For a Healthier Heart, Just Be Happy

In case you didn’t have enough incentive to bring your stress down already, researchers have just announced that the most anxious and depressed people have the highest risk of heart disease. So, if you want a healthy heart, follow the immortal words of the song: “Don’t worry; be happy.”

Of course, this is always easier said than done. Many experts will tell you (including some in the BBC article I read about the study) your general attitude, positive or otherwise, is ingrained.

I don’t know about changing your general attitude — or your personality, as some would say — but I do know that there are a number of steps you can take to improve your response to the stresses in your life. You can exercise regularly. You can eat more of the healthier foods and fewer of the starchy and sweet foods. You can spend more time face-to-face with good people in your life. You can practice meditation or relaxation exercises like deep breathing (unless you have asthma). You could try tapping, which is also known as EFT. (Check out my Quick Start Guide for a very short introduction to tapping.) Heck, just go for a walk — a change of scenery can bring down your stress on a bad day.

So even if some of those experts are right and you can’t completely change from being a dyed-in-the-wool, stressed-out pessimist to a starry-eyed, happy-go-lucky optimist, you can at least try to move a little further towards the relaxed end of the spectrum. What do you have to lose except some stress?

The lead researcher on the study, Dr. Karina Davidson, said it very well.  “Essentially spending a few minutes each day truly relaxed and enjoying yourself is certainly good for your mental health and may improve your physical health as well.”

Get started.

Please e-mail me at nancy@unblockresults.com to set up a get-acquainted session by phone or Skype to talk about the stresses that might be holding you back.

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What To Do If You Keep Thinking About Haiti

The devastation in Haiti from this week’s earthquake is all over the news. Clients, colleagues, family and friends are all talking about the suffering there, wanting to understand and find ways to help. This is normal and can bring out the best in people. But what do you do if you seem to be obsessed about the disaster and can’t stop thinking about it?

If thinking about what happened, and is happening, in Haiti is keeping you from focusing on what you need to do at work and/or at home, you need to make some changes. The first is to turn off the news. Stop watching TV, put the newspaper in the recycling without reading it and swear off checking the current events headlines on the internet for awhile. That should help bring your stress down.

You can also do some other basic stress-relieving techniques, like exercising, going somewhere different for a change of scenery, going for a walk, getting out in nature, or doing some breathing exercises (unless you have asthma).

If none of these help, you might try the tapping technique (using my Quick Start Guide to Tapping) on what is bothering you most about Haiti. Say you keep seeing a particular image from the news. Tap on it, saying something like “Even though I can’t stop thinking about that picture of a child crying in the rubble, I deeply and completely accept myself” as your set up. Tap until thinking of that picture shifts in your mind and no longer seems overwhelming.You won’t lose your compassion for those suffering, but the thought of that suffering will stop being debilitating.

If the tapping does not change your reaction to the specific image (or interview, or idea) that has been bothering you, it may be that that image is reminding you of something that happened in your life. Ask yourself if the feeling you get thinking about that image reminds you of anything. If it does, tap on that memory even if it doesn’t seem to be related to Haiti. Our brains can make some interesting and unexpected connections. Once you tap down any negative emotions you have from your memory, check the Haiti image again. If you identified the memory that was being triggered by the Haiti news, your reaction to the image from Haiti should have changed.

It is often possible to use the tapping technique on your own effectively, but sometimes the connections in your brain can be too complex, or the memories too scary or difficult to retrieve, to work on by yourself. In that case, working with someone else (like a therapist or someone trained in this tapping thing) may help you get unstuck. Either way, it’s worth it to clear out whatever has been triggered by the news so that it doesn’t come up again the next time there is a natural disaster.

And please consider donating to reputable groups, like the Red Cross or Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres), if you can. The Haitians have had enough pain to contend with, even before this earthquake.

Get started.

Please e-mail me at nancy@unblockresults.com to set up a get-acquainted session by phone or Skype to talk about what might be blocking you.

Food and Family Stress

I read an article on food and family stress in the New York Times last week. It was full of stories of families fighting over food at the holidays: a mother berating an overweight daughter for eating too much; a grandmother criticizing a grandson for eating too little; a father trying to keep everyone from eating chocolate. I’m willing to bet most people have at least one story like these about family problems around food to tell.

Holidays are big sources of pressure for vast numbers of people. Food issues hound many, many people. And family problems can replay every time a family gets together. Put those three together and you can have big bad stress waiting for almost everyone in the month of December. What to do?

The Times article recommends that people set up boundaries (that’s therapy talk for rules), like making a “good-natured announcement” that comments about how much or little a person eats won’t be acceptable this year. Then every time someone breaks the rule, call them on it. Oh, and have a sense of humor about it all. Good advice, but I was left wondering how many readers could implement it without more support. Changing ingrained family interactions is notoriously hard, especially if it is your family. That’s why we family therapists get serious training in how to interrupt those old patterns and shift everyone in the family to a new way of acting.

