The Art of Self-Nurturing

Feeling tense? Running on empty? Maybe work, finances, relationships, changes in routine, or daily life have you feeling overwhelmed. Warning signs include feeling anxious, irritable, fatigued, and having repeated intrusive thoughts about a stressful situation. Extreme stress can make you feel like there is nothing you can do. The key to regaining control is a radical return to self-nurturing, to recharge your emotional and physical batteries. Here are some strategies to foster the Art of Self-Nurturing.

Admit your stress. Admit when circumstances have got you down and change is needed. Admitting this creates a moment of calm and stillness, a space to breathe, and a space for observation and awareness. Moving forward is difficult unless you recognize the situation and make a commitment to help yourself through it.

Identify Your Hot Buttons. Figure out what is causing the stress–a relationship to a co-worker or loved one, work demands, a financial commitment, uncertainty about the future?  Write this down.

Acceptance. Take a look at your list of stressors and identify the things that can be changed as well as the things that can’t. Accept that some things are always going to be stressful. Then, attention can be focused on the things that can be changed instead. Try focusing on action steps to make the future less uncertain, such as acquiring skills, making friends and setting goals.  This also means not sweating the small stuff - pick your battles and invest your energy wisely.

Notice how you talk to yourself about yourself and others. Observe the language you use to create your reality, to define and judge yourself and others.  For example, you may say to yourself, "Here I go again, stressing out", when a more effective, self-compassionate statement would be, "Stress is part of life and I'm learning to address it effectively by taking it one day at a time."

Get Outside. Taking in natural beauty, along with physical exercise, can reduce stress and improve physical health. The color green has been shown to have soothing effects on body and mind.  Nature can provide a peaceful soundtrack, beautiful scenery and fresh air to help soothe the soul. Try hugging a tree or walking barefoot in the grass.

Let It Out. Bottling up emotions can increase stress through accumulated feelings of loneliness and helplessness. Communication, both with yourself and others, is key in addressing problems quickly and honestly.  If you need help identifying what's causing your stress, and how to effectively address it, talk to a trusted person or mental health professional.

Winterize Your Heart for the Holidays

Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. - Haruki Murakami

As the cold is upon us, many of us are in the process of winterizing - taking precautions to protect our bodies with extra layers, and our animals, plants, and dwellings with extra heat. The days are getting shorter, darker, and colder, which for many also has emotional effects. For some, it may be a mild and temporary case of the "winter blues" as you adjust to the season.

For others, emotional changes may be more intense. You may feel a lot more tired, your brain may feel sluggish, and your body may feel heavy. You may wake up in the morning only to spend all day looking forward to getting back to bed as soon as possible, with not much energy or motivation to socialize or do more than the bare minimum. There may be habits like spending too much time with electronic devices, and turning to unhealthy food and drink on a more regular basis. With the festivities and chaos of the holidays upon us, this feeling and need to cocoon may get more intense, which can create an extra burden if there's a social expectation to be out, about, and celebrating. 

If this sounds familiar, you might have Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.). S.A.D. is a type of depression that affects some people during the fall and winter season when days become shorter and colder. The exact causes of S.A.D. are not fully understood, but it is likely the body's reaction to outside seasonal changes - causing changes in circadian rhythm and levels of melatonin and serotonin. Women, people with a history of depression, and those who have a family history of S.A.D. and/or depression are at the greatest risk for S.A.D.

Regardless of your susceptibility to the winter blues or S.A.D., it's a good idea to winterize our hearts and souls, if anything, for preparation and prevention's sake. Don't wait until you're caught in the chaos or out of sync. Here are some things you may wish to consider to take care of yourself this season.
 

