How to Get an Emotional Support Animal

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Any laws listed in this post apply to the U.S.A. only. If you are not from the U.S., check your local ordinances to see if you are eligible for an Emotional Support Animal (or however your country may identify them).

Have you met the latest addition to our little family? Or followed him on Instagram (@mrschanandlerdog)? My one-year-old Border Retriever Chandler is not only a perfect, zoomy ball of fluff with the world’s floppiest tongue. He’s also a superhero, because he’s my Emotional Support Animal – or ESA for short.

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If you’re anything like me, what you know about ESAs probably boils down to that one friend in college who pretended to have anxiety so she could sneak a dog into her dorm room. Unfortunately, the rules about ESAs –¬†especially¬†on college campuses – have tightened quite a bit thanks to those who give the animals a bad rep.

While it’s true that an ESA does not require special training, it’s NOT true that ESAs are “fake service animals,” or simply an excuse for letting dogs go where they may not have been allowed otherwise. ESA dogs are pets, but they’re also companions, therapists and coping tools. For those of us with mental illness, or another medical condition that makes certain aspects of life psychologically difficult, ESAs can be literally life-changing.

Unlike a service dog, Chandler cannot open doors, flip light switches or fetch items from the fridge for me. He does, however, have an intuitive sense about people. When I am crying, he climbs in my lap and licks my face until I feel better. When I’ve hurt myself, he licks my wounds. Even though we’re completely different species, Chandler doesn’t see that. Instead, he sees a friend and a companion whom he can support simply by being himself.

As someone with a mental illness, you may have toyed around with getting an ESA before. Maybe your apartment does not allow pets, but you’ve suspected a pet could serve as a positive distraction from the stressors in your life. Or, perhaps you already have an animal who serves as emotional support, but you want to make it official. You may never even have heard of an ESA before, but thought that you or someone else you love could benefit.

As I went through the process of adopting my ESA, I found it difficult to find reputable sources of information. In fact, it was near impossible to find a tutorial that didn’t come from a fake ESA certification website! But now that Chandler is home – and making me smile every day – I’ve become an expert on navigating the ESA system. And, because I don’t want the process to be as confusing for you as it was for me, I’m here to share all the lessons I learned along the way!

Who knows? By this time next week, you could be cuddling wth an ESA of your very own ūüėČ

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What Is An ESA?

As mentioned previously, ESA stands for “Emotional Support Animal.” There are many things an ESA is, but it’s also important to note the many things an ESA is NOT. For example, an ESA is not….

  • A service animal
  • A psychiatric service animal
  • A “fake” term

First, let’s note the differences between an ESA and a service animal. Like service animals, ESAs serve people with disabilities that impair their everyday life. However, unlike an ESA, service animals receive training to do special tasks the disabled owner would not be able to do on their own otherwise. Similarly, a psychiatric service animal does the same, but specifically for a person whose disability is psychiatric in nature.

An ESA does not require special training, does not require a vest identifying it as an ESA and therefore cannot enter public places where service dogs are allowed (assuming pets aren’t allowed there, either!). But an ESA is also not “fake.” While many people abuse the privileges of the ESA designation,¬† I’d venture that more people out there could benefit from an ESA than are gaming the system to get a “fake” support animal.

Though not as many as service animals, ESAs do have some special rights. For example, your place of residence must allow your ESA to reside with you – even if there is a “no pet policy” in place. Your landlord also cannot charge you pet fees or pet rent, nor can they subject your ESA to size, weight or breed restrictions. So, if your ESA is a pit bull and your apartment has banned pit bulls, they must still require your ESA to live on the premises – assuming you can provide the proper documentation. (More on that next!)

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How To Get An ESA

So, you think you could benefit from an ESA and you’re on board with getting one. Now what?

Not so fast! Don’t adopt an ESA dog without first visiting your mental health care provider. This can be any licensed medical provider with knowledge of your mental health situation: your primary care doctor, a nurse practitioner, a psychiatrist, a therapist (LICSW or LPC) or another mental health professional. They will need to write you a letter of prescription guaranteeing your right to an ESA.

In order to claim your right to an ESA, your mental health provider must confirm you have a disability that interferes with your everyday life and that the ESA has been prescribed to alleviate some symptom of that disability. If you aren’t already seeing a mental health provider, I recommend you seek out a professional with knowledge of the ESA system. A provider who has helped a patient obtain an ESA in the past will know exactly what they need to do, allowing you to avoid any snags along the way.

Once your mental health provider has evaluated your condition and determined that an ESA will benefit your health and well-being, they must write you a letter prescribing the ESA as part of a coordinated treatment plan. If your doctor or therapist has never done this before, please direct them to a sample letter Рsuch as this one Рfor an example of what they must write. Once you have your letter, neither landlords nor airlines can challenge your right to be accompanied by your ESA. You can also use the letter to get reasonable accommodations at work Рfor example, if you want your ESA to come with you to the office.

Your landlord may also give you a form to fill out in addition to or in place of a letter. (This was the route I took – since I did not plan to bring Chandler on an airplane and we were in a rush to adopt him, I only had my therapist fill out my landlord’s form, rather than write a full ESA letter.) This letter typically asks your mental healthcare provider to confirm your disability and that the disability interferes with your daily functioning. Your landlord can use this paperwork to confirm your right to an ESA, but not to contact you or your provider about sensitive medical information.

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What Are My Rights?

As long as you can provide official documentation – a letter, a form or otherwise – that you have been prescribed an ESA, you have the legal right to own your ESA, as well as a few other rights and protections you should know about. Additionally, your landlord retains some rights, so it’s imperative to understand where the line between your rights and your landlord’s rights is drawn, in order to make the best case for yourself and your ESA in the event of a complaint.

You retain the right to house your ESA under your roof, regardless of your landlord’s “pet policy.” As mentioned previously, your landlord cannot subject you to any kind of pet fee, nor size, weight, breed or species restrictions. Even if your apartment only allows cats under 15 lbs, your 45 lb Doberman is still allowed to live with you according to the Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as the Fair Housing Act. They can, however, hold you liable and charge you for any damages your animal does to the unit while living there.

Your landlord is allowed to confirm only two things: first, that you have a disability (visible or invisible) that impacts your daily functioning and second, that your ESA relieves some symptom or challenge of that disability. They may NOT request any further medical information from you or your provider. You are NOT legally required to disclose your diagnosis or treatment plan, but your landlord can request that your provider sign a form or that you provide a copy of a verifiable prescription letter for an ESA.

Your landlord cannot deny your request for an ESA simply because their insurance does not cover pets. Additionally, they may not require your ESA to have any special training or wear any type of identification marking it as an ESA. (However, in my experience, getting your animal a tag or vest that says ESA helps curb some of the questions and complaints by cranky neighbors.)

The ADA and FHA do protect many of your individual rights, but your landlord does retain a few key provisions under these laws as well. Those provisions are:

  • The right to deny your ESA under certain conditions.¬†Rest assured, there are very few cases when someone can deny a disabled person a reasonable accommodation, such as an ESA. These cases include buildings with four or fewer units (where the landlord occupies one unit), single-family housing sold or rented without a real estate agent, hotels and motels (which are not considered dwellings under the FHA) and private clubs.
  • The right to evict you if your animal is not under your control.¬†You must have command over your ESA at all times. If your dog is unruly or aggressive and cannot be brought under your control, you lose your guaranteed right to housing and may be evicted. Therefore, although special training is not required for an ESA designation, I recommend strengthening your animal’s basic obedience skills to lower the odds your ESA falls subject to complaint by neighbors.
  • The right to charge you for damages done by your ESA.¬†As mentioned previously, your landlord cannot charge you pet rent or fees, but can charge you for damages to the property done by your ESA. Legally, your ESA must also be housebroken, minimizing the potential for damage. Additional training may prevent your animal from chewing, scratching or soiling carpet, walls and other parts of your dwelling.

