Category: Stress reduction

What’s “Normal” In the Slow Fade of a Pandemic?

What’s “Normal” In the Slow Fade of a Pandemic?

Even as the pandemic begins a slow fade, the mental health crisis that the pandemic ignited in kids, teens grownups, and caregivers for elders is sticking around. In my therapy office of late, I’ve heard clients name rumination, depression, grief, more alcohol and marijuana, new existential questions about meaning and purpose, relationship challenges, parenting stress, exhaustion, preoccupation about weight, intrusive thoughts, and lots and lots and lots of anxiety (social anxiety, health anxiety, traveling anxiety, etc.) In fact, we now have a name for all the inner debris that the pandemic has left in us: Post Pandemic Stress Disorder. This is on top of all the stress, anxiety, depression, and relationship stuff many of us carry around even in non-pandemic days.

So here are a few points I wish we could all keep track of:

1: Sometimes my clients think that if an event is over, they should be over it. But our brains, nervous systems, and bodies don’t work like light switches. Rather our nervous systems are like cars — needing time to rev up and time to slow down. So it’s normal to not feel normal right now. It’s normal to be experiencing residual exhaustion, more sensitivity to stressors, and to generally feel on edge and like you don’t quite have your social sea legs. Does this mean it’s fun? No. But is having a disrupted nervous system normal given the completely abnormal last 16 months? Yes. Absolutely, yes.

2: During the last year plus, we’ve all been taking stock of our lives: what we like, what we don’t like, what we want more of, and what we want less of in our lives. If you are still looking around trying to figure out what you want your new normal to include and exclude, you are doing something important – and normal. Many of us have had a break from friends, commutes, social obligations, work travel, etc. and now, to some extent, we have some choices in front of us. Do we want to socialize more, less, or differently than before the pandemic? Do we want to advocate for different hours or different amounts of times at our jobs? Do we want to set different boundaries with our families or around our time? These questions are normal. And it’s normal to re-evaluate our priorities following a big, terrible event.

3: If you have gained weight during the last 16 months, congrats on being normal. As far as coping strategies go, eating a bit more than we need is not the worst thing ever. We’ve been going through an ongoing trauma, and our bodies naturally crave sugar and salt when we’re stressed. I hope you can give yourself a break over the weight gain. And maybe even learn about the Health At Every Size movement. Or if you can’t be kind to yourself about your body, please come see me and and let me give you a break.

4: Finally, if you’re feeling bad for feeling bad (as in “I have so much privilege, I don’t deserve to be having a hard time”) then congrats – also normal. Think of this like survivor’s guilt. There’s a guilty feeling that’s hard to shake. But guess what – this too is normal. And while I know it’s hard to stop guilt once it’s ramped up, your guilt does not help anyone.

So – what to do? Consider self-compassion. Surround yourself with people who will be supportive and not make you feel like a weirdo (unless you’re a weirdo in all the good ways). Remind yourself that your experience can be normal AND still be really, really hard. And help your nervous system know it’s now safe to calm down: through regular sleep, nourishing food and relationships, movement, time outside, and – the hardest for many of us – not pushing yourself too hard. Does all that sound impossible? If so, no worries… that’s normal too (and why we therapists are here).

Courtesy of Rahul Jail on Unsplash.com

“COVID is (Almost) Over: Why Don’t I feel OK?”

This past 15-plus months of pandemic life has been a crash course in tolerating uncertainty. Remember when we weren’t sure how COVID spread? Remember when we weren’t sure if we should be wiping down our newly-purchased cereal boxes and bananas? Remember when we weren’t sure what school was going to look like in the months ahead? (Oh, wait… I think that last one about school is STILL true. Yikes.)

Living with the uncertainty brought on by COVID has been no joke. And the stress is still impacting our bodies even as life returns to some semblance of pre-COVID normalcy. Every week I see clients describing difficulties with concentration and focus and irritability and motivation and – last but not least – exhaustion. Is it possible that these clients are anxious or depressed or have ADHD? Yes, of course. But it’s also true that we’re still reeling from a catastrophe most of us couldn’t have imagined two years ago. We all just experienced – and are still experiencing – an ongoing trauma. Our lives were just turned upside down – and stayed that way for more than a year. Of course we’re not going to feel great. Of course we’re going to be struggling.

This relates to an insidious kind of suffering that I see a lot (and that I’m not immune to myself). It happens when we have an unpleasant experience (like “ugh, I’m exhausted”) and then judge ourselves for that experience (like “I shouldn’t be exhausted”). It has variations: I’m grieving a death or break up, but I should be over it by now. Or: I just had a promotion fall through, and something’s wrong with me because I can’t let it go yet. Or: I am struggling but I have so much, so therefore I am wrong to be struggling. (See: privilege syndrome.)

