The Road Not Traveled

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Have you ever believed you wanted something so much that you could not see your way past it? You believed that it was the only way you would be happy or successful. I have.

And I was utterly wrong.

I went back to college after going to work at a local high school to become a counselor. My course of study would allow me to be a school counselor or a clinical counselor or both. I was utterly convinced I wanted to be a school counselor.

There were so many kids who needed help and I wanted to be there to help them. Or so I believed with my whole heart and mind.

I loved working at the school. I sponsored a poetry club and started a literary arts magazine that was published yearly through fundraising and donations. I volunteered to work dances and sporting events. I worked in whatever capacity I was needed while going to school full time, doing counseling internships, and working part-time at a residential treatment facility.

I made friends there and formed bonds that are still there with many of the students and some of the staff. I believed that being a school counselor was the only job I wanted. It was the only road I wished to travel.

And I was completely wrong.

I finished my degrees, two of them, and my internships and waited for a school counseling opening at the school. The joyous day arrived when there was not only one opening there were two. I believed that this was going to be the culmination of all my hard work and desire.

After all, I had given so much of myself in the last seven years to this school and the people in it. How could this not be my dream come true?

I completed the application process and the interview panel. I felt good about my future. I was encouraged by other staff that all would be well and I would finally get the job I so desperately believed I wanted.

And I was unbelievably wrong.

I did not get either job that was open. I was absolutely crushed. I fell apart completely. I went to my car and sat in the parking lot for two hours crying and then I went home and cried for several more days. My dream was gone.

I felt like a complete failure. How could this happen and why? What was I going to do now? I felt that nothing I had done for the school, for my education, for myself had any value.

And I was absolutely wrong.

I picked myself up after I stopped crying and decided not to be defeated. I left the school two weeks later having given my notice and went to work full time at the residential facility for girls with severe trauma and addiction where I had been working part-time for my clinical counselor licensing hours.

I loved working with those girls. Their lives were the kinds of stories you see sometimes and cannot believe that such evil can be perpetrated on a child. They hated me and they loved me. But in so many of their lives, I made a difference. A difference that for some of them completely changed everything for them.

A little over a year later, I went into private practice full time seeing some of those same girls and many others from local middle and high schools along with adult women all with complex trauma. I was happy, fulfilled, and successful. I recently expanded my practice adding another therapist to serve even more people in our city.

I still make use of my school counseling license and education, so in a way, I am still a school counselor just not in a school.

It took me almost a year after that devastating day to realize that if I had gotten the job in the school, I would have been miserable and unfulfilled. School counselors in high school don’t have a lot of time to counsel kids in crisis. They spend a lot of time in meetings, doing scheduling, proctoring testing, and being involved in interpersonal drama at the school where I worked to have much time to see kids who really need it.

I would have been heartbroken to see a kid I knew needed help and have to tell them that I had to go to a meeting. Being a school counselor would not have worked for me.

So often we can convince ourselves that something we believe will make us happy is the only road to travel. Many times we learn that it is the road we never thought to travel that is the way to being truly happy and successful.

And I am ecstatic that I was wrong.

Sometimes it is completely okay to be wrong.

Until next time be well,

Deborah

Excuse Me, Your Tranquility Is Slipping

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Counselors are human too.

It started off badly, my work day. My car wouldn’t start, again. It has some sort of electrical drain issue. No one was home except me and so I had to use my youngest son’s car, which I loathe.

Driving to my office I encountered, in the 5 minutes it takes me to get there, multiple drivers who were less than stellar. I get to the office and realize that I had forgotten to schedule a client that day. And multiple other no good, very bad events followed.

My first client comes in and I am quite stressed by this point. Not the ideal situation for doing therapy, but counselors are human too. The client notices my “aura” and asks how I am doing. So, I shared just a few of the day’s events and then I look at the wall beside the client’s head.

I have some different wall clings on the walls of my office with lovely sayings, cherry blossom limbs, and words. The word beside the client’s head is….tranquility. And it was hanging halfway off the wall. And to the end of the sentence about my day’s events, I added…

“and now my effing tranquility is slipping.”

The client looked at the barely clinging tranquility and started laughing, really laughing. I started laughing, really laughing. We laughed so loud and so hard and I was crying laughing and the client was too. It was amazing.

