Exercise can help emotion regulation

exercise1.jpg

New research suggests that aerobic exercise can aid in emotion regulation.

Harvard University researchers measured the amount of change a moderate amount of exercise had on emotional responses to an upsetting film clip in study participants. They found that the clip produced a negative emotional response in all participants, but those who'd participated in exercise before watching it were able to recover more quickly than those who hadn't.

Additionally, participants who exercised reported feeling less sadness than those who hadn't.

Healthy living has always included recommendations for exercise, and this new research seems to suggest the benefits extend beyond physical well-being.

Intrinsic Motivation, or how to get yourself to do something

Motivation can be tough to come by. 

Watching a movie sounds so much better than doing the dishes. Going for a bike ride is way more fun than doing the project you brought home from work. Grabbing a beer with friends sounds so much better than taking the dog for a walk.

So how can you get yourself to do the things you're supposed to?

There are two types of motivation: extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic motivation is when we're compelled to do something to avoid a punishment or earn a reward, like a child cleaning his room because he doesn't want to get grounded. Intrinsic motivation is doing something because it's personally rewarding, and it's the real key for finding and staying motivated.

So how do you tap into that intrinsic motivation? What's the secret to unlocking your potential?

It's simple, really. Focus on why you're doing things. Align them with your values (which may take a little more soul searching.) Pay attention to the moment. Keep your attention and awareness on the moment instead of allowing your mind to wander. And look for the enjoyable moments. Sure, doing the dishes may not be fun, but pay attention to how much better it feels to have a clean kitchen.

Quick Mindfulness

Mindfulness and meditation can feel like a commitment. We can often find excuses or reasons not to practice. Days turn into weeks. Weeks turn into months, and months into years. Break the cycle.

Do one action mindfully.

Just one!

It could be something you do everyday, like brushing your teeth. Notice how the bristles feel against your teeth and gums. Notice the water, taste the toothpaste. Take a minute to be truly aware of the moment, without judgment.

Notice your train of thought. Bring it back to brushing. Feel the toothbrush in your hands, listen to the sounds it makes. 

Carve out the time. You can find it. 

Emotional Flooding ... and how to stop

The dog won't stop barking, the kids won't listen to anything you say, you're tripping over shoes strewn over the house. Before you know it, you're furious - an uncontrollable rage that's pulsing through your whole body. You're ready to blow. 

It's flooding. You're so consumed by your emotions you're drowning in them. It's the opposite of numb. You can't NOT feel what you're feeling to the infinite degree and you don't know how not too. You've lost the ability to use your higher thinking and you're acting on impulse. 

Yelling at the kids to listen to you.

Hitting the dog in a desperate attempt to get him quiet.

Throwing shoes across the room.

Suddenly you've turned into this monster, doing the very things you thought you'd never do. How can you stop yourself before it gets too far?

1. Recognize the physical signs of flooding. Is your heart starting to beat faster? Are you clenching your fists or jaw? Take a quick body scan to see where you're holding your tension and try to release it.

2. Take a minute to focus on your thought stream. Are you taking these actions as personal attacks against you? Are you jumping to conclusions? Are you turning toward blame? In what ways can you change your thinking pattern?

3. Take a break. Take a few deep breaths and watch your belly rise and fall. Close your eyes if it feels right. 

Using these calming strategies, engage your higher thinking to productively problem solve. 

What is Self-Compassion?

Self-compassion, where one extends compassion to themselves in instances of struggle, failure, or inadequacy, can be a tremendous therapeutic tool. Instead of ignoring or piling on to pain, it's reminding yourself how difficult this is right now, and asking yourself what you can do to comfort yourself.

Dr. Kristin Neff, the leading researcher of self-compassion, has identified three key components to self-compassion: 

  • self-kindness - being warm and kind toward yourself in times of personal failings instead of critical and judgmental.
  • common humanity - recognizing that we all make mistakes. Suffering is part of the human experience.
  • mindfulness - a non-judgmental, receptive mind state that allows you to have a more balanced approach to emotions

The more you open your heart to disappointments, frustrations, personal failings, and imperfections, the kinder you are to yourself and others.

