Monday, November 13, 2023

Gratitude: Practicing Thankfulness Year-Round

Thanksgiving is a time for gathering, feasting, and giving thanks, but giving thanks is a helpful exercise to get in the habit of year-round.  Recognizing what we are grateful for can help us move our awareness from the many forms of faulty thinking that tend to lead to depression and anxiety, and shift us toward a more consistent habit of thankfulness for what we have right now. 

In any given situation we have the option to focus on what we already have before us and in our lives.  Because our brains are geared to watch for dangers, we sometimes forget how wonderful and miraculous our lives are, including the things we have in them, and the situations we experience.

Has someone helped you recently?  Did you catch a break on some discount, deadline, or deal?  Are you glad the roof doesn't leak, and the car runs, or that the kids or pets are healthy this month?  Did something finally get solved or resolved?  Maybe some problem, glitch, or issue that was annoying and irritating?  And what about the most mundane things we forget to acknowledge as "good today" or "good this very moment".  

What we don't notice is that our monkey mind tends to wander off to the past and the future, ruminating about how things should have been, should be now, and about how terrible they can end up in the future unless we worry hard enough to prevent bad things from happening (which of course is not possible).  So gratefulness is a great Mindfulness exercise.  We can ask ourselves, "What am I thankful for right at this very moment?"  

The next time you are sitting at a traffic light with nothing much to do but wait for the light to change, ask yourself in that moment, "What are three things I am grateful for right now?"  Maybe you are grateful that the roads are clear and it's a sunny day.  Or maybe you are grateful the traffic is not too bad at the moment.  It can be anything at all.  

You can make a new habit of giving thanks at key times throughout your day.  Maybe think of three things you are grateful for while waking in the morning and preparing for your day.  Or maybe finding thankfulness in the evening before going to bed.  You can build these moments of gratitude into any part of your day and make them habit forming, just like brushing your teeth or taking a shower.  It takes practice at first, but repetition makes the behavior.

Have a happy Thanksgiving, and enjoy all you feel grateful for.  Then spread that Thankfulness throughout the year, making every day a day of thanks.

"Be thankful for what you have; you'll end up having more.  If you concentrate on what you don't have, you'll never, ever have enough."  ~Oprah Winfrey

Thanks to Faith Goble for the great festive image

Wednesday, October 18, 2023

Exercise for Winter and Health

Fall is a time of creativity, relaxation, and beauty as nature transforms into a colorful landscape of turning leaves and changing weather.  It's also a time when energy levels change, which is not too unlike the bear that prepares to hibernate and preserves its energy for winter.  But we humans still need movement and exercise even though our bodies would prefer to slow down this time of year, and finding the motivation for exercise is not always easy when days are shorter and temperatures begin to drop.  Yet exercise is key in reducing and maintaining levels of anxiety and depression, so nudging yourself to do at least a little bit is worthwhile.

There are some good exercises that are better suited for the cooler months.  Let's take a look at some of them:

During the Fall and before the first snow, bike riding is still a great way to keep the body moving.  It doesn't have to be competitive or even highly strenuous, but even gentle slow riding among the beautiful Fall colors can only help in keeping you active. 

Yoga is a gentle exercise that can be done with a group or class, or alone at home with the aid of a guided video instruction.  It's, most often done indoors during the cooler months, it is sure to keep the muscles warm and loose to prevent injury and keep you limber year-round.

Walking is always a good exercise in the cooler months because it not only keeps the body warmer, but can be done on indoor tracks or out in the elements no matter what the weather.  Be sure to not over or under dress as too much sweating can lead to getting cold at some point, and not being warm enough can lead to discomfort and the early abandonment of a good workout.  Once it's too cold to be out in the elements, walking can be done indoors on a treadmill.

Outdoor winter sports are a great way to get outside in the colder months and to also get some sunlight which helps with vitamin D and depression.  Snowboarding, skiing, sledding, ice skating, and snow shoeing are all great ways to get the body moving and keep the muscles functioning well when the body would prefer to curl up on the sofa and do nothing.

