Holiday Relationships

Holiday Relationships

This time of year is full of social gatherings – family meals, holiday parties, work parties, New Year’s parties, etc. It can be a very challenging time of year for people for various reasons, including anxieties surrounding social engagements. People find themselves “forced” to interact with coworkers, family members, friends, and strangers in a myriad of potentially uncomfortable social situations. I often hear people in therapy (and outside of therapy) discuss their dread at having to attend certain gatherings and engage with people who they find to be condescending, inappropriate, awkward, overwhelming, or in some other way negative to be around.

It would be impossible to address (much less help change) in this article all the many reasons why people feel negative emotions regarding social engagements this time of year. However, I hope to bring your attention to the main area you can control within all the potential holiday chaos, which is your internal relationship with someone or something. I spoke in a prior blog post about self-fulfilling prophecies and how our internal narrative about someone else can actually create and maintain a negative relationship with them without us realizing it. Now, as an aside, I recognize that there are individuals in many people’s lives that have caused considerable pain and distress and it can be very hard to be around them and not feel a myriad of negative emotions. What I am advocating though, is an assessment of how you talk to yourself about a situation (e.g., family meal, work party) or a relationship (e.g., “Aunt Jane is such a mean person, she never has anything nice to say.”). Even something as simple as “I really don’t want to go to this party, it is going to be so boring, awkward, etc…” can create such a negative internal relationship with that event that it becomes hard for it to play out otherwise.

If you are going to be attending an event/party, why not spend some energy shifting your narrative and self-talk about it? Each situation or interaction provides an opportunity to overcome a fear, connect to a new person, improve a relationship, or learn something new. Even seemingly mundane thoughts such as “I am so awkward” or “Tom is so weird” can be unhelpful labels that only serve to reinforce negative interactional patterns. You certainly don’t have to spend 20 minutes talking with that cousin who demeans your interests and boasts about their accomplishments, but you also don’t have to spend 24 hours before a holiday family gathering creating and reinforcing anxieties about what could happen, who might say something negative, or whether you might say the “wrong thing” in a conversation. We all have completely subjective, unique relationships with ourselves and others that are worth evaluating and shifting, especially if they create distress and negativity within us. Let other peoples’ emotions and dysfunctions be their own, and you focus on loving/accepting yourself and maintaining an internal peacefulness and stillness regardless of external circumstances. Easier said than done, I know, and it is a process that must be practiced, but at least you are not reliant on others to change in order to feel comfortable, positive, or happy. Uncle John and Aunt Jane might still have an overly impassioned political discussion at dinner, but you will be less prone to being emotionally hijacked by it.

Average Is Not An Enemy

Average Is Not An Enemy

In our work as counselors and psychologists, we support clients in their effort to identify relative personal strengths and weaknesses. The resulting self-awareness is a building block towards setting goals for what clients hope to gain from their treatment. When it comes to intellect and ability, accepting one’s place on the bell-shaped curve can be difficult. We live in an individualistic society that uses weighted scales to elevate GPA and gives out blue ribbons for finishing.

As a practice, we encourage our clinical and performance clients to set goals and consider how they might grow beyond their current capabilities. At the same time, our psychoeducational assessments, in general, reflect what decades of research prove: most people fall within the average range for intellect and ability.

Unfortunately, psychoeducation is lacking in academic institutions and society at large about what it means to be average.

In Liz Bohannon’s book, Beginner’s Pluck, she encourages readers to own their average. “Owning your average is actually a remarkably freeing and powerful acknowledgment because being born inherently gifted or above average isn’t a prerequisite to living an extraordinary life” (Bohannon, 2019).

In accepting one’s average range of ability, Bohannon is not encouraging living a life of complacency. Instead, when we free ourselves from the internal dialogue that shames average intellect and ability, we open ourselves up to a better opportunity. The opportunity for a positive redirection of energy. A redirection that allows us to invest more effort towards self-improvement, learning, goal setting, and maximizing our potential.

