Handling the Holidays

The holidays can be rough.  There are heightened expectations, interactions with family members in closed quarters and the monetary concerns.  For expats or those living a flight or more away, it can bring on feelings of guilt for either not wanting to head back “home” for the holidays or feelings of sadness that you can’t make it home due to work or financial constraints.  And then there’s the multiple families issue – who do spend Christmas morning with? For some families there can be a ton of different people all pressuring you to spend it with them.

How can you handle all of this stress? How do you make it through the holidays with your mental health intact?  There’s a few things you can do:

1. Make sure you have a bit of ‘me time’. Even if you have a lot of relatives and friends all around you, and you love spending time with them, you’ll still need a bit of alone time to recharge.  Hand off the kids, decline a lunch gathering or do whatever it takes to get away for a moment.  Have some quiet, even if it’s only in a bubble bath or going for a walk in the woods (heck, I can find peace in the middle of London sometimes).

2. Keep your expectations at a minimum.  Now’s not the time to think that this year is going to be “perfect”.  As you can only control your own actions and thoughts, this means that things will go wrong.  Find humour in the out of control stupidity that happens.  Dropped your turkey? Give it a wash, put it back in the oven for a bit and then carry on. Forgot to bring the wine to your in-laws? See if you can make a special cocktail out of what they have.

3. If things go very badly, walk away.  You don’t have to put up with meanness or bullying by your relatives.  You deserve better.  If someone says something offensive, feel free to say “Why would you say such a thing?” and then walk away.  If it continues, then leave the house.  YOU are not ruining the holiday – you are taking care of yourself.

4. Find ways of relaxing within a crowd.  As an introvert, I have learned how to relax within very crowded and overwhelming situations.  I can do deep breathing, short visualisations, muscle tensions exercises, etc, without anyone even knowing.

5. Have an outlet.  Call a friend, write on a forum, talk to your priest or write to me. But find a way to vent your frustrations so you don’t take them out on your nearest and dearest.

There are many ways to handle holiday stress.  The above are just a few.  If you have any you use that you think might be helpful to others, please do share!

Be Thankful

As an American who lives overseas, sometimes celebrating Thanksgiving can be very tough.  No one has off either Thursday or Friday, or your friends have gone elsewhere for the holiday.  So, like many expats, I celebrate it on another day (this year it’s Saturday).  I’ve invited a bunch of people for a buffet meal – 2 vegetarian adults, 2 vegetarian kids, 6 meat eaters and only 2 of us are American!  I’m so thankful for having people around to celebrate one of my favourite holidays.

Being thankful is important in life.  Finding just little bits of positivity can be so helpful both mentally and physically.  Mentally, it can open you up to other possibilities, will allow you to look more regularly for the positives versus negatives in life and make you feel better about yourself, your life and your future.  Physically, finding the positives in life can keep heart issues at bay much more than looking at just the negatives.

So, do yourself a favour, and look for the beauty in the world around you.  It might just be that the sun is shining today (which it is in London), or a smile on a baby or the sight of an older couple holding hands.

Happy Thanksgiving to all of you, American or not!

Focusing on Your Strengths

I know.  It’s been a while since I’ve posted.  Like many people I hit a period of procrastination and lethargy and I gave in to it following a period of having a chest infection which knocked me out.  I started focusing too much on the weaknesses that I have, the things I was doing wrong and that influenced how I felt day to day.  Even though I’m a CBT therapist, it doesn’t mean that sometimes I fall prey to my own negative thoughts and beliefs.  What it does mean is that eventually I understand what I’ve been doing and I use the tools under my belt to get me back on track.  So, world, here I am again.  Ready to refocus and look at my strengths!  And luckily, an article came up in Psychology Today about why it’s so important to focus on your strengths.  I’ll paraphrase below or you can check it out in full by clicking on this link.

1. It makes you happier – well, of course, when you focus on what you are good at, you are less likely to think about negative things

2. You experience less stress – by focusing on strengths, you will become more resilient and able to deal with any negative thoughts which would impact your stress levels

3. Have more energy – you are more likely to live a healthier lifestyle when you are positively focused (as someone who used to eat their emotions, this makes so much sense!)

4. Feel more satisfied with life – by looking at strengths, you will be a better problem solver and so be more okay with the outcomes

5. Faster development – when you focus on your strengths, you will develop new skills more quickly and easily

6. More creative – the feelings of authenticity that come with strengths focused work also increases creativity

7. More confident – you can look forward and push through mistakes more easily

8. Feel engaged and find meaning in work – when you are doing something that feeds your strengths, then you will also be feeding your inner drive

 

 

Need help to figure out your strengths?  You can check out this free survey to figure out your strengths profile (you do have to register to do so)

I will share that my top five character strengths were: Forgiveness, Love, Kindness, Honesty & Fairness…which I do believe ‘clicks’ with the person that I am.

