There is a tendency that some people have sometimes to apologize for things that do not require an apology, or to apologize for things that were not their fault. This is a habit that comes from a place of wanting to be considerate of other people, which is a good trait and a good quality to have. However, when we over-apologize, it can have the effect making you feel responsible for things that you shouldn’t be responsible for, and this pattern can contribute to a lack of confidence in how you feel and how you come across to other people.
Some people are so accustomed to apologizing for everything that happens, that they feel awkward when they make the effort to NOT apologize when it’s not needed. This can be a people-pleasing tendency that has become an ingrained habit. Other times it may be a response to anxiety or fear of judgement, but it can manifest itself in ways that merely serve to contribute to overall anxiety. The tendency to apologize for things when you have done nothing wrong may make you feel like you are in a constant state of needing to attend to other people’s feelings and comfort, leaving you feeling as though your own feelings and comfort do not matter.
What’s the Problem with Apologizing Too Much?
There is research that suggests that women tend to apologize more not because they are too sensitive or because men have more ego strength, but because women tend to perceive more wrongdoing in their own actions, whereas men tend to perceive smaller offenses as not worthy of requiring an apology. In other words, women tend to judge their own behaviors more harshly, leading them to find more scenarios in which they feel an apology is merited. Over-apologizing is not a trait only women experience, but it may be more likely to be true if you are a woman, particularly one who has been taught to attend to other people’s feelings more than your own.
Here are some scenarios in which you may have become accustomed to apologizing, but that do not actually require an apology:
- Expressing remorse for something that was out of your control
- Apologizing for being in the way when someone else bumps into you
- Apologizing for being offended at something someone else has done to you
- Apologizing for having feelings or for crying when you are upset
- Apologizing when someone else interrupts you
- Apologizing for making a simple request such as asking the time or a small favor
- Apologizing for apologizing
All of these situations are scenarios in which either someone else should actually give an apology, or in which there is no need for an apology at all because there has been no offense committed.
For example, have you ever been confiding in a friend about a painful experience, and then when you started to cry, you apologized to your friend for crying? This is an unfortunately common reaction that many people have when they start to cry, and the implication is that you have done something wrong by becoming emotional when talking about a painful experience. However, in this situation your friend is probably not offended at all that you started to cry, and in fact you have done nothing wrong; you are reacting in a perfectly appropriate way to an expression of your emotions. Why is an apology required? For disturbing the peace? No, you do not need to apologize in this situation.
When you begin to realize that you do not have to apologize for reacting to situations in perfectly normal ways, you will start to feel more confident in yourself. However, if you start to practice asking yourself whether an apology is needed before you issue one, you might find that you feel strange or uncomfortable when you stop yourself from apologizing.
Isn’t This Just Being Polite?
No, apologizing when it is not needed is not a form of being polite. Some people have this tendency because they have been taught or socialized to believe that they should always make sure other people are comfortable, even when they are personally uncomfortable. This is true in those cases when someone bumps into you awkwardly, but then you apologize for being in the way. Sure, you’re trying to just be polite and diffuse the awkwardness of the situation.
However, this is almost an invitation for people to walk all over you. Maybe this will not manifest immediately in the present moment, but over time, this tendency to always present yourself as the one who’s in the way can begin to undermine your own confidence in yourself and shows others that you are not going to stand up for yourself when someone has wronged you. This is most problematic in the way that this habit contributes to your overall demeanor around others. It doesn’t mean someone is going to start bullying you immediately, but over time it contributes to the perception that you will not fault others when they take advantage of or otherwise harm you. You can be polite and kind to others without apologizing for other people’s offenses.
The more assertive way to handle it when someone else bumps into you is to wait for them to apologize to you, which is what would be truly polite, and then accepting the apology with grace by saying simply “Thanks, but I’m okay”, or “You’re excused”. The thanks is for the apology, the reference to being okay or excusing the other person is a verbal forgiveness for the offense of bumping into you. If someone does not apologize for bumping into you, you can either choose to ignore it, or say “You’re excused”. This way the implication is clear that you are not the one who has done something wrong, but you are gracefully excusing the error regardless of the offender’s reaction.
Practicing this new habit in more inconsequential situations such as an accidental bump in a social setting will help you gain confidence for when you need to stand up for yourself in more consequential situations. When you really need to speak up for yourself because of unfair treatment in the workplace, or when a friend has said something hurtful to you, you will be better equipped to handle the scenario confidently because you have been practicing accepting responsibility only for the things you are actually responsible for, and not letting others off the hook for their own offenses by taking unnecessary responsibility.
When Is an Apology Really Required?
Genuine remorse is a different experience altogether. When you have done something for which you are truly remorseful, you should apologize. A genuine apology is an art in itself, and giving a sincere apology is an important part of mending relationships and living up to your own values. A genuine apology should first be sincere, it should explain why what you did was wrong, it should include acceptance of responsibility, and it should include an offer to make amends if possible.
