The Power in the way we Think

Archive for the ‘Mental Health’ Category

Speak your Truth

Do you ever feel like you need to stay quiet to keep the peace? Do you feel like you can’t let people know how you feel? Do you ever wonder what actually happens within yourself when you hold your tongue and refrain from speaking the things that are important to you?

I want to share this vlog with you all that explains what happens every single time you choose to not speak. Every single time you choose to stay quiet.

Check it out. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on how this relates to you and your life! Comment below!

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Stress and Movement

Movement.

Moving your body.

Do you do it? How often and what kind do you do? What kinds of movement are there?

In no particular order, let’s list just a few things as they come into my head …

Walking, running, sex, yoga, tai chi, weight lifting, boxing, self-defense, dancing, gardening, swimming, ball games, playing chasey, creating a snow angel.

Do you do any of these activities? Any different ones? Do you have a favourite?

Let’s talk about hormones again for a moment. You might remember some information about cortisol, one of the major hormones the body creates in response to stress. It’s the job of cortisol to calm the inflammation caused by stress. So in effect, to calm the stress response and help bring us out of it.

Many people find it helpful to go for a run when they feel antsy. Physical exercise helps burn off the energy caused by adrenalin. It reduces the urge to run away or fight, and helps us to relax. It can also help us to feel centred and to improve our mental wellbeing. It can lift our mood and reduce depression and anxiety.

However, we need to be careful. Exercise causes inflammation. The main job of cortisol is to reduce inflammation. So as you do more exercise, you produce more cortisol, which ultimately impacts your body’s ability to heal and reduce stress.

This cortisol production also leads to weight gain, particularly around the belly, face and neck. Now most of us, when we gain weight, tend to lean toward more exercise to reduce it, right? Can you see a pattern?

When you are already highly stressed, this will lead to a vicious cycle:

Intense exercise = cortisol production = weight gain = more exercise.

See the cycle?

For those of you who already struggle with your weight and believe the best thing you can do to drop it is to push your body to its limits, check out this video blog from a very well respected personal trainer who has experience with neuroscience and several other areas. Let me introduce you to Emma. I’ve been working with her for a couple of years and I trust her implicitly. She gets it. She knows what she is talking about.

So, when you are super stressed the best thing you can do is to go easy on the exercise. At least the exercise that is intense and of long duration. Let me be clear here. I’m not suggesting that you ditch your training. Nor am I suggesting that you become a couch potato. As someone who has been there, I can attest to the fact that the couch potato status can be just as stressful as the intense training.

There are types of movement that will support your body reaching the state of balance/homeostasis that Emma refers to.

Gentle movements such as tai chi, yoga or simple stretching will help. As will combining your movement with play. Have fun running around the yard with the kids. Throw a Frisbee together. Play hide and seek. Laugh together.

Relax.

I’ve already talked about engaging the relaxation response to reduce stress. When Emma talks about taking her clients through a meditation activity at the end of her training sessions, she elicits this response, while at the same time, helping the brain to lock in new neural networks that reinforce the learning you’ve just done in training.

Ok. So now we’ve covered all that, let’s talk about how you can tell which type of movement you need to be doing.

Your body will tell you. So listen to the signals it gives you. Do you know what it’s saying?

Go with the urges that you get. If you have a feeling of deep down fatigue and the thought of getting out to exercise hard fills you with dread, it’s likely that your body is telling you it needs something different. If you feel the urge to get up and go hard, then by all means listen to that and take action to give your body what it needs. If you feel like dancing around your lounge with music at full volume, go for it!

Bottom line is this. Nobody can make up the rules for you. In any given moment your body will need different things to create and maintain that balance. Sometimes that means going full out and other times it means pulling back and resting. If you can learn the signals your body gives out, you will know what to do. How do you learn those signs? By listening to and connecting with your body.

Keep an eye out for a post on this soon.

As always, I’d love to hear from you, so please feel free to share your thoughts or questions below!

The relaxation response

In this series you’ve heard a lot about the stress response. We’ve talked about it so much that you’re all probably sick of hearing about it! It’s incredibly important that you understand how it works because this knowledge will assist you in managing your stress in a way that works for you. If you’ve been hiding under a rock these past 19 days and haven’t read anything about it, you can find it in this post and this one. The impacts of stress on our systems are so huge and it’s really important that we are able to combat them. Our health and wellbeing depend on it.

So how do we begin that process?

I’m glad you asked!

The body being the incredible machine it is, created a system that can naturally support us to tackle all this stress. And it’s all part of the autonomic nervous system. Since I’m slightly lazy, I’m just going to call it the nervous system.

A little technical information for you on the nervous system. It’s divided into 2 parts – the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).

The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for getting the body ready for action. So when the amygdala does its job by making the assessment that you’re at risk, the signals that get sent to the brain stem to raise your heart rate, blood pressure, blood sugar and so on, engage the SNS to make those things happen.

The parasympathetic nervous system does the opposite. It calms everything down. It returns your heart rate to normal. It lowers your blood pressure and blood sugar. So when you’re in the stress response, the PNS helps to bring you out of it.

As a demonstration of how these systems work together, think about body temperature. When it gets hot or cold outside our body temperature will either rise or lower. This is the role of the SNS. And the PNS will jump in to try to balance things out. It will make us sweat when we get too hot and will give us goosebumps when we’re too cold. You see, our body likes balance. Being out of balance is not our natural state of being. We function optimally when everything is balanced and this is called homeostasis. And we thrive on it.

