Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Stress! Be in Control.

Let's start off by looking at a simplistic version of what happens when you face stress. The nervous system which I will separate into 2 parts - the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic is made up of the brain, spinal cord and nerves which are all communicating with the body via neurotransmitters, bio-chemicals, essentially what I will from now on call hormones. 

The sympathetic nervous system is the first responder: The brain decides there’s a danger, it sends nerve signals down your spinal cord to your adrenal glands and they release the hormone adrenaline. Adrenaline increases the amount of sugar in your blood, increases your heart rate, raises your blood pressure, causes you to sweat, and increases muscle tension – getting you ready for fight or flight.  Signals are also sent to your pituitary gland, telling it to release hormones that within a few minutes have traveled through your blood stream and stimulated your adrenal cortex to produce a stress hormone called cortisol.  This process also shuts down unnecessary systems such as digestion, reproduction, immune protection, and cognitive (rational thinking) processes.  These systems are unnecessary in the immediate presence of danger.  Problem is, we perceive life’s stressors as continual and our nervous system is unable to regulate itself properly and turn these systems back on to ideal levels of functioning.

The parasympathetic nervous system is the adjusterthis is what we have to learn to control and in controlling it, we get the systems of long term survival (digestion, etc.) turned back on to normal, healthy functioning and get the muscles, blood pressure and that fight or flight response back to a normal level.  The parasympathetic is meant to adjust the initial stress reaction to an appropriate level once it's no longer needed.  At bedtime, the brain should be telling the parasympathetic that all is well and we can sleep now.  Instead, we are still fuming about the incident at work, or worrying about the next day's schedule.  The parasympathetic doesn't know what's real and what's perceived danger, so the stress response continues.

So, how do we communicate better with the parasympathetic nervous system?  It's not that hard really, but you have to actually DO it - regularly and maybe, probably, every single day.

·        Breathwork - Breathing is a process you have to do and yet you pretty easily can have some control over. Deep breathing stimulates the relaxation response, triggering the parasympathetic nervous system.  Belly breathing:  Breathe so far into the lungs that the diaphragm drops into the belly, expanding it.  If you place your hand on your belly, it moves outward as the belly expands.  Full yogic breath:  Belly breath + breathing all the way up to the collar bones. After breathing into the belly keep inhaling, feel the rib cage lifting up and then expanding outward toward the insides of the arms as the breath fills the lungs.

      Visualization – Learn to control the mind with visions of calming places and/or memories.  It's easy to think about how worried we are about something, how we dread the stress of the work day, the irritating drive through rush hour traffic, etc.  This thinking is what causes the stress reaction in the first place.  So, why don't we then think about the beauty of the sunrise, the calm color of the sky, the peaceful sound of a favorite song?  Taking your mind to a calm place should be the automatic opposite reaction to stress.  And yet, it isn't.  The mind doesn't know the difference between the real thing and a vision or memory.  Sports psychology has used this method for years.  Before a race, skiers visualize the slope they have only practiced on 5-6 times.  Going over the activity in the brain, makes the brain better at it. Visualize calm and peace and train your brain toward calm and peace!

Meditation – Meditation is like weight lifting - it teaches the brain to focus and teaches it to ignore distractions, so it gets stronger.  If I want to make my bicep stronger, I do bicep curls.  And yet, we don't do exercises to strengthen the brain!  What the brain spends the most time on, it gets good at doing.  Thinking over and over about stressful situations, makes the brain really good at stress.  Meditating allows us to control what the brain pays attention to and makes it stronger at thinking about what we choose.  A simple meditation technique is mindfulness.  Mindful breathing is simply focusing on the breath.  Any other task such as cleaning, driving, playing, walking, etc. can also be mindful meditations.

Relaxation – We often think that flopping on the couch in front of the TV with a bowl of chips and a beer is relaxation.  But, it isn't usually.  Because what we watch is often stressful - the news, crime dramas, etc. tension continues to exist in the body.  In addition, we are putting stressful substances into the body.  Learning to identify when tension is present in the body and letting it go, is true relaxation and is the response the body and the mind need to make sure we've turned stress off. 

Yoga, Tai Chi, Qigong, etc. – Conscious/aware movements that combine breathing, movement, relaxation, and focus and teach the body and mind to function in a state of ease.  These activities require the mind and body to connect through movement which makes for a meditative state.  Many other forms of exercise can do this as well, but only if done so mindfully.  If running with an iPod is your normal way to go, you are not being conscious and aware of the exercise.  The benefits will not be the same. In most, but not all, Yoga, Tai Chi, Qigong, etc. classes teaching how to breathe and when is part of the class, as is relaxation.  There is also a certain focusing of the mind for many of the movements.  This combination teaches the mind and body to work together in a state of ease sometimes known as flow.

      Start training your nervous system away from the stress response and reap the benefits in improved physical and mental health!

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Theme of Perfection

There's a theme in my office - client after client after client comes in with a mentality of perfectionism which then equates to an all or nothing pattern of thinking and being.  There's a spectrum here that goes from controlling certain aspects of one's environment to obsessive-compulsive disorders.  Most of us are somewhere in the middle or toward the controlling side of the spectrum, but others are more severe.  In addition, many suffer with anxiety, depression, and addiction due to this mentality. What's going on and what can be done about it?