You might need to apologize for snapping at your friend when you were actually upset about something happening at work, or for being late to an appointment where someone was waiting on you, or for not following through with a commitment you made to help with a project. Being able to verbalize a sincere apology is an important skill to have, and can go a long way towards reducing hostility in a relationship or for preserving your reputation.
However, when you apologize for things that do not require an apology, it can undermine your confidence and leave you feeling powerless when others take advantage of you. If this feels like a familiar situation to you, start by beginning to notice all the times you apologize, and begin asking yourself whether that was necessary. Then start by trying to reverse this habit in those smaller, inconsequential scenarios, so that you can begin to build confidence in your ability to assess when an apology is really needed. Just taking these small steps can go a long way in boosting your overall confidence and helping you to become a more assertive person.
This will be the 5th post in my series on Cognitive Distortions. To read more about cognitive distortions and what they are, check out my first post in the series: Coping with Cognitive Distortions.
This post is about Control Fallacies, which are basically a distorted way of looking at how much control you have in a particular situation. The reason that this cognitive distortion is unhealthy is because when we misjudge how much control we have in a situation, we can either blame ourselves excessively for something that has happened, or we can misplace our power by thinking that we have no control over a situation, when you might actually have more power than you think.
Control Fallacies work in two ways: you either think that events in your life are totally beyond your control, or you feel that you are responsible for everything, even things you could not control. Both aspects of this distortion can lead to feelings of guilt, shame, and distress. These feelings can cause you to think negative thoughts about yourself, leading to more distress and negative thought patterns.
“I can’t control ANY of this! I feel so stuck!”
The trouble with the first kind, thinking that things are totally beyond your control, can start to happen when you feel helpless and stuck. Perhaps you feel that you are stuck in a job that you hate, but you feel that you have no choice but to remain there. Or maybe you feel repeatedly taken advantage of by others who have used you, and you feel that this is just something that will continue to happen because you are a nice person.
The fallacy in this kind of thinking is that you are actually able of making changes in these kinds of situations, but you have convinced yourself that everything is out of your control, so why bother changing? This is problematic because by not changing and taking control of the areas of your life where you can, you may just be extending your own misery and missing out on the confidence you will gain from taking power back when you can.
Sure, there are going to be times that you really need to stick with your current job, because you haven’t been able to find a better option and you need the money or the benefits. That’s understandable. Sometimes, though, a person may just not have really put in the work to make a change, and then they tell themselves that they have no options. This is a way of avoiding doing the work by claiming that you cannot change anything. I’m not saying this is always the case, because there will be times when you truly don’t have any control. This may be the case if you have a contract for a certain amount of time, such as for those in military service, or those who do not have many job opportunities in the area they live in. For others, though, they may be avoiding making the changes they need to make because it feels too overwhelming, or they are not sure where to start.
Similarly, if you have noticed that certain things continue to happen to you, such as feeling like people are using you or taking advantage of your kindness, you may also have some control in the situation that you can exercise. This might be a matter of learning to set better boundaries with others, which can be difficult but necessary. Setting boundaries can be hard to do if you are not used to being assertive or telling people NO when necessary. However, when you trick yourself into thinking that you can’t change things because you have no control over other people’s behavior, you may be engaging in a control fallacy.
“This is all my fault! I should have done something more!”
The flip side of this problem is when you feel that you are responsible for things that are actually outside of your control, and thus you feel that you have constantly made mistakes or are always letting other people down. For example, you may feel guilty for not noticing a mistake that a colleague made, and then feel accountable when that mistake turns into a bigger problem. Or, you may feel responsible for your partner’s behavior, because you tell yourself that you weren’t supportive enough or didn’t make sure they took their medicine.
When you notice that you are taking responsibility for things that you actually had no control over, this is a sign that you are not assigning blame in the appropriate ways, or you are not giving others the responsibility that they should have. This can lead you to feel guilty about things you didn’t control, or that you couldn’t have avoided. These feelings of guilt can lead to inappropriate feelings or shame or a sense of overcompensation you try to apologize for things that were not your fault. For more on that, see this post on over-apologizing.
In this case, you need to learn to stop taking responsibility for problems that you didn’t create, and recognize that you are not responsible for everyone else’s behavior. It doesn’t mean that you relinquish all sense of responsibility for things in your life, just that you try to look at a situation and figure out if there was something you could’ve done, whereby you learn something that you can use to make better decisions in the future, or you let go of any sense of shame or guilt involved in situations that you couldn’t control. This might mean that you have to practice not apologizing for things that were not your fault, or it may mean that you have to give yourself permission to let go of the guilt and shame about events that you have associated as being your fault when they really were not.
How can I change these patterns?
When you start to recognize these control fallacy patterns in your thought process, you can work to change them so that you feel more in control of your mentality and more confident about your decisions. If you notice that your thoughts feel self-defeating, if you notice that you constantly think about all the barriers you have instead of all the opportunities you can look for, remind yourself that you have to make small changes before you make big changes. Look for the opportunities to make small changes first, such as setting better boundaries with the people in your life, or making a plan to change your career path. Recognize that while you may not be able to control all of your circumstances, you can still control your personal decisions and where you direct your mental energy.
