Is Your Stress Normal?


Many people wonder if the amount of stress they are experiencing is “normal”. They look to the person next to them and think “hmm, that guy looks pretty happy…am happy enough? Should I be more worried about the fact that I’m not as happy as that guy?” Before they know it, they begin to stress about stress.

The truth is, stress is an inevitable part of human life. And it can indeed serve a healthy function when it motivates us to work toward important goals or avoid dangerous situations. The tricky thing is that this healthy stress (eustress) can turns to unhealthy stress (distress and suffering) almost imperceptibly. So how do we know when our stress is no longer “normal?”

The thing to remember is that distress occurs over a duration of time, when a continuous amount of stress is experienced with no periods of relaxation or reprieve. This negative stress builds and builds, eventually throwing our equilibrium into an out-of-sync state and causing a variety of emotional, mental and physical symptoms.

  • Emotional signs of distress: decreased motivation, low frustration tolerance, feelings of hopelessness, short temper
  • Mental signs of distress: decreased focus and concentration, racing thoughts, difficulty retaining or recalling information, feeling “out of it”
  • Physical signs of distress: exhaustion, general muscle tension and pain (headache, stomachache, muscle pain), increased or decreased appetite, disrupted sleep

 

How to prevent emotional distress

Remember, experiencing some level of stress in your day-to-day life is inevitable and generally harmless. The important thing is monitoring symptoms and taking preemptive steps to manage that stress before it turns to burnout (once you’re in an emotionally exhausted state, it will be more difficult to bounce back.

Listed below are key strategies to implement today and continually practice:
    • accept what you cannot control. Acknowledge negative experiences instead of avoiding or ruminating on them (read more here and here)
    • manage time effectively by setting realistic goals and expectations (read more here)
    • set boundaries by saying “no” to obligations that will create excess stress
    • express feelings and opinions instead of holding them inside
    • practice self-compassion (read more here)

An important take away is to remember that regardless of whether it’s “rational” or “irrational”, any stress or distress that you feel is valid.  The last thing you want to do is compare yourself with others who seem (keyword: seem) to have things “more together” than you. In fact, worrying about how you stack up to others will likely create unnecessary anxiety that will just create distress, if it wasn’t already there to begin with. 

Now more than ever, you serve to be light in spirit and mind. Similar to how staying physically healthy can help you better fight off illness, strengthening coping skills and mental well-being will foster your ability to tolerate distress and persevere though challenging times.
– Carolyn Moriarty, LPC

Declutter your Life

 

After a long, hectic year, autumn is a time for “new beginnings”. A new school year begins, leaves start to change and weather feels less oppressive.  It makes sense, then, to take advantage of this time by taking inventory of the things in our own lives we wish to change or get rid of. This mental and emotional clutter can build up over time, leaving us in a constant state of exhaustion, depression, irritability and stress.  As we proceed into yet another season of change, incorporate the following to achieve maximum serenity:  

1. Spend Your Time Carefully
It’s hard to be calm if you are surrounded by toxic people, those who leave you feeling exhausted, rather than energized, after each interaction. While constant complaining or gossiping are the usual M.O. for toxic people, they can also operate in coverts ways by being flaky, perpetually late, or even throwing subtle digs and backhanded compliments your way. Treat your time and energy as sacred things and spend them only on relationships that benefit you in a positive way. Do not be afraid to take space from those who are not invested in your well-being. 

2. Pay Attention to Your Thoughts 
While other people can negatively impact our mood and emotions, sometimes we are our own worst critic.  People who experience chronic anxiety and worry tend to feel guilty for things that were outside their control or label themselves as a “loser” or “unworthy.” This thinking error, or “cognitive distortion”, occurs when we rely on inaccurate or biased logic to process information. As a result, we act and behave in irrational ways without understanding the real reasons for we did so. Our skewed perspective on reality also leaves us with feelings of anxiety and distress. Common types of cognitive distortions include:

    • All-or-nothing thinking: thinking in terms of black and white. “Everything must be perfect, or I am a total failure.”

 

    • Overgeneralization: applying the outcome a single negative experience to all current scenarios. “The last interview I had was terrible. This interview will be a disaster too. I am not employable.”

 

    • Fortune-telling: immediately jumping immediately to worst-case scenarios. “I just know that something is going to go horribly wrong.”

Are you still ruminating on something you did or didn’t do six months ago? Stop now. This does not mean resigning yourself to all the bad things that have happened or might happen. Rather, forgiving yourself means giving yourself permission to not spend mental energy getting angry, fighting the feelings or assigning blame. The long chain of events and decisions that led you to the current situation all have a cause—to change reality, you must first accept the reality without judgement. 

