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.
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.
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.
For many people, the process of grief is one of the most challenging and painful experiences in our lives. Whether it is grief following the death of a loved one, the ending of a relationship, the loss of a job or a home, the death of a pet, or even just the experiences of loss that come with the myriad endings we face each day, the experience of grief can be overwhelming.
Grief is one of the most common of human experiences, although it can feel absolutely strange and frightening. Grief impacts us on every level of our being; emotional, psychological, physical, mental, spiritual, and social. We may experience feeling of overwhelming sadness or anger; we may literally feel like we are going crazy; we may feel like we can’t breathe, can’t sleep, can’t eat; we may feel numb and disconnected from the people in our lives; we may even feel like life is not worth living. In some ways grief itself is like a vicarious death and we ourselves feel like we’re dying. These are just a few of the many different ways in which grief moves through our systems.
Many people wonder: Is what I’m experiencing normal? You may have heard that there is a normal process to grief and that there are specific stages of grief that everyone goes through in a specific order. The truth is that when it comes to grief, there is no one defined way that every person experiences and processes grief. Some people may feel the different emotions we associate with the classic stages of grief model described by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in 1969 (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance), but not everyone feels these exact emotions, nor do people feel them in this order or only once. In addition, these experiences only describe the emotional/psychological levels of the experience, but not necessarily all of the other ways in which grief is experienced, like for example on the physical level.
When it comes to grief, your grief process may look entirely different from someone else’s, and whatever you are experiencing is normal. Really.
People often ask, “But, do I need to seek help?” When it comes to grief, seeking “help,” can often be incredibly useful, no matter where you are in your grief process. Seeking help does not need to be seen as a last resort, but potentially an integral part of the process. Many people come into therapy feeling like they have somehow failed because they were not able to “get through it” alone. In actuality, seeking support, whether that means reaching out for the support of friends and family or seeking the guidance of a therapist or support group, does not need to be a last resort option, but can be seen as an important tool in processing your grief in a healthy way. Grief is a completely normal, universal, human experience and in this way it actually has a way of moving through our systems quite naturally, if we let it. But, most of us have lots of reasons why it is hard to just let the process do its thing, and outside support, can be useful in helping us see where we might be impeding the process and making things harder on ourselves.
In addition to using outside help to support a normal grief process, there are some additional situations in which seeking help is recommended. The following are a few of these situations:
If you feel that you are at risk of hurting yourself or another person.
If you do not feel you are able to attend to your basic needs such as food, clothing, and shelter.
If you feel unable to attend to the basic needs of your children, or any other people or pets that are dependent on you for their basic needs.
If you are concerned that the ways you are coping might be hurting you (e.g. excessive alcohol or drug use, self-harming behaviors like cutting or burning, etc).
If you do not feel that your grief process has in any way changed after what you consider to be a reasonable amount of time, and you feel like it is debilitating your ability to engage in important areas of your life, such as work, relationships, etc, and you are unsure of how to move forward.
In addition to therapy, which can be incredibly helpful for processing the experience of grief, there are many different types of support groups specifically designed to help individuals in the grieving process. Groups can be one of the most effective supports for grief because of how powerful it can be to recognize that you are not alone in your experience.
Grieving is a process that can take a very long time. Especially in the beginning, it may feel like it will never end. As cliché as it sounds, time does heal in many ways, but even when years have passed and there is a sense that the grief has really moved through, there may still be moments where the sense of pain and loss comes flooding back; like anniversaries of various kinds or important life events. This too is completely normal, and you can trust that having been able to live through the early days (and months and even years) of grief, even in the unexpected moments when the grief returns, you will have the capacity to be with it and get through it. Although it may be hard to believe this if you are in the early stages of coping with a loss, grief is incredibly powerful in its ability to change and even transform in positive ways. The process is not an easy one, but it is a profound and universal one; it is an experience that we all go through in some way at some time, and that changes us forever.
(If this blog resonates with you in any way, or if you have any additional thoughts, suggestions or questions in regards to this topic I welcome any comments!)