April is Stress Management Month at Life in Focus

April is Stress Management Month at Life in Focus

I declare April “Stress Management Month” at Life in Focus. Stay posted for a month of advice, tips and news about how to better manage your stress.

Let’s start off with two new blog posts:

PrimalCon Tulum and stress management 101

Using out of the box thinking to manage stress- Family Stress

Notice that the blog has now moved to Life in Focus’ new and much improved website. Take a look at what we have to offer you and how I can help you live the life you were meant to live starting today!

Check us out at www.lifeinfocussd.com


Make more time to play! Part I: Children


Work hard, play hard, has become a motto of our times, but unfortunately these words do not translate into action when it comes to play. The American Academy of Pediatrics published the following statement in an report about the importance of play :

“Play is essential to development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth […] Despite the benefits derived from play for both children and parents, time for free play has been markedly reduced for some children. […] Play is so important to optimal child development that it has been recognized by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights as a right of every child.1

Our society and our school systems have systematically downgraded the importance of play in children’s lives, and parents are blindly following suite. Researchers, pediatricians and most other mammalian species have long known that play is integral to the proper and healthy development of cubs and adults in a species. It is the vehicle through which we learn how to master our physical abilities, develop an understanding of social and interpersonal rules, and hone the majority of our cognitive skills. All mammals use play to a certain extent to learn how to negotiate the world; the more complex the mammal, the more play is part of their development. Despite this, our schools days have become longer, our recessed shorter, and the time children used to have for free play after school (or chores/work before mandatory schooling) has been usurped by structured activities, extracurricular “enrichment” and potentially some play-like activities in the form of organized sports*.  No wonder children are so tired that when they do get some down time they opt for passive entertainment such as TV, video games or internet surfing. To add insult to injury, we have crippled our children’s activity by setting innumerable rules and restrictions on how they can and should play; not too loudly, not to aggressively, not too much physical contact, not anything involving eliminating winning or beating someone else. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the restrictions placed on boys’ fighting and war games.

What kids get out of playing.

All kinds of play are important, but a special case can be made for unstructured and imaginative play. There is a strong correlation between pretend play and cognitive and social development. Specifically high quality pretend play is associated with better language development, perspective taking (which is essential for empathy), and problem solving. In and article in The Independent, Dr. Peter Gray a researcher in Bio-Psychology writes:

“Play, by definition, is voluntary, which means that players are always free to quit. […] When players disagree about how to play, they must negotiate their differences and arrive at compromises. […] Failure to do so would end the game and leave the offender alone, which is powerful punishment for not attending to the others’ wishes and needs. The most fundamental social skill is the ability to get into other people’s minds, to see the world from their point of view. Without that, you can’t have a happy marriage, or good friends, or co-operative work partners. Children practice that skill continuously in their social play. “

Play also teaches children how to self-regulate on an emotional and a physical level. Games that involve takings risks teach us to understand and master fear. Having to delay gratification, share or take turns in play teaches us patience and self soothing. Physical play promotes muscular and skeletal growth, it teaches us to push our limits, and find out what our bodies can do. It helps us develop visual-spatial awareness, dexterity and strength. Removing these opportunities from children means crippling them and again, acording to Dr. Gray that is exactly what research has been showing us:

“This dramatic decline in children’s opportunities to play has been accompanied by an equally dramatic increase in childhood mental disorders. It’s not just that we are detecting such disorders where we failed to look before; the increase is real. Clinical assessment questionnaires, which have been administered to normative groups in unchanged form over the years, show that rates of clinically significant depression and anxiety in US schoolchildren are now five to eight times what they were in the 1950s. “

How you can guarantee your child’s right to play:

The most important piece of advice I can give you is this: make time for your kids to have free play. Encourage your children to play, allow them down time, free of chores, homework and screens. Allow your children to get bored. Boredom is a state that is difficult to tolerate for most children, which means that they will initially pester you and may try to push for passive entertainment (TV, computer games, internet access), but if you hold out they will eventually find something to do. It is in their DNA to play, get busy and engage with the world. If you as an adult don’t rob them of that opportunity they will eventually take it.

