It’s Holiday Time! Are You Anxious?

Holly Wreath

It’s “beautiful December,” and if you are feeling anxious, you must know that you are not alone!

When the holidays roll around, so do emotions of every kind.  It is certainly a time when many feel nostalgic for the “old times.” Sometimes those memories are sweet or even bittersweet.  And even when those past experiences were disappointing or painful, remembering them brings up the same potent feelings.

Since most of us celebrate Thanksgiving, Christmas or Hanukah with family and friends, the quality and nature of those relationships color our emotions and the memories of the past.  If the relationships were loving and close, those memories warm us.  And if they weren’t, there is sometimes a sadness or bitterness that accompanies thoughts of the coming days.

For those whose primary focus is spiritual or religious, there is a deep connection with this season.  It becomes a time of reflection and meaning and awe.  Sharing it in community with family and others then is something to look forward to and to treasure.

Hardly anyone is immune to the secular pressures of the Christmas season in particular. After all, the stores were decorated before Halloween had passed, and the ads are running on every possible venue.  My mailbox is glutted with more catalogs every year, some from companies I have never heard of.  I wish they would put the recycle bin next to the mailbox, and save me from carting them off!  The few magazines I subscribe to are aglow with beautiful pictures of decorated living rooms, handmade ornaments and gifts galore.  Not to mention more menus and recipes than I could cook in a lifetime.

The comments that I am hearing from clients I work with are often that they feel anxious about the weeks ahead.  You may relate.

  • There is too much to do!  Activities to attend, entertaining to do, events to participate in or to attend.
  • Meeting the expectations of family and friends provokes tension.  Young adults who have their own families find it exhausting to get to every family gathering and worry about disappointing someone if they don’t.  Coping with fretful and overwhelmed children is a part of that.
  • Buying gifts while not wreaking havoc with the budget or the credit card balance is often a big problem.  Decisions made prior to Christmas may bring regret in January when the piper must be paid.
  • Perfectionism rears its ugly head!  Those images ranging from Normal Rockwell to Martha to toy ads on television are seared into our brains, and they are impossible to live up to. If we are hung up on needing to “do it right,” then we are doomed to be anxious.
  • Finding a balance between the spiritual, social and secular can be very difficult!

Of course there are degrees of anxiety that we may be experiencing. For some there are severe, truly unpleasant symptoms of panic.  If you would describe yourself as an anxious person in June or October, then the strength of your anxious symptoms is likely going to be cranked up.  Even if you wouldn’t categorize yourself as especially anxious the rest of the year, but are now, here are some tips for you:

  • Begin by deciding what you truly desire for the holiday.  It may be easier to clarify this by making a list first of what you DO NOT WANT.  For example you might list gaining ten pounds; or feeling exhausted and irritated; or spending more than X amount of money; or wrapping presents all night on Christmas Eve; or putting up the beat up hand-me-down artificial tree that your mother gave you after she couldn’t sell it at her yard sale ten years ago.
  • Go through this list, crossing off each item and beside it write a second list of what you DO DESIRE.  That list might include keeping your weight to no more than 5 pounds higher; getting to bed on time and taking time outs when you need them;  planning ahead and limiting gift buying to a specific amount;  wrapping gifts simply and ahead of time;  decorating in a way that pleases you.
  • Make sure that you choose and schedule activities that are really meaningful to you and your family.  Keep that list short.  It may include hearing music or attending a holiday program or performing a volunteer service or baking cookies together.
  • Be assertive with friends and family about your choices.  Most everyone will understand an “I statement” of what you are choosing.  For instance, “I have decided to host a potluck dinner (everyone brings a dish) instead of exchanging gifts this year. Would you like to come?”
  • If you find that your anxiety has reached a heated pitch, and you experience panic attacks, then help is at hand.  Click here for access to a terrific product that will certainly change your life in the New Year.

 

 

Facing the Lion

“Life shrinks or expands according to one’s courage.”
~Anais Nin~

The events of the past week have provided an opportunity for me, as well as several million other people, to face fear and to observe how we deal with it. Hurricane Sandy, combined with a low flowing jet stream, created what some dubbed a “Frankenstorm” of gigantic and devastating proportions.