In the therapy room, I use self-compassion on client's who are intensely critical of themselves. I often ask questions like, "How can you be kinder to yourself?" or "What would you say to a friend who was experiencing the same thing?" I'm aiming to pull the client out of their destructive thinking cycle and introduce a more compassionate and kinder way of thinking.

Test it out for yourself. Take the quiz to see how self-compassionate you are. 

Relationship Activity Questionnaire

When relationships are in crisis, we often forget how or why attraction started in the first place. Use this worksheet to learn more about your partner, turning the focus temporarily away from problems.

"I'm not good enough"

It's been a common theme in sessions this week; this idea of not being good enough. I've heard from several clients,

"I'm tired of trying."

"I should be doing more."

"Why can't I just do [insert action]?"

The judgments flow freely and harshly. The comparisons to both real and imagined people keep clients stunted in the vicious cycle of inadequacy. Left unchecked, stuck inside our heads, this inner critic can paralyze us. 

"What can I do?" a client plead earlier this week, desperate for relief.

Focus on progress instead of perfection

Instead of focusing on your shortcomings, in what ways have you made improvements? What are the areas you'd like to change and how are you moving closer toward your goal? Focus on the positive.

Comparison is the thief of joy

The people you compare yourself to are probably comparing themselves to someone else, too. Measuring yourself against others is the surest way to limiting your sense of worth. Everyone's journey is different; there's no better or worse.

You can't hate your way into success

Motivational posters don't say "suck it up," or "gosh why are you so awful?" Telling yourself you aren't worthy or lovable won't make you more worthy or lovable. 

You are enough just as you are.

G.L.A.D. - A simple mindfulness exercise

Incorporating mindfulness into your daily life doesn't have to take much time. This simple exercise takes less than 5 minutes and provides an opportunity for reflection, something we often forget to do.

G.L.A.D.

In a journal, reflect on the following:

G: Write one thing you're grateful for. It could be basic, like the shoes on your feet or the bed you can sleep on, or it can be a meaningful relationship in your life. 

I'm grateful for my dog, as she provides me entertainment and company.

L: Write one thing you learned today. It can be something you learned about yourself, about how you relate to the world, or a new skill or piece of information you discovered.

I learned I do my best work when my office is in order.

A: Write one thing you accomplished today. This is a small accomplishment (unless you have a big one to celebrate), but is a simple reminder of the things you do every day. 

  • getting out of bed
  • getting enough sleep
  • paying all my bills on time
  • making it to work on time
  • completed all my domestic chores

D: Write one thing that delighted you today. These are things that made you smile or laugh, things that entertained you, or simply made you happy.

I was delighted by the Youtube video I watched today, which made me laugh. 

Set yourself a reminder and practice this exercise everyday for a week. Notice how you feel during and after this exercise.

Unpredictability the greatest source of workplace stress

A recent survey from CareerCast, a job-hunting website, finds unpredictability is the greatest cause of workplace stress in America.

"But that pervasive sense of insecurity comes in many forms, ranging from employees being tasked with new duties and sudden staff changes to unexpected shifts in company priorities. Other sources of stress that ranked nearly as high as unpredictability included workplace environment (21 percent) and deadlines (20 percent).

Among the professions that found unpredictability to be the biggest source of stress were those in academia (40 percent), engineering (33 percent) and customer service (30 percent), while only 15 percent of transportation workers found unpredictability to be a stress factor at work."

Managing stress in the workplace is difficult, but possible. Surrounding yourself with positive people, focusing on your accomplishments, and looking for opportunities to learn can improve your experience.

Humans of New York on Anxiety

A brilliant post about anxiety from the Human of New York:

“I knew a girl in high school that always complained about having anxiety. I used to make fun of her a little bit. It looked like nothing to me. So I assumed it was nothing. And I dealt with it by trying to convince her that it was nothing. I called her recently to apologize. I’ve had really bad anxiety ever since my father died. And it’s definitely not nothing. It’s the indescribable fear of nothing.”

Binge-watching tied to depression, loneliness

The fourth season of House of Cards just hit Netflix yesterday and the people in my life have already asked if I've had a chance to watch it yet. 