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What If My Rights Are Violated?

You’ve gotten your ESA prescription letter. You’ve adopted an ESA. And your landlord or flight won’t accept your documentation – or your neighbors have complained. What are your next steps? Well….

  1. Identify your ESA.¬†Landlords cannot require ESAs to wear identification. However, if your neighbors are challenging your right to an ESA, putting a tag or vest on your animal may help quiet these complaints. I bought Chandler’s ESA tag from Amazon for $10. The tag reads “protected by federal law,” which we’ve found is enough to dissuade our neighbors from raising too many uncomfortable questions about our ESA dog.
  2. Check legal precedent.¬†Most ESA cases protect the right to “reasonable accommodation” under the ADA. Size, weight and breed restrictions, no-pet policies and college dorms have all been challenged successfully in the court. Sometimes, all it takes to resolve a complaint is to cite one of these cases. Most landlords, upon hearing mention of a court case, can be scared into compliance with the law.
  3. File a housing complaint. Complaints regarding landlords who refuse to recognize your right to an ESA when there is clear documentation of your disability fall under the umbrella of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Click here to file a formal complaint against your landlord Рor to bookmark this page just in case.
  4. File an airline complaint. Airlines may try to refuse passengers who bring an ESA on-board, regardless of their documentation. Discrimination and disability complaints directed at airlines can be filed with the U.S. Department of Transportation Рclick here to file a complaint.

Are You Sabotaging Your Mental Health? Here’s How to Stop

Sometimes, mental illness goes dormant, only to rear its ugly head again. If you’re experiencing a relapse and can’t figure out why, turn to these unexpected triggers to assess how they might be impacting your mental health.

priscilla-du-preez-kgZFViswqxg-unsplash.jpgDisclaimer: I am not a medical professional. Please discuss any mental health or other concerns with your doctor!¬†If you are feeling suicidal, you are not alone. Call 1-800-273-TALK or text ‘HOME’ to 741-741 to talk to a trained volunteer about what you are experiencing.

Sometimes, mental illness tricks you into feeling better – so much better, in fact, that you forget it exists. But having anxiety or depression is more like having cancer than having a cold: it goes into remission, but it’s never really “cured.”

When anxiety rears its ugly head after months and months in remission, my first reaction is usually one of shock: where did this come from? And what have I been doing wrong?

Many times, the sources of anxiety or depression are obvious. A stressor emerges, such as a major exam or big move. Other times, however, we have to dig a little deeper to find the sources of our inner unrest.

If you’ve examined your life and still don’t know where to turn, the sources of your anxiety may be hidden in unexpected places. Here are five red flags you may not have noticed yet – and why you might not realize they’re sabotaging your mental health.

1. Caffeine

Pounding heart, shaking hands, problems sleeping….to anyone with anxiety, these symptoms may sound familiar – but I’m actually talking about the side effects of too much caffeine!

If your anxiety has felt out-of-control lately, your morning latte may be the culprit. Try tracking how many milligrams of caffeine you drink per day for a week. The FDA recommends a daily limit of 400mg – that’s about four cups of coffee, eight cups of black tea or one-and-a-half energy drinks.

If you’ve got anxiety, you might consider drinking even less. I recommend decreasing your caffeine intake by one beverage per day until you find your sweet spot – that is, the number of caffeinated beverages you can drink without experiencing the drug’s ill effects. For me, that’s 2-3 cups of coffee per day – but since everybody metabolizes caffeine differently, based on their age, weight and even their genes, it’s important to observe your own diet to find out what works best for¬†you.

2. Processed Foods

Ever heard of a little thing called the gut-brain axis? In case you haven’t, you should know that the digestive tract produces up to 90% of the body’s serotonin. In other words, what you eat impacts how you feel – not just physically, but mentally, too.

Harvard Health Blog puts it best: “Like an expensive car, your brain functions best when it gets only premium fuel.” Fresh, whole foods that are low in sugar and high in nutrients are like high-octane gas for your brain: they allow your mind to function optimally, minimizing daily wear-and-tear. In other words, a serving of birthday cake or too much cheese off the party platter won’t wreck your mental health – but eating like that all the time could.

Considering mental illnesses like depression impact our ability to prepare fresh, healthy foods for ourselves, eating too much takeout or too many prepared, frozen dishes may be a subtle sign of a downward spiral. Thankfully, you can rectify the damage by incorporating more whole foods into your diet – and repairing your healthy gut bacteria with probiotic and fermented foods. That way, your body’s serotonin factory can go back to operating like a well-oiled machine.

3. Automatic Thoughts

Some negative thoughts are obvious: “No one loves me.” “I don’t deserve this.” “Life isn’t worth living anymore.” Others, like this doggo, show up in disguise….

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Source: Giphy

Dog or hooman? And does bacon cause cancer? The world may never know. My point is, some negative thoughts are learned so deeply that they become virtually impossible to distinguish from ‘normal’ ones. In fact, you may not even realize that you’re having them – or that they’re hindering your progress toward achieving mental health.

Thankfully, just as you learned these automatic negative thoughts over time, you can also learn to recognize and challenge them. Depending on the severity of your anxiety, this may best be done with the guidance of a mental health professional. Mindful meditation could also help, by making you more aware of your thoughts and giving you a window to disrupt negative thought patterns before they can cause you distress.

4. Nutritional Deficiencies

When’s the last time you had your vitamin levels checked? If you’re anything like me, it might have been awhile. Though many health conditions can masquerade as anxiety and depression, vitamin and mineral deficiencies are one of the most easily treatable causes of new mental health complaints. (Among other chronic diseases, hypothyroidism, Lyme disease and even certain cancers have been linked to depression – so be sure to visit your doctor to rule out these medical conditions if you are experiencing new symptoms of a depressive episode.)

Low levels of vitamins B or D may cause symptoms of depression, such as fatigue or negative mood. As for minerals, iron, selenium and magnesium are most commonly responsible for low energy, depressed mood and even irritability. In many cases, the best treatment for a deficiency is a dietary supplement – but to be diagnosed and treated for such deficiencies, you must visit your primary care provider. He or she will probably conduct blood tests to assess the bioavailability of certain vitamins – and if a deficiency is discovered, prescribe a high-dose vitamin for you to take at home.

One word of caution: be careful not to fall for the causation vs. correlation trap. While depression can be a symptom of low vitamins or minerals, it can also be a cause. Many people with depression experience decreased appetite or low motivation to prepare healthy meals for themselves, which can lead to nutritional deficiencies. So, if you find that addressing nutritional gaps doesn’t improve your depression, you may want to consult a mental health professional – ensuring you don’t fall into a vicious cycle of treating the symptoms rather than the disease.

5. Sleep

It’s common to experience sleep disruptions as a symptom of mental illness. For some, that means sleeping too much and finding it difficult to wake up in the morning. Others may describe a pattern of sleeplessness due to racing thoughts, or waking up unexpectedly in the middle of the night after experiencing a vivid nightmare.

Like dietary deficiencies, sleep disruptions can cause depression, and depression can cause sleep disruptions. Problems sleeping could even be due to medical illness. Your primary care doctor can tell you for sure what the best course of action is for your health – but as for steps you can take at home, effective sleep hygiene is crucial to maintaining good mental health.

