The Power in the way we Think

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Celebrating Stress

Celebrations and stress are not usually words we see together. However today they are. Because today, we made it!

It is officially November 30, 2014. Which means that this is the final day of the NaBloPoMo challenge, and our series on stress.

And the National Blog Posting Month has definitely been a challenge! Probably not in the way most people would think, though. I had no trouble at all coming up with the post ideas and writing the material. Stress is such a huge topic that we could easily go for another month without too much trouble!

Instead, the challenge for me was finding the time to get it all done with the other responsibilities in my life. But I’m so glad that I had the opportunity to do it. The experience has stretched me to think about some things (including my own stress) in a different way.

It has drawn lots of new readers to our small corner of the internet and as they share their stories I find my passion for The Mindset Effect renewed. It’s people like you guys who keep me doing what I do. I love sharing my knowledge with the aim of supporting all of you to make positive, healthy changes in your life. At the end of this post, as a special something for all of you who have stuck with me throughout the month, I have a very special treat. I won’t tell you what it is right now (and no cheating by scrolling!); it will be waiting for you when you get to the end. 🙂

After such an intense month and 29 different articles on stress, I’d like to revisit some of the main concepts and bring it all together for you. I know that sometimes receiving so much information can be a little overwhelming and difficult to understand. So let’s see what we can do …

managing stress

We began the month with a few simple definitions of the different types of stress before we discussed the pretty grim impacts it has on our mind, body and emotions. With any type of force, strain or pressure, and the possibility of conditions such as weight gain, heart issues, diabetes and blood pressure, it becomes really important to be aware of your stress and to learn to manage it effectively.

I believe it’s equally important to understand how stress works. If you understand it, you’ll be armed with heaps of knowledge that supports you to implement the simple management strategies that we know really work. You’ll have the science behind why you do things like reach for the chocolate bar, cry for seemingly no reason or snap at your partner. And you’ll also have the reasons behind why you feel some pretty mean neck and shoulder tension or why you crash at the end of the day or week and can’t bring yourself to even get out of the chair.

The neurobiology behind stress is extremely complex. I won’t go into that here but you can go back and read any of those earlier posts on the Triune brain, trauma, hormones and the amygdala. Between them, they explain the workings of our inbuilt survival mechanism and why many of our reactions occur.

The stress response, or our fight/flight mechanism, is activated easily and frequently by all manner of life events, from watching someone you love draw their last breath, to dealing with screaming kids or seeing the bills pile up when you have a limited income. And with the buildup of hormones like adrenalin and cortisol, managing the fallout from these events becomes even more important.

Children are also impacted by stress in the same way we are, but their experience is different due to the development of their brains being incomplete. They need guidance in some of the same simple techniques we use.

Probably the most important and effective management strategy is the use of breathing. My friend and colleague, Linda, did a great job of explaining how to utilise belly breathing to down-regulate the stress response.

We’ve also explored sleep, movement, food and laughter and how these are all related to or impact our stress. And we learned how simple routines and small changes can make a big difference in the way we experience it.

With such a complex system and so many things feeding into the impacts we feel, it’s important that we are able to break it all down into bite size pieces and make the way we manage stress work for us in our day to day life. Learning to listen to our mind and body and understanding the meaning of the signals they give out, means we can become more aware of how we respond to stress and this assists us to figure out how to manage it.

As a special treat to you all for your support this past month I would like to provide you with a bonus. I know from first-hand experience that listening to those stress signals is not always easy. In fact, it can be a downright nightmare! Especially given how chaotic our minds can be when we are in the midst of it all. So I would like to provide for you an audio file with 2 of the simple techniques we have discussed previously. This is called guided imagery. I’ll first take you through a simple breathing strategy similar to the belly breathing Linda talked about. I’ll then extend on this and guide you through a body scan, which will help you listen to, connect with and become more aware of the signals your body gives you.

To prepare to listen, find a quiet place and make yourself comfortable, preferably lying flat on your back with your hands loosely by your sides.

calm scenery picnic point

I’d love to hear how you go with it when you try it! Please feel free to let me know below.

