Self-Care Houston, Episode 7: Elizabeth Haberer joins Jennifer in a conversation about Thrive Trauma Informed Yoga. Trauma Informed Yoga can increase connection with the breath, enabling the brain to become less aroused, and relaxation to begin. A yoga practice partners beautifully with specialized trauma therapies such as EMDR, Emotional Dysregulation, Compassion Focused, etc. Elizabeth Haberer is an LCSW, Psychotherapist, and a yoga instructor. Subscribe in iTunes.
Resources from Episode:
- Elizabeth Haberer’s Thrive Trauma Informed Yoga Classes
- How Yoga Helps Survivors of Trauma
- The Role of Yoga in Healing Trauma
- Krista Tippet’s interview with Bessel van der Kolk about how bodywork like yoga or eye movement therapy can restore a sense of goodness and safety.
- Alternate Nostril Breathing
Self-Care Houston, Episode 6: Daniel Scholl joins Jennifer Christian in a conversation about empowering individuals, couples, and families to sustain ongoing financial stability. Daniel also shares how we can overcome obstacles that get in the way of achieving our financial goals. Daniel is the program manager for financial coaching at Family Houston. Subscribe in iTunes.
Resources mentioned in this episode:
Self-Care Houston, Episode 5: Virgil Fry joins Jennifer in a conversation about the needs and challenges of self-care for caregivers. Virgil is the Executive Director at Lifeline Chaplaincy. Subscribe in iTunes.
Resources for Caregivers
- Lifeline Chaplaincy
- Compassionate Touch Ministry
- Virgil Fry, Disrupted: Finding God in Illness and Loss, 2007
- Virgil Fry, Rekindled: Warmed by the Fires of Hope, 2007
- Atul Gawande, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, 2015
- Frontline Episode: Atul Gawande, Being Mortal
- Caregiver Stress and Burnout: Tips for Regaining Your Energy, Optimism, and Hope
- Minimum Self-Care Requirements, By Jennifer Louden
Self-Care Houston, Episode 3: Kim Fredrickson joins Jennifer in a conversation about being a compassionate friend to yourself when you go through difficult times. Kim is a retired marriage and family therapist and the author of “Give Yourself A Break: Turning Your Inner Critic Into a Compassionate Friend.” Subscribe in iTunes.
Resources Mentioned in Podcast
- Kim Fredrickson’s Website
- Facebook Group: The Self-Compassion Club
- Kim Fredrickson’s Youtube Channel
- 2 Self-Compassion Recordings: Compassionate Self-Statements and Self-Soothing Exercises and
Kind Words to Soothe Your Soul
- Article in the Pulmonary Fibrosis Support Newsletter: The Day I Found Out I Needed Supplemental Oxygen
- Public Kindness Facebook Community: A Word Imagined
In Kelly McGonigal’s latest book,”The Upside of Stress,” she explores how things that create meaning and happiness in our lives also create stress. When we learn to change our relationship with stress, we build in possibilities for meaning and happiness. In the following video, McGonigal recommends practical ways to shift our perspective on stress:
Take some time to journal, visit with a friend, or ponder following prompts:
- Discover what matters to you in life. Write about the roles, relationships, activities, and goals that are most important to you, and how you would feel if they did not exist.
- Discover your values. Spend 10 minutes writing about each of your top three values. Values are the things that are important to you and give meaning to the way you live and work (examples: adventure, compassion, humor, courage, and loyalty). How do your values play into your life? How can your values create some new meaning around a problem you are currently facing?
- Understand the drawbacks of avoiding stress. In order to avoid stress, we may turn down meaningful opportunities or give up on something important to us.
I hear more and more people talking about stress. Increased feelings of stress. I hear it on Facebook, emails from friends and family, even in everyday conversations. I spoke recently on the topic of self-compassion and stress-management at a major corporation in Houston. After I finished, I was amazed at the number of women that came to talk with me about their own struggle with stress and anxiety. The number of personal stories validated the stress in our society and the feeling of being overwhelmed as we attempt to manage too many expectations.
Most people experience an abundance of stress. The election and approaching holidays add an extra layer of stress and worry. The stressors are not going away, but we can use helpful tools to take extra care of our relationships and ourselves.
3 Types of Stress
Before we talk about balancing stress, it is helpful to understand how stress functions in our daily life. In simple terms, we face three types of stress: balanced, acute, and chronic. Whenever I talk about types of stress, I like to use the example of a zebra.
- Balanced Stress: When a zebra is lion-free, he is in a balanced state. A balanced state is the ability to relax and also be ready for threat when stress is present. The zebra can relax, eat juicy nutrient grass, enjoy his zebra companions, and play with his zebra kids and wife. Balanced stress is like getting the temperature just right on a thermostat.