If you aren’t planning to get your parents, in-laws or siblings in to see a family therapist for a few sessions before Christmas or Hanukkah, you can still change the way you react to what your family members do.  Try one or more of these approaches now to get yourself ready:

  1. Practice breathing. I know, you breathe every day. How can that help? I’m talking about the kind of slow, deep breaths that bypass your chest and go all the way down to your navel. They can calm you down and help you think even in the middle of the most stressful times. (I read somewhere they teach this kind of breathing to Marines so they can use it in the middle of battle.) The reason to start practicing this kind of breathing now is that it’s much easier to remember both to do the breathing and how to do it in a stressful moment if you have been doing it every day for a few weeks until it becomes a habit. Then, when your sister says you really don’t need that extra piece of pie, you can take a deep breath and remember to smile as you tell her that comments about how much a person eats are unacceptable this year. For more details on this kind of breathing, see my earlier post. Don’t try this if you have asthma.
  2. Between now and the next family event, practice acting just the way you want to when your relatives misbehave. Here’s how. Sit somewhere quiet without distractions. Close your eyes. Run a movie of your brother sneering when you put your homemade candied yams on the table (or whatever gets you upset). See yourself reacting calmly, saying and doing exactly what you want to in exactly the way you want. If you start to get heated up, stop the movie, rewind it to a point before you got upset, then play it again seeing yourself being the cool, self-possessed person you want to be. Make the movie as vivid and full of details as you can. Do this at least once every day from now until you all sit down to dinner together. The more times you visualize responding to a stress in a certain way, the more likely you are to act that way when the stress really happens.
  3. Get on the phone and start discussing the new boundaries (remember those family rules?) with each of your family members now. You may have to clear the air before the big day. Sometimes people don’t realize what they are doing is hurtful. Calmly talking with them about how you feel now can give them time to think about changing their ways. Then they will be less likely to react defensively — and hurtfully — when you announce the new rule while carving the Christmas goose.
  4. Realize that just telling family members about the new rule may not be enough to change long-standing patterns. You may have to take action beyond just reminding your father at the holiday dinner table that it is not okay for him to call you fat when you take a roll. You may have to get up and leave the table if he continues the rude comments. You may have to leave the house. Decide now what you will do, tell your father what you will do before the day (see Approach #3), then do it if he keeps up the fat jokes after you’ve asked him to stop. Don’t make a scene. Just quietly stand up and go. Dad will be much less likely to joke about your weight at the next family gathering. That sort of dispassionate response to bad behavior is sometimes the only way to establish new boundaries.

Remember, you can’t change what other people do, only how you react to it. Then, if you change how you react, you may be surprised at how they change what they do. But you have to change first.

Of course, some stress and pain goes so deep that these steps will not be enough. You can always try using my Quick Start Guide to tapping to calm yourself down as you think about stressful family scenes from the past that you expect to replay this December. If you need more, think about a visit or two with a family therapist to work on setting those new boundaries.

Get started.

Please e-mail me at nancy@unblockresults.com to set up a get-acquainted session by phone or Skype to talk about how we might work together on what’s blocking you.

Deep Breathing for Stress: Not for Asthmatics

Earlier this week the New York Times ran an article entitled “A Breathing Technique Offers Help For People With Asthma.” Since deep, diaphragmatic breathing exercises are one of my favorite, and easy, ways to help people release stress, I was very interested. I figured that, since diaphragmatic breathing was so effective at relaxing people, the technique the Times was reporting on would be some variation on that. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

According to the article, during an asthma attack most people breathe quickly and as deeply as they can, which may actually make the attack worse. Inhaling deeply and forcefully through the mouth can actually trigger a bronchospasm. The Buteyko breathing method featured in the article (developed in the ’50s by a Russian doctor) teaches people “to breathe shallowly and slowly through the nose, breaking the vicious cycle of rapid, gasping breaths, airway constriction and increased wheezing.”

So if you have asthma, don’t try the deep breathing I recommend. If you are interested in the Buteyko method, check out the article at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/03/health/03brod.html.

Get started.

Please e-mail me at nancy@unblockresults.com to set up a get-acquainted session by phone or Skype to talk about how we might work together on what’s blocking you.

Breathing to Lower Stress

(If you have asthma, skip this post. Check out my short blog post on asthma and deep breathing.)

The quickest way to lower your stress level that I’ve ever come across is simply to take a deep breath. The great thing about this technique is that you can do it anywhere – in a department meeting, trying to get Powerpoint working during your presentation, talking with an irate customer. You’re breathing. Who’s going to even notice, let alone make a big deal about it?

There is a trick to this kind of breathing, though. You have to do it the right way or it can backfire on you. Try panting to see just how tense you can make yourself. Shallow breathing is the wrong way to breathe.

The right way is to make your breath go all the way down to your diaphragm at the very bottom of your lungs. If you’ve had any singing training, you’ve probably already learned how to do diaphragmatic breathing. If not, it’s pretty easy to do. First, put your hand over your navel. While keeping your chest and shoulders still, take a slow breath through your nose that goes all the way down and pushes out your hand. Hold it for a few seconds. Now slowly let the air out through your mouth. That’s all there is to it.

No really, that’s it. Do two or three of those breaths and you’ll get rid of some tension in your body. Since you can’t be tense and relaxed at the same time, your stress level will go down, and both your body and your brain will start to work better.

For more long-term benefits, you could do this type of breathing three times a day. Before every meal can be a good way to remember. Take ten breaths. Breathe in through your nose on a slow count of three, hold for three counts, then breathe out through your mouth on a count of five. Play with those numbers to see which works best for you. (I prefer four, four, six. Others I’ve worked with liked three, four, five.) If you start to get dizzy that means you’re hyperventilating. Breathe normally for half a minute then finish the ten breaths.

The more often you practice this breathing, the more you train yourself to stay relaxed in general and the easier it is to remember how to breathe right when things get tense.

If you really want to get hard-core about this, start doing yoga. In yoga, this kind of breathing is an important part of meditating. By the way, yoga and meditation in general are great ways to bring stress way down.

I’ve heard that combat trainers teach this sort of breathing to Green Berets and FBI agents as a way to master their fear while in action. If it can help them focus when somebody is pointing a gun at them, it should help you focus in the boss’s office.

Get started.

Please e-mail me at nancy@unblockresults.com to set up a get-acquainted session by phone or Skype to talk about how we might work together on what’s blocking you.