Winter hiking is a "thing", but you need to be prepared for slippery surfaces and plan for traction with every step.  Use a good winter hiking boot and be sure to carry a set of "crampon" ice cleats, and a set of hiking poles to help you maintain your balance while in rough terrain.

The main thing is to keep moving even when the weather seems to want to drive you indoors and out of the natural elements during the changing seasons, and especially in the colder winter months.

"In the depth of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer"  ~Albert Camus

Thanks to  Charles Knowles for the great seasonal photo, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Seasonal Affective Disorder: Preparing for Autumn Mood Changes

Autumn is a favored time of year for many.  It's a time of beautiful changing colors as the season transitions from warm to cool, and a time for other kinds of transitions as well, such as what we crave to eat and drink, how our energy manifests, and of course what our mood may be.  As the days shorten and melatonin levels change in our bodies, this time of year can be a little more melancholy for some than for others.  Psychologically, it's the time of year for Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).  A time when some people are prone to depression and need a good plan in place to ride out the season with the best coping skills they can find.

SAD is believed to be a mood change caused by melatonin levels changing in the body due to the way the light changes this time of year.  As the days shorten (meaning shorter durations of light) our bodies change as well.  Higher melatonin levels tend to help our bodies prepare for sleep, making us tired and ready to slow down, and it increases (or builds up) in the body when there is less light.  Melatonin levels decrease when there is more light which tends to suppress the production of melatonin as light enters the eyes.  Therefore the higher levels of melatonin in the body during the Fall and Winter months tends to affect some people more severely than others, leading to symptoms of depression.  This can include feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, sluggishness, fatigue, decreased interest in activities, sleep disturbances, poor concentration and depressed feelings for most of each day.  It's believed that lower serotonin level as well as lower vitamin D levels also play a role in SAD but the research is still out.

The best plan for SAD is to try preparing from many angles for the time of year you know you will be affected by the seasonal change the most.  Taking extra vitamin D, consulting with your doctor about getting on antidepressant medications, setting up regular psychotherapy sessions this time of year with your counselor, and most of all looking into ways to get some "light therapy" which can help suppress the production of too much melatonin.

Both vitamin D and light therapy can be obtained by making sure you don't hunker down inside too much.  Getting outside to absorb as much sunlight as you can is important, but it's a little harder since the cold temperatures tend to make us all want to stay indoors as the seasons change.  Consider some outdoor activates that might be popular in cooler weather such as skiing, snow shoeing, sledding, and even Fall and Winter hiking.  Even just getting out for walks in the daylight, regardless of the temperature, is a good idea.  The exercise involved in many of these activities can also help boost your serotonin levels, so it's all-around good therapy.

You can also try many of the various forms of light therapy devices designed to provide your body with light exposure.  These "light boxes" are much brighter than regular indoor lights and you can sit in front of them for 30 min to an hour each morning during these darker times of the year.  Make sure you get appropriate lights that filter out damaging UV light and are marked as safe for your body and eyes.

You don't have to fall passive to Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).  Be proactive and do all you can now to prepare for the changing season and changing moods.

"It always takes me by surprise how dark it gets this time of year",  ~To a Poet, First Aid Kit

Thanks to Bonnie Moreland for the great photo, https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/

Sunday, August 20, 2023

Intuition: An Old Trusted Friend when facing Anxiety and Depression

Intuition...defined as "the ability to understand something immediately, without the need for conscious reasoning."  In other words, intuition is when we just somehow know something and don't know why we know it.  We just do.  

Intuition might have been misrepresented by Bruce Kasanoff when he wrote about it in his article for Forbes magazine in 2017 and used the title "Intuition is the Highest form of Intelligence", but what he might have been trying to say to his readers was that one thing we learned from the very intelligent Einstein--who by the way existed before IQ tests were developed in 1905, but has an estimated IQ somewhere between 160 and 190--is that Einstein tried to tell us that intuition is no insignificant part of most intelligent decisions and discoveries ever made in human history, and that actually some of the most intelligent decisions could not have been made without acknowledging intuition and its part in our human perception and decision making processes. 

