Thursday, August 7, 2014

Stress Relief is Yours!

Stress gets a lot of air time, TV time, and print space these days.  Mostly we're discussing ways to relieve stress:  take some yoga classes, go for a walk, learn to meditate, take time for yourself...... YES, do all of those things!  But, that is not what this is about.  Today I am writing with the theory that most of our stress is self-made.  Yup, you are the cause of your own stress.  Doesn't mean stressful things aren't happening.  They are.  But, most of the stress I hear about in my office and in my classes is self-made.  Here's how:

1. We are too hard on ourselves.  The high expectations we have for ourselves are unreachable.  When I ask a client with something I consider to be too high an expectation I ask, "Do you expect that same behavior from your daughter?  Your friend?  Your partner?"  The answer is almost always "No, but...." and then I get a long circular, almost makes no sense story and rationale for the high expectation.  Then, the beating begins.  People with these too high expectations beat themselves up with so much judgment and criticism, it is impossible to imagine success ever being possible.

I also see a lot of perfectionism.  Perfectionists also create high expectations, but they go a bit further.  Mistakes are not allowed.  Stupidity (we all do it!) is not allowed.  Being human is not allowed.  So, when a mistake is made, something stupid is done, or their humanity shows through, perfectionists get so fraught with worry and rumination (think hamster wheel of the same thoughts "what if....., "I should have...." "what can I do to fix it?") that really getting things well done and solving problems with creativity and insight is all but impossible.  Anxiety over lack of perfection limits our brain capacity to open up to great solutions.  Ask yourself, "Did I do everything I could have to fix this?"  "Did I apologize, if needed?"  "Did I put something in place to make sure it doesn't happen again?"  Then. let it go...

The constant tape recordings of criticism and judgement that we allow to play and replay in our minds are just not necessary and totally NOT helping.  Not just perfectionists and those with high expectations have these recordings.  Many of us do and the recordings limit us severely from moving forward and creating successful personal and professional lives.  Turn those critical recordings off!  Just like that annoying song that played on the alarm clock radio and won't leave your head, replace it with something better.  The energy to make change in one's life comes from encouraging comments.  Not sugar-coated and syrupy, but real encouragement.  When the critic has a voice in your head, counter it with encouragement.

2.  We worry too much.  Thinking about something over and over does not solve it.  You know how you suddenly think of where you left your keys while in the shower?  This is what I am talking about.  Letting the mind move elsewhere allows different possibilities and connections and therefore, different solutions, ideas, and concepts.  Get away from that continual worry.  Let it go for a while.  Give it a break.  Do something enjoyable for an hour and see where the worry goes from there.  I bet it finds new territory toward a solution or loses significance to the point where you wonder why you worried so much.  Allow a little room for faith and trust.  You, god, nature, the universe, somebody will come through.....

3.  We deny our feelings.  Now, I am not talking about walking around blubbering and sad when sad, although if you want to express yourself this way, do it.  What I hear most is something like, "I shouldn't still feel this way."  Or, "People have it worse than me.  Why am I letting myself feel this miserable?"  Truth is, you do.  Denying it, saying you shouldn't feel it, doesn't change the feeling.  You have to change the feeling.  Stop spending time on what you shouldn't be feeling and accept the feeling. Let yourself feel it. Then, figure out what to do with it.  Maybe forgiveness?  Maybe expression?  Maybe lots of options will help.  See someone or talk to a friend and get an outside yourself suggestion or two.

4.  We think it is about us, waaaaay more often than it is.  People take a lot of things, things that have nothing to do with them, personally.  Most people outside of you are behaving not because of something you did or said, but because of something to do with themselves and their situation.  In addition, we want people to behave the way "they should" behave.  I spend a lot of time in my office listening to what my clients think others should be doing.  Since those others aren't there, it's obvious this isn't going anywhere.  Expecting others to do what they should (according to us) or spending time thinking about how another's behavior is caused by you in some way is just like beating your head up against a wall.  No good can come of it.  Let it go.  Yes, maybe they should.  Yes, maybe they did react to your behavior directly, but the reality is that most of the time, most of the people are running on what's inside of them and you, have no control over that.

5.  Speaking of control.....we need to stop.  There are things in life we can control, but there are many more we can not.  Let go of getting angry, upset, frustrated by what you can not control.  Example, you can not control rush hour traffic.  So, stop getting stressed out about it.  Find a workable solution.  There are lots of ways to accept what is and make it more enjoyable.  Let go of what you can not control.

6.  We spend way too much time on what sucks and not enough time on what's great.  Easy solution here is to be grateful.  Be grateful for every small aspect of your life that is OK, then build from there.  You don't make life better by focusing on what sucks.  You make it better by focusing and building on what is OK, great, fun, enjoyable, etc.  Build on the positive.  Or, you'll get better at the negative.

There is a whole lot of stress out there that doesn't need to exist at all.  You made it, you can unmake it!