So, when we’re stressed, the PNS will do everything in its power to reinstate homeostasis. And we can help it along. If we can regularly put ourselves into what is called the relaxation response, we support the PNS to bring our body and mind back into homeostasis.

Essentially, the relaxation response is the opposite of the stress response. When we are stressed, everything is activated, or switched on. We are ready for action. Alert. Aware. Vigilant. And our body is jumping and ready to hit the ground running.

On the other hand, the relaxation response is just that; relaxed. This is kind of like when you are laying in bed on the way to sleep. You’re still aware of the things happening around you, but your mind and body are at rest.

So, how do we switch off the stress response and switch on the relaxation response?

We’re probably talking about this part a lot too, so brace yourself…

Breathing.

Yep. You got it. Breathing.

breathe

Linda talked about belly breathing in her post on stress and the role of breathing. She talked about practising by placing your hands on your chest and belly, and working on making the hand on your belly rise and fall as you breathe, pretending that you’re inflating a balloon. You may like to re-read her article to refresh your memory.

I found another article about activating the relaxation response. It talks about closing your eyes and taking deep breaths for 10 minutes while you focus on a chosen word, such as “peace” or “calm”.

If I were practicing this I would look at combining the two techniques – breathing for 10 minutes while I focused on the deep belly breaths Linda talks about. I’d love for you to give it a try and see how you go. Share your experiences in the comments below!

Remember what I said before about homeostasis? When we are chronically stressed our system gets used to it and the highly stressed state becomes our new “balance” point. So when we then try to counteract that by practicing these breathing techniques, our mind will kick in and try to stop us. It perceives this new state of calm as being out of balance, so it will do whatever it can to prevent you from focusing. You’ll have some pretty random thoughts pop into your head, you’ll find it difficult to concentrate, you’ll feel like you want to get up and run away because you’re so used to being in that “action” state.

So, here is my tip to work with this… persist. Practice. Be kind to yourself. Your brain is simply doing its job by trying to stay balanced. Gently refocus on your objective (the focus word of your choice or your hand rising and falling on your belly). Say to yourself something like, “thanks mind for doing your job, I’ll give you a chance to play soon, but for right now I’m focusing on this breathing”.

And if you do find yourself continually distracted, that’s fine. Go with it. Just start with the breathing for 30 seconds. For some people this is enough to begin with. And then gradually build it up in 30 second increments. Pretty soon you’ll be able to focus for 10 minutes like a pro!

If 10 minutes seems like forever (which it will if you’re just starting out), try using an alarm so you don’t have to think about how long you’ve been practicing. However, a loud ringing at the end of the time will likely put you right back into the stress response! So try a gentle sound such as a soft tinkle or wind chime effect.

Stress and Sleep, Part 3

We made it! Here is Linda’s final article on stress and sleep. She explores some strategies to help you regulate your sleep patterns and ultimately reduce your stress levels by lowering the cortisol in your system. As always, if you have any questions or comments for Linda or I, please feel free to comment below!

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“I’m not a very good sleeper. But you know what? I’m willing to put in a few extra hours every day to get better. That’s just the kind of hard worker I am.” – Jarod Kintz

In our 3 part series so far we have covered a great deal of information about sleep; what happens during sleep, the healthy sleep cycle, why we need sleep, and how sleep interacts with stress.

Because stress and sleep can interact to keep you trapped in the stress cycle, the first thing you need to do when you are stressed is work on improving your sleep to down-regulate your stress response.

Today I have provided you with a list of strategies for improving your sleep.

How can you improve sleep?

Good ‘sleep hygiene’ is really about making sure that you do as much as you can to improve your chances at achieving quality sleep by developing healthy sleep habits.

Some of the strategies you might like to try include:

