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Mental Well-being

Where does stress come from?

When I was onsite at the Mayo Clinic for my wellness coaching training, we participated in a powerful session on resilience and stress management. As a self-professed “stress bunny” from a previous period of time in my life, I was anxious to soak up every word of our session. Stress is one of the most talked about challenges in our culture. While we often talk about how to manage it, I do not think there is much of an emphasis on the source of it. Sure a stressful day at work, a disagreement with a friend or family member, or an unanticipated bill are obvious examples, but what is the real source of stress, from a neurological or science perspective?

Dr. Amit Sood is a household name around the Mayo Clinic for his work in stress management and resilience. He wrote the Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-free Living. He introduced the concept that stress comes from three primary sources:

  • A lack of control
  • A lack of meaning
  • A gap in demand vs. resources

This simple concept was revolutionary to me. The demand versus resources challenge is all too familiar to many people particularly when it comes to commodities like time and money. But a lack of control and a lack of meaning…wow, that was powerful and rang very true for periods of time when my own personal stress has been at an all-time high.

Furthermore, he states that a source of disappointment, frustration, or stress comes from a gap between expectations and reality. For example, you expect that a specific chore or task will take you 30 minutes and it actually takes 75 minutes. That extra time causes you to be late to an event/be unable to complete another task/etc. and stress ensues. Does this sound familiar?

Neurologically speaking, there are some very specific reasons for the things that create stress  such as long workdays, a list of chores and tasks that runs through the mind, multi-tasking our way through the day, etc. Consider two types of brain activity – focused mode and default mode. Focused mode can best be described as a time when you are singularly focused on a task or experience like catching up with an old friend over coffee. Default mode is the background activity and thoughts that happen without conscious attention. Have you ever driven somewhere and not consciously thought of the turns needed to get there? That’s a good example of default mode. A large-scale study showed that wandering minds (think: default mode) tended more towards negative thoughts. Additionally, what people were thinking as compared to what they were doing had a greater influence on reported happiness. Let that sink in for a moment – thoughts were more important than activity when considering personal happiness.

Dr. Sood speaks to scheduling time for worrying and actively working to not allow worries to invade your brain space outside of the scheduled time. “[In] my experience, if I’m disciplined about scheduling a worry time, then I don’t go as deep into my open files when they bubble up at random times. I stop feeding my default mode, and my mind is freed up to practice joyful attention.” I thought about this concept as though I’m partitioning off worries from the rest of my daily life.

In terms of working to minimize stress or better anticipate it, a simple set of questions can help you work through it and be more aware of it.

  • Where is my stress coming from?
  • What am I telling myself when I am stressed? Is what I am telling myself true or real?
  • How important is this stressor, really? Will it matter 5 years from now?
  • What can I do to change the situation?
  • What choice do I have in my response?

My take away from these observations about stress and the brain’s default mode is that mismanaged expectations and a lack of conscious attention to daily life can wreak havoc on our daily tasks, actions, and thoughts. Optimism coupled with a realistic approach can help yield a smaller gap between expectations and reality. Taking opportunities to truly be present in our daily lives matters whether that’s at an important but mentally taxing meeting at work, making dinner with our spouse after a tiring day, or reading to your child before their bedtime.

What are your favorite tips and tools for managing stress in your life?
Be well,
Christine

References:
Killingsworth and Gilbert. A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind. Science: 12 Nov 2010. http://science.sciencemag.org/content/330/6006/932.full

More references on stress management:
“A Very Happy Brain” video from Dr. Amit Sood
The Upside of Stress by Kelly McGonagal
The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-free Living by Dr. Amit Sood

Wellness

Meet the Wellness Coach: My Self Care

The “Meet the Wellness Coach” series is intended to provide a glimpse into how I integrate wellness into my life. I don’t pretend that my life is the perfect representation of wellbeing, more I share this information to give you some examples of wellness practices to consider. Each of us is able to integrate wellness practices that align with our values, goals, and vision. 

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the increasing presence of self care in our culture. It’s hard to not notice it. Sometimes it can be easy to get swept up in it and believe that self care is all about bubble baths and guided meditations. In today’s post, I’m sharing my self care routine and how it positively impacts my life. As usual, I share this information to provide you with examples of self care that works for me and as a point of consideration as you consider your own self care methods and opportunities.

