Engage Employees in Monthly Health Awareness Activities

Somewhere in Washington, DC, bureaucrats are hard at work reviewing requests for new awareness recognition months, weeks, and days. There already are a slew of these, many designed to raise awareness for serious diseases and illnesses like heart disease, high blood pressure, most types of cancer, diabetes, traumatic brain injury, oral and mental health, and dozens of chronic illnesses.

There also are recognition periods for lesser-known or rare diseases, social causes, and special events like Great Outdoors Month, and Fruit and Vegetables Matter Month. Then, it expands widely from there, with recognition for everything from National Red Meat month, to Don’t Fry Day, Dump your Boyfriend Week, and months dedicated to condoms, grapefruits, biking, and riptide awareness.

The point isn’t to question whether or not these are important and worthwhile tributes, but to acknowledge that there’s something for everyone – and that represents opportunities for small businesses to embrace days, weeks, and months dedicated to loving dogs, drinking wine, eating chocolate, or disease prevention and staying healthy through improved nutrition and exercise.

Employees embrace a wide range of personal interests and activities. If your goal is to help improve workplace health and wellness, enhance teamwork, boost morale, and increase employee involvement, tapping into awareness recognition is an easy, fun, and interactive way to engage employees.

Many organizations create voluntary health and wellness committees tasked with identifying causes that appeal to employees, and then determining how education, outreach, and interactive activities will be coordinated. Some employers tie their activities to local events, charities, and parks. Program suggestions cover the gamut from inviting guest speakers and fitness experts, hosting healthy eating activities, running screening clinics for blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar and flu shots, swapping recipes, participating in walks, runs, and bike races, losing weight, quitting smoking, and just about anything creative, enthusiastic people can think about.

This month alone, here are just some of the more serious national health observances taking place:

  • Skin Cancer and UV Awareness Month
  • Mental Health Month
  • National Blood Pressure Awareness Month
  • Healthy Vision Awareness Month
  • Arthritis Awareness Month
  • Lyme Disease Awareness Month
  • Celiac Disease Awareness Month

There are plenty more, too – pick the ones that work for you and your team.

By simply searching on the Internet for “national health awareness months,” you’ll discover a plethora of options. And when companies underwrite group activities, offer incentives, sponsor friendly competitions, and recognize participation, employers can demonstrate leadership, interest in their employees’ wellness, and their commitment to creating and maintaining a healthy workplace.


 

Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Living Life on the Sunny Side of the Street

When people are acting negatively – critical about themselves and others, pessimistic, always seeing the darker side of things, constantly questioning motives, always assuming the worst – it wears on the people around them and on them, as well.  Negative people get sick more often and take longer to recover, while optimistic people tend to be less sick and more resilient.

Research indicates that psychological factors influence cardiovascular disease, morbidity, and mortality. Persistent negative behavior such as depression, anxiety or anger, and cynical, hostile attitudes toward others have been linked as early indicators of future heart disease. On the other hand, dispositional optimism or the general feeling that good things rather than bad will resolve a difficult situation or generally prevail in the future, have been associated with reduced risk of mortality.

Published last year in the American Journal of Epidemiology, researchers found a definitive association between a positive sense of well-being and better health. This study used data from 70,021 women who were part of a long-running nurses’ health study. It gauged their level of optimism through a questionnaire originally conducted in 2004. The average age of respondents was 70 years old.

Then the researchers tracked deaths among the women from 2006 to 2012. They found that after controlling for factors including age, race, educational level, and marital status, the women who were most optimistic were 29% less likely to die during the six-year study follow-up than the least optimistic. That reduced risk was seen in cancer (16% lower), heart disease (38%), stroke (39%), respiratory disease (37%), and infection (52%).

When the researchers ran additional analyses controlling for existing health conditions such as high cholesterol, diabetes, and cancer, the risk of dying was 27% lower among the most optimistic women. When controlling for health behaviors like smoking and exercise, 14% lower. And when controlling for all those factors, the risk of dying was still 9% lower among the most optimistic women.