So, what makes for hygienic sleep? Limiting daytime naps and stimulants such as caffeine, establishing consistent sleeping and waking hours and avoiding environmental triggers, such as a room that’s too hot or artificial light from cell phones, all contribute to healthy sleep patterns. While a good night’s sleep can’t fix all mental health problems, it certainly doesn’t hurt to arrive at your therapist’s office feeling clear-headed, alert and ready to take on your recovery, one baby step at a time.

What to Pack if Travel Makes You Anxious

When I was a little girl, I thought having a purse was the height of womanly sophistication – so much so, in fact, that I became obsessed with “What’s in my Purse” videos and listicles.

Every woman I knew seemed to be prepared for anything with what was inside her purse, so I thought putting more items in my purse would make me infinitely cooler. While the urge to pack my entire house in my Kate Spade has long since passed,¬† my interest in “What’s in my Bag” videos and blog posts has not subsided.

This “What’s in my Bag” – style post is special, however, because it specifically pertains to those of us traveling with anxiety. Looking back on my purse obsession, my anxiety was definitely a big reason I wanted to make sure I wasn’t missing anything important or potentially useful in my bag.

On top of that, traveling away from home is the¬†last¬†time you would ever want to forget something in your carry-on bag or purse! Which is why I am sharing this post with you in the first place: in honor of my flight home to Boston from spending winter break in Cleveland with my boyfriend David, I’ll be letting you in on all the travel essentials I pack to keep myself from having an anxiety-attack midair.

These items may not be a cure for fear or flying or travel anxiety, but they will certainly brighten your day and make the trip a little bit easier on you, body, mind and soul. So, without further ado, here are the travel essentials I try never to forget as a traveler with anxiety!

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Source: Elle Silk

Sleep Mask

When you’re stuck on a long flight – especially a red eye! – sleep is probably the first thing on your mind. But, if you have anxiety, airplane conditions can make it almost impossible to doze off. A sleep mask is crucial for blocking out all the annoying lights around you, so you can focus on getting the best night’s rest you possibly can. For bonus points, you can also bring or ask for a pair of earplugs, to keep you from focusing on the unseemly whir of the plane’s engine.

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Source: Rogue Wood Supply

Roll-on Essential Oil

Whether or not you’re convinced by the essential oil hype in the blogosphere, scents have a powerful impact on our mood. A soothing roll-on fragrance, like lavender, clary sage or chamomile, gives your body a gentle reminder to relax, even when the last thing you feel is calm.

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Source: Walmart

Pill Organizer

If you take medication for your anxiety, forgetting your meds can put a huge damper on an exciting trip. So you won’t have to spend your entire vacation in line at the pharmacy, try bringing a weekly pill organizer with your medications and dosages already neatly divided and packed. Just be sure to bring your medications in your carry-on bag or purse, so that you won’t worry about missing them if your bag is lost or stolen.

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Source: Urban Outfitters

Portable Charger

When you’re out and about in an unfamiliar city, state or country, your phone is your lifeline. This summer, I spent a week hopping between European countries – I used my phone for everything from translating signage to getting directions when I was lost! That little hunk of metal in your pocket can go a long way toward reassuring you of where you’re going and what you’re doing on vacation. Bring a portable charger and cord everywhere you go, and you’ll never have to worry about it dying unexpectedly!

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Source: Twitter

Dramamine

Thankfully, I don’t get motion sick on planes – just in the car. But, if you do get motion sick on planes, worrying about whether or not you’ll get sick on your flight can cause a lot of additional, unnecessary anxiety. If this sounds like you, I highly recommend bringing some Dramamine tablets along for the ride. They’re made to combat motion sickness, and may even make you drowsy enough to fall asleep during an otherwise anxiety-ridden flight.

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Fuzzy Socks

Tight shoes and socks restrict your circulation – which can be dangerous on long flights, especially if you take medication that increases your risk of blood clots (including the birth control pill!). Fuzzy socks will not only keep you warm midair, but they’ll also keep your calves nice and relaxed, enabling blood to flow regularly throughout your legs – and keeping your pesky feet from falling asleep in-flight!

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Source: Crate and Barrel

Comfort Object

You’re never too old to self-soothe, in my opinion – and what better way to feel better than to cuddle a stuffed animal? To me, a warm teddy bear is the next-best thing to a real pet. Since I rarely travel with my furry friends, I never forget to bring a comfort object wherever I go. For me, snuggling up with my Hooty owl-shaped heating pad helps calm me down whenever I get anxious. (Some airplanes have microwaves you can borrow for objects like heating pads – ask the flight attendant nicely and they’re usually happy to help out! This tends to be more likely on international flights where you’re served a hot meal.)

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Tea Bags

The most soothing, calming beverage of them all is decaffeinated tea. But why spend a fortune on a Starbucks tea when you could pack your own brew from home? BYO empty travel mug through security. Then, ask Starbucks to fill it with hot water – this is usually free, or they may charge you something like $0.15 for the hassle. Finally, dunk your own favorite blend of anti-anxiety teas in the water for a thrifty beverage that’s sure to warm you to your core. My favorite blends for calming down are green tea, chamomile or vanilla – each with a few drops of honey to sweeten them up!

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Source: Blue Star Coloring

Coloring Book

Adult coloring is more than just trendy: it’s a creative activity that promotes mindfulness and relaxation. When you’re wired from the adrenaline of a frightening flight, it’s the perfect time to practice using coping skills like mindfulness to bring down your anxiety levels. Just remember that some TSA agents will count markers toward your allowance of liquids in your carry-on, so you may want to check your toiletries or consider packing fine-liners or gel pens instead.

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Wireless Headphones

I love listening to my favorite playlist when I’m on a long flight, because it helps me drown out the sounds of the roaring engine that make me so anxious. However, I hate those cheap plastic earbuds the flight attendants hand out in-flight! That’s why I always pack my own set of Bluetooth wireless headphones – I use this $25.00 pair of Soundpeats, which have stereo quality at an affordable price point. One advantage of wireless headphones? You can still follow along with your in-flight entertainment if you need to leave your seat! (Note: I am not sponsored by Soundpeats.)

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Chewing Gum

Last but not least, ever since I was a kid, I have never gotten on a plane without chewing gum. Growing up, my mom taught me to chew gum when the plane is taking off or landing to prevent the painful change in air pressure. Maybe this is just an old wives’ tale, but I always chew gum when landing, and my ears hardly ever ache when I fly anymore! I am on a low FODMAP diet, which generally discourages chewing gum, as it usually contains a high FODMAP artificial sweetener like sucralose or aspartame. Lately, however, I’ve fallen in love with Glee Gum, a brand that uses real sugar and brown rice syrup in place of artificial sweeteners-¬† both of which are low FODMAP choices! You probably won’t find it in the airport – but you can get Glee Gum online or at your local health food store, such as Whole Foods Market. (Note: I am not sponsored by Glee Gum.)

Self-Help Books to Kick Start Your New Year’s Resolutions

Admittedly, my goal of writing more blog posts in 2019 has not been going so well. Why, you ask? Ironically, the answer has to do with the subject of today’s post!

In all honesty, I’ve been reading. Like,¬†a¬†lot.¬†In fact, I’ve made it my goal to read 100 books in 2019 – and I have to admit, I’m pretty sure I’m already falling behind!