  • Routine, routine, routine: going to bed at the same time each night and getting up at the same time every morning helps to regulate your biological clock. Most people need roughly 7 – 10 hours of sleep each night. Any less than 6.5 hours and your body starts to produce more cortisol!
  • Bright lights!: remember how we talked about your biological clock? Well it turns out that light is actually the most effective time-cue for your biological clock. To help your sleep-wake cycle stay regular make sure that you get plenty of natural light during the day, exposing yourself briefly to sunlight from around 9am and reducing your exposure to unnatural lighting in the evening. This means not watching television, computer, i-pad or mobile phone screens for at least two hours prior to going to bed.
  • Spend less time at the local coffee house: we previously explored a special chemical made by your brain to induce sleepiness, called adenosine. Caffeine and nicotine disrupt the sleep-wake cycle by blocking adenosine. Stimulants will also reduce stage 3 and 4 sleep and cause you to cycle more frequently between the stages of sleep. Try to eliminate using any stimulants after around noon.
  • Party season is over: Alcohol is also a no-no if you are having trouble sleeping. While it may make you drowsy initially it also inhibits stage 3 and 4 sleep as well as causing you to wake throughout the night and move frequently between the sleep stages.
  • Power up your nap time: napping throughout the day will only confuse your biological clock so it is best to avoid hour long naps when you are struggling with sleep. Having said that, a brief ‘power nap’ of no more than 20 minutes prior to 3pm may help you to get through the day until bed-time. Initially you may struggle to wake before 20 minutes however you can train your body by using an alarm clock to wake you after 20 minutes of napping.
  • Worship bedtime: by creating rituals you can help your body recognize when it is time to go to sleep. You may choose to do things like read a book prior to sleep, drink a caffeine-free cup of tea, take a warm bath, or practice breathing exercises. Check out the post on ‘Stress and the Role of Breathing’ to learn how to use diaphragm breathing.
  • Midnight munchies: grab a snack before heading off to bed. Yes you read right! If you are waking in the early hours of the morning try having a healthy snack such as a banana, half a slice of whole grain bread with peanut butter, a slice of cheese on a whole-grain cracker. Remember that stress messes with your body’s ability to store and use energy. Many people wake at 2am because their body mistakenly believes that they need an energy hit.
  • Trip into tryptophan: any foods that contain tryptophan are helpful in encouraging sleep. Melatonin is made from serotonin which is made from tryptophan. Melatonin is one of the hormones that help to regulate the sleep-wake cycle. Tryptophan rich foods include poultry, organ meat, sea food, cheese, milk, yoghurt, almonds, walnuts, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, legumes, and bananas.
  • Who turned out the lights: make sure that your bedroom is completely dark, as this sends a signal to your biological clock that it is time to sleep. This means no illuminated alarm clocks or pesky LED lights.
  • Chuck the clocks: most of the people I meet describe how when they are unable to sleep they find themselves constantly glancing at the clock and then worrying even more about how much sleep they are not getting, and how soon they will have to be climbing back out of bed. Get rid of your clock. If you need to have an alarm find something that is not illuminated and that you won’t be able to see easily. As you are lying in your bed, rather than focusing on not being able to sleep and increasing your worry, remind yourself that any rest is good for your body. You may even find it helpful to practice a progressive muscle relaxation or a mindfulness activity, or even diaphragm breathing to engage the relaxation response.
  • Get up, get out there, and get active: activity during the day can also help to regulate your biological clock and keep your circadian rhythms on track. Be aware of extensive cardiovascular exercise if you are stressed – this means no more than 20 minutes in any one session and no more than twice a week. Your body will benefit more from gentle walks, interval training, strength training or yoga and tai chi if you are experiencing high levels of stress.
  • Become a socialite: believe it or not social interaction actually regulates your biological clock! Strange but true. For best results you need to engage in social activity throughout the day. If you have any group functions these are best done during the day and then as evening approaches you will benefit from reducing social contact to smaller numbers towards the evening.
  • Stress busting: of course wherever possible it is important to work on reducing or eliminating your stress. This may involve talking to a professional such as a counsellor or psychologist to work out how to reduce worry, engaging in active problem solving, and using mindfulness and cognitive behavioral therapy techniques.
  • Bin the Benzo’s: sleeping tablets will only increase your sleep problems in the long run and will more than likely trigger anxiety throughout the day. These medications are also addictive, creating an extra problem on top of the stress you are already experiencing. If you feel as though you are so exhausted that you need to take something try natural alternatives first. Always consult your medical practitioner.
  • Nightmares: if you have experienced trauma you may be worried about having nightmares when you go to sleep. There are some steps you can take to reduce the likelihood of bad dreams and to reorient yourself when you do have nightmares. Imagining the bad dream prior to sleep sounds counterintuitive, however it appears that if you work on imagining a different, more pleasant ending to the dream you can change your dreams. Rehearse the different ending many times before going to sleep. If you do wake from a bad dream, reorient yourself to the present by touching a familiar object, moving your body, getting up and looking out of the window to remind yourself where you are, remind yourself that you are home and that you are safe, visualize your surroundings: your bedroom, your home, the street outside your room, your neighborhood.

This article provides some information on the HPA axis, cortisol and sleep along with some healthy alternatives to reduce cortisol production and improve sleep: http://naturalmedicinejournal.com/journal/2010-06/role-cortisol-sleep.

sleep wide awake

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Lindas bioLinda is an AHPRA registered psychologist and relationship counsellor with offices located on the Gold Coast. She has worked in mental health since 1994. Since that time, following a long and often trying journey, particularly given that she had not completed secondary school, she achieved a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology, a Diploma of Counselling, a Graduate Diploma of Adult Education and a Post Graduate Diploma of Psychology. Linda now enjoys specializing in helping couples to learn how to value their best asset, enabling people suffering from dementia to move forward in their lives, and supporting people who have experienced work-place injury in their recovery. She also has a passion for assisting people to heal from stress, anxiety and depression.

Linda values openness, authenticity, and acceptance in her work as a psychologist. She is a big believer in the power of the mind and recognizes that in many instances it is the activity within our minds that contributes to our psychological distress. Linda views the brain as an amazingly powerful organ: she is passionate about understanding how the brain functions and what each of us can do to maximize the brains potential.

You can find out more about Linda at www.eastqldcounselling.com.au.

Stress and Sleep, Part 2

Today Linda is back to cover part 2 of her 3 articles on stress and sleep. Today she will discuss why sleep is so important and its relationship with stress. Remember yesterday, she talked about the sleep cycle and some technical aspects of how the brain processes it. While this information is a little technical, it’s important stuff to know so that you can then learn how to regulate your sleep. If you have any questions or comments to share, I’m sure Linda would love to help me address them for you! Hope you enjoy. 

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Why do we need sleep?

As you saw in the explanation of the sleep stages above, the simplest way to think about why we need sleep is in terms of healing and repair. It’s almost as though getting a good night’s sleep is akin to regularly taking your car into the mechanic for servicing. While you are sleeping your brain becomes a mechanic, tinkering with processes that are important during your day-to-day functioning and require fine-tuning or repair.

For example, any damage to your heart or blood vessels is repaired while you are sleeping. Hormone production, metabolism, cognitive functioning and immune function are all processes that rely on a healthy night’s sleep, every night. Physical growth and the stimulation of new brain cells and neural networks take place while you sleep.

Sleep is actually a very involved process. If you are interested in understanding more about the sleep cycle I came across one of the most detailed and interesting descriptions here:

https://science.education.nih.gov/supplements/nih3/sleep/guide/info-sleep.htm

How does stress impact on sleep?