3. Take a Time Out
It may sound like an obvious concept, but setting aside time for yourself can easily get swept away by daily, weekly and monthly routines. Identify one activity you want to get back into, or try for the first time. Then, make it a priority. Mark it on the calendar and hold yourself accountable by not making the plans contingent upon whether other people will be able to join you. Trying a new activity is a great way to meet like-minded individuals and take a break from your usual routine. 

While fall is a great season to start cleaning up your mental health, don’t forget to check back in with yourself frequently throughout the year to reflect on whether you have any baggage that might be weighing you down.

– Carolyn Moriarty, LPC

Schools Out…Forever?

 

In the blog post, “Helping Kids with Back to School Anxiety,” we discussed specific ways to manage the stressful nuances of returning to the classroom (or lack thereof) — a topic that is becoming increasingly salient as millions of children are now entering into a school year fraught with uncertainty, instability and change. But beyond the just first day of school, there are additional anxieties and challenges that are unique to the concept of “e-learning.” 

Amidst the numerous pandemic woes, those with youngsters have had to juggle the daunting task of balancing work life with family life, all under one roof. While traces of summer still remain, the first day of school for many is right around the corner – and it looks a little different this year. Instead of taking their children’s hand and walking them to the front steps of school, parents are being asked to walk them the short distance to the computer. As a society embarking on a “new normal,” we’re asking our educators to be computer connoisseurs, parents to double as teacher assistants while maintaining steady income, and our children to stay engaged over the screen. 

Here are a few tips and tricks for navigating those challenges while setting the tone for e-learning. 

Model Healthy Anxiety Management: As we know from Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) problems typically arise from the interaction between our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Oftentimes, this means that our thoughts influence how we feel and subsequently behave. If you as the parent are engaging in anxiety ridden dialogue and patterns, your child will learn these fear based assumptions and manifest similar predispositions. You are not only the role model for your child, but MODELING behavior and thought patterns for them. Empower yourself and your child by notating difficult circumstances you have overcome as a family, and channel those results into this “new normal.”

Be Informed! It’s important to have some practical resources to assist you during this time. Right now, Chicago Public Schools are providing internet at ZERO cost to those who qualify. To find more resources, you can visit this CPS website or call CPS at (773) 417-1060 to find out if you’re eligible and sign up. In addition to technical assistance, right now all CPS students – regardless of income, citizenship, or whether they receive SNAP are eligible for P-EBT benefits through the state for food assistance. You can apply for food stamps here

Implement Manageable Routines: This is important in all facets of life, but is particularly important when work, school, and play are all taking place in the same space. Children are exceptionally receptive to routine.Creating a visible schedule that includes all members of the family can help you and your child transition from summertime. When school or work is over, put away the screens and make time to truly connect. Setting time aside to cook a meal together and more importantly EAT together away from distractions can be truly meaningful. Make popcorn and have a movie night – establish a routine that is meaningful to your family and stick to it.

Set Boundaries: Ever heard of that saying “you can’t fill from an empty cup?” Well despite the cliché, there’s some truth to that. Prioritize your mental health and communicate with your partner about your needs and potential burnout. Don’t make commitments to something unless it serves you and remember that declining an invitation isn’t “rude” if that’s what you need. Make time for yourself (even if that means getting up 15 minutes early for a cup of coffee to yourself) and if possible, sneak away for a date night!

Use What Ya Got:  Utilizing support systems is crucial right now, particularly for those fearful of how to manage children’s school work amongst their own load. Many neighborhoods have Facebook groups that connect people in the community. Reach out to your local school and find out if there are tutors/part-time teachers available to assist during the school day. Communicate with your typical support system and stay connected with them to keep yourself accountable.

A new school year can bring new possibilities, and in 2020 we’ve all faced a few curve balls. Right now is a great time to model flexibility during unprecedented times for your child, paving the way for greater adaptability when faced with stress in the future. Back to school may look a little different this year, but it’s important to support ourselves and our families as we maneuver through these challenges.

– Malory Dahl, MA, CSAC

Letting Go of Resentment

 

In previous blog posts, we talked about the role of forgiveness in alleviating resentment. The main take-away here is that forgiveness can help us to unload emotional weight we’ve been carrying around and achieve peace of mind. The tricky thing is that holding on to resentment and anger came happen so automatically that it can be extremely difficult to even know when we’re doing it. 

