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Back to School

A little over a year ago, I signed up for tennis lessons. I had always wanted to play, but just never got around to learning how. I headed to my first group lesson excited. But there was also this strange nervous feeling deep in my stomach that I hadn’t anticipated. I am, generally, a pretty confident person. Professionally, I frequently advise people to just get out there and try something new—whatever it is—and that the thoughts of “what if I fail” are just that, only thoughts. But going to that first tennis lesson and listening to my own self-doubting mental soundtrack when I missed a ball or tripped over my own feet gave me a good dose of empathy for kids.

Unlike adults, kids don’t have a whole lot of choice about when and if they learn something new. Sure, we may ask them before signing up for soccer or dance or music instruction.. But readin’, writin’, and ‘rithmetic—well they don’t have much of a choice. In our culture, kids are going to school and gosh darn it they are going to learn academics. If I, as a confident, mature adult, experienced doubts learning something new by choice for one hour a week, can you imagine the kinds of doubts most kids must have when first learning to read, write, and add and subtract for seven hours a day, five days a week? Those doubts are inevitably compounded for the significant chunk of kiddos for whom reading, writing, and math does not come easily, or for kids who are dealing with social or emotional difficulties.

So how do we balance the need to help our children learn while supporting them and empathizing with how difficult and can be to put yourself “out there” and risk vulnerability and failure when trying something new? It is important to remember that there is no learning without some level of failure. As parents, educators, and other helping adults, we need to monitor what a child is capable of and let them experience the smaller failures while supporting and encouraging them. Reminding them that no one learns everything the first time around and that there is nothing lost by trying something new even if you are not immediately successful may help. Reminding them that they are loved and worthy of love unconditionally goes far. As a society, we tend to place a huge emphasis on accomplishment and goal-driven behavior. When providing feedback and praise to children, it is important to separate the “person” from the “act”. For instance, one can say “I am so proud of you because you got 100% on your spelling test! You’re an awesome speller!”, or one can say “I am so proud of you because you worked so hard to learn your words! You are determined and applied yourself. That’s something I hope you feel proud about, too.” Though it may seem subtle, the second response does several important things:
–it places the emphasis on the process of learning and the child’s application of him/herself to the task
–it takes the emphasis off of the end result (the test score)–ultimately, the end result (the way we measure learning) is not as important as the act of learning (the process)
–it encourages him/her to congratulate him/herself, an important skill. Adults don’t always receive external praise and must learn to provide themselves with their own positive feedback
–it doesn’t define the child by his or her accomplishments—the first response “you’re an awesome speller” uses a child’s test score to define a portion of their personhood. The flaw in this logic is that if the children internalize the idea that “I am what I do”, then when they inevitably do poorly on something, they will incorporate that poor grade into their self-definition, leading potentially to feelings of low self-esteem/self-worth, shame, and doubt.

With back to school season here, be mindful of your little ones and everything they are asked to do (without their choice) and with no guarantees of success. Applaud them for taking risks and putting themselves “out there” as learners, and reframe their perceived failures as a necessary and expected part of the learning process. Share with them how you as an adult feel nervous when trying something new and how you sometimes fail but learn through the process. Be empathic when they feel the same way. Above all, hold them close and love them for who they are and not just for what they do. Happy “Return to School” everyone!

Extinction Burst: Why it’s Darkest before Dawn

I recently put heads together with a family with whom I worked. Despite working diligently on behavior plans at home and regular attendance in therapy–which seemed to be helping–their son was still having pretty extreme behavior issues. In some instances, more intense difficulties than prior to commencing treatment, although the problems were happening less frequently. The parents were confused, frustrated, and worried. Confused and frustrated that things weren’t working consistently, and worried that their child had some more significant mental health issues than we initially thought. We puzzled it through, and ultimately made the plan to stick to the course and give things more time. And you know what? Things very rapidly got better.