After we had stopped laughing, I was able to continue the session, feeling much less stressed. I later wondered, was my tranquility slipping a result of the stress I was putting into the universe and seeing it was a message from that same universe that even if your tranquility is slipping, it’s not as bad as you think.

You can let it overwhelm you or you can laugh until you cry about it. You can also just stick that crap back on the wall and carry on.

Counselors can be viewed as above the fray of things, objective, even distant at times. However, just like everyone else, even counselors have bad days, get stressed out, and watch their tranquility slipping.

Counselors are human too.

Intentional Grace

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In Merriam Webster there are eight definitions of grace as a noun and two as a verb. For the purposes of this writing, grace is an act or instance of kindness, courtesy, or mercy and/or the quality or state of being considerate or thoughtful.

Most of us have been taught that we should give grace to others in all myriad of circumstances. We should be kind and courteous to others. We should show mercy, forgiveness, and tolerance to others. We should be considerate and thoughtful of other people’s feelings, sorrows, and tragedies.

How often do we extend grace to ourselves?

Many times, we beat ourselves up emotionally and mentally, and even out loud verbally. We place blame on ourselves and feel as if we are failures. We tell ourselves any number of lies that we have been conditioned to believe by others and our brain now considers them to be truths. But grace? Not so much.

We do not offer ourselves kindness and mercy. We are not tolerant of our mistakes and errors in judgment. We have no forgiveness of our shortcomings. Grace is not something we think of giving to ourselves, only to others.

What if we practiced intentional grace with ourselves?

When we feel as if we are not doing as well as we think we should, how about a little grace for those times. When we feel as if we are failing ourselves or our families, how about some forgiveness for ourselves. When we are short on margin and quick to anger, how about some tolerance for ourselves. When we are run down and burned out, how about some self compassion.

Grace is not meant for us to only give to others. It is also meant for us to give to ourselves. We can extend all the kindness, courtesy, mercy, and forgiveness we extend to others to ourselves. We must be able to offer that cup of kindness to our own bodies, minds, and spirits.

Think of how often you have shown grace to others. All of the circumstances in which you were able to show kindness, mercy, forgiveness, and courtesy to other people. Now try to think of all the times you have shown those same things to yourself. I wager that it is not an equal scale.

We cannot pour from an empty cup. Our own cups must be filled. And we must do the filling. Be intentional with grace for yourself this week and fill your cup.

Until next time be well,

Deborah

Assessing Your Trauma

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In the years that I have been a clinical counselor, I have come to believe based on observations of the clients I have seen and people that I know personally, that well over 90% of the American population has had some sort of trauma in their lives.

Some trauma is fairly self explanatory and easy to recognize such as physical or sexual abuse. Some trauma is not so easily defined, such as verbal or emotional abuse. But they can all inflict traumatic memories and negative beliefs on those who receive them.

When I start seeing clients I will often times give them an assessment to briefly assess their traumas. It doesn’t cover everything, but it gives a good idea of a starting place for therapy.

This assessment is called the ACES test or Adverse Childhood Experiences. This assessment does not assess stressors outside the household such as violence, poverty, isolation, etc.). Something I feel that was left off of the ACES is death or loss of loved ones. This can be a huge trauma for children. It does not take into account any protective factors and it does not differentiate meaning not all people with high ACES scores will have a poor outcome and not all people who have zero ACES will have a positive outcome. It is an indication of greater risk of a poorer outcome and trauma responses.

The following is the ACES assessment:

Prior to your 18th birthday:

  1. Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often… Swear at you, insult you, put you down, or humiliate you? or Act in a way that made you afraid that you might be physically hurt?
    No___If Yes, enter 1 __
  2. Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often… Push, grab, slap, or throw something at you? or Ever hit you so hard that you had marks or were injured?
    No___If Yes, enter 1 __
  3. Did an adult or person at least 5 years older than you ever… Touch or fondle you or have you touch their body in a sexual way? or Attempt or actually have oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse with you?
    No___If Yes, enter 1 __
  4. Did you often or very often feel that … No one in your family loved you or thought you were important or special? or Your family didn’t look out for each other, feel close to each other, or support each other?
    No___If Yes, enter 1 __
  5. Did you often or very often feel that … You didn’t have enough to eat, had to wear dirty clothes, and had no one to protect you? or Your parents were too drunk or high to take care of you or take you to the doctor if you needed it?
    No___If Yes, enter 1 __
  6. Were your parents ever separated or divorced?
    No___If Yes, enter 1 __
  7. Was your mother or stepmother:
    Often or very often pushed, grabbed, slapped, or had something thrown at her? or Sometimes, often, or very often kicked, bitten, hit with a fist, or hit with something hard? or Ever repeatedly hit over at least a few minutes or threatened with a gun or knife?
    No___If Yes, enter 1 __
  8. Did you live with anyone who was a problem drinker or alcoholic, or who used street drugs?
    No___If Yes, enter 1 __
  9. Was a household member depressed or mentally ill, or did a household member attempt suicide?                        No___If Yes, enter 1 __
  10. Did a household member go to prison?
    No___If Yes, enter 1 __

Now add up your “Yes” answers: _ This is your ACE Score. A higher score in multiple studies has shown links to increased negative mental and physical outcomes as well as increased negative social outcomes. The website Got Your ACE Score? has multiple links to studies and many charts that lay out the possible effects of a higher ACES score.

Resilience on the other hand may help those with higher ACES scores combat negative outcomes. A secure early childhood is helpful for future living but not always absolutely necessary if one has a higher resilience. Again, this is very individual dependent and definitely not true for everyone.

Resilience Questionnaire

1.  I believe that my mother loved me when I was little.

Definitely true         Probably true         Not sure         Probably Not True        Definitely Not True

2.  I believe that my father loved me when I was little.Definitely true         Probably true         Not sure         Probably Not True        Definitely Not True

3.  When I was little, other people helped my mother and father take care of me and they seemed to love me.Definitely true         Probably true         Not sure         Probably Not True        Definitely Not True

4.   I’ve heard that when I was an infant someone in my family enjoyed playing with me, and I enjoyed it, too.Definitely true         Probably true         Not sure         Probably Not True        Definitely Not True

5.  When I was a child, there were relatives in my family who made me feel better if I was sad or worried.Definitely true         Probably true         Not sure         Probably Not True        Definitely Not True

6.   When I was a child, neighbors or my friends’ parents seemed to like me.Definitely true         Probably true         Not sure         Probably Not True        Definitely Not True

7.  When I was a child, teachers, coaches, youth leaders or ministers were there to help me.Definitely true         Probably true         Not sure         Probably Not True        Definitely Not True

8.  Someone in my family cared about how I was doing in school.Definitely true         Probably true         Not sure         Probably Not True        Definitely Not True

9.  My family, neighbors and friends talked often about making our lives better.Definitely true         Probably true         Not sure         Probably Not True        Definitely Not True

10.  We had rules in our house and were expected to keep them.Definitely true         Probably true         Not sure         Probably Not True        Definitely Not True

11. When I felt really bad, I could almost always find someone I trusted to talk to.Definitely true         Probably true         Not sure         Probably Not True        Definitely Not True

12.  As a youth, people noticed that I was capable and could get things done.Definitely true         Probably true         Not sure         Probably Not True        Definitely Not True

13.  I was independent and a go-getter.Definitely true         Probably true         Not sure         Probably Not True        Definitely Not True

14.  I believed that life is what you make it.Definitely true         Probably true         Not sure         Probably Not True        Definitely Not True

How many of these 14 protective factors did I have as a child and youth? (How many of the 14 were circled “Definitely True” or “Probably True”?)   _______Of these circled, how many are still true for me? _______

Many people have had at least one trauma in their lives and many more have had traumas that are not listed on this assessment. As stated, this is just an early assessment that can offer a lot of information about how someone has experienced trauma and if they also had any resilient factors in their lives.

Trauma, unprocessed, continues to affect us on a daily basis whether we know it or not. It affects how we think, feel, and respond in every situation of our lives because it has instilled beliefs in us about ourselves that are almost always negative. It affects how we live, love, and work. Trauma doesn’t go away because we think we ignore it. It doesn’t go away because we get older and more distance from it. We carry it around in our brains because the brain records everything and then it flings it out at us again and again.