To bring intuition down off the pedestal Kasanoff put it on in his title, and carry it along with the rest of the human skills we possess, we might more accurately say that intuition is considered to be something all people use to help them make decisions, along with the reasoning mind, which can sometimes either miss things or go off in the wrong direction, especially if intuition is ignored.  It would be as equally fair to say that intuition can sometimes go off in the wrong direction as well, but in reality, if we have wandered off into delusional thinking, then that is no longer intuition.  So let's keep this real.  Intuition is that "gut feeling", it's a knowing something without knowing how you know it.  It can "also" be inaccurate, just as logic can miss the mark, but it is not the same thing as delusion or illusion, and it doesn't follow the typical scientific rational methods of reaching conclusions by use of reason.  So we need a balance of reason and intuition.  Intuition is something knowable that has been experienced by many, but is outside the reach of knowing "how" we know, and can't always be explained in any form of logic or reason. 

Giger Gigerenzer, author of The Intelligence of Intuition, which will be released soon in September 2023, refers to intuition as a form of heuristics.  By that he means that it's a way humans "fill in the gap" where knowledge isn't actually there, in order to come to a quick conclusion about something.  In his earlier book from 2008 titled Gut Feeling:  The Intelligence of the Unconscious, this same author writes about "neurologically based behavior that evolved to ensure that we humans respond quickly when faced with a dilemma."  Unfortunately, because human thinking is also prone to flawed and delusional explanation or interpretation (mostly because we are using too much information and logic), we then frequently place artificial explanations to these events such as creating what seems like a clearer picture for ourselves by explaining them away with references to telepathy, magic, the hand of a god or goddess, spirit-guides, and so on.  In reality, Gigerenzer is trying to say that it is still a knowing in which we have no idea how we know it, but that it's all happening quickly and without our conscious awareness of its happening.  This is what psychologists call adaptive unconscious, which is thought to be in an old part of the brain, but which plays an ongoing present-day role still in our every day perceptions and decision making.

The reason realizing these differences is so important when facing the human emotions and feelings of anxiety and depression is that it's important for each individual to know when it's okay to override either logic or intuition.  In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, we use techniques which enable us to override various beliefs and ways of thinking that surface from the newest and oldest parts of our brain.  In other words, when do we go against what seems logical and rational, and when do we go against a strong gut feeling that screams some unexplainable awareness to every fiber of our being?  But just as equally important, when do we choose to follow these?

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is about "challenging" beliefs of fear and doom (which can be both real or faulty in themselves).  In fact, the field has developed a list of 15 Styles of Faulty Thinking which are used to help clients question the way they use logic to talk themselves into or out of things that can be based on fear and anxiety (or hopelessness and depression), and which surfaces due to present misperceptions, or old styles of faulty unexplainable gut feelings that come from the adaptive unconscious.  

An individual that is very self aware can come to know the difference between hair standing on end because there is static electricity present, and hair standing on end because the fight or flight response has been triggered (either consciously or unconsciously) by we-know-not-what.  Someone that is a good thinker includes intuition in their work (i.e., listening to that gut feeling regardless of logic), but does not put either logic or intuition above the other.  In the spirit of yin and yang, we should work to to welcome both known and unexplainable "knowing" in a balanced perception of ourselves and the world, but do so without silencing one or the other.

"At times I feel certain I am right while not knowing the reason."  ~Albert Einstein

Thanks to Chris Hayes for his artistic digital work  https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/mark/1.0/

Saturday, July 22, 2023

Unrealistic Expectations and Disappointment

Since COVID came on the scene many people have a heightened awareness of the concept of uncertainty and how it plays a role in our lives.  Uncertainty lies at the heart of many forms of fear and anxiety as we are never sure of any guaranteed security, consistency, or reliability of the foundations of our day to day lives.  So we build up the best expectation we can put together based on information, patterns, perception, and any other pieces of data we are able to apply to the situation in order to attempt to get a feel for how things might pan out.  From all of this information we develop a belief about something.  This belief helps us decipher how it will end up or what the most likely thing is to occur.  But when that outcome doesn't happen, disappointment sets in and that is a form of suffering.