If you have the opposite problem with this control fallacy and you find yourself blaming yourself for things inappropriately, practice asking yourself some questions to get a better understanding of if there was really anything you could have done differently. Ask yourself: “How could I have known what the outcome would be? Is there really anything I could have done differently? Is this a problem that is out of my personal control? Is there someone else in this situation that needs to take responsibility for their own behavior or choices?” Recognizing your own power in these situations and figuring out what you can do differently in the future will benefit you if you learn to stop this pattern of cognitive distortion and look at the situation more objectively.
For more on cognitive distortions, check out these other posts:
Cognitive Distortions 2.0: Disqualifying the Positive
Cognitive Distortions 3.0: Personalization
Cognitive Distortions 4.0: Emotional Reasoning
Everyone is going to come across people in their life that are just difficult to deal with. There are many different kinds of difficult people, and in order to have a healthy mindset and not let these kinds of people bring you down or derail you from your goals, it is helpful to be able to identify these kinds of people and learn how to manage their personalities.
Difficult people can make it harder to stay positive and get things accomplished, and they can occupy more of your mental energy than they deserve. In order to combat these kinds of people, you need to first identify what kind of personality you are dealing with, and then have a strategy to cope with them when they come your way.
First, understand that difficult people are the way that they are because they have learned that behaving in a certain way works in their favor in one way or another. Being difficult may mean that others do not criticize them, or that they get their way more often. They may have found that attacking others helps them avoid being attacked themselves, or they may feel more powerful when others acquiesce to their demands. Whatever their reason, they are usually immune to the normal ways of communicating with others because they have found a method that helps them feel better about themselves or get more of what they want.
Next, make sure you know what NOT to do when dealing with difficult people:
- DON’T take their behavior personally. Other people’s behavior is always about them, it’s not about you. Chances are they treat everyone this way, so don’t make the mistake of thinking that you are being personally attacked, even if it seems that way.
- DON’T try to mimic their behavior or beat them at their own games. This will usually add fuel to the fire and just stimulate more conflict. Moreover, difficult people can be very manipulative and could use your actions against you. This tactic rarely turns out well.
- DON’T try to appease them by trying to make them happy all the time to avoid conflict. Difficult people will tire of you when they figure out you won’t fall for their games, but if you feed them what they want, they will always come up with more demands to make.
- DON’T try to change them by rationalizing or appealing to their empathy. You cannot change others, you can only change yourself and how you respond to people and situations.
- DON’T give up. You will get better in time with dealing with difficult people when you become more confident in yourself and your abilities. This is about not giving up on yourself. You are free to give up on trying to change difficult people, though.
Finally, here are some tips to deal with a few different kinds of difficult people:
- Negative Complainers: Complainers are people who have a hard time trying to find the positive in anything. When they get something good, they find a way to find fault with it. When they receive a compliment, they shoot it down. These kinds of people can be exhausting to deal with because they constantly need other people to prop them up and boost their ego. They typically do not have much confidence in themselves, and they use other people to make up for this by constantly requiring the people around them to make up for their negativity. To deal with this kind of person, avoid arguing with them about their own terrible outlook. Instead, respond with something like “It’s too bad you feel that way. When I feel like that I usually try to look for the positive”. Don’t give them the solutions. This reinforces their behavior. Instead, turn their negativity around by encouraging them to come up with their own solutions. If they can’t, just repeat that it is unfortunate that they feel so stuck.
- Aggressive People: Aggressive people try to intimidate others into doing what they want. This usually serves to keep attention off of them so that they don’t have to change. They expect that others will be intimidated into silence or will respond back with aggression, which helps them avoid responsibility. The approach to take with these people is to stay calm, refuse to be intimidated, and remain assertive with your viewpoint. When you remain calm while they are losing their cool, they end up looking like the crazy person, and you look rational and level. They will eventually run out of steam, or get frustrated with their inability to make you break your calm, and they will have to calm down. The key here is not to let their behavior influence yours. I know it will feel difficult, but this is why you will gain the upper hand eventually. When others learn that they can’t bully you, they will eventually stop trying. However, there may be times when you need to set boundaries by saying something like “I’m not going to engage further in this conversation until you are able to remain calm. I’ll talk to you later.” Then, end it. Refuse to engage further until they stop the aggressive behavior.
- Snipers: Snipers are similar to aggressive people, but they use more subtle messaging and methods to attack you. They tend to be hostile and they make people uncomfortable by making snarky remarks, sarcasm, disapproving facial expressions, and other innuendoes to try and intimidate people. This makes them feel more powerful and boosts their ego because inside they are actually insecure and need to make others feel small in order to feel good about themselves. The way to combat this kind of person is two-fold. One way is direct confrontation. This requires that you are confident in yourself and your assertive skills. You might say something like “That comment sounds like you’re making fun of me, and I don’t appreciate it”. Some people will be so shocked by your ability to pull this off that it will stop their behavior. Another approach with this kind of person is the “kill ‘em with kindness” approach. No matter how rude and nasty they are, just respond with kindness and sincerity. Sometimes this approach works because kindness is disarming. It is hard for most people to be unkind to someone who is always kind to them. This won’t work with everyone, so choose your approach wisely. This is not about being fake, it’s actually about being sincere. If you approach all people with love no matter who they are or how they treat you, you are being true to your own values, if those are your values. The kindness approach works for me personally, because it is literally just easier for me to be kind to others than to be snarky, but that’s just my personality. I’m good at being assertive too when I need to be, but kindness is my default, so that’s where I often try to start.