If you have unprocessed trauma, I highly encourage you to find a counselor to talk about it and process through it. Doing so could make all the difference in your life.

Until next time be well,

Deborah

Let There Be Light

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The sun is a vital component to all living things. It provides warmth, nourishment, and mental health boosters just to name a few things for humans.

As I have written about many times, vitamin D is essential to healthy mental health. In Montana where I live and practice, vitamin D deficiency is a very normal occurrence for people and for some people a complete lack of vitamin D is not uncommon.

Many, many studies have been done over the years that directly relate increased depression to a lack of vitamin D in the body. Most people who are deficient in vitamin D have really no other symptoms except an increased risk of depression or if they already have depression, their depressive symptoms increase.

In the last couple of weeks, the sun has been out here in my area of Montana on a daily basis. In fact, on this past Friday, the sun was out and the temperature was almost 70 degrees. The effect on my client’s affects are astounding.

Every client who comes in has said that they feel happier the last couple of weeks. When asked to reflect on what they think is causing it, to a person they say, when I wake up and the sun is out I just feel better to start the day. Just the sun through the windows is enough to jump start their dopamine. Not even going out into the sun, just seeing it causes the brain to react and the body to feel better.

Those clients who have been going out into the sun, even for just a few minutes of time during the day report that their depressive symptoms are even more decreased. Those who have been out in the sun for several hours enjoying some outdoor activities like walking, long boarding, hiking, and just sitting on their deck reading report an even higher decrease in depressive symptoms.

Most of my clients do take a vitamin D supplement as I recommend it for all of them because of where we live, but the sun has an increasing effect both physically and psychologically.

When it is cloudy, gray, gloomy, rainy, snowy for a day or days, we also can psychologically feel gloomy. With depression, we can feel even more in the depths of gloom. But let there be light and we feel happier, energized, warm, and much less gloomy.

Yesterday where I live, it rained all day. It was cloudy, gray and gloomy. It wasn’t that cold, but I felt cold all day. I felt tired and drained and even took a nap something I do not normally do. I was bundled up in clothes and throw covers. And it was not that cold. I had little motivation.

Today, it is sunny and beautiful. I woke up cleaned my closets out and have been doing writing and marketing since. I feel energized, happy, productive. And I do not suffer from depression, but the sun is a massive dopamine projector for all humans. Just the sight of a beautiful sunny day with a clear blue sky floods the senses with dopamine and the body with energy. And if you go out into it for minutes or hours, it’s like recharging your brain and body’s batteries.

If it is sunny where you are, let it recharge you. Let it wash over you body, mind and spirit. Let there be light.

Until next time be well,

Deborah

A Different Truth

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Your brain will only believe what you tell it is true.

Your brain is not an artificial intelligence. It is a taught repeater. It does not make up things on its own.

The information that is taken into your brain is what your brain will put back out.

And anything that is put into your brain by either yourself or others with belief that it is true, your brain will believe it is true. It does not matter whether it is actually true or not. If you say it to your brain and you believe that it is true on any level, your brain will process it as the truth.

If it is repeated to your brain over and over and over throughout your life it becomes embedded as a neural pathway related to an image, experience, words, and trauma. Those things when recalled as memories are always attached to the truth you have told your brain about them.

Your brain will not repeat something else unless you tell it to and you believe what you are telling it that you now believe about these memories.

Think of the most often repeated phrase in your brain related to yourself in a negative way. Some of the more common ones: I am not worth love, I am stupid, I cannot do anything right, I am not perfect, I am not good enough, I am not valued, I am fat, I am a disappointment, I have to make others happy. Whatever your most repeated phrase is say it out loud.

Then pay very close attention to what image, whose voice, what experience, what trauma is attached to these words. Someone else made you feel this way. You were not born believing this negative crap. Someone caused you to internalize it. Think back, way back, these things almost always start in childhood from birth to age 7. Who do you see, who do you hear, what images do you remember, what emotions do you remember feeling?

This is where your brain started believing that this phrase was true. And every time it has been repeated by others and repeated by yourself has reinforced it into your mind as the truth…the only truth. Even though it is a lie. Your brain does not know anything other than this repeated statement you have believed is true.

