Mental Health Life Hacks (Part 2)

 

The last blog post introduced simple ways to improve mental well-being when you get stuck in an emotional rut. If you enjoyed those tips, read on for more mental health hacks on how to get “unstuck” and start moving forward again.

  • Determine what needs to change 

When life becomes monotonous, you may get the nagging feeling that something is “missing”. The hard part of course is figuring out what that something is. According to William Glasser’s “Choice Theory”, humans have five basic needs: survival, belonging, competence, freedom and fun. You can read the first tip on the previous blog post to learn more about the importance of “survival” (having what you need to feel physically safe and healthy). The rest of Glasser’s needs essentially state that people are happiest when they feel like they are living up to the optimal version of themselves. This boils down to the extent to which they are able to:  feel competent in their profession, build meaningful connections, have a sense of agency and learn new things that interest them. If you feel like something is “missing”, reflect upon what aspects of your personal development may benefit from additional attention. Start by taking small, achievable steps and build momentum from there. 

  • Make a physical change 

Making a tangible, concrete change can be a quick way to give yourself the feel of a “fresh start”.  Because interior space often reflects emotional state, a good place to start is rearranging the furniture in your bedroom. “Cleansing” your wardrobe and donating clothes that aren’t working for you is another way to boost peace of mind and optimism. If organizing sounds like too much energy, you can focus on self-care changes such as trying out a brand-new haircut, makeup or hairstyle. 

  • Make a connection 

If you are feeling down on yourself, being social probably doesn’t feel like a top priority. While it is important to take some downtime by yourself, be mindful that it is not turning into a pattern of isolation. Being in quarantine may technically mean you are physically isolated, but that is all the more reason to reach out to a friend or loved one through video or phone. Keep the conversation light if you do not have the energy to talk about all your emotions. Sometimes, having a good laugh can give you exactly the boost you need.

Give these “hacks” a try and feel free to leave a comment and share your own go-to coping skills! Stay tuned for more posts on how to be your optimal self. 

– Carolyn Moriarty, LPC

Mental Health Hacks

 

The effects of physical, mental and emotional fatigue are real. This burnout can seriously impair your concentration, energy, confidence, decision-making—just about everything that makes you feel like “you”. This can be a slippery slope considering that the deeper you fall into the rut, the more difficult it feels to claw your way out.

The good news is that getting “unstuck” does not need to be a superhuman feat. Slowly building new habits can provide a fresh perspective and provide the momentum you need for tackling bigger tasks. Read the following mental heath hacks for guidance on how to re-boot your life.

  • Go back to basics 

Nobody can be productive if their basic needs are not being met. This includes things like sleep, nutrition, exercise and hygiene. Focus on small actions that can trigger bigger habits. For instance, drinking a glass of water first thing in the morning will prevent dehydration and make it more likely that will continue making healthier choices. Committing to walking for 10 minutes outside each morning can get you into the habit of physical activity, which can lead to more energy to increase the amount of time you spend exercising.

 

  • Acknowledge your thoughts

Worry is a huge energy drain. Much of the time, you are likely not even aware that you are engaging in ruminations because the thoughts often come automatically. These automatic thoughts are usually self-critical or future-oriented: “I’m so lazy”, “I’ll never accomplish my goal”. Many people mistakenly believe that the solution here is to “just be better” at not focusing on those negative thoughts. The thing is, criticizing yourself for being too self-critical only perpetuates the rumination cycle. Rather than resist the anxiety, intentionally confront and acknowledge the worry “it is possible that I could lose my job. Anything could happen. I can’t predict the future”. Acknowledging your thoughts will not change reality for the worse or better, but it will free up mental energy that you can now spend on something more productive.

 

  • Follow the five second rule

Procrastination can be the biggest threat to productiveness. Quickly checking your email before starting a project can lead into spending hours on social media. It has been said that you can talk yourself out of anything in five seconds. The next time you find yourself resisting going for a walk or doing laundry, give yourself to the count to five and then get moving without giving your actions a second thought. This can give you the “push” you need to start a task, which is usually the most difficult part.