 
The first step in identifying resentment is understanding the two types. It is important to know which type you are experiencing because the way in which you cope with it will be different. 
  • Current resentment: this type of resentment is caused by something that is happening day-to-day in the present. These are things that feel unfair but are also difficult to change. We may think to ourselves “this keeps happening and I don’t like it”. An example would be being continually saddled with an unreasonable amount of responsibilities at work or at home.
  • Past resentment: this relates to old hurts or “unfinished business”. While we may have decided to “let it go” mentally, we are unable to do so emotionally. Past resentments are usually tied to attachment wounds, when we experienced a significant amount of betrayal or disappointment from the person we are angry with.

Tune into your anger and identify which type of resentment resonates most. It is important to keep in mind that one is not better or worse than the other. Regardless of what you are experiencing, it will affect you in relationships because resentment makes it hard to show kindness, generosity, appreciation, gratitude and warmth toward the other person. 

 How do we cope? 

While it is tempting to push negative feelings down, doing so will only cause them to keep building up. 

    • to cope with our anger, we have to make contact with anger. Acknowledge the emotion and ask yourself “what am I angry about?” 
    • for past resentments, it is important to revisit the past and process what happened. Experiencing the pain and anger instead of shutting down. This could be an opportunity to practice the skill of forgiveness in order to let go of the emotional burdens that have been weighing us down. 
    • for current resentments, identify what relationship feels out of balance. We can ask ourselves what we would like it to look like instead. What needs to happen day-to-day? What would be fair to both parties? While this may be more difficult to do in a work relationship where the power dynamics are different, there is usually some room to negotiate agreements.

Remember, resentment happens due to feeling like we can’t talk about your anger, which leaves us feeling “stuck”. Staying silent fuels resentment and breeds hostility. Eventually, that hostility will cause us to behave in less than ideal ways toward the person we are angry with. This person, not being able to read our mind, will likely be completely unaware of why we are irritated and why we are acting the way we are. The key point to remember is that people cannot understand your anger until they can connect it with something they can deal with. The way to help people connect is by talking about emotions, rather than pushing them down. Focus on “fairness” and be willing to negotiate and compromise. You may find that taking just this first step can be surprisingly cathartic in itself!– Carolyn Moriarty, LPC

Helping Kids with Back to School Anxiety

 

After last spring’s turbulent ending to the school year, and a similarly unpredictable summer, it is now time to gear up for the start of another academic year. In keeping with the theme of 2020, things are not going to be the same—for students, teacher or parents. Some kids are dubiously starting a new phase of “e-learning”, others are returning to the classroom and still others are doing a hybrid of both. Parents are caregivers must adjust their own schedules to accommodate these changes—all of which combine to add an extra layer to an already anxiety-provoking time of year. The first step is recognizing whether your child might be experiencing these worries. 

 
Common signs of school-related anxiety in children include: 
  • repeatedly asking for reassurance about the same questions, even if they have already been answered. For instance, “what if my friends decide they don’t like me?” or “what if the teacher is mean?” 
  • complaints of physical symptoms when no illness is present, such as stomachaches and headaches
  • changes in sleeping and eating habits 
  • avoidance or reluctance to engage in discussions related to school 

While anxiety and stress are inevitable, they don’t need to cause suffering. Read on to learn the ABCs of helping everyone in your household navigate this transition.

  • Anticipate and acknowledge anxieties: instead of waiting for anxieties to bubble up the night before the first day of school, get ahead of the game by predicting potential challenges in advance. For instance, children who experience separation anxiety or have difficulty adjusting to changes in routine can be expected to find the transition to a new year more stressful. Avoiding discussion about these topics may feel like you are protecting your child from undue stress, but chances are that he or she is already thinking about them on some level. Facilitating a conversation will a neutral question such as “do you know who will be in your class this year?” will help children process and familiarize themselves to the anxieties of these uncertain situations.
  • Bprepared practiced. So far, 2020 has cautioned us against developing a false sense of security by telling ourselves that we are “prepared”. So, instead of issuing that challenge to the universe, focus instead on the more accurate actions of being “practiced”, “planned” or “purposeful”. The idea here is to do a “dry run” of the school day routine in advance, whether that means walking/driving to school, waking up early to log on to the computer or role-playing conversations. Ask your child what parts of the day he or she is most nervous about and go from there.  
  • Choose consistency. The transition from summer to a more structured schedule can cause anxiety in itself. You can help your child by shifting into the new schedule a week or so in advance of school to help them become acclimated to the change. This is also a good time to teach children how to develop their own routine by setting aside time each night for reading, journaling and getting prepared for the following day. 
While back to school anxieties are common, it should not consistently interfere with your child’s day to day life or cause excessive distress. If your child seems to be struggling despite your support, consider seeking out the help of a guidance counselors or making an appointment with a mental health professional to further ensure a successful start to the school year.
 