These three concepts:  Uncertainty, Expectation, and Disappointment,  make a frequently traveled circular pattern for many of us.  These three feed on one another and can produce a cyclical pattern of thinking and feeling that leads to anxiety and depression.  But this pattern can be interrupted by focusing on the middle concept... Expectations.

Expectations are beliefs we create in our minds about how something will potentially turn out.  Our belief about the situation or event is sometimes based on fact, but other times our expectations can be built on false beliefs that have built-in unrealistic qualities that are sure to fail since being unrealistic in the first place makes them impossible to achieve and create a delusional scenario not even based in reality.

Perfectionists know this all too well in that they might create unrealistic expectations for themselves and others that can never be reached or would require sacrifices that in themselves are unrealistic, so failure is guaranteed and with failure comes disappointment.  These series of events lead only to a sinking feeling of defeat which can be accompanied by a lot of negative self-talk, discouraging thoughts and false beliefs that lead to hopelessness.

Here are some things to keep in mind when setting goals with realistic expectations:

  • Take an inventory of information you have to date about any given situation you are working with.  This information can guide you about what is realistic to expect of yourself and others based on evidence to date.  This past information serves as your foundation to get started.
  • Know that what is realistic for one person is not the same for someone else.  You may have high expectations for yourself, but putting these on others may be unrealistic because well... they aren't you, and for them it isn't the same thing.  Also, don't expect yourself to live up to the expectations that others place on themselves.  Expectations are not the same for everyone.
  • Remind yourself that expectation level for ourselves and others is like a moving target.  You might be able to accomplish something next year, but not this year.  You might be able to expect something from your boss or employees today, but maybe you can't expect it all the time.  The level and realistic quality of expectations changes all the time.  Assess the given situation realistically.
  • Make sure you've built flexibility into your expectations so you can make adjustments as you go.  In other words, don't be so rigid with tasks and projects that you leave no room for changing your mind, realizing you need to take a break or let up on something a little.  Or maybe you realize you set your goals and tasks too light and can pick up the pace more than you thought.  Be ready and willing to change your mind, readjust, and change the game plan if necessary.
"Expectations are resentments waiting to happen."  ~Brene Brown

Thanks to Kristian Bjornard for the great photo

Monday, June 26, 2023

Improving Anxiety and Depression with Practice and Determination

Trying something for the first time helps us see what we don't know and where we can improve our skills.  Trying again and again tends to create an awareness of how to do something and most of all, how to eventually do it well and with improved performance.  Practice and repetition are how we get better at things, and it's with repetition that we develop confidence in any given skill.  This is why getting back in the saddle after apparent failure is helpful in not giving up or buying into a belief that we "can't" do something.  This is also true when trying to tackle anxiety and depression.

Did you know that there is even an annual Never Give Up Day celebrated each year on August 18th?  The site says that it is all about "cultivating a mindset of determination."  Which is exactly what is needed to work on some of our fears and anxieties, as well as our times of depression and mood change.

How many times have you been working at a project and figured you were never going to get it and were just within inches of giving up on it when the whole thing suddenly fell together and you had an awareness that had you given up, you'd never have seen that you could complete it?  Challenging and working on fears, anxieties and mood changes is the same way.  Working on methods, skills, ideas and approaches to challenging these fears and moods is the best way to eventually discover that you can accomplish things you never thought were within reach.

Anyone who has ever learned to play a musical instrument or become accomplished at running a particular piece of machinery knows that it's with repetition (maybe starting very slow) and determination that we get sharper, faster, better and more skilled at doing something.  No matter if it is with our hands or mind, we start to get the feel for something and our confidence grows.

There are endless stories in the field of sports about those who practiced repeatedly and refused to give up, and eventually went on to win Olympic medals and titles.  This is as true outside the field of sports in areas of business, survival, and personal challenge.  It's also true for those trying to get better and better at facing their anxieties and times of depression.  We know from studies of Learned Helplessness that once an individual buys into the idea that it's all hopeless, things begin to spiral out of control.  So developing a mindset of determination can counter such thinking and help you regroup over and over until you have accomplished the goals you have set out to reach regarding your fears and feelings.

