Endocrinologist Dr. Hans Selye is credited with coining the term “stress” in his 1956 book entitled “The Stress of Life”, which revolutionized our view of stress and its impact on the human body. Since then, research has shown a link between stress and a wide variety of serious health problems including: hypertension, strokes, heart attacks, diabetes, ulcers, neck or low back pain, and even cancer.
By simply being alive we are exposed to a variety of stressors, which can profoundly impact our quality of life. While we cannot avoid many of the things that we find stressful, we can learn to manage them in ways that will reduce the harmful effects of chronic stress. There are a variety of research-proven stress reduction techniques that are fairly simple to learn and with practice are highly effective. Mental health professionals commonly teach many of these strategies to their clients. They include:
Reduce over-scheduling. If you’re feeling overwhelmed with everything on your plate, try to reduce one or two nonessential activities. This may require learning how to determine what is truly essential.
Learn relaxation techniques. From simple breathing techniques to visualizing yourself in a peaceful place, relaxation techniques can significantly reduce your stress level.
Muscle relaxation and exercise. Simply tensing various muscle groups for 5-10 seconds followed by 10-20 seconds of relaxing those same muscles can significantly reduce muscle tension resulting from stress. Moderate exercise can also be a great stress reducer.
Be aware of your thinking. We tend to place a lot of stress on ourselves based on our perfectionist, pessimistic, and generally negative thoughts. By trying to be more aware of our thinking and shifting to more rational, logical, positive thoughts (and keeping things in perspective), we can significantly reduce our subjective experience of stress. This can be easier said than done and professional assistance is often helpful.
Have fun! We tend to undervalue simply having fun and enjoying time with friends and family. Imagine if we placed as much importance on recreation as we do on achievement. Not only would we be healthier, we would also achieve more.
Take the time to assess your level of stress as well as that of your loved ones. Reducing stress will positively impact your family’s relationships and quality of life.
Although the trend towards perfectionism is not limited to young people, it is particularly painful for parents to watch our sons and daughters strive to be perfect, especially in comparison to those around them and on social media. The truth is, perfection is a moving target. There is no perfect. Instead, there are just practices that help you to orient back to yourself and what is important, bringing you back to your center and a place of relative calm. As Parents, we can practice these ourselves, and help our young people understand the value of them as well.
Know your values. By assessing what is truly important, we can determine if our life choices are aligned with those values. They are our guiding light. It is easy to compare your life to others and feel pulled off center, ashamed, or lacking by what you don’t have. Knowing what your own individual or family’s values are can help pull you back to a more centered, grounded place within yourself.
Don’t take 100% responsibility for everything.Allow others, who are capable, to take responsibility for themselves and their own lives. Allow others to have their own emotional response to your choices without trying to control it, make it better, or take it away. Take care of your own emotions.
Savor something at the end of the day.Set an intention at the beginning of the day for something to savor at the end of the day. A fulfilling life takes a lot of effort! So, in order to honor all of the effort you make throughout the day to live a meaningful life, allow yourself to enjoy the sweetness of the life you have built each day.
Make yourself laugh. Laughter is a present moment experience of our life energy, our vitality! What a gift we have been given! Being able to laugh at your shortcomings or your mistakes or your embarrassing moments is one of the best ways to take the power out of them. Laughter diminishes shame and self-criticism, because we learn to not take ourselves too seriously.
We can’t control what happens outside of us, but the more we relate to our inner world, the more we realize that our imperfect unique humanness is far more interesting and beautiful than any airbrushed and “perfected” version of ourselves.
I don’t know about you, but as the school year ramps up, my overall stress has also been ramped up. It’s just a lot to manage, both as a parent and as a young person. We are all feeling the stress of transition. And then we add in all of the other fear and uncertainty going on in the world and it is hard to find any peace in our systems. We can’t control everything going on around us and we can’t control everything that our kids are going through, but we can build our own ability to cope and be resilient in the face of it all. As our nervous systems become more regulated, we are better able to stay calm, think more clearly, and move through stressful situations with more ease. Additionally, if we are regulated, then it is more likely that those around us (kids, partners, co-workers) will also be able to feel more regulated too.
