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.

As 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 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.

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.

Plan Now to Limit Holiday Stress

Happy Halloween!

The ghosts and goblins (jedi and fairies mostly this year, actually) are parading past my door now, reminding me that the holiday season has arrived! Turkey dinners with all the trimmings, trips to see Santa, office parties, holidays of all persuasions spent with family. For some, November through December is a magical season. For many, many others, it is a stress-filled time to be endured.

If you fall into the latter camp, I have one suggestion: less is more. Make it your mantra.

If hosting Thanksgiving has become a logistical nightmare, give away some of the tasks. Pick up the cranberry sauce and stuffing at the deli counter at your supermarket instead of making it from scratch. Put your kids in charge of decorating. Tell your guests that dinner is potluck this year. Stop planning for it to be perfect and start expecting it to be good enough.

If gifts for Hanukkah or Christmas are completely out of hand, just stop the madness. The recession gives you the perfect excuse to buy fewer gifts. Have them wrapped in the stores or take them all to the table at the mall where a local non-profit is wrapping gifts as a fundraiser — a huge time saver for you. Decorate just one room instead of the whole house. Give up the picture of the ideal Norman Rockwell holiday in favor of one where you actually enjoy yourself.

Which brings me to family. If yours causes you stress, know that you are not alone. It seems that people somehow expect that, this year, family time will be all warm and fuzzy even if it has been filled with shouting, broken dishes and slamming doors for the past twenty years. You will have less stress if you give up the unreal expectations. Assume this year will be like last year. If time with family equals stress to you, then limit your time. Leave the party an hour early. Book a flight for only 3 days instead of 5. Plan some excuses in advance to cut the conversation with Uncle Rex short (“Excuse me, I’ve got to talk to Andy about his new snowblower”). Lowered expectations and less time with difficult people will make for a happier, less stressful time.

I may just have to revisit this topic once or twice in the coming months. In the meantime, start thinking of ways to dump some of your holiday stress this year.

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.

Luck and the Stressed Out Person

I recently read a 2003 article on a study of lucky v. unlucky people. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/3304496/Be-lucky—its-an-easy-skill-to-learn.html Among the conclusions the researcher reached were a few that stuck out for me: (i) both lucky and unlucky people create their own “luck,” good or bad; (ii) lucky people notice more, and so discover more good things to take advantage of; (iii) stress narrows a person’s focus so that they notice less; and (iv) people can be taught to be lucky.

I’m not surprised. I’ve noticed that once clients lower their stress they become much more creative, seeing possibilities where before they seemed to be facing brick walls. Once the stress has lifted, they are also much more likely to change rather than keep doing the same thing over and over, getting the same less-than-stellar results. And with creativity flowing and motivation to change, these clients start having positive experiences — meeting the right people at a networking event, realizing a way to save money, catching a mistake before sending out a report.

Most of my clients don’t describe these experiences as “luck,” but this researcher would probably categorize them that way. So the bottom line here is: to increase your luck, lower your stress.

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.

Sleeping Despite Stress

“Jack” (whose name I’ve changed for confidentiality reasons), a solo attorney, has been working on a big case for over a year. He’s up against one of the big law firms in his city, and the stress from feeling ganged up on has been building as the trial got closer.

Last week Jack told me that he hadn’t slept well for the two nights before the pretrial conference with the judge on Friday. In fact, the night before he hadn’t slept at all. Now he had a long weekend to prepare for the trial and was worried that he might be a sleepless wreck by opening arguments on Tuesday. I went over with him the stress-relief tapping technique I use and told him to try it if he had any more trouble sleeping.

We spoke Tuesday after the first day of trial. Jack reported that he had slept very poorly all weekend long, but that “for some reason” he had slept well the night before and been quite relaxed throughout the day’s proceedings. I asked if he had tapped, and he said he had forgotten to over the weekend, but then added “Oh, I tapped last night. Maybe that was why I slept better.”

While we can’t be sure that tapping made the difference here for Jack, it is common for people to forget they tapped once their problem goes away. And I know other clients who have had relief from their insomnia when they tapped. It certainly can’t hurt to try.

Get started.

If stress is keeping you awake, try my Quick Start Guide to tapping. It might help you, too. If you would like more individual attention, please e-mail me at nancy@unblockresults.com to arrange a get-acquainted call by phone or Skype to talk about how we might work together.

Getting Rid of Unreasonable Fears Fast

A client of mine was thrown for a loop this week when he had back-to-back calls from a friend and a relative. Both callers expressed doubts about his plan to take his business in a new direction. The extreme stress he felt from those calls almost derailed his plan completely.

My client had determined that he had to change his business’s approach to deal with the realities of the current economy. He had done a lot of research into what customers wanted, what they would pay, and how best to approach them. His  energy and enthusiasm were higher than they had been in weeks. He was almost ready to launch his new service.

Then came the calls. Although the callers intended only the best for him, and they were by their own admission inexperienced in the business area he was pursuing, their trusted words took a powerful toll on him. They not only had him doubting the wisdom of his plan, they had him questioning whether he was capable of keeping his business going at all. He had trouble thinking about anything other than the calls and his motivation came crashing down. He estimated that his productivity was cut down to a quarter of what it had been before he said “Hello.”

A few hours later he contacted me. We talked and used the stress-reduction tapping technique I teach while focusing on what was bothering him about the calls to help him clear his stress. Within twenty minutes, his head had cleared. He dropped the fear that he wouldn’t be able to succeed and was able to quickly re-orient his thinking around the fact that, while his callers had his best interests in mind, they knew almost nothing about the area he was working in. Their reaction was based on their own fears and concerns, not on a reasoned analysis of the market for the services he was offering. His analysis of his business and the market had not changed — he was on the right track. His motivation and energy came back to where they had been, or even higher. He called the results “amazing.” (This from one of my more skeptical clients, who took a long time to accept that this tapping stuff might actually help.)

As a bonus, my client realized in the middle of our tapping how to get around an obstacle that had been blocking him from asking some contacts to refer him business. This was not something we had focused on at any point. It shows how getting rid of stress can open up your creativity.

Could he have achieved this without our talking and tapping? In time, perhaps yes. But given what a fast-moving month this was in his life and the stakes in the decisions he was about to make, he told me he was grateful for how quickly he was able to clear his head and move forward without lasting distraction on a purely emotional level.

Get started.

Please e-mail me at nancy@unblockresults.com to arrange a get-acquainted call by phone or Skype to talk about your blocks and how we might work on them together.