In psychology, this phenomenon is known as extinction burst. While that may sound like something involving dinosaurs and helium balloons, extinction burst refers to the tendency for a behavior to accelerate in frequency when reinforcement is removed. If you ever took intro to psych, you read about pigeons and rats pushing and pecking on bars to receive food pellets. The little critters associate the act of pushing/pecking the bar with receiving the food. They’re no dummies, so they keep pecking/pushing and they get their food more frequently. This is operant conditioning at it’s most basic–a behavior that is reinforced will tend to be repeated. Once the operant conditioning learning sequence is complete, the mean old scientist types can decrease how often the behavior is reinforced. For instance, rather than giving a food pellet for every bar push/peck, the poor hungry critter might get reinforced for every fifth peck, or every tenth peck, or every thirtieth peck. And how often the food is given may be variable, so that one time it might take three pecks, another twelve, the next four, the next twenty-seven… you get the idea. A variable reinforced behavior tends to become the most resistant to change, as the creature must say to itself something like “wow, if I just keep pushing a few more times I’m sure to get that tasty pellet!” Trying to decrease a previously reinforced behavior is called extinction. To extinguish a behavior, you stop reinforcing it. Cold turkey. If the behavior was established using a variable reinforcement schedule, it will take awhile to extinguish. And just before the behavior is extinguished, it tends to increase. This increase is called extinction burst.

So how does this apply to people? Our most entrenched behaviors tend to be those that are variably reinforced. Take for instance the child who wants a candy at the front of the grocery store. Little Joey asks and mom says no. Asks again, mom says no. Asks a third time, mom says no. Asks a fourth time while mom is busy talking to the checker and she throws up her hands and says in an exasperated voice “oh for goodness sake yes, get the candy, but this is the last time.” Poor mom. She just created a variable reinforcement paradigm. And before we all tsk-tsk at her, most of us who’ve gone down the road of parenting have been-there-done-that at some point! Next time this mom is in the store, little Joey knows to ask multiple times, because at some point mom is sure to say yes. So next time, he may have to ask many more times before mom gives in. And maybe mom won’t give in, which will actually result in an increase in asking. Stay the course, brave mom! This is extinction burst, as fun to listen to as fingernails on a chalkboard for most parents. Try to ignore it, take a deep breath, and know that once you have set a limit it is so important to stick to that limit if you want to avoid a repeat. Another example of how short term parenting solutions (giving in to stop the whining) set up long term parenting nightmares (demands every time you are in the store).

Of course, we full grown mature adults are immune to extinction burst, right? Wrong. Think about the last time you tried to institute a new habit–or quit a bad habit. You may have had an initial strong commitment and motivation to this new habit. After that initial motivation faded, you may have found it harder and harder to resist the call of your former ways. That, my friends, is extinction burst. The difference for adults versus children is that we generally hold the keys to our own reinforcement. We can go to the store and buy that high sugar treat when we are trying to cut back, or we can lounge on the lazy boy when we know we would do better to excercise. While it is certainly hard for parents to stay the course and stick to their guns with kids, it can also be hard to constantly keep yourself motivated and stick to your goals. But just at the moment when you are ready to cave in and can’t seem to persevere, remember extinction burst. You are likely at the crux of turning a corner from “working on a habit” to “kicking a habit”. Reframe your thinking around this and try to view the difficulty as a sign of progress–it is! Remember that little rat in your brain, pushing on that bar, getting more and more frustrated… he’ll stop soon and you’ll have freedom!

Foods that Do and Don’t Help you Sleep (I was Surprised!)

This article from Eating Well magazine reviews research on foods that help you sleep. I was quite surprised to see some popular beliefs about sleep-inducing foods dismissed, and surprised to see what actually has been shown in the lab to increase sleep. Take a peek and tell me your reaction.

Perchance to Sleep, Post 3: No more Naps!

I know, I know, this will not be a popular post.  But remember, we’re talking about how to improve nighttime sleep for people with sleep difficulties.  I’m not talking about the occasional, Sunday afternoon, big mid-day meal followed by a snooze on the lazyboy.  So before you all start yelling at me that you’ve worked hard and deserve the occasional nap, hear me, I’m right there with you. 

However, if you are having sleep problems at night and taking regular daytime naps, you may want to consider giving up the afternoon snooze.  Hard to do.  If you’re not sleeping regularly at night and feeling sleepy during the day, it seems like a good idea to get some shut eye.  But regular daytime naps do help abate sleepiness, even though they are not necessarily as restful as a good night’s sleep.  When you sleep during the day, you decrease sleepiness, one of the primary motivators for falling asleep at your desired bedtime.