Gratitude Practice: I have the propensity to get negative at times. In 2018 I started a daily gratitude practice to enhance my positive outlook for the day. I try to complete my practice each morning before I start my day, but sometimes I don’t crack open my little notebook until noon.

Saying No: Oh man. There is so much that I could say about this. I like to call myself a recovering perfectionist. In the past, I said “yes” to everything. It ran me into the ground and I learned a lot from trying to be everything to everyone else…and generally having nothing left for myself. I work hard everyday to prioritize what makes sense for me and my family and the priorities I respect and maintain for all aspects of my life. I use a paper planner to help me identify priorities for the week and balance my time so that I know what I can (and cannot) successfully do.

Regular Exercise: You probably already know that I am a runner. It is one of my favorite forms of exercise. After our son was born, I was reminded (very quickly, I might add) that regular and consistent exercise is a critical aspect of my well-being. I run 3-4 days each week and do another form or cardio and strength training 2-3 days per week. I also enjoy taking long walks with my son, our dog, my husband, and/or friends.

Editing my life: I’m human, just like you. I hold onto things – clothing, random hotel pens, home decor that I don’t love – for too long. Sometimes the same holds true for relationships. As I have gotten older, I have worked on editing my life to include those things that give me energy, make me feel good, and don’t leave me wanting more. The type of editing that I try to do doesn’t happen once a year when the calendar turns to January and we are all focused on decluttering. It’s a daily challenge. When it comes to physical decluttering, I try to plan ample time to do this with my favorite podcast as the background.

Be well,
Christine

If you are looking for more information on any of the self care methods I mentioned, here is some additional information.

7 Scientifically proven benefits of gratitude practices from Psychology Today
I have employed many techniques mentioned in Emily Ley’s A Simplified Life.
How to Stop Saying Yes When You Want to Say No from tiny buddha

Wellness

Self Care Revolution

Self care is definitely having a moment in our culture. It’s not uncommon to see it touted in major publications like Forbes and other major news outlets. Self care apps are plentiful. There are podcasts. The concept of self care is permeating our culture. And this simple fact is creating an odd scenario where there can be undue pressure to practice self care.

For a moment, let’s consider what self care really means. When you hear the words, your brain may conjure images of soulful journaling, a luxurious bubble bath in a huge soaker tub, or getting a full eight hours of sleep each night. Perhaps our expectations of self care or what we need to do to successfully exhibit self care are glamorized, or even romanticized.
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What if self care simply means to take care of yourself in the ways that make a positive, meaningful impact on your life? What if it isn’t the pretty picture meditating on a cliff overlooking the ocean? What if it means wading through the mile-high pile of papers on your desk so that you feel more organized and calm at home? What if it means saying no to a social outing so that you can workout, read a book, or get some extra sleep? What if it means taking a night out of the house and away from your spouse/partner/family to reflect on your personal goals and dreams?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines self care as “The practice of taking an active role in protecting one’s own well-being and happiness, in particular during periods of stress.” I really like this definition save for that last clause. “Protecting one’s own well-being and happiness”…wow. That’s powerful.

Self care is somewhat obvious in that it is all about you. However determining your ideal self care ideas and habits may be a little more complicated. It’s about finding habits, defining your personal priorities, and establishing what is necessary for you to live a healthy and happy life. I encourage my wellness coaching clients to consider any wellness practice a bit like a science experiment. Each time you set out to enhance your wellness whether it be through a meditation practice or through more movement in your daily life, you will embark on an experimental journey to learn what works and what does not work for you. Along the way, you may find that a certain habit does not align with your goals, values, and preferences. That simply tells you it’s time for a new experiment!

One of the critical elements of self care is that it is conscious and autonomous. That means that any element of your self care should be executed with attentiveness and of your own free will without feeling like you should be doing it because of some external pressure. You are the only person who can decide what your self care routine and practices should look like. While you may seek inspiration from friends, colleagues, and possibly social media, your routine is all about you.

What are your favorite self care practices?  In an upcoming post I’ll share my own self care routine.