In an earlier post titled ‘Stress Hormones’ you learned about a very important part of your brain directly responsible for many of the processes in your body including your immune functioning, your mood levels and emotions, your digestion, your energy production and storage, your sexuality, and the stress response. This system is known as the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal axis, or HPA axis. You may like to go back to this post and check out the diagram explaining the functioning of the HPA axis.

Sleep only occurs when the HPA axis is calm and inactive. So when the HPA axis is active, as is the case with stress, sleep will be affected. And conversely, when you don’t sleep well, the HPA axis becomes activated. And on it goes.

When the HPA axis has been activated through ongoing stress, you are also more likely to wake either through the night or first thing in the morning feeling anxious. I have met many people who have described waking in the middle of the night or early mornings with panic-attacks, and a disturbed sleep cycle could explain why.

So already we are beginning to see how disturbed sleep can trap you into a negative cycle: you don’t sleep well, you feel stressed. When you feel stressed, your biological clock becomes disrupted and you struggle to sleep well.

This process occurs in part because when we don’t get enough sleep (less than 6.5 hours) our body increases it’s production and release of the stress hormone cortisol. Remember from previous posts that when you are experiencing ongoing stress your body is already pumping out excessive levels of this toxic substance. Usually in the early evening cortisol is decreasing however with chronic sleep loss these levels will elevate resulting in a chain reaction including increased insulin resistance and decreased glucose tolerance.

Sleep is actually really important for regulating appetite and food intake. One of the hormones, letpin, which is responsible for appetite suppression, actually decreases with a lack of sleep. At the same time the body increases it’s production of ghrelin, a peptide that stimulates appetite. This means that when we experience disturbed sleep our appetite actually increases and we are more likely to eat larger amounts of food than what we would normally need to get through a day. We are also more likely to crave foods that are high in carbohydrates. Increased cortisol makes you store fat in your tummy, your neck and your face, so if you are eating more carbohydrates you are more likely to gain weight. A spare tire belly is a good indicator of stress, and for many of us it creates further stress as we begin worrying about our weight gain.

Sleep deprivation has also been related to impaired glucose tolerance and insulin resistance. If you find yourself waking between 1am and 3am, a common feature of stress, it may be because your body is not using glucose properly and is signaling that you need to re-fuel already. This is why having a snack prior to bed can be helpful.

Even if you are young and relatively healthy, these hormonal changes can leave you in a pre-diabetic state following less than one week of sleep deprivation. This is an alarmingly short time frame! At the moment we are seeing an increase in sleep deprivation, an increase in diabetes, and an increase in Alzhiemer’s disease, which in some research circles has been labeled diabetes type 3.

Disturbed sleep can also leave you with confusion, impaired memory, headaches, impaired judgment and decision making ability, increased irritability, clumsiness, hallucinations, seizures, and even mania.

With ongoing stress and sleep disturbance your adrenal functioning may become impaired and this can be a factor in conditions like fibromyalgia, hypothyroidism, chronic fatigue syndrome, Cushing syndrome, arthritis, depression and premature menopause. Scary stuff! So what can you do about it?

Hang around and check out Tuesday’s blog post to learn how you can improve your sleep. As you can see, when you are stressed sleep is really the first step in attempting to help your system to down-regulate.

sleep deprivation

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Lindas bioLinda is an AHPRA registered psychologist and relationship counsellor with offices located on the Gold Coast. She has worked in mental health since 1994. Since that time, following a long and often trying journey, particularly given that she had not completed secondary school, she achieved a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology, a Diploma of Counselling, a Graduate Diploma of Adult Education and a Post Graduate Diploma of Psychology. Linda now enjoys specializing in helping couples to learn how to value their best asset, enabling people suffering from dementia to move forward in their lives, and supporting people who have experienced work-place injury in their recovery. She also has a passion for assisting people to heal from stress, anxiety and depression.

Linda values openness, authenticity, and acceptance in her work as a psychologist. She is a big believer in the power of the mind and recognizes that in many instances it is the activity within our minds that contributes to our psychological distress. Linda views the brain as an amazingly powerful organ: she is passionate about understanding how the brain functions and what each of us can do to maximize the brains potential.

You can find out more about Linda at www.eastqldcounselling.com.au.

Stress and Sleep, Part 1

Sleep. Do you get enough of it? In all likelihood, probably not. At least not if you’re anything like me!

I’m excited to have Linda back with us as she has some amazing insight and skills. She has graciously offered to share a series of articles over the next 3 days on sleep, while I am attending a conference (and probably not getting much of it!).

The first article will provide some technical information on how the sleep process works. The second will cover why sleep is so important and its relationship with stress. Finally, the third article will discuss some very practical tips on how you can gain control, better regulate your sleep and  support your wellness. I hope you enjoy them and learn a lot. 🙂 

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“And if tonight my soul may find her peace in sleep, and sink in good oblivion, and in the morning wake like a new-opened flower, then I have been dipped again in God, and new-created” – D.H. Lawrence

Did you know that we spend approximately one third of our lives sleeping? Sleep is another one of those amazing functions that many of us take for granted, until we find ourselves unable to get to sleep or waking at 2am every morning.

Unfortunately stress can have a very negative impact on your ability to sleep well and when you don’t sleep well you are more likely to feel stressed!

Today we are going to have a look at what happens inside your body when you sleep and the healthy sleep cycle.  In part 2 tomorrow we will outline why sleep is important, and how stress effects sleep. And the day after we’ll look at a bunch of strategies for you to improve your sleep.