With instant streaming and Netflix releasing seasons at once, binge-watching, watching multiple episodes of television at a time, has become a pretty standard part of the American lifestyle.

A recent study from the University of Texas at Austin found the lonelier and depressed you are, the more likely you are to binge-watch television.

"Physical fatigue and problems such as obesity and other health problems are related to binge-watching and they are a cause for concern. When binge-watching becomes rampant, viewers may start to neglect their work and their relationships with others. Even though people know they should not, they have difficulty resisting the desire to watch episodes continuously," said the researchers.

"Do I really need therapy?"

Knowing when to ask for help a brave and courageous step. How do you know when or if you need therapy?

We all experience a range of emotions, from happiness and excitement, to grief and stress, and none of this is necessarily problematic. However, if your emotions feel out of control or unmanageable, it's time to seek help from a psychotherapist.

If you struggle with regular eating, hear voices, or have difficulty sleeping through the night, it's time to seek help.

If your relationships are suffering, be it a parent/child relationship, spousal relationship, friendship, etc., it's time to seek help. 

If you find yourself using (and/or abusing) substances to cope with unwanted feelings, it's time to seek help. 

If you no longer find pleasure from activities you used to enjoy, it's time to seek help.

If a friend, family member, or loved one suggests you need help, it's time to seek help.

A trusted relationship with a mental health counselor can drastically improve your life. 

"I don't like feeling this way."

"I just don't want to feel like this anymore," I remember saying to my therapist. I was anxious and sad and didn't know what to do about it, but knew I didn't want to feel that way anymore. I was fed up. 

What I didn't know then was that I was experiencing distress intolerance. We often feel uncomfortable. There are times we're too hot, too cold, have achy or sore muscles. The type of discomfort I'm talking about is emotional discomfort - feeling sad, ashamed, disappointed, etc. Some find they're able to ride out difficult emotions, but for others, they "can't bear," or "must get rid" of these difficult feelings. This desperate need to escape emotional distress has a compounding impact, often interfering with other areas of one's life.

It makes sense to move away from things that feel unpleasant but for emotional distress, it often causes more problems than it solves. Often people intolerant of distress use the following tactics:

Avoidance. Avoiding people, places, or things that trigger an emotional response. Distracting and suppressing the emotion.

Numbing and withdrawing. Using drugs or alcohol to numb the emotional pain. Binge eating or excessive sleep to withdraw from others.

Harmful releases. Taking the distress out on ourselves, including scratching, cutting, and picking.

These tactics can provide short-term relief, but often cause more problems in one's life. From neglecting relationships to drug and alcohol abuse, the effect compounds upon itself. Now, in addition to dealing with upsetting depression or anxiety, you're struggling with an addiction that prevents you from holding down a job. Because you feel so ashamed and cut yourself, you're constantly living in fear that someone will find the scars.

The more we struggle with and fear distress, the worse it gets. In fact, the best solution is to lean in and tackle the distress head on. Since it's impossible to get rid of emotional distress, it's imperative to learn how to live with it. Working with a trusted mental health professional can help you develop a distress tolerance action plan to move through the pain and discomfort.

How to keep a New Year's Resolution

For many, the flipping the calendar to a new year marks the perfect time to make resolutions -- new habits to pick up, old ones to get rid of, and goals for a different way of being. Often these resolutions don't last.

Understanding the Stages of Change may provide insight to why we make resolutions and find they're so difficult to keep. 

Developed to assist clinicians in understanding why it's so difficult for their clients to break addictions, this model is helpful in assessing how motivated we are to make changes.

The first stage, pre-contemplation, occurs before the individual has recognized or acknowledged a problem. It can be active resistance where someone adamantly denies a problem or passive/ignorant, where the thought there's a problem hasn't even crossed his or her mind.

Contemplation, the second step, happens when individuals start to recognize there's a problem. Now they're talking about the "issue;" however, they're still on the fence as to whether or not to do anything. This ambivalence is the heart of motivation -- often people can come up with reasons why their habits should change but don't make the decision to.