If you have regular sleeping difficulties, set a bedtime and a time to wake up that is reasonable and makes sense for your schedule.  Get up at your wake up time, no matter how much or how little sleep you got, and don’t nap during the day.  Yes, you may have a couple of crummy, bone-tired days, but you should eventually begin sleeping better at night.  Be reasonable in the sleep that you request from your body.  If you are currently sleeping only 4 hours a night, shoot for a goal of 6 hours of sleep to start with and build your way up to 7 or 8 hours.  Trying to start with 8 hours of solid sleep may set yourself up for some frustrating sheep counting.

As always, talk with your physician or a mental health provider for more specific ideas to help your situation, and to rule out any medical issues that may be affecting your sleep.  Sweet dreams!

Perchance to Sleep, post 2

Over the years, the public service announcement has changed.  When I was what we now refer to as  a “tween”, it was the “This is your brain on drugs” PSA with the image of an egg frying in a pan.  I guess it worked since I remember it so well all these years later.  Generations younger than me have grown up on Just Say No, the DARE program, Officer McGruff… and many other prevention programs.  The common theme with all of these is that chemicals–call them drugs, alcohol, substances, whatever–can cause changes in the body.  Some of these changes are not pleasant.  Some chemicals–such as medications–that have positive changes (treatment effects) also create negative changes (side effects).  What does all of this have to do with sleep?

Know what you are putting into your body, whether it is something our society traditionally labels a “substance” (drugs, alcohol, nicotine), a medication that has an impact on your sleep cycle, or a food or food additive that leads to sleep interference.  Consider herbal preparations as well. 

If you are having sleep problems, it is best not to use any non-prescription substances unless advised by your medical doctor.  If prescriptions are impacting your sleep, discuss that with your doctor.  Alcohol, while a depressant, can disrupt your sleep cycle and lead to night time awakenings and poor sleep quality. 

Don’t forget America’s substance of choice–caffeine.  A stimulant, caffeine impacts the nervous and cardiovascular systems.  It increases mental alertness, as well as heart rate and other cardiovascular indicators.  Caffeine affects people differently, and some of us are more sensitive to its effects than others.  Large amounts can affect sleep (especially if consumed prior to bedtime), and can mimic or exacerbate anxiety symptoms.  If you are having sleep difficulties, chart how much caffeine you are consuming and talk with your health care professional about its potential impact on your sleep.  There are easy fixes–switch to decafe altogether, or at least after a certain hour of the day.  But if you are consuming a large amount of caffeine and totally stop your consumption, you can have withdrawal symptoms including headache, fatigue, irritability, depression, and poor concentration lasting for a couple of days.  So you may want to cut back slowly rather than going cold turkey–or would it be cold java in this case?

Also consider serving sizes when thinking about how much of a substance you are consuming.  Those grande triple espresso mocha soy latte-cinos you may love are probably WAY more than one serving of coffee.  The margarita that arrives in a fishbowl… don’t kid yourself into letting that count as one drink.  Some more interesting info on caffeine can be found here, including serving sizes for various beverages and their caffeine levels.  As for alcohol, a serving is one ounce of hard liquor (that’s about 2 tablespoons), 4 ounces of wine (that is a 1/2 cup, and usually much smaller than most wine glasses), or 8 ounces of beer (one cup, much less than a frosty mug would hold).  Inform yourself so you can make smart choices.

Substances also have very different impacts on developing children’s and adolescent’s brains as compared to adult brains.  A great reference on that topic is the book Just Say Know by Cynthia Kuhn et al.  If your child is experiencing sleep difficulties, look at his or her diet for any hidden caffeine sources, and consider what he or she may be eating or drinking when not supervised by you.

So Just Say No, and Just Say Yes to taking back your sleep!

the ARTof mail management

Here’s a great tip to remember when you are sorting through mail and the various other piles of paperwork that accumulate in our lives.  Remember ART.  Action, Reference, and Trash.  This isn’t my acronym, I got it somewhere and now can’t remember where, but credit is due to some other creative person.  Get yourself a two tier paper organizer (like a traditional “in” and “out” box unit), or some other two section storage item.  Action items go up top and indicate those things you need to DO something with.  Things like bills, coupons you intend to use, permission slips to sign, etc.  If you decide to keep time sensitive material, such as bills, in your Action box, you may want to throw an envelope-sized accordion file divided into weeks of the month into your box.  When bills come in, note the date by which you need to mail them out or schedule an online payment, and file them into the appropriate week of the month so you don’t fall behind.  Throw a book of stamps, return address labels, and a checkbook into your accordion file and bill paying will become as easy as pie.