People who are more optimistic tend to have healthier behaviors when it comes to diet, exercise, and tobacco use. It’s also possible that more optimistic people cope better, create contingency plans, plan for future challenges, and accept what can’t be changed. This optimism may have a direct impact on improved immune function or lower levels of inflammation.

In another study, doctors evaluated 309 middle-aged patients who were scheduled to undergo coronary artery bypass surgery. In addition to a complete pre-operative physical exam, each patient underwent a psychological evaluation designed to measure optimism, depression, neuroticism, and self-esteem. The researchers tracked all the patients for six months after surgery. When they analyzed the data, they found that optimists were only half as likely as pessimists to require re-hospitalization. In a similar study of 298 angioplasty patients, optimism was also protective; over a six-month period, pessimists were three times more likely than optimists to have heart attacks or require repeat angioplasties or bypass operations.

And finally, an American study of 2,564 men and women who were 65 and older also found that optimism is good for blood pressure. People with positive emotions had lower blood pressures than those with a negative outlook. On average, the people with the most positive emotions had the lowest blood pressures.

Can we learn to be positive?

So if having a positive attitude can help reduce illness and prolong life, why aren’t we all happy, and what might we do to become less pessimistic and negative? The first question is the harder to answer. We are complex psychological beings, products of our upbringing, genetics, hardships, and positive and negative experiences. We’ve been shaped and influenced by many people and situations, and we learned good and bad behaviors through the years by observation and reaction, and as protection.

But there are things we can do to help move ourselves into a more positive, optimistic mindset.

For example:

  • Notice negativity. Listen to what you and others say and how negative it is. Track your own thoughts on a daily basis and notice the negative assumptions and conclusions that you draw, because identifying our own negativity is essential to change.
  • When you find yourself saying something negative, think of something positive to say.
  • Search for positive aspects of situations. Most situations can be seen in both a positive and negative light. You just have to find the positive one and keep reminding yourself of it in order to eventually believe it.
  • Think of someone you know who has a positive outlook on life and ask yourself what that person would do or think in particular situations. Then try to think that way too.
  • Give others positive feedback. Even if someone has done something poorly, there has to be some aspect of it that is good. If you can find this, your view will be more positive and the other person may feel encouraged to continue.
  • Give yourself positive feedback and notice when you discount or minimize your successes. Pessimists feel uncomfortable with good things and often fear disappointing others by acknowledging their own strengths. Learn to just say thank you if someone (including yourself) gives you positive feedback.
  • Identify why you feel negative. Does it provide protection against disappointment? Does it help you not to get hurt? Do you think that it helps you to plan for possible challenges? We often think that pessimism and worry are helpful but this is not true. We can learn to handle disappointment, hurt, and challenges if we were not bogged down by anxiety and negativity.
  • Take the risk of being positive and see how it feels. It takes a long time to learn negativity and will take a while to learn optimism.

Positive thinking and being will help you lead a longer, healthier life. It may take practice, but what do you have to lose, other than the negative attitude?


Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Stress at Work Is Killing Us

Whether home or at work, at school, shopping, or driving, there’s no shortage of things to stress us out. Our ability to cope, get along with others, get things done efficiently, and be reasonable often hinges on how we manage that stress. Those coping mechanisms have a lot to do with how well our days go and how we get along with family and friends. But when it comes to work, there’s a greater price to pay. Not managing stress effectively costs employers billions of dollars annually in healthcare-related expenses, lost-work hours, and reduced productivity due to illness, depression, accidents, turnover, and worker burnout.

According to research by the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Center for Organizational Excellence, more than one-third (35%) of American workers experience chronic work stress, with low salaries, lack of opportunities for advancement, and heavy workloads topping the list of contributing factors. Stress in the workplace, researchers found, manifests itself in increased absenteeism and presenteeism (coming to work, but not achieving expectations, or working to potential), lower productivity, and increased service errors.