Remember that everyone gets stuck in a rut every now and then. Don’t spend precious time and energy criticizing yourself for “failing” to live up to your standards, just focus on the small things you are able to control. Try these tips and look for mental health hacks coming soon!

– Carolyn Moriarty, LPC

Whatever You Are Feeling is OK

 

 

What you grieve for is not the loss of a grand vision, but rather the loss of common things, events, and gestures. Ordinariness is the most precious thing you struggle for. –Irena Kelpfisz

 

In the wake of the COVID pandemic, people everywhere are being forced to reckon with a new way of living. “Unprecedented times” is a phrase that has been used ad nauseum to describe this state of affairs. With no blueprint to reference, people often struggle with how they “should” or “shouldn’t be” feeling. If you find yourself in a similar struggle, consider the following lessons to be your guide.

Accept (and embrace) the fact that things don’t feel normal

There is an instinctual desire to cling to normalcy during periods of major transition. You might fear that your sense of identity is slipping away and that this change might be permanent. This is understandably difficult. Nobody relishes feeling unnerved and uncertain. 

Remember that facing new circumstances and challenges is an inherent part of life, and sometimes it means you are not who you were before. A teenage client once offhandedly remarked that: “if it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you”. This puts things into perspective in regard to how you grow as an individual. Right now you are experiencing this uncomfortable process of growth and your needs might also be changing. Honor the feeling that things are off-balance and that your evolving needs will not go away just because you ignore or neglect them. 

Don’t compare your struggle to anyone else’s. 

People have been affected by the pandemic in varying degrees. Many people have suffered major losses, from jobs to loved ones. Others who have much fortunate circumstances might feel like they have to suck it up and push through hard days because they’re “lucky.” 

The thing is, you are still allowed to have hard days dealing with your current life circumstances even if someone else’s are far more tragic. Dealing with a variety of fears still requires compassion. The quote by Irena Kelpfisz serves as a reminder of how you do not need to suffer a tragic loss in order to for your grief to be valid: “What you grieve for is not the loss of a grand vision, but rather the loss of common things, events, and gestures. Ordinariness is the most precious thing you struggle for”. 

Don’t expect yourself to do what you could do before. 

If you struggle with how you “should be” feeling, chances are you are engaged in a similar battle with what you “should be” accomplishing. Everyone has been forced to scale back on their usual routine to some extent. You might feel pressured to use our extra time more productively, or are frustrated with yourself for not being able to focus on the day-to-day tasks you used to accomplish with relative ease. Perhaps you think that you “should be” (there’s those words again) able to do more. This maybe because you may compare yourself to others who are in similar—or worse—situations that seem to be doing more. Or you have high expectations of ourselves and subconsciously tie your self-worth to your achievements. What ensues is a cycle of feeling like a failure, belittling yourself, trying to push through exhaustion, not being productive, and again feeling like a failure. Spoiler: this is not the formula for triumph. 

Put simply: if you are tired, you need rest. If you are overwhelmed and burnout, you need a break. And if you are slipping into a spiral of self-criticism, you need self-compassion. Remember what was mentioned earlier about your evolving needs—nothing will improve until you can give yourself whatever it is you need to overcome this trial. Utilize your time and energy wisely by focusing only on the immediate priorities for each day. 

Know this: wherever you are going through right now, and whatever you are feeling, is a key part of your life experience. Honor your emotions and your struggle because these challenges often lead to new chapters. Spend energy on whatever it is that will allow you to take good care of yourself through the lows so you are able rise back up to meet the highs with renewed growth. 


– Carolyn Moriarty, LPC

Riding Out the Ups and Downs of Life

 

The one thing in life we can count on to remain constant is fact that things are always changing. Change is like the undercurrent of an ocean. It’s always there, surrounding us. It affects us whether we like it or not. One minute, the waves of change are imperceptible and we float along feeling peaceful and safe. And then, without warning, the tide suddenly shifts. The waves grow bigger and become more threatening. They crash down on us, creating a sense of panic and instability. How do we navigate choppy waters when we find ourselves up the creek without a paddle?

