New Group of Categories – Initiated 11/30/2016

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.

Stress and Memory: An Update

Salvador Dali Persistence of Memory at Stresshacker.comStress can interfere with the functioning of memory by either augmenting the impact and persistence of the recollection of an event, or by diminishing both. A recent article by Schwabe et al. (2012) summarizes and updates the most recent findings on the effects of stress on memory. Their research concludes that the timing of the exposure to the stressor is crucial in determining whether memory is improved or impaired. Timing may explain why there are stressful situations in which we are unable to retrieve critical information that we have learned prior to the stressor, e.g. an important phone number or address. In contrast, experiencing stress at the same time as we participate in certain embarrassing, shameful, or frightening events can cause a dramatic enhancement of memory formation.

Schwabe and colleagues examine and attempt to integrate two models of how stress may alter memory processes, the “vertical” model (the mechanisms of stress on memory) and the “horizontal” model (the changes in stress effects on memory over time.)

The vertical perspective implicates principally the action of glucocorticoids (GC) and noradrenaline on the basolateral amygdala. In a typical stress reaction, the hypothalamus activates the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis in response to input from several other brain regions and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). Through the portal blood system, corticotrophin releasing hormone (CRH) and vasopressin flood the pituitary gland, which trigger its secretion of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). In response to ACTH release from the pituitary, the adrenal glands secrete glucocorticoids (GCs), of which cortisol is the principal component. GCs, which are lipophilic (fat-loving) steroid hormones, enter the brain relatively easily and can exert their excitatory effect in multiple regions throughout the brain. These effects are often mediated through the binding to the two receptors for the hormone: the mineralocorticoid receptor (MR) and the glucocorticoid receptor (GR). These two receptors differ in their affinity for cortisol (with the MR having a much higher affinity) and also in their localization in the brain. In addition, GCs can exert nongenomic effects (occurring rapidly and acutely) by influencing ion channels or neurotransmitter receptors at the membrane level. It is important to note that CRH, vasopressin, and ACTH can, on their own, influence cognition. When released in concurrence with a stressor, they can have an almost instantaneous effect on memory processes.

The horizontal perspective suggests that the memory of an event or cognition is enhanced when new information is acquired during the stressful situation, whereas the memory process is impaired for information that was acquired prior to or after the stressful situation. In these situations, the flood of GCs acutely enhances memory consolidation of emotional arousing material, while significantly impairing memory retrieval. At the moment of greatest stress, the memory of a significantly stressful event is instantaneously etched into the memory banks in vivid and abundant detail. The recollection of a sometimes important and well-known piece of information is inhibited. It is as if the whole of our attention is absorbed, or mobilized, toward the assessment of the threat presented by the stressor and in the formulation of a reaction to it. The excitatory hormones cursing through the blood system rapidly arouse the nervous, cardio-circulatory, respiratory, and endocrine system. There is no time or resource available for other activities that are not related to the defense of the organism against the perceived (or real) threat of the stressor. Included in these “secondary” activities that are postponed as non-critical is memory retrieval of old information.

Other important findings highlighted in this article are the effects of stress on the striatum, a brain structure that was originally associated with motor control but that is now receiving increased attention as one of the loci of mnemonic function. Secondly, memory is affected by stress not only in terms of its quantity, but also its quality. Lastly, the authors cite important research conducted in the last decade which points to the effects of maternal stress during pregnancy or early childhood stress as harbingers of an individual’s impaired performance as an adult in high-stress environments.

The article concludes with several important questions, which provide an indication of the limits of current research in explaining important aspects of memory formation. For example, it remains difficult to understand how the same neurochemicals can exert opposite effects on the same brain structures, or how individuals in similar situations exhibit such differing recollections of the same event, and other similarly unexplored mysteries. These limitations do not detract from the thoroughness and relevance of this article.