Be well,
Christine

Resources:
This is what self care really means because it’s not all salt baths and chocolate cake from Thought Catalog
What self care is – and what it isn’t from Psych Catalog

Mental Well-being

Reducing Mental Clutter

Mental clutter is one of the biggest things that can distract us from peace, simplicity, presence, and productivity. Mental clutter is the mental chaos that can take over our brains – work tasks, trying to get your family out the door every morning, trying to remember to call the doctor/plumber/neighbor, etc. One of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves is a mental space to focus and emphasize what matters in our lives. Reducing the mental clutter that creates noise and causes us angst or lack of productivity can be one way to move toward this place of enhanced well-being.

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When I work with my coaching clients, I find that a common thread is struggling to find the space, time, and mental bandwidth to truly focus and prioritize wellness. There are some really simple habits that can help us all move closer to true presence, peace of mind, and focusing on the priorities in our lives.

  • Make a list: When the mind is racing with things to do, writing it down can be a simple way to tame the beast. Sometimes “brain dumping” all of our thoughts can help us identify what needs to be addressed sooner, and what topics can simmer on the back burner, which brings me to my next idea…
  • Prioritize: When all sorts of tasks and thoughts are racing around in your head, it can be hard to know where to focus first. From your list of thoughts, ideas, and tasks, start identifying a small set of things to focus on in a given time, say a day or a week. Move anything that isn’t part of the priority list to a separate list that can be completed if you have extra time or brainpower on any given day. For example, I maintain two to-do lists for any given period of time – one with my priority tasks, typically 3-4 and one with my brain dump of “all the things.” Simply telling yourself, “this is what I need to do today/this week/this month” can be a very freeing exercise.
  • Declutter your physical space: While the items above can help declutter your mental space, I’m a big proponent of physical decluttering. I definitely subscribe to the idea that physical clutter is mental clutter. I know that when my desk is littered with stacks of paper and lists, I struggle to concentrate and clear my mind to focus on what requires my focus.
  • Take a breath / meditate: Okay seriously, don’t roll your eyes. There are so many positive benefits of meditation even if you’re not down with incense and rythmic chants. In a time that feels particularly challenging, take a moment to be still, focus on your breath, and slip deeper into the present. You can also try a simple deep breathing exercise: In a quiet place with your eyes closed, take 10 deep breaths and focus on your current space. You will find several meditation resources and simple exercises that can help enhance your well-being at the end of this post.
  • WTMIFY: Is the acronym foreign? Probably. However, I would be willing to bet that you have heard of the idea of asking yourself, “will this matter in five years?” when encountering a stressful situation or conflict. This has become a refrain for me in recent years as I have worked more diligently to stay grounded in the present, prioritize the things that matter to me, and avoid unnecessary stress. Sometimes asking myself this simple question can provide me with some greater clarity.

None of these things are a perfect answer to removing mental clutter, but I bet they’ll help you chart a course to presence, peace, and clarity. What are your favorite tricks for helping sort through the clutter?

Be well,
Christine

Meditation Resources:
Meditation 101: Techniques, Benefits, and a Beginner’s How to from Gaim
How to Meditate for Beginners from The Conscious Life

Fitness

The Fat Burning Myth

You’ve probably seen the “fat burning” or “weight loss” settings on the cardio machines at the gym. Have you ever tried it? I have. And I was surprised at how the setting yielded a very low intensity workout.

The concept is based on the idea that when your output is lower, your body uses more fat as fuel for metabolism. On the surface, the concept makes sense but here’s where the idea of a fat burning workout is flawed.The Fat Burning

Let’s consider a few different scenarios for a 10 minute workout on an elliptical trainer.

Workout 1: Individual completes 10 minutes on an elliptical using the “fat burning” workout setting. The individual burns 105 calories.

Workout 2: Individual completes 10 minutes on an elliptical trainer using the “interval” workout setting. The individual burns 130 calories.

In the second workout, the increased intensity of the workout means that you are tapping into carbohydrates as a fuel source in addition to fats. While you are not using fat as a primary fuel source unlike in workout 1, you are working at a higher intensity which results in a higher energy expenditure, i.e., calorie burn. You will burn energy from both carbohydrate and fat stores. Given the increased intensity of workout 2, you may burn more fat calories than using the fat burning workout.

I firmly believe that everyone selects workout types for a reason. But if you are using the “fat burning” or “weight loss” programs on cardio machines in an effort to burn calories and/or lose weight, think twice. You might be better off using a more intense program to get the results you want. If you are looking for more ways to enhance your cardio workout, check out my post on ways to increase the intensity.

Be well,
Christine