‘Tis the Season … for Reflection

I’m finding it hard to believe that Christmas is only a few days away and it’s only two weeks until the end of the year. Where did this year go?
The space between Christmas and the end of the year can be a great time to take a step back and reflect on the ups and downs of the past year, see what lessons there are to be learned, and to create some plans for the coming year.

For those who really want to get their teeth into this, I recommend Jinny Ditzler’s book Your Best Year Yet!, which takes you through the process using ten specific steps. Here are a selection of those steps to get you started…

First, make an extensive list of all you’ve achieved during 2013. Include absolutely everything, big or small. If you do nothing else at the end of the year I strongly recommend you do this. You’ll be surprised at the number of things you have achieved and how good it feels to acknowledge them.

Secondly, consider anything that didn’t go as well as you’d hoped — or things that you’d intended to do but didn’t. What can you learn from this? Can you take this learning forward into 2014 to ensure that you don’t make the same mistakes again?

Thirdly, consider what you want your focus to be in the coming year. What are your priorities? What’s really important to you? What successes do you want to build on? Are there things in your life that you’d like to drop altogether? Is it time to take a risk and make some radical changes? Or perhaps 2014 will be the year when you really step out of your comfort zone and go for the big goal.

Having done that, come up with a list of your Top Ten Goals for 2014. Ditzler suggests that when pondering these goals it can help to consider all the different roles you play in your life (partner, parent, business owner, employee, community member, sports team member, volunteer etc) and link your goals to these roles. Don’t forget to include goals that relate to your role as ‘yourself’ as well … This helps to make sure you get a good balance between work and rest.

Whatever you decide I hope you have a wonderful Christmas and a happy, healthy and peaceful New Year.

Annabel Sutton

ICF Professional Certified Coach
Member International Coach Federation
Email:  annabel@annabelsutton.com
Web:   www.annabelsutton.com
Web:   www.52waystotransformyourlife.com 

I hate myself and it stresses me out!

Self-loveOne of the most important loves of our lives is the love of self, in the right measure, and in the proper perspective. Love of self is an important component in child development that helps produce healthy, fully functioning adults. The acquisition of a healthy love of self in the child can be disrupted or even completely blocked by a variety of factors: traumatic events; lack of love, attention and validation by primary caregivers; mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and attention disorders. Often, children perceive a disconnect between what their mind tells them they should think of themselves and what is generally true (smart, capable, likable) and how they feel inside about themselves (not good enough or even downright unlikable). This dissonance between self-perception and reality can be quite jarring to a child or adolescent’s mind. It often leads to experimenting with artificial means of enhancing self-esteem, or of at least shutting down temporarily the negative feelings about the self: alcohol, marijuana and other “feel good” drugs.

In the right measure, love of the self is not boastful, arrogant or self-centered — this would indicate a narcissistic personality, or in extreme cases even antisocial (chiefly manifested in a near total lack of empathy towards others). In the right measure, love of the self is strong and yet balanced by an understanding and acceptance of certain shortcomings or vulnerabilities that help the individual be fully human. There is a lot of good, some bad and even some ugly in all of us: the realization of this very human mix of characteristics does not preclude love of the self, it simply makes us more emphatic, compassionate and understanding of our and other’s shortcomings.

The proper perspective on self-love comes from positive experiences, but also from the successful survival of negative experiences that occur throughout our lives. For children and adolescents, this can be hard going especially in the absence of supportive parents, mentors and positive adult role models. It is not unusual for fully grown adults to be wrestling almost daily with an incomplete or insufficient love of the self. This usually takes the form of negative self-talk, a merciless beating one’s self up for even minor mistakes, a virtual barrage of negativity toward the self that is self-produced, self-contained and, for this reason, all the more harmful and tragic. Often, one’s self image does not match that which others have of this person; friends and co-workers may think that the individual is actually pretty good or even excellent in many areas; family members may observe, to their dismay, the contradiction between what they think of their loved ones versus what they think of themselves.

What can be done, when love of the self – out of no fault of the individual – was thwarted by an unfortunate set of circumstances in childhood or adolescence? Can it be regained? The answer to this question is an unequivocal YES! Will it be easy? No, it won’t be easy. What will it require?

