The Power in the way we Think

Archive for the ‘Self care’ 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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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.

Manage stress simply

manage stress simply

We’re almost at the end of the month so today I wanted to discuss how you manage your stress. If there is one thing I have learned as I make mistake after mistake in managing my own stress, it’s that simple is always better. Follow the KISS principle (keep it super simple), and you won’t ever go too far wrong.

So let’s do this.

  1. In previous posts we have discussed how effective breathing is to down-regulate the stress response. You might remember Linda’s post on the role of breathing. There are many different breathing techniques available if you wanted to google it, or even search for suitable apps (I’ll leave you to find these on your own). But with all of them the basic principle is to use your diaphragm and get some good quality oxygen into your lungs and brain, so you can calm the stress response and re-engage your thinking brain (neocortex).
  2. Take time out to do things you love. If you remember my post on the alpha and beta brainwaves, you’ll know that engaging the alpha state will help to down-regulate the stress response. And while breathing is still the most effective way to do this, engaging in activities that ignite your passion will help you focus and put your brain into the alpha state. As an added bonus, things will feel like they are flowing easily and without much effort.
  3. Prioritise the things in your life that are important to you and leave the rest. When you’re in the middle of doing something stressful, stop and ask yourself whether it’s absolutely essential. Try doing an audit on your daily or weekly activities and consider letting some of them go. When you do this, keep your values firmly in your mind – those ideals and concepts that mean a lot to you. For example, if family relationships are big for you, try allowing yourself to take time to play with the kids or spend time with your partner, and allowing the carpet to remain unvacuumed for an extra day.
  4. Do activities that make you feel relaxed and free. For example, listening to music that you love, dancing around the lounge and so on.
  5. Incorporate some gentle movement. Get out into the fresh air and go for a short walk. Play with the dog (or other pet) and allow yourself to be a kid for a while. Check out our post on stress and movement for a reminder on what intense exercise can do to your stress levels. Sometimes it’s better to ditch the run and wander aimlessly around the local markets instead.
  6. Spend some time in nature. Visit a lookout and watch the view. Sit under a tree and lean back against it. Walk around on the grass with bare feet. Ground yourself.
  7. Laugh! Our post on stress and laughter will tell you how this helps lower stress. So try watching a funny movie or being silly with the kids.
  8. Start small. If you’re used to running around from one thing to the next to the next all day, if you attempt to sit still for 2 hours your brain will strongly object! It will likely stress you more to sit still than it already does just going through your day! Instead, just take 30 seconds to stop, sit, and do some of that belly breathing we all know and love. If you persist in doing those little things regularly, pretty soon you’ll be able to stop for longer periods.
  9. Create a routine that works for you and your lifestyle. Don’t allow anyone else (including me) to tell you what you need to do. Trust your own gut and go with what will work for you. My suggestion to begin managing your stress is to simply incorporate the belly breathing (even 30 seconds each time) morning and night. Try doing it before you get out of bed in the morning, and right before you go to sleep at night. The theory is that doing it first thing will set you up for the day and at night it will get your brain ready for sleep. As I said though, these are suggestions. Always trust your own instincts and incorporate the techniques in a way that will work for your unique body, brain and lifestyle. You are the best expert in your own life.

I hope these suggestions are helpful. If you have any techniques that you have found work for you, we’d love to hear about them below! Someone else may be inspired to try something a little left of centre!

Simple is always best

Listening to Stress

traffic_light stress

For today’s post I’d like to thank a good friend of mine for assisting me with some ideas and brainstorming for the innovative analogy that we are about to share with you all. Please join me in applauding Libby! 🙂

I want to talk with you about the signals stress provides, to tell you that you need to take action. I think most people get caught up in the day to day rush of life, forgetting that we need to take some down time to replenish our energy and rejuvenate. Our body will always tell us when we are stressed and where it needs you to pay attention.

I want to introduce you to a simple “traffic light” system to help you to know what signs to look for and how to interpret them when they arrive. Many of us don’t notice the signs at all, while some of us absolutely notice them, but don’t know what they are for. We consider them to be minor twinges and the signs often go away, so we decide that it wasn’t anything to worry about and carry on the way we were. These can be classed as green light signals.

The thing is, if we choose to ignore those smaller signs, our body will object and will become louder to get your attention. So it gives you some bigger signs (orange light). If you then choose to ignore those and do nothing to address them, it ramps things up to the red light category and literally hits you in the face with the big guns.

Let’s have a look at each category and some examples of the signals that can be included.