So, when you notice your shoulders tensing and thoughts racing and your irritation growing, take a moment to breath by focusing on your breath coming in and out of the area around your heart at a count of 5 on the inhale and 5 on the exhale. As you do this, focus on a feeling of love or ease and let this feeling wash over you for a few minutes. Practice regulating your nervous system by calming your breathing a few times a day and notice if you start to feel a increased overall sense of calm or at least, the ability to calm down more easily.
This is the season that high school seniors and their parents are entrenched in the process of completing college applications. And while this process is undeniably important and the gateway to the next phase of life for our young people, it is also important to keep in perspective for parents and students alike that this decision is more about taking a step towards an independent life. Whether your student ends up at a 4 year college, community college, takes a gap year, or gets a job, there are a number of life skills that are important to reinforce as they move towards successful independent living.
How to ask for help. Too often, young adults feel the pressure to step into independent life seamlessly, with the expectation that they already know how to do everything. Please remind your students that life, and especially the newness of this stage, is about trying new things, making mistakes, getting some help, and then trying again. Remind your student that you won’t be disappointed in them if they don’t get something right. This is especially important when it comes to transitioning from high school to college academics (where old study strategies often fall short for the college work load) and mental health issues (especially anxiety and depression), which can emerge or exacerbate when away from home for the first time. Also, if you student chooses to experiment with alcohol or recreational drugs, make it clear to them that they can come to you for help if needed, whether or not you agree with the choice.
Balancing flexibility with discipline. Sometimes, the best laid plan changes. Or the needs of the students change. Parents and students both need to embark on this phase with equal parts flexibility and discipline. College level academics require sustained discipline over the semester and pushing through some very challenging times to complete the classes. Help your student remember to pace them self and that they are working towards a larger goal. But sometimes the chosen path is not the right fit. Whether it is the wrong major, the school is not a good fit, or realizing that your student really does need to take a break in order to figure out what they want. Sometimes students need time to mature a bit or have some real life experiences before they can commit to the demands of college. Changing coarse is part of the life path and it is not the end of the world nor the end of their higher education if they take a break.
Life skills don’t automatically happen at age 18. Tangible life skills related to cleaning, laundry, money management, cooking, and bill paying have to be taught. Do not assume that your student knows how to do these things just because it seems basic to you. Give them the basic knowledge to survive in the adult world.
The transition from adolescence to young adulthood is a dynamic and complicated one. Hold on to the perspective that foundation is being laid for adulthood during this time, but that this is not a permanent state, so enjoy this time of newness and exploration!
Parents, it’s time to get ready to have THE talk. Given the events of the past year and the rise of the #metoo movement, the talk about sex must now also include discussing sexual consent. The point of opening up this conversation with your young person is to start to honestly explore and ask questions about experiences, uncertainties, and gray areas, so that when they are with potential sexual partners, they can more effectively have the conversation. Of course there are some absolutes when it comes to this topic, like when someone is too intoxicated to speak coherently, than they are too intoxicated to give consent and this is an automatic “NO”. And, when someone says “No” to something having to do with sex, that is the answer. Consider including the following discussion items:
What they are and are not comfortable doing;
That it is fine to change your mind about whether you want to do something, and the partner has to respect this;
Consenting to one kind of sexual activity doesn’t mean you have consented to everything;
Consenting one time doesn’t mean that you have consented forever;
Learning to read body language that indicates that someone feels uncomfortable and how to ask partners if they feel uncomfortable;
How to set boundaries and say “no”;
Clarify within themselves about what they want to say “yes” to.
