The Power in the way we Think

Posts tagged ‘stress management’

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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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

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.

The Kind Elf

Earlier in the year I created a group workshop for my clients at work and named it “The Kind Elf”. When I think about the image this phrase invokes, a number of words and images come into my head.

A kindly elf administering care to someone. A team of people providing help to a person in need. Presents being delivered to disadvantaged children. Support. Love. Care.

rest

I’m sure that many of us would be more than willing to help out someone who needed support. Australians are well-known for their mate-ship. We’re famous for it around the globe.

But what about when it comes to ourselves? It seems that while we are forever willing to provide support to others, we hate admitting that we need it ourselves. It takes us to be almost falling apart to recognise that we need to be taken care of. We like to think of ourselves as strong as the energizer bunny. We like to think we have the ability to go and go and go and go, without the need to stop and recharge our energy. We hate to admit any kind of “weakness” (and I use the quote marks deliberately). We beat ourselves up for getting tired and needing rest, and yet we freely acknowledge that other people deserve and need to take some down-time.

So how does that work? If it’s ok for other people to take time out to recharge, why isn’t ok for ourselves? Are we so caught up in the martyrdom that we can’t see the forest for the trees? Are we so arrogant to believe we are above the human condition of needing to rest our bodies?

That probably sounds harsh to a number of you reading this but that is what it essentially comes down to. We are all human beings and our bodies are designed to need rest. We need it to grow new cells, to regenerate skin and organs, to heal. Even to learn.

And yet we allow ourselves to get caught up in the daily grind that is life. We believe the media hype that to be better people we need to do more, strive for more, be more, get more. That unless we run ourselves into the ground we aren’t good enough.

So let’s stop the bullshit right here. We are good enough. YOU are good enough. Simply because you exist. Simply because you breathe the air. You deserve to take care of yourself.

So stand up and claim your birthright.

Be your own kind elf.

beach sunrise terrigal

Who cares for the carers?

People with mental illness usually have a support team around them. Psychologists, psychiatrists, mental health nurses, social workers, general practitioners. People in mental health organisations such as the Richmond Fellowship (this link is QLD but you can google other states). People handing out medications and people providing emotional support. For the most part, these people do fabulous work in paving the way to wellness.

mental health stigma

But there is a whole other population that often gets overlooked. The family and friends. Husbands, wives, sons, daughters, mothers, fathers. The carers. They are often excluded from treatment due to “confidentiality”. How do carers help monitor medications if they don’t have accurate information about which prescriptions to fill or how many tablets are needed? How do they help regulate moods if they aren’t up to speed on which strategies have been used in therapy? And that also means they are unable to provide feedback to give the professional team a full picture of what is happening for their loved one. While I can’t speak for all carers, I know that the ones I have spoken to genuinely want to help support the road to wellness. And they want to respect personal space and privacy.

During periods of illness, carers are often confronted with some pretty tough stuff. Major mood swings. Irrational demands. Thought processes that aren’t based in reality. An inability to reason. Violence; to self and others. Hospital visits. Self-harm. Suicide attempts. Manipulation. Sometimes even homicidal tendencies. And they are often in the middle of the fray, caught up in the maelstrom of chaos.

carer head chaos

Chaos

Watching the people they love most in the world go through these experiences is heartbreaking. You watch your spouse with depression stay in bed day after day, week after week. You know that they are in pain and you try everything you know to help them. Encouragement, tough love, praise, cajoling, bringing friends in. You try talking to the doctors but you don’t get anywhere because they can’t talk back. You take over the running of the household, managing the children, cooking, cleaning. And you listen to your husband or wife talk about their inner pain and how much better off you and the children would be without him or her in it. You feel helpless and scared. What if they kill themselves? You wonder what else you can do to help. You don’t always understand why they can’t get themselves out of bed and rejoin the family. You feel lonely because the partner you knew isn’t there anymore. You feel alone because you don’t have your best friend to bounce things off. And you feel hopeless and helpless because the professional team won’t talk to you and tell you what you can do to help. Not to mention feeling guilty, fearful, resentful (of the illness), and a whole host of other emotions.

If you are a carer and can relate to this, please understand. You are not alone. There are hundreds of thousands, or even millions of people with mental illness, and each of them very likely has a group of family and friends around them, feeling exactly the same way you do. That is a lot of people feeling like you.

Exhausted. Stressed. Alone. Afraid. Confused. Helpless. Guilty. Isolated.

That is a lot of stress to deal with. And when you feel it for long periods of time, it is really important that you take care of yourself. Some very simple strategies can make a big difference in how you well you bounce back from the stresses and ultimately in the quality of your life.

When you’re looking at specific strategies there is one thing to keep in mind. Given the amount of stress most carers experience, sometimes thinking about doing extra can be overwhelming. So keep things really simple and you’ll be able to incorporate some of them into your normal routine. Try these:thought training

  • Take 3-5 long, slow deep breaths. Try to focus on slowing your breaths down and smoothing them out. This will get some oxygen into your brain and help you think more clearly.
  • Pamper yourself. Take a bath, paint your nails, get a massage. This helps you relax your muscles and allows those stress hormones to dissipate.
  • Surround yourself with nature. Visit a garden, sit under a tree, get your hands dirty with soil. This will help ground you and release the stress.
  • Slow your brain down. Meditate, do yoga, or simply sit on your own for a while and breathe.
  • Do something you absolutely love.
  • Laugh.
  • Connect with other people. Often speaking with other carers can help you realise you aren’t in this on your own and give you a chance to pick some brains about strategies that others have used successfully.
  • Talk to someone. Sometimes seeing a professional can help you sort out the jumble in your head and give you some direction.

carer serenity scene

Australia has a network of carers organisations in each state that provide support for carers. They offer a variety of services, including access to support groups, workshops and counselling. They can also link you in with other services you may need. You can find details on each state’s organisation here, or call 1800 242 636 from anywhere in Australia. Some other countries also have carers organisations, including the UK and USA. Other support organisations in Australia include ARAFMI and COPMI (for the kids).

 

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