20 posts categorized "Stress/Anxiety" Feed

A simple life-hack to be happier

I live in the North. And it's January. In the North in January, there isn't a lot of sunshine. And a lot of people feel that they are more depressed in the winter at least in part because of that reality.

You leave the house and it's dark.

You leave work and it's dark. IMG_6AEE441FE63F-1

It can feel like you shuttle from one place to another in the dark. It's depressing. And certainly, we have good science to suggest that is true. We have copious amounts of research to suggest that there is a direct link between lack of sunshine and increased depression rates.

So what do we do about it? Well, there is truly a simple hack that research suggest will help us to be happier and more content. As a side note, I believe that happiness can only be a bi-product of contentment.  Most research suggests that people have the same types of interactions throughout the day.  The optimist (happy person) and the  pessimist (less happy person) tend to have the same types of things happen to them throughout a day, week, month and year.

The optimist just has a brain that seeks out the positives over the negatives. I know this sounds overly simplistic, but the research is almost overwhelming. For a quick introduction to this idea, read Adam Grant's book, Originals.

What does this mean for us and happiness? Well, there is another guy named, Shawn Achor who tells us that we can train our brain. You can watch one of my favorite presentations by him here.

How do we train our brain? Force it to look for the positive things in your day. Force your brain to seek out things to be thankful for in a day.

Every. Day.

That's it. It's an incredibly simple hack that once developed can help you be more content and more happy. It can lower levels of depression and some studies even suggest it can help reduce levels of anxiety and depression. 

Take five minutes each night and write our three things that happened that day that you're thankful for from that day. Yes, you can do it the next day but most people who stick with the night time routine do it longer. Over time, your brain will start to look for the good in the day and this will have definitive impact on your outlook for the day.

Change your outlook on enough days, and eventually your will change your outlook on the world and your life.

The evil that is in the world will still be there. I'm a mental health counselor and I see the victims of that evil regularly.

The stupid that is in the world will still be there.

The hard that is in the world will still be there.

But and that but is so big it belongs on a Kardashian Instagram page, if we train out brain to see the positive and good things in the world we can transcend those others increasing our ability to impact our own circles.

Media Monday (3). Circle/Square

Media Monday is a series where I focus on something that I have created in another form of media. Be sure to check back every Monday for more posts. 

So often the world will seem out of control. I blogged about it here in more detail. If you master this skill, you will almost certainly improve your life.

For the visual learners among us, the video below gives a good overview.

Media Monday (1). Suicide Awareness

Media Monday is a series where I focus on something that I have created in another form of media. This month is Suicide Awareness Month and this week specifically is Suicide Awareness week. This video is one I created sharing some of my thoughts. Be sure to check back every Monday for more posts. 

Suicide Awareness.

We lose approximately 800,000 people each year to suicide. Someone you know is depressed and at risk for attempting suicide because of it. There is help. There is hope.

Do Anti-Depressant Meds work?

One of the most common questions I get is "How do you feel about drugs?" My answer is almost always that I have complicated feelings about them. What I often tell clients is that they should do their own research. What I have below is an excerpt from a book that I think everyone who is remotely interested in this topic should read. It is controversial and will probably upset some of those who read it for one reason or another. But we have to engage this conversation deeply. We need to talk about the risks associated with this medicine and the benefits. Mostly, we need to look at our assumptions on a societal level about how we deal with problems.

What the published studies really indicate is that most of the improvement shown by depressed people when they take antidepressants is due to the placebo effect. Our finding that most of the effects of antidepressants could be explained as a placebo effect was only the first of a number of surprises that changed my views about antidepressants. Following up on this research, I learned that the published clinical trials we had analysed were not the only studies assessing the effectiveness of antidepressants. I discovered that approximately 40 per cent of the clinical trials conducted had been withheld from publication by the drug companies that had sponsored them. By and large, these were studies that had failed to show a significant benefit from taking the actual drug. When we analysed all of the data - those that had been published and those that had been suppressed - my colleagues and I were led to the inescapable conclusion that antidepressants are little more than active placebos, drugs with very little specific therapeutic benefit, but with serious side effects.