We are moving into long overdue new territory with the conversation about sexual consent. This is a conversation that everyone needs to get (un)comfortable having, so that it becomes the norm. This can be vulnerable territory for everyone (parents included), but there is no shame in asking questions, clarifying what is ok and what is not ok, and learning how to have this conversation. Thirty years ago, the conversation was about how not to get pregnant or contract an STD (STI), then it evolved to preparing young women (and men) to keep themselves safe from sexual assault, and now the conversation has evolved into a more nuanced one about shared responsibility and understanding consent and boundaries. And while parents are a key player in initiating this conversation, I recently heard a story about 4 cis-male college roommates who called a house meeting amongst themselves to make sure they all understood what sexual consent was. These young men exemplify this evolution.
Reader Question: Why is it Important to Validate Feelings?
“Do you really have to always validate other people’s feelings? What if they are just plain wrong?” Natalie, Lafayette, CO
Validation (of feelings) is a buzz word used frequently in parenting books and relationship self help. But what does it actually mean to validate someone’s feelings and why is in important? Often time, validation is confused with agreeing with what the person is saying or their perspective. Validation is not about agreeing with the other person’s thoughts, but it is about understanding how someone might be feeling. It requires using empathy, or putting yourself in that other person’s shoes. If you have ever been in an argument with someone and you take the approach of trying to change their mind and convince them that their facts are wrong, you have most likely found yourself in a debate or a power struggle, where anger and defensiveness takes over, and where no one actually wins or feels better. This is also true when someone is very anxious and you try to fix the problem before you validate the feeling.
On the other hand, validating feelings diffuses the emotion of the situation by acknowledging the feelings first and not getting into the facts until both parties are calmer. This may sound something like this “Ok, I see how upset you are. I can understand that you are feeling overwhelmed and like you have no power in this situation.” When someone is upset, they are operating from their emotions and the rational part of their brain is offline, therefore, if you pause and help to address and validate their emotions first, then the rational part of the brain (pre-frontal lobe) is more easily accessed.
Next time you find yourself in a heated moment with someone, remember this mantra: Diffuse, don’t Debate.
Participating as a therapist in the Ketamine Assisted Psychotherapy (KAP) project at the Integrative Psychiatric Healing Center in Boulder, Colorado has been a fascinating and encouraging journey. In a short amount of time I have seen clients having profound insights and relief from harsh depressive symptomology. In this small article I will address four themes that I have noticed and observed in my work with clients during the process of KAP.
Accessing traumatic states with support
It is a rare and valuable opportunity to work psychotherapeutically with the support of a medication that accelerates the healing process. In working with clients undergoing KAP I have witnessed and facilitated people accessing traumatic memories and repressed feelings. Clients become more easily aware of traumatic material without being as triggered or activated as they are when touching into those states without KAP. This allows for the integration of past experiences associated with their current states of anxiety and depression.
Flexibility of mind
During KAP clients tend to enter into a state that I call “mind flexibility.” Stubborn mindsets and introjected beliefs about themselves and their experience of life that create great suffering and sometimes feel involuntary and irrational can be experienced with a sense of ease and softness. Clients often begin to access a certain gentleness in which they hold their beliefs. This process can also allow them to access the memories of traumatic life events that shaped those foundational internalized messages. With KAP the pressure or threat that solidified those mind states is temporarily alleviated or eased, allowing the individual to let go and soften the grip on those beliefs. As the mind and body access a sense of ease while touching those core inner messages and traumatic feeling states, clients can find a new template for being. There can be a shift not only around how clients think about themselves, but also around how they feel about themselves and their lives in a more embodied manner.
With the help of an emotionally available, attuned and attachment informed psychotherapist, clients undergoing KAP can potentially reshape their sense of safety and capacity to be in relationship with others. While under the effects of Ketamine, clients’ brains are in a malleable state that can more easily open to a sense of “right relationship.” Clients become capable of finding empowerment through relaxation, and access the emotional availability necessary to relate to others and claim relational boundaries when appropriate. While in KAP the role of the therapist is to support the client to find a natural sense of connection, safety and access to emotion that is often disrupted in the face of relational trauma and that attachment psychology claims is every human’s birthright/natural state while in relationship.
