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
Humans are creatures of habit. There are certain things we do every day that give our lives order. Having some type of routine is considered healthy because it can help us with time-management and provide structure to an otherwise chaotic day. However, this adherence can also mean that we mindlessly continue to engage in unhealthy behaviors while avoiding more beneficial habits. Alternatively, we may have tried to “kick” bad habits multiple times without success. So what does it really take to make and break habits for good?
The 21-Day Rule
You may have heard about the “21-day rule”, which proclaims that it takes a minimum of 21 days for an old habit to dissolve and a new one to take root. This makes sense, since the more often you do something, the more likely it is that you will continue to do it—that is exactly what it means to have a “habit”. The next time you are tying to implement a new behavior, or get rid of an old one, try to do it for at least 21 days before considering whether it is a realistic change for you to make at this time.
It is easier to break bad habits if you replace them with something positive or neutral instead of quitting them cold turkey. For example, rather than cut out soda completely, you can replace it with seltzer water or another carbonated beverage. If you want to get into the habit or running, you could start out by taking short walks or jogs.
Focus on Improvement
When it comes to changing habits, it is helpful to think about the process, rather than the outcome. A good way to do this is to focus on ways to improve your life. For instance, if you ate avoiding junk food, focus instead on how this can be used an opportunity to you to teach yourself how to cook yourself healthy meals.
The important thing to remember is that there is no guaranteed way to beat a habit. Habits are by definition rigid and consistent. It will take time, motivation and self-awareness before new behaviors become your new norm. So don’t feel like a failure if it takes you 22 days, or two months or one year to change a behavior. Once you have changed it, chances are that it will stay that way for the long-term.
– Carolyn Moriarty, LPC
Have you ever felt that you are falling behind in life? This feeling might convince you that maybe if you just tried harder, you could propel yourself into a life experience that will bring success and happiness. This feeling might prompt you to search Pinterest for motivation quotes, purchase self-help books and bullet journals, or create vision boards of your ideal life.
The feeling that we’re not “doing our best” can also trigger shame. When we assume that we have ultimate control over our lives, any inability to manipulate or change our circumstances leads to self-loathing. From this perspective, the root of the unhappiness is not necessarily about the way things currently are, but rather from the belief that things could and should be different.
Here is what you need to remember: while taking responsibility for self-growth can be empowering and productive, you also need to give yourself permission to let whatever happens, happen. Give yourself permission to forth your best effort and to not be so personally tied to outcomes. Give yourself permission to stop listening and comparing yourself to people who are in different life circumstances and life stages. Ask yourself honestly: is the problem due to a lack motivation toward reaching your goal? Or is the discontentment a result of the shame you are carrying around while trying to reach it? If it is the latter, try to accept these feelings instead of resisting or avoiding them. Participating in a tug of war with your emotions only leads to more needless struggle.
So once you have identified and accepted these feelings, then what? It is still important to envision what you want out of life and take small steps toward reaching that goal. But keep in mind that you are still just a human being—some days you will have motivation and some days you might not because you are going through something. You may need to experience struggles in order to learn lessons that will enrich your future endeavors. Remember: “you are what you are until you’re not”. In the meantime, give yourself permission to be human. And give yourself permission to trust that.
– Carolyn Moriarty, LPC
There is a finite amount of time in each day. Most of us are hyperaware of this fact, continually fretting about how we will manage to accomplish everything we need to get done. But perhaps the bigger issue is how we are utilizing our time. After all, our level of energy is not finite—while it has a certain capacity, it changes day-to-day and we can control how much or how little we use. Here’s the thing: you can exert considerably less energy throughout the day if you spend it wisely. The secret to this lies in doing simple but intentional planning. If you feel like you are continually exerting yourself without really getting anywhere, consider the following tips for learning how channel your energy effectively and get off the hamster wheel of life.
Look at the Big Picture: Start by taking a moment to look at the “big picture” and think about how you want to live your life. What are your hopes for what the future could bring? Who do you want to surround yourself with? What activities will you commit yourself to on a weekly, monthly and annual basis? Challenge yourself to brainstorm dreams that are big but also intentional. This step is important because it will provide you with a sense of direction.
Set Your Goals: Now, look back at your “big picture” ideas and ask yourself honestly if you have the time, money and energy to invest into working on them. This will help you become more intentional in identifying what matters most to you. If one particular goal seems to challenging, break it down into lots of smaller goals and create momentum by identifying specific milestones. Learn more about setting SMART goals.