Kirsch, Irving (2010-01-26). The Emperor's New Drugs: Exploding the Antidepressant Myth (pp. 3-4). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.

Dealing with the winter blues

Did you know that yesterday is supposed to be the most depressing day of the year?

At least that is what I read on Facebook.

I was thinking about the lack of sunshine as I was driving to an appointment today. It's bitter cold, there is little sunshine, the wind is blowing almost non-stop. It's little wonder so many people struggle with feeling depressed this time of year.

But what can we do about it?

Here's three ideas that I have found helpful.

1. Write out a list of things for which you are thankful.

This one seems so simple, but making a list of those that we are thankful for forces our brain to look away from the negatives. No one likes being constantly cold. When bad things happen around us, we can be tempted to focus on them and ignore the positive things in our life. Our thinking is a key component in our feelings. Focusing on the positives in our life can increase our happiness by physically increasing our "happy" chemicals in our body.

2. Do an intentional act of kindness for someone else and keep it a secret.

Focusing on other people can help us not think about ourselves. Once again, we're releasing the happy chemicals in our brain when we do things for others. If our life is going to have true meaning, it must be about something bigger than just us. This is true in every day life as well. Sometimes, the best way to beat the winter doldrums is to simply look around and find someone who has a need and meet it.

3. Brew a hot cup of coffee and read a book

Ok, this is my comfort idea but there is some really good recent research to suggest that reading stories or watching them unfold does positive things for our brains. Take some time to unplug and unwind. Get lost in a good story for a moments or hours.

These are my ideas, what are yours?


Dealing with Holiday Stress

I was talking to someone* the other day who confided to me that they “hate” Christmas.
Hate is such a strong emotional word that I always want to ask for clarification. Why do you hate it? What does that mean?  What could cause someone to hate a holiday?
“I hate all the pressure!”
“What pressure?”
At this point, they looked at me like I had a lego set growing out of my head.
“The pressure to buy gifts, cook elaborate meals, hang out with family I don’t really like, and not gain a pound. It sucks.”
I looked at them and asked one of my favorite questions. “What if you didn’t have to do any of that?”
Back to the legos out of the head.
But the truth is that no one has to give in to any of that pressure. We don’t have to buy gifts, let alone big gifts. It’s OK if we gain a few pounds, Jillian Michaels aside.
You can choose to not hang out with family that you don’t like. We can choose to not let the things that bug us, bug us.
I know this is counter-intuitive to what we are told by almost everyone and it goes against what we believe about our own level of control.
That doesn’t change the truth of it.
One of the best ways to deal with holiday stress is to look at how we are responding to the stress.
A favorite saying is “the problem is not the problem, the problem is how I am responding to the problem.”

If buying gifts is stressing you out, I’m curious about why. Almost everyone I know says that they don’t believe things matter and yet, they stress over gifts as though those things do matter.

If gaining a few pounds is stressing you, tell me why it’s stressing you out. What happens if you gain a few pounds?

Let’s end one myth right now while we’re at it. No one makes you feel guilty. No one makes me feel guilty. My need for their approval and wanting everyone to like me might make me feel guilty but that’s a me problem, not a them problem.

Mommy guilt, Daddy guilt, Family guilt, Daughter guilt, son guilt; that’s all on the person choosing to live that way.
The key to dealing with holiday stress is to deal with what I can deal with and make tough decisions about what I can’t control.
Living a congruent life is the best way to avoid being stressed. Living a congruent life means that I live in such a way that my actions line up with my values.

What’s causing you stress about the upcoming holidays? What can you do about those situations? Let me know in the comments.

*This person is not and never has been a client*

Everyone Wins? Just for showing up? Part 3 of 5

I have a lot of things that I am excited to share with you over this upcoming year. But I'm kicking off the school year with a series that I did last year regarding what I think is a dangerous mentality of “everyone wins.” This series is designed to create some conversation on what it means to allow our children to lose and struggle and win. If you read it last year, maybe you’ll want to skip it…and then again you might enjoy it again. If you’re new to these parts maybe you’ll love it…or maybe you’ll hate it. We’ll see. Either way. Here is part three of five.




Part one can be found here and part two can be found here.