- Avoiders/Silent People: Some people do not have the assertive skills to deal with confrontation in a healthy way, so they will avoid you when they are upset, or they will use passive tactics such as giving you sullen looks, or respond to your questions with “I don’t know” or “Nothing’s wrong”. These people can be hard to deal with because they require a lot of your emotional labor to figure out what is wrong, or they require you to be the one to fix things all the time when there is a conflict. These people get away with not doing the work to fix problems by not talking or refusing to act. It works because other people who are uncomfortable with silence or tension will do the work to fix things. The approach to take with these people is not to play into their avoidance. The sooner you confront the issue, the better. If you know what the issue is, ask questions that can’t be avoided, such as “I can see that you’re upset, so let’s talk about what just happened”. Calling them out on their behavior right away in an assertive but friendly tone can help resolve problems so they do not fester. If, however, they refuse to engage or talk, then let it go and ignore all further behaviors. If you try to talk to someone and they will not engage, then they just have to sit with their frustration and silence because they made that choice. You do not have to continue to try and coax them into talking or go through enormous effort to cheer them up or get them to talk to you. Choose to go on with your life or your day and do not take responsibility for the inaction or avoidance that others choose. When they see that their mood is not going to ruin yours, it becomes less effective to avoid talking.
You will not always get the outcomes you want when dealing with difficult people. As stated before, you cannot change other people, you can only change how you react to them. But difficult people do not have to ruin your mood, your day, or your life if you choose not to let them. There may be some situations you cannot avoid, such as when you have a toxic boss or a family member that likes to ruin Thanksgiving. But remember that your power lies in you being in control of your own behavior and your own reactions, and living true to your own values.
Human beings vary in their degree of sensitivity, by which I mean that there are some people who are highly sensitive and who feel emotions very intensely, whereas there are others who display little sensitivity towards others and who also do not seem to be as affected by their environment or the people around them. Empaths are people who are empathetic and sympathetic towards others, and also experience the world as a highly sensitive person.
From Sociopaths to Empaths
There appears to be about 3-5 percent of the human population that fall under the category of sociopathic, which does not mean that they are all murderers, but does mean that they operate their lives in a way by which their primary concern is always about themselves, and they do not have the ability to see things from the perspective of others. They may feel very little true guilt or shame about doing harmful things to others. Another 1 percent is considered psychopathic, with higher percentages of both sociopaths and psychopaths found among criminal populations.
There is another end of the spectrum though, who are rather the opposite of the sociopaths, psychopaths, and narcissists, which is those who are highly sensitive individuals, sometimes referred to as Empaths. Interestingly, highly sensitive people comprise about 20% of the population. Empaths are a kind of highly sensitive person that extends their ability to experience the feelings deeply of others as well as themselves. Empaths are people who identify with and feel intense empathy towards others. This does not mean that they are inherently fragile or overly-emotional. It means that they feel things deeply, think about things deeply, and take on the emotions and experiences of others as their own.
Who Are the Empaths?
Being highly sensitive is a temperament trait, not a disorder or a problem that needs to be solved. In fact, it is a trait that likely has some benefit as a survival trait, because high sensitivity exists in over 100 different species of animals as well. For example, certain dogs may be more sensitive and empathetic, which makes them amazing companion animals and also great therapy dogs. These animals, as well as highly sensitive people, are very responsive to small changes in their environment.
Empaths often find themselves worrying not only about their own problems and experiences, but the problems and experiences of their friends and families, people they may not even know, and the problems of the world at large. While many people do think and care about these things, empaths tend to have a more intense personal emotional response to these things, and may find themselves exhausted at caring so much about everything. Both men and women can be empaths, and highly sensitive individuals exist in similar rates in both men and women.
Empaths typically have the following characteristics as part of their general personality and constitution:
- Highly emotionally responsive, ability to understand and respond to the emotions of others
- Easily empathize with animals
- May cry easily, even at seemingly innocuous moments, commercials or movies
- Tend to be creative and curious, with a desire to learn about and understand the world
- Susceptible to over-stimulation, such as crowds, loud noises, or over-work
- May be inclined towards caring professions, such as nursing, mental health, or teaching
- May burn-out easily and need reclusive time to recover
- Tend to observe quietly and take things in
- Mentally process information deeply and thoroughly
Empaths may often feel different than others, feel misunderstood, or have a hard time understanding why others in the world care so little compared to them. This can lead to a tendency towards introversion, although not all empaths or highly sensitive people are introverted. Many empaths have been told throughout their lives that their way of perceiving the world is wrong, or that they need to “get over” their feelings. However, recognizing that you are a highly sensitive person or an Empath may help you to understand more about what your unique needs are by learning to value the traits that you have and use them as a strength.