I think it can be easy to assume all successful or highly influential people are “gifted” or “special.” However, many people with impressive accomplishments to their name fall within the average range of intellect.

Personal growth has no prerequisite for unique intellect or ability. No matter where you fall on the bell-shaped curve, your life can be infused with impact, meaning, contentment, and purpose. Average is not an enemy.

Suicide Prevention Awareness Month

Suicide Prevention Awareness Month

September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, which encompasses National Suicide Prevention Week (September 8-14, 2019) and National Suicide Prevention Day (September 10, 2019). While suicide and self-harm can be tough topics to think about and discuss, they are becoming an ever-present reality in our society, resulting in a greater need for awareness to improve available resources and interventions.

According to the National Institute for Mental Health, in 2017, suicide was the tenth leading overall cause of death in the United States, the second leading cause of death among individuals in the US between the ages of ten and thirty-four, and the fourth leading cause of death in among individuals in the US between the ages of thirty-five and fifty-four. Further, between the years of 2001 and 2017, suicide rates in the US increased 31%.

Despite the increasing presence of and awareness about suicide, it can be difficult to spot signs as there is a large amount of misinformation and many misconceptions about the warning signs of suicide or suicide in general.

However, as the best way to prevent suicide is by recognizing warning signs, it is important to have a general knowledge of what to look for. While the following warning signs are by no means comprehensive and do not occur in every case, they are the ones research suggests occur most frequently.

Some of the biggest warning suicide warning signs include someone talking about ending their life, self-harm, or attempting to self-harm in some way, preoccupations with death and dying, and/or engaging in risky behaviors that could lead to physical harm.

Other warning signs include feelings of hopelessness about self and the future, low self-esteem/feelings of worthlessness, withdrawing from others and activities, and mood swings or sudden personality changes.

Some of the more subtle signs include sudden calm after a prolonged period of hopelessness and distress, as well as giving away prized possessions or having conversations that appear final in nature. These symptoms can appear differently in everyone but are important to pay attention to and provide intervention for if any are observed.

What should be the next move if you spot these signs? Many times, people are hesitant to speak up, fearing that they are wrong, or will anger the other person, or will damage a relationship. However, while it is natural to feel uncomfortable having this conversation, it is incredibly important that someone who is experiencing these symptoms receive prompt help and support. So what can you do?

One of the best ways to provide support is to just ask and show that you care, which lets the person struggling to know that they are seen and that they are not alone. This can be something as simple as “I just wanted to check in with you because you’ve seemed sad” or “How have you been doing?”

This is a time to listen to whatever they have to say in a supportive and non-judgmental manner. This is not the time to try to “fix” the situation or talk them out of the way they are feeling.

During this time, after listening to them and how they are feeling, you should also offer to help them find help or support, whether it is encouraging them to talk to a counselor, helping them to locate a treatment facility, or taking them to the doctor.

If someone expresses immediate thoughts of suicide, you must call a crisis center, 9-1-1, or take them to the emergency room, staying with them until they can receive further evaluation from a trained professional. It is important to understand that you cannot heal or force someone who is suicidal to feel better, but you can listen, offer support, and ensure that they speak to a trained professional who can provide them the tools and skills to manage their feelings.

Further, continue to offer support, even after an immediate crisis has passed, as this aids in recovery and lets them know they are not alone. While helping someone who is suicidal can be overwhelming, knowledge of warning signs and awareness of how to help go a long way in preventing a very permanent and final action.

Humility

Humility

Regardless of your particular political, religious, economic, or cultural beliefs, there seems to be little doubt that our society is in a period of uncertainty, unrest, and upheaval. There are a lot of valuable questions being asked about what is important to us, how we want to treat people, and how to structure our society moving forward.