It will require at least these three steps:

1. Becoming aware and accepting that the problem of self-love is real, it is a problem in the individual’s life, and that it should be the target of corrective action. This is the contemplative stage of change, when the individual at least knows there is a problem, albeit not knowing what to do about it.

2. Begin noticing all the dozen, hundred and thousand ways in which the individual reinforces negative self-esteem through automatic thought processes. When making a mistake, by action or omission, what do I tell myself? What insults do I hurl at myself, in my own mind? How many times a day do I think something negative about myself? A steady diet of negative selkf-talk fed to the brain every day, over weeks and years, can do some real damage to self-esteem.

3. Begin changing the pattern of negative thoughts by switching off the automatic thinking and becoming more intentional about what we tell ourselves, replacing negative thoughts with more positive ones, at least some of the time.

This initial three-step process of change must be consolidated and maintained over time to create lasting change. Often, the old habit of self-beating comes roaring back, like some bad programming routine that runs in the background, automatically. The important thing is not to give up on the idea that change is possible, that the effort is worth doing in exchange for a happier, healthier and better-adjusted life.

Stress, Women and Sound Sensitivity

SH Stress Women and SoundCourtesy of Stockholm University’s Stress Research Institute, a new study indicates that stress may make exhausted women over-sensitive to sounds.  The research offers evidence that women suffering from stress-related exhaustion exhibit hypersensitivity to sounds when exposed to stress.  In some cases, a sound level corresponding to a normal conversation can be perceived as painful.  This according to a study from Karolinska Institutet and Stockholm University’s Stress Research Institute which tested sensitivity to sounds immediately after a few minutes’ artificially induced stress.

The study, which is published in the online scientific journal PLoS ONE, involved exposing 348 people (208 women and 140 men) between the ages of 23 and 71 with low, medium or high levels of “emotional exhaustion” to five minutes of experimentally induced physical (hand in ice), mental (performance on a stress test) and social (being observed) stress.

The results show that women with a high level of emotional exhaustion exhibit higher sound sensitivity after an experimentally induced stress exposure than those who were not exhausted.  Some even experienced sound levels as low as 60 decibels, the level of normal conversation, as uncomfortably loud.  People with a low level of exhaustion, on the other hand, became less sensitive to sound immediately after being exposed to five minutes’ stress, a phenomenon that the researchers describe as “shutting their ears” – a normal stress reaction.  The same trends could be observed in men, but the differences were not statistically significant.  The researchers also point out that, interestingly, there was no difference in sensitivity to sounds between the groups prior to the stress exposure.

“When you are hypersensitive to sound, some normal sounds, such as the rattle of cutlery or the sound of a car engine, can feel ear-piercing,” says Dan Hasson, Associate Professor at Karolinska Institutet’s Department of Physiology and Pharmacology and affiliated to Stockholm University’s Stress Research Institute. “Given how common it is for people to work in environments with different kinds of disturbing sounds, this hypersensitivity can be really disabling for certain individuals.”

An earlier study by the same research group shows that some 32 percent of working Swedes report some form of auditory problem (impaired hearing, tinnitus or both). It has already been established that stress is linked to hearing problems, although the mechanisms are not fully understood; the present study, however, is the first to demonstrate empirically a direct association between experimentally induced stress in humans and hypersensitivity to sounds.

How To Manage Stress in 90 Words

1. Stress is a necessary, useful part of life. EMBRACE IT.

2. Most stress is resolved in 1 of 3 ways: fight, flight or freeze. DECIDE WHICH IS BEST.

3. Stress triggers are known and predictable. BUDGET FOR IT.

4. Stress affects self-esteem/efficacy. WORK ON ITS CAUSE.

5. Stress affects mind and body. ATTEND TO BOTH.

a. Mind: SWITCH OFF AUTOPILOT AND MANAGE OUTCOMES

b. Body:
i. Use up nervous energy. EXERCISE
ii. Watch sugar/alcohol intake. NUTRITION
iii. Keep a notebook beside your bed. WRITE YOUR WORRIES DOWN AND SLEEP

The Stress-free Marriage – Part 2

Both spouses must be able to “see” the cycle that has taken over communication between them, before they can begin to make any changes.

