‘Tis the Season of Gratitude

Archive for the ‘anxiety’ Category

‘Tis the Season of Gratitude

Posted on: November 26th, 2019 by Lindsey Rogers, LCPC

Fall and winter can be a difficult time of year. There is a lot of pressure to feel joyful, and when the cheery décor surrounding our workplaces, homes, and city is a direct mismatch to how we are feeling, it can foster an even deeper sense of sadness. Thoughts like, “It’s the holidays and I still can’t be happy?!” can overwhelm us and trigger feelings of guilt and shame. Finding joy and happiness can feel like an insurmountable task. But a powerful step in the direction of positivity is gratitude. Psychologist Robert Emmons, PhD is an expert in gratitude and defines it as “a sense of wonder, thankfulness, and appreciation for life.” Dr. Emmons divides gratitude into two parts: (1) acknowledging the good in our lives; and (2) acknowledging that the source of that goodness is outside of ourselves. It may sound tough to think about giving when you feel empty, but tapping into feeling grateful or thankful allows us those pinpricks of light to change your otherwise gloomy perspective.

How An Attitude of Gratitude Works
Depression and negative emotions turn us inward. It is hard to consider others or anything outside of ourselves and how bad we feel. Our perspective is skewed to a catastrophizing state of what is terrible and how life is going to get worse. When we feel this way, it is common to think that the curated version on social media is actually true and everyone else is having a great time during the holidays. Feeling bad can make us think, “Look at that! Everyone in Chicago is at the Christkindlmarket enjoying all sorts of holiday fun with their significant others but me!” Yikes, that sounds super gloomy. But those are irrational and definitely unhelpful thoughts. Implementing gratitude can allow us to have a bigger perspective and shift away from negativity. If you are feeling thankful, you are glad something happened or even happy something is over. If you narrowly miss getting sideswiped on your commute, you likely take a beat and think, “Wow, that could have been bad.” Depressive thoughts would keep you stuck. Those thoughts might include, “I am so careless,” or, “Why are bad things always happening to me?” Taking on an attitude of gratitude, however, allows you to zoom out from your own experience to see the bigger picture, like changing the screen resolution on your thoughts. There is that sense of “Whew, I survived that!” That feeling is gratitude. We are able to affirm what is good in our lives or in the moment instead of getting stuck with negativity.

How to Get Started on Thankfulness
This time of year, there are likely plenty of school-aged children tracing their hand and then turning their handprints into turkeys. Joining the ranks with the hand turkey might also be the practice of going around the table at Thanksgiving dinner and saying what you are thankful for. If you have been part of this table scene, how many times have you said pumpkin pie? Or the Bears? Maybe those aren’t profound moments of gratitude for humanity but they’re a great start. A way to expand past the amazing stuffing or the scoreboard on Thanksgiving is to first find some time that you can collect your thoughts. Start by taking out a journal or a blank document on your computer screen. Try to start a list of things for which you are grateful. This can be a feeling or an actual event. It can be a person, place, or thing. You can experience gratitude for something very tiny or something huge. Maybe you structure your thoughts around what you are grateful for at a certain time of day or time of year. Maybe you consider who you are grateful for and think a little more deeply about why. You can write bullet points or a list. You can write a letter to express your thankfulness to someone and you don’t even have to send it. Journaling is a great practice but there is no one-size-fits-all, right-or-wrong way when it comes to gratitude. And these are your own thoughts so be honest. No one gets to tell you that you aren’t actually experiencing gratitude.

How to Expand on Gratefulness
Gratitude is about seeing the good in life, but ironically focusing on your challenges or hard times can also be a good place to start. Remember when we were talking about feeling depressed? Making a leap to feeling thankful during the holidays may be too much. But if you are struggling or have been challenged in the past, examining how you got through it or what you learned from it can be a great way to tap into gratitude. You don’t have to fully jump into joy and reverence. But acknowledging in even a small way how now is slightly better than then or how you have grown and learned since that previous bad time is a great way to change your perspective.

Volunteer work and contributing in a philanthropic way can help foster a sense of gratitude. You can acknowledge how others need your help and you can see how others in need feel grateful. You can see how thankful someone feels when they are in need and you give them something they need. Helping others can trigger you to think about how others have aided you or currently support you. In this way, you are giving back and getting all at once. What a great deal!

