Review: Polyvagal Exercises for Safety and Connection by Deb Dana

I keep hearing about Polyvagal Theory and keep meaning to learn more. I haven’t had a chance so I decided to start with this book, which I think is a good choice. In the beginning of the book, Dana goes over the basic theory before diving into the exercises. In fact, the main tenets of Polyvagal Theory are in the BASIC acronym – Befriend, Attend, Shape, Integrate and Connect.

Polyvagal Theory gives us a hierarchy to the autonomous nervous system. At the lowest point, we are in the dorsal vagal system, which is characterized by immobilization (the freeze response); next is the sympathetic nervous system, which most of us know is characterized by mobilization, specifically the fight or flight response. Lastly comes the ventral vagal system, characterized by social engagement and wellbeing. The purpose of Polyvagal theory and these exercises is to help our clients move from the freeze-fight-flight states into a more constructive state of wellbeing.

What I really like about this book is that you could use these exercises with your clients (or even just one of them) even if you don’t know a lot about Polyvagal Theory, or even if it is not your general operating theory. Most of us are fairly eclectic in our approaches these days but we ALL have clients who go into fight or flight or even freeze, and knowing specific exercises to practice with them is always helpful.

Lastly, there is a huge appendix. There are some progress charts; but also, there is additional copies of all of the exercises. While each exercise was discussed in the body of the book, there are additional copies in the back so that you can copy them to distribute to your clients. Overall, I may not become a Polyvagal Theory expert, but the theory makes sense and I can see myself using many of these exercises with clients. It would be a good book to have on hand so that the exercises could be used as issues come up in session.

The link above is an Amazon affiliate link and I receive a small compensation from purchases made from this link.

Review: How to Make Good Things Happen by Marian Rojas Estapé, M.D.

Honestly, I’d skip this one. Estapé is a psychiatrist in Spain and conceivably wrote this book to talk about neuroscience and how to make choices that make life better. But I really can’t count all the statements I disagree with in this book. Here are a few of them:

  1. “Failures, and how they are framed, are the most decisive aspect of anyone’s trajectory in life.” I mean, I do agree that failures and how we deal with them have a lot of meaning, but the most decisive aspect? I don’t know.
  2. “A person without a project cannot be happy.” I mean, I like a project as well as the next guy, but cannot be happy? Really? So my happiness when I’m on vacation and lying on a beach doing absolutely nothing is false?
  3. “It is always wiser to remain silent. Silence is the gatekeeper of intimacy.” I completely disagree with this one. We all know there are times when silence is better. But always? I see a ton of couples who are conflict avoidant and I can just tell you, their silence is doing nothing at all for their intimacy.
  4. “There is no good leader who is not a good person.” This is probably mostly true. But none? No one? Even good leaders can make bad mistakes.
  5. “With practice, humor, and willingness, you can improve if you just decide to.” and “If you really long for something, you’ll be able to manifest it.” I get that a lot of people believe in this kind of stuff. But I think it really discounts things like class systems, poverty and so on. There are a lot of people for whom just longing for something doesn’t do a damn thing.
  6. “Permanent anxiety opens the door to depression.” Maybe sometimes? But with most of my clients, they tend towards either depression or anxiety. I myself have struggled with depression most of my life, and I can tell you that anxiety has nothing to do with it.
  7. “Guilt demoralizes us; it allows no forward progress.” Hoo boy, I totally disagree with this one. I mean, we do carry toxic guilt that demoralizes. But regular guilt is good and does indeed allow forward progress. If I steal something and I feel guilty, that’s good; and forward progress comes from paying my dues/saying sorry/seeking forgiveness or reparations.
  8. “A person who hasn’t experienced a clinical depression doesn’t know the true nature of sadness.” What in the world? So my husband, who hasn’t been clinically depressed a day in his life, isn’t truly sad about his dad dying? I just don’t even get this one.
  9. “The only two things that really fulfill a human being completely are love and professional satisfaction.” I can certainly think of people for whom those two things do fulfill. But I hardly think those are the only two things that can really fulfill a person.