The second recommendation I have is to back away and let them do their thing. Engage them if you have to, but let them direct the play. This is especially true with toddlers and young preschoolers who sometimes need/want their parents to help them play, but too often get stifled by an overly- involved adult. There have been a number of articles on the ill effects of helicopter parenting, so I will not write about it (do an internet search if you have yet to come across one in your own online meanderings), but suffice to say that the last generation or two of parents has been impeding their children and robbing them of a real, risk taking, exciting and potentially dangerous (i.e. truly educational) childhood. Let your children choose their play; assuming no major psychological trauma or issues, it will probably involve a normal amount of aggression, anger, selfish, egocentric, unfair activity and that is okay. Understand that as much as you would like your little boys and girls to be well rounded and fair to the other sex their play will be gender typed and different; this too is okay.

small mom and meFinal piece of advice: after all is said and done also take some time to play with them! Ask them how they want you to play: roll around, play house, run, wrestle, have a tea party or a shoot out or simply use this shared time as an opportunity to play board games. As important as play is for children it is also important for adults to engage in (see upcoming part II of this post).

*NB: organized sports might provide an opportunity for physical development and social development, but they lack the fluidity and problem solving opportunities offered by free or imaginary play without adult intrusion.

Other articles and sources on play

National Association for the Education of Young Children’s perspective on play
American Academy of Pediatrics report on play
Short guide and info sheet from Montana State University on play
Role of Pretend Play in Children’s Cognitive Development – ECRP Vol VI, 1.
Live Science a Top 5 list of the benefits of play
The independent – Dr. Gray’s perspective




How to think your way into motivation

It’s 1:30 on a Monday afternoon, and I am desperately trying to motivate myself to write a new blog post. Instead, I decide to read, catch up on Feedly and get some shut-eye. Writing is something I enjoy, and keeping you all informed and knowledgable is important to me, so why was it so hard to motivate myself?

What is motivation?
Motivation is the process that drives us to initiate and maintain goal directed behaviors. It can be either intrinsically or extrinsically derived. Intrinsic motivation comes naturally, it is based on the internalized reward we get from engaging in or doing a task; pride, a sense of accomplishment, love, validation of our sense of self are all examples of intrinsic motivators. shutterstock_25220287Intrinsic motivation in large part is what allows athletes to get up at the crack of dawn, train for hours at a time, and repeat the process the next day. It is the reason people who love their profession are willing to spend hours building a business, putting off other pleasures and rewards for the chance to follow a passion. Intrinsic motivation is extremely powerful, and ideally is what we would all want to have. Extrinsic motivation comes from external rewards and reinforcements; money, praise, avoiding a punishment, earning a privilege are all forms of extrinsic motivators. Extrinsic motivators can be extremely powerful too, since they motivate us to do things that are not inherently pleasurable to us, but they are subject to losing value, and therefore to losing effectiveness. Finding the right kind of external motivation can be hard, and people often make choices that don’t hold over time; which, is partially why most new year resolutions fall through.

How does it work? 

From a biological perspective motivation is tied to the reward and pleasure centers in our brain. When we engage in behaviors that we perceive as potentially rewarding our brain responds, among other things, by producing dopamine (think happy neurotransmitter). There is some evidence that dysfunctions in the brain’s ability to properly process dopamine is associated with motivational issues. And although our reward mechanism drives the initial process of acquiring a behavior, research from the City College of New York is showing that once the behavior becomes part of our habits, dopamine reactions decrease. Bottom line, motivation is driven by our perception of reward and biologically what gets us moving is when our reward centers light up in response to dopamine production.

Keeping your head in the game:

shutterstock_111255830Research has shown that if you introduce an extrinsic motivator in an activity that was initially intrinsically motivating, your internal motivation will decrease. In plain speak, if you give someone a reward for doing something they were initially motivated to do on their own, you reduce their natural drive to do it without the reward. Not to repeat myself, but the reason this is an issue is that over time extrinsic motivators can lose their value or significance and, therefore, no longer work to elicit a behavior. This is why ideally we want to instill a love of learning and accomplishment in children, rather than paying them to get good grades. If you pay them they will start to expect compensation in return for performance and may refuse to perform unless paid, furthermore, over time they will expect higher fees to remain motivated.