What do Empaths Need?
Empaths tend to work well independently, and also work well in settings that are one-on-one with another person. Workplace environments with a lot of people, or that are very noisy and simulating may leave empaths feeling drained rather than energized. Socializing may lead to similar experiences. Knowing that certain environments will feel over-whelming and lead to feeling unwell may help empaths make decisions about career paths and socialization choices that will lead to more fulfilling experiences.
Empaths also may need to have down-time in between experiences that are overwhelming. For example, after going to a party one evening, an empath may need to make sure they schedule time for solitude in order to recover and regain energy. They may similarly need to schedule down-time after situations that require a lot of emotional energy, such as caregiving for others, volunteering for charity work, or even engaging with friends to support them.
Knowing if you are an empath may help you understand how to express your needs more assertively. Empaths may often have difficulty asking for help or even saying “No” when others request help from them. Their tendency is to try to solve problems for others, but this may sometimes result in the empathic person neglecting their own needs. Learning to say no to some obligations or requests for help, and learning to schedule time for yourself in order to recover your sense of energy can have a positive effect on your overall mood and improve your ability to interact with the world.
As an Empath, recognize that your highly sensitive qualities are a strength, both to yourself and your community. Sometimes, you may wish that you could not care as much because of how deeply everything affects you. However, the world needs highly sensitive people who are attuned to others and who care about how others think and feel. Empaths have likely long been the healers and the nurturers in human communities, and have been valuable to the societies they live in. However, empaths can also learn to care as much about themselves as they do others, which they certainly deserve due to the value they bring to other’s lives.
Anxiety is common mental health condition that affects millions of people every day. While many people use anti-anxiety medications to help manage their symptoms, I often hear from people who want to learn more about strategies to cope with anxiety and panic attacks without using medication.
My general recommendation for coping with anxiety is to think of yourself as having a toolbox. You can use many different tools to cope with your symptoms, and medication may be one of those tools. Depending on the severity of your symptoms, medication may have place in your life as you learn how to manage your symptoms in the best way for you as an individual.
However, even if you take a medication for anxiety or panic attacks, you probably still want some other strategies to help you manage your symptoms so that you feel more confident that you can effectively cope when you begin to feel overwhelmed.
Here are 10 non-medical tools and strategies that you can utilize to help build your coping skills around managing your anxiety and panic attacks:
- Deep-breathing Practices
- Deep-breathing is a necessary strategy if you struggle with panic and anxiety. Deep-breathing techniques increase the oxygen flow to your brain and body, and it is the Number 1 way to combat acute panic and anxiety. Practice inhaling deeply through your nose, holding your breath for 5 seconds, and then exhaling through your mouth. Do this at least 10 times to produce a calming effect in your body and mind. Try closing your eyes while you are doing it as well, to increase the focus of your senses on your breathing.
- Another deep-breathing method to try involves closing your right nostril with your thumb while you breathe deeply in through the left nostril. Hold your breath for 5 seconds, then close the left nostril with your forefinger while you release your thumb on the right nostril, and then exhale through the right nostril. You are directing the flow of air throughout your nasal passage in a conscious way. Repeat this 10 times, alternating the open and closed nostril.
- Guided Meditation
- I love using guided meditation apps for sleep, but they are great for panic and anxiety as well. Using an app with your headphones can help you focus on your breath, and listening to a calming voice talk to you in a soothing way will bring your attention back to the present moment. Just go to wherever you usually get your apps from (I just use the app store on my phone) and search for “guided meditation” and look through the options. Many apps have free versions that give you a few tracks, while others cost a few dollars and come with expanded options.
- Yoga is an excellent technique to incorporate into your lifestyle to reduce stress and anxiety. The practice focuses on attention to your breathing as you move through poses that will stretch your muscles, increase your flexibility, and enhance your mind-body connection. Research has shown yoga to be an effective strategy for reducing anxiety and depression.
- Incorporate a hatha-style (gentle) yoga practice into your routine twice a week for 90 minutes for the best results. If that kind of schedule doesn’t work for you, try shorter practices more frequently, such as 15 minutes twice a day. For more tips on building a yoga practice for mental health, check out my post on How to use Yoga for Depression.
- Aromatherapy works by using essential oils to stimulate your olfactory system, which connects scents to your nose and your brain. I have recommended them to my clients frequently as an extra resource to cope with panic and anxiety. You can use essential oils by applying them topically to the skin, in conjunction with a massage, in a diffuser for your entire room, or you can just inhale directly from the bottle.