The Seasonal Stress Buster

Oh, for the good old days when people would stop Christmas shopping when they ran out of money. –Author Unknown

I’m not sure where this year has gone, but all of a sudden Christmas is here. With so much going on at this time of year it’s quite common to feel stressed and rushed off our feet. If you’re juggling a million different things, here’s a brilliant time management technique which might help.

I wish I could say that I thought of this technique myself, but must give credit to Time Management guru Mark Forster. According to Mark, we work much more effectively when we do things in short, concentrated bursts. This is definitely true for me. If I sit down at my computer to check emails I’m very likely to still be there an hour later. But if I know I’ve only got 15 minutes to do the task I’ll be considerably more productive.

So, using this principle, if you’ve got several jobs to do, write them down and assign each one a time limit (from 5 – 30 minutes). Set a kitchen timer, start the first task and when the timer goes you must stop and go onto the next one. Again set the timer for the allotted time, work on the task until the timer goes off and move on to the next. Don’t worry if the task isn’t finished; you can go back to the beginning once you’ve worked your way through the list.

This is the best time management technique I know and it works equally well when you have a big chunky job to do. Get stuck into the job for half an hour, have a break/do something else for ten minutes, then go back to it.

At this time of year, with so many demands on our time, this technique will help you to get everything done in the shortest time — leaving you more time to enjoy the seasonal activities.

2012 has been an unusually challenging year for many of us and so as it draws to a close I wish you a healthy and Happy Christmas and all good things in the New Year.

Annabel Sutton
ICF Professional Certified Coach
Author of 52 Ways to Transform Your Life

Connect with Annabel on LinkedIn: http://uk.linkedin.com/in/annabelsutton. Book a FREE Coaching Consultation with Annabel. Find out more about Life Coaching.

Sleep More, Stress Less, Live Longer

iStock_000007980637XSmall People who are sleeping less than six hours a night are at risk for more cardiovascular events, more likely to develop diabetes, and more likely to die sooner, according to a recent study. People who sleep at least seven hours per night have better immune systems, less stress and lower body weight.

Sleep deprivation can be dangerous not only to one’s health but also to that of others around us. US statistics from the Department of Transportation estimate that 20% of drivers doze off regularly at the wheel, while the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates conservatively that, during an average year, “drowsy driving” causes 100,000 automobile wrecks, 71,000 injuries and 1,550 fatalities. These staggering stats are supplemented by data from the US military, surveys of truck drivers, shift workers, couples, medical students. All pointing to one simple fact: if we can’t sleep, sooner or later the body will react negatively, sometimes with tragic consequences.

Physical Threats to Sleep

TIME

Sleep time is under attack from many sources. First and foremost, our work and leisure schedules allow too little time for sleep. While this may seem like a no-brainer and suggest that there is a simple remedy (just allocate more time to sleep!), the problem of sleep scheduling appears to be more complex and somewhat intractable. The reason for this may be below the surface and may be due to a change in how we perceive sleep. While we continue to proclaim its virtues and benefits, at least out loud, aren’t many of us secretly wishing that we could simply do away with sleep altogether?

LIFESTYLE

Many people have a more complex lifestyle that demand an ever finer slicing of time slots. Time is a finite resource that can be neither reduced nor expanded, which forces a setting of priorities. And here is the heart of another problem: for many people sleep is no longer a priority. In fact, it is often considered a time waster that can keep us from other, more important activities.

ENVIRONMENT

Another potential problem is that sleep is not as undisturbed as it once was, in environmental terms. There is the interference of noise, either unwanted or induced (as in keeping music, TV or noise-makers on to “help us fall asleep”). There is the interference of artificial light, or rather too much of it, which we have grown so fond of and subconsciously seek. There is the interference of artificially controlled air, which may be either too dry or too humid or too hot and all variables in between. The A/C or fan or heater is on, adding to noise. One just can’t win the environmental battle in the bedroom!