Water puns aside, the ocean offers a good metaphor for how to cope with unexpected and challenging times. Take a look at some key lessons:

The balance between acceptance and change
When we find ourselves in unpleasant and distressing circumstances, our first instinct as human is to spend a lot of energy resisting or avoiding the situation. It seems helpful in the moment because we are preventing ourselves from experiencing suffering. But how would it play out if we caught in an actual riptide? Would we say to ourselves “hmm, this is quite unpleasant…maybe I will feel better if I pretend this isn’t happening to me”. Of course not. Nor would we resist the situation by fighting against the current–that would be self-sabotaging and just lead to more unnecessary suffering.

This is where the balance of acceptance and change takes place. To cope effectively with any unpleasant situation, 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. That is not the same as approving of the situation or resigning ourselves to our fate. Once we accept our reality without judgement, we are better able to see things for what they are. It is then that we can begin to look at all the pieces of the puzzle, determine what we have control over and identify potential action steps. Just like the riptide, reality will not change for the worse or better just because we accept that it exists.

The virtue of patience
Just like a fisherman at sea, it is natural to experience fear and uncertainty when conditions are tumultuous. It can seem like that the storm will never pass and we wonder how we will survive. But eventually, the storm does pass and things do quiet down. Embracing reality can be distressing. But it is important to ourselves that life is inherently full highs and lows downs, and that we have experienced and survived all of the ups and downs in the past. In times when we don’t have control, all we can do is patient and ride out the storm.

Reflect upon what strategies you have been using to deal with unpleasant thoughts and feelings. Ask yourself honestly if those strategies resulted in less suffering and made the problems go away. Most people would likely say that they intentionally or unintentionally “check out” from unpleasant feelings or ruminate on them—making things feel completely out of control. If this sounds familiar, remember that you are the captain of your own ship. Keep the two simple lessons in mind and know that you have the freedom and competence to chart your own course though life.

– Carolyn Moriarty, LPC

Let’s Talk About the Coronavirus

 

OK, so things are a little weird right now. And it seems like things got that way pretty fast. Just a few weeks ago, we were following our daily mundane routines and now most of the world is in quarantine. How did we get here? Perhaps more importantly, where do we go from here? What should we do? How should we feel? 

During times of uncertainty such as this, we often look toward others as a barometer to gauge our own emotional responses. Unfortunately, what’s portrayed in the media is often the most extreme example of human behaviors. Should we be buying seventy-four rolls of toilet paper too? What kind of virus is this, anyway? Wait—now people are buying 17,000 bottles of hand sanitizer?! (yes, this was a thing). 


But before following suit, let’s remember the basic principles of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which focuses on the mutual interaction between thoughts, feelings and behaviors. In this case, anxious, fear-driven thoughts can cause the physical sensation of panic, making us feel like we are in fight-or-flight mode. These distressing feelings and emotions can then propel us to act in extreme ways, because this is the message that both our brain and body are sending. To put it simply: the way we interpret our environment has a profound influence on our emotional functioning. Makes sense, right? But the most important take-home message here is that the way we feel and the way we behave are influenced by our perception of events and how we interpret and think about a situation. 


So, great—but how does this relate to coronavirus? It means that we have the ability to understand the situation with a proportional amount of concern and consideration (which includes abiding by directions given by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization). And when if we feel ourselves begin to feel panicky, we can take a step back and examine whether it was at all influenced by flawed or inaccurate logic that is now only serving to exacerbate and prolong the distress. The bottom line is that prioritizing physical health does not need to come at a cost to your mental health. Take precautionary measures, stay informed and consult medical professionals when needed. If you are in treatment with a mental health counselor, inquire about telehealth services. Remember that the behavior you demonstrate has the potential to make a significant positive impact on others.

Carolyn Moriarty, LPC

Do You Have Enough Self-Compassion?

 

As children, one of the first things we learn is how to be kind to others. A strong emphasis is placed on helping, sharing and what it means to be a good friend—unarguably imperative qualities to instill at a young age. However, Western culture places far less importance on showing that same kindness to ourselves—the thought of practicing “self-compassion” likely seems like an absurd and almost undesirable trait to most people. Unfortunately, this mindset takes away one of the most beneficial coping skills we have at our disposal.