Here are some ideas on how to try again and get back in the saddle when life seems determined to throw you off track:

  • Be patient with yourself and know when to take breaks
  • Don't avoid returning to your re-attempts at accomplishing your goals
  • Think of your task as a challenge to get better at each time you attempt it
  • Set realistic goals so you can see the possibility of reaching them
  • Start slow and simple to develop small successes to build on
  • Recognize where you did well and nudged ahead however small the nudge
  • Watch for role models to show you what to do
  • Set a steady schedule of practice 
Sometimes the only way to accomplish something is to stop avoiding it.  So, the final idea is to avoid avoidance.  This doesn't mean throwing yourself in the deep end of the pool to learn to swim, it means to stop avoiding the pool completely.  Approach the things you'd like to improve at just a little bit at a time in order to get more comfortable and skilled.  Develop a "can do" attitude and you will go far.

Thanks to Brett Jordan for the great image

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Paddleboarding: Another great way to battle Depression and Anxiety

Since 2000 the recreational sport of paddleboarding has gained in popularity and adding it to your list of relaxing things to do could be one of the best things you do for yourself this summer. 

This wonderful outdoor sport is something that can be done in many lakes, rivers, or oceans and it's a great way for you to go exploring the great outdoors whether you are alone and seeking a meditative day of water and sun, or are with others and just looking to improve your social skills.

Those hooked on the fun call it SUP, which stands for Stand Up Paddleboarding.  Whoo hoo... now you've got the lingo, let's take a look at why it's a great way to reduce stress and anxiety, as well as interrupt the patterns that lead to depression.

Boarding your paddleboard and heading out on the water taps you in to the kind of things that typically only boaters get to enjoy.  Out on the lakes and rivers, you can access the great scenic views that contribute to complete physical and mental relaxation.  Out there on the water and water edges you will be as close as ever to wildlife, sunshine, exercise and the kinds of activities that lead to more balanced breathing patterns in the body.

Many just like the escape paddleboarding provides them in that they can paddle out and away from the shore which in itself is so symbolic for just getting away from it all, thus leaving the world behind, the cars and noise, the kids and chores, and finding a spot out in the open water to sit and meditate on your own.  In such an environment you can find some alone time to think over life events, feelings and important decisions in life.  Most of all, you can practice your mindfulness and present-moment focus via the senses.

Paddleboarding is also a very affordable activity and the boards come in models that you can haul on your car, or others that are inflatable, which allows most people the opportunity to transport them to any destination.  

Once outside you immediately begin pulling in the endless advantages of living an active lifestyle.  By the time you get to your favorite paddleboarding spot you are participating in exercise, fresh air, sunshine, and many find it to be a great way to socialize as there are plenty of people for you to meetup with in paddleboarding groups or friendship groups who also paddleboard.

Since the explosion of its popularity, many shops and stores have expanded to renting paddleboards, so if you find you like going but not so often that you actually need to own a paddleboard, there are lots of options to finding one you can enjoy for a few hours or days.

For those who have some anxiety about pursuing such a fun and relaxing sport, please keep in mind that you can sit down and paddle on your board as well, and though it is true that you can paddleboard if you don't know how to swim, let's be sensible here.  Don't ever go out in the water without a sturdy, well fastened, tested and reliable lifejacket on.  Especially if you can't swim!  If you find you love the sport that much, maybe it will inspire you to begin taking some swimming lessons and tackle that skill once and for all.

Many people take up paddleboarding only to report back how much fun they are having, how it gets them outside and active, and how they can't wait to get back out there and go again.  Seriously consider giving it a try.  It can only be good for your mental health and has shown to counter the symptoms of depression and anxiety.

"Paddleboarding is like walking on water."  ~Laird Hamilton (Big Wave Surfer)

Thanks to GR for the great image, https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/mark/1.0/