CHEMICALS

What we eat, drink, smoke, snort, inject, wear, rub or apply can interfere with sleep. Medications, self-care products and nutritional practices that are designed to address specific issues may be very effective, but can cause side effects that have a negative impact on our ability to sleep. These modern chemical helpers may be (or perceived to be) necessary to fix a specific issue, and thus take priority over side effects that may include a negative impact on sleep.

Psychological Threats to Sleep

Individual situations vary greatly, but the following are probably perceived by most sleep-deprived individuals.

STRESSORS

Our own individual and habitual way of reacting to stressors large and small may have a significant impact on sleep. By suppressing a necessary release of emotion in the face of a stressor, we may temporarily “bury” feelings, thoughts, and impressions that find a way of resurfacing later, just when we are trying to relax and fall asleep.

INADEQUATE COPING

Our inability to cope with significant stressors in a timely and effective way may impact our ability to sleep. Not all stressors can be taken care of, i.e. eliminated, in a swift and painless way. Many do linger on, while we are looking for the right solution. Many stressors can be reduced in intensity or frequency. Others can be tolerated or ignored, after a suitable period of adjustment. Some stressors are of such magnitude and impact that we can only resolve them by removing ourselves from their influence, i.e. by moving away. Whatever the case may be, our coping response to stressors is multidimensional along time, frequency, and severity scales, and sleep deprivation is often a byproduct of the coping process.

ALLOSTATIC LOAD

Our stress level may rise and remain at high levels throughout the day, including the time when we’d need it to be lower so that we can fall asleep. This phenomenon is called our individual allostatic load. Allostatic load is the piling up of stress reaction upon stress reaction, without resolution, and without a return to normal arousal levels. Over time, this situation has the effect of permanently raising the set point of our stress level, whereby it is very difficult if not impossible to turn it down at will when we are trying to relax and fall asleep.

The Path to Better and Longer Sleep

There are so many sleep aids available nowadays, it’s a wonder we can even stay awake!  Fact is, most of them don’t work. The ones that do work do so by simply knocking us unconscious via powerful chemical agents. Is that real sleep? Many people report that it does not seem to refresh and restore, and chemically-induced relaxation simply bypasses the issues and turns the switch off. When we reawaken, these issues return and require another dose to be shut off again. This cycle repeats and repeats. Is that the way to fix this and get some rest?

The fix must start with identifying the stressors that keeps us from falling or staying asleep. Each night when you are trying to go to sleep, make a list of the thought-items that are swirling around in your mind. Do so for 7 nights. On the 8th day, look at the 7 lists, group thought-items together into issues. Now, you know within a good approximation what issues are keeping you awake.

Next, address the stressors so that they will no longer keep you from sleeping. Look at your issues and group them into three categories: the ones you can resolve, the ones you need to adapt to, and the ones you can ignore. Call upon your problem-solving skills and address the issues that can be resolved during the day. When you get to bed, intentionally stop trying to solve problems. Give yourself a break until the next day.

What about the issues I can’t resolve?  Here’s a radically different piece of advice: don’t even try to resolve them now. Accept that they cannot be resolved at 10pm or 2am. And, even more importantly, accept the idea that working on these issues will make your sleep more difficult and that it’s an exercise in futility. Instead of becoming more and more frustrated and agitated because you can’t relax, choose not to acknowledge your situation and don’t fight its impact. This may be the time to read a good book, go get a cup of herbal tea, listen to the crickets, make your list, jot down a few ideas about the screenplay, instead of tossing and turning and trying in vain to go to sleep.

Worst Stress Relievers: Pain Medication

Who is to say for sure how much pain I have right now, I had yesterday morning, or will have this afternoon?   Only I can know for sure the pain I am feeling—and I can lie, to myself and to others.  Herein lies the greatest challenge of addiction to pain medication. There is no objective measuring tool for pain. The best we can do is to ask the person to rate his or her own pain on a scale of 1 to 10, with all the accuracy that can be expected from such a subjective assessment, which isn’t very much because pain can always feel more intense than it actually is, physically or sometimes just psychologically.

