Stress Relief Is Just a Phone Call Away

I just read about a study done on stress and girls 7 to 12 years old. (Stay with me here; this could be helpful to you.) It seems that seeing or just talking to their mothers helped lower their stress.

In the study, the girls were given something stressful to do. Then one-third met with their mothers and got hugs and soothing words, another third talked to their mothers on the phone, and the last group watched a movie. Levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, came down quickly in both sets of girls who had contact with their mothers but remained higher than normal in the control group throughout the experiment. In addition, oxytocin, a brain chemical that helps us feel good, rose sharply in the girls who interacted with their mothers but did nothing at all in the control group.

So what does this mean for you if you are not so young (or a girl, for that matter)? Well, the researchers seemed to think that the effects might hold across the board for young and old, male and female. In other words, if you had to give a presentation to the board, or just got yelled at by your boss, or something equally stressful, try calling Mom.

And, while I’m all for hugs, it seems that you don’t need them to get help with your stress level. So if you live in Boise and Mom has retired to Boca Raton, a phone call will still do the trick here.

All right, I know all mothers are not created equal. If yours is not the comforting sort but more of the keep-your-back-to-the-wall-at-all-times sort, don’t look to her to help you de-stress. Try someone else in your life: a Dad who is good at listening, an aunt who thinks you are the bee’s knees, or a spouse who can comfort instead of lecture. The closer the relationship, I’m guessing, the better the result.

Whoever you choose, you might want to let them know you don’t want them to do a post-mortem on what happened. You just want a kindly shoulder to cry on. Or someone just to tell you it’ll be alright. The clearer you are, the more likely you will get what you need.

Get started.

Please e-mail me at to set up a get-acquainted session by phone or Skype to talk about what might be holding you back.

The Link Between Stress, Anxiety and Depression

I’ve been assuming that there is a link between stress, anxiety and depression for years now, recommending that strategies to counter an anxiety disorder be used to fight depression, that approaches to lessen depression can work on anxiety, and that all of these strategies should be tried on plain old stress. This has been based not just on my personal observation in the therapy room of the apparent connection between these three, but also the observations of various academics, my fellow therapists and the statistics that show anxiety and depression occurring  at the same time.

Finally, researchers have found some real evidence of a biological link between stress, anxiety and depression. The lead researcher, Stephen Ferguson, believes that the connection in the brain that they found explains how stress and anxiety can lead to depression. They are also hopeful that a molecule inhibitor they developed will lead to new and better drugs to treat anxiety and depression.

Of course, if you’re stressed, anxious or depressed, you aren’t going to want to wait for the drug companies to develop the new drugs. Get started doing some of the things now that help bring down the symptoms, like exercise, eating right and getting together with your friends and family. (Of course, if the problem seems overwhelming, get in to see your doctor or a therapist to get some extra help.)

Get started.

Please e-mail me at to set up a get-acquainted session by phone or Skype to talk about what might be holding you back.

Tapping to Sleep Better

It’s a truism that, as stress goes up, sleep goes down. I was talking with a client this week who has been having trouble sleeping. She has been using the technique of tapping on acupressure points I teach to work on some other stressors in her life but had not used the tapping on her sleep problems. I suggested these three different tapping options to try. (I’m assuming you already know how to do the mechanics of tapping here. If you haven’t learned them yet, check out my Quick Start Guide to Tapping.)

(1) If you toss and turn instead of falling asleep, tap before going to bed, saying “Even though I have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep, I deeply and completely accept myself, and I choose to relax completely and let my mind wander freely.” Say something like that 3 times while tapping on the karate chop point. Then do one round of tapping on each of the tapping points saying something like “I can’t fall asleep . . . I always wake up . . . the sleep apnea makes it impossible to sleep well . . . I can’t get back to sleep when I wake up . . . ” Use whatever bugs you most about your sleep issues. Then do a second round saying “I choose to relax completely and let my mind wander freely” on each point. Finally do one round where you switch back and forth — first the negative “I can’t sleep” statement on eyebrow point followed by positive “I choose to relax completely . . . ” on the side of the eye, and so on. As always, change my wording to fit what is going on for you.

(2) If you find yourself waking up then not being able to get back to sleep because your mind is getting stuck on something (food, work stress, not getting back to sleep), tap directly on that. Try: “Even though I can’t stop thinking about that report that’s due next week . . .” or “Even though I’m wide awake and I’m sure I’m going to stay that way until dawn and I’m pissed about it, I deeply and completely accept myself, and I choose to relax and let my mind wander.” Then do the 3 rounds like above — one all negative, one with just the choice statement, and one alternating between the two.

(3) Tap directly on whatever physical experience gets in the way of sleeping. Something like “Even though there is no way I will ever be able to sleep with this %*$# music from the neighbors making the walls shake, I deeply and completely accept myself and choose to be surprised at how quickly I stop even noticing it’s there.” Then try the 3 rounds as above. And, yes, if you feel like swearing about the problem, it helps to incorporate the swearing into the tapping. Swear with gusto for maximum effect.