Overall, I found this book disorganized and pithy. The sequence of chapters did not make sense to me at all, and the kind of advice (like above) bordered on the ridiculous. If people could really make good things happen by “mind over matter” and so on, then no one would ever need medications or therapy. Seriously, I’ll put the Amazon link below, but I wouldn’t waste my money.

I received this book free from Net Galley for my review. The Amazon link above is an affiliate link.

Review: The Better Brain by Bonnie Kaplan & Julia Rucklidge

This is a book that argues that we can heal at least some mental health issues with better nutrition. Before you roll your eyes, know that this book is very scientific, and all of the claims these authors make are backed up by scientific studies which they go to great lengths to explain.

The reason why I feel like this book is important for therapists is because not every client will consider anti-depressants or other psychotropic medications, and not everyone is helped by these medications. When this happens, I try to brainstorm with my clients about non-medication options that might be helpful. It is well known that exercise helps greatly with depression and other mental health issues; but what about nutrition? On it’s face, it seems like a pipe dream. But the authors ask: why is it that we readily accept that better nutrition will improve our body, heart health and overall wellness – but we leave mental health out of it? Doesn’t it make sense that our brain also uses the nutrients we take in to do it’s job, and if we don’t feed it well, it won’t work as well?

Most of us think only about macronutrients (carbs, proteins & fats), but in this book the authors talk more about micronutrients – all of the vitamins and minerals our bodies need to do their jobs. These micronutrients play a huge role in feeding the neurotransmitters in our brains (serotonin, dopamine, etc), and also keeping your telomeres longer, which is associated with healthy aging. For the most part, the authors recommend a Mediterranean diet in order to get all of the vitamins and minerals our body needs.

But they do realize that when depressed or in the throes of other mental health issues, diet changes might be impossible and supplements can be useful. 99% of supplements, though, have not been tested at all for nutrient value, so they recommend certain ones (which they do not get any money from). One thing to understand about supplements is that most scientific studies have focused on only one nutrient (like a B12 study for example); the authors believe this is why we haven’t been able to really see the effects of good micronutrients – the key is having a supplement with a breadth of vitamins and minerals (at least 30). The authors have done studies which show that these types of supplements can reduce aggression, ADHD and extreme stress.

They talk about how our soil (95% of North American soil) has been treated with Roundup or other glyphosate based herbicides, lowering the nutrient value in the soil. The problem is that glyphosate based herbicides increase inflammation, which has been positively associated with higher rates of depression. So eating organic food from healthy soil is really important.

This book would be a great recommendation for someone who is not getting as much benefit as they would like from their medications; or, for someone who is just really opposed to taking psychotropic medications. Although it seems too good to be true, if a client is suffering and not willing to take medications, why not try this as a way of feeling better? There are no negative side effects from getting better nutrition. Also, if you have a lot of clients who resist medication, it might be good to read this book for yourself so that you can make intelligent suggestions when it comes to nutrition and supplements. This book will be out April 20, 2021.

Disclaimer: I received this book from Net Galley for my review. The Amazon link above is an affiliate link. Summaries are not intended to replace the purchase of the book, but simply to save you time reading!

Review: Your Brain is Always Listening by Dr. Daniel Amen

First of all, I love Dr. Amen. Although he has been a controversial figure for some, I have found his books, clinics and information to be consistently solid. On four separate occasions, I have referred clients to his clinics after multiple treatment options for mental health issues have failed. On every occasion, they have been able to get a handle on the issues after visiting the Amen Clinic. The Amen Clinics use SPECT scans of the brain in order to diagnose and treat. Dr. Amen’s books outline how to have good “brain health” and he asserts that what we call “mental health” issues are really “brain health” issues. Personally, I don’t like a lot of his advice (I have to give up bread??? waaah), but I can see that his advice is based on research and solid.

My only complaint about this book is that it has so much information! It literally could be four or five books. Some of my angst about it is probably due to reading an advance reader copy on the Kindle; I suggest buying this book in hard copy, because 1. it would be great to just have handy as a reference and 2. I think it would be easier to manage the information.

