips I believe can help you skillfully maneuver your relationship status, regardless of what direction it takes.

  • Stop overthinking everything. Constantly worrying about the future or ‘worst case scenario’ will ironically contribute to that scenario unfolding. Whether you’re worried you’ll be #foreversingle or you can’t figure out if you’re with the ‘right person’, focusing your time and attention on that negativity will prevent you from gaining the perspective you’ll need to move forward skillfully and insightfully. Take pause and ask yourself “are my negative feelings based on something that’s actually happening right now, or am I working myself into an emotional tailspin over something that hasn’t even happened yet?” Make a concerted effort to focus on the here and now so your feelings can reflect that reality, instead of a poor outcome that hasn’t even arrived.
  • The first and foremost task of dating someone new (if the goal is developing a committed relationship) is identifying if you can consistently have fun with each other (especially outside of sex) without constant conflict. I cannot underscore the importance of this. It makes zero difference how this person ‘looks on paper’, ‘looks in a bathing suit’ or ‘looks like to your family’ if you cannot get along genuinely and consistently. Does your relationship stand up to what I call the DMV test? Can you see yourself still wanting to spend time with this person, even if it means you’re just waiting with them to take care of their business at the DMV? Would they do this with you; keep you company? Because real life relationships are not constantly filled with a string of fun, well-planned dates. Long-term relationships are filled with real life, which is often a lot of monotonous, draining tasks. Find someone that can make the tasks of real life still fun and enjoyable because the two of you have fun doing them together. If you primarily only enjoy spending time with someone while being sexual, and/or you don’t have many mutual interests outside of the sexual chemistry, accept this relationship for what it is: a great hook up partner. They will likely not fulfill your needs beyond that, and you will drive each other crazy trying to force this relationship into being something that it’s clearly not.
  • If the idea of couples counseling has come up between you and your partner before you’ve even managed to fully commit, hear me out. I’m going to share some brutal honesty with you. You should aim to feel like your relationship is mutually satisfying at a near 10 (on the relationship scale, with 10 being total bliss) when you decide to fully commit to someone as a life partner. If you can’t get there without enlisting a professional relationship referee, the two of you are likely not a good long term match. Because life will wear the relationship down. (Watch any of Chris Rock’s bits on relationships; his point is, ‘LIFE IS LONG‘. There are no ‘soulmates,’ there are just mates- basically, choose someone you get along with well.) When you decide to settle down with someone, you both should feel like the relationship is strong and solid. Like “we can conquer anything together!” Because over time, difficult and sometimes tragic things can happen. Parenting demands, job loss, health problems, extended family problems, financial strain, poor choices, and mistakes that hurt each other can happen. Eventually, that relationship that was once a 9 or 10 will settle into a pretty decent 7 or 8 on your best to average days. Even if it drops considerably on the worse days, it’s still strong enough to be a tremendous source of support, love, and consistency to weather the long journey of life. If you start out committing to a relationship that at it’s best is a 6 or 7, life can lead that relationship to gravitate consistently into the lower third on the relationship scale. These relationships that dwindle into the 2’s and 3’s during harder times make for a pretty dysfunctional family life.
  • Aim to communicate your feelings with the person you’re dating honestly, even if those feelings are uncertainty about the future, or your ability to further commit. You do not have to know how you’ll feel in the future to be ‘fair’ to your partner. But you should communicate how you’re feeling right now, and give yourself and this person a fair chance to make a decision about how to proceed based on the current climate of the relationship.
  • Lastly, remember that no one’s relationship, regardless of length or marital status is easy all the time. All relationships face challenges and difficult periods. There will be unsolvable differences between you. If you can figure out how to manage these differences respectfully and with the understanding that no one is perfect, you will reap the benefits of all that a loving and long lasting relationship has to offer.

In the coming months, Dr. Christina Villarreal will offer a 2 hour workshop on Women’s Sexual Health, Dating and Relationship Management, to be held in the San Francisco Bay Area. Dates and times TBA. For more information and professional inquires, visit her website at www.drchristinavillarreal.com or contact her directly via phone or email.