– Carolyn Moriarty, LPC

What is Creative Hopelessness?


In past blog posts, we’ve talked about how to use mindfulness and acceptance to cope with uncomfortable thoughts, sensations and emotions. The take-away message is that in order to avoid unnecessary suffering, we must let go of any ideas about the way we wished things could be and instead accept the way that we are in the present moment. Once we accept our reality without judgement, we are better able to see things for what they are. This allows us to shift the behaviors that we control and take steps towards the fulfillment of our goals and values. 

 “Creative hopelessness” is tool used to promote acceptance by encouraging people reflect upon what they have been avoiding in their lives in their efforts to avoid distress. The logic behind this focuses on the theory that these avoidance behaviors make pain and suffering worse over time. For instance, not taking part in meaningful activities can trigger depression and anxiety, which makes pain and distress feel more severe. The heightened pain and distress then further decrease motivation to engage in activities. This cycle can be powerful, leading many people to believe that they have to wait until their unpleasant life circumstances go away before taking steps toward fulfillment. 
 
If you have ever been caught this trap, thinking “I’ll start [positive goal] when [unpleasant current circumstance ends]”, creative hopelessness could be useful for you. The important thing to remember is not to conflate feelings like “anxiety” or “sorrow” with “suffering.” Equating uncomfortable emotions with suffering can easily make us feel tortured by those emotions. Consistent anguish and torment will ignite the hopelessness that adds fuel to the cycle of avoidance and misery. 
 
Creative hopelessness encourages the use of acceptance to acknowledge struggles for what they are. It goes a step further by asking the questions: “What you would do if your struggle never goes away? How would you live your life differently?” Chances are, you would find ways to take steps toward whatever bring you joy and purpose, even if you have to bring sadness or anxiety along for the journey.   
To practice this yourself, think about your goals (or learn about how to set effective goals). Ask yourself what avoidance behaviors have prevented or slowed down your progress toward these goals, and what that avoidance has cost you. Then, make necessary adjustments to those goals by accepting what you cannot control and identifying what behaviors you do have control over. Although it may not be the path you initially envisioned, getting “creative” with hopelessness can be a powerful tool in helping you decide what path you were meant to travel.
 
Carolyn Moriarty, LPC

Minority Mental Health Awareness Month


In May 2008, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) established July as “National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month.” The purpose of this was two-fold: to raise public awareness of mental health among minorities and make mental health services more accessible to racial and ethnic minority groups. 

Although July is nearly over, awareness of mental health in minority populations should be a year-round priority. The US Department of Health and Human Services reports that individuals in these minority groups not only have less access to mental health support but they are also less likely to use community mental health services. Reasons for this include: 

  • not having health insurance or adequate coverage
  • increased stigma about mental health
  • internalized belief that treatment will not help 


Added to this is the fact that people in marginalized communities often receiver lower quality of care due to a number of factors, including:

  • language barriers
  • insufficient cultural competence on behalf of treatment providers
  • racism and discrimination in treatment settings 


Not seeking mental health treatment serves to exacerbate pre-existing issues, leading to a variety of emotional problems and even increased rates of suicide. Fortunately, there are many mental health organizations who recognize this epidemic and are dedicated to providing support and resources to individuals in a variety of different ethnic groups, including Black, Latino and Indigenous Peoples. You can view some of those resources by clicking here, or by making an appointment of your own with a mental health professional. 


Carolyn Moriarty, LPC

A Mid-Year Check In

 

Believe it or not, we are more than halfway through 2020. “How are you doing?” may seem like a loaded question right now, to say the very least. However, experiencing times of uncertainty or tenuousness make it all the more important to ask ourselves this question. How are you doing, really

If you are unsure how to even begin answering this question, consider some of the prompts below to guide your self-reflection.

    • How are you different than you were a year ago? Instead of focusing on the acquisition or loss of tangible things, try to identify things you have learned and ways in which your perspective and mindset evolved.

 

    • What things have grown to appreciate over the past seven months? Reflect on ways you can incorporate those things into your daily life going forward.

 

    • What area of your life needs more attention? Consider how much time you currently dedicate to the following domains: physical exercise, learning, fun, spiritual growth, creative expression and fostering social connections.

 

    • How did you cope when thing got bad? Think about a specific bad day or experience that happened this year—how did you survive it? Is there anything you could have done, realistically speaking, to make it easier on yourself? 