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Be SMART When Setting Goals

Springtime often brings goals for losing weight, eating healthier, getting in shape for summer sports and activities....etc.  But, we are not always very successful with our goals and we are rarely successful at maintaining them.  Why?  There is something missing from our understanding of how the brain works, I believe.  So, even though we can make some changes, we often go back to old ways.  This isn't about willpower, this is about being SMART.

SMART is a pretty well known acronym to help set a format for goal setting. S is for Specific. M is for Measurable. A is for Attainable. R is for Relevant. T is for Time.  Let's take each one individually and do this right!

Be SPECIFIC.  Usually, we have a pretty good handle on where we are - for example, I can run 1 mile, I am 40 pounds over weight, I have $330 in savings.  We also have a good handle on what we want - I want to run 26.2 miles, I want to weigh 135 pounds, I want to have $950 in savings for my trip.  What is lacking and really important are the steps in between.  This is the part that needs to be specific.  It is also the part that teaches us and our brains the process of being successful.  The step by step process toward the goal acclimates the brain toward change and eases the body and mind in the direction of change.

It is important to focus less on the ultimate goal and more on the next specific step in the process toward the goal.  Using the goal - maybe an image on your mirror as a motivator can help fire up the emotions, but long term changes come from the step by step process on the way to the goal.  Here's how:  set specific weekly actions that are completely do-able, but ease you in the right direction.  Say going up 1/2 mile each week, losing 1 lb. per week, putting aside $10 each week.  Get specific about where that $10 is coming form, about how to decrease calories consumed or increase calories used, etc.

Make the goals MEASURABLE.  There has to be a way for you to show your brain you are there.  A way to celebrate and pat yourself on the back with each small step you make toward your goal.  The brain is firmly set in wanting to stay as things were.  It needs you to show it with each step in the right direction that this is it!  This is going to be great!  We need to keep going and never look back!  With each measurable step, celebrate, make a big deal of your success, stimulate that reward center with something that lets the brain begin to connect to this goal.

Make your goal ATTAINABLE.  The small steps along the way are going to help.  Be real here.  It is silly to force yourself on a journey toward a goal that doesn't serve your life in a positive way.  Don't set yourself up for failure.  If setting aside $50 a week makes you feel like you have to give too much up, you will fight your own goal.  If you ask your body to exercise too much, you will get injured and feel miserable.  Set yourself up for success!

Make sure the goal is RELEVANT.  A good example of a non-relevant goal is going on a quick fix diet.  If the diet is not sustainable, why bother?  A sustainable diet is one you can stay on FOREVER and maintain the healthy weight.  A relevant fitness goal sets you up for an event, yes, but then also sets you up for a healthy fitness lifestyle after the event.  The event is no longer the motivation, feeling great physically is.  Relevancy also helps the brain make connections that make the whole process easier, no matter what your goal.  The brain gets better through practice.  It also gets better when it can take something new and make it fit in with something old.  Making connections creates a higher level of success.

Be TIME-specific.  It is great to set this up with weekly achievements which then lead to monthly achievements which then lead to longer term goals!  Where will you be at each time juncture?  Now, one problem with time specifics is what happens when your goal at a certain date and time does happen?  Maybe there was an emergency fix needed on the car and you had to dip into the savings?  Or, an injury prevents certain training goals?  Then, reset.  Don't give up!  Life is not a perfect linear march to success.  When it becomes necessary to say, uh oh this is not possible as planned, then reset your time goals and get back on track.

Sometimes it is helpful to get some objective assistance and motivation for goal-setting.  Find yourself some support, someone to help with your plan, someone to help you celebrate, cheer you on.  Make this fun.  If it is torture and drudgery, it is only a temporary quick fix.  Long term goals require a good plan, steady, progress, rewards and fun!

Friday, January 31, 2014

Making stress my friend?!

I saw a TEDtalk from Kelly McGonigal and it is really making me think.  Watch the video.  It is 14 minutes long.  What she is saying is that we can use stress to our best advantage health-wise, just by changing our beliefs about stress itself.  I have seen beliefs make huge changes in people mental health-wise, but can beliefs change us physically as well?

Let's look at one study published in the European Heart Journal.  Just over 7,000 people were followed for 18 years and asked about their perceptions on stress.  Then, researchers looked at the participants' risk of cardiac disease and death.  Those that believed that stress has affected their health "a lot or extremely" were more likely to die of a heart attack.  Risk of heart attack, in fact, doubled.  This was found independent of other biological risk factors. Researchers stated that "people's perceptions about the impact of stress on their health are likely to be correct."  In other words, if you believe stress is harmful, it will be!  Read more on this study here.

Another study, the one that Kelly McGonigal is referring to, was published in Health Psychology and tracked 30,000 participants for 8 years.  Researchers concluded that people who have high incidences of stress and believe that stress is harmful have higher risks of dying prematurely.  How much higher?  43%!