The sad result of the greater availability of pain medication, its greater potency, the beneficial effects felt by the individual by taking what amounts to a legal hit of morphine is an ever increasing number of people who are dying from abusing or misusing pain medication.  Among some groups, deaths from prescription drug overdoses are more than ten times higher than they were in the late 1960s. These are the results of an age-period-cohort analysis using data from the US Vital Statistics and the US Census, available online.

In the absence of significant pain, prescription painkillers are ingested because of their very powerful relaxing effects on the central nervous system and for the sensations of well-being that characterize their action. The presence of hydrocodone, which is the equivalent of synthetic opium, in these drugs makes them highly addictive. The first signs of a painkiller overdose include loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, sweating, and confusion or weakness. Later symptoms may include pain in the upper stomach, dark urine, and yellowing of the skin or the whites of the eyes. Overdose symptoms may also include extreme drowsiness, pinpoint pupils, cold and clammy skin, muscle weakness, fainting, weak pulse, slow heart rate, coma, blue lips, shallow breathing, or no breathing.

The rapid increase in mortality due to accidental poisoning that has been observed since 2000 is almost tenfold for whites and threefold for blacks over the study period. This appears to result at least in part from the coming of age of baby boomers who, as they age, are becoming addicted to prescription medications, most especially pain killers. The majority of prescription drug abuse involves painkillers, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. In the US, Vicodin (containing acetaminophen and hydrocodone) is the most commonly abused prescription drug.

The greatest proportion of overdoses appears to occur in people in their 40s and 50s. While in 1968 about one per 100,000 white women in their early 50s died from accidental poisoning, the number has risen to 15 per 100,000 in 2007. Among black women of the same age, accidental poisoning deaths increased from about two per 100,000 to almost 17 per 100,000.

What’s the fix for this nationwide epidemic?  In the absence of an objective pain measure, it is hard to imagine how anyone can take exception to the screams of pain that can come from someone who is in the process of becoming addicted to pain medication, or already is.  Many doctors have taken the no-hassle course of prescribing, rather than questioning the veracity of the patient’s pain.  Many other medical practitioners, such as dentists and surgeons, have taken to dispensing large quantities of “samples” to patients who have had even the simplest procedure, “just in case you feel any pain.”  Of course, the patient takes the stuff, the pain (if any) goes away, and the powerful effects of the drug go to work by inducing a high that feels incredibly good. At this point, and in many sad cases, only a few short steps separate the patient from the addict.

More recently, the DEA has cracked down on pharmacies and doctors, with the intent of reducing the supply of these medications. More needs to be done to stop the flow, but also and most especially to educate the public on the potential addictive nature of these substances. They do work extremely well against pain, but at what cost?

Fear and Attraction: Racial Stress

The-Pirates-AttackThe coastal populations of Mediterranean countries lived for decades, stretching into centuries, with the fear of pirates, the strange invaders suddenly appearing from the sea.  Inhabitants of regions bordering with sparsely settled or frontier territories lived in fear of the sudden appearance of “barbarians” or “savages,” variously labeled according to time and locale.  With the increased sameness of living conditions brought on by progress and technological advance, there now remain far fewer parts of the world where the fear of strange invaders is part of daily life.  But is the fear of people that are unlike us still in the background, perhaps below the threshold of full awareness, but active nonetheless in driving our reactions, and sometimes our prejudice and discrimination?

The Strange Attraction of the Strange

barbarians-at-the-gatesWithout attempting a comprehensive definition of racial diversity, at a very minimum, physical differences in appearance often appear to be the first (and sometimes the only) trigger of a psychological defense mechanism.  In most human beings, there appears to be an innate drive to self-preservation that may be activated in the presence of individuals we may not recognize as familiar to us.