I find that it’s always useful to help clients set realistic expectations for the time and effort it can take to recover from a difficult experience or a trauma. And just because COVID is almost over, that doesn’t mean your body has gotten the message. Our stress is not, unfortunately, a switch that we can just turn on and off. That’s why – if you go on vacation – you don’t automatically feel relaxed. Your body and mind can be in stress-mode even if you’re wearing a swimsuit drinking a mojito.

Think about it like this: your nervous system has likely been on overdrive for more than a year straight at this point, with many more “fight and flight” moments (complete with the release of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline) and many fewer “rest and digest” moments. At this point, your body has developed a stressed-out baseline rather than a baseline that’s neutral or even relaxed. So it can take some intentional effort to reset and to re-teach our bodies that we are safe with no imminent threat to ourselves or the people we love.

BUT YOU ARE NOT A LOST CAUSE. YOU DON’T HAVE TO LIVE LIKE THIS FOREVER. There are some things we need to learn to accept in life (the need for sleep; the reality of pollen; the deliciousness of pizza). But feeling agitated, panicky, and anxious ALL THE TIME is NOT something we need to accept.

The brain is beautiful, and complicated, and capable of changing. So is your body. So are you, as a person who has survived long enough to be able to find and read this blog post. You deserve to feel okay, no matter your privilege or lack of privilege. You deserve to feel okay, no matter who you are.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash.

Tips for Election Anxiety

Hi y’all. It’s Dana here, your friendly local therapist with some unsolicited thoughts about getting through this upcoming election in one piece. 

Probably by now you’ve received a hundred texts, phone calls, emails,and  social media notifications letting you know about the election on November 3 and asking you in increasingly desperate pleas to PLEASE PLEASE VOTE. Lots is being written about making a plan for voting: requesting absentee ballots and returning them and confirming they’ve been received by your local election office OR voting in person and preparing for long lines, tech snafus and possible voter suppression. 

But there’s another sort of election planning that needs to happen that we also can’t neglect. This planning is more personal, and in some ways more challenging. After all, how do you brace yourself for the uncertainty of a hugely important election, especially given that results will likely not be known for days if not weeks? 

Y’all, it’s time to prepare yourself internally and internally for what’s to come. I’m hearing from friends, family members and clients about spikes in anxiety, a heightened awareness of uncertainty, and a general sense of being out of control. 

So, in hopes that this can be useful, here are some tips and strategies for the coming weeks: 

  1. Do what you can to remember the big picture – the scope of history and space. Even though this moment feels big and impossible it is, in the grand scheme of things, this is just a moment. This may be a good time to watch a documentary about space or nature. It may be useful to print out a photo of the world’s oldest living tree or Stonehenge as a reminder that now is not forever.
  2. It’s time to create a bit more structure and ritual in your day. A friend of mine is now spending 20 minutes first thing in the morning outside walking, followed by 5 minutes of stretching and 5 minutes of guided meditation. I’ve been trying to end each day with a hot bath and an unrealistic mystery novel. For other people, useful ritual might mean a daily habit of morning pages, a daily text check-in with a good friend, or having a mini mid-day dance party. 
  3. Get on a regular sleep schedule if possible. “Sleep hygiene” is the ultimate unsexy phrase. But there’s something to it. The more regular structure we create in the hour or two before sleep – and the more consistent we are about what time we get in bed – the better chance we’ll have of a good night’s sleep. (Pre-bed ideas: reading, letter writing, stretching, listening to music, connecting with a friend, hot bath or shower, or a small snack. Not so helpful for sleep: social media or news.)
  4. Replace doom scrolling with something less crazy-making (such as stretching, audiobooks, online games, etc.) The negative consequences of compulsively scrolling the news or social media have been well documented. In Jenny Odell’s book, How to Do Nothing, she names that this can be quite challenging – especially at first, and especially when so much is happening around us. She writes, “To pay attention to one thing is to resist paying attention to other things; it means constantly denying and thwarting provocations outside the sphere of one’s attention.” It’s time to consider unplugging, at least a little bit.
  5. Figure out what’s within your control and what’s not. Focus on what’s in your control.  What can give you a sense of purpose? If you’re anxious, how do you want to use that nervous energy? It’s unlikely that more information won’t make you feel any more settled. Instead, focus on what’s before you. If the election is important to you, can you write letters, make donations, call friends, post information in your community, or volunteer in another way? Other things that are in your control: how much attention you give the daily media rollercoaster, what you do to relax and unwind (and unplug!), and how you match your actions to your values. Research shows people feel better when helping others, so it may be time to do something for others. Bake brownies for a neighbor. Write and send love notes to your friends. You get the idea.
  6. Allow yourself some comfort. With heightened anxiety comes an understandable need for heightened comfort and soothing. Now is the time to start thinking about what provides you comfort and what might be soothing in the days leading up to the election. Some ideas: comfort foods, cans of soup or frozen pot pies, aromatherapy, nightly hot showers or baths, journaling, movies or TV or books that are soothing and easy. Time outside weeding or walking. Time with pets. Time with hobbies. 
  7. Connect with your people. Social isolation makes everything harder, and being connected to one another usually makes everything easier. If you’ve been out of touch with important friends or family members, it’s time reach out or set up a phone date.
  8. Work to have realistic expectations of ourselves and others during this wild time. Anxiety does not make us do our best work (or best parenting) and we are going to be distracted in relationships and work. Please, give yourself a break. If you give yourself a break it will be easier to give others around you a break as well.
  9. Finally, make a plan for how you want to spend election day and plan something to look forward to after November 3rd. If there’s a chance that anxiety will spike on election day itself, how can you prepare to meet that anxiety? Would it be helpful to keep busy, or to plan to have a quiet day? Is there a meal or a phone call that you could look forward to? Is it possible to plan for a hike or special outing the weekend after? If so, do it!

