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!

Meditation

The past few months have been a bit hectic for me (hence the lack of tweeting and blog posting). I was finishing up my course at Oxford which included writing a case study, doing my last few weeks of course study, turning in a rated recording of a session and then finally writing my dissertation. In addition, we had to plan and go on a holiday back to the States to visit my family, which was lovely, but which also does include some stress (especially as we missed one flight due to major storms in Atlanta). Happily, it’s all finished! I’ll talk a bit more about my dissertation at another time, but I thought I’d share the meditation that I used throughout to remain calm and which helped remind me to live in the moment and let the little stuff just ‘float on by’.

 

The leaves on the stream meditation is one that I teach many of my clients and which I’ve posted about before, but I think it’s worth sharing again:

(1) Sit in a comfortable position and either close your eyes or rest them gently on a fixed spot in the room.

(2) Visualize yourself sitting beside a gently flowing stream with leaves floating along the surface of the water. Pause 10 seconds.

(3) For the next few minutes, take each thought that enters your mind and place it on a leaf… let it float by. Do this with each thought – pleasurable, painful, or neutral. Even if you have joyous or enthusiastic thoughts, place them on a leaf and let them float by.

(4) If your thoughts momentarily stop, continue to watch the stream. Sooner or later, your thoughts will start up again. Pause 20 seconds.

(5) Allow the stream to flow at its own pace. Don’t try to speed it up and rush your thoughts along. You’re not trying to rush the leaves along or “get rid” of your thoughts. You are allowing them to come and go at their own pace.

(6) If your mind says “This is dumb,” “I’m bored,” or “I’m not doing this right” place those thoughts on leaves, too, and let them pass. Pause 20 seconds.

(7) If a leaf gets stuck, allow it to hang around until it’s ready to float by. If the thought comes up again, watch it float by another time. Pause 20 seconds.

(8) If a difficult or painful feeling arises, simply acknowledge it. Say to yourself, “I notice myself having a feeling of boredom/impatience/frustration.” Place those thoughts on leaves and allow them float along.

(9) From time to time, your thoughts may hook you and distract you from being fully present in this exercise. This is normal. As soon as you realize that you have become side-tracked, gently bring your attention back to the visualization exercise.

Taken from: Harris, R. (2009). ACT made simple. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Making Stress Your Friend

Want to live longer and healthier?  You must watch this Ted Talk!

How to Make Stress Your Friend

Let’s say that you hit a situation that makes your heart start to pound, your stomach swirls and you begin to sweat.  In many situations, you will interpret this as anxiety or that you aren’t coping.    But what if you interpret this differently?  What if you see this as your body as helping you rise to the challenge?  If you do so, your body will ‘believe you’ and your response to stress will be much more healthy.

So, instead of trying to get rid of stress or deal with stress by lowering it, perhaps what we should be doing is re-interpret our stress response in a more positive way.  There’s a lot more to the video than this idea, so definitely check it out!

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!

6: Develop Strategies for Coping

This is where a therapist can come in, if need be, but we can all find healthy ways of coping when faced with moments that are challenging. No one has a life that has no challenges, and why would you want that? Challenges and taking risks make life meaningful and interesting. It’s truly the only way to learn.

You need to have an arsenal of ways of dealing with the variety of issues that can come up. From deep breathing to journal writing to running for hours, each can be a way of coping when the manure hits the fan. And if you can practice these things when faced with a low stress situation, then when the high anxiety hits, you’ll be good to go.

If you find that you are struggling more than you’d like, then find a good therapist – they can help you find the skills you already have, teach you new ones and work with you to apply them. Here’s one of my favourite things to do in times of stress – a deep breathing visulisation:

1. Sit comfortably with your back straight but relaxed.
2. Close your eyes and become aware of your breath.
3. Breathing normally, and try to follow the inhalation and exhalation.
4. Follow your breath, not your thoughts. Every time your mind is distracted by a thought, bring it back to the breath.
5. As you breathe out, imagine you exhale all your negative energy in the form of a color you don’t like, which completely disappears into space.
6. As you breathe in, imagine you inhale blissful, positive energy in the form of clear calming color, which fills your entire body and mind.
7. Breathe in, and hold it, then breathe out, focusing on the clear, calm feelings pervading your body and mind.
8. Before you rise, mentally decide that today is going to be a good day.
9. Throughout the day, try to keep this clear, blissful feeling inside and make it the starting point for all your thoughts, words, and actions.

And you can find tons of music on youtube to go along with this visualisation. Hope it helps!

Anxiety & Stress

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Life can get overwhelming. Many of us have so much to juggle. And we begin to see these things as stressful or anxiety producing. Anxiety and stress can be tough to deal with, and can even be debilitating. Much of my work centres around helping people to deal with stress and anxiety.

What is stress? What is anxiety? According to the American Psychological Association, stress an uncomfortable emotional experience that comes with a physiological reaction and may lead to cognitive and behavioural changes. Anxiety is an emotion which brings about feelings of tension, bodily changes and worried cognitions.

So, how do I help people deal with stress and anxiety? In several ways, all of which include changing both body and mind reactions. The most important thing to note is that your body cannot physiologically experience stress/anxiety and relaxation at the same time, and your mind cannot hold both stress/anxiety producing thoughts as well as relaxing ones at the same time, so we work to change both. Here’s a few things that you can do to work with your stressors:

1. Deep breathing. Stress and anxiety bring about changes in your body. You may experience nausea or those butterflies in your stomach. Your heartrate will typically increase. The muscles in your neck and shoulders may tighten. And your breathing gets faster. Deep breathing is an important aspect to stress relief. Now, many people try to train you to breathe a certain way – personlly, I can’t breathe easily through my nose so I just do mouth breathing, and that’s fine. But the one thing I would encourage you to do is to breathe from your diaphram. To do this, put your hand on your tummy and breathe. You should feel your stomach going up and down rather than your chest. This is the best deep breathing you can do. It will calm down your systems and many of the symptomology will go away with time.

2. Do a visualisation. I’ve used the same visualisation with students for a long time. It can be brief or you can take your time with it. Many like to have calming music in the background, and I’ve found multiple youtube videos which have hours of music to use. Here’s my favourite visualisation: Take deep breathes and every time you inhale imagine a calming colour going into your body. Each time you exhale imagine a stressful colour leaving your body. Continue with the deep breathing until you feel that only the calming colour is left. I like to imagine the stressed out coloured air is going into a balloon and then I let it go in the end.

There’s a lot more you can do to relieve stress and anxiety. I’ll continue to talk about this as I ‘blog away’. But these are a good start.