Monday, December 17, 2018

The Magical Word "AND"

At any time of the year, but particularly now in the midst of the holiday season, the word "and" can have magical qualities.

Holidays bring us in contact with people we don't normally see and expose us to announcements, life events and celebrations.  This can be very painful if we're struggling with our own feelings - perhaps grief, a challenging relationship, loss of a job, a child going through a hard time, etc. We often feel confused and polarized into "either/or": I'm either happy for you or I'm sad, I'm either a good person who feels joy for others or I'm a selfish person who only feels my sadness. The truth is we often feel both - happy for the other person's joy and sad about our own pain.

The word "and" allows us to be healthy humans who feel more than one emotion at a time. 

Creating a statement (to use aloud, or to say silently to ourselves) can help.
For example:

  • I'm happy to learn about your engagement, and I'm struggling with my own recent break up.
  • Congratulations on your promotion, I'm happy for you, and I'm having a really hard time with my own unemployment.
  • I'm happy for you that your parents' are celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, and I'm deeply grieving another holiday season without my mom/dad, etc.
  • It's wonderful that you're expecting a baby - I'm happy for you, and I'm sad that I'm still trying to have a baby.
  • Congratulations on your child getting into a wonderful college, I'm happy for him/her, and I'm very worried that my own child is struggling so much.

It's important to remember that our own pain does not mean we resent the happiness of others, and it's equally important to remember that we are allowed to feel and express our pain - doing so does not take away from the joy of others. 

If you find yourself in a situation like this, you can choose to share out loud that you're feeling complex emotions, or you can acknowledge it silently to yourself - this will give you permission to have joy for others while also having your own grief/pain without self-judgement.

Click here for more ways to cope with stress during the holiday season.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Holiday-Emotions Survival Guide

It seems like just a few weeks ago we were flooded with first-day -of-school pictures, and somehow we are suddenly on the verge of another holiday season.

As decorations and holiday music are flooding the stores, advertisements remind us to plan gift/shopping lists, and invitations to parties start rolling in it's normal to have a mixture of emotions.

The hope is that we will be filled with feelings of gratitude, love and connection to our communities; however it's often not that simple. It's normal to feel stressed and overwhelmed during the holidays; sometimes having even more difficult feelings to cope with like anxiety, loneliness, depression, resentment, or worse.

There are some key things we can do to manage the pressures and emotional triggers of the holidays. 

Here is a guide from previous posts I've written including How to Set Limits (Saying No), Invisible Grief, and Coping With Anxiety.  Each section has a link to the original, full post:

Permission to Say "No" (read full article here)
Trying our best to meet the endless list of expectations put upon us often leads to resentment, anger, anxiety or depression. This instensifies if our own needs and feelings don't seem to matter to others.
It's normal to fear disappointing people and making them angry with us; however, setting limits is a critical part of surviving the holiday season (and life in general). It's essential to remember that your own emotional wellbeing matters as much as others' - in fact you have a legitimate, basic human right to say no, possibly disappointing others sometimes - doing so does not make you a bad person....even if people try to make you feel that way!

Invisible Grief (read full article here)
Certainly the loss of a loved one, no matter how long ago, can trigger feelings of grief during the holidays. Something that can be even harder to bear is Invisible Grief -  losses that others can't easily see: spending the holidays apart from family members (children who are grown, or college students who can't come home), losing a friendship, estrangement within your family or losing a support system such a job, group, club or community, etc.
When our grief is invisble we don't receive the support, compassion or understanding we typically get during loss. This can deepen feelings of isolation and complicate our ability to cope.
If you're struggling with grief - visible or invisible - consider sharing your feelings with others and allowing yourself to ask for support. 

Managing Anxiety
Holiday anxiety tends to center around 3 factors: 
  • Fear Of Upsetting/Disappointing Others (read more here)
      As mentioned above, holiday pressure is enormous and often unrealistic. Remember that you are allowed to say no and/or disappoint others sometimes; doing so does not make you a bad person.
Healthy relationships should be able to tolerate disappointment and allow for each person to negotiate meeting their needs. If your needs are not accepted, it's possible you have a bigger issue going on - the health of the relationship.

  • Feeling Powerless (read more here)
      The bombardment of demands and pressure during the holidays can easily make us feel powerless and overwhelmed. Instead of focusing on what you cannot do, focus on the things you can do to empower yourself and reclaim a feeling of some control.
You can decide which activites are important to you and select only those
You can make your tasks more realistic and managable
You can say no to things that make you feel bad.

  • Focusing On The Past Or The Future (read more here)
      This is the most common way people panic themselves: focusing on something upsetting from the past (which the holidays can easily trigger) or catastrophising the future. 
      Simple mindfulness strategies can quickly and effectively bring us back to the present moment and undo this type of anxiety.