- Acute Stress: When a zebra senses a nearby lion, everything centers on the threat of the lion. Stress chemicals and hormones release to focus all energy toward reacting to the lion. All internal systems shut down to focus energy on escape. The zebra will not sleep, digest, enjoy intimacy, or relax until the threat has been averted. When the lion leaves, the zebra’s body readjusts to a normal, balanced state. Eating, intimacy, relaxation, and play resume.
- Chronic Stress: In the zebra world, chronic stress does not exist. Chronic stress would be similar to the experience of a lion stalking the zebra 24-7. This chronic stress negatively impacts the zebra’s digestive system, sleep, intimacy, and leads to chronic fatigue. Imagine driving a car continuously even when the temperature gauge shows the car overheating. Keep driving, and the car will break down.
What does a zebra have to do with me?
The human body’s threat system is much like a zebra’s threat system, except for some important factors that maintain chronic stress and make it difficult to rebalance:
- The stressors at work, home, and in our society do not go away.
- We have the ability to replay past mistakes or rehearse worry about future threats.
- We can be harsh with ourselves in our own minds. Some of us talk to ourselves in a way that we would never talk to a loved one. Negative self-talk is like having a lion in our heads 24-7.
How does chronic stress impact our bodies?
When we are in a state of constant stress, our bodies continually stay in threat mode. Like the zebra, all of our internal systems are diverted to face the threat. We keep driving our bodies even though the temperature gauge is redlining. Unaddressed chronic stress impacts our digestive system, our ability to sleep, intimacy, our ability to think clearly, as well as our joy in daily life.
Adjust the thermostat
The first step in compassionate stress management is to take a moment to notice. Where is my internal temperature gauge right now?
- Issues with digestion
- Relationship difficulties
- Sleep difficulties
We can feel so rushed that we may not notice what is happening in our own bodies. Can we give ourselves permission to pause at least a couple of times during the day and check in? Allowing ourselves to notice may be challenging. The stressors can seem too big. For instance, what if I feel torn between my work and my responsibilities at home? What if my marriage is struggling? These issues take time to explore. Reaching out to a counselor can offer much needed support to take a close look at some tough areas. The counseling process organically creates options for moving forward and reducing stress.
The second step is to respond with care. What do I need? Explore different tools and see what brings some needed stress relief.
Resources for Stress Relief:
- 4-7-8 breathing – calms the nervous system and improved breathing
- Emotional Freedom Tapping – clears emotional blocks and calms the nervous system
- Compassionate Self-Talk – compassionately addresses the habit of negative self-criticism
- Compassion and Anger – Calm the threat system physio-biologically with compassion toward self
- The Benefits of Cultivating Gratitude for Stress Relief
Emotional Freedom Tapping, or EFT, is very easy to learn, and will help you:
- Alleviate Negative Emotions
- Reduce Food Cravings
- Reduce or Eliminate Pain
- And Implement Positive Goals
Emotional Freedom Tapping, or EFT, is a form of psychological acupressure, based on the same energy meridians used in traditional acupuncture.
Simply tapping with the fingertips on the head and chest inputs kinetic energy onto specific points while you think about your specific problem – whether it is a traumatic event, an addiction, pain, or anxiety. Tapping is paired with voicing a positive affirmation: “Even though I am ______________, I accept myself.” This combination of tapping the energy meridians and voicing positive affirmations works to clear emotional blocks and restore your mind and body’s balance.
Becky Hein‘s recent article, Sleep Your Anxiety Away, Part I: You’ve Tried the Rest, Now Get Some Rest, discusses the impact of sleep deprivation on anxiety. If anxiety is a challenge, improving sleep is an excellent place to begin the focus of your efforts. She includes the latest research and helpful tools to improve your sleep habits as well as your mood. According to the article, “Getting adequate, quality sleep is extremely important for emotional regulation and processing. Fortunately, it is relatively easy to make changes in this area.”
To learn more, check out Sleep Your Anxiety Away, Part I: You’ve Tried the Rest, Now Get Some Rest.
I recently had the honor of facilitating a class about healthy relationship practices. During one discussion about the importance of anger as an emotion, we examined how anger in relationships can be detrimental if we are not gentle with those we love. Anger is neither good nor bad. In fact, it is an essential emotion for our health and safety, and part of a healthy human experience. Anger can alert us to unjust treatment, and gives us needed energy to address harmful behavior.
“Negative emotions most likely aid in our survival. Bad feelings can be vital clues that a health issue, relationship or other important matter needs attention. The survival value of negative thoughts and emotions may help explain why suppressing them is so fruitless. Even if you successfully avoid contemplating a topic, your subconscious may still dwell on it.” (Negative Emotions Are Key to Well-Being, Scientific American, 5/1/13)
But anger is not a thinking emotion. Our ability to think clearly is diminished when we are angry. The front part of our brain goes dim. In the midst of conflict we can say and do things we later regret. We can protect our relationship when we first cool down and then seek to understand each another.