There are many viewpoints on these questions, and some people will tell you that they know all the answers. With that in mind, the concept of humility has been a focus of thought and discussion recently as it seems to provide a framework from which to navigate some of the questions and pitfalls of our daily lives.

The author C.S. Lewis is quoted as saying, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less.” I find this to be a valuable quote as it encapsulates a struggle that I think many of us encounter. In defining our values and pursuing our goals, there is inherent self-centeredness that is a part of exploring our own journey.

Additionally, in order to meet our goals, we must possess a confidence that we are capable, valuable, and perhaps unique in some way. However, this does not mean that we must view ourselves as better than others and that other people have nothing to offer us or teach us. A leader who is humble finds ways to make others better, to build others up, to show gratitude, and to engage in life-long learning because they understand that they are not perfect and that everyone has value.

As the author and activist Bryant McGill once said, “An intelligent person is never afraid or ashamed to find errors in their understanding of things.” When we make mistakes or something does not go as planned it can be easy to blame, become angry, hide, or demean ourselves or others.

However, humility teaches us that we are not perfect and there is something to learn from every situation and from each person we encounter. Being able to stay humble regardless of the challenges provided by family, friends, coworkers, bosses, or strangers can be highly beneficial for our mental health because we are less likely to resort to, and remain in, negative emotional states.

In sum, the purpose of this article is simply to encourage some reflection on the concept of humility and its role in our lives. Let us not fall into the trap of believing that we have all the answers and that we know what is best.

Let us not become unwilling to admit errors, be vulnerable, or acknowledge fault because it will hurt our ego. We all have things to learn, and if we approach our lives from that perspective, we give ourselves a much better chance of having positive relationships with ourselves and others.

Water

Water

It’s okay if the water is where it is at.

It’s a common assumption that people who demonstrate a more pessimistic viewpoint – “the glass is half empty” – tend to exhibit more negative emotions such as sadness, anxiety, anger, and stress. Research studies have supported this theory that negative statements have an adverse effect on emotions.

In other words, the more negative statements a person says or thinks, the more likely that person is to feel badly. However, people also then assume is that it is necessary to shift thinking to “glass half full” and to think positively all of the time, a feat that can also be quite challenging and in some cases, too big of a jump for people to achieve.

In real life, we all deal with difficult situations, tough moments, and trials. What people may not know is that it’s actually okay, and can be a good thing, to think more realistically. People tend to respond just as well, if not better, to an acceptance approach – “the water is where it is at” in the glass.

For instance, it may be better to change the thought or view “My day today was terrible. Nothing went right.” with something more like “My day had some difficult moments, but there were other parts that I enjoyed,” rather than “I really had a great day,” or “I loved parts of my day.”

Or, for example, replacing “I’m going to fail” with “this might be challenging for me” or “I may not achieve my highest goal, but I can still do well,” rather than “I will ace this,” or “It will be great!”  The middle statements are much more neutral or realistic than the positive statements, yet at the same time, they offer some hope and are less pessimistic or negatively focused.

Because life really isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, thinking more realistically seems more achievable to most people and also provides an opportunity to build on better thinking and reduce negativity, which is the real problem when considering negative emotions.

So the next time you are faced with a difficult moment or thought, try examining where the water actually is, rather than assuming it is too low or pushing yourself to think that it is much higher.  The water you have maybe just the right amount.

Gratitude

Gratitude

As we move into summer and decompress from the busyness and chaos of the school year, new challenges begin to arise. Instead of worrying about school schedules and deadlines, we now may worry about planning activities, vacations, and making this the “best summer ever!”  As we get caught up in the whirlwind that is summer, it can be easy to fall into the trap of comparison and constantly seeking more… more experiences, a better vacation planned, trying to keep up with neighbors and friends.

This comparison can affect everyone in the family, from kids and teens comparing their activities to those of their peers to adults trying to keep up with the Joneses regarding vacations and family time, all to pursue happiness and relaxation. However, this constant desire for more or to “one up” can actually have the opposite effect. Instead of seeking more and better, we need to shift our perspective and focus and work towards displaying gratitude for what we have and practicing being content in our current situations.