Before I close up this series, I’d like to thank a few people. Firstly to my friend and colleague Linda, for sharing her passion and skill in the articles she provided on sleep and the role of breathing. I’d like to thank my friend Libby, for helping me brainstorm for the post on listening to our bodies. I’d also like to thank Julia and Carlie who provided articles on their personal experiences with stress. Hearing personal stories can help us understand that other people feel the way we do. We aren’t alone in feeling stressed. Lastly, I’d like to thank all of you who read my words and stick around to read more! Without you, there would be no point me writing and sharing all the stuff in my brain.

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Stress and Glorious Food

What is food to you?

Many people would respond with words such as nutrition, fuel, sustenance, energy, life force, nourishment.

Others would say comfort, stress reduction, safety, security, crutch, solace, home.

Which would you choose? I know that for much of my life I have been the second.

The school you feel you belong to says a lot about your beliefs around food and how you use it in your life. I know it does for me

There is one thing for certain in this. Without food to eat, we would not survive. Every system we possess requires the nutrients in food to function effectively. Breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, nervous system, skeletal system, reproductive system, thought and reasoning system, learning system. Etcetera.

And for this reason we have inbuilt systems to attract us to food to make sure we want to eat.

Every time we eat our brain signals the release of dopamine, one of our feel good hormones. This means that every time we eat we feel pleasure, which is another of those inbuilt programs.

We all have a biological need for pleasure (and on the other side of the coin, to avoid pain). This process is quite complex in terms of the brain structures and functions involved, and much of that is irrelevant for our purposes.

The key point we need to make is this: when we have painful life experiences we will always seek to avoid that pain and to gain some pleasure.

And food is often the go-to method we choose because we have the dopamine released every time we eat and therefore we subconsciously know that it’s sure to make us feel good.

dopamine release

If that is not complicated enough, let’s add another layer …

Everything we learn results in our brains laying down pathways of neurons (called neural pathways, funnily enough) to help us to perform. This includes absolutely everything. Walking, talking, making a sandwich, having a shower, driving a car, thinking, coping, dancing. Everything. If we think about driving a car, for example, the first time we do it we feel pretty awkward, wondering where to look, where to put our hands and feet, trying to remember everything we need to do. As we practice over and over, our neural pathways are layed down and the actions become automatic. Pretty soon we are able to drive through a traffic light and once we’re through, we think, “holy crap, was that light red or green?!”

This is the process that is laying down neural pathways.

The way we cope with stress is no different. As children we learn different ways of coping from the example we have from the adults in our lives. If our example is a healthy one, with positive thinking and an ability to bounce back, this is the pattern that we learn. However, if you are anything like my family (which is very common), we are offered cakes and biscuits (and lots of similar yummy foods) to comfort and ease our boo boo’s. Which can lead to us running for the sweets whenever we are stressed. Can you relate to this as much as I can?

A couple of notes to keep in mind. Firstly, these pathways don’t have to begin in childhood. They can be layed down at any age (which means we cannot blame our parents, sorry lol). And secondly, the types of foods we usually choose to indulge in, whilst it isn’t always the case, commonly contain sugar. We are usually drawn to sugary foods as these produce those pleasurable feelings most easily. And our brain becomes addicted to sugar. Go figure, right?

So what does all this mean for our stress?

In many of our previous posts we have discovered that stress doesn’t feel nice! There are so many things that stress does to us that are detrimental to our body, mind and emotions.

So, since we have this hardwired programming to avoid this kind of pain, we will automatically seek to find something pleasurable to counteract and replace it.

And often that is food, particularly given the programming we have to eat for survival.

Can we change all this programming?

No, unfortunately we cannot. It is hardwired.

Does this mean we are stuck with the habit of stuffing our faces each time we’re stressed?

Again, the answer is no. There are things we can do. And these begin with managing the underlying reason for the stress we are experiencing. Now I understand that sometimes we can’t change the circumstances. However we can manage it by going back to our favourite coping strategy – breathing. Remember Linda’s article on the role of breathing? This simple technique does not just down-regulate the stress response. It engages the relaxation response. It allows us to think more rationally (and therefore consider whether we really need/want the chocolate we’ve been craving), and it also allows us to actively take control of the way we feel. I’d say that is a win-win, wouldn’t you?