Since I don’t get much time to read books for pleasure during the busy semester, I like to catch up on reading for leisure on my breaks. So far, I’ve covered ground ranging from YA fiction to women’s health to Reese Witherspoon’s new cookbook – and I’m proud, dammit!

Because I’ve been so excited about reading lately, I figured I would be just as excited to write about the books I’ve been loving recently. I was right, of course. Since self-help is, admittedly, one of my favorite genres, it didn’t take long to craft a list of self-help books that should be on every young woman’s reading list for 2019.

From candid stories about teaching sex ed to college students to kickstarting creative freedom in a way that screams #bigmagic (eek! Spoilers!), here is my humble list of self-help books (and some “normal” books which helped me, too) that every woman should read during the New Year.

But before I start, a quick disclaimer (TL;DR): I do NOT receive payment of any kind for my promotion of these books. All the opinions featured in this post are my own, and featured without sponsorship from the authors and/or publishers of these books!

If you want to take control of anxiety and/or panic….

The Anxiety Toolkit by Alice Boyes, PhD

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Source: Amazon

Why:¬†This book is like an owner’s manual for anxiety. Each chapter is preceded by a quiz that will determine whether the skills in that chapter are relevant to you or not. You have the choice of reading the entire book, or only those chapters which pertain to you – so it’s easy to customize to your needs. In short, it’s like a mini dose of CBT in 150 pages!

If you struggle with overwhelming emotions and/or urges….

The Dialectical Behavioral Therapy Skills Workbook by Matthew McKay, PhD et. al.

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Source: Walmart

Why:¬†After years of therapy and medication, I still had trouble overcoming overwhelming emotions and resisting self-harm triggers. Then I learned about Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). I’m not exaggerating when I say that this book literally changed my life. It brought a much-needed dose of zen to my frantic, mile-a-minute brain. Not to mention, you can get it for free as a PDF – run a quick Google search and it shouldn’t take long to find it!

If you’re tired of unwanted, repetitive thoughts and behaviors….

Everyday Mindfulness for OCD by Jon Hershfield, MFT and Shala Nicely, LPC

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Source: Goodreads

Why:¬†Therapies for OCD can be¬†intense.¬†Personally, I find it easier to tackle my exposure hierarchy on my own, at my own pace. That’s where this workbook comes in: it will guide you through challenging, yet rewarding exercises – based both in mindfulness and traditional exposure-response therapy – to help you overcome your OCD.

If your mental health is taking its toll on your romantic relationship….

Anxious in Love by Carolyn Daitch, PhD and Lissah Lorberbaum, MA

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Source: Walmart

Why:¬†If you have anxiety, it affects every relationship in your life. Even if your anxiety isn’t about the relationship itself, teaching someone with a healthy brain to understand how your sick brain functions is never easy – and neither is taking care of someone with anxiety. Hence, this is where¬†Anxious in Love¬†comes in. I recommend it for both partners with anxiety and partners dating someone with anxiety. Its eye-opening suggestions for handling conflict and everyday triggers, without becoming co-dependent on your partner or enabling their anxiety, will make maintaining your relationship 1000x easier.

If you’re stuck on the yo-yo dieting rollercoaster….

Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat by Michelle May, MD

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Source: Amazon

Why:¬†I am NOT exaggerating when I say this book literally changed my life – and potentially saved it. At sixteen, I was two years deep into a spiral of bulimia: periods of intense orthorexic eating and exercise, followed by stomach-churning binges on junk food – you know, “because I’d earned it.” This book reset both my stomach and my brain, and taught me to relearn my body’s natural hunger cues as I recovered from the throngs of my eating disorder.

If you want to make peace with your inner child….

Attached by Amir Levine, MD and Rachel S.F. Heller, MA

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Source: Amazon

Why:¬†My first therapist¬†ever¬†recommended I read this book when I came in complaining of relationship problems with an ex-boyfriend. As I devoured its pages, I quickly learned a lesson I wish every young woman with anxiety was taught in school: if you are anxiously attached (like me, as this attachment style is a common byproduct of having divorced parents), date someone who is securely attached. Do not date another anxiously attached person, or an avoidant person who shies away from commitment, and believe that you can “fix” them. At the end of the day, you can’t – what you need is stability, and this book is all about why.

If you want to laugh (and cry) along to a poignant story of healing….

Fully Functioning Human (Almost) by Melanie Murphy

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Source: Amazon

It’s no secret that Melanie Murphy is one of my favorite – if not¬†the¬†favorite – YouTubers of all time. Melanie is an Irishwoman who talks candidly about sex, body image and mental health – which explains why I vibe with her so well! In 2018, Melanie released her first book,¬†Fully Functioning Human (Almost), which details her journey through disordered eating, unhealthy relationships and learning to #adult. While it’s not a self-help book exactly, it is chock-full of Melanie’s signature positivity – and an excellent reminder that we are never alone in our struggles to achieve optimal mental health.

If you’re passionate about closing the orgasm gap….

Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski

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Source: Simon & Schuster

Why:¬†I first read this book when I discovered the sexual side effects of taking an SSRI (think: the Sahara desert), and have gone back to it at least once a year since. Nagoski is a college sex ed professor whose book should be required reading in all schools. She filled in so many of the gaps in my sexual knowledge, imbuing important tidbits of wisdom – for example, did you know the most important female sex organ is actually the brain? Or that there’s such a thing as being “wet” without being “turned on” – and vice-versa? If your answer is no, as I suspect it is for 99% of the American adult population, then pick up Nagoski’s book and get back to me when you’re done. Period.

If your resolution is to start (or finish) a creative project….

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

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Source: Goodreads

Why:¬†Yes, I am aware that I am the millionth blogger to recommend this book; in fact, it’s becoming a bit of a self-help cliche. In my opinion, this is rather unfortunate, since Gilbert’s¬†Big Magic¬†is a real gem of a book. As someone who’s ridden the struggle bus of writing a novel from start to finish (yup, you can check out my novel¬†Wilder & Wilder –¬†published in October 2018 – for $2.99 on Amazon!), I could not agree more with the guiding principle behind Gilbert’s book: in hundreds of splendidly-written pages, Gilbert essentially advises, “don’t wait for the perfect time to start. Just do it.”

If you’re a feminist who loves wearing pink and men/women who pay on the first date….

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

Image result for bad feminist book

Source: Ravishly

Why:¬†Again, this book is a compilation of essays by the author Roxane Gay – not exactly a self-help guide. Nonetheless, I still believe it should be required reading for every woman in 2019. In the political climate we live in today, it’s nearly impossible to be a woman (or a man/nonbinary person who fully embraces gender equality) without identifying as a feminist. As the conservative right continues to launch attacks on women’s rights, there is no better time than the present to read Gay’s thoughtful reconciliation of her feminist ideology with her love of traditional femininity, with all its pink bows and lace frills; her poignant movie reviews as a well-educated Black woman; and, perhaps most memorably, her thoughts on playing Scrabble in a big league tournament.

Last but not least, if your apartment floor hasn’t been visible in months….

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

Image result for life changing magic of tidying up cover

Source: Target

Why:¬†I’m a firm believer that our spaces reflect what is going on in our lives. As anyone who knows you well will tell you, my room tends to become a pigsty when I’m stressed – and when I start feeling productive and put-together again, it usually leads to a long, binge-cleaning session. In my opinion, there’s no better time than the New Year to get your sh*t together. By following Kondo’s patented discarding, donating and decorating techniques, you can both build a space you love – and¬†keep¬†it the way you love it, without all the unnecessary clutter blocking out those positive vibes.

Click here to keep up with my journey toward 100 Books in 2019 by following me on Goodreads!