How to Manage Roadblocks with Giving Thanks
Sometimes, gratitude is hard to come by, such as when you find that you are getting stuck on journaling or find yourself feeling bored. If you are starting to check out and you find yourself wanting to say something like “blah, blah, blah,” then put down your gratitude journal. Because here’s the thing: Gratitude does not work if you are going through the motions. You may need to change it up. If writing down grateful thoughts does not trigger positive feelings, perhaps you need to say those thoughts aloud to yourself or mediate on those thoughts. Another way to freshen up your practice is to change your expectations—maybe daily gratitude practice feels thankless but taking time to journal once a month works much better for you. Gratitude can be a personal practice but you can also share your feelings with others. You can communicate to friends, family, strangers that you appreciate them. They’d probably appreciate your gratitude, too. And do not worry, you won’t run out of gratitude. This is an emotion that can replenish itself so there is plenty to go around.

An important trap to avoid with gratitude is judgment. If you are journaling and those nasty “shoulds” start appearing, do your best to reset yourself and challenge those unhelpful thoughts. When thoughts like, “Well, I should really be grateful for this nice house but I actually hate it” or anything that makes you feel stuck creep in, put away this exercise and try again another time. Or try to counter that thought with something like, “But I do really feel grateful for my neighbors.” Your feelings are valid and you get to appreciate and value and express gratitude for what matters to you. There are ways to expand or grow. You can work on being more mindful and changing what you notice around you. But gratitude is about you feeling what you feel and you are the expert when it comes to that. No pressure to be grateful for anything. First try to examine what you are grateful for and if you want that to expand, keep asking yourself how you feel until you locate the pieces that trigger gratitude in you.

Gratitude, like cooking a perfect turkey, takes practice and the right conditions. Use this time of year to start thinking about and noticing things you are grateful for and see this as an opportunity to change your perspective and your brain. You will be supporting yourself and the world around you, which is goodness you can get on board with regardless the time of year.

To all the sleepyheads out there

Posted on: May 6th, 2019 by Lindsey Rogers, LCPC

If you have ever tried to sleep-train a baby, you have probably experienced a high level of ineffectiveness and loss of control when it comes to sleep. The idea of “sleeping like a baby” can feel like a real misnomer. There is a plethora of sleep accessories, from swaddles to sleep sacks to a wonder called the Baby Merlin Magic Sleepsuit (which, to sleep-deprived parents, really does seem otherworldly if it works for your little one), all of which are marketed to get your baby sleeping through the night and napping on cue. From the jump, sleep is something that seems challenging and a struggle to obtain. Babies are even labeled as good or bad sleepers, which can result in a look of envy and awe or a knowing, exhausted nod from fellow new parents, depending on what is happening in your home. If we take some insight about what helps kids actually effectively learn to sleep, it’s that the environment, timing, and routine have to be right. New parents are told all the time to be intentional about a winding-down routine at night. Just lower the lights, after a calming bath, play soothing music and put on one of those aforementioned suits on to keep your kid from moving and waking themselves up. Whether you have done it for a child or someone spent nights trying to lull you to slumber, the truth is we put a ton of time and energy into teaching children how to put themselves to sleep.

Maybe it has been a very long time since you have been given the nightly bath-story-and-lullaby routine, yet perhaps you are still identifying yourself as a bad sleeper and you dread your bed. Perhaps this is more your familiar routine: You have been tossing and turning. There are no more sheep to count. You are watching the clock tick by and know as each minute passes, you are going to get less and less sleep and your anxiety grows and grows. If so, you likely characterize yourself as a bad sleeper or describe always have a hard time sleeping. But here’s the thing: If we take a page from sleep-training infants, there is hope that good sleep habits can be learned and a restful night is possible.

Set yourself up for rest

A good place to start when you are trying to improve your sleep is to first examine your sleeping conditions and sleep hygiene. Ideally you are sleeping in a room that is comfortable, quiet, cool, and dark. What your bedroom looks like can matter when you are awake and the lights are on, but when you are trying to get a good night’s sleep, what your bedroom feels like is the big concern. Whatever you can do to make it a pleasing sensory experience, the better. Maybe disarray in your bedroom causes you to struggle to fall asleep because it triggers negative thoughts. Perhaps you need a firmer pillow. Maybe a sound machine can help. When you are getting into bed, what sorts of thoughts do you have attached to your sensory experience? This will give you a good sense of whether your detergent actually doesn’t smell that great or the light from across the street annoys you. When you go to bed tonight, be mindful of your experience, both the good and the bad, to gauge what you might need to improve. Consistency is key when it comes to sleep so you want to make sure you are going to bed and getting up around the same time each day—even on weekends. Avoid large meals, caffeine, or alcohol before bedtime. Daily exercise can also aid you in feeling fatigued and ready for bedtime. Another important aspect of a good sleeping environment is the lack of stimulus. Cutting out electronics 30 minutes before bed is a great idea. Reading is a great activity before bed provided you are not using an e-reader or your phone that may stimulate you to stay awake, so keep that habit old school and use actual books in bed. If you watch your alarm clock and it causes you to panic, see if turning the clock around can give you some relief.