New Year’s resolutions have come and gone: getting ‘unstuck’ in 2015

30 Jan
Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham

Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham

The end of January has arrived, and for many, the enthusiasm for New Year’s resolutions has waned. How does the song go? ‘Back to life, Back to Reality‘. This can be a discouraging time, especially if you’re still feeling as ‘stuck’ as you did in 2014. A few weeks ago, just back from a European trip I came down with the flu. Stuck in bed, I decided to start watching the seriesDownton Abbey after enjoying London while abroad. I proceeded to watch 4 full seasons in 2 week’s time. That’s about 32 hours of Amazon instant stream binging. I’m actually not sharing this with you here to impress you with my television watching abilities (though they are now well honed) I want to pass on some wisdom from the character Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham in Downton Abbey. A razor tongued, hilarious matriarch with brilliant one liners, she said something that struck me as impressively simple, yet an invaluable outlook to adopt in life. She said “All life is a series of problems which we must try and solve. The first one and the next and the next, until at last we die.” This message was directed towards her discouraged granddaughter, who was feeling overwhelmed by the ongoing string of unfortunate events of her life. While some may take her advice as grimly pessimistic, it struck me as both calming and reassuring. We must try to take a step back from our current circumstances and keep in mind, we’re always going to be facing a “thing” to overcome or achieve, big or small. No need to harbor shame in the process, or adopt a sense of personal defectiveness, it’s the nature of life. Resolution will come and/or ‘that thing’ will pass, because change is inevitable. In the meantime, try to find a bit of joy. Reach out to friends, find humor in the process, remind yourself that you are not the only one.

One of the many things I love about helping people when they feel ‘stuck’ in a bad place, is hearing from them down the road, long after we’ve worked through those darkest hours. Nothing brings me more joy than finding out they are now flourishing and past that difficult phase when they came to me for professional support and skill building. It’s concrete evidence that even when things completely fall apart in someone’s life, things will turn around in time. Resolution has a way of happening, one way or another. I am reminded that life goes on, and my confidence is renewed in helping others find their way too. The hardest moments pass, we find a way to work through those dark hours, and there are surely joyful times to come. Life is a series of highs and lows. We can’t change that inevitably and in knowing that we can find some peace and comfort as we get though it.

Dr. Villarreal debuts on The Oxygen Channel’s Snapped! Killer Couples: Dawn Godman and Justin Helzer

26 Jan

Dr. Christina Villarreal was enlisted as a psychological expert and consultant for the production and filming of the Oxygen Television Series: Snapped! Killer CouplesDawn Godman and Justin Helzer.  This is an American television series currently airing on the Oxygen Network. The program details couples who commit crimes together. The program is a spin-off of the Oxygen series Snapped and has a similar format to the Investigation Discovery program Wicked Attraction.

The episode Snapped! Killer Couples: Dawn Godman and Justin Helzer is the story of two brothers who were once upstanding members of the Mormon faith, whose lives spin out of control along with girlfriend Dawn Godman, resulting in the disturbing and gruesome murders of five innocent people.

In August 2000, a man on a Jet-ski spotted a duffle bag that washed up on the bank of a Bay Area, CA river. Curious, he rode over, unzipped it, and found a human torso inside. A few hours later, a marina employee found another duffel bag floating under a dock a half mile away. This one contained a human head. A marine biologist discovered a third during a survey of an island in the river. Nine bags were eventually recovered, some by dive teams.  They contained the co-mingled body parts of three people- an elderly couple, and an unrelated young woman. It took the Sacramento County coroner more than a week to sort through the body parts and piece the victims back together.

Coroner with duffel bags
Coroner with duffel bags

The grisly discovery was the culmination of a murderous rampage by a trio of former Mormons who killed five people as part of a twisted scheme to start a group that would spread “joy, peace and love” and to bring about the second coming of Christ, according to statements made in court during their trials. Glenn Helzer, 30, his brother Justin, 28, and Justin’s girlfriend, Dawn Godman, 26, were arrested the same day the first of the bags were discovered. It would take four more years for juries to sort through the tangled details of the case and sentence the last of the trio for crimes they’d committed.  Their victims were Selina Bishop, 22, the daughter of blues guitarist Elvin Bishop – best known for his 1976 hit “Fooled Around and Fell in Love”, Bishop’s mother, Jennifer Villarin; her companion James Gamble, and Ivan and Annette Stineman, who’d been married 55 years.  The Stinemans were killed first, after the trio extorted $100,000 from them to fund their self-help group. The other three victims were killed because they knew details of the extortion plan.