Reference indicates things you need to save for a specific, time limited purpose.  This could include monthly newsletters, schedules, seasonal information, school lunch menus, sales flyers you intend to refer back to… you get the idea.  I say “time limited” because items that you need to save for reference FOREVER–insurance policies, tax information, medical records–require their own special storage spot, preferably in a filing cabinet folder clearly labeled with the contents.  Set an appointment with yourself, preferably once a week but AT LEAST once a month, to clean out these boxes.  Any outdated Reference items can leave.  Any Action items that require, well, Action, are acted upon. 

What’s the “T” for?  Trash.  If your mail is anything like mine, there is a lot of T in it.  Throw that in your recycling pile, properly shredded of course as necessary.  What is truly trash?  Any items you don’t need to act on or need to refer back to.  Information that can easily be recreated elsewhere–catalogs, schedules, menus, or statements you can read online–may also be considered Trash depending of course on how much you reasonably have room to keep.  If you are so inspired, use the amount of trash mail you receive as impetus to take your name off of junk mailing lists, or request that routine information be emailed to you rather than sent through the mail.  You’ll be green AND reduce your paper related stress level all at the same time!

Perchance to Sleep, post 1

“To sleep, perchance to dream-
ay, there’s the rub.”  Hamlet–Shakespeare

Once again, the Bard prooves to be an astute observer of the human condition.  If he were born 400 years later, would he still be a writer or would he perhaps be a psychologist?  But I digress…

Few things cause as much frustration as failing to get a good night sleep.  Most adults need between 7 and 8 hours of sleep a night, while teens need about 9 and a quarter.  Many adults do not get their full share of sleep, and I’d hazard to guess that even more teens are not getting  their full 9.25.  Sometimes life gets busy and we aren’t able to have our full measure of sleep, but other times difficulty falling or staying asleep cut into our precious Z-z-z-z time.   Here is the first in a series of tips to help make the most of your eyes closed time.

Tip 1:  Use your bed for sleeping.  Your bed is not a desk, a lazy boy chair, a library, and certainly not a kitchen table.  Don’t do work, read, pay bills,  watch tv, have heated phone conversations or discussions, or eat in your bed.  Remember the story of Pavlov’s dogs?  Pavlov’s dogs heard a bell and then were presented food.  Naturally, they salivated when they saw the tasty treats master Pavlov had prepared.  When this pairing of bell and food was presented many times, the bell stimulus became associated with food.  Later, when the bell was presented without the food, the dogs would salivate.  In psychology, we call that a classically conditioned response.  Same goes for your bed. No, I’m not talking bells and dog spit, stay focused people!  This really does have to do with sleep! 

The connection you want your body to have with your bed is one of relaxation and sleep.  When you are doing things like reading, watching tv, or working while on your bed, you are associating your bed and all the cues in your bedroom environment with staying awake, being  alert, and focusing.  If you are doing work that is frustrating or having heated phone conversations or arguments on your bed, you are additionally connecting the bed with uncomfortable feelings.  Not conducive to sleep.  As much as possible, try to move all these activities out of the bedroom.  Make the bedroom a sleep sanctuary–surround yourself with relaxing and comforting objects and sounds.  Associate the bed with sleeping and relaxation.  If you do have difficulty falling asleep, or falling back to sleep upon awakening in the middle of the night, get up and leave your bedroom.  Staying in bed feeling frustrated about an inability to sleep sets up an association of feeling frustrated with being in bed.  Go somewhere else, read, watch tv, play solitaire on the computer–something relatively mindless that will not further rev up your brain–and return to bed when you begin to feel sleepy again. 

Remember:  Bed=sleep, bed=sleep, bed=sleep… you get the idea.

Sweet dreams!

We have a Winner!

OOps, this was supposed to have posted to the blog a couple of days ago.  Bear with me, obviously I’m still learning.  STACY won the starbucks card!  Woo-hoo!  Thanks all of you for reading and posting.  Keep checking back for more in mental health and positive psychology, and have a great day!

Oui, oui!