There is a great scene in the animated movie, The Incredibles. The son Dash is being "encouraged" by his parents. One of his parents tells him that everyone is special. Under his breath he replies, "Then no one is."

We are stuck on this idea that everyone is exceptional, special and a winner.

Of course, if these things are true than no one is actually any of them. Some people are good at math, while others are good at stringing words together. Some people can sing, some can play sports, some can cook and clean. Some people can do amazing things with a pencil, others do amazing things with fire and sand.

Yes, we are all unique. Yes, we are all have skills, talents, and abilities that make us unique. But have we gone to far. Are we creating a generation of people that expect to win just for showing up? Personally, I think the answer to that question is yes.

I have a problem with this mentality. I think it is hurting our society. When I was a teacher, I would hear all the time about the unfairness of life. Student X was upset because she wasn't getting the playing time she deserved. Parent after parent would ask me how their child would get better if he or she did not play in the game. I would get the it's not fair that she or he practices as much as the other person and doesn't get to play. 

My daughter played soccer a number of years ago. She loved it. She wasn't very good. It's not a value judgement on her, it is simply a statement of fact as someone who has coached for a number of years. She might be god some day, but the truth is at this point I doubt it. She did not enjoy running, which is a rather critical component of soccer. She has moved onto dance. She loves it. I have no idea if she is good or not from a critical point of view but I love watching her. I love the ways her eyes shimmer when she talks about dance.

What is interesting to me is that she knew she wasn't very good. She still got the same ribbon as everyone else on her team. Just for showing up.

A friend of mine has a son that played on a baseball team. He batted a thousand for the season and scored every time he came to bat. I have no idea what that would make his slugging percentage but I would think it would be really high. You see, he played in a league where every time a batter hit the ball he or she ran all of the bases. Every time, no matter what. At the end of the season he got an award, just for showing up.

He was ill prepared for the next season when three strikes meant you were out.

When I worked as an athletic director, I instituted rules and guidelines for people to earn a letter in a sport. To that point in the schools history, simply showing up meant you made the team and earned a letter. One of my favorite student athletes failed to earn his letter while his older and younger brother did make it. Two girls on the women's basketball team also failed.

"But they really tried." "It's not fair." "He's really disappointed." "I don't like to see him hurt."

Essentially they could have just said, "Look, trying is enough."

Of course, this isn't really true. What about the people who applied for the same job opening that you did and didn't get it because you got it. What about the people who put a bid on the same house that you are now living in. Do you want them moving in because they really wanted the house?

What do you think? Do you think people are being taught that you win just for showing up? If not, why are you still reading this? :) If so, do you think that is a good or bad thing?

In the next post, I'll begin to explain the problems inherent in the idea of winning just for showing up.

Whitney Houston and our own Narrative thinking

Unless, you've been secluded from society this weekend, you learned that Whitney Houston died this weekend. I don't know why and to be honest, I'm ok not knowing. This post really isn't about Whitney.

Have you ever had someone force a plot on you that you didn't feel was fair? They assigned motives to your actions that weren't what was really going through your brain?

Have you ever done that to someone else? We use Narrative thinking to make sense of the world around us. This is necessary and good but sometimes we apply narratives to others that aren't actual, even if they work. This stems from the complexity that is the human experience. People are complicated.

On top of that we tend to apply a narrative to life that doesn't really work. We think that happiness is "out there." Wherever out there is at, we believe if we get there we'll find happiness. So when someone who made it to the "out there" in our mind we can't believe that they would waste it with drugs, and alcohol. We can't believe that they wouldn't be happy when they have what we are convinced would make us happy.

If we were rich and famous and had thousands of fans, we'd be happy. If we were an athlete, or a music star we'd be happy. The reason we're not happy is because we're stuck in a bad job or bad marriage, or we're not rich enough. If we just had what they had.

Never mind the fact that we have example after example that tells us this narrative is incorrect. Never mind that almost all of the stories (narratives) that we can see tell us the exact opposite. We need to make peace with the fact that by and large we choose our own happiness. We often cannot choose our circumstances but we can and must choose our reactions.

I don't know what inner demons Ms Houston fought. I am sorry for her family, and loved ones who lost someone too soon.