Often, there appears to be an instinctive and uncontrollable stress reaction that mobilizes our psychological, and at times also physical defenses against what we perceive as a possible threat from another human being.  This is by no means a new phenomenon.  As the coastal villagers and the frontier dwellers, we know that our own survival depends on being able to accurately assess any potential threat to ourselves and to our families and possessions, and take the most appropriate action (fight, flee or do something else) toward self-protection.

Clearly, not everyone we meet who is not like us is automatically a physical or psychological threat to our well-being.  Indeed, even those who appear to be exactly like us, in race, language, culture and background, may turn out to be a severe threat.  In ensuring survival, it pays to be alert to any potential danger. As President Reagan once put, Trust But Verify is a wise policy to live by, in politics but also in business and in interpersonal relations.

In some ways, we are attracted to the strange and the unfamiliar.  Our attention is automatically directed to it, out of simple curiosity, concern or fear.  When a different physical appearance is thrown in the mix, the perceived threat may be magnified by real or imaginary thoughts of danger and risk.  Paradoxically, there is also a part of us that is attracted to risky or dangerous situations, which does nothing to simplify the cacophony of feelings that are triggered by the sudden appearance in our midst of the strange and the mysterious.

A Universal Phenomenon

racially-diverse-babiesIt appears that no particular group of human beings is immune to this type of consideration when coming in contact with strangers.  There is certainly also an economic factor that plays a role, as when the need to defend one’s income or property, ends up taking precedence over solidarity and cooperation with the stranger.  It has been observed that people down on their luck, destitute, physically ill, or in need of urgent help seem to exhibit a tendency to be far less discriminating or threatened by the stranger than those who, by their own definition, may have a lot more to lose in such encounters.  Thankfully, human solidarity seems to shed at least part of its suspicions and reservations in the face of natural disasters or man-made calamities.  There are indeed moments in time when we realize that we are all humans, that we share a common identity, and that we inhabit this small planet together, if not always at peace with each other.

Awareness Normalizes

Our God-given capacity to muster our defenses against potential threats is a powerful asset, whose importance should not be overlooked even in a world where physical danger has been greatly diminished (though certainly not eliminated) by the safeguards of civilization.  Imagine would it would be like to automatically and unthinkingly assume that everyone we meet is friendly, honest, kind and has our best interest at heart.  Unrealistic, naive?  Yes, and I would also say, definitely dangerous to our personal and collective well-being.

Being aware that we possess the gift of discriminating between the real and the perceived, the dangerous and the annoying, the severe and the trivial can help us realize that it is the way we normally are and to make the best use of it.  Racial discrimination may be caused by an overuse of this important asset.  To automatically assume that anyone not like us (by various definitions) is a dangerous threat is clearly discriminatory, exaggerated and ultimately detrimental to our own well-being.  We are societal beings, by nature, and isolating ourselves from large swatches of humanity may be an attempt at self-defense, but one that clearly exceeds the intent and the practice of reasonable threat assessment. Unreasonable fear and loneliness often travel together.

Sympathetic Muscle Tension and Stress

One of the well-known phenomena that accompany the stress response is the spontaneous and uncontrollable action of the sympathetic nervous system on the musculoskeletal structures of the body. Stress, muscular tension and pain often go hand in hand.

The Alarm or Stress Response of the Sympathetic Nervous System

bungee-jumpingWhen the sympathetic nervous system is suddenly stimulated by a stressor, there is an almost immediate increase in the body’s ability to carry out unusually vigorous muscle activity, even in individuals who would ordinarily not be capable of it.This almost prodigious increase in strength is facilitated by a cascade of physiological changes that is precipitated by stressful situations.