The Surprising Connection Between Digestion and Mental Health

IBS is almost as common as anxiety – making it unsurprising that the two conditions are linked. Could rebalancing your gut be the answer to your mental health challenges? Read on to find out.

Recently, after years of on-again, off-again constipation, bloating and acid reflux, I finally received a diagnosis for my elusive digestive problems: Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). When I found out, it was like everything I’d always known suddenly fell into place. After all, I’ve had anxiety and intestinal flareups all my life – but I never thought to connect the two until I got my diagnosis.

One in five adults in the United States has IBS, making it almost as common as anxiety. However, many people don’t think to connect their digestive symptoms to the stress and anxiety they experience on a daily basis. Since I discovered the connection between the two, I’ve been doing everything I can to learn how improving my digestive health can help improve my mental health. From books to journal articles to magazine columns, I will read anything if it has those two magical words – “gut” and “brain” – in the title.

I’ve also recently started the low FODMAP diet to heal my body from my IBS. In the process, I’ve strangely noticed that my anxiety doesn’t seem as bad as it used to be. Considering that most of our serotonin is produced in our gut, this makes total and complete sense from a scientific perspective. Yet as an aspiring mental health professional, I find it completely shocking that I went so long without anyone drawing a connection between my gastrointestinal symptoms and my anxiety.

Part of the issue was, admittedly, my reluctance to seek help; after all, constipation and bloating are hardly glamorous issues. It used to be that I’d rather talk about NASCAR than discuss my bowel habits (which, coming from me, is really saying something!). But I had also never heard of IBS until I was in college, even though I’d had these symptoms for far longer.

This paragraph might be TMI for some, but I remember once, in high school, during the stress of the school play, I suffered from such bad constipation that I had to take laxatives (and a day off school) to recover. After that, I was drinking Milk of Magnesia at least once a month to relieve the pain.

When I got older and developed orthorexic behavior, it was all I could do not to obsess over the constant bloating in my lower abdomen. No matter how many minutes I planked or what I cut out of my diet, I could never achieve those perfectly flat abs like I saw on all the Instagram stars and YouTube icons I idolized so much.

As a sophomore in high school, I was so bloated that I cried trying on my prom dress and, feeling how tight it was, convinced myself that I was “too fat” to go at all. This led to a downward spiral of orthorexia, bulimia and anxiety, which – knowing what I know now – obviously exacerbated the problem. (Eventually, I exchanged the dress for a different size and went, you would never know from the pictures just how damaged my body image, or my gut, truly was.)

For so long, I convinced myself there was something wrong with me or the way my body was built. Then, I spent several long years recovering from my poor body image, anxiety and depression, and realized the problem wasn’t in my weight, but in my gut.

Developing intolerances to lactose and gluten was the last straw: I finally sought help from my doctor, who told me I Рlike 1 in 5 Americans Рmost likely had IBS. Suddenly, it all made sense why I always looked three months pregnant in photos, or why my bowel habits were so irregular, fluctuating from nonexistent one week to gas and diarrhea the next. Soon, I also learned that there was a connection between IBS, stress and anxiety, which validated what I had always known: anxiety is a physical disorder, just as much as a mental one.

If this sounds like you or someone you know – or if you’re simply interested in improving your overall gut health – I highly encourage you to read on for tips and tricks on healing your gut for mental health! (As always, I am not a doctor, and you should consult with your GP before making any drastic changes to your health regime.) Below, I’ll share some of the wisdom I’ve learned throughout my journey with IBS, the diet that works for me and some tips and tricks I’ve been meaning to try for giving your gut a much-needed boost.

Gut Health for Dummies

A well-functioning digestive system is one of the cornerstones of good overall health. Because it’s where most of the body’s serotonin is produced, it especially has strong ties to our mental health – a phenomenon doctors and medical researchers like to call the “gut-brain axis.”

But which organs are we talking about when we say the word “gut?” More importantly, how can we tell whether our gut health is good or bad? (While you’d think it would be obvious, many signs of poor gut health are much subtler than pain or erratic bowel movements!) Well, for the purposes of this article, I will use the term “gut” to refer both to your GI tract and to the diverse microbiome that calls it home.

The GI tract is the system of organs that runs from your esophagus down to your anus – in other words, the path your food travels through as it is being broken down by your body. This starts with the esophagus, followed by the stomach, small intestine, large intestine and rectum (your “bowels”). Your anus is the point of exit for any excess waste that hasn’t been used by the end of this process. (See below for a detailed diagram of the GI tract.)

digestion

Within this “gut” of ours, each of us carries as many as 2 kg of friendly bacteria – or what we like to call your “gut microbiome.” We each have a unique breakdown of species populating our gut, which results in small differences between individuals; for example, food intolerances like mine are strongly linked to a lack of “helper” bacteria that break down lactose or gluten.

The composition of your gut is affected by your genetics, as well as environmental factors like whether you were delivered vaginally, whether you were breastfed and whether you played outside often as a child. All these experiences expose us to different kinds of friendly bacteria, which continue to populate our gut and affect our bodies as we grow up.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to change your microbiome – but you can do it both by creating a positive environment for healthy bacteria to thrive in and by reintroducing positive flora to your gut. In mild cases of gut dysbiosis (a fancy term for “imbalance”), this might mean taking a probiotic or upping your intake of fermented foods; in serious cases, such as IBD or chronic infection, treatment could even include a fecal matter transplant, which transfers bacteria from a healthy person’s gut to your own.

When people speak of “healing” your gut, this is generally what they mean. Not only do you want to minimize the inflammatory conditions in your gut, making it easier for healthy bacteria to thrive there, but you also want to introduce bacteria to your body and give it the opportunity to grow. So, feel free to pass this wisdom on to the moms in your life: a little dirt can actually be a¬†good¬†thing – at least as far as your gut is concerned!

So You Think You Have IBS…

“Yes!” you scream at your computer, knowing full well that I can’t really hear you. “That sounds just like me. I must have IBS, too!” Now, you’re probably wondering “So, what next?” Well, after making an appointment with your doctor to confirm the diagnosis (and rule out any more serious gastrointestinal conditions, such as Crohn’s, ulcerative colitis or celiac disease), there are a couple of steps you can take to help yourself heal faster.

The Low FODMAP Diet

The number one dietary change recommended for IBS patients is cutting out something called “FODMAPs.” FODMAP stands for “Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides and Polyols” – but if you’ve been on this diet before, you know it pretty much stands for “I can’t eat anything that isn’t sold for $10 at Whole Foods.”

I say this because on the low FODMAP diet, you can only have a limited number of fruits and vegetables, gluten-free grain products, lactose-free dairy products and most kinds of meat and fish. Eating gluten-free isn’t exactly great for one’s wallet – but then again, you can’t really put a price on the bliss you feel from not having to spend half your life in-and-out of bathroom stalls anymore.

Below, I’ve copied the chart I use to know which foods I can and can’t have on the low FODMAP diet. While you’re getting used to the diet, I highly recommend you print it out and post it on your fridge (or somewhere else in your kitchen) for easy reference!

fodmaps

Source: Monash FODMAP

 

On the go, the app called “The Low Fodmap Diet for IBS” only costs $0.99, and provides a simple searchable database of foods and their FODMAP contents, complete with a rating of Low, Medium or High FODMAP next to each food.

Finally, there are tons of bloggers who have posted delicious low FODMAP recipes on Pinterest – I especially love Fun Without FODMAPs – which makes Pinterest an amazing resource to bookmark for meal planning for IBS.