To survive the stress and emotions of the holidays create a list of the things that are most important to you, a plan for achieving those things, and allow yourself to say no to whatever feels upsetting or overwhelming.
If we can remember that the holidays are a time of celebration, appreciation and thankfulness, and reconnecting with people and things that are important to us, it becomes much easier to navigate the demands of the season.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Taming Anxiety and Stress

Just about everyone I know struggles with stress and anxiety, some of us more than others; but very few people know the skills to manage and prevent these feelings.

While everyone's stress is different, there are two components that are universal to all anxiety and stress.  Learning some simple techniques can create a huge difference in how we feel throughout the day, how we relate to others and our overall well being.

I came across Amishi Jha during an interview on the radio and was instantly fascinated.  She is a neuropsychologist who studies attention. She validated the main causes of stress and anxiety that I see every day - and how to use this information to build the skills to decrease or eliminate stress and anxiety! 

Here are the key points I got from her TedX talk:

1. Attention works like an amplifier
  • Wherever attention (focus) goes, the brain follows
  • Attention is like a flashlight in a dark room - where you shine the light is what you see and focus on
  • What we choose to focus on directly impacts our perception
What do you focus on?
Do you want to feel happy but focus on what could go wrong, what you dislike about a situation or about yourself, what you can't control or what makes you feel powerless? 
Where you shine the flashlight (focus) is what you see. If you focus on the negatives you are going to feel stressed and upset. If you want to feel happy and peaceful, focus on the positives - what you have accomplished, what did go right, the things you can control and the ways things worked out in the past.

2. Mind Wandering
When we are stressed, our minds tend to wander into memories of the past or into fantasies about the future; but that's not all - these wanderings often become ruminations about upsetting events from the past, and catastrophizing about the future.  This is a sure-fired way to create anxiety.

Ironically, the more stressed and anxious we are, the more we tend to do these things, and the more we do them, the more stressed and anxious we become. 

Dr. Jha explains something most therapists know - an extremely effective way to calm and prevent anxiety is to stay present-focused. It is almost impossible to become anxious and stressed if we are truly focused on the moment.  

Chances are you've had this experience naturally: getting lost in a moment of extreme focus such as when playing sports or musical instruments, creating art, working on a hobby, a compelling project or are connecting with nature. It is impossible to be worrying while genuinely engrossed in an experience - we often lose track of time and everything else, including our stress and anxiety. 

There are simple ways to recreate this type of present-oriented focus, such as learning easy breathing techniques, sensory awareness, guided meditation or mindfulness training. 

These skills pay off exponentially by calming stress and anxiety AND protecting us from it in the future. Like physical exercise, the more we practice mindfulness techniques, the better we get at them.

The next time you find yourself feeling anxious or stressed, "pay attention to your attention" (Jha) - notice what you're focusing on. Most likely you are focusing on the negatives while also ruminating about the past or worrying and catastrophizing about the future. Try learning some simple ways to bring your focus back to the present moment and notice that your anxiety and stress will calm down immediately. 

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

A Truly Happy New Year

It's the New Year and many of us feel we should be reflecting on ourselves and setting goals; however, in our focus to push forward and work hard we often miss one critical factor - we must first turn inwards and let go. This can be harder than it sounds.

Sometimes we easily see the things holding us back - that broken-up relationship we can't let go of, a betrayal that still burns, grief for a loved one we're mourning; but the things that really hold us back tend to be deeply hidden and invisible. These are the old beliefs about ourselves WE DON'T EVEN REALIZE WE HAVE. Let that sink in for a minute.

We all have beliefs we're unaware of:
I have to do everything myself
No one appreciates me
I'm not allowed to put my needs first
I don't deserve _____ (love, money, happiness, etc)
I always ___ (mess things up, quit, disappoint, etc) 
Asking for help is weak
Etc., etc....

These thoughts shape and define our interactions with the people and the world around us much more than we realize, becoming self-fulfilling prophesies that "prove" us right and deepen our hold on these myths.

None of us are born this way, so how did this happen? Somewhere in our early years we were taught un-truths about ourselves and, because we were young and vulnerable, we believed them. Now that we're older, we can learn to recognize and un-do these hurtful, self-limiting beliefs.

If you're looking for proof that you will be mistreated and hurt, you will find it, but there are also many ways to find happiness if you're ready. The first step is letting go of those old painful stories. Chances are, you've been carrying them around most of your life; maybe this New Year it's time for something really new - a positive belief in yourself.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Another (Sad?) School Year

While some of us have been counting down the days to the start of another school year ("get these kids to school, please!"), others are feeling more melancholy.

There are many things about the start of school that can trigger feelings of sadness, even grief: graduation, kids going to college, young children starting school for the first time - all of these are changes, more importantly they are losses of what was.

Typically, we are expected to celebrate our children growing up and moving on, certainly graduations are a big accomplishment; and while we are joyful for their growth and achievements, it is normal to have a sense of loss too. These feelings can catch us off guard or be disregarded by others (see my post on Invisible Grief to learn more).

Additionally, the beginning of the school year can trigger anxiety and dread for adults who had trouble going to school when they were kids. If you struggled with school yourself as a child, either because you were bullied or because you had anxiety about being away from home, it's normal to feel uncomfortable with this time of year.