These changes, which take place in a matter of mere seconds, include:

  1. Increased arterial blood pressure.
  2. Increased blood flow to the muscles along with a corresponding decrease in blood supply to the gastrointestinal tract and the kidneys, which are not needed in mounting the body’s rapid response to the threat.
  3. Increased rates of cellular metabolism, which speed up the body’s rate of functioning.
  4. Increased blood glucose concentration, which provides increased levels of energy.
  5. Increased glycolysis in the liver and in the muscle, also a factor in energy supply.
  6. Increased muscle tension and preparedness to work, which increase tone and strength.
  7. Increased mental activity, which provides acuity, alertness and greater focus on the threat.
  8. Increased rate of blood coagulation, which protects the body from significant blood loss if it should sustain minor cuts and puncture.

The combined effects of the mobilization of virtually all principal organs is what enables the body to perform significantly more strenuous physical activity than it is ordinarily possible. Stress of any kind, physical, emotional or mental, excites the sympathetic system, whose purpose is to provide above-normal activation of the body’s resources. Because of this stimulation, the stress response is often referred to as the sympathetic stress response.

Emotional vs. Physical Stress

The sympathetic system is activated during physical danger, but it is also and more frequently activated by many real or perceived emotional stressors. Guyton-Hall cite the example of anger or rage,

…which is elicited to a great extent by stimulating the hypothalamus, signals are transmitted downward through the reticular formation of the brain stem and into the spinal cord to cause massive sympathetic discharge; most aforementioned sympathetic events ensue immediately. This is called the sympathetic alarm reaction. It is also called the fight or flight reaction because an animal in this state decides almost instantly whether to stand and fight or to run. In either event, the sympathetic alarm reaction makes the animal’s subsequent activities vigorous.
–Textbook of medical physiology by Arthur C. Guyton & John E. Hall, 11th ed.

Chronic Stress

The same exact response can be elicited even daily in individuals exposed to multiple or repeating stressors, such as a negative environment, a dysfunctional relationship, poor working conditions, or difficult socio-economic challenges. In this case, the muscle tension and sympathetic stimulation can be so great and so frequent that the body cannot return to a normal state of relaxation, in which case a chronic stress condition can ensue.

Is Time a Ferrari or a Donkey Cart?

Time can be, and indeed is, for many people a source of stress. The perception of time or the use we make of the time we have can present a challenge to the mind and be causes of emotional distress. At times, and for some people, time flies by Ferrari-fast. For others, it seems to inch forward in fits and starts, perhaps more akin to the pace of a reluctant donkey.

The Perception of Time

timeimage Rationally, we understand that time passes at a substantially fixed pace with no perceptible variation. The earth rotates around the sun at a precise speed, given or take a few mph’s, and the sun in turn moves around the galaxy at an equally precise speed, give or take a few kmh’s. Our whole universe expands at a measurable rate, as scientists who have been able to measure it tell us. Since the invention of clocks, humans have acquired the ability to slice daylight and nighttime intro those discrete units of measure we call hours. The calendar helps us group hours into days, months, weeks and years. Humans have also agreed among themselves that years can be grouped into decades, centuries and millennia. And that’s how we generally understand, rationally, the passage of time as an objective and measurable phenomenon.

How we perceive the passing of time, however, ends up being far more subjective and somewhat unpredictable. Certain slices of time can appear to one individual to be passing more slowly than for another. Within our own personal experience, there are hours or days or longer periods in which time seems to speed up (especially when we are experiencing something pleasurable), and others in which it seems to slow down (think dentist chair). Excluding any chemical influence that may alter our perception (e.g., medication, alcohol or other artificial or natural mind-altering substances), these different “speeds” of time can indeed be puzzling and seemingly without explanation. In fact, these perceptions can and do induce stress and anxiety about having too little time, or boredom and restlessness about having too much of it. What is happening to the objectivity and predictability of time when it is perceived through our emotions?

The Emotion of Time

Age and one’s mental and emotional state appear to have something to do with the emotional perception of time. Most people recall feeling that time passed very slowly in their childhood and, indeed, young people confirm that, for them, time tends to be perceived as crawling along. Conversely, older people are often heard complaining that time seems to zip along very fast and that, “it seems like yesterday that I was having such and such” or, “where is the day-week-month-year gone? It’s already Christmas!”