- The best oils in my experience to use for panic and anxiety are Lavender Oil, Frankincense , and Black Spruce. If you’ve never tried using oils before, you can start by rubbing a drop or two of oil on your wrists, and then bringing your wrists to your nose and inhaling deeply. Just be careful, as some oils that are very strong need to be blended with a carrier oil. The 3 oils mentioned here are fine to use topically on your skin, but if you have very sensitive skin, just mix a drop of oil with a teaspoon of carrier oil like coconut oil or grapeseed oil before applying to your skin.
- Make sure that you use essential oils, and not fragrance oils. Essential oils are derived from plants, whereas fragrance oils are synthetic and laboratory made. Fragrance oils will not have the same effects as essential oils and are not a replacement.
- I have tried different brands of essential oils, but I do prefer to use doTERRA when possible for 3 reasons: product quality, corporate social responsibility, and environmental responsibility. I’ve researched the company and find them to be reputable in those areas, which is important to me.
- Another method of aromatherapy is to diffuse the oil into the air around you. You can use a combination of lavender and frankincense by just adding a few drops of each to a diffuser with water, and then allow the scent to fill the room. Diffusing is probably best as a more preventative method. If you find yourself having acute anxiety, you most likely will find it more effective to apply the oils topically and inhale. Diffusing is great though, for creating on overall calming and relaxing atmosphere in your personal space.
- You can also use oils in your bathtub by just dropping 5 drops in the water. Using oils along with Epson salts will provide a relaxing bath experience. Again, lavender and frankincense are great options here. If you don’t use a bathtub, try dropping a few drops of oil in the bottom of your shower towards the opposite end of where the drain is where not as much water will wash it away so quickly. It will still diffuse a little into the steam of your shower.
- Journaling can be therapeutic as both a preventative strategy and acute anxiety. Any journal or notebook will do, so try doing a quick entry at night before you go to bed to help you get all your stressors off your mind before going to sleep. Or, you can keep a small journal with you throughout the day and start writing when you begin to feel overwhelmed. Many people find writing to be very helpful as a coping skill, so it’s worth trying. You can also try writing down your stressors and fears and then burning them in a fire-pit or outside on a driveway as a symbolic way to rid yourself of those feelings.
- Mindfulness Practices
- Mindfulness is another practice that has support from research demonstrating its effectiveness as a measure to improve psychological wellbeing. Mindfulness practices will not stop a panic attack that is already in progress, but it is a good strategy to promote mental health and resilience by consciously devoting mental energy to developing healthy habits both mentally and physically. To get started with a mindfulness practice, try to devote 30 days to changing your habits by paying extra attention to your nutritional, exercise, and mental health needs and reducing unnecessary distractions that create extra stress such as excessive social media and technology use.
- Walking is great for your heart and your mind. If you feel a panic attack coming on, getting outside to walk is one of the best things you can do right away to help calm yourself down. Walk at a comfortable pace, which may be faster or slower depending on how you feel as an individual and what your body is telling you that you need at that moment. Take deep breaths while you are walking and if you happen to have your essential oils with you, inhale some of the oils while you are walking and breathing deeply. This is one of the most effective combinations to combat an acute panic attack. You can also use one of the guided meditation apps in conjunction with walking, which may also help reduce acute anxiety.
- Sensory Distraction
- This strategy involves using your 5 senses to distract yourself and redirect energy to your body in the present moment. Try stimulating your senses by running cool water over your wrists, inhaling from a bottle of calming essential oils, using a scalp massager to stimulate your ASMR response, visual identification, or other methods. For a full description of how to use sensory distraction to help with panic and anxiety, see my post on the topic here.
- Emotional Support Animals and Pets
- If you have an emotional support animal (ESA) already, then you know how important your animal can be to helping reduce anxiety. Companion animals can have a soothing presence and provide unconditional love. ESAs can be cats, dogs, rabbits, or even snakes. The most important thing is that building a physical connection with your ESA or pet can help you calm down when anxiety is building, and stroking or cuddling your animal can produce feel-good endorphins that combat the negative energy of anxiety. You can check out more about the benefits of animals in this post.
- Art can be an amazing medium to express yourself and cope with overwhelming feelings. If you are artistically inclined and depending on your interests and talents, you may choose to paint, draw, sculpt, write, or play music when you feel overwhelmed to release and re-direct that energy.
- If you (like me) are not so artistically inclined but still love art and want to try using it to help with stress, then Adult Coloring Books are the way to go. There are lots of adult coloring books out there now with many different themes, so pick one and grab a set of colored pencils or pens and try it.
Refocusing Your Mental Energy
What all of these strategies have in common is that they bring your attention from the source of your anxiety and stress back to your own body and mind. They all include a method of directing your energy and attention towards what is happening in the present moment and using that energy towards mental and physical healing.
Anxiety is associated with worrying about the future in some capacity. Many people with anxiety conditions worry about having an unexpected panic attack and they experience stress and fear about whether they will be able to cope with it when it happens. Bringing our attention to the present moment with strategies such as these can help reduce the anxiety that you feel about potential outcomes that may happen in the future. This doesn’t take away our need to think about the future, and it doesn’t change our need to attend to our own needs in the present. But it can help balance those emotions and bring them into proportion.