The human brain is a complex organism, so some of what we are talking about here is going to be technical. I have tried my best to simplify explanations as much as possible to make it easier for you to understand, however it is still quite a long piece, my apologies in advance.

I have also included some links to other websites that provide even more detailed explanations for those of you who relish the details and love to sink your teeth into the technical workings of the brain and body.

What happens during sleep?

Did you know that some parts of the brain actually work harder when you are sleeping than during waking hours?

When I talk to people about relaxation often they will say that they relax when they are asleep. This is not actually true because your brain does most of the important work during sleep. And this is why deliberately engaging the relaxation response while you are awake is essential. You can learn more about engaging the relaxation response in the post on ‘Stress and the Role of Breathing’.

Sleep is actually quite a complex process involving at least two systems in your body.

The Biological Clock and Circadian Rhythms

In terms of sleep, each and every cell in your body has its own little clock, a cellular clock, how neat is that? Each cellular clock is regulated by a master biological clock sitting in the region of the brain called the hypothalamus. Your cellular clocks drive your circadian rhythm, a 24 hour cycle of physiological and behavioural processes.

Circadian rhythms are responsible for all kinds of essential functions in your body including body temperature regulation, the sleep-wake cycle, and hormone production and release. Remember that hormones are just like chemical couriers, they travel throughout your body delivering essential messages for optimum functioning.

Your circadian rhythms are very easily disrupted, especially by stress. When your circadian rhythms become disrupted, your hormone production and your sleep-wake cycle will be impacted.

Sleep-Wake Homeostasis

At the same time you have something called sleep-wake homeostasis going on. In this process throughout the day the body produces sleep-regulating substances that drive you to want to sleep. The longer you are awake the stronger your desire to sleep. One of the better understood sleep substances produced by your brain is called Adenosine. This is important as we know that stimulants like caffeine and nicotine actually block Adenosine from working.

While researching sleep I came across a terrific, easy to understand site that explains the science of sleep in more depth if you would like to further your learning http://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/healthy/matters

What does healthy sleep look like?

Understanding the ‘sleep architecture’, or the pattern of healthy sleep, has always seemed confusing to me. However it is important to grasp, particularly if you are experiencing sleep disturbance as disrupted sleep does appear to underlie many other problems including depression.

I have tried to make this as easy as possible for you to make sense of, although you may need to read through it a few times to really understand what goes on in the nocturnal hours.

We have two types of sleep: non-REM (rapid eye movement) sleep and REM sleep.

REM sleep - sign series for medical health care, fitness, wellbeing - R.E.M.

In non-REM sleep there are four different stages:

Stage 1

During this stage your transition into sleep begins, usually lasting around 5 minutes.

Stage 2 or light sleep

Now your eye movements stop, your body becomes still, this stage lasts anywhere from 10-25 minutes.

Stages 3 & 4 deep sleep, or slow wave sleep

In these stages it becomes difficult for someone else to wake you and you will feel groggy and disoriented if you are woken. Your brain waves become quite slow as the blood flow is directed away from your brain towards your muscles. Stage 3 & 4 sleep is absolutely essential as this is the time when your body is working on healing and repairing anything physical that isn’t functioning properly. If you have injuries or illness, then your body needs to experience these stages properly.

And finally, during REM sleep, or dream sleep, many of your physiological responses actually increase. Your brain waves speed up, your eyes move rapidly, your heart rate increases, your breathing becomes rapid and shallow and your blood pressure increases. During REM sleep for most of us our arm and leg muscles become paralyzed. Ever felt physically trapped in a dream? Well now you know why, for most of us during this stage your body is trapped. REM sleep can last for around 70-90 minutes. Most importantly, during REM sleep, your brain is actually repairing the mind while also consolidating memories and new learning from that day. Amazing stuff, hey?

In one night you may cycle between these stages anywhere from 4 – 6 times while you are sleeping.

A word on sleeping tablets:

While every single stage in the sleep cycle is important, Stage 3 & 4 sleep and REM sleep are clearly essential for healing, repair, and cognitive functioning. And this is where sleep medications cause problems and why they often do more harm than good. Sleeping tablets actually prevent you from entering Stage 3 & 4 sleep and REM sleep.

The most common form of sleep medication is the benzodiazepine, you may be more familiar with the brand names Valium, Xanax, Temaze, Rohypnol, Serapax, Ativan, Mogadon, or Rivotril.

Also, benzodiazepine use is more likely to result in what is known as rebound day-time anxiety, meaning that your HPA axis has been stimulated, increasing the likelihood that you will be caught up in that negative stress cycle. And it is highly addictive.

Avoid the use of sleeping medication if you can, if you really need to take it do so sparingly, maybe for 2 to 3 nights only and then have a few days break. If you are already taking sleep medication DO NOT suddenly stop taking it as this can also cause dangerous reactions. Always discuss medical options with your general practitioner or medical specialist.

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Lindas bioLinda is an AHPRA registered psychologist and relationship counsellor with offices located on the Gold Coast. She has worked in mental health since 1994. Since that time, following a long and often trying journey, particularly given that she had not completed secondary school, she achieved a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology, a Diploma of Counselling, a Graduate Diploma of Adult Education and a Post Graduate Diploma of Psychology. Linda now enjoys specializing in helping couples to learn how to value their best asset, enabling people suffering from dementia to move forward in their lives, and supporting people who have experienced work-place injury in their recovery. She also has a passion for assisting people to heal from stress, anxiety and depression.