One more note to finish with. One of the most important things to understand about the brain is its ability to change. In neurobiological terms this is called neuroplasticity. We need to know though, that these changes take time. You can build new pathways by practicing new skills over and over again, whilst allowing the old ones to remain unused. But trying to learn how not to use food to relieve stress does not happen overnight. We need to practice these skills consistently for months for them to become more automatic. As we work on it, it can be helpful to be gentle with ourselves each time we mess up. We deserve compassion, after all.

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!

Stress and emotions

We’ve already talked about the Limbic region in the brain and its function in regulating our emotions. And we’ve also discussed the role of the amygdala in assessing potential threatening situations.

You’ve probably gathered by now how the amygdala plays a key role in our survival. It helps us to recognise when our life is in danger and sets off a chain reaction to get us out of that situation. Our body is flooded with hormones to get us moving (either fighting or fleeing), and also to completely focus our attention on the threat so that we aren’t distracted from it, again in order to increase our chances of survival.

We have also learned that sometimes our amygdala makes the assessment that we are at threat when we really aren’t. If you recall, this is because our brains haven’t evolved enough to keep up with the huge advances in technology we have experienced over the years.

So we are activating the stress response for things like finances, screaming kids, work pressures, time pressures, physical illnesses or injuries, and so on. None of these are likely to threaten your survival.

When you think about the neurobiology behind the stress response, and our slower evolutionary processes, it makes sense that our brain responds in the way it does. But what happens to our emotions on the occasions where our life isn’t actually at risk?

Can you imagine how you’d feel if you had a lot of work deadlines to meet, were dealing with repeated issues with your children and also had some recent, pricy unexpected bills?

I’m guessing the experiences of fear, anxiety, uncertainty, dread and overwhelm would be high, amongst others.

And very likely they would come and go in unpredictable patterns, which could make those emotions worse and more intense.

And this would likely lead to behaviour that you’re probably not always going to be proud of. Irritability, snapping at your loved ones, yelling, uncharacteristic urges to run away and hide, not wanting to face the day, fatigue. And what about the arguments about irrelevant things?

The bottom line is that your emotions go haywire and they become unpredictable.

And this leaves you feeling unsure of yourself and wondering why the hell you can’t just keep it together and get through it like everyone else does. Am I right? I think if I had one dollar for every person who came into my counselling room asking, “why can’t I do this right? I should be able to cope better”, I would be well on the way to being a millionaire! Well, almost.

But as we’ve already discussed (several times), when you know the processes that the brain goes through, hopefully you’ll see that appearances can be deceiving. I don’t know anyone that could cope with all these things and still be “coping well”. On the outside it may look like they have it together, but it’s almost guaranteed that they feel just like you do on the inside.

That said, I need to acknowledge that each of us has a “coping capacity” that is different from anyone else on the planet. Yes, we all have the same processes occurring in the brain. However each of us has had different experiences throughout our lives, which has given us different memory systems and ultimately, different ways of coping.

This is why some of us love scaring ourselves silly with horror movies and others, like me, won’t go near them. It’s why some of us can’t wait to ride the scariest, most windy and daring rollercoasters, or jump out of perfectly good airplanes (why, I ask, would anyone choose to jump out of a fully functioning plane?!?!)

Remember too, that there are plenty of parents who absolutely thrive on having their house choc full of kids running amok. They thrive on the chaos and feed off the energy. And there are others (again, like me), who prefer peace and quiet after they get home.

2012-02-05-ALBERT-EINSTEIN-everybody-is-a-genius

These differences are natural based on our life experiences, family background and so on. So please, do yourselves a favour and stop comparing yourselves with the people around you.

And when you feel those emotions swirling around and bringing you down, try going back to our simple belly breathing technique that Linda talked about in her article on the role of breathing.