Revisiting Habits, asking “How’s This Working For Me?”

A month ago I went cold turkey.

No online, paper, or radio news.

No social media.

No falling down the internet rabbit hole.

It wasn’t a particularly well-thought-out, planned-for decision. (Which defies everything we think we know about habit change – right? Conventional wisdom is that habits are easiest to change if we have a plan, have prepared, told significant others, have figured out alternatives, etc.)

But I had no plan. It was an impulsive decision, and I had prepared no one, including myself. I just knew that I felt attached at the hip to the news cycle, and wasn’t sure if it was serving me even though it’s easy to believe that we “should” be paying moment-to-moment attention. Life felt loud, like a bunch of clanging bells always ringing, shaking me out of my own thoughts and efforts. I felt attached at the hip to social media because of FOMO, but didn’t find myself happier or more connected as a result. (The research supports that anxiety and depression and isolation can actually increase because of internet usage!) I’m not morally opposed to the internet, and am grateful for the amazing things that happen on it and because of it. I hold no judgments of other people’s internet habits, but was finding that my own habits weren’t feeling particularly skillful. In other words: was it really worth the time and attention I was giving it?

Now, it’s been almost a month and I find that the impulse to open news and social media websites has mostly faded. Sometimes I find myself staring at my email, wanting there to be something entertaining and new there that somehow I missed, but then I realize – oh, I’m tired – or, oh, I’m not doing anything – and close the computer. Somehow, taking a sabbatical from most of my online world has reduced my stress and quieted the clanging.

I don’t miss the news. I hear from friends or family about what’s happening politically, and am concerned but also don’t miss the roller coaster ride. I’m finding other ways to be involved and engaged – reading more books (like The New Jim Crow and Mindful of Race), getting together more with colleagues, and listening to a series of Tara Brach’s lectures on Mindfulness and Psychotherapy. Somehow it seems like I’m experiencing more spaciousness as well – perhaps because I’m bombarding myself less with stimuli. I certainly don’t feel worse. If anything, I feel a bit healthier – a bit more here, in the present moment, with therapy clients and when I’m with family or alone.

My experience has reminded me that taking a step back to assess a part of our life – even a minute, mostly inconsequential part – can sometimes be useful. In the words of America’s favorite non-therapist therapist, Dr. Phil, “How’s that working for you?” He’s cheesy as hell, but it’s a great question.

 

Instead of Resolutions, Try Reflections: 12 Questions to Reorient for the Coming Year

Instead of Resolutions, Try Reflections: 12 Questions to Reorient for the Coming Year

I managed to carve out two hours last week to reflect on the year that’s almost past. It can be hard for me to think about goals or even intentions for the future without such reflection. And the truth is we learn best when we can think about what’s happened and what we might do differently next time. When I sat down and thought and wrote about these questions, I was able to clarify to myself how I got in my own way during 2017 (mostly by overcommitting) and imagine what I want more in the future. I’m sharing my reflection questions in case they may be useful prompts for you as well.

-What in my life would I happily get rid of if I could? 

-What in my life would I be happy to have more of?

-What external factors are holding me back?

-What internal factors are holding me back?

-Where do I feel most insecure professionally and personally?

-Where do I feel most confident professionally and personally?

-What were the big areas of learning and growth for me this year in terms of my personal life and work? 

-When I was fatigued, why?

-When I was energized, why?

-What goals were easiest and hardest to meet this past year – and why? 

-If I gave myself permission to dream big, what would I want for this next year or in general?

-What big areas of learning and growth do I want in the coming year, both personally and professionally? 

 

 

 

Teens and the Anxiety Epidemic

Teens and the Anxiety Epidemic

The New York Times Magazine cover story this past week was about teens and anxiety. Yay!

And it’s not that I’m a sicko who takes pleasure from other people’s suffering.