I must confess to being somewhat of a cynic about weather reports that are full of drama. It seems that even something as usually mundane as the weather has to bring in advertising dollars.  And on the local level, nothing very exciting has happened for months.

So when news of this threatening weather system began to build, I was not giving it much credence. It wasn’t until a friend suggested that I look at NOAA, the website for the National Weather Service, that I took notice.

After seeing that something certainly was brewing, and heading directly toward the mid-Atlantic, I turned on network news.  As I watched, I noticed that I was becoming increasingly anxious and alarmed.  Predictions of flooding and high winds brought back memories of hurricanes past, and some that really were devastating in terms of lives lost and property and environmental damage.

Talking with friends and family convinced me that I wasn’t the only one listening to the predictions, declarations of states of emergency, instructions for storm preparation, and making plans for coping with the worst. As I ran errands to buy supplies “just in case,” I found that many other people were on similar missions. Before the first drop of rain fell, shelves holding bread, water, batteries and flashlights looked like they had been raided by a proverbial horde of locusts.

When the wind and rain arrived, I was as prepared as I could be.  And I was also feeling pretty anxious. As it turned out, the worst thing that happened here was that I was without power throughout the evening until mid-morning the next day. The house was very quiet. Talk about being unplugged! I read my library book by flashlight (batteries had been on my list) and the place looked much warmer than it felt by candlelight.

Although some parts of the coast were hard hit and have sustained serious damage, my neighbors and I dodged the bullet. There will be some cleaning up to do, and some areas are still without power. Our lives will soon return to normal.

In thinking about fear and the power that it sometimes has in our lives, it’s easier to identify it when forces outside of us are threatening.  What I realized is that really it’s the thoughts that we have about those forces or circumstances that either build up the intensity of emotion, or dispel it.  Thinking of all the “what-ifs” sounds the alarm!  Imagining the worst causes stress hormones to course through your veins, even when the sun is shining and the birds are singing.

In facing fear, whether it is being evoked by weather reports or our own frequently visiting “inner demons” (usually habitual thoughts from the past), we need to face them squarely.  Ask yourself if there are concrete steps to take in order to ensure the best care possible for you and those you love. If so, make a list and do them immediately.  If not, then chances are you have a bad habit of negative thinking that has stirred up fear.

Give yourself what I call “Emotional First Aid” by taking 5 deep breaths and relaxing your muscles as you exhale.  Repeat throughout the day, as many times as you can think of it. Do a reality check with someone you trust and try to reframe your thoughts, or see them in a different light. You can also use EFT, a proven, effective method for releasing stressful emotions.

What really matters most in facing the Lion of Fear is that you are not avoiding it. Taking action will build your strength and resolve as you move forward through the challenges of life.

Photo: “Hurricane” by Victor Habbick

SAD: Tis the Season

Recently in our neck of the woods, we have had a great break in the weather. After weeks of heat and humidity (which I find nearly insufferable; and I break my vows not to complain about it, usually within the hour after making them), we had a terrific thunderstorm. The next morning dawned bright and beautiful with low humidity and very moderate temperatures!

By now we have had a whole week of this blissful weather. Families are back from their vacations, the new school year is well underway, and my friends who are football fanatics are happily following their teams. I noticed that the foliage is just beginning to pick up a tinge of yellow and red when I was driving home.

Although I was sorry to see a sign at the farmer’s market that said “the last of the summer peaches…and cherries…and plums,” fall is my favorite season.

The only hitch in this is that the daylight is getting noticeably shorter. It was nearly dark when I left the office last evening. And much darker when I got up this morning. This used to be something that I lamented because it meant the onset of Seasonal Affective Disorder, also known as “the winter blues.”

It took years for me to figure out why I hated winter so much. Odd since there were so many great things about the season. One fall I was listening to a seminar on clinical depression, when after hearing the instructor going through the (very familiar) list of symptoms, a gong went off in my head and I was amazed to realize that I was depressed!

Although there are some variations in the number and severity of symptoms, here they are:

  • Sleep disturbances.  Some people have disrupted sleep, and others can hardly drag themselves out of bed in the morning.
  • Problems concentrating which some people experience as a sort of “brain fog.”  Difficulty being productive at work.
  • Appetite disturbance, often with carbohydrate craving and weight gain.
  • Irritability and sometimes crying spells
  • Low mood sometimes accompanied by anxiety, and low energy level
  • Loss of interest in sex
  • Less interest in socializing and a tendency to isolate

Children and adolescents may differ somewhat from adults in their symptoms. Often difficulty getting out of bed for school and a lowering of grades may occur. Like adults, they often have problems concentrating. And often they suffer low energy and self esteem.