Research has linked a number of positive effects to regularly practicing gratitude including stronger relationships, better physical health, reduction in depressive symptoms and stress, improved sleep, increased resilience, and improved self-esteem.  So how can you practice gratitude and boost your overall well-being? Research has also shown that grateful people have a number of factors in common including: recognizing and feeling a sense of abundance in their lives, appreciating the help of others, recognizing and finding joy from the little things, and acknowledging the importance of expressing gratitude.  Below are three practical ways to practice gratitude in your daily life:

Be specific and creative. Each day try to notice five things you are grateful for. Whether you record these in a gratitude journal, use an app such as 365 Gratitude or Grateful, or have a daily family conversation, make it a point to count your big and small blessings. Be specific in your gratitude- don’t just say “I’m thankful for my family”- but instead “I’m grateful that my mother knew I was stressed out so she offered to pick up the kids from camp.” Make it a point to find new things to be grateful for each and every day, even things that initially do not seem positive (e.g. “While I don’t want to go grocery shopping, I’m thankful that I can provide for my family.”)

Give to others. Instead of focusing on what you lack or where you feel as if you do not measure up, focus on what you can do to help others. When we focus on others, it puts our own problems into perspective and allows us to reflect on things that we may otherwise take for granted. It can help us remember how fortunate we are and allow us to see beyond ourselves and our own struggles and frustrations.

Stop comparing and surround yourself with positivity. Shift your focus from what everyone else has to what you have. When we focus on what we lack, we not only experience negative feelings (frustration, shame) but we also miss out on opportunities for growth. Instead, focus on the positives in your life. Similarly, when we surround ourselves with negativity or people who are set on comparison, it does not allow us to experience peace and joy in the current moment. Choose to focus on the things that bring you joy and surround yourself by people who bring happiness.

“Gratitude is the healthiest of all human emotions. The more you express gratitude for what you have, the more likely you will have even more to express gratitude for.” – Zig Ziglar

Summer Lovin’

Summer Lovin’

It’s almost that time of year again when school winds down and we all take stress-free vacations, get beautiful tans, don’t have to worry about any school work, all the kids get along, and cell phones no longer exist…don’t you wish!

As summer approaches, we want to provide some ideas to help make this summer more relaxing, enjoyable, and memorable than those in the past. Summer can be challenging for many reasons: childcare, finances, keeping up with the Joneses, boredom, transportation to camp or swim team practice, you name it. Here are three helpful ways to improve your family’s Summer 2019:

Maintain structure but increase free time and play. Depending on the age of your child or teen, continuing to have a bedtime, curfew, limits on screen time, and other boundaries is crucial. Most kids and teenagers function best with a routine and structure in their day (whether they realize or will acknowledge that or not).

With less schoolwork to do, there is inevitably more time for relaxing, spending time with friends, or perhaps even helping around the house. Activities and camps can be wonderful, but it’s also great for kids to have a break from the hustle and bustle of their normally busy lives and just be at home or with friends.

Communicate more. Summer is a great opportunity to spend more time talking to your kids, especially when the topic of school and grades isn’t at the forefront of the conversation. Ask your kids what their dream summer would look like, identify an activity or special night (game night, pizza night, family “walk the dog” night, etc.) that your family can commit to once a week.

More time together allows for more opportunities to converse, learn more about what’s going on in each other’s lives, and appreciate the people we so often take for granted. You don’t have to get fancy or expensive – keep it simple.

Enjoy quality time together. Think back to your summers as a kid. What made them special? Summer 2019 may look a little different but slowing down, sitting on the porch, playing in the sprinklers, and enjoying time together rarely gets old.

