Are you an Empath?

Are you an Empath?

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.

10 Non-Medical Ways to Cope with Anxiety and Panic

10 Non-Medical Ways to Cope with Anxiety and Panic

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:

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. Yoga
  • 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.
  1. Aromatherapy
  • 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.
  1. Journaling
  • 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.
  1. 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.
  1. Walking
  • 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. Art
  • 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.

How to use Yoga for Depression

How to use Yoga for Depression

Depression is a prevalent mental health condition that many people struggle with either chronically or for a shorter period of time throughout their life.  While therapy or medication are common recommendations for treatment, there are also other adjunct treatments that can be used alongside traditional mental health treatment.

Adjunct therapies are not recommendations that are made necessarily as an alternative to traditional therapies.  Adjunct therapies for depression are intended to function as supportive methods to compliment primary therapy.  While seeing a therapist or psychiatrist for treatment of depression, your treatment provider may also recommend that you engage in activities such as yoga, mindfulness practices, meditation, breathing exercises, or other massage to help you develop a healing mindset and a healthy mind-body connection.

Our bodies are deeply connected to our mental health.  Many who have suffered from depression know that your body often responds to depression with symptoms such as fatigue, aches and pains, muscle tension, and sleeping difficulties.  Yoga is an adjunct therapy that can be used to both promote and help sustain healing in these areas.

A recent study on depression and yoga from the journal PLOS One found that after 8 weeks, participants with depression who attended a 90-minute hatha yoga practice twice a week had significant reductions in their symptoms of depression.  The participants also showed improvement in measures of self-efficacy and self-esteem.

If you want to try using yoga as an adjunct treatment for depression, consider using a similar strategy to help manage your symptoms and see if you find  a benefit in the practice.  If you have never tried yoga before, don’t be intimidated.  You do not have to do any poses that seem too difficult, and there are many resources for beginners. Take the following steps to create a sustainable plan that helps you feel better and doesn’t overwhelm you.

  1. Commit to trying the practice for at least 8 weeks.
  • If you already do yoga, consider whether you can increase the number of sessions you do currently. Twice a week is a good goal to start with.
  • Think about time versus number of sessions in regards to what works best for you. If you can only fit in 30 minutes at a time, aim for 3-4 sessions a week. If you can commit to a 90 minute session, twice a week may be fine. Or, consider doing a quick 15 minute practice twice a day if that fits better for you. Whatever you choose, just make sure it feels feasible for you.  Some is better than none, so don’t stress too much about it too much, just focus more on being consistent.
  1. Decide what kind of practice setting works best for you:
  • Home yoga with video instruction
    • You can buy yoga DVDs to use at home, or you can use a streaming service like GAIA that has yoga instructional videos. Also, YouTube has channels and instructors that do yoga videos, so you can search and find videos that interest you and are at your level.
  • Attend a class with an instructor and other students
    • Class attendance will usually cost you a fee for studio membership or a per class rate, so you will need to evaluate whether the costs at your chosen studio are affordable to you. However, many gyms now offer classes that are included in your membership, you if you do belong to a gym, check and see if they have classes that work for your schedule. Some communities offer free of reduced rate classes, so check your local magazines or Facebook groups to see if you have any close by that you can attend.
  • Independent practice
    • If you are advanced or have been practicing yoga for a while, you can always guide yourself through poses. If you are a beginner, get a book that can provide some instructions for beginner poses, or look for articles online that provide pictures to demonstrate poses.
    • The benefit here is that you can choose which poses you need for that practice and pick your own music and ambiance. Another benefit is that you can practice anywhere, indoors or out. Pick a location that works for you, whether that is your bedroom, a nearby park, or your backyard, or a porch.
  1. Pick a hatha-style practice that fits your abilities
  • Hatha yoga is a gentle style of practice that has been demonstrated in research to reduce symptoms of depression. Many yoga resources use hatha yoga, so look for this specific type of practice, or look for the terms “for beginners, for relaxation, for stress-relief” when reading descriptions. Other types of yoga are also fine to do if you like, but hatha in particular has been shown to be effective.
  • Go for the level that best suits your personal experience, whether that is beginner, intermediate, or advanced.
  1. Set intentions for practice that promote healing from depression
  • Many instructors will encourage you to set an intention for your practice. This is just a way of creating a mental note about where you want your mind to be focused as you practice. When you feel your mind drifting to other thoughts, try to use your intention to center your mind back on just concentration on your breathing or your body.
  • You can use a specific phrase or a mantra as your intention. Examples include “Healing”, “Just Breathe”, “Letting go of sadness”, “Letting go of grief”. Repeat your chosen phrase or mantra when your mind is wandering during your practice. For more tips on building a personal mantra, check out this post.
  1. Journal how you feel throughout the 8 weeks to determine if the practice is helping or if you need to make any adjustments
  • Any kind of journaling will do. Just record how you feel and make notes about your mood throughout the day on the days that you practice and try to notice any changes that you feel. The fact that you are taking the time to take care of yourself is therapeutic in itself, so think of journaling as your own personal notes on your progress.