I think of managing anxiety as a two-part process. You need to have an overall strategy to create a sense of balance and general stress reduction methods to improve your overall quality of life. Then, you also need to have that toolbox full of coping skills that can help you in the acute moments when you begin to feel overwhelmed or panicked. The strategies outlined above can help with both.
If you are regularly incorporating some of these strategies into your life, you will experience an overall reduction in stress and improved sense of balance in your life. However, during moments of panic or overwhelm you want to also have methods such as aromatherapy and sensory distraction to help calm you down when needed.
You may have already practiced some of these strategies before, but if there are some you haven’t tried yet, try to incorporate some new methods into your routine. You may be surprised to find out what works for you, and none of them will do you harm if you practice them mindfully.
Sleep can be somewhat of an elusive goal for many of us. There are many factors that contribute to the, frankly, abysmal state of rest in our current society. Lack of quality sleep contributes to a multitude of negative outcomes for individuals, employers, and cultures, yet many factors about our modern society also contribute to unhealthy sleep habits.
For many of us, lack of good quality sleep contributes to an overall lack of a good quality of life. While there may be some things that are out of your control, like your work schedule or your children’s schedules, most of us can make a few small changes to work towards getting a better night’s sleep and a more restful morning.
I will be the first to say that creating a healthy sleep routine is hard. There are many factors that work against me when I’m trying to get a good night’s sleep. I don’t like to hop in the bed and go right to sleep. I have difficulty getting to sleep in perfect silence. I, too, sometimes want to veg out in front of a screen. My mind sometimes races with thoughts of all the crazy stuff happening in the world today. I like my glass of wine in the evenings. I’m tired but I can’t get comfortable. I’m naturally a night person but still have to get up early in the mornings. And on, and on, and on. I get it.
I also know that I feel so much better mentally and physically when I am well-rested. I manage my stress better, I make better food choices, I have more energy for exercise, my mood is better, and I’m more efficient with the tasks I need to accomplish. But don’t just take my word for it that sleep makes you a more healthy and happy individual.
Sleep is a biological need. We need sleep to pay attention, think clearly, perform physical activities accurately, and many other things. Evidence has been building for decades that sleep disruption contributes to weight gain, obesity and associated disorders, and hypertension.
Research also indicate that up to 40 percent of the adult US population sleeps less than 7 hours on weekdays, which has been shown to result in lower levels of alertness and attention. Chronic sleep deprivation may also contribute to excessive use of stimulants like caffeine.
Sleep deprivation is also linked to increased feelings of irritability, anger, hostility, and depression. The good news, though, is that getting quality sleep is also associated with positive effects on mood.
Many people know that they feel better when they get good sleep, but knowing exactly how to exchange poor habits for better ones can be daunting. Here’s a few tips for starting to make some changes that will improve your quality of sleep, even if you can’t always increase the number of hours you actually sleep.
- Assess your habits:
- Do you have a (relatively) regular bed time?
- You don’t have to adhere strictly to a regular bed time every single night, but have a general idea of what time you should be winding down in order to get adequate shut-eye for your specific schedule. If you have more flexibility on the weekends, it’s fine to stay up later and sleep in the next morning, just know how your body reacts to those changes and pay attention to what works for you
- Do you usually fall asleep with some kind of technology (tablet, TV, phone)?
- The evidence shows that blue light in particular, which is the light that comes from your tech, disrupts your sleep and contributes to sleep deprivation. If this is something you’ve made a habit of, it’s going to have to change if you want better sleep. Don’t worry, I’ll give you some strategies for shifting this habit.
- Do you budget enough hours a night for your sleep needs?
- Understandably, you may not always have control of your sleeping and waking hours due to work schedules or other obligations. While we’re all busy these days, you know if there’s some room for adjustment here or not. Yes, you should aim for 8 hours a night most nights, but if 6 or even 5 is what you’ve got, it’s even more important to make sure those hours are quality sleep hours. If you can adjust your schedule to budget a little more time for rest, then try to commit to making that change. Your mind and body will thank you in the long run.
- Do you drink too much alcohol in the evenings?
- Alcohol might help you relax a little in the evenings, but too much can disrupt your sleep. You may find yourself waking up in the middle of the night after the alcohol has metabolized in your system, which is a good indicator that you were actually passed out, not getting good quality sleep. You may also find yourself feeling hungover in the mornings, which is never fun.
- Define your problem areas:
- Do you have difficulty getting to sleep?
- Are you staying up late watching shows or using tech? Or are you struggling with negative thoughts at this time, re-living past traumas or overthinking mistakes you may have made? If this is what is happening, it’s so important to start practicing some mindfulness techniques during this time to calm your mind and prepare your brain for a restful sleep.
- Staying asleep?
- Are you waking up during the night? Is this because of nightmares, or physical discomfort? Can you identify potential sources of mental distress? If there are specific fears or stressors you can identify, journaling before bedtime can help you process and let go of these thoughts before bedtime. If you have recurrent nightmares because of past trauma or emotional factors, please consider going to see a professional counselor or psychiatrist. Processing through your feelings and distress with a therapist may help you release the fears that may be the source of the nightmares.