Googlebox

Have you seen the popular TV show in Britain, Googlebox?  Googlebox has an interesting premise; you are watching people watching television.  Why is this so intriguing?  And what does it say about us?

We get to see how other people react to the same shows that we might watch.   Are they a reflection of us?  Or are they very different?  What does this tell us about ourselves and our views of the world.  What we are doing is something called social comparison.  This is a process through which we are better able to understand ourselves by comparing ourselves to others.  Most of the time we compare ourselves to those who are very similar.  We look at their attitudes, abilities and their beliefs.  We feel good about ourselves when we compare favourably.

The thing about Googlebox is that the cast most likely has someone like you.  But if not, we will reflect on how well or how badly we have fared based on the good or bad comparison of those others.  We will either have an upward comparison or a downward comparison.  When we make an upward comparison we observe people who have it better than us when it comes to money, looks or other resources.  When we make a downward social comparison, we observe people who apparently have it worse than we do.  We often feel better about ourselves when we downward compare versus when we upward compare.

As you are looking at Googlebox keep these comparisons in mind.  Who do you feel most connected to in the show and why?

 

Raising Resilient Adults

It’s easy for parents to think just in the moment.  To want to save their kids from pain and worry. I know my parents did. I know that I certainly would a lot of the time. And sometimes we lose the fact that what we really should be doing is raising our children to be the way we want them to be at age 25. What life skills and characteristics do you want your children to have when they hit 25? From working with parents, they want their kids to be resilient, kind, strong, happy, honest and many other very positive qualities. So, how do you get there?

This article, written by Mickey Goodman, points out that we need to let our children fail and learn when they are young to develop many of these skills. What? Failure can lead to happiness? Amazingly enough, yes. When you fail, you have to look for alternative ways to deal with the problem. Sometimes, you learn that giving up is the best option, because you don’t have a strength in that area. Sometimes, you learn to struggle through without the aim of success but with the aim of just doing. Sometimes, you learn to do something in a new and different way. Each of these allow you to learn about yourself, about what makes you stronger, about what makes you happier. You learn resilience, which gives you power.

As a 16 year old, I had rarely failed at anything. I expected that when I took my driving test that I would pass straight away. I was smart. I had practiced. Those two things should lead to success, right? Nope. I failed it twice. I was embarrassed. But I learned. Sometimes, it takes a lot of work to get to where you want to get, and sometimes you have to fail along the way. My dad watched me fail the second time and heard the driving evaluator tell me that I did fine but that he felt I just needed a bit more practice on the stick before he felt comfortable passing me. He could have stepped in and argued with the guy, telling him that the car shuttered in the best of times and it wasn’t my fault. But he didn’t. He let me fail, again. And while I cried and was unhappy for a while, I learned. Happily, this was not the last time I failed at something. And I am constantly learning about myself and the world. Without those failures, I would most likely have never taken the risks I did – including moving overseas to a city where I knew no one for a job at a school I had never visited.

Here are a few of the suggestions that the article gives to parents for raising strong 25 year olds (and note, they call them painful, because they are):
“We need to let our kids fail at 12 – which is far better than at 42,” he says. “We need to tell them the truth (with grace) that the notion of ‘you can do anything you want’ is not necessarily true.”

Kids need to align their dreams with their gifts. Every girl with a lovely voice won’t sing at the Met; every Little League baseball star won’t play for the major leagues.

• Allow them to get into trouble and accept the consequences. It’s okay to make a “C-.” Next time, they’ll try harder to make an “A”.

• Balance autonomy with responsibility. If your son borrows the car, he also has to re-fill the tank.

• Collaborate with the teacher, but don’t do the work for your child. If he fails a test, let him take the consequences.

“We need to … allow children to fail while they are young in order to succeed when they are adults.”

12: Take Care of Your Body

Recently, I developed Achilles tendonitis.  This means that I can’t go out running, can’t sprint, etc.  And I can feel it, not only in my body, but also in my mood.  Exercise is so important as your physical energy is connected to your mental and emotional energy.  Studies have been done on the use of exercise for depression and stress.