Green Light

  • Muscle tension in various parts of the body
  • Twinges of back pain
  • Tight throat (like you can’t speak)
  • Heart flutters
  • Irritability
  • Being snappy
  • Fatigue
  • Food cravings
  • Headaches
  • Disrupted sleep patterns
  • Changes in eating patterns
  • Occasional neck ache
  • Upset tummy and mild nausea
  • Nerve pain such as sciatica
  • Feeling emotionally fragile

Orange Light

  • Food cravings
  • Crashing after a full on week at work
  • No energy to do anything at the end of the day
  • Minor stress related illnesses
  • Colds and flus
  • Mild or occasional migraines
  • Persistent neck ache
  • Nausea
  • The urge to hide away
  • Crying and not knowing why
  • Insomnia
  • Mild depression

Red Light

  • Heart attack
  • Major stress related conditions such as high blood pressure or difficulty in controlling diabetes
  • Flares of rage
  • Increased symptoms of conditions such as fibromyalgia, glandular fever and chronic fatigue syndrome
  • Frequent or severe migraines
  • Severe depression
  • Flares of conditions such as Crohn’s disease and irritable bowel syndrome
  • Chronic insomnia or sleeping excessively
  • Stroke

You need to understand that these lists are certainly not exhaustive. There are many others that can be added in each category. While there are similarities in how we all experience stress, each person’s body is different and will show signs that are unique, which means that we need to be on the alert.

It’s important that we try to catch our own signals when they are in the green light category as by that stage they are much easier to manage than the ones in the red light category!

What does your body tell you when you are stressed? Feel free to share your signals below. Hopefully this will not only help you in identifying your own signals, but also assist others in triggering their own lightbulb moments.

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?

Acute and Chronic Stress

How did you enjoy Linda’s guest posts over the last 4 days? She was very kind to help me out as I have been attending a conference and have been incredibly busy. Those conferences certainly take a lot out of you! Three full-on, amazing days of connecting, talking, listening and thinking. Oh, and eating huge quantities of food! They fed us literally every 2 hours! Seriously scrummy though. Delish to the N-th degree! And the view from my room was just as scrummy. Let me tease you with a few photos. The first 2 are taken from the balcony of my room and the 3rd was served at the gala dinner we attended on the first night …

view 2

Just after sunrise

Afternoon view

Afternoon view

Concoction with marshmallow, turkish delight and what tasted like icecream but wasn't because it didn't melt. Super delicious!

Concoction with marshmallow, turkish delight and what tasted like icecream but wasn’t because it didn’t melt. Super delicious!

Put all that together and out walks one incredibly tired and frazzled Ali! I have 2 more days before I get to take 3 days to do nothing but sleep, recoup my energy and write more blog posts for you guys!

So I guess today’s post is somewhat timely given my life for the past 3-4 days. We’re talking about acute versus chronic stress. What are they and how do they work?

Let’s break them down like we have in our earlier definitions on physical, emotional and mental stress. When I look at the word “acute” I think of grade 9 mathematics classes at school. Angles. Acute angles in fact. Those that measure less than 90 degrees with a compass. They’re small.

If we consider this word paired with stress, it makes sense that the stress would be small too. Or, more accurately, short. Acute stress lasts only a short time. If you think about the time right before you make a speech, or almost being in a car accident, you would have your heart beating right out of your chest, you’re feeling hyper-vigilant (easily startled) and so on.

This is where your amygdala does its thing, makes the assessment that you’re in danger and activates the stress response. But since the situation is over pretty quickly, the response also settles quickly and you can go about your day.

However, when the stress is repetitive, or when things happen in quick succession, your stress response is activated again and again. And this is when your stress becomes chronic. Or long lasting. A little like diabetes is classed as a chronic illness. It just keeps on giving and giving.

You may have picked up on the fact that the majority of our posts this month have been focused on chronic stress. This is because it has such dire consequences. When our body releases all those stress hormones, the impact can be huge. As we already mentioned, it puts us at risk for all kinds of lifestyle illnesses; heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and so on. you might like to refresh your memory on those by re-reading that post.

So, when it comes to my attendance at this 3 day conference (which was added to 2 full on days of travel and other work related activities), would you say my stress was chronic or acute?

Rather than give you the answer (my opinion), I’d like to give you a test to see how much you’ve all learned by reading the series so far. Tricky of me, isn’t it?

In the comments below, tell me which type of stress you believe my experiences to be, and to challenge you a little more, add what you believe would be great for me to do in order to reduce that stress.

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 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

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