Stress also is a contributor to high blood pressure and other diseases. When we’re frustrated, depressed, or under tremendous pressure at work or at home, we tend to eat poorly, not exercise, and otherwise tax our bodies. Links have been established between stress and our body’s production of excess cholesterol. Stress also interferes with our normal sleep, which causes fatigue and makes us irritable and more susceptible to illness. When unchecked, stress interferes with our general quality of life, and can affect our relationships, productivity, customer service, teamwork, safety, and quality.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), work-related stress is the physical and emotional damage that occurs due to a mismatch between work requirements and the resources, needs, and capabilities of workers. Currently, 40% of American workers say that their jobs are very or extremely stressful. At the same time, 26% of employees say they are very often burned out, or stressed at the workplace. Twenty-nine percent of workers say that their jobs are extremely stressful, and 25% report that their jobs are the leading causes of stress in their lives.

How is that affecting them physically? CDC statistics say that seven out of 10 workers say they experience stress-related psychological symptoms regularly, and close to eight out of 10 employees regularly encounter physical symptoms associated with stress. To avoid workplace stress, 60% of 26,000 U.S. workers surveyed said they would opt for a fresh career start. This dissatisfaction on the job is costing American employers $300 billion annually on employee healthcare and employee absence costs.

Why so much workplace stress?

If you’ve ever worked for or with other people, you probably can answer this question yourself.

Workload accounts for 46% of all workplace stress incidents, and “people issues” account for 28% of stress at work problems. Additionally, juggling work/personal life challenges accounts for 20% of stress incidents reported by American workers, while lack of job security is the fourth-leading cause of stress at the workplace.

The symptoms of worrying, anxiety, and stress at work result in back pain, fatigue, stomach ailments, headaches, teeth grinding, and changes in sex drive. It reduces immunity to disease, and leaves workers unable to sleep well at night due to worrying about their jobs. And it’s costing employers an estimated $10 billion annually in productivity losses alone.

All in all, it sounds pretty dire. Yet we have to work, we have to get along with our co-workers, bosses, and customers, and we have to remain focused on quality, service, and productivity. So how can employers help address the issues that cause this detrimental behavior and side effects, and improve outcomes?

Organizations that have implemented measures to address burnout have a staff turnover rate of just 6%, which is low compared to the national average of 38%. Additionally, in progressive-thinking companies, the rate of staff reporting “chronic work stress” stands at 19% compared to the national average of 35%. Employees at the same organizations registered higher job satisfaction scores, meaning they were unlikely to seek greener pastures elsewhere.

Tips for managing workplace stress

Humans are complicated – there are no easy answers or magic bullets. But based on research, an important first step is promoting a healthy work/life balance. Progressive organizations offer telecommuting, paid time off, and flex time perks. Employee recognition strategies including profit-sharing programs, bonuses, and cost-of-living salary raises. Organizing staff retreats, interacting with staff to learn more about their problems, and monitoring job satisfaction helps, as does providing workers with regular career growth and development opportunities.

While the work has to get done and get done on time, fatigue plays an enormous role in reduced workplace productivity. While napping in one’s car is helpful when coping with exhaustion, some employers provide rest or nap lounges with couches, reduced lighting, and soft music. Ensuring that employees get adequate time for stretching, moving around, breaks, and for lunch or dinner is critical.

Additionally, time during the day for recreation – walks, runs, athletics, bicycling, working out – helps people manage stress and keep themselves healthier. That could be as simple as having a fitness room, basketball or volleyball court at the workplace, or encouraging employees to take a walk or go to the gym at times that work best for them and fit within their work requirements.

Bringing in experts on nutrition, fitness, yoga, massage, and other forms of relaxation or wellness education is inexpensive and helpful. And engaging employees in team problem-solving, or creating and empowering recreation, communication, health and wellness, and “fun” committees goes a long way toward improving morale, teamwork and productivity.