If you’re new to the low FODMAP diet, DO NOT PANIC! Though it looks restrictive at first, there are still so many delicious foods you can eat sans FODMAPs – not to mention that it really, truly does help reset your digestive system, banish bloat and get you “regular” again (if you know what I mean).

Still don’t believe me? Here are some typical snacks and meals I will eat in a day on the low FODMAP diet. (I think I eat pretty normally still!)

Breakfast

  • Two eggs, fried in grassfed butter, with salt and pepper
  • Udi’s gluten-free white bread, toasted, with grassfed butter (and sometimes a low FODMAP strawberry jam)
  • Lactose-free yogurt – I love the one by Green Valley Creamery!
  • Cheerios (which are now 100% gluten-free! Woohoo!) with Lactaid milk and sliced strawberries or raspberries

Lunch/Dinner

  • Turkey and lettuce on Udi’s gluten-free white bread with a side of grapes
  • Quinoa with tomatoes, bell peppers, cucumbers and feta cheese, drizzled with a little bit of EVOO
  • Brown rice spaghetti with grassfed butter and parmesan cheese
  • Amy’s gluten-free macaroni and cheese (with two lactase pills to aid my digestion)
  • Bob’s Red Mill gluten-free pizza crust with sliced tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and fresh basil

Snacks

  • Dunkin’ caramel iced coffee with cream only
  • Gluten-free cookies (Trader Joe’s has delicious ones!) with a glass of vanilla almond milk (or coffee!)
  • Bob’s Red Mill oatmeal with Justin’s almond butter and sliced strawberries or raspberries
  • Gluten-free crackers (I like Back to Nature or Crunchmaster) with brie or cheddar
  • Lactose-free yogurt with sliced strawberries or raspberries
  • Annie’s gluten-free “bunny grahams” in cocoa and vanilla
  • Banana with Justin’s almond butter packet
  • Fun Without FODMAPs’s low-FODMAP chocolate chip pumpkin bread
  • Bobo’s oatmeal bars

Tips for Overall Gut Health

Besides changing your diet to reflect your diagnosis, there are many other steps you can take to improve your gut health that aren’t related to what you eat. Believe it or not, many of the habits we take part in every day have consequences for our overall gut health. Here are some small adjustments you can make to start a more gut-friendly routine for your body!

  • Take a probiotic.¬†Experts recommend taking 10 billion CFUs of a probiotic containing Lactobacillus and/or Bifidobacterium. (If you have lactose or gluten-intolerance like I do, Bifidobacterium deficiency may be to blame!) A high number of CFUs (“Colony-Forming Units”) is key, since many bacteria will die before you take them. My roommate stores hers in the fridge – no clue if this helps or not, but I’m on board with it. I recommend up4’s Adult Probiotic Supplement, which contains both strains and is more affordable than many probiotics on the market.
  • Dry brush.¬†I love dry-brushing for stimulating circulation and digestion. Using a dry brush, brush your skin upwards with firm motions toward your heart. This gets your blood pumping and all those toxins moving down and out, stimulating healthy digestion!
  • Drink bone broth.¬†Collagen, the protein found in bone broth that makes it so darn good for you, has gotten a lot of buzz lately. Drinking this warm beverage will not only keep you toasty on chilly winter days, but also help soothe and heal your intestines from the inside-out.
  • Chug more water.¬†If you suffer from constipation-type IBS like I do, you’ll probably hear lots of people say “Eat more fiber!” However, eating more fiber doesn’t help unless you’re also drinking the appropriate amount of water. On the other hand, if you’re dehydrated, your stools will have less bulk, be harder to pass and may even lead to painful, bleeding anal fissures (which, I know from experience, can cause quite the health scare!).
  • Test your microbiome.¬†The SmartGut test by uBiome is covered by most insurances, and will tell you what bacterial species your gut is most abundant in – and lacking. Its findings have implications for food intolerances like lactose and gluten, and can also identify species linked to Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, IBS and more.

 

 

Skincare is Self-Care, Too! The Surprising Ways Acne Affects Your Mental Health

Acne and other skincare woes are deeply linked to our mental health – which is why you should be treating your skin as well as it deserves. Read on to learn what causes acne and how I busted my adult onset acne – because skincare is self-care, too!

I love Well + Good, but I loved Well + Good even more after I read contributor Rachel Lapidos’ recent essay on acne and mental health. Breakouts both big and small impact the way we view ourselves and the world around us – which is why I passionately insist that taking care of your skin is an important form of self-care.

My boyfriend and I swap stories about acne and confidence frequently. We have had opposite experiences with acne: while he struggled with his skin growing up, I only recently developed adult-onset hormonal acne when I got the Liletta IUD.

For him, acne was a source of stigma and insecurity that affected the way he saw himself, and the way his peers treated him. For me, having adult-onset hormonal acne is a frustrating insight into the life of the modern American woman: I am presented with a choice between preventing pregnancy and having clear skin. Acne seems like a small price to pay for seven years of pregnancy protection, but as someone who has faced social anxiety and disordered eating, it’s a daily challenge to look in the mirror and not always like what I see.

Some of you might say, “Well, why not change your thinking instead of your skin?” Redirecting and rewiring negative thought patterns is certainly an element of building body confidence – but looking and feeling good in the skin you’re in helps, too. After all, it’s hard to feel good about the skin I’m in when the skin I’m in is greasy and inflamed.

That’s why skincare is an essential component of my self-care routine: when I neglect my skin, I neglect my mental health, too. The opposite is often true, too: skin problems can be an outward reflection of an internal health problem (such as gut dysbiosis, which can be caused by stress, medication use or depression/anxiety).

Thus, skin is an important component of our mental health, both as a symptom and a treatment for stress, anxiety and depression. Specifically, this guide hones in on acne: what its causes are, how it relates to mental health and, most excitingly, some of my favorite tips, tricks and products for treating your skin well. Let’s get to it!

Acne and Mental Health

First thing’s first: acne is more common than you think. In fact, 80% of people between the ages of 11 and 30 struggle with a breakout at some point in their lives. And as for those of us with chronic acne, we have a 63% increased risk for developing depression – which is why it’s so important we address the relationship between skin and mental health.

Below, you’ll find some facts I selected to show you just how interconnected skin and mental health truly are:

  • Studies show that acne directly impacts teen girls’ self-esteem. Many say they feel unattractive, even if their acne is mild, during a breakout.
  • One study showed that 38% of acne patients suffered from depression, and 34% suffered from social anxiety. These results were more prevalent among females than males.
  • 88% of acne cases reported embarrassment as a result of their skin condition. As a result, 69% of patients avoided daily activities like shopping, 57% reported negative effects on work or study and 68% said it negatively impacted their social lives.
  • Adult female acne is also prevalent, with the average age of onset ranging from 19-31 years old. Female patients reported perceiving their adult acne as burdensome and impacting their self-confidence, and frequently used makeup to conceal their blemishes.

What Causes Acne?

We’ve perpetuated many myths about what causes acne over the course of the years – ever hear the rumor that chocolate causes acne? (Yeah, not true.) Unfortunately, the causes of acne aren’t as clear-cut as magazines and health gurus may lead you to believe.

Many acne triggers are individualized, and must be identified through self-awareness of symptoms and the conditions causing them – think food diaries and period tracking, for one thing. The causes of acne range from allergy responses to things like gluten or dairy, to hormonal imbalance and gut dysbiosis, to a bodily stress response to the over-production of cortisol.