Preparation is the third stage. The decision's been made: something has to change and in the preparation stage, individuals start planning how to carry out the change. This looks like signing up for a gym membership for those who want to lose weight. Or the decision to stop purchasing alcohol to have in the home for someone whose cutting back on their drinking. Preparation is all about how the habit will change and the most successful contemplate all barriers to success in this stage.

Finally, in the action stage, something is happening. The plan has been initiated! This looks like actually going for those runs you said you would, or cooking at home instead of spending your money eating out. Making a public commitment to the change by telling someone about your desire to change may increase your success rate, as having an external monitor is a good source of motivation. The action stage should last for months, anywhere from three to six, to really take hold.

Maintenance is the stage of a successfully changed behavior. You're going to the gym everyday now! You've kept the 20 pounds off! Or you've curbed your spending habit and have slowly started adding to your savings account. In this stage, the changed habit has taken hold and you're putting into place all the things you wanted to do.

From here, the Stages of Change diverts. Those who've successfully changed their habits depart the stages wheel into stable behavior, where your new habit has taken hold and your lifestyle is now different because of it.

However, most of us can probably relate to the relapse stage, where the behavior changes from your action plan didn't take hold and you're back to the beginning. After a relapse, finding the motivation to make changes can be incredibly difficult.

Why does relapse happen? How do we get so far into the stages of change and allow everything to fall apart? 

Unrealistic goals and expectations. Have you ever heard someone say, "If only I'd lose the weight. I'd be so happy." Weight loss doesn't mean automatic, or sustained, happiness. Curbing your expectations on how improved your life after the habit change may help you keep the motivation to change your habits. In the same way, managing your expectations about what will get in the way of healthy habits is also important. 

Moving through the stages too quickly. You've made the decision to make a change and jumped straight into implementing your action plan. Suddenly you've backslide and you're right to where you started. There's something to be said for taking your time, and giving yourself room to consider what might stand in the way of reaching your goal may help you eliminate those barriers.

If you're making a resolution for 2016, start thinking about what you'd like to change and how the stages of change are impacting your thinking. Developing a mindful awareness to your thoughts/feelings/emotions may help you're ability to keep a resolution.

Are you suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Winter, especially in the Pacific Northwest, can be brutal. Days on end of limited light, the endless drizzle of rain, and a sun that sets at 4 p.m. can take it's toll on anyone. 

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of mood disorder whose onset occurs with the change of the season. For most people with SAD, the transition into winter finds them moody, irritable, and sapped of energy. Researchers believe SAD may be a type of hibernation found in other animals or an imbalance of serotonin or melatonin

Treatment for SAD include light therapy, medication, and psychotherapy. In addition to recommendations from your doctor, you may find the following helpful:

  • Make your environment brighter. Open the blinds, turn on the lights, and sit closer to windows throughout the day.
  • Spend more time outside. Go for walks or spend some time in the park. 
  • Exercise. Finding a physical activity you enjoy doing will decrease depressive symptoms. 
  • Schedule social activities. Plan to do activities with friends to get yourself out of the house and engaged with the world.

It's normal to feel sadness occasionally. If you're finding your not enjoying activities you once did, if you feel overwhelmed or hopeless, you might be depressed. Seek the guidance of a professional for an evaluation.

Managing Holiday Stress

'Tis the season! What's the most wonderful time of the year for some is a complete nightmare for others. The holiday season, stretching from Thanksgiving through New Year's, can often be long, stress-inducing, and painful for people.

Learning how to manage your stress level, especially around the holidays, is a great skill to develop. 

Plan. Start thinking about your holiday plans before they sneak up on you. Who are you celebrating with? Are you traveling? What will you need to do in anticipation of the holidays? Spending time considering the impact your plans have on your life may reduce your stress level.

Set aside differences. Beyond the actual holiday (are you celebrating Christmas? Hanukkah? Kwanzaa?), learning to set aside differences to enjoy time with family and friends is key to reducing stress level. If your Aunt Anne thinks Donald Trump is the best thing to happen to America, just let her. Your brother's kids driving you up the wall and you wish he'd step in to discipline them? Let go of your parenting ideas. Setting your ideas of "how the world should be" aside and allowing everyone to experience it themselves, no matter how frustrating, will reduce your stress level!