Linda values openness, authenticity, and acceptance in her work as a psychologist. She is a big believer in the power of the mind and recognizes that in many instances it is the activity within our minds that contributes to our psychological distress. Linda views the brain as an amazingly powerful organ: she is passionate about understanding how the brain functions and what each of us can do to maximize the brains potential.

You can find out more about Linda at www.eastqldcounselling.com.au.

Stress & the Role of Breathing

I’m calling on another of my friends and colleagues today to discuss the role of breathing in stress. Linda is a psychologist with 20+ years experience in supporting people who have been living with stress and trauma. I’d encourage you to check out her website below her post as she has some very informative and helpful articles to read!

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“A human being is only breath and shadow” – Sophocles

So breathing is one of those things we take completely for granted, and yet breath really is life, without it we are no more.

In today’s topic we are going to have a look at the importance of breathing in helping you to lower your stress levels or down-regulate your stress system. We will also provide an exercise at the end of the post that you can use to learn how to breathe with your diaphragm – a really important strategy in down-regulating the stress system.

In terms of stress you learned early on in the post titled ‘Down-regulating stress’ just how breathing is affected by the stress response. Remember how whenever your brain perceives a threat in your environment your amygdala (the warning system in your brain) becomes alerted and often very quickly sends a cascade of hormones (chemical messengers) through your body. These hormones, primarily cortisol and adrenalin, then tell your body to breathe shallowly and much faster to increase your intake of oxygen.

Unfortunately today many of us automatically breathe quite shallowly. If you watch a toddler wandering about and playing, you will notice that you can actually see their belly moving as they breathe. Toddlers are very relaxed, they have yet to learn to suck their belly in and begin breathing shallowly. As we age we learn to suck our stomach in, due both to tension and the desire to reduce the waistline, which makes it impossible to breathe from your belly.

Breathing shallowly actually increases the likelihood that you will automatically switch on your stress response. Because you don’t get enough oxygenated air into the bottom of your lungs you may feel as though you are struggling to breath and even feel anxious. Over time, just like any muscle, the diaphragm will become weakened if it is not used properly, potentially trapping you in shallow breathing.

The easiest way to check whether or not you are breathing from your chest or using your diaphragm is to place one hand palm down on your upper chest area and the other on your belly. Breathe normally and see if you can notice which hand is actually moving. The hand that is on your chest should be completely still and the hand on your belly rising and falling as you breathe.

Breathing actually starts with the diaphragm.

stress diaphragm

The diaphragm is a huge muscle sitting in your chest just below your lungs. The only time you probably pay any attention to it is when you get the hiccups, which happens because the diaphragm has become irritated and it then has a little involuntary spasm. When the diaphragm contracts it enlarges the space where the lungs sit, enabling air to enter our lungs. When the diaphragm muscle relaxes the air is forced from the lungs.

Breathing in allows us to take in important, life giving oxygen and breathing out enables us to release poisonous carbon dioxide. You may have heard the affirmation people repeat: “breathing in good, breathing out bad”.

Diaphragm breathing helps to stimulate the vagus nerve, a cranial nerve that has links to the parasympathetic system in the rest of the body. Remember that the sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the stress response and the parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for rest, relaxation and repair.

When you stimulate your parasympathetic system through diaphragm breathing, it is essentially like putting on the brake, helping your body to stop the stress response. Whereas when you breathe from the chest you are stimulating the sympathetic system.

Diaphragm breathing also helps you to focus your mind on your body right now, rather than getting caught up and carried away by all of those unhelpful thoughts racing around in your mind.

So how can you strengthen this very important muscle and at the same time switch on the relaxation response within your body?

By learning diaphragm breathing, sometimes called abdominal breathing or belly breathing.

Diaphragm breathing is really easy once you get the hang of it, although it may take you a little practice to master.

To begin with you are best to practice lying down, either on your bed or on the floor.

Have your legs slightly bent at the knees so that your upper body is relaxed.

Place your hands, or even an object like a book or a soft toy, on your belly and concentrate on expanding the diaphragm as you breath in. Imagine as you are breathing in that you are inflating a large balloon in your belly.

Notice on the in-breath how the air moves first into the bottom of your belly, then up through the chest area, then fills you up almost to your shoulders.

As you breath out, imagine a deflating balloon, with the air first leaving from your shoulders, then your chest area, then right down into the bottom of your belly, until no air remains. Stay with that empty feeling for a moment and then notice as your belly automatically begins to rise for the next breathe.

After practicing diaphragm breathing lying down you will find it easier to practice standing, sitting and moving about throughout your day.

Breathing from your diaphragm is not something that you can just do in those moments when you feel stressed, yes it is helpful at that time, however you need to practice this type of breathing so that it becomes more natural.

Practicing every day will also ensure that you are turning on the relaxation response, helping to reduce anxiety and reduce stress.

Try making diaphragm breathing a regular part of your sleep routine. After you’ve climbed into bed take a few moments to practice 10 deep, belly breaths.

stress breathing

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Lindas bioLinda is an AHPRA registered psychologist and relationship counsellor with offices located on the Gold Coast. She has worked in mental health since 1994. Since that time, following a long and often trying journey, particularly given that she had not completed secondary school, she achieved a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology, a Diploma of Counselling, a Graduate Diploma of Adult Education and a Post Graduate Diploma of Psychology. Linda now enjoys specializing in helping couples to learn how to value their best asset, enabling people suffering from dementia to move forward in their lives, and supporting people who have experienced work-place injury in their recovery. She also has a passion for assisting people to heal from stress, anxiety and depression.