Here is a link to an article reviewing research from the journal Psychology and Aging, which found evidence supporting that couples who refer to themselves as “we” in the context of arguments fare better than couples who refer to themselves as “I” and “you”. To me, this highlights the role of cognitive schema–in this case, mental representations of what being part of a couple means, and the impact of that representation on one’s interpretation of events (such as arguments). “We” infers team membership and a united goal. If your driving frame of mind is “we-ness”, that suggests some implicit desire to maintain bonds, serving as motivation towards resolving difficulties and working together. The article also notes that couples who had been together longer were more likely to be ”we”-couples, again supporting the idea of the mind frame of a team–either you’ve stuck together a long time because you are a team, or being together a long time increases the sense of being a team, or some combination of the two. Which leads to the chicken and the egg question–do “we” couples start happier, thus reinforcing the “we”-ness and the likelihood of referring to themselves in the plural form? Or do couples who begin with a mental frame of couple membership as equivalent to being half of a team experience more happiness as a result of this schema? Like many things in behavioral science, these cyclical questions usually have more complicated answers.

If you haven’t already done so, don’t forget to go here and leave a comment if you want to win some free coffee!

Poor Awareness of Non-verbal Communication Increases Risk of Being Bullied

This article reviews research linking deficits in correct interpretation of non-verbal communication with increased risk of social rejection and becoming a victim of bullying.  While I would certainly support the need to address the children who are being the bullies, this research highlights the importance of stepping in and helping those kids who become the repeated victims and just can’t seem to navigate the social waters on their own.

Anyone up for free coffee?

Did that get your attention?  I really enjoy writing and this blog is a great vehicle for me to share bits and pieces of psychology.  But I like writing a lot better if I know what I have lovingly written is being read and, hopefully, helping someone.  So here’s a little contest to sweeten the deal.  I’ve got a $10 Starbucks gift card burning a hole in my pocket.  It so wants to go live with you on a short-term basis, quickly to be exchanged for a grande soy mochachino with extra whip and cinnamon sprinkles.  Here’s how to make it yours:

1)  Subscribe to email updates to my blog, or subscribe through whatever blog reader you use.  Leave a comment telling me you’ve subscribed.  If you already subscribed in the past, just tell me you already subscribed.  If you like, tell me what you’d like to read about in the future.  Easy-peesey.

2)  Get another entry by posting a link to my blog and this contest on your facebook page, or tweet about it, or send out an email to all your friends and countrymen, or do whatever high-tech social networking thing you do.  Post a second comment telling me how you’re sharing the love and you get your name in the virtual hat not once but twice.

3)  Get a third (or fourth or fifth, etc.) entry for each person you refer over here who subscribes to my blog.  He or she obviously will have to put his/her own name in the hat in a comment.  You will then need to put in a comment saying “Joe is my friend, I sent him here,” or, “I’m really not that fond of Joe but I really like free coffee.”  Just remember that you are responsible for whatever impact your comments have on your relationships, not me. 

Potentially, you have as many chances to get some free coffee as you have friends.  Pretty cool.  I will leave this contest open until February 7, 2010, at 10pm  mountain time.  MAKE SURE THERE IS A WAY FOR ME TO CONTACT YOU, OR BE SURE TO CHECK BACK AFTER THE 7th TO SEE IF YOU WON.  If no one claims the prize or I cannot get in touch with them within a week, I will pick someone else.  I will use a random number generator to pick a winner. 

And no, it is not that likely that I will check every single entry for truthfulness.  But remember, your integrity is worth more than ten bucks worth of free coffee.  And karma always gets ya in the long run.  I’m just sayin’.

The fine print:  all comments on this blog have to be ”approved” by me before they will post.  So don’t keep posting if you don’t see your comment immediately.  If you don’t see it in 24 hours, post again.  Comments with any inappropriate content will be deleted.

Good luck and thanks for reading!

Top 10 in 2010: Stress Relievers, that is; part Deux

With five new strategies under your belt from my last post, are you letting stress roll off your back like water?  If not, never fear.  These skills take time to practice, learn, and incorporate into your every day life.  Keep working on them and you’ll see results.  Here’s the next five to double your strategies!