I have a challenge for you …

For the next 7 days, I want you to take time out each morning and evening to do 10 deep belly breaths, as described by Linda. Before you get out of bed and right before you go to sleep are perfect times. It only takes about 30 seconds, so no excuses!

At the end of the 7 days, report back here to let us know how you went. Have you noticed a difference in your day and your emotional state?

Stress and Children

Kids experience stress just as much as the rest of us.

And sometimes more intensely than the rest of us.

I hope you’re all wondering why this is, because I’m about to share it with you.

It all originates in the field of child development. Or more specifically, brain development. When I began this series on stress we talked about the Triune Brain. We discussed how the brain processes stress and a little bit about the ages at which the different parts of the brain develop.

I’d like to discuss these age differences in a little more detail.

When we are born the only part of the brain to be fully developed is the brain stem, which is responsible for our physiological responses such as breathing, heart rate and blood pressure. If this part of the brain is damaged in some way, your survival may be threatened and it is possible that you would be looking at support from machines to stay alive. The brain stem is also responsible for the physiological aspects of the stress response – elevating the heart rate, breathing rate and blood pressure.

The limbic region is the next part of the brain to develop, usually completed at around 3-5 years of age. This controls our emotions. The amygdala lives in the limbic region and if you remember back to my previous post on this, its job is to make an assessment about whether your life is at threat. So when we perceive our life to be in danger, our emotions, such as fear and anxiety, are activated.

The final part of the brain to develop is the neocortex, which is responsible for our ability to think, reason and solve problems. This begins to develop properly in our teens but isn’t completely developed until we reach our mid 20’s. When our stress response is activated, the blood flow to the neocortex is reduced, and therefore our ability to think is impaired.

Here is a simple diagram that shows this relationship.

triune brain 4

Let’s think about these facts in relation to children. As adults, when we become stressed we can sometimes use our reasoning ability to calm this response and get back to our balanced state (homeostasis). Remember though, by the time we reach our mid 20’s, all 3 areas of the brain are fully developed. This means that the sizes of the limbic region and the neocortex are somewhat even, thereby making it easier to reason things out when we’re stressed.

Children, however, do not have this. Because of their brain development, their limbic region and neocortex are different sizes, which means that their emotions have much more control than their thinking and reasoning ability. So when their stress response is activated, they are unable to down-regulate, or calm the response. This is not only due to the size difference, but also because the blood flow to the neocortex is diminished. So they have all these emotions running through their mind and body, but are unable to use logic to bring themselves back to a place of balance.

I hope this makes sense, because it is an integral part of why children’s behaviour can become volatile at the smallest things.

Sometimes their parents or another adult is able to “talk them down”, particularly if they combine some simple breathing techniques with ‘loaning’ out some logic or reasoning power. But sometimes the stress response is engaged to such an extent that the only way to calm it is to allow it to burn itself out. In this way kids are able to burn off any adrenalin with physical activity. Most of the time you’ll probably find this happen with the use of some pretty intense tantrums, complete with throwing things, yelling, hitting and so on.

The key to helping your kids to manage their response comes by making them more aware of their body and the signals it gives out to indicate stress. Look for a post on this in the next few days. In the meantime, try reviewing an article I wrote back in August about some secret kids business. In it I discuss how kids can learn to manage their own self-care by creating a box in which to keep some special things to help them calm down.

A special note for children who have experienced trauma or abuse, particularly at an early age. Neurobiological research has found that these kids often have an amygdala that is enlarged. This means that it is much more easily activated. And this in turn means that there is a larger difference in size between the limbic region and the neocortex, making it even more difficult to regulate their emotions. For these kids (well, for all kids, but especially for these ones), the key is safety and security. More than anything else, they need to understand that they are safe. So the best thing you can do is to remain calm, firm and completely sure in your attempts to support them. As you work at calming their response, regulate your own breathing using the belly breathing techniques we have already discussed. We all know that children pick up on our energy and moods, so the calmer you become, the easier it will be to help regulate them. And please consider seeking psychological support for these kids. Not only can a professional teach them how to regulate their emotions, they can work with you on specific strategies to use with them.

mirror neurons

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.

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