Research is ongoing at the National Institutes of Health, and the evidence is not yet entirely clear as to the effects of the light on the functioning of the brain, as well as the cause of SAD. But it does seem clear that full spectrum light which comes in through the retina, and varies with the seasons, is the determining factor.  Sunlight is full spectrum light, but the artificial lighting that we live with at work and at home is not. (Tanning lights are NOT full spectrum, nor are they safe for the skin).

What is recommended for treating SAD is using a light box, which is equipped with specially developed, safe (no UV rays), full spectrum tubes. I have found the best source for these light boxes to be The Sunbox Company at www.sunbox.com.  The founder of this company was the original designer who worked with NIH for a good treatment option for sufferers of SAD.

By now I have been using my light box for 7 or 8 years.  Starting sometime in September (when I notice the brain fog closing in) until late March, my morning routine is to sit in front of it at my kitchen table for 30 minutes.  It is about a couple of feet from my face.  I read, write in my journal and drink my morning coffee.  Often the cat joins me by jumping up on my lap. It’s the only time he does that when I’m at the table, so maybe he needs a little cheering up too.  😉

If you recognize some of these symptoms yourself, I highly recommend using the light box. Other things also help, such as exercising, especially outdoors and in full daylight. You can visit the website to get more information at www.sunbox.com.  Their customer service is friendly and prompt, and their newsletter full of good information.

 

Tuning In Turning Off


Recently I was reminded of a stress reduction technique that Dr. Andrew Weil recommended in his book 8 Days to Optimal Health.  I was bringing a client back to my office from the waiting room, and as she rose from her chair, she tossed the news magazine she was reading back on the end table. “I guess I’m addicted to reading this stuff.  Before I start, I know I’m going to be aggravated by one thing or another!”

She had come to me for help with her anger and some decision making, and she appeared to be stressed and, well, angry.  Many of us experience what I call “normalized stress,” which is a state we come to accept as somehow unavoidable and inevitable.  But I’m here to say that stress is no laughing matter, and we certainly can reduce it and avoid the triggers that cause it.

Even though stress is as common as dirt, and I sometimes suspect is a point of pride for those who push themselves, fill up their schedules with busy-ness and working over time, it has a bad effect on our health, our sense of well-being and on our relationships. In short, stress is a problem worth tackling.

The suggestion that Dr.Weil made was to go for a week without listening to, watching or reading the news. A radical notion that I passed on to my client.  She had no interest in doing that, even though she predictably got angry every time she looked at the news.

If you live in the U.S. you are being bombarded by news leading up to the general election in November.  Regardless of your political affiliation, there are plenty of controversial, frequently mean-spirited and plainly factually incorrect messages being directed at you through any media you might tune into.

Recently my beloved local public radio station changed its format from classical music with periodic news, to a constant news and commentary format.  I still am a fan of NPR which comes the closest to a balanced presentation, in my opinion.  But I sure as heck do not want to listen to people analyzing and talking about what is going on in the country and in the world all day!  Frankly, I find it stressful.

Years ago after reading 8 Days to Optimal Health, I did a news fast.  And after that time I stopped watching network news, which I am certain has been good for my health.  The problem with it is that it comes in sound bites, designed to be alarming and provocative, with little or no real exploration or explanation. And there is no action to take.

I have noticed that even the weather is frequently presented as if we are all in the utmost danger…maybe.  So when it’s all strung together, you see something alarming that you can’t do a thing about, interrupted by commercials, often for drugs that are designed to calm you down or lift your dampened spirits.  What’s wrong with this picture?

So if you are finding yourself stressed and angry or even irritated by what is being dished out as news, I invite you to give yourself a week to turn it off.  Create some space to maybe listen to some music, or an audio book that is entertaining or pleasurable. If you are up for something really radical, try listening to the silence interrupted only by your own breathing.

