The Key to Slowing Down in a Fast-Paced World

Meditation for Stress and Anxiety | Cluff CounselingWe are busy people leading crazy lives. Our days are full of dishes to wash, mounds of laundry to fold, incessantly buzzing phones, and people demanding our attention. Some days it may even get to the point that we wonder if we can actually squeeze everything in. How do you reconcile your hectic reality with the need for concentration, sharpness, and quality work?

Life pulls us a million directions and we end up feeling frazzled and distracted. Giving our minds and bodies a little break from the rigors of daily life can refresh, reinvigorate, and help us feel ready to tackle all our responsibilities to the best of our abilities. Some people choose exercise, others choose a nap, cooking, going on a drive, or doing absolutely nothing as a “time out” before going back to their duties. Regardless of whether you have an existing outlet or not, I wish to recommend an effective alternative: meditation.

WHAT IS MEDITATION?

Meditation is often portrayed as something that fit girls in yoga pants do in grassy fields. But before you think it is too indie or “hippy” for you, may I remind you that there are many interpretations for meditation. That is what makes it so great! There is no right or wrong way or place to meditate because it is personal… whatever your body needs. The purpose of meditation is to make an internal effort to self-regulate the mind in some way. It is often used to focus, calm, or clear the mind, dispel negativity, and ease health concerns (such as high blood pressure, depression, and anxiety).  Meditation has a calming effect and directs awareness inward until pure awareness is achieved, which is described by Michael Phelan as “being awake inside without being aware of anything except awareness itself.”

WHY MEDITATE?

Life’s hectic pace and demands make most of us feel stressed, over-worked, and that there is not enough time in the day to accomplish everything. Our stress and tiredness make us unhappy, impatient and frustrated…and can even affect our overall health. You may think you do not have one second to spare meditating, but I am here to tell you that meditation actually gives you more time by making your mind calmer and more focused.

HOW DO I MEDITATE?

While there are many ways to practice meditation–some more in line with Buddhist tradition– here is a basic summary for anyone anywhere on the journey of meditation:

  • Step 1: Sit in a comfortable position. You could be on a couch, on a cushion, on the floor, on the grass, seated criss-crossed, with your legs in front of you…whatever is comfortable for you.
  • Step 2: Ensure good posture. The back should be straightened but not tense. This enables a clear mind and it allows the subtle energy winds to flow freely.
  • Step 3: Relax your body. Mentally enumerate your body parts individually; relax your eyes, mouth, cheeks, tongue, eyebrows, arms, shoulders, legs, feet, fingers and all body parts. This is to release negative energy.
  • Step 4: Breathe. Once in a comfortable and relaxed seated position, pay attention to the thoughts and distractions that are running through your mind. Focus on having even breaths. As you exhale, imagine that you are breathing away all disturbing thoughts and distractions.  As you inhale, imagine that you are breathing in clarity and light. Maintain this visualization until your mind has become peaceful and alert.

WHERE DO I MEDITATE?

You can literally meditate anywhere, at any time. If you find yourself stressed in the middle of the day, excuse yourself for a few minutes to do breathing exercises in your car, in the bathroom, a closet, outside–anywhere! Stop, Breathe and Think is a great meditation resource I highly recommend; download the app and it will remind you to stop what you are doing, check in with how you are feeling, and practice mindfulness in the middle of your busy day.

HOW LONG DO I MEDITATE?

As mentioned in the how-to section, you focus on meditation and breathing until your mind has become peaceful and alert. Some days it may take twenty minutes, other it may take under ten. The key is listening to your body and mind and doing what you need. You will notice a difference even if you are only able to take two minutes to focus on your breathing.

Do not let the stresses of life bog you down. Maintain a sharp, focused mind by giving yourself a few minutes each day to unwind and reset. Meditation is an excellent way to do this since it doesn’t require extra tools, takes minimal time, and can be practiced anywhere. Through meditation, we create an inner clarity that enables us to better control our thoughts and actions. If you would like additional assistance understanding, practicing, or incorporating meditation into your daily life, please contact me today.

Resources:
Wikipedia, “Meditation”
how-to-meditate.org
Stop, Breathe and Think

The Early Indicators of Mental Illness

Early Indicators of Mental Illness | Cluff CounselingJust as with other medical illnesses, early intervention can make a crucial difference in preventing what could become a serious illness.  Learning about the developing symptoms of mental illness can lead to possible mitigation or prevention of a mental illness altogether.

Earlier this year, I could feel a cold coming on. My throat felt tight, itchy, and raw, and my nose was either stuffy or runny–depending on the time of day. And sure enough, by mid-week I had a full-on cold. There were warning signs that tipped me off so I knew to drink buckets of water, make sleep more of a priority, and take Airborne (oh, and have boxes of tissues on hand). Just as there were warning signs of my impending physical illness, there are also early indicators of mental illness. According to the American Psychiatric Association, 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and 75% begin by age 24. Are you paying attention to those around you who fall into that age category? Are you familiar with these early warning signs of a mental illnesses? My hope is that spreading the knowledge of these red-flags can increase awareness and therefore decrease the number of those suffering from an undiagnosed mental illness.