Okay, so ideal situations are, well, ideal and often unobtainable. It’s totally understandable that you may not have a perfect sleep environment if you live on a busy street in Chicago with lots of lights and sounds and you share a bed with your heat-rock of a partner or your wiggly toddler. A top of the line memory-foam mattress is no match for snores, elbows to the face, and a lousy ventilation system. But take some time to think about your environment and what changes you can make to your room, your bed, or your routine to help yourself get closer to that ideal. What can you control? If you are in the mindset of positivity and problem solving, you will already be moving away from labeling yourself a bad sleeper.

Bed equals sleep

If your environment is pro-slumber and you are still tossing and turning, take some time to create a sleep log. Try to keep track of when you go to bed, when you fall asleep, the duration of your sleep, and how you are feeling when you wake up. If your pattern is that you go to bed at 10:00 p.m. but you toss and turn and eventually fall asleep at midnight and sleep until 6:00 a.m., maybe you should try consolidating your sleep. If you are only getting 6 hours of sleep a night, get into bed closer to when you are typically falling asleep. Perhaps this sounds counterintuitive, but we want to pair the thought of your bed with sleep instead of sleeplessness. Tossing and turning and being a bad sleeper can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. So if you figure out your sleep pattern and you adjust your timing and you are still not catching those ZZZs, get out of your bed. If you are not sleeping for more than 15 minutes, get up and go do something to fatigue yourself. Maybe it is a boring task like unloading the dishwasher or getting a glass of water or doing some light yoga. Whatever is going to tire you out versus stimulate you is a great idea; then try going to bed again. Bed should equal comfort and restful sleep so if that is not your equation, get up for a bit and then start again.

Hoping for sweeter dreams

Often bedtime can be rough because it signals the end of the day and offers lots of time to process what happened. Anxiety or negative self-talk are like, woohoo, time to join this party! No distractions leave you alone with thoughts and feelings about what happened today and what will happen tomorrow. Yikes, that is a nightmare! Before you get into that close-to-ideal bed situation, give yourself some time to write down your thoughts. Journaling is a great tool to beat anxiety, to give yourself processing time of which you are in control. Write down some thoughts about your day, what you are proud of or grateful for, and/or even a to-do list if you are thinking about tomorrow. And then literally close up that book, fold up that paper, or at least move the post-it away from your bed. Make the act of putting away your thoughts (good, bad, and otherwise) intentional as you get into bed. Perhaps do some deep breathing as you cover yourself with your blankets and think about covering yourself with calming, restful, positive feelings.

Sometimes despite our best efforts, we wake up after an actual nightmare or just find ourselves awake in the middle of the night. Again, if the tossing and turning is prolonged, get out of bed and give yourself a new sensory experience like a drink of water and then try to get back into bed when you feel tired. If you are overwhelmed by images in your dream, try to write them down and then close them up in a notebook, or just visualize putting that thought or feeling away again to signal to yourself that you should compartmentalize and focus on sleep again.

Get ready for a snoozefest

If you are struggling with sleep and some behavioral or cognitive changes are not giving you relief, please get yourself checked out by a medical professional to determine if your symptoms are related to a physical ailment or could be treated with medication. There are sleep centers that can help determine causes for insomnia and provide treatment for sleeping issues. There are also helpful apps out there that use guided meditation to increase relaxation as you try to fall asleep. If anxious thoughts are overwhelming you, please consider psychotherapy or at least talking with friends and family about what is bothering you and perhaps keeping you up at night.

Sleep does not have to be a far-fetched goal that you have no control over, whether you’re an infant learning to sleep for the first time or an adult battling nightly bouts of restlessness. With some effort and consistency, it is possible to improve your attachment to sleeping. You started out as a tiny human who had no idea when it was the right time to be awake and someone likely helped you to learn to self-soothe and go to sleep. So help yourself re-learn that same self-soothing behavior. Take care of yourself and good night!