Ultimately, we all have to find ways to deal with our own stress, and the stress that accompanies most jobs. But recognizing the signs of worker stress and acknowledging the importance of providing creative and healthy outlets for employees will help reduce some of the factors that are heavily taxing workers and costing employers a fortune, and employees their health.

Sleep – Who Needs It?!

Think about young children out at a restaurant with their family way after their normal bedtime.  Maybe they’re on vacation or have been going all day, had to wait in line and, your luck, got the booth next to yours. They may be short tempered, ill-mannered, and obstinate – not the best dinner companions. But here’s the thing:  It’s probably not their fault. If they haven’t gotten enough sleep, they are tired and cranky. Lack of sleep throws off our chemical balance and deprives us of much-needed rest that allows us to cope, concentrate, solve problems, and function more effectively in interactive situations–like while playing, in school, and at work.

In March, we turn the clocks ahead an hour and look forward to enjoying the lengthening days and milder temperatures. If you have a dog or cat, you know they’re not happy about the time change – they expect breakfast and dinner on the schedule they’re used to. But besides upsetting our animals, the time change and loss of an hour adds to any sleep deprivation we may already be suffering and wreaks havoc with our internal clocks.

When we’re tired, we become irritable. Productivity, service, creativity, and quality of work often suffer. Being fatigued tests the patience of everyone around us, increases chances of accidents or mistakes, and aggravates chronic health conditions. It also reduces our natural immune system, making us more susceptible to illness.

Humans have a 24-hour internal clock called circadian rhythm that controls our eating and sleeping patterns, internal bodily functions and the timing of hormone secretions. We might have trouble falling asleep at night or waking up in the morning if our internal clock gets out of sync with the external day-night cycle. This happens with multi-time-zone travel and is the basis for jet lag. With the daylight savings time shift, the external time has shifted while the internal clock has not, and even though it’s been weeks, there’s still a lag.

The more stable and consistent our circadian rhythm, the better our sleep. This cycle also may be altered by the timing of various factors including naps, bedtime, exercise, diet, and especially exposure to light.

Aging also plays a role in sleep and sleep hygiene. After the age of 40, our sleep patterns change and we have many more nocturnal awakenings than in our younger years. These not only directly affect the quality of our sleep, but they also interact with any other condition that may cause arousals or awakenings, functioning like the withdrawal syndrome that occurs after drinking alcohol close to bedtime. Chronic illness, changes of medications, and injuries also affect restlessness. But whatever the causes, the more times we awake at night, the more likely we will not feel refreshed and restored in the morning.

Additionally, psychological stressors like deadlines, exams, arguments, and job crises may prevent us from falling asleep or wake us from sleep throughout the night. It takes time to “turn off” all the noise from the day. If you work right up to the time you turn out the lights, are watching television, or are on your phone or laptop, you simply can’t just “flip a switch” and drop off to a blissful night’s sleep.

Steps for sleeping more peacefully

Millions of Americans suffer from fatigue caused by poor sleep habits. And while chemical imbalances and chronic conditions such as sleep apnea—where the body doesn’t get enough oxygen during sleep—can be affecting you, there are many simple solutions you can try before turning to medications or speaking with your doctor about a sleep study.

The most important sleep hygiene measure is to maintain a regular sleep and wake pattern seven days a week. It’s also important to spend an appropriate amount of time in bed—not too little, or too much. This may vary by individual. For example, if someone has a problem with daytime sleepiness, they should spend a minimum of eight hours in bed, but if they have difficulty sleeping at night, they should limit themselves to seven hours in bed in order to keep the sleep pattern consolidated.