The trio called themselves the “Children of Thunder” and they believed their homicidal plan had God’s stamp of approval.  No one who knew the Helzer boys as children suspected they’d grow up to be such callous killers. Raised by devout Mormon parents in Martinez, a cozy town 50 minutes’ drive northeast of San Francisco, the Helzers had a relatively normal childhood, according to family, friends and co-workers interviewed by the Contra Costa Times.

Martinez locator on California map
Martinez locator on California map

Glenn Helzer, who went by his middle name, Taylor was the charming and gregarious older brother. Justin was more introverted, but he was a member of his high school wrestling team and youth group leader at his church.

On August 4, 2004, four years to the day that their victims were killed, Justin Helzer was sentenced to death for three of the murders he committed and life in prison for his role in the other two.  On December 15, 2004, another jury handed down five death sentences for Taylor Helzer.  Dawn Godman was considered to be an accomplice in the murders, and testified against the brothers in exchange for a prison sentence that didn’t include the death penalty. She is now serving a 37-year sentence.

In 2013, Justin Alan Helzer committed suicide by hanging himself in his San Quentin death row cell.  Helzer at the age of 41, used a sheet attached to his single-cell’s bars to hang himself.  Helzer had  tried to kill himself three years ago by jabbing pencils and pens into his eye sockets. He had been under more intensive watch since then, but showed no recent signs to indicate he was at risk of another suicide attempt, Robinson said.  Helzer’s brother, Glenn remains under intensive screening on death row to make sure he also is not at risk of killing himself.

Prescription medicines: asking the right questions to keep you informed

26 Jan

pillsThis week is National Drug Facts Week (January 26th-February 1st), and in partnership with The American Recall Center, I’d like to highlight some key tips for better understanding the prescription medicine you’ve been prescribed.  It’s not uncommon for people to leave their medical appointment without genuinely understanding why they’ve been given a prescription, and/or how it will work or feel if taken regularly.  As a mental health provider I may help people explore the possibility of taking a medicine to help them better manage their mood, ability to sleep, etc. in conjunction with psychotherapy, coaching, and/or other health modifications like exercise, changes in work-life balance, or diet.  I support them in taking an active role in managing their health, and understanding the risks and gains of the various decisions they may choose.

Over the past 15 years in my work in healthcare, some of the most common concerns people have expressed to me about taking an antidepressant is the impact it may have on their sexual functioning, weight gain/loss, ability to experience ‘normal’ emotions, or fear of becoming ‘dependent’ on it over time.  Others are concerned it could interfere with their active lifestyle or prevent them from enjoying alcohol or other recreational choices.  It’s normal to have reservations about starting any new medication.  If you don’t feel comfortable discussing your concerns with your prescribing provider you may miss out on the significant benefits it could provide you, by opting not to take it out of misunderstanding or fear.

The following list is a helpful guideline to have with you during your health appointment, and/or when you pick up your prescription from the pharmacy.  It can help to bring it to your appointment, and write down your provider’s responses as a way to make the most informed decision possible.

Be proactive:  gather as much information as you can before you leave your appointment

What is the name of the medicine, and for what specific reasons should I take it?

What is the name of the condition this medicine will treat?

How long will it take to work?

How should I store the medicine? Does it need to be refrigerated?

Can the pharmacist substitute a cheaper, generic form of the medicine?

Will the medicine create conflicts with other medicines, herbs or supplements or recreational substances I use?

Find out how you are supposed to take it for optimal effect:

When and how often should I take this medicine? As needed, or on a specific schedule?

Do I take the medicine before, with, or between meals?

How long will I have to take it?

Know what to expect while taking this new medicine:

How will I feel once I start taking this medicine?

How will I know if this medicine is working in the way that it should?

What side effects might I expect to experience? Will they go away?  How long might it take for any side effects to subside, if at all?

Ask how this new medicine fits in with any other other medicines or substances you take:

Are there other medicines or activities I should avoid while taking this medicine?

Will this medicine change how my other medicines work? (Ask about both prescription AND over-the-counter substances you take, even if it’s only occasionally or rarely)

Will this medicine change how any of my herbal or dietary supplements work?

Ask if your new medicine interferes with eating or drinking.

Are there any foods or liquids that I shouldn’t drink or eat?

Can I drink alcohol or other use recreational substances like marijuana while taking this medicine? How much is generally safe/unsafe?

Is it OK to eat or drink food before or after I take the medicine?
Other important questions to ask:

If I forget to take it, what should I do?