Design Your Days: Once more for good measure—the key to channeling your energy effectively is to be intentional. A good way to remain intentional on a day-to-day basis is to create a morning and evening routine. Begin each day by reviewing your schedule, pinpointing three major “to-do’s” and identifying when you will fit in space for whatever you outlined when thinking of the “big picture” (i.e. family, friends, fitness). In the evening, reflect upon your day, practice gratitude and prepare for the following day.
Stay on Track: In addition to reflecting upon each day, it is important to review your goals throughout the year to determine if you are making progress toward your “big picture” ideas. Decide what interval makes the most sense for you in terms of reviewing these goals—whether it be daily, weekly or monthly. The important thing is to review them and make sure you are taking note of deadlines, evaluating your progress and celebrating milestones.
The key to channeling your energy effectively is getting clear on what you are trying to accomplish. It is easy to get distracted when you are not certain where your focus needs to be. Make sure these accomplishments are both doable and meaningful. Then, hold yourself accountable by setting milestones and reviewing your progress. Making small, significant changes will create more momentum and energy then trying to accomplish numerous, meaningless tasks. With practice, you will feel increased levels of both energy and satisfaction.
-Carolyn Moriarty, LPC
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
Often times, we have days when it feels like we are continually acting or reacting to an endless number of situations and stimuli. It can be easy to get swept away by the chaos and put our brains into overdrive by fixating on the next thing that needs to be done or ruminating on the last thing that happened. When these obsessive thoughts take over, we lose touch with our mind and often feel overwhelmed and anxious. The good news is that we can get ourselves “unstuck” from this cycle by pausing to practice mindfulness.
Put simply, mindfulness is the conscious and deliberate effort to maintain awareness of one’s immediate environment. Instead of rehashing past events or worrying about the future, mindfulness means that you are only focusing on what is happening in the moment. By being mindful, we become more attended to our thoughts, sensations and emotions. And while it may feel more effective to act quickly and get things done as fast as possible, the truth is that we are most powerful and effective when we are in control of our intentions.
Here are some simple tips on how to practice mindfulness:
- The next time you feel anxious or frustrated, use that as your cue to take a “time out” by focusing on your immediate environment. Remember that it’s not about “quieting” your thoughts, but rather as a way to bring yourself back to the present moment.
- Use your senses to become more attended to your surroundings. Identify specific things you can hear, see, smell and feel. When your mind begins to wander back to ruminating thoughts, use this exercise to bring yourself back to the present.
- Do not worry if you have trouble focusing on the present moment—that will just cause more stress. Accept that your mind is wandering and take deep breaths to direct your attention back to your physical self.
Just like a muscle, mindfulness will become stronger with exercise. Start by setting aside a few minutes a day to practice appreciating the present moment and it will soon become a well-develop skill you can utilize to decrease anxiety in minutes.
– Carolyn Moriarty, LPC
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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
The holiday season is just around the corner, bringing along with it the social pressure to feel jolly and relaxed. For many of us, especially those prone to anxiety, this can seem nearly impossible given that the holidays are inextricably woven with excessive commitments, financial stress and dealing with “difficult” relatives. The pursuit of happiness can indeed turn into a quest towards goal that needs to be accomplished and checked off the list. And any indication that we are not succeeding at this goal only serves to worsen anxiety and negative emotions. Suffice to say, themes of “gratitude” and “thanks” often get pushed to the side.
Here’s the thing: when life becomes chaotic, practicing gratitude becomes all the more important in reducing anxiety. Luckily, the focus on giving thanks that surrounds Thanksgiving provides an opportune time to hone this skill in preparation for the new year.
What does it mean to practice gratitude?
There is a common misconception that practicing gratitude means dutifully ticking off a list of things in life that aren’t going wrong. One might think to themselves, “Well, I have a job…and a roof over my head…and, ah, at least I’m not sick.” The issue here is that the list then gets mentally compartmentalized until it is dragged out again the following year. Gratitude, however, is much more than this. It is an active, ongoing process that will lay dormant if not used on a consistent and regular basis. Think of it as an attitude rather than an exercise. It is a continual effort to reflect on the presence of things in life that bring you joy as well as the absence of a distress.
How does it help with anxiety?
Practicing gratitude provides numerous benefits. The act of reflecting upon things that bring us joy triggers more positive thoughts, which in turn lead us to experience an increase in positive emotions. The benefits don’t stop there. Increased emotional well-being is also linked with stronger immune systems, better sleep and increased energy. Gratitude can protect us from stress during the holiday season by increasing our feelings of appreciation about everything we have and making us less susceptible to feelings of “missing out” when faced with the barrage of marketing or social media posts.
How do I practice gratitude?
Here are some simple steps you can take to develop an attitude of gratitude:
- Create a gratitude journal. Challenging yourself to write down new things you are grateful for at the end of each day is a great way to keep yourself actively engaged in the process.