It may not be a big vacation, but cherishing the simple moments often helps us feel more appreciative and experience more joy in the day-to-day. And on those vacations…try to take it easy and make it your goal to not feel as stressed this year. The kids might get sunburnt, the bathing suits might not get packed, the daily grocery store runs may never end, but come September we’ll all be wishing we were back at the beach together.

If we can slow down and appreciate the small things every day, Greenville might just be the best place to be in Summer 2019.

It Starts with Breakfast

It Starts with Breakfast

A recent study published by the University of Missouri’s Center for Body Image Research and Policy suggests that there may be a link between positive body image and frequency of children eating breakfast with their parents. The research found that eating breakfast more often throughout the week was associated with positive body image. The study also showed that kids were more likely to have a positive body image if they regularly ate breakfast with a parent.

What does eating breakfast with your kids have to do with their body image? More research needs to be conducted to better answer that question, but I think there are clues as to why this association is present in recent research.

Taking time to sit down for a meal may seem like a lost art in our country. Considering the increase of households with two working parents on top of the full schedule of children who are not only engaged in the classroom, but in homework, sports, and other extracurricular opportunities as well, time runs short. Is this shift in time allotment worth skipping family meals?

Research indicates that family dinners improve academic performance, self-esteem, resilience as well as decreases the likelihood of teen pregnancy, substance abuse, obesity, depression, and eating disorders. Gathering around the table for food and conversation has been a human tradition for thousands of years. When humans take time to prepare food, sit still, enjoy a meal, and share it with others, we participate in something that is holistically beneficial.

It’s okay to eat. When parents prioritize eating breakfast, they model for their kids that eating is normal and a good thing to build into one’s day. Parents that complain about their appearance and regularly participate in dieting behavior set a tone for the way their children learn how to consider personal appearance and relationship with food.

When parents take time to sit down with their children to fuel their bodies for the day ahead, they are not only teaching their kids the value of slowing down and mindfully consuming food, but they are also setting an example of how to care for the body in little ways. Research indicates that eating disorders develop through a complex compilation of factors and that parents are not to blame.

Nonetheless, parents can play an important role in creating a home environment that helps prevent eating disorder onset by helping their children foster positive self-esteem, eating competence, healthy coping skills, and healthy messages about the role of food in wellness.

Maybe gathering around the table for breakfast or dinner is not realistic every day for your family, but steps could help you and your family shift towards more meal times together? It is okay to start small and think big. The things that we give most priority to in life will further fill our schedules. Sitting down to a bowl of cereal in the morning might make a bigger impact on families than we realized.

Resources:

Benefits of Family Dinners

Read more from NeuroScienceNews Here

Cultivating Gratitude

Cultivating Gratitude

The all-too-familiar sound of your alarm welcomes you into another day with its early morning wake-up call. Let’s not forget about fatigue. She loves to sneak in her two cents along with the alarm. You hit the alarm but resist the urge to do so aggressively because the latest iPhone was not cheap and the Lord knows you don’t want to take a trip to the Apple Store. You drag yourself downstairs to begin your morning routine, and let’s be real, usually it consists of dread, fatigue (I hope that first cup of coffee kicks in ASAP!), and a hint of rush.

You get yourself out the door with the objective of not spilling your travel mug all over yourself while strapped down with your purse, laptop, gym bag, and car keys in hand. You snag a relatively good parking spot and again proceed to make it to your office without any spills, broken limbs, or body burn from carrying 3 bags on one arm. Let’s crush this day!

Who can relate? Life can feel like a whirlwind. Add kids into the mix and one can easily feel like their life is a never-ending effort to simply keep up.

Cultivating a heart of gratitude can be difficult in the midst of meeting the demands of reality and trying to find enough energy to get through each day. Personally, I realized that I did not enjoy beginning my morning feeling rushed, exhausted, and stressed. Fifteen years ago, I began spending 2 minutes every morning reflecting on things I was grateful for over the last 24 hours. I figured 2 minutes sounded sustainable, so that is where I began.