I hope that everyone who ponders her life and death will consider what they believe about their own narrative. I hope that we will all realize that we choose how we react in every situation and that we can choose happiness. We can make peace with our past and our present.

It's the plot that matters most

A constant theme in mental health that I have written about is that what happens to you is less important than how you make sense of what happens to you. This is a very important concept. So important, I want to write it again.

What happens to you is not as important as how you make sense of what happens to you. 

This is true about our entire life.  One way to understand this is through the idea of narrative. Think about a movie or a favorite book. It has a plot. Most of the times, we want the plot to make sense to us. The same is true of our lives. We want the narrative to make sense to us. We use our narratives to make sense of things that do happen to us. 

We need life to make sense. That is why we will always have labels, no matter how often people want to push back against them. We need them. We need the plot of life to make sense to us. 

Many times the people that we help in the mental health field have lost the plot of the narrative. They have lost the pieces that help it make sense. 

It’s not just true of our life, but also the things that happen in the world around us. We need to be able to understand the motives of that athlete, or this movie star. We need bad guys and good guys. The idea that most of the people we see as bad guys or good guys are probably more like us is disturbingly uncomfortable.  It brings fear into our mind.

And fear brings anger. Almost every time.

When we feel that our narrative is being questioned, we will become angry and defensive. What makes this interesting to me is that we often don’t realize this is what is happening. Sometimes, people argue and disagree over known and incontrovertible facts but that is rare.  Most of the time, our arguments are at a plot line level. 

I had two separate conversations this past weekend where this was true. One was with a bunch of people where I felt the plot that made the most sense was one of an organization over-reaching for control. Most of the others thought it was an organization operating as it was designed. As I realized that our disagreement stemmed from that, I began to change the way I approached the conversation. We didn’t come to much common ground but we did figure out where we disagreed and by and large we agreed to disagree. It was a fun conversation that involved passion, and high emotions. It also involved laughter because very few people were threatened by their narrative being questioned. 

I had another conversation that didn’t go so well. Isn’t that the way it almost always is, we have one good conversation followed by one bad one? He thought the plot was a bad guy getting what he deserved. A guy who was arrogant, and conniving and...just a bad guy. The man was assigning motives and understanding that he couldn’t have known for certain, because he doesn’t know that person he was talking about. But for his narrative to make sense, these things have to be true.  My narrative of the same situation is something different.  It is one of a hero being attacked by people with less than pure motives. But still I’m assigning motives to people I don’t know as well. Not surprisingly, we didn’t find much common ground. In fact, it is safe to say that the man is angry with me. 

Our plot lines simply did not match up. We could have as many conversations about whatever, but until we could figure out where our plot lines diverged, we simply were not going to agree. We couldn't find common ground because we believed we were both living different stories.

In the same way, you will find this principle to be true when you find people who you would not normally be friends with or be involved with much at all but you find a common goal to work toward. This creates a plot that supersedes the disagreeing plots. Maybe a democrat works alongside a republican to help feed a family that was burnt out of their house last week. The plot line of their political parties is overrode by the plotline of helping someone in a bad situation out. They have found common ground.

Of course, this brings up a host of serious questions. For everyone all of us. 

  1. What happens when we lose the plot to our own life?
  2. What happens when the plot we are operating out of is wrong? 
  3. What happens when the plot we claim to believe is not the plot that we are living out of?  (this is called not living an integrated life)
  4. What happens when the plot we are forced to live in seems hopeless?
  5. What happens when the plot we believe is questioned?
  6. What does it mean for our plot when we get angry? What does it mean for us?
  7. What happens when the plot seems upside down (good is losing and evil is winning?)
  8. What happens when someone we love is living in a bad plot? (Someone we love making bad choices, destroying their life, etc. 
  9. What happens when our spouse (of children) wish to live a plot that is different than ours? 

These types of questions do not have quick or easy answers. I believe that they do have answers though. I believe that those answers can be found. The problem is that these questions are not exhaustive. I imagine someone out there is already thinking about a question that I don't have up there.  I'm going to take the time over the next few days to answer most of the above questions and then I want to change the perspective a little to look at the broader issues that may give us a tool to answer future questions.