Embodiment/Temporary ego dissolution
Another theme I have witnessed facilitating KAP sessions is that there is an experience of temporary ego dissolution. When medical professionals use Ketamine for anesthetic purposes, such as medical surgeries, the result is a complete yet temporary dissociation from the body in order to not feel the pain of the surgery. In KAP, however, the clinical dose is a fraction of the medical anesthetic dose, which allows clients to track a mild dissociation from the body that actually has the unique and paradoxical effect of intensifying an awareness of the body and invites a new kind of presence into the client’s lived experience. In this process the coping strategy of dissociation, often linked to severe depression and anxiety, starts to unwind and clients can experience their bodies in a more vital and present way. While under the influence of Ketamine the experience of being in a body changes, thoughts and feelings can seem suspended, having a personality and the way one perceives time and space become temporarily altered and there is often a total shift in ones sense of self location. Although experiences like these can be frightening, strange and confusing, with the anesthetic effects of Ketamine combined with a skillful psychotherapeutic facilitation those states can have a profound reorganizing and relieving effect. Clients can potentially have what Abraham Maslow called “peak experiences,” experiences that challenge our usual lived perceptual reality. Peak experiences can support clients to renew and expand their sense of self and connect to a sense of wholeness. Those experiences can be perceived as being spiritual or transpersonal and have the potential to be profoundly liberating.
The following webinar entitled “How to Avoid Power Struggles With Your Child” was originally broadcast on 1/27/16.
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While most students strive for academic success, many struggle to consistently perform at a level commensurate with their potential. Each year, so many students start out strong, but as the school year progresses they hit a slump and may even struggle to pass their classes at the end of the school year. Too often parents find themselves relegated to enforcer and chief; frequently checking on progress, providing endless reminders to get homework done and make-up missing assignments, which usually leads to arguments rather than desired results. A more effective approach is to use an empowerment strategy where your child takes increasing ownership of their academic responsibilities, so that when college rolls around, your child has the skills necessary to meet with success. This effort should start early. While some students have unique learning challenges that may require special consideration, by the beginning of middle school if not sooner students should be in charge of their academic life. As parents we play a critical role of providing support and advice, but should not be overseeing everything… that’s their job. Consider the following approach:
At a positive moment, initiate a discussion with your child about the upcoming school year.
Allow everyone to share what went well and what didn’t in years past.
FIRST, offer to change your approach as a parent and encourage your child to provide constructive feedback and more specifically how you can better support your child in the future. Agree to try and implement any/all reasonable suggestions. AFTERWARDS, provide feedback to your child and offer your own ideas and suggestions.
After mutual agreement/negotiation, agree to an “Experiment” for a finite period of time (e.g 2-4 weeks) to try and implement the agreed upon suggestions, with a feedback session scheduled on the calendar when that timeframe is reached.
At the feedback session, try and focus first on any/all positives and only then focus on areas in need of improvement. Only make modifications that are mutually agreed to and restart the experiment clock.
Our priorities in life not only drive our day-to-day activities but also directly influence our life goals, thoughts, feelings, and interactions with others. For better or worse, our culture steers us towards achievement, prosperity, and material wealth. Who doesn’t want to live in a big house full of cool stuff? But sooner or later we come to realize that the old adage that money can’t buy happiness remains true. How would the quality of our lives change if we made experiencing joy and laughter a priority? The Mayo clinic reports that laughter not only feels good but also is good for your health. Laughter enhances your intake of oxygen, stimulates your heart, lungs, and muscles, increases the release of endorphins, and improves your immune system. Laughter also stimulates circulation and enhances muscle relaxation, which reduces the symptoms of stress. Also, in addition to reducing depression, laughter can improve our ability to cope with challenges in life and relate better to others. When people are asked what they would do if they had only six months to live, most opt for doing fun things, not making more money and buying a bigger house. That’s a clue that for most of us, our priorities are out of whack. And while we likely have more than six months, our time is more precious than we realize and we would all be well-served by making joy, laughter, and fun a bigger priority in our lives.