There are more rumors and myths surrounding the causes of acne than concrete facts; however, here is what we do know about the potential triggers of acne in adolescents and adults alike:

My Skincare Tips

Since the onset of my adult hormonal acne at 19, I have tried just about everything to eliminate it. I’ve had many trials and errors – but in the process, I’m thankful to have discovered at least a few things that help in both my lifestyle and my beauty routine.

Below, I’ll share just a few of my favorite products and tips for treating acne. If you have mental health issues, and you have acne, I highly recommend trying these out – because skin care¬†is¬†self-care, and you are not selfish or vain for taking care of your skin!

Lifestyle Changes

  1. Keep a food and symptom diary.¬†I don’t believe in dieting as a general rule, nor do I think there’s anything wrong with eating a cupcake (or five) every once in awhile! However, there is evidence to show that eating certain foods – like gluten, sugar or dairy – can be linked in breakouts to people prone to acne. I recommend keeping track of your diet in a food diary (note: by “diet” I simply mean “the foods you eat every day,” not a diet in the traditional sense of the word!) and taking note of your breakouts alongside it. Soon, you may notice an emerging pattern of what foods affect your skin in a negative, or positive, way! (Side note, but if your acne is linked to gut dysbiosis or another digestive condition, you may also want to consider an elimination diet to identify potential food intolerances.)
  2. Identify inflammatory ingredients using CosDNA. I learned about CosDNA from a dermatologist on Curology after reviewing their custom acne-treatment service for my previous blog. Basically, this website lists all your favorite skincare products with their ingredients, and rates their ingredients from 1 to 5 from the least to most harmful for acne. Remember to take the results with a grain of salt Рfor example, retinol is given a 5 for inflammation but is one of the best over-the-counter treatments for acne Рbut this site is amazing for giving you a general idea of what skincare products might be contributing to your breakouts.
  3. Read¬†The Skincare Bible¬†by Dr. Anjali Mahto. THIS BOOK CHANGED MY LIFE. It taught me everything I didn’t know (but wish I had) about acne and skincare back in high school when I first started dealing with oily skin and breakouts. Dr. Anjali Mahto is a consulting dermatologist in the U.K. who not only treats women with everything from cystic acne to menopausal rosacea, but also suffered from acne herself. Her book goes through everything from how to read the ingredients on your skincare labels to what ingredients to look for and avoid for different skin care conditions to how acne affected her own health and self-confidence as a teen. Basically, it’s equal parts big sisterly advice and dermatology appointment for a fraction of the cost – and I highly recommend it!
  4. Know when to visit your doctor.¬†If everything you try over the counter fails to treat your cystic acne, if you’re suffering from deep, painful, blistering blemishes or if you suspect there’s a co-occurring medical condition with your acne, it’s probably time to make an appointment with your GP or a board-licensed dermatologist. To find a qualified, board-certified derm in the United States, visit the American Academy of Dermatology’s Find-a-Derm site to search for a local professional who accepts your insurance.

Products

kate somerville

Source: Aim for Glam

For acne-prone skin: Kate Somerville Eradikate Daily Foaming Cleanser ($38)

biore.png

Source: Ulta Beauty Coupon 2017

For stubborn blackheads: Biore Deep Cleansing Pore Strips ($7)

simple

Source: Garden Collage Magazine

For removing every drop of makeup: Simple Micellar Cleansing Water ($5)

peter thomas roth

Source: Dress with Yas

For an extra-deep clean: Peter Thomas Roth Therapeutic Sulfur Masque ($47)

What acne-busting lifestyle tip or product do you swear by? Let us know in the comments below!

Masturbation as Medicine: Your Hands-On Approach to Healing from Sexual Trauma

Hi, my name is Haley, and I am a woman who masturbates – and a survivor of sexual assault. Read to find out how masturbation can help you find sexual healing in the wake of trauma, and learn to love your body again.

My name is Haley, and I am a woman who masturbates. I am also a survivor of sexual assault.

What do those two things have in common? Firstly, they’re both things I feel the need to “confess” – as if I’m somehow dirtier for admitting them – mostly because I am not a man. (If I were, my sexual appetite would just be accepted as a fact of life.) But secondly, and more importantly, they’re both things that have informed the way I experience sex as an adult woman.

I have rarely spoken out about my sexual assault publicly. Many of my closest friends still don’t know. But now more than ever, talking about this experience feels relevant to what’s going on in the media – and in my emotional and political life as a young American woman and a survivor.

I’m a survivor, but I’ve also learned what I do and don’t like in bed, and how to speak up for myself sexually.¬†Not that I think I could have prevented my assault simply by saying “no” – which I did. Multiple times, actually. Rather, it’s that I feel confident in bed. I feel like a sexual being again – a whole being, instead of a walking pair of boobs with a vagina. And I’m not afraid to admit that masturbation has played a big part in helping me heal from my sexual trauma.

Fortunately,  I never suffered flashbacks or other symptoms of PTSD as a result of my sexual trauma. However, I did lose sight of myself as an active participant in sex. Instead, I learned to see myself as a giver rather than a receiver of pleasure. I grew complacent, almost comfortable, with the idea that my body was there for men to use; to create an experience rather than have one; to give rather than to take. I also developed problems reaching orgasm, problems I now know resulted from the judgment and guilt I felt in the sexual relationship where I had been assaulted.

I never recognized the connection between masturbation and my healing process until very recently. Like many girls, when I first realized that I had been sexually assaulted (almost two years after the incident had actually taken place), I didn’t want to be touched. But slowly, I eased my way back into taking pleasure from sex in the way I felt most comfortable: alone.

I started having orgasms again Рfirst from masturbating, then with a new, more patient partner. I explored my body, got in touch with my needs and wants and bought my newly-sexual self fun presents like lingerie and a Shibari magic wand. Finally, I started to see sex as something exciting that I could share with another person. Rather than something that happened to me, sex became something I did.

To put it bluntly, I wasn’t just “getting fucked” anymore. I was fucking. We were fucking. And it had been our¬†choice to fuck. We had chosen each other, and we had both said “yes” explicitly and eagerly.

Using masturbation as an acclimation tool, I slowly took back control of the sexuality that my assailant had forcefully taken from me that one day in the basement of his parents’ house. Because of this experience, and all of the research I’ve read that confirms my theory, I firmly believe that masturbation is a critical element of the healing process from sexual trauma.

Here, I will share with you some of my findings about masturbation and healing from sexual trauma – and explain how you can start a mindful masturbation process (I know, I know – sounds weird, right?) to help you reclaim control of your sexuality.

As always, I am not a doctor, so please speak with your PCP or mental health provider if you have any specific medical questions about sexual trauma. You can also always contact RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Hotline by calling 1-800-656-HOPE.

Sexual Symptoms After Assault

After experiencing a sexual assault, it is natural to experience some interruption to normal sexual function. In my case, I did not even realize I had been assaulted by my emotionally abusive partner until almost a year later – but as I began to learn more about sexual assault, I realized the warning signs had been present in my behavior following the assault all along.

For so long, I had no libido whatsoever. I enjoyed masturbating from time-to-time, but my sexual appetite – or sense of satisfaction – was never quite what it used to be. At the time, I blamed it on my antidepressants – but even after introducing Wellbutrin, an antidepressant used to treat SSRI-induced sexual dysfunction, I faced difficulties achieving orgasm, especially with a partner, and eventually began to avoid sex altogether. This caused even more problems with my sexually coercive partner, who used guilt to manipulate me into performing sexual acts I wasn’t really interested in to begin with.