Linda values openness, authenticity, and acceptance in her work as a psychologist. She is a big believer in the power of the mind and recognizes that in many instances it is the activity within our minds that contributes to our psychological distress. Linda views the brain as an amazingly powerful organ: she is passionate about understanding how the brain functions and what each of us can do to maximize the brain’s potential.

You can find out more about Linda at www.eastqldcounselling.com.au.

Stress and Mental Wellness

stress cartoon

I’ve had thoughts running through my head about what I wanted to talk about for this post. I think the message I want to get across to you all is about how you can either support your mental wellness, or allow stress to overwhelm you and ultimately reduce your sense of wellness.

I think the first thing we need to do though, is to understand what we’re aiming for when we use the word “wellness”.

What does “mental wellness” mean to you? Is it the same as what it means for other people in your life?

As much as I’d like it to be as simple as referring to the dictionary, as we have for other definitions in this series, I’m not convinced it’s that easy. I think the definition of mental wellness is different for everyone.

For me, I think it overlaps and is impacted by our physical wellness. I certainly feel better if I don’t have any physical illnesses or injuries! And I know that my mental and emotional states are linked, for better or worse! I actually describe my mental wellness using my emotions. How can they not be linked, right?!

The first words that come into my mind to describe mental wellness are centred, calm & peace.

When my mind is chaotic, when I have a lot of stuff to get through, when I don’t know how I’ll manage it, and when I feel pressured, isolated and alone, it is much harder for me to call myself mentally well.

When my mind is well, I function well. I’m able to get up in the morning and I’ll want to face the day. I’ll be excited to go into work and do the job I love. I’ll look forward to interacting with clients, colleagues, friends and family. I’ll be motivated to do the things I need to do, even if they aren’t things I’m particularly excited about. I mean, who really gets excited about doing the dishes or doing paperwork? Not me!

And I’ll have the energy to do them. Energy is important, and if you don’t have it, it’s a sure sign that you’re probably stressed. I mean, there’s being tired at the end of a busy day, but when it’s that deep, bone weary fatigue that persists day after day and doesn’t lift, you may need to look deeper. And one of the first places to look is at your stress.

Back to wellness … My mind will be clear. I’ll be able to access my creativity. I’ll be able to solve problems. And I won’t feel particularly anxious or stressed. I’ll feel cheerful, will be able to appreciate and laugh at jokes and I’ll feel grateful and blessed to have my life, even if it’s not always smooth sailing.

So how do I get this feeling? Even though I’m not always good at it, and I’m a work in progress (aren’t we all), I get it by looking after myself. By recognising and acknowledging the signs of stress my body gives me (check back next week for a post on that).

These are some of the things I use:

  • Eating healthily
  • Regular movement (I don’t always go hard – look out for a post on this too)
  • Regular time out (me time) doing things I love away from work
  • Mindfulness
  • Time with friends
  • Journaling
  • Plenty of rest
  • “switch-off” time
  • Pampering time (getting my hair done etc)
  • Regular therapy appointments (while debriefing with someone objective is awesome for clearing my head and getting really clear on what’s important to me, I’m also including medical therapies here. For me these are with my General Practitioner, kinesiologist, acupuncturist, massage therapist etc.

I find that when I do these practices regularly and make my wellness a priority above everyone else in my life (including family and clients), I maintain my mental wellness. Which results in so much more to give to the important people in my life.

Do you make regular time to take care of yourself? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below!

worth taking care of

Stress and mental illness

mental illness

I think most people believe that stress and mental illness are separate entities. The truth is, they are inextricably linked.

Stress can impact on an already diagnosed condition, or it can also be the ultimate cause of specific mental health conditions.

For example, research on Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) states they often result from trauma. DID is the newest name for what used to be called Multiple Personality Disorder, which is where the brain separates, or dissociates, from yourself to protect your brain and body from the pain of trauma (usually severe abuse in this case). Research has found that many people diagnosed with BPD also often have a history of abuse in their childhood. There are some things we just don’t need to remember. And PTSD is obviously labelled PTSD for a reason.

If you’re interested in reading a little more on some of these conditions, check out the articles we published in January when we did a focus on mental health. You’ll find factual articles explaining specific conditions as well as some of our readers sharing their experiences with us. readers, Tegan and Kaye, shared their experiences with BPD. You’ll find them all if you search in the archives for January 2014.

On the other side of the coin, when you already have a diagnosis, such as with depression and anxiety, stress can make the condition harder to treat. It’s much more difficult to manage anxiety when your amygdala is being activated repeatedly. In fact, anxiety comes from this repeated switching on of the stress response. When you worry about stuff there is an element of fear that something will go wrong, which triggers our inbuilt survival mechanism. One of my colleagues also wrote a guest post for us back in January. In it she discussed how anxiety works. Note how Sam talks about the stress response and those pesky saber-toothed tigers.

One of the most important things to note for stress and mental illness is that with the help from your professional support team, it may be possible to manage your condition more effectively by using some simple techniques to down-regulate the response. Check out our previous posts over the last few days on Stress and the Triune Brain, Stress and the Amygdala, Stress and Trauma, and the down-regulation of stress. They will give you a good idea of how this response works and how you can help manage it.

stress-92313-828

On Saturday we’ll talk about stress and breathing, where a colleague and friend of mine will take you through simple breathing practices that can help.

Please remember that while these exercises can be of benefit, always use the guidance of your professional mental health support team. I’d encourage you to show them this post to give them an idea of what we’ve discussed.