I find when I can’t sleep, I really have to tap on being angry about not sleeping. It doesn’t matter whether I’m angry at myself, at my husband who is sleeping soundly while I’m wide wake, or at the universe for not making things go my way. If you find yourself getting angry at not sleeping, just tap on that anger even if it isn’t rational. (I know that the universe is not arranged for my comfort and enjoyment all the time). It’s much easier to let go of it if you tap on your anger than if you just grit your teeth and tell yourself to forget about it.

You may need to do whatever tapping you try more than once. But, really, if you’re not sleeping, what better do you have to do?

Get started.

If you would like some additional help figuring out how to use this tapping to get to sleep, please e-mail me at to set up a get-acquainted session by phone or Skype to discuss your blocks.

Meaningful Conversations May Improve Your Mood

I just read an article about some research that both confirmed what I knew and added a twist. First the confirmation: happier people spent 25 percent less time alone and 70 percent more time talking than unhappier people in the study. I have long preached the importance of spending time with the good people in your life. The twist in this research is that the happier people were having more substantive conversations than the unhappier folk, whose conversations were described as “trivial small talk.” That was news to me.

While the research shows a correlation between the two types of conversations and the subjects’ relative well-being, I didn’t see that it proved that meaningful conversations cause happiness, or that small talk causes unhappiness. Perhaps happy people go out and have deep conversations on the meaning of life with their friends while unhappy people can only muster the strength to comment on the weather. Still, it might be worth trying to have some more meaningful conversations to see if that helps your mood.

And don’t forget, unhappier people spent more time alone not having any conversations at all! I suspect that it is better to have shallow conversations with people in your life than to have no conversations at all while sitting on your couch watching reruns of “Friends.”

Why am I mentioning this in a blog about stress? I’m making some assumptions here. First, clinical anxiety and depression often appear together. Second, many of the same things that can help you bring down depression — like exercise, eating right, and socializing — can also help you bring down anxiety. If having meaningful conversations actually helps you feel happier, then it may also help you feel less anxious. And, finally, if you are only stressed, not clinically anxious, then one change (like having deeper conversations) might have a powerful effect on your stress.

That’s a lot of assumptions. Still, different approaches help different people lower their stress. This one may just be the perfect fix for your stress. If not, you can always try another.

Get started.

Please e-mail me at to set up a get-acquainted session by phone or Skype to talk about what might be holding you back.

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 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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Mental Health Day

I’m taking my own advice and having a mental health day. I’m going to do things that are not work-related, turn off the computer and the phone, and go for a walk. I highly recommend this for everyone, those who are stressed and those who want to avoid getting stressed. Give it a try.

Get started.

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

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 to set up a get-acquainted session by phone or Skype to talk about what might be blocking you.

No Batteries — or Electronics of Any Sort — Required

It turns out there is an iPhone app to help people deal with their fear of flying. This app is based on Virgin Atlantic’s Flying Without Fear course. The app has a video of what to expect on a flight, answers common questions, teaches relaxation exercises, and sends daily reminders to practice those exercises. You can also use it on the flight itself for reassuring tips and breathing exercises, although you can’t use it on takeoff or landing since all mobile devices must be turned off when a plane is below 10,000 feet. The idea is that you learn over time to contain your panic. These are all good things to do to help prepare yourself for a flight.

Virgin Atlantic’s Fear of Flying course is a significant resource for people who are afraid of flying, and it carries the endorsement of celebrities like Whoopi Goldberg. One might think that the iPhone app would be equally effective. But more than 1/3 of the reviewers on the iPhone app store gave it only 1 or 2 out of a possible 5 stars, mostly because of problems they had using the app while on board the plane. Worse yet, breathing relaxation exercises such as those which appear to be one focus of this program have not been found to be particularly effective in treating fear of flying. (More’s the pity; I love breathing exercises for dealing with stress.)

With less than a week to go before Christmas, it is probably too late to get much help from this app before you get on the plane to Grandma’s anyway, even if it’s more effective than it appears to be. Relaxation exercises like this are meant to be done over time to retrain your brain not to panic in flight.

If you’re dreading your flight, check out my Quick Start Guide to tapping. It details one of the fastest and most effective relaxation exercises I’ve found. While some people need some more detailed work to get over their fear, a lot of people just tap for a few minutes on the aspect or aspects of a flight that bother them most (like turbulence), or a particular fear (like the engines all stopping at once), or a memory of a bad flight and find that their fear is either greatly reduced or gone completely.

If you try the tapping now and still find yourself with white knuckles on your flight, you can do the tapping right there on the plane. It tends to be the most effective at getting rid of a fear for good when used while you are actually doing the thing that you fear, like flying.

Get started.