This book reminds me of one of my favorite books, called “Taming Your Gremlin” by Rick Carson. Basically, it’s an externalizing technique where Dr. Amen outlines all of the “Dragons” that we might have running around in our heads, either from the past, from our experiences, or from other people. For example, you might have a “should” dragon, or an “angry” dragon. The first two sections of the book outline multiple “Dragons” you might suffer with, along with some suggestions about how you might know if you have this dragon and what you can do about it.

Next he addresses the thoughts that fuel the Dragons, and outlines them as “ANTs” – automatic negative thoughts. These are similar to the cognitive distortions we would find with CBT. It’s nice because he will say you can have an “All or Nothing” ANT, and then he will say which of the Dragons are fueled by this kind of thinking.

Next he discusses “Bad Habit Dragons”, like saying yes too much, or being disorganized. And he warns about forces outside of us that really try to get us into bad habits, like the food industry, or the internet/social media and how to cope with these “pushers”.

Lastly, he gives us a new, modified 12-step program that can help us combat all of these issues – and in this section he gives us lots of specific nutritional and supplement information based on your individual dragons and your brain type. (You can take a quiz about your brain type at www.brainhealthassessment.com). I have always loved Dr. Amen’s books, but he’s really outdone himself this time.

I received this book free from Net Galley. It won’t be out until March 2. 2021, but you can pre-order now at the link below!

Disclaimer: The link above is an Amazon Affiliate link and I receive a small compensation from orders placed with this link. Summaries are NOT intended to replace the purchase of the book, but simply to save you time reading.

Review: When Crisis Strikes by Jennifer Ford & Kjell Hovik

This book is written by Jennifer Love, an M.D. psychiatrist, and Kjell Hovik, a Psy.D/Ph.d in neuropsychology.  The forward is written by Dr. Amen, who founded the Amen Clinics. All that to say, these are trustworthy authors who know this topic well.

The book explains in a very easily understood way how your body and brain react to a crisis or chronic stress. This is important because it’s the foundation of all that follows.

Then the authors lay out their 5 point plan – defining the problem, figuring out what you can/can’t control, making a list of easy/hard tasks that need to be done – and then assessing your values and figuring out ways to take care of yourself.  Even though these sound like no-brainer type steps, it’s great because they really delve into them fully – the questions to ask, the things to consider.

Then the authors have a lengthy segment where they give example after example of how these steps would look in different folks with different crises. Although this section could get a little long, I felt like the repetition of the steps in various circumstances really helped me to see how these steps are workable no matter what the scenario is.

Lastly, they give some general advice about some common responses to crises and stress – like cravings, sleep issues, exercise, etc. And finally, each author transparently shows their own five step process when covid-19 hit the world. Quite authentic and vulnerable, this section proves that these authors practice what they preach.

Can you think of anyone who won’t go through stress or some kind of crisis? I can’t.  This book will release on December 29, 2020, and I think you need a copy! You can preorder through the Amazon link below. I think this book is so calming, because it really gives a step by step process in situations where chaos would otherwise reign.

The summaries above are NOT meant to replace buying the book. We therapists have a lot of books to read! These summaries are meant to provide you with an immediate way to access the information generally, but I recommend purchasing a copy of books that you think will be useful and having them on hand in your office!

Review: Hardwiring Happiness by Rick Hanson

I can just imagine giving this book to my clients; it seems too simple to be true. People want to think it’s more complicated than this. But it really is this simple. The way you allow yourself to think really does change your life. Think differently and your life will change. We have an incredible lack of discipline over our thoughts. This book will teach you some really simple ways to think differently and change your brain structure. Over time, this will create more happiness, more peace, more contentment. It really does work. But it really IS work; it is so easy to be lazy with our thoughts.

Rick Hanson is the guy who came up with the phrase I love, “the brain is Teflon for the good and Velcro for the bad”.  This book, similar to his other books, helps us come up with strategies to increase the good so our brain doesn’t just “Teflon” it away.  Specifically in this book, he works through an acronym, HEAL. H stands for “have a positive experience”; E is “enrich it”; A is “absorb it” and L is “link it to a negative experience”.  Again, you can just dismiss this as positive nonsense.  BUT, I believe if you actually practice it, you’ll see the results.  Neuroscience is behind this, not just wishful thinking.