Real life experience of stress

For today’s post I thought I’d break things up a little. We’ve been pretty focused on the more technical aspects of stress and it’s probably a good idea to give you a general picture of how all this looks in the real world. So I’m sharing a personal story of one woman’s experience of stress. Julia is a wife and a mother of two boys, one of whom has special needs. She shares one of the biggest stressors she faces in providing the extra care her son’s needs demand, and some of the strategies she has discovered that work for her. Julia is about to launch her own brand new blog at the end of this week and would love to connect with some new readers. Below her article you’ll find a short bio and the link to her blog, which you can access this Saturday, November 15!

As you read, see if you can apply some of the theory we have been discussing over the past 11 days by identifying how Julia’s limbic system reacts to the stressful experience. If you can identify some of Julia’s stress responses, we’d love to hear your comments!

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What better time to write about stress than when I’m right in the middle of a stressful situation.

Every Saturday night it happens. My husband goes to work at 4.30pm and comes home around 1am… This means I have to get my son to bed and asleep on my own. Let me just say IT IS NOT A FUN EXPERIENCE. Remy who is 8 in 2 weeks has Autism, ADHD and a moderate global developmental delay and he is a classic Autism/ADHD kid when it comes to sleep time. His brother, Xavier is 10 in a month and is quite good with the whole bed time thing although does like to try it on when I have to deal with it all by myself.

I myself have issues with stress and anxiety anyway and this situation really doesn’t help the matter. I’m not very good at handling stress although I am trying to learn some ways to cope better. If I don’t I think my head will explode.

So anyway, back to bed time. Remy is a night owl at the best of times but he can play quietly most nights until he falls asleep on his own or we just switch everything off and he has no choice but to close his eyes. Then there are other nights, and it always happens on a Saturday night, where he is absolutely beside himself with hyperactivity. He’s non-stop talking, walking around the house, kicking, moving things, you name it, if it’s annoying and keeping people awake he’ll be doing it. I try everything to get him to listen and get to bed or to be calm and try to get him to understand that its quiet time now but he carries on regardless.

It’s partly bad behaviour and partly having no control over his body once he’s gone past a certain point, and partly not fully understanding how to or why he needs to calm down and sleep. No matter what it is, by the end of the night I’m usually in tears, heart beating rapidly, yelling, and calling my husband begging him to come home early from work.

What do I do to cope? Well, not much at the moment. When I’m in the heat of a stress attack I can’t even think of anything else. However, here are some things I’ve tried to implement into my life to help me be a calmer person in general

  1. Stretch and core exercises each morning for about 10 minutes. It’s like my version of meditation. I’m not good at sitting still for long but stretching relaxes me and I love doing it. I feel energised afterwards as well which helps.
  2. Box breathing, the problem with this one is that my concentration span is quite short so I get over it pretty quickly. I am trying to train myself to be relaxed and just be still for about five minutes at a time.
  3. When I’m in the heat of a stressful situation I try to take deep breaths and really think about whether or not this is something to get so worked up about. If he’s sitting at the computer at 10pm is it really a bother if he’s occupied and quiet. I am learning to pick my battles. It helps.
  4. I am learning that if I am calm then he responds differently. It’s very hard to do but I’m practicing.
  5. I have been reading a little bit about being ‘present’, in the moment. It’s difficult in this very busy life we all have and my ADHD brain but it’s definitely worth practicing.

Things we’ve tried in the past to get him to go to sleep

  1. Melatonin, a natural medication that mimics the natural hormone the body produces to signal that it’s tired and needs rest. This worked but only sometimes. It wasn’t consistent enough.
  2. Bedtime routine: This has been hard because Remy is set in his ways and if we try to introduce something he doesn’t like then he gets very worked up and makes things worse anyway.
  3. Classical music. Remy loves music but when I tried to introduce classical music for bed time he would sob uncontrollably. I found out pretty quickly that he has a very emotional response to music. He said to me one day “no music bed time, so sad song mummy”
  4. Magnesium and herbal tea in juice. This one is still in experiment mode. I have to make sure the tea is cold then mix it into the juice with the magnesium powder. He has to drink it out of a drink bottle because he won’t drink it if he can smell it. It does relax him a little bit but we haven’t been using it long enough to know if it will be consistent or not.
  5. Tranquiliser gun…. Just kidding, put down the phone, but don’t think it hasn’t crossed my mind once or twice.

It is very hard to stay angry and upset when, once he starts to calm down, he looks up at me with his big brown eyes and says “mum, I sowwy I be naughty for you” awwww, melts my heart! NOT GOOD, have to stay strong and not cave in.  Sometimes calmness doesn’t kick in until 2 in the morning.

Bed time isn’t our only stressful situation when it comes to caring for Remy but it has to be the one that affects me the most.

Julia and Remy detour ahead

Those big brown eyes I can’t say no to. “I sowwy I be naughty for you”

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Julia detour ahead I am a Mum of 2 boys. Remy who is 8 has ADHD, Autism and a moderate global developmental delay (thats what they call it when they don’t know what else to call it). He’s amazing and sees the world in a different way, we learn from him all the time. My oldest is 10, Xavier, my little sports star and all round good kid. My husband of 8 years and myself are doing life together trying to figure this whole thing out.

One day I was sitting with a group of Mums from Remy’s support class and we laughed and cried and told stories for hours. We needed it, needed someone else to say, yes I feel like that too, yes my kid does that too, and then it hit me… other families need to hear this stuff too. Not everyone has other people around them to talk to or make them feel like their thoughts and feelings are valid and valued.

So that’s why I’ve decided to start this blog and put together a book for families just like ours. So check out my site and if you would like to share your story then let me know via the site and send me your email address. You can find me at http://www.detourahead.info/ 

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