Major mental illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder do not show up out of the blue. Many of those diagnosed with mental illness report they noticed symptoms long before being diagnosed, but attributed those signs to other less severe illnesses. Mental illnesses are treatable, but they must first be recognized and diagnosed. The American Psychiatric Association shared the following list of early symptoms for mental illnesses to watch out for:

  • Withdrawal: Recent social withdrawal and loss of interest in others
  • Drop in functioning: An unusual drop in functioning, at school, work or social activities, such as quitting sports, failing in school or difficulty performing familiar tasks
  • Problems thinking: Problems with concentration, memory or logical thought and speech that are hard to explain
  • Increased sensitivity: Heightened sensitivity to sights, sounds, smells or touch; avoidance of over-stimulating situations
  • Apathy: Loss of initiative or desire to participate in any activity, especially those that one used to find pleasure in
  • Feeling disconnected: A vague feeling of being disconnected from oneself or one’s surroundings; a sense of unreality
  • Illogical thinking: Unusual or exaggerated beliefs about personal powers to understand meanings or influence events; illogical or “magical” thinking typical of childhood in an adult
  • Nervousness: Fear or suspiciousness of others or a strong nervous feeling
  • Unusual behavior: Odd, uncharacteristic, peculiar behavior
  • Sleep or appetite changes: Dramatic sleep and appetite changes or decline in personal care
  • Mood changes: Rapid or dramatic shifts in feelings

We all have “off-days” where we experience one or two of these emotions–this is no indication of a mental illness! The major difference between an “off-day” and a mental illness is that several of these symptoms will compound and be experienced at the same time, and for an extended period of time (instead of one or two experienced for a short period of time). The presence of multiple symptoms at one time will be reflected in the person’s ability to study, work and/or relate to others, and he or she may need help. If you or someone you care about is experiencing several of these symptoms at one time, he/she should be seen by a mental health professional.

Know the warning signs. Getting help for you or your loved ones early on will give them the tools they need to better understand their mental illness and feel joy again. Over a decade of research has been done by scientists, doctors, and therapists in order to better understand the intricacies of mental illness. While there is still much we do not fully understand, we have made leaps and bounds in our ability to aid those suffering from mental illnesses. There is hope and there is help. Being aware of these red-flags may allow you to help those suffering silently from an undiagnosed mental illness.

Resources:
American Psychiatric Association: “Warning Signs of Mental Illness”

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The Not-So-Secret Recipe to a Successful Relationship

Cluff Counseling - Older Couple Walking TogetherSuccessful relationships don’t just happen on their own; they emerge when two people invest great time and effort in them. These seven tips are tried and true in improving and prolonging meaningful relationships!

We all have those couples we admire. For me, it is Gordon and Marjorie; I have watched this couple interact since I was a teenager, and have marveled at the deep love they clearly shared for one another. They were so attentive to each others’ needs, spoke about each other with great respect, and their mutual adoration was apparent to all. As a Marriage and Family Therapist, I see many couples each day who are working to enrich and improve their marriages. Sometimes marriage is not all we think it is going to be–life gets busy, sickness happens, children come, jobs are lost, arguments arise, until suddenly you feel distanced from our partner and the spark that brought you together seems to be missing. This is why up to 50% of marriages in the United States ends in divorce. Although there is no such thing as a perfect marriage, there are consistent patterns researchers have found in couples with marital longevity. Here are seven of the tried and true tips to turn up the love and work towards a lifelong union:

  1. Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is the ability to give active attention to the moment. It takes effort, but does wonders for relationships!
  2. Commit to recommit. Commitment is a choice–one that spouses must make each and every passing day. Renewed commitment, demonstrated through words and deeds, is the springboard to a long-lasting partnership.
  3. Be playful. Remember the flirty dating days when you and your significant other would tease one another endlessly? Where did that behavior go? It may have taken a backseat to the rigors of work and the perpetual piles of laundry adult life often requires, but you can easily bring it back. Having fun and being playful is is a predictor of relationship satisfaction and is thus an important dimension of a successful relationship.
  4. Work at it. Relationship maintenance behaviors are critically important to the sustained health of any romantic partnership. These behaviors include but are not limited to the following: Expressing positive emotions, being open, giving relational reassurances, using your social circle to support your relationship, willingly sharing the work/responsibilities that come with your long-term relationship, attending marriage classes or seminars together, reading marriage or relationship books together, etc.
  5. Let it go (cue Frozen song). We have all had an argument with our significant other that started with socks on the floor and ended with big blows to the confidence. We let something small and insignificant trigger a massively unnecessary argument! To this I say (or sing), let it gooo. Let go of the unimportant. If it is not going to matter tomorrow, it does not matter today.
  6. Talk it out. I see many individuals who internalize resentment and miscommunication. Not only does that damage you, but it damages your important relationships. If there is an issue, use your words. Talk through it with your partner. If you find this process to be overwhelmingly difficult, contact me today and we can make a plan to improve your communication skills. I can assure you that learning to talk through conflict will improve many aspect of your life–not just your relationships!
  7. Express love. This seems obvious, but it is one of those small things that disappears after the dating days have bled into the rituals and responsibilities of married life. There are countless ways to show love and this will vary according to how each individual receives love (I highly recommend referring to the 5 Love Languages to understand how you can personalize your demonstrations of love for your partner). Whether it is affirming words, acts of service, quality time, gifts, or physical touch, find what speaks to your spouse and show your love for your spouse regularly.