Here are 10 good sleep hygiene practices to consider:

  • Avoid napping during the day. It can disturb the normal pattern of sleep and wakefulness.
  • Avoid stimulants such as caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol too close to bedtime. While alcohol is well known to speed the onset of sleep, it disrupts sleep in the second half of your sleep cycle as the body begins to metabolize the alcohol, causing arousal.
  • Exercise can promote good sleep. Vigorous exercise should be practiced in the morning or late afternoon. A relaxing exercise, like yoga, can be done before bed to help initiate a restful night’s sleep; but avoid exercise close to bedtime.
  • Food can be disruptive right before sleep. Stay away from large meals, spicy foods which increase metabolism, sweets, or unhealthy snacking. And, remember, chocolate contains caffeine, though it has many helpful properties, as well.
  • Ensure adequate exposure to natural light. This is particularly important for older people who may not venture outside as frequently as children and adults. Light exposure helps maintain a healthy sleep-wake cycle, though try to avoid too much light exposure in the evening if you’ve been having trouble sleeping.
  • Establish a regular, relaxing bedtime routine and try to wake up at the same time every day.
  • Limit stimulating activities, electronic games, social networking, and TV shows before trying to go to sleep.
  • Don’t dwell on or bring your problems to bed, and try to avoid emotionally upsetting conversations when it’s time to relax.
  • Associate your bed with sleep. It’s not a good idea to use your bed to watch TV, listen to the radio, or work.
  • Make sure that the sleep environment is pleasant and relaxing. The bed should be comfortable, and the room should not be too hot or cold, or too bright.

It’s easy to put off sleep, figuring we can catch up when there’s more time. But like taking our medications, eating nutritional meals and exercising regularly, getting the rest we need is important for our overall health and wellness and should be treated as a necessity, not a commodity.

Meditate on This

Our daily lives can be busy, chaotic, pressured and stressful. The rigors of work, home and everywhere we go in between wears us on, challenges our performance, tests our patience, taxes our relationships and affects our health and well-being.

Many of us are searching for ways to help reduce stress and disorganization, improve our focus, and calm down enough to regain our emotional and physical footing. Some people exercise, run or walk; others eat, read, nap, pray or chat with friends and family. Many also find that the pursuit of mindfulness – the ability to slow ourselves, focus and truly be present in the moment – is a useful tool for regaining control of our live. And this goal can be achieved successfully, in part, through meditation.

Anyone can practice meditation. It’s simple and inexpensive, and it doesn’t require special gear, clothes or equipment. Spending even a few minutes in meditation daily can help restore our calm and inner peace.

But meditation isn’t a quick fix, like popping a pill, grabbing a cocktail or hitting the gym. It is an ancient practice that helps us live more consciously and frees us from habits, dependencies and activities that we cling to because they’re comfortable and seemingly help us avoid adversity.

“There is peace and harmony in all of us, just as there is joy and sadness. But we’re so preoccupied trying to preserve temporary happiness and run from aversion that we end up getting caught up in an endless cycle of suffering,” explains Bo Gak Sunim, an ordained Buddhist monk and director of Zenfriend, a spiritual guidance and support practice offering meditation instruction, Zen teachings and training.

Sunim draws an analogy between what he calls “mental hygiene” and dental hygiene, explaining that we brush and floss our teeth upon waking and before going to bed as normal routines to prevent tooth and gum decay and bad breath. But we don’t think about practicing mind health in a similar, daily fashion.

Like any other aspect of our long-term health and wellness, meditation is most effective when you establish a regular, formal daily practice, Sunim says. He recommends meditating for at least 10 to 15 minutes twice a day. When meditating, people should sit silently and still on a cushion or chair, focus on their breathing and concentrate on being totally present with each inhalation and exhalation. That includes letting thoughts about your day, places you like, people you know, problems at work or even happy occasions, activities or events to simply come and go.

Meditation is the practice of training the mind to be free from thoughts and feelings of craving and aversion in order to live a more responsive and less reactive life — for oneself and, ultimately, for others. Working with our minds, he stresses, helps us relax enough to see and understand more clearly the anxieties and worries that plague us consciously or unconsciously throughout the day, and provides a responsible and sustainable method for reducing stress.