  • Get outside. Even though the instinct may be to hunker down, just a bit of time spent in daylight can help increase energy levels and improve mood. You can layer up and try a walk, or even jog or run. Even going for a drive, getting a cup of coffee, or meeting up with a friend can help reset your mood and activity level. 
  • Move your body. Again, snuggling with Netflix may sound a lot more appealing. However, exercise doesn't have to take long, and joining a friend in an outdoor movement activity can boost positive effects with activity and social support. Or join an exercise class - knowing that others are there sweating with you can boost motivation. A body in motion stays in motion. 
  • Eat high quality foods. When it's cold and dark, fast, fatty, and comfort foods become more alluring. Just make sure your food includes healthy components - dark, leafy greens, fruits and veggies across the color spectrum, nuts and seeds, whole grains. Omega 3 fatty acids have been shown to boost brain power. Healthy soups and stews can be made ahead and frozen for later use. Try to avoid alcohol over-use, as it is a depressant and can lead to more sluggishness. 
  • Nourish your spirit and soul. Lots of small things are at our fingertips to do so. The trick is to add soothing, positive energy and take away draining energy. Spend time with a quality friend who adds positive energy to your life. Meditation, yoga, hot baths, nice candles, aromatic oils, and a good book can provide much needed nourishment that isolation and electronics cannot give. 
  • Reach out to others in need. Stepping outside of ourselves and giving back helps draw attention to the bigger picture in life and away from internal negative rumination. Check in on a friend or smile at random strangers. Buy coffee for someone, or pick up volunteering if you can.
  • Practice gratitude
  • Ask for help. If it is difficult to get out of the winter blues or you believe you may have S.A.D., help is available from physicians, psychologists, counselors, and other healers. By working with a professional, you can determine how to best manage your concerns. 

I am a Houston psychologist. For more information about my practice, visit DrGortner.com.

 

 

Help! I Have Intense Emotions!

Feelings are like children:  You don't want them driving the car, but you don't want to stuff them in the trunk either. (Quote from the movie "Thanks for Sharing")


Most of us have been conditioned by our environment that having positive emotions means success, and having negative emotions means failure.  However, both positive and negative emotions are a normal and desirable part of life.  Like children, they can be unpredictable.  Just the same, they can be brutally honest and teach us about ourselves.  Unlike rational thought, the experience of feelings is often non-linear, it can feel like a spiral or circle, or an endless loop.  This can be a challenging experience. 

Some emotions can create an intense experience.  Feelings such as anger and fear can leave us with the perceived notion of feeling overwhelmed or out of control. When faced with such intense feelings, we may often feel compelled to stuff them away and supress them. We may have been taught not to listen to, show, or express our feelings.  Most of us believe we shouldn't have negative or challenging emotions or that if we allow ourselves to have them, we may lose control and something "terrible" might happen.  So when we are faced with a difficult situation in our life, we may feel upset or angry, and tell ourselves that we shouldn't be feeling this way.  Our habitual response may be to stuff those emotions in the trunk of our car.  But what happens? The stuffed away emotions start knocking, screaming, and expressing their discontent at being in the trunk.  So we try to block out the noise.  In real life, this manifests as numbing out: by staying busy and filling our lives with escapes, pursuing addictions and distractions such as overworking, substances, food, shopping, sex, getting in and out of relationships, or other impulsive behaviors.  This can give us the false illusion that the emotion has gone away.  This may work...temporarily.

What's the true "fix" for intense emotions?  Some musings and food for thought:
 

  • There is no need for a "fix".  Emotions are merely experiences that are temporary.  Usually they can teach us some important insight about ourselves.  
  • It's important to accept there is nothing wrong with having emotions: being afraid, angry, upset, surprised, disgusted, being happy, being excited.
  • Try not to get caught up in what your emotions mean about other people, but rather what they mean about yourself.
  • If you have a tendency to stuff your emotions in the trunk of your car, play with the notion of putting them in the back seat instead.  Check on them in the rearview mirror - acknowledge that they're there, talk to them every once in a while.  Maybe listen to what they have to say.
  • Letting go of the success/failure duality of emotions opens up amazing freedom.  Emotions just "are", without being good or bad, until we tell ourselves a story about what they mean, could be, or should be.
  • Don't be scared of emotions.  Imagine you are riding them like a wave.

Simple Tools for Stress Management

Stress is part of everyday life, yet it is also a complex concept. Psychological stress occurs when a person perceives that the demands placed on them exceed their personal and social resources to help them cope.  This means someone can feel little stress when they have the time, experience, and resources to manage a potentially stressful situation. In other words, stress is not an inevitable consequence of an event - it depends on your perceptions of a situation and your ability to cope with it. 