Please e-mail me at to set up a get-acquainted session to see if I might help you with your own fear of flying. Yes, I work over the phone and Skype.

Exercise and the Stressed Brain

I’ve been recommending exercise to stressed out clients (and depressed clients, for that matter) for years. Those in the know suggest that you get aerobic exercise — i.e., exercise that raises your heart rate enough that it is a little difficult to talk, like running or dancing — for half an hour, three times a week at a minimum. If you can’t get a full half-hour in at a time, or you only have two days to exercise, do what you can. My clients have reported that even ten minutes of working out can help them feel more relaxed and happier. (Of course, if your doctor doesn’t think you should exercise, listen to your doctor.), doctors and scientists have known for a long time that exercise helps with stress. Now scientists have run experiments which show exercise actually changes the brain so it handles stressful situations better, at least in rats. A New York Times blog post from last month reviews three recent studies showing how the brains of rats who exercised handled stress better than those of couch potato rats — expressing fewer specific genes, showing less serotonin levels, and dampening the effects of oxidative stress in response to stress.

So the proof is in: exercise really does make a difference. Don’t skip it this season because you have too much shopping to do, or the in-laws are coming to visit, or you have a five-hour drive to Christmas dinner. Those are the very stressful situations that exercise will help you handle calmly.

Oh, and start exercising right away if you haven’t worked out since the late ’90s. It took the rats between three and six weeks of exercising to see big changes in their brains. The scientists don’t know how long it takes to make a difference in humans. They haven’t done that research yet. But it’s a fair bet that the sooner you start exercising, the sooner you’ll feel more relaxed.

Get started.

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

Family and Friends — To Keep or Not to Keep

On Thanksgiving, the LA Times ran an article by two professors — one from Harvard Medical School, the other from UC San Diego — touting the importance of keeping everyone in your social network of friends and family, even those who are demanding or get you angry. evidence, the professors point out that, while a study they did in 2007 found that people with overweight friends were more likely to gain weight than those with normal weight friends, they also found that those people who got rid of their fat friends gained more weight than those who kept their heftier friends. They also noted out that those who stay connected are more likely to be happy, pointing to an interesting statistic:

“Each happy friend increases a person’s probability of being happy by about 9%, while each unhappy friend decreases it by only 7%. So the virtue of staying connected lies in playing the averages. It’s true that the best-connected individuals at the center of the social network are more likely to “catch” an unhappy wave spreading through the network, but they are even more likely to catch a happy wave.
As a result, the people who stay connected are significantly happier than people who don’t. In the battle between the happy waves and sad waves, happiness wins.”

Finally, they noted that family and friends share things with each other like gifts, information, and kind gestures. All this leads them to their conclusion that “We need our connections, good and bad. Every one of them.”

Well, yes and no. I’m a big fan of social networks. One of the first things I recommend to anxious and/or depressed therapy clients is that they spend more face-to-face time with family and friends. If they don’t have many connections, maybe because they just moved to a new town, we talk about ways to meet other people with similar interests. If they are really stuck, I’ll get them started by sending them off to a cafe where they can at least see other people and have a little interaction. Social isolation is very stressful. Social interaction can bring stress down and raise a person’s mood.

But there is a caveat: it has to be good, or at least neutral, social interaction. When you have a toxic relationship, you negate the benefits of having the relationship. I’ve had clients for whom a dinner spent with their “best friend” always left them stressed out and miserable for the whole week. Dumping such “friends” opened the door to getting to know people who became real friends, improving my clients’ moods and their lives significantly.

Now I’m not recommending that you disown your brother or ditch a friend the first — or second, or third, or fiftieth — time you have a fight. Disagreements, bad days, annoying habits, they can happen in any relationship. You need to take a big picture view of what goes on between the two of you. If you get along okay with someone generally, keep them in your social network. However, anyone who brings you down regularly or has you questioning your worth whenever you are with them is not someone to spend time with. Avoid them. And if you feel like those are the only people you ever meet or make friends with, consider talking with a therapist about changing your expectations about how others can treat you. You may have been stuck in a pattern that kept attracting the wrong people into your life, but that pattern can be changed.

Here’s the second caveat: you need people in your social network. So if you decide that you really have to to stop getting together with your old high school friend or limit calls and visits to your sister, you need to spend more time with other people in your life. Seek out the ones who make you feel good about yourself, even when they challenge you. Go out for coffee. Schedule a game of squash. Host a dinner party. Do whatever suits you, but make time for it in your busy week. It will help lower your stress overall.

What if all the positive people in your life live in another state, or you have too few people like that around to spend time with, or you don’t have anyone like that in your life at all? Then it’s time to make more friends. Join something, like a sport, or a book club, or an alumni group. Go to a friendly church, mosque, or temple. Volunteer for a good cause where you will be working with other people. Any activity can do the trick so long as you actually spend time meeting and talking to other people over time. That’s the easiest way to start new friendships.

Get started.

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