The key to remaining motivated over time then is to find a way to make the behavior you are trying to engage in naturally desirable or pleasurable. It is important to find a meaningful, personal reason for initiating the behavior*. There is an exercise I do with my clients, where I ask them to picture what they will feel, think and be like once they achieve their greater goals. We work to create a clear, precise and vivid image that we pair with internal sensations. The purpose of this exercise is to allow someone to call upon that imagery when they try to motivate themselves to action. This works because:

  1. The reward centers in the brain are activated by the perception of reward, and don’t necessarily need to have the reward come immediately (see Pavlov’s dog and conditioning to understand the pairing).
  2. What you think becomes your reality so simply imagining the reward allows you to trigger similar emotional responses.
  3. We are focusing on what is personally and internally gratifying, not on the short-term reward of the action.

This is actually what I did to motivate myself to write and then re-write** this blog post. It is  akin to staying focused on the end game, except in this case we make sure you can picture it, you know what is sounds an feels like and you can call upon that sense of satisfaction and accomplishment to stay motivated.

* Once the behavior has become a habit, this need mostly subsides.

** For reasons I cannot fathom my first completed and read to publish draft of this post did not save.

Some light reading on the neurochemistry of motivation:

Therapist, Consultant, Coach do you know the difference?

Have you ever wondered what the difference between a psychologist and a life coach is? How about a consultant and psychologist? A consultant and a coach? We are pretty fortunate today, because when faced with a problem or an issue that needs to be addressed we have a wide variety of options for getting help; we can see a psychotherapist, hire a consultant or maybe find a coach to work with. But how does one figure out which of these three professionals will best handle their query? The line between all three can seem murky, a relative difference at best, when in fact these are really three very distinct specialties.


The therapist has a wider perspective, but doesn’t hold all the answers or direct you on what to do.

The therapist: With today’s managed healthcare system in place therapists most often end up working with people who are considered emotionally unwell. These are individuals whose distress is acute enough to qualify them for the label of patient; at the end of the day, most of the therapist’s clients have a diagnosable disorder. But that is not necessarily the only kind of person a therapist gets to see. Sometimes we also get to work with people who are doing fairly well, but want to gain more insight or are working through an existential shift (these would not be covered under insurance contracts). Therapist work with clients and patients to identify why they are feeling the way they are, how it affects them and what they can do to improve their emotional health and life. The therapist functions as an expert in emotions, in cognitive restructuring and a potential guide for their patients. One analogy that I am fond of using with my patients is the following: “Right now you are in a maze, you can see part of your environment, you have one perspective on what is going on and you have the ability to work yourself out of the maze if you want to. I am in a tall tower that provides me a much broader view of the whole landscape, my perspective is wider and I am free of any emotions that are associated with being trapped in the maze. I can’t get you out of the maze, but I can help you figure your way out, by understanding how you got there and working with you to find solutions and approaches to better navigate your situation. At the end of the day you are going to choose the path that works best for you, and I will help you by giving you some perspective and developing skills sets that are adapted to your problems” Although in therapy the goal is for the patient to gain independence from the therapeutic process and become strong enough, insightful enough and resourceful enough to navigate their world effectively and healthily, in the initial portions of therapy there is some dependence on the therapist to guide, contain and support them. When you come to see a therapist with a problem, they are going to be looking at what is going on, why you got there, why you are stuck and how to get you out.


The consultant comes in with a plan and directs your actions.