This dynamic impacts family life as well. How much of our family time is joyous? Do we over-prioritize the small stuff like getting to bed on time, brushing teeth, and room cleaning instead? These things are important, but more important than experiencing joy and happiness as a family? Assuming we all just have six months to live, let’s make this, our last Spring Break holiday special. Let’s make our family’s joy, laughter, and happiness the priority this year. And if we are really lucky, maybe we will get to do it again next year, let alone throughout the year. Interestingly enough, if we did so we are also likely to see our achievement and prosperity increase as well. So get out there and have a few laughs and take a moment to appreciate the wonder of life and the joy of family.
As parents, we all share in our child’s roller coaster ride of transitioning up the educational ladder from preschool right up to college. How we transition from one rung to another can be the difference between success and failure. This month’s newsletter focuses on transitions, with great advice inside for helping both elementary and secondary students experience success.
In addition to focusing on transitions like moving up from elementary to middle school, or middle school to high school, our children, as well as ourselves, are all going through constant transition, whether we are aware of it or not. The word “Transition” literally means “The process of change” and transitioning successfully is really about how we adapt to change. While it is difficult to be fully aware of it, from moment to moment, everything is in a constant state of change: our bodies, technology, our planet, everyone we know, everything that exists. At the same time, many people are actually resistant to change, typically because there is comfort in what’s familiar, along with a fear of potential negative outcomes. Moreover, when we struggle with transitioning, it is often because of negative expectations, worries, or fears, like the elementary child panicked about being able to open their locker in middle school. What makes things even more challenging is that most of us have a tendency to focus on the negative more than the positive. Thus negative expectations come naturally and positive ones take effort. The good news is that with just a little effort we can make small shifts in our expectations from negative to positive, which can cumulatively have a profound impact on our ability to successfully adapt to the ongoing transitions in our lives. Our dreaded anticipation of future challenges around the next turn can be transformed into seeing life as an adventure as we head forward into the great unknown.
If you want your child to be confident and successful with transitions, what better way than to model it yourself. Take time to point out the fun and adventure in things. Get into the habit of talking about positive potential outcomes in response to life transitions and brainstorm, with your child, ways to help make it so. Resisting change is like resisting life itself. The more time we take to stop and smell the roses and try to reflect on the changes going on around us, while embracing future possibilities and the blessings in our lives, the better we will be able to enjoy what is, and look forward to what will be.
Whether we realize it or not, we are all prejudiced. That’s because our brains are wired to categorize and think in stereotypes based upon our experiences and perceptions. If we have limited experience interacting with individuals who are different than us in some way, we have to base our expectations on other information, like what we see in print and on television. That’s why the portrayal of various groups in the media is so important because it can shape our attitudes and biases. Similarly, we are all vulnerable to “Us and Them” thinking. That’s why we have gridlock in Washington, D.C. and ongoing international clashes throughout the world. Regardless of our ethnic, racial, or political views, most of us would agree that mutual understanding, respect, and world peace are important and admirable goals.
While Boulder is often viewed as a progressive, liberal bastion, the truth is that we have a long way to go in terms of our own understanding, respect, and perceptions of people who are different than us. Just ask a member of any minority group in our community about how they feel perceived by others when walking down the street or going into a store. Think about how most adult Caucasians might feel walking down an alley at night and coming upon a group African American teens. While we may not like to admit it to ourselves, all of us our vulnerable to prejudice and “Us and Them” thinking.
The solution starts with acknowledgement of the problem. Once we are aware of our prejudices we can change them by learning more truths about others to replace stereotypes, which are based on limited, distorted information. The best thing you can do for your children is to seek out diverse social opportunities for them so that they can have real experiences with folks that are different from them. Let’s shift from distrust, based on lack of knowledge and experience, to inclusion and acceptance. That way we all benefit.