That’s also because we don’t just finish meditating and then go about our business, Sunim explains. Instead, as we move into our day we need to continue focusing on our breathing, watching our minds, and paying attention to how we constantly make judgments about people, situations and ourselves. It’s clearly healthier, he explains, when we learn to stop telling ourselves stories or denying truths to rationalize unskillful behavior, or act out in ways that help us avoid or deflect conflict or unresolved pain.

“Think of the practice of meditation as a ‘speed bump,’ for the mind,” Sunim says. “By carrying forward mindfulness throughout our day, we slow down.  Instead of suppressing aversion or reacting defensively, we face situations proactively by responding with wisdom, compassion and objectivity.” Practicing this way, he suggests, allows us to catch ourselves, and consciously “reset” so all our daily challenges becomes less onerous.

But, he cautions, we don’t achieve this level of benefit from simply attending a retreat or a class or reading a book. Sunim compares improving mental hygiene to losing weight — we didn’t get heavy (or stressed) overnight, and we won’t free ourselves from what he refers to as ingrained “habit energies” overnight, either.

For anyone interested in learning how to practice meditation, Sunim offers the following tips:

  • Seek a qualified meditation training center. Whether secular or religious, it’s important to work with meditation teachers who can provide specific reference points and useful guidance and instruction. Taking classes with other students also offers access to a valuable community of support and to related holistic and natural practices.
  • Make a commitment to focus on your overall mental hygiene. Try and establish a standard time or times each day to meditate, and don’t deviate from your practice time, as possible. Even if you can only afford 15 minutes a day, carve out that time faithfully and devote yourself to your practice.
  • Carry mindfulness forward throughout your day. The benefits of meditation don’t stop when you stand up and get on with your day. Get in touch with your breathing throughout the day, and observe things and people around you in greater detail, and from a less judgmental view. These actions help slow you down and regain perspective, especially when facing obstacles, challenges or problems.
  • Don’t create unreasonable expectations. Learning to meditate effectively and reaping the rewards that accompany sound mental hygiene take time. If you eliminate expectations, such as how quickly you’ll “see results” or “feel differently,” you’ll benefit more from your practice. This isn’t a quick fix – changing behaviors and establishing a strong regimen of mind training takes time and commitment.
  • Select a teacher you can grow with. There are many people who can help teach us to meditate. But like other coaches, teachers, doctors and associates in our lives, we each have unique needs and learn at different paces. In time you will change and meditation may lead you to other questions about yourself, issues and the world around you. Then you will need a teacher who is versed, trained, intuitive and a good fit for your personal growth.

Integrate meditation and mindfulness practice into your life in a way that is natural and in harmony with your daily schedule. What matters most is that you begin today by taking the initiative to free your mind from stress, and to live life with greater wisdom, compassion and contentment.


 

Bo Gak Sunim is an ordained Buddhist monk practicing in the Korean Zen tradition, and director of Zenfriend, a spiritual guidance and support practice offering meditation instruction, zen teachings and training. For more information contact him at: bogaksunim@gmail.com

 

Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Exercising for Financial Health

We may love money, but it doesn’t love us. Ralph Waldo Emerson famously quipped, “Money costs too much,” warning about the unhappiness associated with pursing wealth. We all need money to pay bills and to enjoy a better quality of life. But there’s an insidious nature to how we spend money, how we talk with our significant others about it, and the impact finances have on our mental and physical health.

Debt, financial stress and spending behaviors are a major cause of relationship problems and often cited as a significant contributing factor in many divorces and breakups. Worrying about money and debt also causes increased anxiety, sleeplessness, depression and stress that taxes our hearts, contributes to high blood pressure, aggravates stomach issues like acid reflux and ulcers, and can lead to strokes and heart disease. When you consider that more than three out of four American families are in debt, the weight of all that anxiety becomes more apparent.