6)  Make  a list.  Write it all down and get it out of your head.  Letting your mental to-do list roll around like a crazed tumbleweed in your brain is not good for your psyche.  It takes valuable mental resources to continually process and remember perceived responsibilities.  That effort diverts mental resources from your task at hand, making you less efficient, and potentially increasing your stress level even further.  Designate a notebook or a computer file as your mental download destination–whether it looks like a number list of things to do, a series of goals, or a list of worries that are taking up valuable cerebral storage space.  People often find that this kind of information is easier to deal with once it’s outside of your head.  You can evaluate list items and cross of things that really aren’t your responsibility.  You can evaluate the likelihood of your worries in a more rational manner.  You can make progress towards goals in small steps, rather than being overwhelmed and paralyzed by staring at the “big deal” ending point.  And you can get a better night’s sleep by emptying all those items from your brain, putting them on paper, and making a deal with yourself to handle them in the morning.  They somehow always look better in the morning.

7)  Live in a soothing environment.  Most adults have the privilege of structuring their environments to a certain extent.  Certainly there are some things we cannot control or change.  But if we are creative, there are a vast number of things we can change.  I joked with someone the other day about how we covet certain pens while we are at work–a small thing, but the pleasure of a pen that writes smoothly makes a difference.  There are enough other things to think about in your day, a pen that skips and jumps on the page should not be one of them.  In the grander scheme, think of the colors, sounds, smells, and sights that soothe you and incorporate them into your world.  A few personal touches on your desk at work, your favorite color painted on the bedroom walls, coming home to the relaxing smell of lavender in your home, a calming playlist queued up in your i-pod… all these things may take a little forethought but not a lot of time or money.  By structuring your environment in a way that is pleasing to you, you are sending YOURSELF a message that you are important and worthy of such efforts.  A stress relieving thought if I ever knew one.

An additional consideration in your environment is clutter.  Some of us can function just fine with clutter or disorganization, others can’t.  I fall into the second camp.  Making the time to re-organize a messy drawer, clear my desk and file papers appropriately, and de-clutter the junk repositories in my house and office allows me to work more productively.  The environment becomes more visually calming, I’ve minimized any distractions, and I can focus on the task at hand.  

8.  Limit stressful relationships and experiences.  Again, we don’t have total control over these, but we often have a lot more control than we realize.  Learn to listen to your stress level, your internal stress-o-meter, and figure out when it rises.  If you find certain situations are very stressful for you and you can avoid them without negatively impacting your life responsibilities or important relationships, do it.  Gardening not really your thing but you live in suburbia and “everyone” has a “perfect” flower garden?  Let it go–if you don’t enjoy something and it causes stress, don’t do it.  (Plus you can just tell people your gravel yard is “xeric” and that you are being eco-friendly, very in right now.)  If there are stressful situations you must attend to, try to schedule them so that you are most able to handle them.  If you dislike dental work and need to have 3 teeth filled, you might want to schedule the appointment at a time other than your yearly performance evaluation at work.  If a relationship contributes to your stress level, set boundaries to appropriately protect yourself from unnecessary stress-exposure.  If you have a co-worker with whom you share lunch who constantly harps on how much she hates the boss, you could gently tell her that you are trying to be more positive at work and you would prefer not to talk about work related issues on your lunch break.  Of course if she then starts harping on her boyfriend, her dog, and her auto mechanic, you might reconsider your lunch companion options.

9) Re-evaluate your “stress thoughts”.  There is no way I can do justice to cognitive therapy in one paragraph or less, but that isn’t going to stop me from trying.  Find those stress thoughts that replay in your mind like a skip in a record (remember records?).  If they seem to be general senses of dread, flesh them out and give words to them.  Write them down on paper.  Now step back and objectively evaluate them.  Usually stress thoughts are general and global, with an overestimation of the likelihood of a negative consequence and an underestimation of our ability to handle the problem.  For instance, ”I always (global) screw up everything (general), now I’m sure to get fired (most likely overestimation) and there’s nothing I can do about it (most likely underestimation).”  There is usually a more situational and specific interpretation (“I sometimes make mistakes in some areas of my job”) which can be used to replace the former stressful thought.  The next step is to evaluate the likelihood of the perceived negative consequence and your ability to change that (for instance “Realistically, no one has ever been fired for setting a meeting on the wrong date.  I could explain to my boss about my mistake and offer to make personal phone calls to apologize and change the dates,  in which case he/she might be annoyed but is not likely to fire me.  It may not even register as a “big deal” to him/her.  He/she may appreciate my honesty and perceive me as the trustworthy person whom I am.”)  That’s cognitive restructuring in a nut shell.  A moment to learn, a lifetime to practice.