There’s a big difference between skills and abilities. While we are born with certain natural abilities, skills are learned and require practice to develop. It is important to remember that our children are not born with good social skills, but learn these skills through modeling and practice. There are numerous research studies that highlight the importance of healthy social skill development and their impact on academic development, school success, as well as success later in life. Conversely, children with poor social skills are at increased risk of difficulties in interpersonal relationships, peer rejection, poor academic performance, signs of depression/aggression/anxiety, and are at higher risk of involvement in the criminal justice system as adults. Social skill deficits can also impact school safety and have been a factor in the recent rash of school shootings.
In addition to focusing on developing good academic skills, we must also prioritize our children’s development of healthy social behaviors. Important components of good social skills include: nonverbal communication skills, empathy, problem solving skills, and conflict resolution skills. Here are some strategies parents can use to promote healthy social skill development:
Importance of good role models: A lot of what your child knows regarding social interaction is learned at home, not just from parents but also from siblings. Making conscious efforts to discuss, practice, and reinforce prosocial skills can make a huge difference.
Provide opportunities for social interaction: Ensure that your child has plenty of unstructured time to play and interact with others, as well as involvement in structured afterschool activities, will provide them with the critical opportunities for practice.
Teach Problem Solving Skills: Help your child develop problem solving skills by following these simple steps: Identify the problem, brainstorm possible solutions, predict the probable outcome for each solution, and choose the one that has the highest probability of success; if it fails choose another solution.
If needed, consider enrolling your child in an effective social skills group: Find a licensed therapist in the community who offers structured social skills training for your child’s age group.
Perhaps we need to start thinking about the four “Rs” in education: Reading, wRiting, aRithmetic, and Relationships. I’ve never met an elementary student who didn’t feel that recess was too short or a secondary student who didn’t wish that they had less homework in order to socialize more with friends. Maybe they’re onto something.
In 2007, the Foundation for Integrated Research in Mental Health reported that three out of five visits to doctors’ offices result from stress. Chronic stress makes us more susceptible to disease. Research has shown a link between stress and a wide variety of serious health problems including: hypertension, strokes, heart disease, diabetes, ulcers, neck or lower back pain, even cancer and possibly Alzheimer’s disease (Medical News Today 9/30/13). According to a survey by the Better Sleep Council, 65 percent of Americans lose sleep as a result of stress. The American Psychological Association noted that stress has been linked to all six of the leading causes of death in the United States—heart disease, cancer, lung and liver diseases, accidents, and suicide.
The good news is that we can easily manage stress by practicing simple techniques that take just moments to do. Here are some examples of what you can do in the next ten minutes to significantly reduce stress:
Visual Imagery: The mind is very powerful and if we focus on a very relaxing image, the body eventually experiences it as though we’re really there. To see for yourself, try this simple exercise:
Identify a place where you’ve been that was very relaxing (e.g. a beach, the mountains). If needed, make one up.
List everything that you might see, hear, smell and (tactilely) feel in this special place.
Rate your current level of stress from “0” (not stressed at all) to “100” (very stressed).
Find a peaceful place to sit, close your eyes, take a deep breath in and breathe out slowly.
Try to imagine all the details that you listed in your mind’s eye, while periodically repeating the deep breathing.
After about 10 minutes, slowly open your eyes and re-rate your current level of stress. Notice how much more relaxed you feel.
Deep Breathing: In our hurried world, we tend to breathe too shallow and too quickly. Try this simple breathing technique:
Focus all attention on your breathing.
Take a deep breath in through your nose, holding it for just second.
Purse your lips and breathe out slowly through your mouth.
As you exhale imagine all the worry and stress going out of your mouth and leaving your body.
When your attention wanders, gently return your focus to your breathing.
Repeat one more time.
You can combine these approaches for an increased relaxation response. By practicing these techniques daily and encouraging family members to do so as well, everyone will benefit both physically and emotionally.