- Quieting your mind?
- Is your mind racing at night? Are you thinking about every little thing you need to do tomorrow? This is another area where mindfulness practices can help. Try making a list of what you need to do so you can know that you won’t forget anything. Or practice quieting your mind by using meditation apps that you can download and play from your phone
- Becoming tired?
- If you just naturally are a night person due to your personal circadian rhythm, plan to do something that will exhaust you or make you sleepy. For some people, exercise in the evenings helps them relax, for others it is too stimulating so listen to your body to determine whether this will work for you. Alternatively, pick out some reading material that will get your eyelids heavy.
- Find your strategies:
- Personal Hygiene
- Some people are nighttime shower people, other people are morning shower people. Whichever you are, you can still benefit from a little hygiene routine to set you up for a good night’s sleep. Let’s be honest: a nice warm bath with Epsom salt and essential oils is the gold standard. Epsom salt helps you absorb magnesium through your skin, and magnesium helps you sleep at night. But we don’t all have time or ability to take a luxurious bath every night, so we can do some adjusting to compensate. If you are a nighttime shower person, try using aromatherapy in your shower by dropping a few drops of essential oils on your shower floor before you get in. Good oils for night showers are lavender and eucalyptus. If you’re not a nighttime shower person, you can still benefit from using lotions with essential oils, and taking time to wash your face and take care of your skin. All the attention to your body will help your mind feel better when you climb into bed.
- Relaxation tools
- Try a little self-massage. You can get a little hand massager and give yourself a neck rub, or just use a hand-towel that you’ve gotten damp, and then pop it in the microwave for 20 seconds or until it is warm but not super-hot. Be smart here and check the temp before you use the towel on your neck so you don’t scald yourself, but just a little warmth around the back of your neck can help you get into sleep-mode by relaxing those muscles a little. Also, those head massager tools that look like spiders give a really sweet head massage and makes your head feel warm and tingly.
- Meditation Apps
- There are plenty of different kinds of meditation apps out there. Just check out your app store on your phone and search for “meditation apps” and you will find lots of options. Some are free and others cost just a few dollars. There are apps that can specifically guide you to fall asleep, and others that just guide you through mindfulness exercises to quiet your mind.
- Journaling is a great strategy to use if you have trouble with thoughts running through your mind at night or are working through trauma or other emotional stressors. Getting your thoughts out on paper allows you to process and move past difficult emotions, and can provide a sense of relief through releasing difficult thoughts and feelings. You can keep a journal by your bedside, and when you find your mind or thoughts racing, grab it and start writing until you get it all out.
- Essential oils/Aromatherapy
- Aromatherapy is great for preparing for bed. You can use a diffuser to scent your bedroom, starting 30 minutes or so before you get in bed, so that your bedroom smells relaxing and fresh. Good oils for relaxation include lavender, chamomile, and peppermint. There are lots of recipes for diffuser blends on Pinterest and common oils are available in some grocery stores and even Target in the cosmetics section.
- Reading Guidelines
- In general, bedtime reading is something you want to aim to do from a physical book or magazine, rather than on an E-reader like a Nook or Kindle. This is only because of the blue light that emanates from our screens, which can stimulate our brains to think it’s daytime. Again, listen to your body. If your Nook doesn’t keep you up, and reading from it helps get you sleepy, go ahead and use it. But if you find it to be too stimulating, try reading from a good old-fashioned book with a lamp. Also, be mindful of content. If murder mysteries don’t bother you but help you get sleepy, go right ahead. But if you think they might be contributing to those nightmares you’re waking up with, maybe find something less prone to keeping you up.
- Make new habits:
- Decide what strategies you need to use based on your specific barriers to a good night’s rest and then set yourself up for success. Maybe you need to pick up a new journal or some aromatherapy supplies, or check out your app store to find some guided meditation apps.
- Remember that it take 30 days to really build a new habit, so give yourself a chance by committing to try these new strategies for at least 30 days and see if your sleep improves.
- Don’t beat yourself up if you miss a day, or if changes don’t happen immediately. Your brain needs time to adjust to new habits and get the full benefit of your efforts. Just keep trying, and listening to your body to find what works for you.
Sleep is essential to good mental health. In fact, for many of my clients, poor sleep is one of the most palpable and immediate ways in which their mental health manifests in their bodies. Stress and anxiety, overwhelming expectations at work, depression and trauma; all of these concerns can affect our quality of sleep and leave us feeling burnt out and exhausted. Sometimes, we avoid dealing with these other mental health concerns until our bodies just shut down and say “Enough! You are going to pay attention to me or you will be sick!” Our bodies frequently give us messages, but we need to pay attention to hear what our bodies are demanding of us. Sleep is an integral part of taking care of your mental health. Use these tips to create a strategy that works for you so that your sleep is restorative enough to help you feel your best, physically and mentally.