There's an aspect of control in each case of perfectionism.  A client seeks to control outcomes, to control the external environment, and even to control the behavior and thoughts of other people.  We can all see how this is not going to end well and yet I bet each of us can admit to doing this in some or many life situations.  Logically, realistically, we know we can't have this level of control and yet, we keep trying.  Likely, this comes from some childhood experience/s of trying to please others, or create calm in a home full of chaos, or some traumatic event or recurring events.

There's something commonplace about this - many of us do it with some aspects of our lives.  Not usually a big deal.  However, it's a debilitating problem for others.  Nothing is ever good enough.  Many of my clients fail to meet their own expectations on a daily basis.  Every mistake, every failure, every misstep becomes a tragedy of shame and blame and often overwhelming perceptions of failure.  "Why am I like this?!" I hear. Successes are ignored, seen as a fluke, and/or chalked up to some external source.  They may think the same way about other people - behaving judgmentally, criticizing, and creating anger and impatience with every personal interaction. 

What this might look like for some is a daily existence of overwhelming anxiety - days full of tasks that need to be done just right.  The anxiety of fulfilling expectations is too much to face each day. The result of which might be substance abuse, over-eating, other addictions such as sex or shopping, depression and more.  Each person chooses coping mechanisms and many of them aren't particularly healthy.

For others, it looks like anger, rage, and frustration.  Someone working to the point of frustration going over and over a task, nit picking over every detail, over-thinking every aspect of a task.  This often coincides with an over-critical look at other people - no one is ever good enough, no task ever done the way it should be by others and a need to do things over.  Every day just becomes tedious and frustrating.  Some days they just give up, completely overwhelmed or turn to unhealthy and sometimes dangerous coping mechanisms.

It may also look a bit like obsessive-compulsive disorder or what was once commonly known as being "type A."  True obsessive-compulsive disorder doesn't just involve thinking obsessively, but also involves a need to do something compulsively with repetition in order to relieve the anxiety. What I am referring to here with perfectionism is a need to get something done so it looks or seems a certain way - trying to control the outcome, to create a level of pride or validation to the point of obsession.  Unfortunately, nothing ever seems to be enough.  What looks to others as success, to this type of person is still not right.  Life is a struggle toward a constantly shifting goal.  And, again, it leads to poor coping skills.

This almost always turns into "all or nothing" thinking and behaving.  The person with overwhelming anxiety gets up and gets going and has a great day one day and the next is so overcome with anxiety, that she can't leave the house. So it goes back and forth, up and down.  Exhausting!  The person working to the point of frustration, works too hard and then parties too hard.  The ups and downs of this lifestyle become unsustainable.  The obsessive-like person lives unsatisfied, trying to find that place where all will be as he sees it in his mind and anything but that ideal is equal to nothing.  They have their perception of "all" and anything less is the same as nothing - no balance, no in between, no exceptions.

So what is the solution?  No one solution can fit all, but to start, finding a sense of balance is necessary.  The extremes of life are always incredibly difficult.  Being the best at anything can be just as hard as being the worst (ask successful musicians, athletes, etc.).  The extreme ends of the spectrum are too difficult to manage.  So, balance is needed.  Find somewhere in between with some variation up and down from that in-between state.  Talking to one's self about accepting balance, about letting go of perfection will be needed to train the brain away from the all or nothing mentality.  Clients come to me unwilling to accept that this is true, but gradually, I help them to see that they are ruining their lives and their relationships by being perfectionistic in their thinking.  All or nothing thinking, does not lead to"all", it leads to "nothing", to failure, to addiction, to unhappiness, and more......

Another way to change our thinking is in the science. Success= learning from mistakes and from experience.  It's proven by science and studies on human behavior that we learn more from mistakes than we do from success.  If we can just take each mistake, each failure and look at it as a learning opportunity, we'd be on our way!  The next time you make a mistake, open yourself to the opportunity rather than condemning yourself as a failure and a screw up.  In that opening, comes the chance to see what's possible, what went wrong, to create new outcomes and better understanding.  Life is like a science experiment.  Try something, it doesn't work, learn from that, try something else.

Finally, shame does not help with learning or growth.  Period.  We learn least from punishment and more from modeling and encouragement.  Study after study since B. F. Skinner's time of in-depth study on human behaviors has shown that to go in a positive direction, create a positive consequence or learning situation.  Shame and embarrassment are meant to be indicators - "hey, this is not ok, this is not right, do it differently!"  Instead, we drag that shame around and repeatedly beat ourselves up with it.  Not helpful, so stop, now.

Breathing and meditation can help with this.  Breathing helps the body relax.  Relaxing the body releases tension and this will help us to work with the mind.  Easing the stress reaction in the body, turns off our simplistic, survivalist brain mechanisms and let's the reasoning faculties be more in charge.  This will then allow us to talk ourselves out of the all or nothing pattern.

Meditation teaches the brain to focus.  It teaches us to control our thoughts.  So, doing the work suggested above can happen, because your brain is ready, willing, and able.  Meditation can literally make us better at thinking!

A combination of the cognitive - thinking- skills suggested above with a meditation and breathing practice each day can turn this perfectionistic thinking around, creating balance and a greater level of success and happiness.