In times of distress, especially if traumatic events are occurring, we might perceive every second of time with heightened sharpness, which can contribute to the perception that “time stands still” when something dramatic is happening. The opposite is produced by very positive feelings of pleasure and enjoyment, that are often said to be “way too short” in duration. Indeed, a week’s vacation can go by in just a flash (perception-wise), whereas a week in school or at work may seem like it’s never going to end. Both last exactly one week, by the way.

The Best Way To Handle Time

The best approach to time, emotionally, is to just let it pass. Paying too much attention to the passing of time is counterproductive. In fact, it can be anxiety-provoking and, in addition, take us either too far forward or too far back and render us unable to enjoy the moment.

Thought stopping, a congitive-behavioral technique, can help in this respect. Whenever we catch ourselves paying too much attention to the passing of time (or rather, to its perceived speed), we can say, “stop!” to our thoughts and divert our attention elsewhere. With practice, we may not completely eliminate our preoccupation with time, but we can minimize its impact on our ability to enjoy the present—which is, as a matter of fact, all that we have to enjoy.

The John Lennon Syndrome

Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. John Lennon

I love this quote from John Lennon and often share it with clients when they’re feeling frustrated because things haven’t gone the way they planned; they haven’t made as much progress as they’d hoped; or perhaps a goal that was important to them hasn’t been achieved. Quite often this is due to the fact that ‘life’ simply got in the way.

Life Happens and sometimes it can throw up unwanted and unexpected challenges. I’ve experienced this myself in the past couple of months and have found myself having to deal with some very stressful situations. As a Life Coach I try to walk my talk and most of the time I feel I live a fulfilling and balanced life.  But I don’t always get it right and there are times when everything is knocked for six.  And I know that I’m not alone — this happens to everyone from time to time.

Here are a few of the things I’ve learned over the past few months:

Firstly, when we find ourselves in a stressful or challenging situation it’s really important to find ways to shore ourselves up and take care of ourselves. Take the pressure off — take it easy — don’t force yourself to do more than absolutely necessary.  Try to eat well, take some exercise, perhaps book in for a massage or healing or reflexology — whatever you find to be therapeutic. If you’re feeling anxious, find something that will act as a distraction, be it listening to music, going to a movie, doing a hobby or taking a walk — whatever works for you.

Secondly, if you have limited emotional and physical energy and resources, it’s crucial to make smart choices and concentrate only on those things that are of the highest priority.  What’s most important?  Each morning ask yourself what are the three areas I need to focus on today?  Forget everything else — just give yourself those three things to focus your attention on.  If you can get more done then great, but don’t ask or expect too much of yourself.

Thirdly, reach out for support.  It’s important not to try to soldier on and shoulder everything on your own.  Seek out family and friends who you can talk to — share your concerns — spend time with people who care for, and will support, you.  If you don’t have anyone to confide in, and your concerns are going round and round in your head, it can really help to get them out of your head and down on paper.

Finally, choose a positive image or mantra which you can use whenever you’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed — or if you’re finding it hard to sleep. Think of something that embodies strength or calmness, or whatever emotional state you feel you need.

Mine is taken from this beautiful stone carving:  All shall be well.

No doubt many of you will have experienced what I call the John Lennon Syndrome in your own lives.  Don’t be too hard on yourself when life gets in the way and you don’t achieve as much as you’d hoped. ‘Life’ happens. Be easy on yourself and go with the flow. That’s what I’m learning to do.

Annabel Sutton

ICF Professional Certified Coach
Author of 52 Ways to Change Your Life

Connect with Annabel on LinkedIn: http://uk.linkedin.com/in/annabelsutton. Book a FREE Coaching Consultation with Annabel. Find out more about Life Coaching.