 

Yoga can be a great addition to your therapeutic efforts towards managing your depression. While it is not a substitute for traditional therapy or the advice of your doctor, it has been shown to be effective in managing symptoms, and therefore can be a beneficial part of an overall plan to manage your depression.

Plus, if you have trouble finding time for yourself, you can know that yoga is part of your symptom management and therefore not just another exercise routine. This might be helpful if you need to let family or others know that you need this time to devote to your practice as part of your need to manage your depression. Put your sessions in your calendar or on the family calendar if it helps you to prioritize your practice.

You can also ask your doctor or therapist for a written recommendation for a yoga practice.  That may help if you need to have a personal reminder to commit to your practice, and depending on your insurance you could get reimbursement for class fees, discounts on gym fees, or potentially use your Health Saving Account to help with costs. Just make sure to check your policies to see if that is an option for you.

If you have been struggling with depression, remember that depression is a condition that can treated with strategies including therapy, medication, and adjunct or alternative treatments. Yoga can be an effective strategy to help manage your symptoms and bring some relief from your depression.  It can be hard to feel motivated to take care of yourself when you are depressed, but giving yourself the time and attention to focus on your breath and your body can help bring healing to your mind as well.

ASMR: Are You a Tinglehead?

ASMR: Are You a Tinglehead?

 

ASMR is a phenomenon known as Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, and most people experience it as a tingling sensation that occurs in the area of the base of the neck and covers the head and sometimes the shoulders or spine.  The tingly feeling usually produces a feeling of relaxation or pleasant warmth, and it is usually stimulated by some kind of auditory or visual trigger.  It has also been referred to as having a “head orgasm”, “brain massage”, or “spine tingle”.

Many people get the ASMR sensation when someone is speaking in a soft, pleasant voice, or by certain sound triggers like softly rustling papers or sometimes music.  You might also feel the sensation from singing bowls, deep baritone notes by some instruments, or during a guided meditation session. Other triggers for the ASMR response may include:

  • Whispering triggers (again the stimulus may be the soft, gentle voice)
  • Certain ambient noises (fans, fingers tapping, crushing or crinkling noises)
  • Personal attention (someone softly touching you while playing with your hair, or massaging you)
  • Role plays (someone talking softly while walking you through a role play for a medical cosmetology procedure, or other act involving the person touching you)

Interesting, not everyone experiences ASMR in response to these triggers.  While some people may feel relaxed or pleasant when exposed to some of the previously mentioned triggers, they may not get the actual tingling sensation or sensation of warmth in their head and neck.  So who actually experiences ASMR? Why does it occur? And what does it mean?