 

    • What are your top priorities right now? A good way to clarify the answer to this to ask yourself what your life would look like if you could wake up tomorrow morning and have everything be exactly the way you want it to be. 


Taking a “white knuckle” approach to struggle only leads to more struggle. Self-care and compassion fosters resilience, which will be the more effective tool to achieving emotional well-being.

The key to this is being intentional about what you hope to accomplish when you engage in this self-reflection. It is easy to get distracted when you do not “buy into” the importance of recognizing where your focus needs to be. Hold yourself accountable by making small, concrete changes to your life right away (for example, taking walks or utilizing a specific coping skill more often).  With practice, you will feel increased levels of control, focus and confidence as you square up to face the second have of the year. 

– Carolyn Moriarty, LPC

We Need to Talk About Racism

 

While the word is still reeling from coronavirus, we are now forced to confront another, more uncomfortable epidemic—racism. And I say “uncomfortable” because that is the emotions it elicits in most non-POC (persons of color). This becomes an important point to make, given that the instinctual response to any type of emotional discomfort is typically avoidance. Avoidance is the 20-pound shield we drag around hoping that it will protect us from vulnerability and feelings of shame, guilt and judgement. But when we use that shield to protect ourselves, we simultaneously endanger the lives of more vulnerable populations. 

One important step in dropping the shield of avoidance is to understand that “racism” does not always manifest in overt, unthinkable acts portrayed on the news and in textbooks. Racial microaggressions and discrimination are an inherent, and often unrecognized, part of our environments. Members of a dominate group commit acts of microaggression when they make subtle, often unintentional, assumptions that serve to alienate, label or demean members of a minority group. For example, making a knee-jerk assumption about a person’s intellect, socioeconomic status or favorite music based on the color of their skin. 


Rather than avoid, we should reflect upon and confront these unconscious biases. Being able to write down our thoughts as an exercise of reflection is an enormously beneficial habit to acquire. It can serve to solidify what we see, feel and value most. The process of articulating thoughts into words can also force us to ask ourselves tougher questions that may have otherwise gone unacknowledged. Self-reflection is the first step toward recognizing, respecting and responding with informed thoughtfulness to a variety of differences between people. 


Remember, discomfort is not a bad thing. Stress, anxiety, regret and shame are signs that a behavior or action you are witnessing (or taking part in) are not aligned with your personal morals or beliefs. Pay attention to those feelings. Using avoidance as a shield to protect ourselves only acts as a barrier in allowing us to really understand the experience of another. And coupled with a lack of self-awareness, avoidance leads to a complex pattern of discriminatory behavior that implicitly and unconsciously enforces negative stereotypes. Anyone can take an active role in promoting respect and tolerance in their communities by paying listening to minority groups and engaging in continual self-reflection to understand the way we define ourselves, the way we see others and the way in which others perceive us.

– Carolyn Moriarty, LPC

Mental Health Life Hacks (Part 3)

 

If you’ve been following along for the past few weeks, this blog has featured simple ways to get out of a funk and gain a fresh perspective on life. Read on for the third and final segment of this series.  

  • Live in the here and now 

Focusing on transgressions from the past or fears about the future is a surefire way to increase anxiety. The fact the you cannot change the past or predict the future can add to the overwhelming feeling of being powerless and “stuck.” This is why it is helpful to make contact with the present moment—where you are living now. You can practice this mindfulness by simply paying attention to your emotions and the sights, sounds, smells and sensations that are occurring in the current moment. Observe your thoughts; when you notice that they are beginning to turn to the past or present, bring your attention back to what is going on around you. 

  • Drink water 

This mental health hack is simple, but important. It is common to neglect basic self-care when feeling burnt-out, depressed or exhausted. Inadequate water intake can exacerbate these symptoms and cause increased feelings of being unwell. Engaging in tasks to increase mental health can seem daunting, but if nothing else, commit to drinking one glass of cold water to provide your system with an immediate boost. 

  • Get vitamin D 

Similar to food and water, your body needs vitamin D for energy. Increased amount of time indoors and inadequate diet can cause deficiencies in this nutrient. Common symptoms of vitamin D deficiency are headache, fatigue, depression and sore joints and muscles. Add more to your diet by taking supplements; increasing time in the sun and eating foods such as salmon, tuna, mushroom and egg yolks. 

Everybody gets into a funk now and then. It is important not to criticize yourself for feeling down; sometimes it is just your body’s way of signaling that it needs something new. You can always start small by focusing on doing just one thing. Consistency is key—a new behavior will become easier the more often it is practiced. Try building these habits today and experience the significant benefits of these small changes. 

– Carolyn Moriarty, LPC