Act intentionally. The holidays come with a lot of obligation. You have to make Christmas cookies for the gift exchange party. You always go to your grandmother's house for Christmas Eve, even though you hate it. And if you don't: disaster. Instead of acting out of obligation this year, focus on acting out of intention. What will happen if you don't go to your grandmother's house for Christmas? Could you take her to brunch a week later instead? What will happen if you purchase cookies for the office exchange instead of spending five hours in the kitchen making from scratch? Look beyond your initial reaction to consider what will actually happen. And from there, choose to act intentionally. 

Make a budget. Holidays are expensive! Travel cost, gifts, parties, etc ... it adds up quickly. Spending a few minutes planning your holiday budget will help you feel in control of your finances and live within your means. 

Honor yourself. Above all else, choosing what's best for you is most important! Be reflective. Take inventory of what you're willing to do and what you'd rather not. Stick to your healthy habits. Be mindful of how you feel. If you'd rather stay in with a good book on Saturday night than attend the company holiday party, it's ok to do so. It's ok to take 30 minutes on Christmas morning for a jog. It's also ok to feel occasional sadness, despite the holiday season!

Seek professional help. If your anxiety or depression isn't going anywhere, don't hesitate to see a counselor. Bouncing what's happening off a trained professional may help reduce your symptoms and help you navigate this stressful time.

What I'm Reading

There's never a shortage of great reading material on mental health. I recently stopped at the store to pick up a couple things:

Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love & Wisdom by Rick Hanson. A great read on how contemplative practice can help harness your mind to cultivate happiness, love, and wisdom.

And Baby Makes Three: The Six-Step Plan for Preserving Marital Intimacy and Rekindling Romance after Baby Arrives by relationship expert John Gottman. Relationship satisfaction plummets after the arrival of the first child, and Gottman offers six steps to keeping the relationship spark alive during the most difficult first months of a child's life.

The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness by Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Segal, and Jon Kabat-Zinn. Introducing practices of mindfulness and cognitive behavioral therapy, four experts provide meditations and tools to sit with uncomfortable feelings. It's not just "thinking your way" out of depression, but developing a practice that works. 

Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol by Ann Dowsett Johnston. Part memoir, part journalistic investigation, Drink explores contemporary trends with women's relationship to alcohol. 

The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to be and Embrace Who You Are by shame expert Brene Brown. Brown offers ten guideposts challenging us to change our thinking from "What will people think?" to "I am enough."

Hope and Other Luxuries: A Mother's Life With A Daughter's Anorexia by Clare B. Dunkle. A memoir about a mother's struggle with her daughter's anorexia. Too often we're consumed with focus on the individual struggling with illness, but the entire family suffers.

Why did I become a counselor?

 I get asked this question often. "Why did you become a counselor?" 

I didn't set out to become a counselor - I wanted to be a journalist. I went to journalism school with the idea that I'd be a writer. I'm not exactly sure for what, as I didn't want to be a daily newspaper reporter. I remember writing a profile on a travel agent in my college town and I hated that she wanted to read it. I had a pretty big hang-up with how the subjects of my stories might interpret what I was writing. Nor did I care for journalism school's cynical nature - I just didn't have the energy for it. 

I left college and started working in a marketing job that wasn't very fulfilling. Just a few months in, I decided I needed to do something more meaningful with my life. I remember thinking what I was doing everyday didn't matter, that I could stop and no one would notice, that my job didn't have to exist and no one would be asking for it. 

I decided it was time to change.

I reflected on how important my own therapist was in a difficult period of my life. She was such a support for me. Her outside perspective really challenged my rigid thinking. She had this awesome way about her that made me feel good about myself, while also challenging me to change. 

So I enrolled in a counseling Master's program. I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do with the degree when I finished, and I've been blessed to experience a variety of counseling experiences - from community mental health centers, to school systems, to private practice. I've come in contact with an array of clients struggling with a variety of issues, from severe mental illness, anxiety, depression, cutting, remarriage, and mid-life crisis. 

With experience in both fields, I've come to see the similarities in both journalism and counseling. They both rely heavily on the human experience. Telling people's stories. Making sense of the world. I just prefer the private nature of the therapy room to ignite change than the pages of the daily paper.