Lisa S. Larsen: “You can think of different things to be grateful for each day”

I think that truly having gratitude can go a long way to helping with anxiety. Many people don’t realize how fortunate they are. I’ve had clients tell me that they tried doing gratitude journals and that they “don’t work.” I think this is often because people are arguing with it as they’re doing it, and […]

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I think that truly having gratitude can go a long way to helping with anxiety. Many people don’t realize how fortunate they are. I’ve had clients tell me that they tried doing gratitude journals and that they “don’t work.” I think this is often because people are arguing with it as they’re doing it, and doing it begrudgingly because someone famous for their therapist told them to. It is not a grim duty to be grateful for what you have and what you are. It can be fun and creative. You can think of different things to be grateful for each day.

As a part of my series about the things we can do to develop serenity and support each other during anxious times, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lisa S. Larsen, PsyD.

Dr. Larsen is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Lancaster, California. She specializes in grief and trauma resolution, and her services are described here: She obtained her education and training mostly in the San Francisco Bay Area but moved to Lancaster in 2009. She has been helping diverse clients throughout her career and is proud to serve the LGBTQQIA community as well as people from many different cultures.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

I appreciate this opportunity. I grew up in Berkeley, California and was pretty sheltered until I was a teenager. At that point, I wanted to experience the world in an intense manner. I certainly did that and continued through college. My mother was very afraid of my becoming addicted to drugs or infected with STDs or HIV, so she talked to me frequently about HIV infection. This heightened my awareness of its risks, but also of the challenges of those who became infected. Their stories were doing that tragic. I felt compelled to help them. At first, I thought I would become a lawyer and fight for their civil rights. However, I am not suited for a law career, so I became a psychologist instead. I did my doctoral research on the HIV epidemic among African-American women in the San Francisco East Bay. This made me aware of the devastating effects of trauma and addiction. I did my pre-doctoral internship at a substance abuse clinic for Kaiser Permanente. I’ve also worked in dual diagnosis clinics for people with mental illness and substance abuse, a homeless shelter, and community mental health clinic. I have always been drawn to help people who are discriminated against for reasons such as mental illness, sexual orientation, gender identification, or ethnicity. I want to be part of the solution and help people from marginalized communities feel loved and included.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I have been given the gift of suffering since graduate school. I developed a chronic illness that necessitated my using a wheelchair on and off from graduate school to the present. This gave me a taste of what it feels like to be rejected and discriminated against. As I learned to help others heal themselves, I also learned to heal myself emotionally and physically. Even though I continue to struggle with chronic illness, it has made me more compassionate. It helps me understand how it feels to be anxious, and I believe this helps me be a better healer. When people say to me that they don’t know what the future brings and it scares them, I know how they feel. Thankfully, I’ve done a lot of work on myself spiritually and mentally, so I can step back and not become embroiled in their suffering. Nevertheless, having experienced discrimination, anguish and pain, I know what it’s like and can empathize with them.

What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?

I have avoided burnout by engaging in fun activities that don’t involve work. As much as I love psychology and my career, I can easily devote too much of my energy and attention on that one aspect of my life. I also try to do at least one nice action for myself each day, whether it’s going for a walk or going outside and breathing fresh air. If I don’t take care of myself, there will be nothing left to take care of anyone else. I also make sure to schedule time off and engage in hobbies like jewelry making. That said, I also try to learn new skills for my career so that I am stimulated, interested, and always learning. This is not only good for me professionally but I believe it will keep my brain operational for longer during my lifespan. Finally, I have learned to say no to unreasonable requests, whether they are from family members, friends, work, or clients.

What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?

Treat every member of your workforce as a valuable human being who deserves compassion, consideration and respect. Remember that without each one of them, you would not be able to provide whatever service or product as well as you do. If they are members of your staff who are underperforming, see if there is a way to help them perform better with dignity and curiosity. Don’t just assume that they are not worth your time. Unless they are doing something really counterproductive, they are probably workable and worth retaining. I believe that if more companies valued people over profit, there would be fewer Worker’s Comp. and disability claims, and fewer people going on stress leave. I understand that workers have to meet standards, but make sure that the standards are doable and don’t require people to sacrifice all other areas of their lives in order to meet those standards.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Recently I read an interesting autobiography called A Different Kind of Daughter, by Maria Toorpakai Wazir and Katherine Holstein. It was about a young woman who was a talented squash player in Pakistan living under the Taliban’s rule. The traumas and fear that this young person had to endure, and the way she persevered in spite of harrowing obstacles, was both humbling and inspirational. It is probably one of the most intense and beautiful books I’ve ever read. It made me so grateful that I am a woman in this country. Even though there are limitations to how well we are treated here, it is nothing like what she described in her book.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Many people have become anxious just from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have only heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to develop serenity during such uncertain times? Can you please share a story or example for each?