“Don’t Worry, Be Happy”? As If It Is That Easy.

Posted on: December 7th, 2018 by Justin Tobin

By Lindsey Rogers, LCPC

In 1988, Bobby McFerrin’s song “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” topped the charts, urging everyone to let go of whatever was troubling them and focus on the positive. The charming tune may be a helpful mantra for some, but for people struggling with anxiety, not worrying isn’t that easy. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, roughly 18 percent of the United States population over the age of 18 is affected by anxiety. “That gives me anxiety” or “I had a panic attack over that” are part of the lexicon but acceptance and treatment of an anxiety disorder is far more fear-producing for people. A little anxiety before a performance, public speaking, or a first date makes sense. Anxiety is a natural reaction to stress. But when these symptoms are pervasive, are not triggered by a circumstance, or interfere with day-to-day functioning, it’s another story. Stress hormones flood our bodies and cause us to experience the physiological symptoms of anxiety such as a racing heartbeat, tightness in our chests, or gastrointestinal problems. We are wired to experience these symptoms because they alert us to prospective danger and encourage us to react in an aggressive way or avoid the threat (fight or flight). Worries are often verbally expressed whereas anxiety is very much experienced throughout our bodies. The more we can understand anxiety as different than a passing worry, as a real state that needs to be managed and treated rather than just ignored, the better we will be.

Me: “What could possibly go wrong?” Anxiety: “I’m glad you asked.”
Anxiety can have a snowball effect. A teeny-tiny-sized ball of white powder becomes an enormous boulder of packed ice, picking up speed and power as it ricochets down a steep incline. This is what happens with our thoughts. We easily add onto the negative, scary possibilities of what could go wrong. We anticipate and take on the negative outcomes we imagine. On top of that, we get really, really good at creating a sense of how bad things could get. Forget horror films; anxiety can cause us to imagine a super scary setting where we definitely should not go and yet, every time—every single time—we walk right in and know we are going to be obliterated. This distorted thinking is pretty great at appearing in full-force at nighttime, especially when we are trying to fall asleep or stay asleep. We struggle to live with uncertainty so we imagine and think and then feel our ways into these worst-case scenarios. There is also often a false belief when we start ruminating that we will figure it out—that we will get to the end of the thought loop and solve the problem. So we just keep going over and over it in our minds. Sound familiar? It is exhausting and can leave us feeling really defeated and powerless. So when someone tells us, “Just get over it, why worry?” that can feel very dismissive.

How to slow down those avalanches
Challenging your thoughts is a great way to start chipping away at those snowballs in your mind. Psychotherapy can help you learn and exercise tools to manage anxiety. It takes time and practice to change the way you are thinking. A helpful acronym to remember for “FEAR” is “False Expectations Appearing Real.” It can be useful to slow down those anxious thoughts and see them for what they are: really vivid, realistic-looking thoughts that, vivid and realistic as they may seem, are not true. Mindfulness is a great tool to help calm the physiological aspects of anxiety. If you can feel present in the moment and see the anxious thoughts as falling snowflakes versus crushing slabs of hardened precipitation, well, that sounds a lot better, doesn’t it? You may be a little frustrated with the snow out of the blue, you may need to put a hat on, but you can figure out ways to let the snow fall. If this wintry metaphor leaves you cold, think of another way of managing anxiety by completing your thoughts. If you are imagining those worst-case scenarios in the middle of the night, try to keep on completing them. What?! Keep going?! Likely the thoughts are about a bad thing happening to you over which you lack control. Completing the thought means you process that worst-case scenario and instead of getting stuck with how bad it would feel, you arm yourself with what you would do. Anxious thoughts leave us feeling helpless and stuck. When we remind ourselves that we have self-efficacy and abilities and strengths, the feelings of powerlessness dissipate a bit. Finally, an exercise like journaling or finding a container for the overwhelming thoughts can be helpful. The less it feels like you are stuck with these thoughts and feelings, the better.

Keep your snow shovel handy
No need to criticize Bobby McFerrin’s major hit. The idea of being happy sounds a lot better than being crushed by the weight of worries. The more we are able to identify our triggers and manage anxiety—equip ourselves with our snow gear, so to speak—the better we will feel. Know that it isn’t easy to manage overwhelming thoughts and feelings; it takes help, strategies, and even medication at times. And it may look like your neighbor’s driveway is always easily cleared whereas you have a mountain range of snow accumulation. But the reality is that anxiety is common, and real, and there are ways to cope.

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