Tag Archives: anxiety

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

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

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

‘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!

Think You’re Afraid to Fly? You May Not Be.

Taylor Newondorp MA, LCPC

flying fear  Fear of flying is one of the most common phobias in the United States. You may have a flying fear yourself, or, if not, you definitely know someone who does. A vast majority of the population reports experiencing at least some level of discomfort while flying. For many people it is such a crippling fear that they simply refuse to get on a plane anymore. People frequently use alcohol and/or prescription (or even non-prescription!) medication to help themselves get through a flight with less anxiety, and most people feel a sense of relief once they have landed safely at their destination. But what if I told you that it’s not actually the flying part that freaks you out?

Continue reading Think You’re Afraid to Fly? You May Not Be.