There is a curse that says, “May you live in interesting times.” I think 2020 has been one of the most interesting years we have ever had in the United States of America. One central theme that I’ve been telling my clients is that everything that is happening is impermanent. This is not to take away from the emotional impact of all the things that we are going through. I recognize that I am somewhat insulated from it because of my race, gender, and socioeconomic class. However, I think that if we can recognize that everything is ever-changing, it puts things in perspective. When we are suffering, it feels like it’s happening forever. This can be very discouraging, but it is not realistic. I encourage people to think about things that they have experienced in the past that seemed permanent at the time, but later dissipated and did not feel as threatening or upsetting. One easy example is giving a public speech. Unless you are a practiced and accomplished speaker, it can be very anxiety-provoking and you can build up a lot of anticipatory nervousness about it. Usually, however, once you give the speech, you see that you are not as anxious and that you survived — you’re okay now. I know that what’s going on is more serious, but it will not last forever neither. Worrying about it does not make it better, either.

Another way to develop serenity is to take a step back from difficult situations and observe them without judgment or attachment. When we do this, we have a better chance of calming ourselves emotionally and physically. You’ve probably read about slowing down your breathing; in fact, research has supported the idea of slower breaths in and out helping to calm the nervous system and reduce anxiety. However, we also need to examine our own thinking from a less attached stance. If we believe the story we are telling ourselves about the situation, we don’t have a chance to look at what’s really going on objectively. Using words to describe what we are experiencing and looking at it without assigning praise or blame to it can be very liberating when we’re anxious. When we give words to our pain and describe it to ourselves, we have a better chance of observing it and making better decisions based on what we are experiencing.

Acceptance is an important strategy as well. We don’t have to like what is going on, but fighting it makes it harder. There are some things that need to be fought, like injustice or bigotry, but we need to reserve our energy for important struggles and not get caught up in the minutia of the news cycle. I know people who watch the news feverishly and get upset about every twist and turn in politics or the statistics of the coronavirus. It is important to be informed, but not be riveted to the TV set or computer. People work themselves up into a frenzy because they don’t like what’s going on. Instead of wasting their energy on things that are probably beyond their control, they could voice their concerns to their representatives or Senators, or engage in peaceful protests. Obsessing about conspiracy theories is only going to make them more anxious and worse yet, they will feel helpless and disenfranchised. I asked people, white in this moment can you accept? Even if it is that you are alive and breathing if you can accept that it is a starting place. It brings to mind the serenity prayer from AA: “me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

The fourth strategy I would recommend is that when things seem out of control, is step into the present. Anxiety is a condition predicated on thinking that you can predict the future. Very few people can do with any kind of accuracy, and people with anxiety have a negative bias towards predicting awful things. For this reason, it’s very hard to convince them that their thinking is erroneous and unrealistic. The only thing that any of us really has control over is the present moment. This is your power moment. By observing what you are experiencing in this present moment, you have a much better chance of branding yourself in reality. This allows you to ask yourself if you are truly in danger right now. Most people like to know what’s going to happen in the future, but that is pretty hard to know. If we stick with what we have control over and what we can sense in the present, we can live in reality more and less in the past or future.

Finally, I think that truly having gratitude can go a long way to helping with anxiety. Many people don’t realize how fortunate they are. I’ve had clients tell me that they tried doing gratitude journals and that they “don’t work.” I think this is often because people are arguing with it as they’re doing it, and doing it begrudgingly because someone famous for their therapist told them to. It is not a grim duty to be grateful for what you have and what you are. It can be fun and creative. You can think of different things to be grateful for each day. Maybe one day you can be grateful for all the different things your body can do. Another day you can be grateful for all the elements of nature, like the sun and the moon in the rain and wind, etc. Gratitude also helps us stay out of the realm of self-pity and worrying that we don’t have enough. Even if you can be grateful for having a home, heating and air conditioning, food to eat and electricity, it helps to remind you that you are fortunate in ways that you may take for granted. Things may not be perfect right now, but they could be a lot worse. When the coronavirus is over, you might even take it a step further and volunteer to help people without homes so that you can see firsthand how difficult your life could be. It also could have the added benefit of helping you have meaning and purpose in your life, that you have helped someone else who needed it. In my office, Sometimes I have people set aside their fears for just a few minutes. Once they had done this, I ask them to consider how it feels to not be holding the fear in their bodies. I get them to notice how much more spacious and lighthearted they feel. This is a way of helping them see the contrast between having fear and choosing to let it go. It is also a way to make space for thinking about what they like about their lives and how different their lives would be if they could notice all the beauty and wonder in it.