These seven steps are incredibly simple, but amazingly effective. If you practice mindfulness, recommit daily, be playful, work on your relationship, let go of the small stuff, use your words, and show love, your relationship can weather the storms of life. When times get tough and you feel tempted to throw in the towel, remember that no relationship is perfect and that it takes great time and effort to build a lifelong, successful relationship. If you find that you and your partner need a little coaching to get on the right path, book a session with me today. With consistent work and focus, your relationship can be like Gordon and Marjorie; you and your partner could some day be the couple that others look at with admiration and strive to emulate.

Resources:
Psychology Today: “7 Secrets to a Successful Relationship”
Gary Chapman: The 5 Love Languages

Are You Addicted to Your Phone?

Cell Phone Addiction - Cluff Counseling, Addiction TherapyWhen the topic of addiction arises, we often think of drugs, sex, alcohol or gambling.  What we neglect to see, however, is our own dependence on everyday things. Anderson Cooper did an incredibly interesting segment on 60 Minutes where he discussed how major companies are not creating programs for people, but instead programming people. Watching this made me think about how much time I spend on my phone. I realized that we are programm-able; the developers of major software companies in Silicon Valley have literally conditioned us to constantly use our phones…it is like an addiction for some of us! Using our phones gives us satisfaction, but repeatedly using our phones makes us need them more. Although this may seem less serious than other addictions, it shares many commonalities with more severe addictions, and deserves some attention and self-reflection.

Defined simply, addiction is the consistent repeated use of a substance or an activity, despite the harm it has on self or others. Addiction is often accompanied by cravings–a recurring need to be filled–withdrawals, and an increased need of the substance, thing, or activity. Have you ever thought about your smartphone usage in this light? Former Google product manager, Tristan Harris, compares our smartphones to slot machines; every time we pick it up, we are wondering, what did I get? And I can relate to this! I will admit that I feel different when I have a well-liked photo versus one with less likes. Getting likes, messages, texts, or comments on posts is powerful reinforcement to stay on our phones. for example, I recently learned Snapchat has a feature called a “streak” that builds as you consistently send messages; if you are unable to consistently send snaps, your “streak” goes down. If you have ever felt panicked by a lack of access to your phone, you may want to reflect on whether or not you are addicted to your smartphone. Although they are incredibly useful, and can be used for beneficial purposes, smartphones can be addictive if we can develop an unhealthy reliance on them.

This addiction is literally caused by a chemicals in our bodies. When we hear our phone going off, we become anxious. A hormone called cortisol is produced (best known for its involvement in the ‘fight-or-flight’ response), and the only antidote is to check the phone. Once we do so, the molecule dopamine is released–which aids in the creation of desire and pleasure. This cycle will repeat itself over and over again. To demonstrate this in the 60 Minutes segment, a researcher applies electrodes to Cooper to track his heart rate and perspiration while he was distracted by the computer. Unbeknownst to Cooper, another researcher was sending text messages to his phone–which was just out of his reach. Every time his phone went off with a bing!, the line measuring Anderson’s anxiety peaked on the tracking device. This informal experiment mimicked what other formal experiments have shown: there is an identifiable chemical change that takes place in our brain which fuels our need to check our phones. Fact: the typical person checks their phone every 15 minutes or less, and 50% of the time there is no alert or notification triggering our need to do so! Our need to check our phones is impulsive–it is coming from the brain–and the only instantaneous cure is more phone. Recognizing our dependence on our phones and then setting parameters for our smartphone intake is a more long-lasting solution.

Although some may say this “addiction” is not problematic, from my point of view it IS for the following two reasons: 1) even being hooked to a smartphone for innocent reasons can easily lead to being hooked to a smartphone for very serious reasons (read: pornography, gambling, chatrooms, online shopping addiction); and 2) the more time we are staring at our screens means less time we are interacting with and having meaningful relationships with those around us (read: a spouse, children, family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, etc.) and ourselves!

Of course there are many positive ways to use our smartphones. I am not suggesting we all revert back to the flip-phone or abandon our cell phones altogether. What I am simply suggesting is that we recognize when we are potentially feeding an addiction by being glued to our phones; admit that you are not being present in an important conversation or relationship because the cyber-world has you hooked. Set limits and boundaries about when you will be on your phone, for how long, and what you will do with that time. I encourage you to delete certain addictive or time-consuming apps off your phone. You know what works for you. Set healthy limits and stick to them.

Let us put the phones down and tune into the important people and things in our lives. If you need assistance formulating a plan to break up with your phone, as always, my door is wide open. Contact me today to set up your first session.

Additional resources:

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