 

Clean Up Clean Out

There is something about seasonal changes in general, and the approach of fall in particular, that inspires me to launch a general clean up.  Maybe it is an effect of formative years which were lived according to the academic calendar, which always feels like the true beginning of the year.  Or maybe it’s a more primal urge to clean out the den before I’m sequestered in it for the duration of winter. Whatever the cause, the urge seems irresistible.

The process began in the kitchen and has proceeded through most of the other rooms and closets until I arrived at the place which has the biggest mess:  my home office.  This is the room which seems to attract the extraneous I’ll-decide-what-to-do-with-this-later odds and ends.  Paper especially seems to just drift in there somehow, independent of any conscious decision making on my part.

Yes I know that there really isn’t some magical magnetic force at work, and that I am solely responsible for it.  The cat doesn’t read and has never received a scrap of mail that I know of. He has contributed a modicum of fur to the mix, but not to the growing and occasionally shrinking supply of books that have been on every horizontal surface in the room.  I say shrinking supply because, like a secret drinker hauling out the empty bottles, I had a serious talk with myself and donated several boxes of books to the local library.  It didn’t hurt too much and there was no blood loss.
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Optimism and Coping with Stress

My morning routine usually begins with “Morning Edition” on National Public Radio.  The other morning an interview caught my ear, in particular because it dealt with psychology and a training program for soldiers to deal with stress and prevent PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).  The Army instituted the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness after they became concerned in 2006 about the increasing incidence of PTSD and suicide.

While the stories of returning soldiers have brought PTSD to the foreground in the public awareness, it is a psychological disorder that is common with trauma survivors whether they have been in combat, suffered from domestic abuse, sexual assault or even an automobile accident.   The increasing incidence of it in returning vets and their stressed families have made finding effective treatments more urgent.  Of course as Benjamin Franklin knew, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so if we can be trained to build resilience, decrease stress and avoid PTSD, so much the better.

Why does this pertain to you and to all of us?  Because we are all affected to some degree or other by stress in our lives.  Whether we are subjected to some life changing event or an ongoing, unresolved conflict or pressure, stress is detrimental to health and happiness.  We know that it lowers the functioning of the immune system and thus plays hob with every kind of chronic physical and psychological disorder.

Of course most of the causes of stress, and the prevention and treatment of it, occur between our ears.  When we are pessimistic or negative in our thinking, we are highly vulnerable to it.  Most of the time it isn’t the outer circumstances that are the culprit, but the way we think about it, or what we are telling ourselves about it.  If you hear yourself on a rant to someone else, or in your own head, realize that you are “awfulizing” and causing yourself stress.

Of course if you are in combat or a car accident, that is no doubt a negative circumstance!  So let’s get to the prevention part.  A part of the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program teaches soldiers to Hunt the Good Stuff.  To quote Sergeant 1st Class Michael Ballard, one of the trainers in the program, “One of the things is what we call Hunt the Good Stuff. And it’s something that we can do every day and it helps to build our optimism. Research shows that if you’re an optimistic person you’re going to live longer, you’re going to be happier. I mean isn’t that what grandma always said? You know grandma used always said count your blessings and look at those things.”

Reminds me a lot of the gratitude list in which you can write down 10 things at the end (or beginning) of every day that you are grateful for.  And while doing that to allow yourself to really FEEL grateful.

Another version of “Hunt the Good Stuff” is an assignment I like to give to folks who are struggling in relationships with spouses or children, which I call “Catch them doing something right.”  The object is the same: notice the qualities or behaviors that you like in that person and express appreciation for it.  It quickly begins to change your own attitude for the better, and soon you are reinforcing and increasing the positive behaviors in that other person that you want to see.

It is so easy to pick out what is wrong and to run with it!  It’s a short trip from there to imagining the worst, getting into conversations with other people and playing a big old game of “Ain’t it Awful?”  Even if you keep your pessimism to yourself, you are going to set off a severe round of “monkey mind” and scare yourself or put yourself in a deep funk.  And of course the more we do that the more we can find that everything is just awful and stressful and difficult.

Looking for positive things in your life will help you recover more quickly when things do go wrong.  Finding what you are grateful for builds optimism and strength. “What we are trying to do here is to allow soldiers to make sense of what is happening, focus on what they can control, and not catastrophize(ph) and go into a downward spiral,” said the program’s director, Brig. Gen. James Pasquarette.