The consultant: A consultant is a specialist in a field who is hired to identify and resolve a problem. They may look at a system to better understand the flaws in it, but they are rarely if ever concerned about the emotional antecedents of an issue. A consultant will create a plan of action and hand that plan to their client. The client can be an individual or an organization who has identified the consultant as 1) a credible source, 2) a specialist in handling the problem they are dealing with, and 3) someone who can provide solutions. Much of my work with nutrition falls under the umbrella of consulting. People approach me because they want to make a change in their eating habits and want to know what to do and how to do it. They are expecting me, the consultant, to be an expert in the matter and to have an individualized plan of action that I can assign them to carry out. If the plan is not entirely successful, the consultation relationship continues and the plan is amended and adapted to improve success.  In the maze analogy the consultant has a partial blue print of the maze, or maybe they are in a helicopter hovering above it and they tell the client exactly where to go and what turns to make to get out of it. The consultant is concerned with the what, and the how, and doesn’t care about the why of an issue as much.


The coach is right there with you, they promote action and reflection, but you ultimately decide where to go and how you want to get there.

The coach: The coach is the only one in this grouping who is not presenting themselves as an expert in solving the client’s problems. Coaches are hired by people who, generally speaking, are doing well emotionally, functionally and intellectually. These individuals simply want to make improvement in their lives; maybe they are stuck trying to achieve a greater goal, or lack balance, or want to make a personal upgrade and aren’t sure how to get there. The coach and client function as partners, and the client is seen as the true expert since ultimately they are the most knowledgable about their lives, their desires and their motivations. The coach’s role is to help the client access this expertise by: 1) helping the client verbalize their values, desires and goals in clear and operational terms, 2) asking thought provoking questions, 3) helping the client shift perspectives if their point of view is keeping them stuck, and 4) helping the client stay accountable with goals they have set for themselves. The coach is with the client in the maze and helps the client by creating action, encouraging a problem solving mindset and empowering the client to go forward with their plans. The coach is less concerned with how the client got to where they are, they don’t profess to know where the client needs to be headed to, what they do they is partner with the client to figure out how they want to get to their ultimate destination.

Starting February 2014, I will be offering sample coaching consultations. To schedule a time to see what coaching looks like, please call (858)352-8027 or email me directly at drwall@lifeinifocussandiego.com

Taking action leads to results

Mick Cornett, the mayor of Oklahoma City, decided to make a difference in the health of his constituents. First it required seeing the situation for what it was without sugar-coating, nor coddling, nor shaming. The next step involved promoting action in Oklahoma City residents, rather than simply discussing the issues and bemoaning the state of affairs.

Did it help the Oklahoma City residents to have a supportive infrastructure and others who could relate to their efforts? Sure it did, but what made the difference was doing something, taking action, any kind of action to get the ball rolling and improve their health and longevity.

What action are you going to take TODAY to make a difference in your life?

Small Changes – A repost

Last year around this time I posted about new year resolutions and how to set them for yourself. A bit later in January of 2013 I wrote a more personal post about my personal goals and my resolutions for 2013. Here is a re-post of the original article on resolutions and stay tuned for an honest update on my personal goals and a review of my approach for all the learn from.

“With the new year a few days away many of us will be making resolutions in hopes of bettering ourselves. So what are yours going to be? How do you come up with a resolution? Do you base it on last year’s unmet ones? Do you think of long time goals yet to be achieved? Or do you ask yourself seriously and with honest intent what is it you want or need to change in your life?

Change is daunting and most people don’t like it, even good change. Why, then, do we make resolutions to change every new year? Because we strive to grow and are fundamentally driven to seek happiness in one way or another. The problem remains though, that people don’t like change; although they start off with the best of intentions, often they fail to create the new habits they so endeavor to acquire. One way around this is to set realistic goals, and break these goals into small, achievable steps. Recording your progress regularly, gathering support and having others hold you accountable will also increase the likelihood you will follow through on your plan.