Rather, it’s nice to see attention focused on what’s been obvious in my office: that many teens — delightful, smart, precocious, thoughtful teens — are really struggling in profound ways. Self-harm is one way that this struggle shows up. A struggle to get to school is another big way this shows up. And it puts parents in a huge bind over what to do.

Here’s what I want you to know. Anxiety is terrible, and the impulse is to avoid anxiety by avoiding what makes us anxious. But as this article mentions, avoidance generally makes things worse. What helps? Looking at and re-writing thoughts, coping skills for calming the body and mind, and practice showing up for things that feel scary — like school.

 

Beyond Upset? 8 Small Things To Do Right Now

  1. First Things FirstFirst: Don’t make major life decisions in the middle of a crisis. If you’re feeling an impulse to make a big change right now, notice that impulse and then do yo
    ur best to sit on it for a few weeks.
  2. Undercommit. During times of challenge, you’re allowed to be a little flaky. I recommend sentences like “I’m a tentative yes for this” or “I’d like to, but I need to think about whether I can do this.”
  3. Limit your exposure to information you may find upsetting. Set a timer to remind you to stop compulsively reading whatever is making you panic. There will be plenty of time to read and learn later on. It’s not selfish to choose to opt out for a while.
  4. Get outside. Once there, move your body. Slowly is fine. Less slowly is also fine.
  5. Eat. At regular intervals. The best you can.
  6. Sleep. At regular intervals. The best you can.
  7. Find comfort. Take comfort. Give comfort. Cookies, TV, books, friends, and food are all good starts.
  8. Figure out a small way to use the power you have in a tangible way. That may mean doing something kind for someone else. That may mean volunteering. That may mean writing a letter to the editor. Be careful not to overextend yourself! Refer back to #2.
Are Technology and Peace At Odds?

Are Technology and Peace At Odds?

My meditation teacher sent me this article I Used To Be A Human Being and I’m passing it along to you today. It’s all about how to live in an age of constant distraction and, fittingly, it took me three days and three sittings to actually finish it because of the distractions that bombard me.

I’m sharing this article because its author, Andrew Sullivan, speaks to the wrestling that so many of us do figuring out how to live with technology in a way that serves us. It speaks to the ways that technology often keeps us hooked into distraction and compulsive online searching rather than the more important (and often more difficult and painful) internal searching to find and explore the core of ourselves and our purpose.

I hope this article is thought-provoking in all the right ways for you today.

Reconsidering The Cult of Productivity

imgresI work with a lot of therapy clients struggling to find their place in a culture that values productivity above almost everything else. These clients feel guilty when they aren’t maximizing their time. Lounging can be seen as sinful. There is a constant push for more and more and more efficiency. And while the constant pushing can lead to isolation and loneliness, they are not alone: in mainstream Western culture, we value doing more than being, action more than reflection, and self-improvement over self-acceptance.

There are lots of reasons for our culture’s focus on productivity. But in my office, there are two main reasons people stay so busy and driven:

  1. We fear slowing down. What happens when we spend time being quiet? It often means confronting parts of reality we’d rather push away. Many of us live with an inner critic, and that critic can be hard to tolerate at first when we spend time intentionally practicing reflection and self-acceptance.
  1. Our self-worth has become deeply linked to our productivity. If we only feel okay when we judge ourselves on our productivity, of course we don’t want to slow down. (When our self-worth is linked to productivity like this, it leaves us vulnerable to internal crises if we get sick or have a change in life roles at home or work.)

In counseling, I work with clients to help them recognize other options for self-worth that go beyond productivity. We build bridges to reconcile self-improvement and self-acceptance. We rediscover the pleasure of leisure time well spent – without the guilt.

 

 

 

 

Turning Off and Tuning In to Another Mass Shooting

black ribbonI found out the horrific mass shooting yesterday in Florida this morning, not because of the TV or the radio or the internet but because someone I happened to be with mentioned it.

Word of mouth is how I’ve learned almost all of my news for the past two months. It’s been part of an experiment that has involved purposely turning off and tuning out the barrage of news and infotainment that I had eagerly welcomed for so long.

Before these last two months, my radio was on constantly. I was constantly reloading the New York Times website. I could sound informed and knew a little bit about a lot.

But I was also getting numb to it all. Information overload can increase stress and make it hard to absorb anything at all. And so while it’s important to me to be engaged in the world beyond my nose and take action where I can, it’s also been important to see what happens when I turn everything off for awhile. If I’m not distracting myself with the news or really entertaining podcasts, where does my mind go? If I’m not hearing about everything that’s truly terrible in the world, what does that do for my ability to feel and act calm?

We need to notice the impact that news has on our spirits and sense of well-being. We need to try to be mindful as we figure out the right ways and times to be present with the world around us. That’s what I’m working on.

Please join me in adding your name to the Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence’s petition for stronger gun control.