In identifying the cycle, each spouse must accept (even without agreeing with it entirely) that regardless of whether each spouse is guilty or innocent of wrongdoing against each other, the cycle itself is the most pressing problem. What matters most is not what cannot be talked about (the content), but why it cannot be talked about (the process). Noticing the process that takes place in most discussions helps the couple identify their cycle.

Noticing the cycle helps the couple identify who between them is most likely to play the role of pursuer or that of the withdrawer. The pursuer notices that she or he acts this way out of feeling disconnected from the other, e.g., feeling alone, isolated or ignored. The withdrawer notices that he or she acts this way as a defense against the pursuer’s strong emotions and repeated attempts to connect.

In the cycle, both the pursuer and the withdrawer have run out of options on how to reestablish a positive, intimate connection with each other. Noticing that the cycle has taken over and that either spouse is powerless to break it on his or her own is crucial for positive change to occur.

The cycle of destruction cannot be stopped or changed until both spouses agree to lay down their verbal and emotional (and sometimes physical) weapons. Thus, the first step is a mutual truce, by which both partners intentionally agree to stop causing emotional pain to each other.

To break the cycle, both spouses must also become aware of how what one is saying is received by the other and how he or she is reacting to it. Instead of being concerned simply with what he or she wants or means to say, both spouses must become familiar with how the other receives it and responds to it.

Safe Haven MarriageMany problems in couple communication are created or made worse by one spouse meaning to send one message and the other spouse receiving another. The cycle of destruction can be broken by doing less of what does not work, e.g., tit-for-tat escalation, and more of what works, e.g., active listening.

The next step in breaking the cycle of destruction is by joining each other’s side. When two spouses feel passionately about an issue or have different viewpoints, they often take a confrontational stance toward each other. They will figuratively stand facing each other. Often they will talk at each other rather than to one another.

A much more effective and safer way of communicating differing points of view is for one spouse to join the other and stand together on the same side while examining the issue. This does not require the spouse who initiates the joining to automatically agree with the other’s point of view, but it allows both spouses to alternatively see things from the same perspective.

In joining, the issue being addressed becomes “our” common problem that both spouses try to resolve together, rather than working against each other. In this way, neither spouse “owns” the problem alone. The problem is viewed as external to both spouses and something that challenges both as a couple, as opposed to coming between them.
The cycle of destruction is broken by making it “our” problem and by refusing to engage in its pattern any longer. Accepting that the spouse is not the enemy (even though he or she might feel or have felt as such) helps the couple externalize the problem of faulty communication and use more positive ways of connecting with each other.

In creating a safe haven for each other, both spouses become intentional in viewing the other more frequently as a potential ally and friend, and less frequently as a potential enemy. Each spouse is willing to have unconditional positive regard for the other, refusing to take the role of parent, judge or critic of the other.

In a safe haven marriage, each spouse gives the other more than just the benefit of the doubt on most issues. They both intentionally believe and are willing to accept their spouse to be innocent and guileless and to regard him or her as truthful, innocent of wrongdoing, and worthy of respect.

If and when an issue arises that causes a spouse to doubt the other’s sincerity or innocence, the doubt is handled with all the respect and loving care that a close, intimate partner deserves. Doubts are expressed in an inquiring rather than accusatory way, with the intention of learning the truth and respecting that the other’s perception of it may be different.

In those instances when a breach of trust occurs, or something is said or done, or not said or done that causes emotional injury to the other, each spouse is willing to give the other a pass. A pass must be openly declared as such to be effective, so as to not go unnoticed and build resentment. A pass does not deny the need for apologies or amends, but recognizes and accommodates the humanness and fallibility of each spouse.

Empathy in marriage is striving to see the other spouse’s point of view, trying to imagine his or her feelings, and accepting that both points of view and feelings are legitimate and that they deserve to be expressed and heard with respect. In the safe haven of marriage, opinions and beliefs are admitted without prejudgment or penalty.