It is important to remember that all great resolutions can be broken down into smaller goals, and those goals in turn can be expressed in terms of smaller steps. For example, say someone’s resolution is to  start focusing on themselves and live more authentically. They might define that as spending more time doing the things they enjoy doing, taking time daily to check in with themselves, and leaving work at work. Each one of those goals can be broken down into smaller concrete actions. For the first goal our resolver might have identified that they really would like to spend more time reading books, increase social outings with friends and learning to sculpt with clay.  Our resolver might look more closely at why, if these are important to him, he has not already been doing them. Maybe he notices that in the evenings when he would normally have time to do these things he gets caught up watching TV, being online, and taking care of his kids. The latter cannot be changed that much, although he might find a way to better distribute the parenting responsibilities, he can’t simply give them up. Watching TV and internet time, however, can be addressed, and so he decides that turning off all screen-based electronics after 9:00 PM would give him a couple of hours to himself. shutterstock_43668514Et voila! That is a tangible, realistic and achievable goal. This small step  (turning off his screens) will help him address a larger goal (making time to pursue activities he enjoys) and in turn address his broader resolution (focusing on himself and living more authentically). The same approach can be taken with each of his larger goals.

When doing something like this it is really important to prioritize resolutions and goals. Trying to change too many things at once is a sure way to overwhelm oneself and stay stuck. For anyone interested in taking the time to come up with resolutions I would highly recommend choosing one goal to focus on per month – remember you have a whole year or even a lifetime to work towards your resolutions. Focusing on one goal a month allows one to really take the time to examine barriers, identify modifications that might be appropriate, and notice benefits from the changes they are making.

So what are your resolutions? Do you want to be serious about them? Are you up to making a real change lasting change?

Lets make the season merry and bright: or how to stop complaining about the holiday season.


Someone is happy!

Have you ever noticed how many articles pop-up over the holiday season about how to “make it through” this time of year? It is as if the holidays were in fact an awful event that the average person is left to endure rather than enjoy. I don’t remember feeling this way as a child, and I bet that neither did you. I looked upon the holiday season, any holiday season, as an opportunity to be free, to have fun, to revel in family traditions, to play and basque in the glory of a stress free couple of weeks. Somehow things shift in adulthood, and although I hear lots of people say they look forward to this time of year, I hear far more grumbling about it. I will even admit, that in a not so distant past I might have been one of those people.

Children are more ego-centric than adults, their world is focused on their own needs and wants. In  many ways this is a good thing, because they are actively working or making you work at meeting their needs. Somehow as we grow up  and despite the increased autonomy and ability to take charge, we often end-up relinquishing control and this is exactly what happens to most people during the holiday season. We talk about what has to be done (send wish cards, buy gifts, put decorations and lights up, host a party) as though there’s no element of choice in the matter. As human beings the notion of helplessness doesn’t sit well with us.  If I am right, the solution is simple – reclaim the holidays! Make your mind up about what you want and follow that path. You don’t have to send 100 greeting cards, you don’t even have to send one if you don’t want to. The worst that will happen is that over time you may receive less cards from others.  You don’t have to exchange gifts, there are plenty of other ways of celebrating the season, and you certainly don’t have to hit the stores at peak hours to get the latest gadget or toy. You don’t have to host a party, or attend one, nor do you have to make your great-grand-aunt Ruth’s Christmas cookies just because it is tradition. At then end of the day, when it comes to celebrating a holiday you don’t have to do anything you don’t choose to do.

My advice for the holidays, therefore, is no different than at any other time of year: take a minute to figure out what you want and then focus on that. Make your own choices about which traditions you want to keep or create for your family. Identify your personal priorities and define what you want this time of year to represent. Personally, I love Christmas. When my children ask me what we are celebrating I talk about the history of our traditions and about celebrating the only time of the year which is focused on making others happy. I enjoy sending out Christmas cards and I make a point of writing a personal note on nearly every single one. I get excited at the idea of sharing my traditions with my kids, but understand that they just don’t care that much about decorating the tree, and that is fine with me because I love to do it. I get excited about the look on people’s faces when they open up a gift I got and I hit the spot, but I don’t feel obligated to get gifts for anyone. No matter how stressful the holiday season can be, if the stress is something you choose and it involves building on something meaningful to you then it becomes good stress (and if you want to know more about the impact of good stress watch this TED talk by Dr. Kelly McGonigal).


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