The Mayo Clinic explains that exercise is so important for stress reduction, due to the release of endorphins.  It can also act as a form of meditation, particularly if you find a flow within the exercise (which I typically do).  In addition, you can increase your confidence and good feelings about your body as you exercise.  When I go through periods of stress at work, I find that lifting weights or running into work really help me feel calmer and able to leave the stress behind.

The NHS explains that exercise is very good for dealing with depression.  It starts off by giving us a sense of control in our world.  Again, the endorphins can help.  I’ve ‘assigned’ walking to a few of my clients in hopes of helping them increase their mood.

Exercise is just one way of taking care of your body but it’s such an easy way.  Just walking for 30 minutes a day can help improve how you feel and can be done without too much money or effort.  Get out there and start moving!  I can’t wait to get back into my normal routine, that’s for sure!

11: Find Something Bigger than Yourself

For some it may be religion.  For others, it’s through a form of spirituality.  And for others, it may be through math or science.  Regardless, we need to recognize that life is bigger than us.  Once you realise that you are not the soul focus of the universe, you become more connected to our world.

I love doing various types of meditation to find this connection.  It may be while sitting on the tube, while walking in nature or while sitting in my bedroom.  It doesn’t matter how I get that connection as long as it comes.  I have friends who find a connection through painting or writing.  Become focused, become mindful, find a way.  It’s tough in our current world to unplug as we’re constantly connected through mobile phones and computers.  How many of you find it tough to be away from any technology while on a holiday?  Can you do it?

Here’s a great Ted Talk by Andy Puddicombe about doing a mindfulness exercise in 10 minutes.

 

10: Commit to Your Goals

This can be a tough one. It can be scary to commit to something that might or might not work out.

I went to see Carol Dweck yesterday in a small talk given in central London. She spoke about her book, Mindset, and the difference between a fixed and growth mindset. Those with a fixed mindset believe that effort means that you aren’t smart or talented, and so you if it doesn’t come easily, they won’t do anything to get better. Those with a growth mindset believe that you can work toward becoming better at something and that mistakes are a good way to continue learning.

In order to fully commit to a goal, you HAVE to have a growth mindset. There will be set-backs and you may have to learn new skills. You have to work on optimising your strengths and figuring out how to work around or strengthening your weaknesses. Do Not go for perfection in the way a fixed mindset sees it – as nothing can go wrong. Go for “perfection” in the way a growth mindset sees it – working toward making what you do better and better along the way.

My goal is to start and improve a private practice in psychotherapy. I have begun to follow this goal by getting into a CBT programme at Oxford, finding a space to do my therapy, starting a twitter & facebook page that will eventually be linked to a website (as will this blog), and through networking as much as I can!

So, make those goals and go for them! They can be a small goal or a big one, it doesn’t matter, but find that passion!

9: Savour Life’s Joys

One of the things I’ve learned from my meditation experience is that one should live life in the moment. When you do this, you start to appreciate the little things – the taste of good food, the beauty of a flower, the scents on the air, the feel of the warmth on your skin, etc., etc.. When we’re in the midst of our typically stressful days, we sometimes forget to slow down a bit and look at the world around us.

One little thing that my husband and I have been doing is making sure that at least once a week we eat without any other distractions. We can enjoy the food that we’re eating and each other’s company. We make sure to try something new or be creative with something we’ve done in the past. We truly savour the flavours in front of us and the time to catch up on how life is treating us.

So, today, stop for just a minute. Let go of any thought that comes to mind about your day other than what’s happening in that moment (it’s okay if they come, just acknowledge them and let them go with a breath out). Notice the sounds around you. What does the weather feel like? What can you smell? Notice if it’s noisy or quiet. What do you see? What beauty can you find? What didn’t you notice just a moment ago? If you can do this daily, you will start experiencing more joy in your life.

8: Increase Flow Experiences

According to Psychology Today, flow is a state of effortless concentration and enjoyment. I remember quite a few moments of flow in my life – while playing field hockey, getting married to my husband, while singing in front of a church audience. In a flow state, you feel almost as if time has slowed down. Nothing else comes between you and your task. It is a fine line and a balancing act. I think I best achieve flow while reading, as the world could almost blow up and I wouldn’t notice.

So how does one achieve flow? Flow is achieved when doing a task that may be a challenge but it’s one you can handle. Flow can be achieved if you fully concentrate on the task at hand and nothing else. I think flow can be hard to achieve in this day and age of trying to achieve so many things at once. How often are we truly focused?

Just two weekends ago, I went to a mindfulness day. Meditation was difficult, but I enjoyed it. I believe eventually, I will be able to get in the flow through being more mindful of what I’m doing and living in the moment.

If you’d like to read more, then check out Finding Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.