For those of you finding yourselves feeling sad about the start of a new school year, know that you are not alone.  It may not be the most popular topic on social media, but it is certainly shared by many. Reach out to others who feel the same, or who can lend a compassionate shoulder and a willing ear to listen. Perhaps seek out a friend who has children slightly older and ask them how they coped through these phases. Most importantly, respect your feelings and allow time to work through the big changes that are very real to you.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Can't We Just Get Along?

Opinions are running very strong these days, which can make having a civil discussion with someone who disagrees with you feel impossible. However, this is one of the most important skills mature adults need to cultivate in order to lead healthy lives, not just about politics, but about any issue.

Despite how crucial it is to be able to disagree without destroying relationships, most people have no idea how to do this effectively. 

While many of us are required to take classes in high school that teach basic health, hygiene and reproductive information; and some of us even learn basics about cooking, cleaning and childcare, there are no classes in school that teach how to interact with others, how to be a good friend or partner and certainly no formal education on how to handle conflict. When it comes to our most important relationships we have to wing-it, and when there is a disagreement or opposing view point we have to do our best to figure out how to handle that, often with negative results. 

Towson University professor Andrew Reiner offers a seminar called "Mister Rogers 101: Why Civility and Community Still Matter". In it, students learn the basics on how to connect with others civilly, respect opposing view points and appreciate why others see things the way they do.

Reiner encourages his students to have conversations with people they disagree with and he gives specific rules to follow.

When discussing opposing view points:
  • No interrupting
  • No raising of the voice
  • No eye-rolling
  • No smirking
  • No waiting for the other person to finish so you can jump to disagree
  • When the other person finishes, ask questions about what led them to come to their opinion, theory or conclusion.

While this is great advice for discussing politics (if you must), it is equally important advice for any sort of relationship.  We are all bound to disagree at some point, probably with the people who matter most to us. It's important that we have a way to approach disagreements that don't leave one another feeling hurt, dismissed or worse. 

As Reiner explains, if we have no ability to tolerate opinions different from our own, we will keep removing people from our lives one by one until there is no one left.  While that might work on social media, it is a very poor way to live. 

I suggest each of us take on these guidelines for all discussions, especially in our most important relationships.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Thriving Emotionally

At the beginning of a new year we often focus on self-improvement - better health, more success, etc; however we overlook one extremely important factor for happiness and good health: emotional well-being.

In his TED talk "The Importance of Practicing Emotional Hygiene", Guy Winch, Ph.D. explains that we learn from a very early age how to take care of ourselves physically, but we have no idea how to take care of ourselves emotionally. Ironically, we sustain emotional and psychological injuries (such as loneliness, failure or rejection) far more often than physical injuries.

Left unaddressed, these emotional and psychological injuries can have as strong a negative impact on our life expectancy as physical diseases. The effect of long-term loneliness can shorten one's life by 14% and is as dangerous to one's life expectancy as cigarette smoking (Winch).

The areas most vulnerable to emotional pain are loneliness, failure and rejection. When wounded in these areas, not only do we feel pain, but we inaccurately perceive life and the people around us to be harsher and more painful than they actually are. Winch explains how to heal these types of injuries:

Loneliness is defined as feeling emotionally or socially disconnected from people and can occur even when surrounded by others.
Loneliness won't just make you miserable, it will kill you. Chronic loneliness causes high blood pressure, high cholesterol, negatively impacts your immune system and shortens life expectancy by 14 years (Winch).
It's essential to build connections and create a sense of community for yourself.

It's important to be very aware of how you handle failure. If your mind tries to convince you that you're incapable of something, you will begin to feel helpless and will give up - thus proving to yourself that your mind was right and you are incapable. This is clearly nonsense, but it becomes truth if we allow it to and is the reason why so many people function below their potential. Einstein said "it's not that I'm smart; it's just that I stay with problems longer."
It's critical to fight feelings of helplessness, gain control over the situation and break the negative cycle of feeling incapable before it begins. 

Rejection is extremely painful. When our self-esteem is lower, we are more vulnerable to stress and anxiety, failures and rejections hurt more and take longer to recover from; however, instead of soothing and nurturing ourselves after rejection, we tend to criticize and demean ourselves in ways much worse than we would ever do to someone else. We damage our self-esteem while it's already hurting. This is very poor emotional hygiene.
When you experience rejection, the most important thing to do is rebuild your self esteem and treat yourself as kindly and gently as you would your most cherished friend.
Protect your self-esteem.

Just like your physical health, your emotional health is your responsibility and the attention you give to it will have a tremendous impact on the quality and length of your life. While you cannot control all variables in life, just like with physical health, there are basic things you can do to maintain a baseline of good health, and steps to take to recover when feeling poorly: by building connections when you're lonely, changing your negative responses to failure and protecting your self esteem you will be following the basic components of good mental hygiene. You will quickly see a drastic improvement in your well-being, build emotional resilience and begin to thrive.