Participants were surveyed yearly on how much stress they experienced over the past year.  They were then asked how much they believe the stress effected their health.  Participants were asked whether they attempted to cope with the stress in some way.  They were asked about their physical health over the past year as well as their mental health.  Ultimately, the self-report of physical health was merely about perception.  The real data marker researchers used was simply public death records - mortality.

Participants who reported stress, also reported poor health and psychological distress.  However, participants who reported they made attempts to cope with stress, were less likely to report poor physical health.  Might be that if we perceive we can cope with stress, we have fewer health effects.

Now, let's look at mortality.  It is important to note that just looking at stress levels did not predict mortality.  Nor, did just looking at one's belief that stress is harmful.  It is the two together that predict that 43% higher rate of premature death.  If one has a lot of stress and believes that stress is harmful, then premature death is more likely.  Read the study here.

This is not a causal relationship, so far.  This type of study can not ascertain cause.  But, it does indicate a very close relationship.  Because the relationship is within your control, why not make some changes?  Researchers theorize that what has been studied in psychology for years is likely present here as well.  People who expect negative things to happen to them, see negative things happening all the time.  It is hard to see the positive in life for these people.  They are likely to see their health as poor, their stress as too high, and their ability to cope as useless.   It's that old self-fulfilling prophecy thing.

In addition, there is resiliency or the ability to cope and overcome.  Might be that seeing stress as something one can overcome makes it less, well, stressful.  A biggie in the mental health field and in education is locus of control.  If I see events not as things that continually happen to me, coming at me from the outside world with me having no ability to control, I am much more able to cope and much more likely to see life optimistically.  However, having an external locus of control, causes people to see life pessimistically.  Negative events just keep happening and I am the victim.  Pretty stressful way to see life right?

Let's look at the stress response briefly.  The system is flooded with stress hormones.  We think all of these hormones are bad for us.  Truth is, it is more complicated than that.  Any feeling we have, is actually a complicated cocktail of hormones.  So, those "good" hormones can be present in bad feelings and "bad" hormones can be present in good feelings.  Example, oxytocin.  Oxytocin is considered a "good" hormone.  It makes us feel loving.  It makes us feel all warm and fuzzy inside.  However, it is released when stress is present.  You can learn more about that by watching Kelly's TEDtalk.  Others present will be adrenaline, cortisol, epinephrine, etc.  Ok, back to the stress response.  Once the stressful event is over, all of this goes away and a different dose of hormones is present.

Here's where I see and I interpret the information and research differently from Kelly McGonigal.  She says we only need to change our beliefs about stress.  Make stress your friend.  I say there is a two-pronged strategy to take. Change your beliefs and get better at coping.

Let's look at the person who is optimistic, who feels s/he can cope, who is resilient and knows the stressful event will end.  This person's stress response will end appropriately once coping mechanisms are in place and positive belief systems take over.  The person who is pessimistic, has poor coping skills, and feels a victim to stressful life events will not be able to turn off the stress response.  A constant exposure to the stress hormone cocktail is deleterious to physical health.  Eventually, this will cause health issues - poor heart health, weak immune response, digestive problems and more.  Not only that, why bother with healthy choices?  Why eat well?  Why exercise?  We're all gonna die anyway, right?  So, what we each need is to be able to cope better and we need to believe we can overcome stress successfully.

We need an arsenal of coping mechanisms for stress.  I am not going to address these here, because I covered what you can do to take control of the stress response in my August blog.  Read it and make yourself a "tool belt" of coping skills.

We also need to address our belief systems - believing stress is harmful, seems to make it more harmful.  If you don't yet believe what I've shared here, educate yourself on this research.  Educate yourself on how the brain works.  Start creating optimism.  If you complain, stop complaining.  Place a bracelet/rubber band on your wrist for every complaint.  Eventually, train yourself to get to a day that is complaint free.  Create affirmations:  "I believe, I can cope."  "My body is strong and healthy and can handle this stress."  "I can get through this.  I am strong."  You get the idea, right? When you think negative thoughts, change them to positive thoughts. Try gratitude.  This is a great way to become more optimistic, to see the light at the end of the tunnel, to have some faith.  Focus on what is positive and present each day - from the tiniest things, to the big things, to things normally taken for granted, to the obvious.  There are gratitude programs available online.  There are books on gratitude.  Plenty of resources out there.  This isn't about losing touch with reality.  Reality is positive as well as negative.  We only have so much attention - how about more of the attention going in a positive direction and less going in the negative direction, for the sake of good health?

If having large amounts of stress and believing stress is harmful have such a strong unhealthy relationship, it is time to take your mental and physical health under your control.  Stress will happen.  It will likely happen today and probably tomorrow.  Saying big deal, I can handle it and then doing so reduces negative health effects.  Learn to deal and learn to believe!