Each spouse hears and makes room for the other’s point of view and the feelings that go with it, without seeing it as either right or wrong, but simply as his or hers. Empathy is present when a spouse expands his or her point of view to make room for that of the other spouse. Both points of view can, for a time, exist alongside each other as the spouses engage in a dialog to come up with the best possible solution to their issue.

Empathy extends beyond successful problem solving. Empathy is present when one spouse accepts and makes room for the shortcomings of the other, without being critical or judgmental. In helping each other overcome their personal challenges, both spouses show their interest in learning how the other sees the problem, how it makes him or her feel, and what obstacles stand in the way of growth.

Emotional safety is facilitated when each spouse has the inner assurance that the other is genuine and truthful in what he or she says. Genuineness is the active ingredient that must be present for feelings, words, and behaviors to convey the truth to each other. Genuineness provides the opportunity to know each other more intimately and completely and to rely on the truth of this knowledge to take whatever action may be necessary to strengthen, maintain or repair a safe haven relationship.

Genuineness, when embraced and maintained by both partners, strengthens the relationship and the feeling of being able to share with and receive from the other the good, the bad, the ugly and the indifferent of life together. There is power in knowing that, no matter the issue may be, each spouse can know it at the same time as, and with the same level of detail, as the other does.

Genuineness maintains a safe haven marriage healthy and strong. It helps repair any temporary breaches that may occur, and do occur, in every relationship. Although seeing eye to eye in all things and always maintain a balanced approach in every issues may seem goals worth pursuing, they are unrealistic, given our imperfect control over our emotions, words and actions. Accepting of naturally-occurring relationship breaches, and the ability to repair them successfully, are enhanced by the inner assurance of genuineness toward each other.

Truth in feelings, words, and behaviors sets the spouses free. They become aware of each other’s challenges, shortcomings, successes, and uncertainties, as soon as they happen. Each spouse is given a fair opportunity to respond to the other in the most appropriate way. Truth builds and maintains trust between the spouses. Sometimes truth may hurt, but lies always destroy. Without genuineness, there cannot be trust. Without trust, there cannot be a safe haven marriage.

Alasting marriage is built on the bedrock of emotional safety. A safe marriage is one where both spouses have each other’s back. No longer living as individuals, husband and wife genuinely share their lives with each other in every conceivable way. A loving marriage, where each spouse can be trusted and counted on to understand, empathize with, and unconditionally accept the other is a treasure of incalculable value.

Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. Love does not demand its own way. Love is not irritable, and it keeps no record of when it has been wronged. It is never glad about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance. I Corinthians 13:4-7

Faith in God Positively Influences Treatment for Individuals with Mental Disorders

faith-healthBelief in God may significantly improve the outcome of those receiving short-term treatment for psychiatric illness, according to a recent study conducted by McLean Hospital investigators. McLean Hospital of Belmont, MA is the largest psychiatric affiliate of Harvard Medical School.

In the study, published in the current issue of Journal of Affective Disorders, David H. Rosmarin, PhD, McLean Hospital clinician and instructor in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, examined individuals at the Behavioral Health Partial Hospital program at McLean in an effort to investigate the relationship between patients’ level of belief in God, expectations for treatment and actual treatment outcomes.

“Our work suggests that people with a moderate to high level of belief in a higher power do significantly better in short-term psychiatric treatment than those without, regardless of their religious affiliation. Belief was associated with not only improved psychological wellbeing, but decreases in depression and intention to self-harm,” explained Rosmarin.

The study looked at 159 patients, recruited over a one-year period. Each participant was asked to gauge their belief in God as well as their expectations for treatment outcome and emotion regulation, each on a five-point scale. Levels of depression, wellbeing, and self-harm were assessed at the beginning and end of their treatment program.

Of the patients sampled, more than 30 percent claimed no specific religious affiliation yet still saw the same benefits in treatment if their belief in a higher power was rated as moderately or very high. Patients with “no” or only “slight” belief in God were twice as likely not to respond to treatment than patients with higher levels of belief.

The study concludes: “… belief in God is associated with improved treatment outcomes in psychiatric care. More centrally, our results suggest that belief in the credibility of psychiatric treatment and increased expectations to gain from treatment might be mechanisms by which belief in God can impact treatment outcomes.”