That may not seem like enough time to make a difference, but over the course of 15 years, I’ve spent over 175 hours committed to cultivating gratitude. Those hours have helped me remember what matters most to me and to acknowledge rather than overlook the little things that I am thankful for. During some seasons of my life, I struggled to write. There were days when all I could come up with is “my dog, my home, an intact body.” Other days I felt like I could fill a whole page.

Research compiled in a 2014 Forbes article on gratitude found that the regular practice of gratitude improves mental and physical well-being. One noted study found that Vietnam War Veterans who had higher reported levels of gratitude had less stress and lower rates of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder).

Additionally, research shows that not only are those with higher rates of gratitude less susceptible to headaches and pain, they are also more likely to exercise, see the doctor, and take overall better care of themselves. To make an even stronger case, research participants with higher gratitude levels were more empathetic, less aggressive, and less likely to retaliate when given negative feedback.

Just google gratitude research and you can find a plethora of scholarly articles speaking to the value of practicing gratitude. Beyond just hearing “Research says I should…blah, blah, blah,” we seek to enhance our reader’s lives by providing relevant content and support to catalyze meaningful change. Whether it is planning for an extra 5 minutes before you head out the door for work or school to jot down a few grateful reflections or closing your day with a few minutes to journal before hitting the lights, starting somewhere may be all it takes to begin cultivating more gratitude in your life. Fifteen years later, I have seen this practice powerfully impact the way I experience difficulties in life and savor joys to be remembered.

Morin, A. (2014, November 23). 7 scientifically proven benefits of gratitude that will motivate you to give thanks year-round. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/amymorin/2014/11/23/7-scientifically-proven-benefits-of-gratitude-that-will-motivate-you-to-give-thanks-year-round/#6c093bf0183c

Seeing Anxiety Through a Different Lens

Seeing Anxiety Through a Different Lens

Too often we throw around the word anxiety, associating it with so many different situations, feelings, thoughts, and possibilities, that the word itself seems to have lost some meaning and at the same time is ever present and scary. What is anxiety? What does it mean? And why does it seem to be so frequent in our society?  These are all good questions, with answers that may seem surprising to some.

What if I told you that anxiety is meant to be a good thing? Anxiety, in a basic sense, is our body’s alarm system. It lets us know if we are in danger or if we need to act to keep ourselves safe. It is actually a very normal, physical experience (fast heartbeat, quicker respiration, perspiration) that is similar to what someone may feel after exercising. In fact, a certain dose of anxiety, mentally and physically, is healthy. Anxiety prepares us, challenges us, keeps us safe and on our toes, and helps us determine what we like (and do not like), strive for, and need.

It is when we begin to misinterpret, mislabel or even fear the experience of anxiety that it becomes a “bad thing.” Anxiety takes on many disguises in our daily lives, from fearfulness, to excess worries, to stress, to panic. Labeling anxiety freely and frequently has become a societal norm.

With so many pressures to be the best or better than the best, to juggle as many daily activities as possible, and to push the boundaries of bravery, it is not surprising that our alarms go off frequently and are often confusing to understand. However, we must ask ourselves, are these alarms real or false? Is there really any danger? Often, although our brain may initially try to convince us differently, we are experiencing false alarms, where the dangers we perceive are unlikely to actually occur or will not likely make the impact that we assume.

We must learn to recognize anxiety for what it is:  a physical experience of symptoms that can be very helpful and informative and will decrease with time. Doing so can be a game changer, making it not so scary to be anxious, but rather a normal part of life that everyone experiences to varying degrees.

In turn, we can better manage our anxiety by making better decisions about whether the anxiety we feel is helpful or unhelpful, necessary or excessive and in either case, understanding that the physical feeling is not harmful and will not last forever. Anxiety may look different to different people, but in the end, it is a healthy part of being alive and can be an asset if used as originally intended.