Adjust Your Sails

ByDr. Marshall

Adjust Your Sails

I just read the most uplifting, optimistic, and helpful little piece of advice this morning. It’s from Susan J. Noonan, M.D.  She identifies herself as a physician, a patient, and an author, and I was curious as to why she had the courage to include patient as one of her descriptors. You can find the article at And you can, as I intend to do, read the entire book, Managing Your Depression: What You Can Do to Feel Better.

Dr. Noonan begins by quoting this simple phrase that she found on a four inch coaster: We cannot direct the winds but we can adjust our sails. I was immediately struck. Each week we see dozens of patients with anxiety and depression who are struggling with the challenges life sends our way. I also think about the teenagers we see who complain about not “being happy,” as though happiness is something that comes to us from the outside.

Granted, there are times when events or people make us happy. But day in and day out, happiness is not presented to us, it is something we create from the inside. And sometimes, we are blown off course by other people, by disappointments, and losses, and other things that life throws at us.  As Dr. Noonan writes:

“Sometimes we can’t do anything about the wind, these forces in life, other than adapt to them and adjust our approach.  A strong wind comes, or changes direction, and our best response is to tinker with the sails to avoid sinking our boat.  When things happen that are challenges in life, we can take steps and “adjust our sails” to modify the circumstances in our own behalf or better cope with them.  It reminds us we need to be flexible in life, constantly adjusting ourselves and our path in response to the world.” 

So when the winds in your life change, you have a choice. You can do nothing and let the winds take control, or you can “adjust your sails.” But what does exactly does that mean? Well for starters, it’s a reminder that we are not, nor are we meant to be, always happy. We all have our ups and downs, and, every once in a while, we get knocked off course by life’s strong winds. We are not supposed to be happy all the time; life, and life’s winds, just don’t work that way.

Second, it reminds us that there are things we can – and should – do that will get us back on course. This means that we have to see ourselves as captains of our own vessel. I often hear patients, especially teenagers, say that they aren’t motivated because they are depressed. What Dr. Noonan suggests is that that is precisely the time when we SHOULD do something. Early this week, for example, Dr. Berney and I did a podcast about using activity to combat depression (Treating Depression with Activity). The idea was the same. Don’t give in, don’t let emotions take over.

Third, when you take steps to adjust your sails, you are developing the skills to manage life’s ups and downs. The worst thing to do is to give in to these emotions. As we said in another podcast, we don’t choose our emotions, they occur to us as we experience life. Sometimes events make us happy and sometimes they make us unhappy. And when we are unhappy, we must develop the skills to adjust. It may mean a small adjustment or it may mean a large adjustment. But adjust we must.

Dr. Noonan offers a number of suggestions about how to adjust. And that’s why I’m getting the book. I want to know more of the things I can do to “adjust my sails.”

About the author

Dr. Marshall administrator

Richard Marshall earned an Ed.D. in reading and learning disabilities at West Virginia University in 1982. While completing his doctoral studies he served as an educational specialist in the Pediatric Neurology. Upon completion of his degree he became an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the WVU Medical School. After moving to Florida in 1983, he joined the faculty in the Department of Pediatrics in the College of Medicine at the University of South Florida and worked for five years in the Neonatal Developmental Follow-Up Program. In 1993, he completed a Ph.D. in School Psychology at the University of Georgia with an emphasis in Child and Adolescent Neuropsychology. Upon degree completion, he taught courses in the biological bases of behavior and neuropsychology at the University of Texas in Austin. He also served as developmental psychologist at the Children’s Hospital of Austin. He and his family returned to Florida in 2001 and he once more became a faculty member at the University of South Florida. He is presently an Associate Professor in the College of Education and he is an adjunct associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences at the USF College of Medicine. In 2008, Dr. Marshall co-authored the Pediatric Behavior Rating Scale; in 2011, he co-authored The Middle School Mind: Growing Pains in Early Adolescent Brains (2011) and is currently revising the Handbook for Raising an Emotionally Healthy Child (2012). In addition to writing and a busy schedule of workshops and presentations, Dr. Marshall also maintains a private practice in Lakeland, Florida where he specializes in the assessment and treatment of children and adults with emotional, behavioral, and learning disorders; parenting; family therapy; and couples counseling. As part of that practice he maintains a daily blog and he co-hosts The Mental Breakdown Podcast (iTunes, Google Play Music, and YouTube) and the Psychreg Podcast. He has spoken to professional and community groups throughout the United States, Canada, Europe, and South America.