What is self-compassion? 
Self-compassion goes beyond just “positive self-talk.” It is an all-encompassing mentality that aims to decrease emotional suffering by increasing self-worth, self-acceptance and connectedness with others. It can be broken down into three main faucets: 

    • Mindfulness: when we are mindful, we are aware of our experiences without avoiding or exaggerating them

 

    • Understanding: we practice understanding by responding to our painful feelings with nonjudgmental acceptance and kindness

 

    • Connectedness: to avoid emotional isolation, we must remember that all humans experience pain that we are never alone in our suffering 

Benefits of self-compassion 
It is easy to feel threatened by emotions because we often cannot control, understand or rationalize them. As a result, we can either find ourselves detaching from these feelings or becoming obsessed and overwhelmed by them. Self-compassion works to soothe the intensity of our emotions by allowing us to let go of unrealistic expectations that cause us to be overly critical. Practicing self-compassion can also help us become more compassionate toward others, leading to healthier relationships.

How do you practice self-compassion? 
Here are a few simple exercises that can help you foster self-compassion:

    • Mindfulness When feeling frustrated, overwhelmed or irritated, ask yourself: What do I observe? What do I feel? What do I need right now? If you are unable to provide yourself with what you need, don’t be afraid to seek out support from others

 

    • How would you treat a friend? As mentioned previously, sometimes it’s easier to be kind and supportive to other people than it is to ourselves. When grappling with a painful experience, ask yourself how you would respond to a friend who was coping with the same thing.

 

    • Journaling: Reflect upon the day and without censorship or judgement, write down anything that caused you to feel badly. Be sure to include kind words of reassurance or comfort about your experiences such as “this was a really tough day for me and I am feeling emotionally raw. I will be gentle with myself until it subsides.” 

Pain and suffering are part of the shared human experience—you are not alone. Remember that you are deserving of empathy and kindness. Take care of yourself and do not hesitate to reach out to a trusted friend or mental health professional f you need extra support.

-Carolyn Moriarty, LPC

Reduce Anxiety in 1 minute or less

 

Anxiety and panic attacks are scary experiences. In the moment, they can feel all-consuming and trick you into believing that they will never end. The good news is that panic attacks typically only last about 10 minutes and are very treatable with the proper mental health support. Since it is difficult to think logically when your body is going through this fight-or-flight response, you may be unable to identify what steps to take in order to gain immediate relief from anxiety and panic attacks in the short-term.

These are some tools you can use to hopefully make them a bit more bearable:

    • Drink a glass of water. Dehydration can cause fatigue, headache and nausea. It is difficult to feel calm when your body and mind are preoccupied with fighting off these unpleasant symptoms. Drinking a cold glass of water may not eliminate anxiety, but will help you feel more alert and focused. Studies have shown that water has natural calming properties. This means that even if you are not dehydrated, the act of drinking water can be soothing and grounding. 

 

    • Hold Ice. Holding an ice cube is a great way to chill out—no pun intended. This is especially helpful if you are in the midst of an anxiety or panic attack. The logic behind this is that the cold feeling forces your brain to divert its attention away from secondary sensations, like anxiety. Try holding an ice cube in the palm of one hand for a few seconds before switching it the other hand. 

 

    • Go outside. Similar to holding ice, going outside and espousing yourself to a different temperature can provide a gentle shock to your system. The fresh air, change of scenery and physical activity of walking can also help to clear your mind and bring your focus back to the present. 

 

    • Deep breathing. Anxiety can cause symptoms such as shortness of breath or rapid heartbeat, which in turn can make you feel even more anxious. Taking deep, controlled breaths can instantly alleviate these physical symptoms. Practice by inhaling though your nose until your stomach is expanded. Pause for a few seconds before exhaling your breath through your mouth while letting all your muscles relax, as if you are taking a big sigh. 

 

    • Repeat a soothing mantra. This is a great one to do alongside deep breathing. Repeating a calming phrase in your head is a way to remind your brain that you are in physical danger. Some examples are “I am safe”, “I will get through this”; “this will not last forever” or “one day at a time”.
 