Because the phenomenon is fairly young in the public consciousness, not much research has been done into why exactly some people experience ASMR.  However, some speculate that it may be a function related to bonding, as it generally produces pleasant feelings in response to another person giving you personal attention or care.  Until relatively recently, circa 2007 or so, no one even really had a name for the sensation, until the rise of social media contributed to more people talking about it and sharing their experiences.  As a result, most of the information we have on the sensation is anecdotal.

Now, people create entire YouTube channels devoted to ASMR stimulation videos, where soft-voiced hosts crinkle paper and pretend to give you a facial, while their audiences zone out and get their tingle on.  It sounds a little weird but it’s amazingly popular and has people asking “Why are millions of viewers watching this woman scratch paper in a dimly lit room?”

Researchers have started to gather data on the subject and develop studies to learn more about it.  They’ve found that many people are seeking out ASMR stimulus to help them sleep, relieve stress, and even combat pain and depression.  One study found that the brains of people who report ASMR reactions may be connected in different ways from other people without ASMR reactions.  The study looked at brain imaging between people who reported ASMR and those who did not.  They found differences in how the brains of people with ASMR responses reacted to different stimuli,  including what areas of the brain “lit up” and how well those areas connected with other parts of the brain.  The researchers concluded that “it is possible that ASMR reflects a reduced ability to inhibit sensory-emotional experiences that are suppressed in most individuals”.  In other words, people who have ASMR responses tend to be highly sensitive.

ASMR has also been associated with the phenomenon of synesthesia, a condition in which people see numbers as being a certain color, or “taste shapes”.  The conditions may share some overlap in how the brains of people who experiences these things are wired.  However, more research needs to be done to fully understand both conditions.

Another study found that people who experience ASMR, or Tingleheads, as they affectionately call themselves, scored higher on measures for “openness to experiences” and neuroticism.  Researchers still don’t really know why one person experiences ASMR while another person doesn’t.  But there is potential for therapeutic applications, as Tingleheads are already reportedly inducing ASMR to combat insomnia, trigger relaxation, and reduce negative feelings associated with depression and anxiety.

For now, it appears that there is no danger or negative side effects from triggering ASMR, and it appears to be a pleasant and beneficial exercise for those with an ASMR sensitivity.  If you are a Tinglehead, think of ASMR triggers as just another tool for coping, and count it as a unique strength.  You may be more sensitive than others, and have more of those sensory-emotional connections.  Luckily for you, you also have the ability to tap into your own relaxation triggers and facilitate that warm fuzzy feeling.

You can check out lots of ASMRtists (yes, they have a name too) by searching on YouTube, but here’s a link to a popular ASMRtist on the Gentle Whispering channel.

How to Create a Sleep Hygiene Routine

How to Create a Sleep Hygiene Routine

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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
      • 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.
  4. 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.

Mindfulness: Whack or Worth It?

Mindfulness: Whack or Worth It?

Mindfulness has become sort of a catchall term for general self-help advice that focuses on using different practices to attune better to your mind and actions with the hopes of decreasing stress or associated symptoms.  Take time to meditate in the morning.  Pay attention to your food when you’re eating. Do a gratitude practice every night.  Self-care your stress away.  It all sounds good in theory, and certainly won’t do you any harm, but what does the term mindfulness really encompass, and is it really something that could change your life? Or it is just another fad and buzzword in the self-improvement culture of today?

As a therapist, I frequently encourage different types of mindfulness practices to encourage my clients to be intentional about their own lives.  Attuning to our bodies and our minds and our habits is an important part of both gaining control over our lives as well as our mentality.  I often work with people who have had something terrible, or heartbreaking, or unexpected happen to them, and they are struggling for a sense of control.  In those times I am often reminded that sometimes the only thing you have control over is your mentality.  Sometimes I get pushback from people who don’t necessarily believe that their mentality is within their own power.  Their thoughts are stuck in places that leave them thinking:

  • How can I help the way I feel?
  • What I believe is what I believe, there’s no changing it.
  • How can changing my mentality change my circumstances?
  • Thinking about my mentality doesn’t change the problems I’m facing.

