Successful Entrepreneurs Reboot with Smart Daydreaming.

11 Mar
Reboot and restore your brain with Smart Daydreaming

Reboot and restore your brain with Smart Daydreaming

I work with some of the most ambitious, driven people in The Bay Area’s tech community.  High achieving individuals who operate on the model: attain success first and foremost.  Their minds are used to operating at the speed of light- always problem-solving, always anticipating and avoiding pitfalls- essential skills for surviving the minefield of Silicon Valley and San Francisco’s booming young professional scene.  A 2003 study led by Pennsylvania College of Technology examined the relationship between entrepreneurs’ personalities to long-term venture survival, finding the only “significant personality predictor” was conscientiousness, or the propensity to plan, organize, and take care of responsibilities.  According to Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, it takes a special breed to take on the risk of entrepreneurship.  “A lot of progress in the world is driven by the delusional optimism of some people,” he told Inc. “The people who open small businesses don’t think, ‘I’m facing these odds, but I’ll take them anyway.’ They think their business will certainly succeed.”

As an executive and personal coach, I see the underbelly of the pressure of success, and how it can negatively affect people’s mood.  Many of them struggle with turning their brains away from constantly mentally building and managing their business or profession.  When the mind focuses constantly on problem-solving it never gets a chance to reboot.  When your thoughts remain hyper-focused on managing negative outcomes, it leaves no space for positive imagination- an essential part of mood management and happiness.  The end result is mental burn out, which can lead to chronic physical manifestations of stress.  Functionality becomes seriously compromised.

“Always being ON will eventually turn your brain power OFF, limiting your potential for success.”

The cure?  Train your brain in the practice of ‘smart daydreaming‘, a strategy that helps people to better engage with the pursuits that are most personally meaningful to them.  Kaufmans’s Theory of Personal Intelligence has revealed this practice as a powerful way to tap into spontaneous forms of cognition, including insight, intuition and the triggering of memories and stored information — types of intelligence often accessed through active daydreaming.  The outcome?  Improved mood and increased productivity.  This is not your run-of-the-mill “Let my mind wander aimlessly until I go back to my usual mental diet of constant worry.”  This is strategic, purposeful daydreaming, with the goal of rebooting your brain and getting your mood back on track so you can operate at your best when it counts.  How does it work?

#BestAdvice:  Smart Recipes for Daydreaming.

  • Begin with ‘The Miracle Question‘-  Begin with a clean slate and let go of whatever is on your mind.  Take the time to imagine total freedom, and that any miracle you wish to come true is now possible.  Step out of your usual ‘problem story’ and into an all new story where problems do not exist.
  • Stop and pay attention to what specifically about your story makes you feels good, what makes you say “YES!  THAT WOULD BE AMAZING!” Continue along this vein, flush it out, give it legs.  Where would you be, what types of people would be in your life, what would you do, for how long would you do this, etc.  How would your average day look in this miracle context?
  • Each time you mind wants to problem-solve for “How would THAT ever happen?  Why aren’t I working on making this happen right now?  Am I failing at life for not achieving this?”  Stop.  This is supposed to be an implausible daydream, where solutions don’t matter, obstacles don’t exist, and there is no shortage of optimal resources, supreme experiences, awesome people, and boundless opportunity.
  • After you have thought through a full on version of the ultimate experience, notice your mood.  Instead of being driven by angst, you’ve given yourself a highly personalized mental vacation, possibly revealing new insights about what you care about most.
  • Aim to practice smart daydreaming for 10-15 minutes each day.  Track themes.  Let these themes serve as a guide for what you’d like to ultimately have more of in your life.  See if you can build some of those themes into your short term and long term vision of your life.

By actively engaging in positive daydreaming you are not only giving your mind and energy level a chance to reboot, you are freeing your mind to construct a concrete, idealized vision of your preferred future.

Ask a 7 year old what they want to be when they grow up, and they nail it, every single time.

Kids are natural dreamers.  They’re too young to realize that being “a famous inventor, a marine biologist, a pop star like Katy Perry, own sushi restaurants all over the world…and become The President of The United States” is a stretch, to say the least (this is my child’s vision of her future right now, and who knows, she may pull it off!)  They might not be able to tell you HOW this future could ever happen, but they’ll definitely enjoy telling you WHY having this grown up future would be ‘the best thing ever’.  Their eyes light up, they smile and have a great time telling you all about it.  That’s the point.

“We should make sure our ideas of success are our own. We should focus in on our ideas and make sure that we own them, that we are truly the authors of our own ambitions. Because it’s bad enough, not getting what you want, but it’s even worse to have an idea of what it is you want, and find out at the end of a journey, that it isn’t, in fact, what you wanted all along.”  Alain de Botton, from his TED Talk, ‘A kinder, gentler philosophy of success’

Dr. Christina Villarreal is a mental health expert, executive and personal coach/consultant, entrepreneur and educator practicing in the San Francisco Bay Area, CA.  For professional inquires visit her website at

Slow Down Your Sense of Time with One Matrix-Like Mind Trick.