Remember that these are only temporary solutions to reduce in-the-moment panic and anxiety. If you are struggling with chronic anxiety or excessive worry, seeking mental health treatment can be immensely helpful in providing long-term relief. 

– Carolyn Moriarty, LPC

5 Steps for Making your Mental Health a Priority in 2020

 

The promise of “fresh start” at the beginning of a new year is very alluring. We make resolutions and self-improvement goals with renewed motivation and the best of intentions. Typically, our goals tend to center on achievements that provide tangible benchmarks for our success. Quitting smoking or learning a new skill, for example, are two things that can be observed fairly objectively. These types of accomplishments are important and beneficial. In fact, setting goals that are measurable and have concrete milestones are a critical factor to achieving success because it enables us to evaluate our progress and make any necessary adjustments to our plan. 

Yet this also makes it easy for us to inadvertently neglect or forget about the mental health aspect of self-improvement. Let’s face it—goals to “be happier” or to “stress less” sound way too vague and unattainable. But here’s the thing: our mental health can directly influence our ability to succeed in all areas of life. It helps us control our thoughts, feelings and behaviors so we can better cope with challenges. Being mentally and emotionally healthy also helps us to keep setbacks in perspective and decrease negative self-talk. The good news is that we prioritize our emotional wellbeing by applying the techniques used to create SMART goals (goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-based). Read on to learn ways to take a SMART approach to mental health. 

S: Specific 

    • Begin by writing down the objective you wish to achieve and the action steps you need to take, as specifically as possible. 

 

    • If you want to “reduce stress”, think about how that can translate to one particular area of your life. For instance, your goal might be “I will reduce stress by doing yoga for 30 minutes day, three days per week” 

 

    • As you can see, identifying a specific activity and incorporating instructions quickly turns a vague intention into a concrete objective 

M: Measurable 

    • As mentioned earlier, making sure your action steps can be measured will allow you to evaluate progress as you work towards achieving your goal. “I will reduce stress by doing yoga for 30 minutes day, 3 days per week” can be easily measured by keeping an activity log. 

 

    • Tracking your progress in this way can serve as a source of both motivation and accountability. It will also help you to identify potential patterns. In this case, you could observe correlations between stress levels and the amount of time spent doing yoga. 

A: Attainable 

    • Keep your expectations realistic. Even the most motivated person will set themselves up for failure if they select goals that are unattainable. For instance, setting a goal to become a master yogi by practicing for three hours every single day is difficult, unhealthy and will likely cause more stress. 

 

    • “Ambitious but not impossible”. Choose a goal that will challenge you but you feel confident that you can achieve. A good way to do this is by breaking down your goal into smaller steps and determining whether you are able to follow through with the smaller action steps required to achieve it. 

R: Relevant 

    • Make sure the goal you select is relevant to your current mental health needs. Somebody else may have a great action plan for “reducing anger”, but that does not necessarily mean it is something that you need to work on as well. 

 

  • Each action step should also make sense in terms of your lifestyle. If you hate yoga, for instance, then you should think carefully about what activity would be more logical. 

T: Time Based 

    • Set a timeline for when you hope to achieve milestones. Again, this is more difficult when the goal is based on mental health and cannot be physically observed. The key here is to just make sure your expectations are realistic so you will not feel discouraged and give up if you do not see any results right away. 

 

    • One way to keep it concrete is to jot down your physical symptoms of stress. For instance, lack of sleep, low energy or changes in appetite. Use a journal to monitor and observe any correlations between these warning signs and the time spent doing yoga. 

 

    • After a specified amount of time, review your progress and evaluate whether any of these physical symptoms have improved. 

Remember, you do not have to wait until New Years to set a SMART goal. It is beneficial to apply this approach to any objective you wish to achieve during your day-to-day life, whether big or small. In any given situation, simply being mindful of the process, rather than the outcome, can go a long way in improving mental well-being.

– Carolyn Moriarty, LPC

‘This Shouldn’t Be Happening to Me!’ How to let go when things aren’t going right

 

Sometimes, life can feel unfair—not just mildly inconvenient but, like, really unfair. We have all been there. Maybe your offer for an apartment didn’t get accepted. Or you got rejected from the job you really wanted. Or months of diet and exercise are “undone” by an unexpected injury or week of stress-eating. If several of these events happen close together, the unfairness of it all can feel overwhelming. You tried so hard! You prepared for so long! You replay the situation over and over again and think to yourself “this shouldn’t be happening to me!” 