I can understand why it might sound like a load of new age fluff when people start talking about mindfulness.  We have become accustomed to solutions that start and end with well-defined explanations and prescriptions.  We like to be able to have a blood test tell us exactly what’s wrong and what treatment is needed to fix the issue.  Unfortunately, our minds can be even more mysterious than our bodies are, at least in this day and age.  The good news is that our minds are also a lot more powerful than we might believe, and that means that we can use our mentality to improve our overall sense of wellbeing.

I wanted to find out what we really know about mindfulness, and what the evidence says about whether or not it works. Researchers have been studying mindfulness based practices for over 30 years now, and studies have investigated mindfulness as a treatment for conditions such as addiction, trauma recovery, stress, chronic pain, eating disorders, depression, anxiety, and more.  There was no shortage of research to comb through devoted to mindfulness and it’s various applications, but the results were pretty consistent.  Of course, with large bodies of research on a topic as broad as mindfulness, there are going to be variations in the results that studies present.  I found the results optimistic, though.  There is consistent evidence that when people are introduced to mindfulness based practices as a way to improve symptoms related to various stressors, they report good outcomes when they apply that knowledge.

Because mindfulness practices can be broad in terms of the actual strategies they refer to, here’s a few ideas about what people are referring to when they use that term:

  • Deep-breathing practices
  • Meditation (guided or self)
  • Attuning to senses
  • Intentional gratitude practices
  • Night-time de-stressing rituals
  • Conscious attention to mentality
  • Intentional eating practices

Much of the research out there on mindfulness focuses on using one or more of these practices in a specific setting with a specific group of people.  So the ways in which this area has been studied lends itself to a lot of different outcomes for a lot of different kinds of people with different kinds of problems.  Nevertheless, I found a lot of examples of some really great ways that mindfulness practices are having a positive impact on people.

A study on mindfulness and addiction published this year found that mindfulness based interventions (MBIs) had a significant effect on cravings and substance misuse in treatment for addictions.  This is a great example of how mindfulness practices can function as an auxiliary treatment for people.  The goal of a mindfulness practices is not necessarily to serve as a replacement for other therapies, but it can be a good asset to use in addition to other treatment, and can function as a sort of enhancer.  It may just give people an extra boost when they are seeking help for addictions or other mental health conditions.

Another encouraging example includes this study from PLOS One, which found that over a 6 year period in which medical and psychology students were introduced to mindfulness practices, the students reported significant increases in measures of their wellbeing.  This is especially important given the high rates of mental distress, burnout, and suicide amongst medical professionals.  As a person in a caregiving profession myself, I know how important it is to maintain a healthy mentality and how overwhelming the stress can get.  It’s good to know more evidence is showing how important it is for caregivers to be given the resources and support to incorporate these practices themselves.

Another study from the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health found more evidence that introducing mindfulness in the workplace decreased burnout and reduced stress.  This research supports my personal belief that employers should do more to help mitigate stress in the workplace and support the health of their employees by taking it upon themselves to bring stress reduction into the workplace environment.  Not only do I believe this will improve employee health and help workers be happier in their work environments, I think it will make workplaces more efficient as well.

There is a lot more research out there on the topic, which I will be working on delving into more this month.  However, these studies are a few examples of the research support out there for bringing mindfulness practices into our lives.  Our lives have gotten so much more harried and complicated, and sometimes our choices seem out of our control.  That’s why mindfulness is helpful in bringing a sense of focus and calm to your mentality, so that you feel more capable of handling whatever life happens to be throwing at you at the moment.

Mindfulness alone cannot solve every problem that you may have, but becoming more intentional about taking care of your mind and staying tuned in to how your mentality impacts your overall mood could help you stick to your goals and keep negativity at bay.