Seek to Understand
The goal of conflict in a relationship is to understand each other. The relationship loses when someone has to win. During times of conflict, relationships can actually grow and become stronger when our conversation focuses on understanding and care. If you argue well, it is even possible to feel closer. Unfortunately, people are often more focused on “winning” than understanding. This often occurs when the intensity of the anger becomes greater than the desire to seek meaningful solutions. With this in mind, we need to develop strategies to decrease the intensity of the anger and increase our ability to listen to one another.
Learn to Cool Off
Learning to control your emotions rather than allowing your emotions to control you is an important skill to develop. Instead of allowing your anger to build up until you “explode,” it is more productive to disengage until you are able to think clearly and feel at the same time.
Once both people in an argument have “cooled off,” it is easier to re-engage and reach resolution. Unfortunately, many people want to “finish” the argument immediately, rather than allowing “time-outs” to occur. Frequently, this results in one person pursuing and the other person running away until they feel cornered. When this occurs, the argument often becomes destructive. Remember, in a relationship, you do not have to resolve everything “right now.” It is appropriate to cool off and re-engage when the anger has subsided.
Boundaries that Protect
Creating safety is essential for a relationship to thrive. The behaviors listed below are destructive and will harm the relationship. When we draw the line at these behaviors, we create a foundation that protects and respects the relationship.
- No hitting
- No cursing
- No name-calling
- No yelling
- No throwing
- Stay focused on one issue at a time
Commit to Resolving Issues
It is important to remember that calling a “time-out” does not mean that you never have to talk about the issue again. A designated time needs to be established to re-engage in the discussion. If you do not create a time to return to the discussion, the anger tends to re-emerge in later arguments. “Time-outs” only work if both people are committed to continuing the discussion until true understanding is reached.
A number of communication tools are available to help couples communicate with understanding and care. One of my favorite tools is L-O-V-E Conversations. If you are unable to work through issues without anger dominating your relationship, couples therapy can provide support, as well as healthy alternatives to address conflict.
In the following video, Bruce Muzik uses the metaphor of a game of tennis to illustrate healthy communication skills. His video is informative, witty, and fun to watch. Many of the couples I work with in my therapy practice have found this useful in their efforts to improve their communication skills.
At some point you have probably made a New Year’s resolution and then broken it. But instead of a resolution, what would it be like this year to create a meaningful habit?
Last year I wrote a series about self-control and how to achieve your goals. While researching the topic I was surprised to find that using willpower and self-determination alone sets us up for failure. I am not sure why this is such a surprise. How many times have I broken my resolutions when life got too busy? Sliding back into old habits can be a familiar pattern for many of us:
- Let’s say you decide to go on a diet and a coworker brings a box of gourmet donuts to the office? You work hard to resist the donuts throughout the entire day. However, your willpower is so taxed trying to avoid the donuts all day that you later give in to a large combo plate at your favorite Mexican restaurant that night. What a frustrating experience.
- Or suppose you decide to control your anger. You make a commitment to be kinder to your spouse at the end of each day when you get home from work. Unfortunately, the next workday is full of stressors: your boss yells at you, you miss lunch, and traffic is unbelievably frustrating. Then you get home, and what happens? The commitment you made to yourself goes out the window and you end up angry with your spouse.
This is a common experience because willpower is limited. We create our goal, shore up our determination, eventually run out of steam, and end up falling short.
“Willpower, for all its merits, is full of holes. Maintaining it requires not only a good deal of effort but also a conducive environment… Seemingly irrelevant factors like being at home versus being at work, or even the need to make simple decisions unrelated to resisting temptation—(‘Should I wear a white shirt or a blue one?’)—can diminish self-control. The result? People whose willpower is taxed fail to resist about one out of every six temptations they face, even when they try using cognitive strategies to manage their ‘hot’ responses. Willpower appears to be quite finite in supply.” (David Desteno, September 15, 2014, Pacific Standard, The Science of Society).
How Can I Achieve My Goals?
If willpower does not work, what can I do?
According to a recent review of lab experiments on self-control, four emotional characteristics were shown to boost our self-control and increase staying power (Desteno, 2014).
- Authentic pride
“These emotions— gratitude, compassion, authentic pride, and even guilt—work from the bottom up to shape decisions that favor the long-term. If we focus on instilling the capacity to experience these emotional states regularly, we’ll build resources that will automatically spring forth in reflexive and productive ways. In essence, we’ll give ourselves inoculations against temptation that, like antibodies in our bloodstream, will be ready and waiting to combat possible threats to our well-being.” (David Desteno, September 15, 2014, Pacific Standard, The Science of Society).