After the relationship ended, my sexual desire snapped back like a rubber band. Though I still suffered from anorgasmia, my formerly-nonexistent sexual appetite became insatiable. I remember feeling confused, yet empowered. For so long, I believed I was broken because my partner couldn’t “finish” me, or because I wasn’t giving him enough sexually (or so he used to say). So, what happened? What had changed?

Once I learned about sexual coercion, it all started to make sense. At first, I had simply believed the relationship was to blame – we didn’t love each other the way we used to, so the sex wasn’t as good. Then I learned that the guilt-tripping, badgering and pouting my partner used as weapons to obtain sex were actually a form of assault and abuse. All of a sudden, I went from “sexually broken being” to “sexual assault survivor,” and was forced to reconcile with this new identity and what it meant for my sexuality.

That is my story, but I am only one of the 1 in 3 women who has experienced sexual trauma in her lifetime. Sexual trauma following an assault looks different for every survivor. If you have survived sexual assault, abuse or rape, here are some signs you may still be suffering from the scars of the events:

  • Avoiding sex.¬†Just as I did when my partner would badger me, sexual assault survivors often avoid sex altogether as a means of coping with their trauma.
  • Viewing sex as an “obligation.”¬†Healthy sex means both partners give enthusiastic consent and want to share in that experience with each other. However, that is often not how we see sex after an assault. Not only does our sexual functioning change, but our attitudes toward sex are affected, too.
  • Feeling anger, disgust or guilt with touch.¬†Over a year later, the feeling of being “wet” still leaves me feeling guilty and “dirty.” These effects often persist for survivors of sexual assault.
  • Loss of sensation or arousal.¬†In some survivors, libido may cease to exist – or, they may have a sex drive, but experience little to no sensation when touched by a partner. Sexual assault can leave you feeling “numb” and indifferent to sex.
  • Intrusive thoughts or compulsive behaviors.¬†Some survivors use sexual acts or masturbation as a form of self-punishment following assault. Others may experience unwanted images or flashbacks to the assault.
  • Pain or difficulty reaching orgasm.¬†Vaginismus – the painful contraction of the vaginal walls upon touch, which can make penetration near-impossible – is a common trauma response to rape. You may also experience erectile function, premature ejaculation or anorgasmia. Or, you may have vaginal dryness – which, take it from me: makes penetration feel about as sexy as sandpaper.

Why Touch Heals

The idea that you could heal from sexual trauma with sexual activity sounds, on its face, counter-intuitive. But while it’s true that you should ease yourself back into sex gradually, there are a couple reasons that distinguish masturbation as a form of healing after assault.

Masturbation makes sex about YOU again.¬†During an assault, your abuser is inherently acting selfishly, with no regard for your health or well-being – let alone your sexual pleasure. By masturbating, you are able to reclaim your sexuality as a healthy and valid component of sex. Sex isn’t something to be¬†taken¬†from you; it’s something to be shared and enjoyed!

Masturbation puts you in the driver’s seat.¬†One of the most frightening and frustrating parts of a sexual assault is the feeling that what happens to you, and your body, is out of your control. After a sexual assault, you may find it difficult to resign control to a partner in the bedroom. Masturbating allows you to be in control of your own body, so that the only touches you have to experience are ones that you¬†want¬†to and¬†enjoy¬†experiencing.

Masturbation allows you to safely restart your sex life.¬†Following a sexual assault, partnered sex becomes complicated. Whether your partner is someone you’ve known for five hours or five years, you may find yourself triggered by partnered sex after the assault. Even the most understanding partner can get frustrated by this part of the healing process. By masturbating in the privacy and safety of your own home, you can start to build a healthy sex life without feeling guilty for stopping – or pressured to keep going – as many times as you need.

Finally, masturbation helps heal sexual dysfunction. Sexual dysfunction is a common response to sexual trauma. It includes any interruption to the progression from arousal to plateau to orgasm. For some victims, this may present as low libido or vaginal dryness; for others, this may look like erectile dysfunction, premature ejaculation or anorgasmia. Regardless, sex therapy Рand directed masturbation as a component of that Рis a proven treatment for sexual dysfunction in both men and women. (And guys: the myth that masturbating can cause ED is just that Рa MYTH!)

How to Start Healing

Before I discuss what worked for me, and how you can begin a mindful masturbation process to begin healing from sexual assault, I’d like to devote a few sentences (which is still not¬†nearly¬†enough) to the importance of therapy and the role sex therapists can play in healing from sexual trauma:

Therapy is an important component of the emotional healing process following a sexual assault. It’s imperative that survivors feel like they have someone they can turn to whenever they need to talk about what happened, or reconcile with their new identity as a survivor, or navigate their altered relationship with sex and sexual partners.

Ideally, this person is a professional sex therapist (though it may also be a friend, family member, life coach, counselor, professor, minister – you name it). However, because the majority of therapists specializing in “sexual trauma” primarily treat victims of child abuse, and the majority of “sex therapists” work mostly with couples struggling with sexual difficulties, I recommend finding a sex therapist who specifically mentions working with survivors of sexual violence, sexual assault or rape in their professional experience.

I also think it is incredibly important to find a sex therapist who views sex openly and non-judgmentally, but also someone who comes from a similar walk of life and will share the same attitudes and beliefs regarding sexuality. For example, if you are a trans person who has experienced sexual violence, you will probably want to find a counselor who specializes in treating the LGBTQ+ population – or, if you are a devout Catholic (or Jew or Buddhist or whatever-ist), you may want to seek a counselor whose practice is informed by your faith.

Because sexuality is such a sensitive subject to broach, finding a counselor who speaks openly about sex, encourages you to do the same and does so in a language you understand can be life-affirming for a survivor of sexual violence. That being said, you can also take steps to heal yourself from sexual assault outside the therapist’s office – and that can start with a mindful masturbation practice you begin at home.

As a survivor of sexual assault, here is my advice for masturbating following a sexual assault – as well as some juicy bonus tips for how you can experience greater pleasure in the process!

  • Begin with non-sexual activities.¬†Lighting a candle. Soaking in a hot bubble bath. Rubbing a vanilla-scented body lotion into your parched skin. All these activities, to me, read “sensual” rather than “sexual.” These activities allow you to show yourself and your body some love, before you are ready to start engaging in sexual touch.
  • Follow with non-sexual touch.¬†The feeling of a hot shower running along your bare skin, or a gentle massage from your partner after a long day at work, can be just as powerful in relearning to love your body as sexual touch.
  • Give yourself time.¬†The last thing you want to do when healing from sexual assault is “rub one out.” Allow yourself at least an hour to breathe, take breaks (if necessary) and spend this time focusing on you.
  • Avoid watching porn.¬†Porn can be a healthy way of exploring sexuality for the average person – but when you’re a survivor, so much porn depicts sexuality in an unhealthy, even violent way that can trigger unpleasant thoughts and memories of the abuse. Rather than watching porn, close your eyes and focus on your breathing and the sensations going through your body. This simple act of awareness is what sets “mindful masturbation” apart from simply masturbating.
  • Try tantric masturbation.¬†Whether or not you buy them, you’ve probably heard of tantric sex techniques for growing closer with a partner – but did you know you can practice tantra by yourself, too? Because of tantric masturbation’s focus on loving-kindness and self-exploration, the mindfulness techniques used in tantric masturbation make it the perfect healing art for survivors. Check out this article from Refinery29 for the full breakdown.

 

Survivors, what has helped you recover from sexual trauma and learn to love sex again? Let us know in the comments below!