Even if you consider yourself an easy-going person who is an expert at “not sweating the small stuff,” it can be hard to shake the feelings of distress when something truly discouraging happens. But have you ever really thought about why “letting go” of these emotions is so difficult? If you’re like most people, your brain probably automatically reassures that it’s perfectly reasonable to get upset. Its helpful voice chimes in to say “you should be upset, anybody would be upset! Let me get rid of any lingering doubt by replaying the scene for you again. And again. And once more for good measure.” Sound familiar? 

Listen, it’s totally okay to acknowledge your emotions and feel angry, or sad, or irritated. However, ruminating as a way of dealing with situations doesn’t usually feel too great. Replaying a situation in your head is the brain’s “helpful” way of giving you the perception of control over a situation that is causing anxiety or uncertainty. But the more tightly you hold on to these feelings, the tighter their grip becomes on you. This can leave you feeling constantly overworked and overwhelmed by anxiety, despair, distress and frustration. Who’s really in control now? 

There are actions you can take to regain power and control over those overwhelming feelings. Here are a few general tips: 

    • Put distance between the situation and your anxious thoughts or feelings. Take a step back and acknowledge the circumstance from a neutral point of view by simply telling yourself “I’m getting myself worked up because I wish this wasn’t happening. This anxiety isn’t serving any purpose.” 
    • Accept what is happening instead of wishing for a different circumstance. Remember, avoiding feelings by thinking “this shouldn’t be happening to me” only feeds into your anxiety. By staying in the present moment, you gain power and control.
    • To better handle frustration and stress, change your perception. Think of difficulties as challenges or opportunities instead of threats. “This happened because I took a risk instead of staying in my comfort zone. The outcome wasn’t ideal but I might have felt even worse if I had never tried at all.” 
    • Change what you can in the moment. Don’t just hope that the situation ends and that your feelings eventually go away. When you decide not to ruminate, you free up mental energy that can be spent focusing on action steps. Try to identify one simple step you can take in the moment to improve your situation, whether it be applying for a new job or meal-prepping for the week ahead. 

If you still have difficulty avoiding the “emotional build-up” of stress and anxiety, you might consider seeking mental health counseling for assistance in problem-solving and letting go of past anger. Take comfort in knowing that with practice and little self-compassion, you can find relief from chronic voice that says “this shouldn’t be happening!” 

– Carolyn Moriarty, LPC

Anxiety-free traveling- How to take a vacation and actually relax!

travel anxiety After the holidays end, the travel bug kicks in. Not only does the bug start to appear more and more, but Spring Break comes up quickly as well. For some traveling is exciting, but it can also be a pain. Do you want to learn how to ease into vacation better? Are you looking to actually relax and enjoy the trips you take? Whether you are alone or with your family it is possible to eliminate travel anxiety as your constant and primary companion.

 

Here’s how:

  • First and foremost, resist the urge to procrastinate. If you know that the budget is tight, and you need to be scoping out travel costs and hotel prices, make this a fun part of the planning process. It can be fun by making the time for it and not pushing it off until the last minute. So, try setting aside time in your schedule for planning around lodging and how you are going to get to your destination in a way that doesn’t break the bank. The more you put it off, the more it will feel like a burden as opposed to an exciting part of the trip.
  • Try to keep in mind the times that you have successfully approached barriers and difficult situations during previous trips. You may not realize this, but you are already your own traveling expert! That’s right…you are your own expert! This is a good reminder for many different situations that can come up in daily life, and if you take the time to do this you will have a tool you can use forever. “How do I do start?” you might ask. Start by acknowledging that you are the primary expert on all things you! Therefore, take some time to reflect on difficult moments when you have had to approach anxiety-ridden situations and how you successfully got through those times. This exercise will help you come up with tools you can use if similar situations arise while you are away from home.

Continue reading Anxiety-free traveling- How to take a vacation and actually relax!