Breaking It Down
For the month of January, I will focus each week on a virtue that boosts staying power. This week will focus on compassion, and how a compassion practice can have a positive impact our ability to reach our goals.
How Can We Build Compassion?
Compassion is an emotion that involves noticing our surroundings, and then feeling moved to care. When we allow ourselves to notice another person, we are naturally moved to respond to a fellow human being with care and concern.
Self-compassion is the same thing. The only difference is allowing ourselves to see our own struggle, and respond to ourselves with care in the same way we would another human being.
One way we can build compassion is to practice on ourselves. We can be our worst critic and beat up on ourselves when we fall short on hopes and goals. When we talk to ourselves with criticism and self-judgment, we fuel anger and anxiety. We can even increase the odds that we will get frustrated and want to quit.
Kristin Neff has found that “people who can first give themselves emotional support and validation will be in a better position to be giving, accepting and generous to their partners.” She also found that “people who nurture self-compassion have better overall psychological and emotional health, experience less anxiety and depression, and are more motivated to achieve their goals.” (Randall, 2013)
What Gets In The Way?
In a recent TED talk, Daniel Goleman explored the things that keep us from compassion. One of the main obstacles is being in a hurry.
“A group of divinity students at the Princeton Theological Seminary were told that they were going to give a practice sermon and they were each given a sermon topic. Half of those students were given, as a topic, the parable of the Good Samaritan: the man who stopped to help the stranger in need by the side of the road. Half were given random Bible topics. Then one by one, they were told they had to go to another building and give their sermon. As they went from the first building to the second, each of them passed a man who was bent over and moaning, clearly in need. The question is: Did they stop to help? The more interesting question is: Did it matter they were contemplating the parable of the Good Samaritan? Answer: No, not at all. What turned out to determine whether someone would stop and help a stranger in need was how much of a hurry they thought they were in. And this is, I think, the predicament of our lives: that we don’t take every opportunity to help because our focus is in the wrong direction.” (Goleman, 2007)
The conclusion of the experiment was that the student’s compassion was not significantly influenced by studying the passage on compassion, but more by the student’s belief that they were in too much of a hurry. When we get overwhelmed or in a rush, this impacts our ability to be compassionate with ourselves, as well as others we care about. One way to build compassion is to slow the pace of life.
When we begin each year, we are full of hope and excitement about the possibility of making positive changes. But over time, the fast pace of life gets in the way and pulls us off track. How we respond to ourselves when we make mistakes is essential to reaching our goals. If I beat up myself with self-criticism, I lose heart and momentum. “I failed again just like last year; I will never get this right.” This approach increases frustration and makes it difficult to keep going. Kim Fredrickson suggests another approach: Acknowledge my mistake and realize that even when I mess up, I deserve to be treated with dignity as a fellow human being.
“Self-compassion is a balance of truth (Yes, I made a mistake) with grace (I have worth and value, and I will address this mistake directly)… Self-compassion is absolutely essential for healthy, balanced living. It provides huge benefits including emotional resiliency, stress reduction, contentment, and healthier relationships. Without it we are vulnerable to the opinions of others and find it difficult to deal with and let go of our mistakes.” Kim Fredrickson
When we learn to respond to ourselves with kindness and compassion, we calm the body and create space to respond courageously with our best selves. This is not the same as self-pity.
“Self-compassion isn’t poor me. Self-compassion is: ‘It’s hard for all of us… the human experience is hard for me, for you, this is the way life is.’ It’s a much more connected way of relating to yourself. And this is why mindfulness is so important. When we are mindful of our suffering, we see it as it is, we don’t ignore it, but we also don’t over exaggerate.” Kristin Neff
A compassionate approach allows us to respond to ourselves with kindness and get a fresh start every day. Our mistakes do not define us. We are able to decrease the heavy burden of our missteps and move forward compassionately with our hopes and dreams.
Ready to Boost Your Compassion?
Here are some tools to get started:
- A quiz to assess your current level of self-compassion.
- A self-compassion exercise to get a small hint of what this looks like in practice: Self-Compassion Exercise
- Compassion Meditations designed to increase experience of compassion for self and others.
Resources on Building Compassion
Desteno, D. (2014) A Feeling of Control: How America Can Finally Learn to Deal With Its Impulses. Pacific Standard, The Science of Society. (http://www.psmag.com/navigation/health-and-behavior/feeling-control-america-can-finally-learn-deal-impulses-self-regulation-89456/)
Goleman, D. (2007). TED. (http://www.ted.com/talks/daniel_goleman_on_compassion?language=en)
Jennifer Christian, M.A., LPC