4 Mar

Have a Matrix Moment

What if you could literally slow down the passing of time, would you do it?  In today’s day and age, our most valued commodity is TIME.  We want things available faster, completed sooner.  Time is money.  Aside from monetary efficiency, why are we so pressed for time?  Because the sooner the mundane tasks of the day are completed, the more time we have for enjoyable things.  Time flies when you’re having fun.  Technological innovations aside, is there a way to slow down our sense of time?  YES. Read on.

New research from Stanford GSB suggests there is a way: elicit a sense of awe. Experiencing something awe-inspiring — whether it’s the Grand Canyon, a blazing sunset over your favorite cityscape,  or a Puccini aria — can expand perceptions of time, enhancing quality of life.  The key, says Jennifer Aaker, Stanford GSB’s General Atlantic Professor of Marketing and an author of a new paper on the subject, is that awe makes us feel small, not larger than life, the way happiness can. “When you feel small, there’s a reapportioning of what’s out there,” she says. “Time is reapportioned also.”

The study, to be published in the journal Psychological Science, defines awe as something that is both vast (in size, scope, number, ability, or importance) and capable of altering one’s view of the world.  UC Berkeley psychology professor Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt, a former University of Virginia psychology professor now at New York University’s Stern School of Business, described awe as “fleeting and rare.” They examined the history of awe, tracing its role in ancient religious texts, including the Hindu Bhagavad Gita and the Christian Bible, and in influential and charismatic political leaders such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Philosophers opine that awe is most easily felt in solitude, while spending time in nature, viewing art or immersed in emotionally inspiring music.  Edmund Burke wrote that awe, which he referred to as “the sublime”, is also more likely to arise from something obscure and surprising, rather than something clear and expected.  Commonly recognized physical responses that distinguish awe from other emotions is the presence of goose bumps or chills.

“[Awe] is more of a mindset than we think,” says Aaker. “This research suggests you can cultivate it in similar ways, as you do gratefulness or happiness. Yet, when it is present, awe can transform people and reorient their lives, goals, and values.”

How can we bring a sense of awe into our daily lives?  Be in the moment.  

  • Practice focusing your attention on the elements around you that bring you moments of joy.  These are different for everyone.  Some people’s gazes will naturally be drawn to elements in nature, others to the expression of human individuality around them, others will find pleasure in noticing unique order, rhythm or sound.  Rather than expecting moments of awe, encourage feelings of awe by awakening your senses to the world around you.
  • Aim to take breaks from multi-tasking, especially while doing things for pleasure.  When I make time to enjoy dessert (or any recklessly indulgent experience for that matter), what ever it may be, it literally becomes my favorite thing ever.  In that moment.  I am a firm believer that life is better, richer, more expansive when we have ‘multiple favorites’ to celebrate.  I will happily elaborate upon this practice, just ask me.
  • Do your favorite things slowly and deliberately.  It can be a habit to rush rush rush through everything.  Understandable when dealing with the mundane, but like Keith Sweat says “make it last forever.

Be Better Than Everyone, Use SMART Goals In 5 Easy Steps

2 Mar

Making Your Goals PossibleThe method of SMART goals (an acronym for the 5 steps of specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-based goals) is one of the most effective and powerful tools used by high achievers to reach their goals — realistically and consistently. Whether you’re leading a 300-person organization, a trailblazing startup entrepreneur, or an individual who wants to gain traction towards a personal goal, learning how to set and utilize SMART goals can make the difference between failure and achievement. 1. Make your goal focused and well-defined. A specific goal has a much greater chance of being accomplished than a general goal.

  • When setting your goal, make sure you can answer the 6 “W” questions: Who, What, When, Where, Which, and Why. The more specific a goal is, the more you can find ways of reaching your target.  Ask questions such as:
    • Who is involved?
    • What do I want to accomplish?
    • Where will this happen? Identify a location.
    • When will this happen? Establish a time frame.
    • Which requirements and obstacles will be part of the process? Identify them.
    • Why am I setting this goal? Nail down the specific reasons and benefits of accomplishing this goal.
  • Know the difference between a specific goal and a vague goal. For example, there is a difference between saying, “I work too much, and feel drained and bored with my life” and “I miss having fun in my life, and want to invest time each week to seek out fun/recreational opportunities that will allow me to feel restored and happy.” When you set a goal to invest in reshaping your work/life balance, track your mood as a way of measuring your progress as you build pleasurable experiences back into your schedule. This will help you see the direct benefit of the changes you’ve made, allowing you to see the payoff of shifting your behavior. Other examples of specific and vague goals:
    • Vague: Get in shape for the summer.
    • Specific: Join a crossfit studio and attend 3-4 times a week over the next 3 months.
    • Vague: Own a home.
    • Specific: Put 30% of income into savings account for the next 12 months and talk to a realtor.