From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?

Five steps that any one of us can take to offer support to someone who’s feeling anxious are:

1. Validate their feelings but not their fear;

2. Listen to their concerns without judgment;

3. Ask them what they are using as a basis for their assumptions;

4. Ask them if there is another way to view the facts they are presenting. Is there another possible interpretation or perspective they could take?

5. Give them your interpretation of the same facts, but not in a way that disrespects them.

How do you validate their feelings but not their fear? Listen with an open mind and realize that what they are experiencing is very real to them. Don’t judge them or criticize them for feeling what they feel because that does nothing for them. At the same time, do not get caught up in the same whirlpool of anxiety that they are caught in. You might say something like, “it does seem like you’re very anxious about this. What could help you feel better?” When you ask them what they’re basing their assumptions on, try to do so it in a respectful way. Don’t use a tone implies that they are stupid or crazy. They already feel that way as it is. You are simply being curious and helping them take a step back from their own thinking. You are gently helping them unwind the tight coil days formed themselves into, by helping them look at their assumptions and the effects of their thinking patterns on their emotions. It’s sort of like loosening a very stubborn root that is firmly entrenched in the ground. If you just pull it from the top, it snaps and the root is still there. By wiggling it back and forth and loosening the ground around it, it can come out more easily. Nonetheless, it is not your job to change the person or fix them, simply to help them ease their suffering. When you give your interpretation, realize that it is just that — your perspective and viewpoint on the same set of circumstances. You are not the ultimate decider of reality, any more than the person to whom you’re speaking. Give them the respect of acknowledging that you are just offering your opinion.

What are the best resources you would suggest to a person who is feeling anxious?

I encourage people to use the numerous resources on the Internet, including support groups for people that meet virtually. One organization that is very useful for mental illness, in general, is I also have a list of resources here on my resources page. I encourage you to also use whatever spiritual resources you have. It could be a church, synagogue or temple, and even though many places of worship are not meeting in person, you can still connect with them virtually. If you are not religious, you can still connect with the awe of nature by going outside to a remote area, or enjoying the comfort of petting a friendly animal.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

There are so many wise quotes, it’s hard to choose just one. This one seems to fit the theme of our interview: “I can be changed by what happens to me. But I refuse to be reduced by it,” by Maya Angelou. We all suffer during our lifetimes, but we have a choice as to how much power we give the suffering. I have found that my suffering, while certainly not fun, has helped me become more determined to reduce the suffering of all whom I touch. When we know what it means to struggle, we appreciate times of peace and ease much more. We can more readily empathize with other people’s struggles. It is like becoming a bodhisattva in that I realize my own suffering and use it to increase my compassion, and to liberate myself and everyone else from suffering, as much as I can. When I look at other people who are suffering with anxiety or anger, instead of judging them, I try to recognize that their actions reflect their suffering and that they often need compassion rather than criticism.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Thank you for the compliment. If I could start a movement, I would encourage people to embrace people who are different from them, and help them realize that everyone could be considered different. That is part of the beautiful nature of human existence. There is variety and diversity in nature, as there is in humanity. A lot of what made 2020 stressful, was the realization that there are people who really can’t tolerate anyone who is not just like them. This can have devastating consequences, leading to violence and oppression. I believe that truly meaningful diversity training, as well as programs to help develop empathy in schools, government and corporations, would help us see the beauty and value in one another. This doesn’t just mean that we stop using racial epithets or stop making women feel uncomfortable in the workplace. This means that we become aware of our blind spots in the ways we communicate, how we treat people who are different from us, and the way policies and laws made and enforced. I don’t know if that is specific enough to create a movement, but I certainly hope that more people will make an effort to honor diversity in all its forms, and to see that we all need each other on this planet.

What is the best way our readers can follow you online?

The social media platforms I update most regularly are Instagram and Twitter. You can also go to my website, listed above. I would love to hear from you if you have any comments or questions about this interview. Thank you.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

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