What is important to remember is that optimism can be learned or practiced, and that in doing so, you will improve your health and happiness in every aspect of your life.  You can build your resilience so that when bad things do happen, you will be better equipped to cope and to recover your balance and well-being.

If you would like to read or listen to the NPR interview, here is the link:

http://www.coach4lifechange.com/wp-content/plugins/url-cloaker/url.php?u=aHR0cDovL3d3dy5ucHIub3JnLzIwMTIvMDEvMDgvMTQ0ODYyODEwL2NsYXNzZXMtdGVhY2gtc29sZGllcnMtdG8tYmUtYXJteS1zdHJvbmc=

 

The Hurricane’s Gift, Or Best Laid Plans

 

It was certainly not the day that I had expected.  And it was not the day that I had planned.  But the day that I was given, delivered by a rainy and gusty hurricane, turned out to be the perfect day after all.

Very early this morning I was awakened by the power going off.  Not really a sound, but a sudden lack of sound.  All the humming of the household appliances, electronics and gadgets suddenly stopping.  Since it was barely light, I went back to sleep.  Later when I got up and dressed, I was wondering what would happen to the day that I had been looking forward to so much.  The torrents of rain, which had been falling all night, seemed to be letting up.  But the wind was ferocious at times, whipping at the branches in the oak trees outside my window.

A phone call confirmed that the plans that I had made with friends were cancelled because of the power outage.  And as fiercely as the wind was blowing, there was no telling when it would be operational again.  As it turned out, not until early evening.

There was a strange feeling that ensued.  All the morning routines seem to involve electricity somehow.  Coffee?  I can’t imagine starting my day without it, but there was no way to brew it.  I almost always turn on the radio to NPR first thing in the morning, but that was out.  No way to check TV news for word on the hurricane or the damage it had left in its wake.  Our power grid was part of the damage.

I have to confess that getting coffee was a priority.  Perhaps a nearby Starbucks had electricity, and I was willing to take a car ride to find out.  Cars and trucks were driving by, so I knew that conditions on the streets were at least safe enough to be passable.  And sure enough, my “Jonesing” after a cup of Joe was soon enough taken care of.  One caffeine fix later, the day stretched out before me.

The wind was blowing, and the oppressive humidity before the hurricane was gone.  I sat in the silence of the house, listening to the branches and leaves moving in the wind.  The curtains fluttered and the cool air was soothing.

My journal is a frequent companion to my early hours, but I had not written in it for a full week.  Unusual, but understandable since I had had a week of one demand after another.  A full work schedule, a family crisis, plus two houseguests, accompanied by Mudslide, the greyhound, had filled it up.  I was busy, stressed and preoccupied with the events of the week.  My houseguests went on their way.  And now that I had nowhere to go and nothing to do but be with myself,  I realized that I was extremely tired.

And so, after listening to the silence, I began to listen to myself and to write.  As the day went on, and thoughts and questions continued to occur to me, I came back to write.  I held the cat and watched the wind blow the trees around.  I decided to read a couple of magazines that I subscribe to but often don’t get around to reading.  Found an interesting article on intuition, which I have been thinking about lately.

And then I took a nap.  I can’t remember when I last did that.  For some reason I seem to have lost the ability to nap during the day.  I used to nap routinely when my children were at home, especially when they were small,  but not in recent years.  The phone rang, but I let it go to voicemail, and went back to sleep.

After getting up and writing some more and reading more of the magazine, I heard that small “thud” that signals the return of power.  For awhile I was reluctant to turn anything on, but finally the light at my desk because the daylight was fading.  I walked around the house, noticing the flashing digital clocks and the hum of the refrigerator.  And then after awhile I turned the computer on in order to write this post.  But I have decided not to check my email, or Facebook or Twitter.  I don’t feel the need to call anyone.  The radio and television are still quiet, and I think I’m going to leave them that way until tomorrow.

There is something about the silence that is deeply restful.  And something about living without the distraction of electronic screens that renders a sense of peace.  Being disconnected from the world is a good thing, at least in small doses.  I wonder what an extended vacation from electronics might offer.

I do know this:  sometimes when the plans that we make are scuttled, and Mother Nature has shown her power (and her complete indifference to those plans) it is a good thing.  The Quakers may say that this day was an example of Divine Order.   I believe that it is.