How do we change this? We must repeat something else to our brains in relation to these memories. How about the actual truth? And not what someone else told you or showed you that THEY felt. It was never what you felt about yourself until you repeated it and believed it.

How long will it take to retrain your brain? It can take a while, a long while in some cases and you must be absolutely diligent in your new repetitions. Every day, every time the lies come up, EVERY SINGLE TIME. You must confront the old beliefs every time and immediately with the new ones.

It is hard work. It is a long process. And it is the only way to emotional freedom and health. As long as you live believing the lies, your emotions, relationships, and life will be chaos.

It is time to speak a different truth to yourself starting right now.

Until next time be well,

Deborah

Who You Are

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I have never been a big fan of new “trendy” words used to describe things in therapy. Imposter syndrome, trigger, serial monogamy, etc. I prefer the less trendy childhood trauma, cause, relationship issues and questions to find the root of thoughts and behaviors.

Many people feel that their inability to be who they are started in their own minds and beliefs. In all the years I have been in mental health counseling, I have never, not even once, found that to be a true statement.

The thoughts and beliefs that people have about themselves started when someone else made them feel or think something negative about themselves through words, actions, or no words, and no actions. They were conditioned to believe these things about themselves.

This conditioning done at very early ages is then internalized and carried on into every aspect of life that follows.

The words of negativity become ingrained in the mind and then in the belief and then in the behavior. People live out what others have caused them to feel and believe.

Even if they go through life having success, being smart, looking amazing, they still feel that they are not that person but the one with all the voices in their head who can’t be successful, who isn’t smart enough to do big things, who never looks good enough. And the lies, if unprocessed, are always far louder than the truth.

So what is the truth? Who are you? It can be very difficult to find that person as many times you never met them. The childhood trauma started so early, it is the only person you know.

Who do you want to be? If you could be anything, do anything, think anything who would that person be?

If you examine the truths in your life you can find out more about who you truly are. What are your successes? When have you been smart? When have you done big things? When do you look amazing? What have you overcome? What have other people noticed about you that you continually fail to see or believe?

It is not going to be easy to dig that person out of the lies. And once again, there is only one way on the path to truth. Repetition and reinforcement. Constantly repeating the positive, the true, the things you want to be, and reinforcing them in words, writing, thoughts, actions. And doing this again, and again, and again for as long as it takes to replace the lies that currently reside in your head.

The path also includes a side quest, acknowledgement. Recognizing and addressing where these lies started. How old were you, who said them, in what ways were they reinforced in your mind by others and by yourself. Acknowledging that YOU did not start these lies. They are not yours. And you do not have to keep living them.

Who are you…..let go of fear and find out.

Until next time be well,

Deborah

No Answers

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One of the biggest issues that we as humans have is that some questions have no answers.

As humans, we are driven to find answers. We feel that we must learn things and know things. We feel as if everything must have an answer. And when no answer is found, we create an answer to satisfy our need. Even if that answer is a lie we fashion into the truth.

It is always the hardest questions that have no answer. The questions that shape our lives and beliefs and we are never given the answer to the most basic question….why?

If we experience abuse as a child, we ask why. If people we love suffer and die, we ask why? If our relationships are consistently failing, we ask why. If our parents were not able to love us or care for us properly, we ask why. If someone makes us feel unloved, unworthy, not smart, not pretty, we ask why.

These questions can have answers, but most often we reject the answer in favor of something more easily believed. If the answer to abuse is that the person who abused us has unresolved trauma, that is not an acceptable reason for what they did to us. If the answer is that every human dies, that is not good enough. If the answer is that it is our own unresolved trauma that prevents us from forming healthy relationships, somehow that must be false. If the answer is that our parents did the best they could with who they were and are, it does not make anything better for us.

There are always answers, but as humans we find them unacceptable. The answer must be something else. Or someone else’s fault or our own fault. The truth is often harsh and does nothing to help our pain.

And because we are still in pain, we create answers that we can accept more easily. Even if these answers bear no truth, they make us feel better. It is like coating a bitter pill in sweet chocolate. The bitter pill that provides no relief must be avoided at all costs. It is just too hard a thing to swallow.