2.  Have identified metrics for measuring your progress and outcomes. A goal without a measurable outcome is like a sports competition without a scoreboard. Identify specific markers of success to measure your progress and build momentum towards your goals.

  • Ask questions such as:
    • How often?
    • How much/how many?
    • How will I know when my goal is accomplished?
    • What is at the finish line?
  • Set a daily reminder to track and measure your progress:
    • Keep a journal, put up a whiteboard at the office, use your smartphone to download a tracking app — these are all tangible ways to track your development.
    • Make the goal Attainable
  • Draft realistic goals. Based on the present restrictions such as your schedule, workload, and knowledge, do you believe you can attain the objective you set? If not, then set a different goal, one that is attainable for you in the present.
  • Ask yourself the following questions:
    • Are you prepared to make the commitment to reach your target?
    • Are you willing to dramatically alter or at least tweak aspects your life?
    • Is there a more achievable target you are willing to to work for?

3. Choose goals that are attainable. Is your goal a challenge but still possible to achieve? Goals should be achievable. The best goals require you to stretch a bit to achieve them but they are not impossible to achieve. Goals that may have seemed far away and out of reach eventually move closer and become attainable, not because your goals shrink, but because you grow and expand to match them. When you list your goals you build your self-image. You see yourself as worthy of these goals, and seek out experiences that allow you to develop the skills and work ethic that allow you to possess them.

4. Make the goal relevant to your life’s reality. For instance, if joining a certain social organization seems like a good idea, but most of the organization’s activities center around consuming alcohol which is inconsistent with your goal of cutting back your drinking, choose a different organization.  Lack of options/choices is rarely a problem in today’s culture of endless options.  Carefully consider how well your choices are fitting into the big picture of how you want your life to look.

  • Set goals that are realistic. If you are 30 pounds overweight and haven’t trained for a challenging athletic endeavor in 5 years, it’s unrealistic not to mention physically risky to sign up for a triathlon with 6 weeks of training. So set a goal you have a realistic chance of achieving.  In my coaching practice, most people come in motivated and capable of change, but their expectation of immediate progress/payoff is commonly unrealistic, and can lead to a sense of inadequacy and undermine their confidence when moving forward.

5. Ground the goal within a time frame.  SMART goals should be time-bound, meaning they should have a deadline or there should be a date for completion. Setting a deadline reinforces the seriousness of the goal in your mind. It motivates you to take action. When you don’t set a timeline, there is no internal pressure to accomplish the goal, so it gets put in the back burner.  Have a sense of urgency. If you want to raise your credit score to 720, when do you want to raise it by? “Someday” won’t work. But if you anchor it within a timeframe (example: Raise credit from 700 to 720 in 12-18 months), then you’ve set your mind into motion to begin working on the goal.  Within your established time frame, ask yourself:

  • What can I do TODAY to reach my goal?
  • What can I do 3 weeks from now to reach my goal?
  • What can I do 3 months from now to reach my goal?


  • Document or share your milestones with supportive people in your life along the way to your target. Make a point to pair your milestones with healthy rewards.
  • Remember, there will be days when you feel discouraged, overwhelmed and ‘not in the mood’ to work towards your goal(s).  This is normal, and does NOT mean you are failing yourself, or your plan.  Getting offtrack does not equal failure, and is not a reason to give up or relent to feelings of hopelessness.  Hit the pause button and take a breather.  High achieving, hard working people still need a break sometimes.  But then get your mind and body back on track, and reconnect with the true purpose behind setting your goal in the first place.  Why is it important to you?  What will accomplishing it afford you in the long run?  Then get back in the game.
  • Don’t forget to enlist people, opportunities and a range of resources that can help you achieve your goal.  Most people feel good about tapping into their strengths, skill sets, and networks to help others grow and achieve.  Help them feel good about helping you by not only expressing your gratitude, but by showing them the positive evidence of their support.
  • Use the power of visualization. Make sure to imagine yourself not JUST at the finish line of your goal(s), but visualize yourself achieving the small steps it takes to get there.  Don’t let there be a huge abyss between where you are now and where you want to be in your fantasies.  Yes it can be indulgent and fun to fantasize about ‘the ultimate fantasy’ coming true, but you’ll benefit more from fantasizing about hitting your goal for the week if it’s actually achievable in the here and now.

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 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.”


“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 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.


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