10) Ask for help.  There is no shame in admitting that you are having difficulty handling a situation.  Whether it is with your partner, your kids, your parents, or your work colleagues, you can always identify the areas that are causing you stress and ask for some assistance.  Have a family meeting and come up with goals for delegating housework.  Talk to your parents about the competing obligations of your work life, your own family, and your extended family, and ask them to help you come up with solutions.  Tell your co-worker that you tend to get overwhelmed with a certain task and ask him or her to give you pointers on how they are able to accomplish it with minimal stress.  If the stresses in your life are steadily increasing, and your ability to handle them diminishing, ask for professional help.  Anxiety is no fun to live with, and the great news is that you don’t have to.  Anxiety disorders have one of the best treatment outcomes in mental health treatment–about 80% with cognitive behavioral therapy alone.  So don’t suffer, take charge and take back what stress has taken from you!

Top 10 in 2010: Stress Relievers, that is–Part Uno

Is it just me, or does it feel like life moves at breakneck speed from mid-November until the end of the year?  Between planning celebrations, shopping for gifts, traveling, entertaining family and racing betwixt and between, there is not much time to catch your breath.  And the opinion trend of holiday merchandise now hitting the stores along with the Halloween candy doesn’t help to put on the brakes.  So now that it is January, are you able to leave your stress behind with the crumpled wrapping paper and expired egg nog?

Joking aside, stress is epidemic in our society.  All of us–adults and children–can benefit from learning and using simple strategies to relieve stress.  In honor of 2010, here are my top 10 stress relievers–in two easily digestable installments.

1) Just Breathe.  Deceptively simple, but powerful.  Breathing from deep down in your belly–actually using the diaphragm muscle that runs along the bottom of the rib cage–fills your lungs more fully and can stop the nervous system’s response to stress-related arousal dead in its tracks.  Anyone can do it, but it takes practice to use this style of breathing.  Like anything else, it is best to learn a new skill BEFORE you need to use it, so make deep breathing a part of your every day “repertoire” and it will be second nature when you feel the stress-o-meter kick up a notch.

2)   Chill-ax.  That’s relax for those of us born before 1980.  Start by using deep breathing exercises and build on those by learning strategies to relax your muscles and clear your mind of stressful thoughts.  There are lots of resources and materials out there to help with this, whether it is instructions in a book, a recording with guided instructions, or working with a professional.  Guided imagery and progressive muscle relaxation are two popular relaxation techniques that are not difficult to learn.  For a few recommended resources, see the resources link on my webpage (www.drkimdwyer.com).

3)  Take care of you.  Physical illness can contribute to stress in many ways.  When we are sick, most of us aren’t as good at managing stress.  Being sick also can create nw opportunities for stress through missing work and not giving 100% to other responsibilities.  To complete the vicious cycle, long-term stress can contribute to and create physical ailments, while weakening our immune system.  Further, putting off treatment and preventive care can lead to added stress and worry.  Do your best to take care of your health in order to keep medically related stress in check.

4)  Blow off some steam.  Having  a healthy physical outlet can help us direct our stress-related energy.  Nobody needs me to preach on the importance of exercise.  Find an exercise regimen that you can fit into your schedule and that matches your physical abilities and interests.  Stick with it to channel your stress-energy into physical fitness.  Be creative when thinking about exercise–dancing around the living room with your two-year-old could be a very effective workout, and might be a lot more fun to me than sweating in the gym!

5) Find your mantra.  Don’t expect me to give you a mantra, you have to do that on your own.  Find a short, positively worded and empowering statement that will counteract whatever your mental monologue repeats when you feel stressed.  If you are apt to say to yourself “I can’t do anything right!”, perhaps you can counter that with “I can meet the challenges today is bringing me.”  When selecting a mantra, try not to resort to sarcasm.  Repeating “I love my job, I love my job” when confronted with legitimate coworker and boss issues is not an effective mantra.  Brings to mind George Castanza’s father screaming “SERENITY NOW!” on Seinfeld.  Make your mantra something truthful, honest, and believable.  It should help you focus on what you have control over and on the positive actions you can take in stressful situations.