Rosmarin commented, “Given the prevalence of religious belief in the United States — over 90% of the population — these findings are important in that they highlight the clinical implications of spiritual life. I hope that this work will lead to larger studies and increased funding in order to help as many people as possible.”

The Stress-free Marriage – Part 1

Safe Haven MarriageA good marriage is a stress-free, safe haven for both spouses. In its fold, both partners come to feel emotionally secure and emotionally stable.  They become physically, emotionally and cognitively connected to each other.  There is no challenge or difficulty that cannot be confronted and successfully managed together, as a couple.

In the safe haven of marriage, each spouse feels freer to be truly herself or himself.  Both partners learn to make adjustments to better fit their personality to the other, and over time these changes become almost effortless, are positively motivated, and are long-lasting.  Neither feels compelled to be significantly different from his or her true self.

When a marriage is emotionally secure for both partners, discrepancies in points of view do not cease to exist.  A safe marriage is not a marriage without disagreement.  It is a marriage where disagreement, when it occurs, is handled with fairness, mutual respect, and with an eye toward a mutually beneficial resolution.

Spouses that are in the habit of providing an emotionally safe environment for each other know how to externalize their problems in a way that does not make either spouse to be the problem.  They know that the problem is the problem, not each other.

Both partners learn to work on their significant issues together.  There is no problem of one spouse that does not automatically involve the other.  The partners come to embrace each other’s challenges as their own and are empowered to confront them together.  They know that two working together are stronger, safer and more effective than either working alone.

Two people can accomplish more than twice as much as one; they get a better return for their labor.  If one person falls, the other can reach out and help.  But people who are alone when they fall are in real trouble.  And on a cold night, two under the same blanket can gain warmth from each other.  But how can one be warm alone?  –Ecclesiastes 4:9-11.

For a variety of reasons, marriages can start out to be or become emotionally unsafe.  An unsafe marriage is one where both spouses co-create an emotional barrier that keeps them from being close to each other.  This barrier can be made of negative experiences, negative expectations, or negative assumptions about each other and about the relationship. Read more

Anxiety: Fear Turned Inward

Joanne Weidman, MS, MFTLet’s say on more days than not you feel pretty good about yourself and how you do in most areas of your life. Then one day, you struggle, perhaps at work, perhaps under pressure from a boss who expects more of you at times than you feel capable of achieving. The stress can be overwhelming. On the way home that day the elevator feels particularly confining and the freeway traffic is more irritating than usual, in part because when it stops you feel trapped too far from the next exit. You can’t sleep that night because your heart races and your thoughts are dominated by efforts to figure our out how to solve the problem that came down earlier in the day.

Each of these symptoms can be understood within the broad category of what we call “anxiety.” We throw the word around a lot, but what does it really mean in a psychological sense? Anxiety means more than just the symptoms you feel, though that list is long, including phobias (ex: afraid of flying, elevators, or leaving the house), obsessive-compulsive thoughts and behaviors (ex: counting steps, hand washing), physiological reactions (ex: feeling flushed, racing heart, sweating, dizziness, difficulty sleeping), generic fears (of losing control or going crazy), performance, social and separation anxieties, and the granddaddy of them all, post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. Different people are inclined to express their anxiety in different ways and to vastly different degrees.

Some understand anxiety symptoms as fear turned inward. But your anxiety thinks it’s being your friend by trying to keep you safe — anxiety issues are all about feeling in control. Some anxieties are what we would call situational, such as a mandatory performance or project, the evaluation of which is out of your control. Some anxiety we would consider chronic. This is common for those who have had neglect or abuse in their lives, and some of this may be unconscious, meaning that sometimes you’re not even sure what you’re frightened about that’s causing the anxiety symptoms. This is especially distressful, because how can you take control of a situation when you aren’t even sure what it’s about?

Your distress means that you are struggling alone, but you don’t have to. Therapy can help you identify your anxiety triggers and acknowledge anxiety’s good intentions to protect you. You and your therapist can identify real solutions for managing or eliminating it.

Guest post by Joanne Weidman, M.S., M.F.T.