What should I do if I feel I want to stop taking this medicine? Is it safe to just stop or do I need to gradually stop taking it?

Always call and check in with your doctor or pharmacist if:

You have questions or you are confused/uncertain about the directions for taking your medicine.
You are having side effects from the medicine. Do not stop taking the medicine without telling your doctor. You may need a different dose or a different medicine.
Your medicine looks different than you expected.
Your refill medicine is different than what you usually get.

References
Your medicine: Be smart. Be safe. Patient Guide. AHRQ Publication No. 11-0049-A, April 2011. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD, and the National Council on Patient Information and Education, Rockville, MD. Accessed May 10, 2014.

NIH Senior Health. Taking medicines safely. January 2011. Accessed May 10, 2014.

Update Date: 5/11/2014
Updated by: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director and Director of Didactic Curriculum, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

Dr. Villarreal is now offering personal and executive coaching

16 Jan

Dr. Christina Villarreal offers professional support to help you reach your life goals at any stage.  She provides personal and executive coaching and consultation for adults, with specialties in: emotional intelligence, time management/organization, wellness/health management, relationship management and dating, organizational diversity/cultural awareness, professional business development, peak performance/leadership, creativity/ innovation, and network growth/leverage. Specialization in working with the Bay Area’s tech community, including start-up founders and their employees, executives in finance, design marketing, attorneys and engineers, and wide range of creative professionals.  LGBTQ populations welcome.

How is participating in coaching different than participating in psychotherapy?
Coaching provides a distinct service that helps clients work on their goals for the future, and create a new life path.  The International Coach Federation (ICF), which claims to be the largest coaching credentialing and support organization in the world, defines coaching as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential. Professional coaches provide an ongoing partnership designed to help clients produce fulfilling results in their personal and professional lives. Coaches help people improve their performances and enhance the quality of their lives. Coaches are trained to listen, to observe and to customize their approach to individual client needs. They seek to elicit solutions and strategies from the client; they believe the client is naturally creative and resourceful. The coach’s job is to provide support to enhance the skills, resources and creativity that the client already has.”
Coaching focuses on the present and the future, with an emphasis on four areas:
  • Defines goals with client
  • Formulates a plan that will use the client’s skills and resources
  • Holds the client accountable for progress with structure, and measures progress
  • Provides hands-on structure, encouragement and support
Psychotherapy focuses on examining the past, seeking solutions to emotional dysfunction, and often includes a clinical diagnosis according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which is required by insurance companies for treatment purposes.  While psychotherapy is not without treatment goals or supportive professional care, the need for psychotherapy arises from a serious problem needing clinical attention and intervention, focusing on moving people from a state of dysfunction to one of being functional.
PSYCHOTHERAPY
• Deals with identifiable dysfunctions in a person
• Focuses on a person’s past and trauma, and seeks
emotional healing
• Helps patients resolve old pain
• Doctor-patient relationship (therapist is the expert)
• Aims to help regulate client’s dysfunctional emotions
• Therapist diagnoses, then provides professional expertise
to provide a path to healing.
• Progress can be slow and emotionally challenging.
COACHING
• Deals with a healthy client desiring an improved situation
• Focuses primarily with a person’s present life, and seeks to help
them design a more desirable future
• Helps clients learn new skills and tools to build a more
satisfying successful future
• Co-creative equal partnership (coach helps the client
discover own answers)
• Client’s emotional skills are already within the functional range
• The Coach works with the client and helps him or her
identify the challenges, then partners to turn challenges into
successes, holding client accountable to reach desired goals.
• Growth and progress are often immediately measurable.

Psychological thriller “Alarmed” a full feature film set for release Q1 of 2014

4 Nov

I had the privilege of contributing my psychological expertise in the production of the full feature film ‘Alarmed’, a psychological thriller produced and directed by Matt Lofgren of TwoCan Films, LLC, a film production company located in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Over the course of several meetings we discussed his vision for the film’s storyline and character development.  The film was shot in the Hitchcock style of filmmaking, utilizing a yacht owned by Mr. Lofgren in many of the scenes.  The film contains the depiction of a psychotherapist who treats the central character, and I helped him to create realistic dialogue for several scenes.  The now completed film will debut at the American Film Market (AFM) in Santa Monica on the 9th through the 11th of November, 2014.

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