Still thirsty for more?  Stay tuned for numbers 6 through 10!

Resolutions: by any other name, would they smell so (un) sweet?

Ah, January.  The fitness centers are crowded to overflowing.  Even that oft-ignored stair machine in the corner, used primarily as a clothes horse,  has been given it’s once yearly dust-off.  Doctors offices are flooded with calls from people who have put off procedures and well-patient check ups.  Vitamin bottles are hoping off the shelves into shopper’s carriages.  The produce aisle never had it so good as people cook healthier meals, to lose weight, and eat in, to save money.  But can you hear it?  That slight crack and fuzz, like static on a poorly tuned radio… that’s the sound of resolutions being broken.  Fuzzy, as it has a couple more weeks to grow before it gains full strength.  By late January  that static will turn into a great big ear-splitting, grinding crunch, as resolutions are broken and swept into the giant resolution trash bin in the sky. 

Is the problem in vocabulary?  I would argue that by calling these once yearly lists “resolutions,” we are setting ourselves up for failure.  “Resolution” means ”a decision to do something or behave in a certain manner.”  The root word, “resolute”, means firm, unyielding, determined.  Great qualities, no doubt, but “unyielding” is, well, unyielding.  Not much room for the learning curve.  And human beings that we are–we’ve all got learning curves.  When you make a decision to “behave in a certain manner,” formalize it as a New Year’s Resolution, and believe that your approach to it must be firm and unyielding , it will take a lot of steadfast will-power and dogged determination to keep that resolution.  Because when you ”slip” or “cheat”, it’s a whole lot harder to get up and stick to that resolution the next day.  Most of us have good intentions, but to err is, well, human.

Cognitive theorists place a lot of stock on the way we talk to ourselves–our mental monologue–and the impact of this self-talk on our actions.  Unyielding?  Probably not a productive attitude to have towards yourself.  If you were teaching a friend how to start a new habit, and he or she reverted to previous behavior, you probably would not be unyielding.  You probably would be encouraging, remind him or her that everyone makes mistakes, and maybe use the incident as a teachable moment to help motivate further change.  Keeping that similar attitude towards ourselves is invariably more helpful than throwing our hands up in the air, declaring the resolution “broken”, and returning to less desirable choices. 

So don’t make resolutions, set goals.  The vocabulary alone is inherently more friendly and positive.  Goals suggest taking steps along the way to a destination, with small steps leading up to larger accomplishments.  Good goals lend themselves to individual, specific objectives.  They have measurable outcomes and are worded positively.  So don’t resolve to “stop eating junk food and lose weight”.  Set a goal to take a healthier approach to nutrition and exercise, with objectives of increasing your servings of vegetables by 25% by the end of January, and engaging in aerobic exercise 3 times a week for 30 minutes.  Don’t resolve to “stop wasting money.”  Work towards achieving a specific savings or finance goal, such as reducing credit card debt by paying X amount on every statement and leaving credit cards under the mattress to resist the temptation to swipe them, or a goal of saving X dollars from each pay check in order to save up for that vacation you’re dying to take next summer.  When your behavior is not in line with your goal, for instance you blew $30 you were planning to put in savings due to an intense craving for Thai panang curry (hey, it happens to the best of us), you haven’t “lost”, “cheated”, “slipped”, or “broken” your resolution.  You’ve made a choice that is not consistent with your goal, but you can restock and make better choices in the future.  These deviations from your goal can also tell you important things–like maybe you are being too restrictive with your budget and need to create a curry allowance–oh, sorry, I’m stuck on that again.  Well, you get the idea.

So embrace January!  Take hold of the urge to start the year fresh, to be better than we were last year, to take good care of our bodies, our families, our careers, and our financial futures!  Go forth and be bold!  Set those goals, word them positively, break them down into manageable steps, and set a realistic time frame for achieving them.  Write them down, read through them often, and revise them as necessary–they’re yours!  You are the author AND editor.  Feel the power of a positive focus!  Let the choices you make that are not in line with your goals provide you with fuel for thought about your motivations and needs.

Which brings me to the end of this post.  My very first post on my very first blog.  Time to go cross that resolution– oops, I mean goal!–off of my list!  Stay tuned for more musings on positive mental health, and join my feed for regular updates.