- Share your gratitude with others. Since social relationships are often a major source of our gratitude, it makes sense to incorporate them as we build up our attitude. You can write a letter to somebody who impacted your life and never got a chance to properly thank. Or, simply take time each day to acknowledge the smaller things people do that make your life easier, whether it be to a co-worker who helps you on a project or to the barista who makes your coffee.
- Recognize life’s small pleasures. Whether it be the smell of fresh air after a rainstorm or a piece of dark chocolate–savor the small things that give you a deeper appreciation for being alive at that moment.
- Keep your expectations realistic. Just like developing a muscle, strengthening your sense of gratitude takes time and effort. Expect that there will be days where you may feel too tired and worn out to do any proper exercises. This is OK–accept the fact that it is not the best time for self-reflection and resolve to continue your gratitude exercises the following day.
Whether or not this attitude of gratitude already comes to you naturally, engaging in these small exercises on a consistent basis can help you manage anxiety in the long-term by fostering your sense of contentment. The end of each year encourages annual review and self-reflection. As your prepare for the year ahead, take this opportunity to think about how to practice gratitude in order to reduce anxiety, increase emotional well-being and develop a greater connection to the world around you.
Carolyn Moriarty, LPC
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
Every day, Mark is consumed with the fear that he might accidentally hurt somebody or cause them harm. He is often late for work because he circles his route several times, seeking to reassure himself that there is no evidence of a car accident. When Mark does hear of a car accident, he worries that is at fault because of an action he took or failed to take. For instance, he thinks “I saw a gum wrapped on the ground but didn’t pick it up. What if the driver of the car got distracted by reflection of the sun glinting off the foil?” These thoughts that repeat over and over in Mark’s mind are called “obsessions”. The ritualistic behaviors (he engages in to reduce the stress and anxiety (i.e. circling his route to work several times) are known as “compulsions”. Mark has a subtype of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) known as Responsibility OCD.
Jill’s life is dictated by rigidity and control and she becomes irritated when other people interfere with her rules of how things should be done. Jill spends long hours at work “crossing her T’s and dotting her I’s” because she believes that “if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself”. Despite her excessive devotion to her work, Jill’s job is in jeopardy due to her poor teamwork skills. Her employer has put her on a performance-improvement plan after hearing numerous complaints from Jill’s colleagues about her inflexibility and micromanaging behaviors. Jill’s life outside of work is also dictated by rules; she feels most at ease when she adheres to a strict daily routine. Anything that interferes with this routines sends her into a tailspin. Jill has obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD).
As these narratives illustrate, OCD and OCPD are two very different conditions that happen to share a similar name. OCD is an anxiety disorder that is characterized by the presence of obsessions (irrational, repetitive thoughts) and compulsions (ritualistic behaviors used to dispel the anxiety of obsessions). OCPD is a personality disorder that is associated with rigid thinking, inflexibility and a need for excessive control over one’s surroundings. If you have one of these disorders, learning more about its unique characteristics can help you identify the best options for treatment.
Here are some basic differences between OCD and OCPD:
1. The first difference involves the amount of control an individual has over their thoughts and behaviors:
- Persons with OCD have no control over obsessions, as intrusive thoughts can and do “pop in” to their heads frequently—often with no rhyme or reason. This is very distressing to the individual, and their compulsions are an effort to “push away” those obsessions and/or prevent them from happening again.
- Persons with OCPD voluntarily exert control over their surroundings. Their rigid or ritualistic behaviors are not being driven by thoughts that are out of their control.
2. Another difference is the effect of the thoughts and behaviors on the individual
- Persons with OCD often seek treatment because they understand that their thoughts are irrational, their compulsions are unnecessary, and both cause a disproportionate amount of anxiety. As a result, individuals with OCD often seek treatment to alleviate their symptoms.
- Persons with OCDP embrace their thoughts and actions due to their conviction that they serve a productive purpose. People with OCPD are more likely to think of themselves as “perfectionists” and deny that their behaviors are maladaptive.
3. The last major difference can be identified by looking at the pattern of symptoms:
- Symptoms of OCD can ebb and flow over time in relation to one’s anxiety level.
- OCPD is a personality disorder, which means that the accompanying behaviors are fixed and persistent throughout one’s life.
These two disorders can be hard to tell apart due to the large role that anxiety and control play in each one. However, one does not need to be “diagnosed’ with one or both of these conditions in order to seek help. If you experience thoughts or behaviors that are causing distress or affecting your personal life, it is best to seek treatment from a mental health professional that specializes in working with OCD and Anxiety to learn more about your unique symptoms and options for treatment.
– Carolyn Moriarty, LPC