The search for answers about our lives provides us with one thing for certain – choices. We can choose to accept the sometimes harsh and hard truth or we can choose to create truths we can accept. This is always the choice when we seek answers.

One leads to acceptance and the other leads to constant battles within ourselves to keep our created truth alive.

Until next time be well,

Deborah

Fear Of Change

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When clients come to see me for the first time, they always say that they want to change their lives and change who they are in their lives. However, when we start working on that change and they start to think about what that change is going to look like, their fear can sometimes keep them from making forward progress.

When we have trauma, we have developed responses to that trauma since the trauma started. With every subsequent trauma, we have more responses added. All of these responses shape how we think, how we react, and how we live.

Over years of time, regardless of how miserable we are or how bad our lives have become, we become comfortable in the knowing that this is the way things are and we know this person we have become very well. Much like an old blanket or comfortable slippers, they don’t exactly keep us warm anymore but we know them, we are comfortable in them, and we are not inclined to change them for something new.

When the little thoughts of change or the actual changes start to occur when we start to address our trauma and responses, fear becomes a constant companion. Fear of who we will be without these worn in parts of ourselves. Fear of what we will lose and who we will lose if we opt for the new person we can become. Fear of the unknown instead of the old and comfortable.

This fear can be overcome, but it is not going to be comfortable. No serious work on trauma ever is. It is not going to be easy. It is not going to be quick. It may well be the hardest work you will ever do and the scariest.

So what can help us overcome this fear of change? Accepting that we will be different. Accepting that our lives will be different. Accepting that not everyone will make this journey with us. Accepting that we can live happier, healthier lives and that we deserve to do so.

The first step is always the hardest. Admitting that change needs to happen.

Until next time be well,

Deborah

Creating A Universe Of Gratitude

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Zig Ziglar is credited with saying:

“Gratitude is the healthiest of all human emotions.”

And he is so right. Of all the emotions we can experience pure gratitude is one that boosts our “feel good” chemicals, increases joy, makes us more mindful, and attracts or brings more good things to our lives. Gratitude costs nothing outside of our effort to be thankful.

Practicing gratitude is like all other things we practice and make habits in our lives. If done daily, even as little as once a day, it can become a habit in as little as 30 days. To do it more than once a day allows us to fully be aware of all the things that we have, things we are thankful for, things bringing good to our lives.

The brain is trained to focus on what we present to it as being the most important. Most of the time what we present is what we are worried about, angry about, sad about and that takes up all the brain’s focus. If we deliberately, purposefully, redirect our brain to the things we are grateful for, it will focus there. Being focused on these things instead of the things we don’t have, or the things we wish weren’t in our lives, or the things that don’t bring good things to our lives frees us to embrace happiness and joy.

There are many ways to practice gratitude. Mental gratitude — being thankful just in your mind, thinking about the things we are grateful for. Spoken gratitude — speaking out the things we are grateful for. Written gratitude — writing down the things we are thankful for. A combination of these gratitude exercises can increase the habit of being grateful daily.

I have been talking about writing as emotional transference quite a bit in sessions recently. Writing can also be very helpful in being grateful to reinforce your gratitude and the habit of being thankful. There are many, many options for gratitude journals online. You can also just as easily use any kind of paper for a journal. You can use a guided or prompting journal that gives you specific things to be grateful for on that date or you can just write about anything you want.

Many apps allow you to practice gratitude daily. I use the Gratitude Journal — Private diary & affirmations on my phone to keep a daily record of my gratitude. But I also incorporate mental and spoken forms of gratitude during the day and while practicing meditation.

It doesn’t matter what you are grateful for. It can be something big like your family, a home, a job, or health. It can also be something seemingly insignificant like coffee, a pen, pajamas, or dark chocolate. It is not what you are grateful for that matters it is that you practice BEING grateful every day to increase your happiness and joy. If you have more on the grateful side of things, you will find that more joy, more happiness, and more things to be grateful for come your way.

To create your universe of gratitude, you must put your thankfulness out into the universe. With each thankful moment you release, you are building a universe of gratitude that accepts your thanks and returns to you more things to be thankful for. If your brain is occupied with thankful thoughts more often than it is the thoughts that keep us trapped, we feel happier, freer, more at peace with ourselves and our universe.

Until next time be well,

Deborah