Let's take the common everyday stressor of traffic.  If we perceive it as defeating and frustrating, and that we are helpless against it, we become di-stressed and sit in the car fuming.  If we accept it as just a fact of life, and that it's an opportunity to sit and meditate, catch up with a friend on the phone, or listen to an entertaining program, we create positive emotions for ourselves instead.  The prerequisite of this happening of course means that we have a phone or program available, and that we feel confident that these strategies will help us feel better.

 

Causes of Stress

To understand stress better, it may be helpful to think it terms of what usually causes people stress.  Here are four main categories that are common stressors in our society.

  • Life Transitions (for example, moving, job loss/change, diagnosis of illness, marriage, divorce, pregnancy/childbirth, death of a loved one)
  • Work- or school-related (for example, high demand job environment, boredom, team conflict, lack of support)
  • Problematic relationships (eg, unreasonable demands, high conflict, persistent sense of being taken advantage of, lack of supportive relationships)
  • Your environment (eg, housing problems, transportation problems, chronic traffic problems, noisy neighborhood, living in poverty, living and working in an environment that's not conducive to relaxation and recreation, dangerous living or working environment)

However, it's important to recognize that an accumulation of smaller, minor stressors can be at least as, if not more, detrimental to one's physical and mental health as one or two major life stressors.  Car trouble, an argument with your spouse, an important work deadline, and trying to plan a big family party all in one week can certainly add up.

 

Signs of Stress

The first step to effective stress management is understanding your own personal stress signals.  Stress can get expressed in many subtle ways.  Here are some examples - see if you recognize yourself in some:

  • Feelings: Anxiety, irritability, fear, moodiness, embarrassment, frustration, and anger 
  • Thoughts: Self-criticism, difficulty concentrating and making decisions, forgetfulness, preoccupation with the future, repetitive thoughts, fear of failure 
  • Behaviors: Crying, being disorganized, sense of time pressure, “snapping” at love ones, acting impulsively, alcohol or other drug use, teeth grinding or jaw clenching, stuttering or speech difficulties, having more accidents 
  • Physical: Sleep Disturbance, changes in appetite, tight muscles, headaches, fatigues, cold or sweaty hands, back/neck problems, stomach problems, getting sick more often, rapid breathing, pounding heart, trembling, dry mouth

 

Think Stress Away

One of the most important ways to bust stress is to practice positive thinking and keeping things in perspective.  Remember, how we perceive an event is a major contributor to stress.  If we can neutralize our initially negative perception of a stressor, we have more control over the impact it has on us.  In other words, re-think how you think about stress.

Here is a simple guideline:

1. Recognize your negative thoughts

2. Stop, breathe

3. Reflect: Is this thought really true? Did I jump to a conclusion? What evidence do I actually have? Am I letting negative thoughts balloon? What’s the worst that could happen? Does it help me to think this way?

4. Choose: Decide how to deal with the source of your stress. Create and write down an action plan. Recognize negative thoughts and let them go.

Here are some simple examples of negative thought patterns during stressful situations, and their more neutral alternative thoughts.

1. Should statements:

•I should be able to deal with stressful situations better.

•Better: I know how to deal with stress and I am having a hard time right now.

 

2. Disqualifying the positive:

•I hate my life, it always is so difficult.

•Better: There are some things going on right now that are difficult and also some things that are actually going right.

 

3. Emotional reasoning:

•I don't feel good right now so I can't handle anything.

•Better: I feel like I can't handle things right now and I know that I can.

 

4. Catastrophizing

•If I don’t do well on this presentation (insert other important task), I will be judged poorly.  I may become jobless and homeless.

•Better: Nobody’s perfect. I’ll do my best on the presentation and know that it’s not the end of the world if I don't do perfectly.

 

Relax Stress Away

A relaxing activity that provides relief from a stressful activity by reducing physiological activation.  Incorporating relaxation in your daily routine is paramount, as the physical effects of chronic stress can lead to many health problems, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, and a susceptible immune system.

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Healthy examples for relaxation:

  • physical exercise
  • a hobby
  • spending time with friends and family
  • a warm bath or shower
  • prayer or meditation - here are some great meditation apps
  • Guided Imagery/Relaxation - there are many great resources online; here's one example

 

 

Finally, talking to a mental health professional about your stress can help you organize your thoughts, determine where to invest your energy, and learn skills in managing stressful situations and people in your life.