The 4 Sources of Stress

Sources of stressStress, the reaction that mobilizes our resources against a potential danger (real or perceived), can be produced by an almost infinite variety of single triggers.  This variety is produced by the many different situations that can cause stress, in addition to the individual differences among individuals in their perceptions of these triggers.  It is not uncommon to see a threat where someone else may see an opportunity or a challenge, and vice versa.  For ease of understanding, stress triggers may be classified into four major sources, which in turn can be further combined into two categories.  The principal categories are: physical stressors and psychological stressors.

Physical stressors impinge upon the five senses and pertain to the domain of the tangible and concrete. These are stress triggers that we can see, hear, touch, smell or taste.  A car coming straight at us on the sidewalk is a real, tangible and imminent physical threat, which must and does trigger an immediate stress reaction.  We respond to this physical threat by stepping out of the way, instinctively and without giving it much thought.  Included in the physical stressors is pain, which is the body’s reaction to a noxious agent that attacks its structure.  Thus, illness, which frequently produces pain, is considered primarily as a physical stressor, rather than psychological.  However, and it’s a big caveat, it would be a mistake to consider illness a purely physical stressor, as illness (especially if accompanied by pain) has a way of affecting the mind by producing negative thinking, negative self-appraisal, hopelessness, mental fatigue and other effects on the person’s spirit, attitude and worldview.

Psychological stressors are the most complex and perhaps the most frequent type of stressors we encounter in our daily lives.  To understand psychological stressors it is important to remember that they can fall into two distinct categories: real or perceived. Real psychological stressors are produced by the perception of an emotional danger or threat, in other words by a concern over something that is based on reality and does or may objectively occur. An example of this may be an impending relationship breakup.  Perceived psychological stressors are produced by the same mechanism, and are a concern over events or situations that are often based on reality but may be exaggerated or may in fact never occur. An example of the latter may be a worry or concern over an unnamed threat that may keep us from being able to take an elevator, or ride in an aircraft.

To summarize, the four principal sources of stress may be grouped as follows:

  1. Environmental
    • Includes physical stressors that impinge upon the five senses, such as weather, traffic, noise, pollution, disturbing images.
  2. Social
    • Includes psychological stressors triggered when demands are made on our time, attention and skills, such as in job interviews, public speaking, work presentations, interpersonal conflict, competing priorities, financial problems, and loss of relationships and loved ones.
  3. Physiological
    • Includes physical stressors that are produced at various stages in our life, such as during growth spurts in adolescence, menopause, lack of exercise, poor nutrition  insufficient sleep, illness, injuries, and aging.
    • Included in this category is also the physical stress produced by psychological stressors, which produce muscle tension, headaches, stomach upsets, anxiety attacks, and bouts of depression.
  4. Cognitive-emotional
    • The principal source of this type of stress is our own thoughts. Our brain interprets changes in our environment and body and conducts an automatic “threat assessment” to decide whether a danger is present and thus mobilize the body’s defenses.  The good functioning, or poor functioning of our threat assessment mechanism determines whether we become alarmed appropriately or inappropriately, and whether to remain stressed or relax.

In all cases, the stress reaction and the response that follows begins with our ability to correctly assess the situation and to estimate danger. Stress researchers Lazarus and Folkman (1984) were the first to point out that stress begins with our appraisal of a situation. Instinctively, we first ask ourselves how dangerous or difficult a situation is and what resources we have at our disposal to cope with it.  Self-confident individuals are more likely to conclude that, although the situation may be serious, they have what it takes to face it.  Less confident individuals tend to conclude that the same situation requires resources that they either do not have or that they have in insufficient measure.

The stress response of fight, flight or freeze is directly correlated to our ability to interpret the danger correctly, and to select the best course of action that produces the wanted results.  In some case, we will be able to eliminate the stressor (turn the source of noise off), in others we may simply need to distance ourselves from the stressor (flight response), and in some other cases it will be appropriate to do nothing and let the situation resolve itself (the freeze response).  What we choose to do largely depends on our assessment of available resources: making the correct appraisal of what we are capable of can be the difference between the right response and the wrong one.