Most of us worry about money, and this time of year, that worrying gets worse. Or, we cast caution to the wind, spend beyond our means for the holidays, and figure we’ll bear down come January . . . much like we view our diets and holiday eating.  Granted, December may not be the best time to be considering cutting back on spending, so if we allow for reality and the joys of the season – and think about what we’re going to do differently in the coming months and years — that would be a great gift to ourselves and our families.

Planning and focus pay big dividends

There’s a difference between active coping and comfort coping – some of us eat more, spend more, devise short-term solutions, and find other creative avoidance mechanisms. Instead we should be thinking about informed, collaborative planning and strategies for dealing with our money issues. Creating goals is important – if we are working toward a home purchase, a special vacation, college or retirement savings we need a clear game plan and tools to help realize our dreams. So it’s important to think long term, but live with short-term daily strategies, as well.

Here are some tips for improving our financial health:

  • Make a budget. That sounds so basic and simple, yet many people fail to truly organize their financial lives, and to understand what they bring in and what goes out . . . and what they can truly afford. Is it possible that you actually spend $25 a week buying coffee and drinks on the road? Sure it is – and that’s okay, if you can afford the extra C-note a month. If you have a detailed budget and you stick to it, buying things during the day that make you happy is okay. If you can’t pay your phone bill, purchase oil for your furnace or buy a new interview suit, it isn’t.
  • Track your expenses. Whether you write it in a notebook, record it on your computer or download one of the many spending applications available for phones and laptops, tracking what we spend is an important tool for understanding our spending habits and for charting behaviors.
  • Avoid credit, or use it wisely. All that talk about how important it is to use credit cards to build up your credit report is bologna. If you can afford something, buy it with cash or use a debit card. If you can’t afford it, and it’s really important (like fixing the car, and for travel), use a credit card, but be diligent about paying it off as quickly as possible to avoid exorbitant finance charges or the seductive allure of instant gratification.
  • Talk to others about your financial concerns. Share your worries and issues with people close to you, especially your partner. Money worries cause countless troubles for individuals, for couples, and for families. The stigma and shame that accompanies money problems – and the weight of hiding those pressures – causes stress, anxiety and depression, as well. Candor and good communication helps alleviate some of the stress that comes with feeling like you’re bearing the financial burden on your own, or the sense of hopelessness that comes with every bill or debt collector’s call.
  • Consult a financial expert. You don’t have to have a ton of investment income to seek guidance from a financial planner or consultant. He or she can help you devise a savings strategy, determine wise, affordable investments, build your budget, and plan for the future more effectively.
  • Get help for managing your debt. If you have debt and it’s wearing you and your loved ones down, there are options and strategies for addressing your bottom line. Consolidation loans with a lower monthly finance charge can help you rid yourself of credit cards. Banks love when we only pay the minimum due, and profit greatly when we miss a payment and they can charge a hefty penalty. Avoid both by paying more than the minimum monthly payment, or by paying off the card completely as soon as possible.

There are services available to help negotiate payment plans and for consolidating debt, but many of them charge a service fee for this assistance. There also are support groups, free counseling services, and programs such as Debtors Anonymous, a confidential 12-step program available in Connecticut and across the country, where people with debt or spending issues can come together to examine solutions to their money issues, and find fellowship and support.

Money challenges us all, and there’s no reason to think that’s going to change. What can change is how we view our spending habits – if we’re not vague or frivolous about how, what and when we spend, we can take a big step toward improving our financial health, as well as our overall health and wellness.

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Is Facebook Making You Sick?

Chances are you’re reading this article on your laptop or a mobile device. Hopefully you’re not reading it late at night, because if you are, it may be making you sick.  That’s because the artificial light from computer and smart phone screens is interfering with our ability to sleep properly. And when we don’t sleep well, or enough, we fail to benefit from our body’s natural restorative abilities.

But that’s only one piece of the bad news relating to electronic gadgets and our health. For all it’s given us, modern technology also is hurting our physical and emotional health, and changing behaviors in adults and children in ways that will have far-reaching, yet still undetermined consequences.

Melatonin is a hormone that regulates sleep and wakefulness in humans and animals. It is produced in darkness. Researchers have determined that the blue light from our electronic devices affects melatonin production and melanopsin stimulation, which throws off our circadian rhythms, our internal body clock. This interrupts or prevents deep, restorative sleep, causing an increase in stress and depressive symptoms.

Research shows that interactive technologies such as video games, cell phones and the Internet might affect the brain differently than those which are “passively received,” such as TV and music. That’s even more meaningful when it comes to our kids.

Children’s brains are much more sensitive to electronics use than most of us realize. In fact, contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t take much electronic stimulation to throw a sensitive and still-developing brain off track. Many parents mistakenly believe that interactive screen-time – such as the Internet or social media use, texting, emailing, and gaming — isn’t harmful, especially compared to passive screen time like watching TV. In fact, interactive screen time is more likely to cause sleep, mood, and cognitive issues, because of hyper-arousal and compulsive use.

Recent statistics show that 63 percent of American Facebook users log on to the site daily, while 40 percent of users log on multiple times a day. If you or your kids are spending a lot of time in chat rooms and on social-networking sites, a number of studies now suggest that this can be associated with depression, particularly in teens and preteens.

Internet addicts may struggle with real-life human interaction and a lack of companionship, and they may have an unrealistic view of the world. Some experts even call it “Facebook depression.” In a 2010 study, researchers found that many people ages 16 to 51 spent an inordinate amount of time online, and that they had a higher rate of moderate to severe depression. However, the researchers noted that it is not clear if Internet overuse leads to depression or if depressed people are more likely to use the Internet.

We all have our own reasons for using social media, but one of the main reasons we use it is for self-distraction and boredom relief. In essence, social media delivers reinforcement every time a person logs on. It may seem harmless to knock out a few emails before bed or unwind with a favorite movie, but by keeping our mind engaged, technology can trick our brain into thinking that it needs to stay awake. When surfing the web, seeing something exciting on Facebook, or reading a negative email, those experiences can make it hard to relax and settle into slumber. After spending an entire day surrounded by technology, our minds need time to unwind.

Why we need technology down time

Research into the use of technology produced other startling results, including sleep disorders and an increase in depressive symptoms from heavy cell phone use or the regular use of computers at night. Researchers have established that screen time:

  • Disrupts sleep and de-synchronizes the body clock. Just minutes of screen stimulation can delay melatonin release by several hours and desynchronize our body clock. Once the body clock is disrupted, all sorts of other unhealthy reactions occur, such as hormone imbalance and brain inflammation. Plus, high arousal doesn’t permit deep sleep, and deep sleep is how we heal.
  • Desensitizes the brain’s reward system. Many children are “hooked” on electronics. In fact, gaming releases so much dopamine — the “feel-good” chemical — that on a brain scan it looks the same as cocaine But when reward pathways are overused, they become less sensitive, and more and more stimulation is needed to experience pleasure. Meanwhile, dopamine is also critical for focus and motivation, so even small changes in dopamine sensitivity can wreak havoc on how well a child feels and functions.
  • Produces “light-at-night.” Light-at-night from electronics has been linked to depression and even suicide risk in numerous studies. Animal studies show that exposure to screen-based light before or during sleep causes depression, even when the animal isn’t looking at the screen. Sometimes parents are reluctant to restrict electronics use in a child’s bedroom because they worry the child will get upset — but to the contrary, removing light-at-night is protective.
  • Induces stress reactions. Both acute stress (fight-or-flight) and chronic stress produce changes in brain chemistry and hormones that can increase irritability. Cortisol, the chronic stress hormone, seems to be both a cause and an effect of depression — creating a vicious cycle. Additionally, both hyper-arousal and addiction pathways suppress the brain’s frontal lobe, the area where mood regulation actually takes place.
  • Fractures attention, and depletes mental reserves. Experts say that what’s often behind explosive and aggressive behavior is poor focus. When attention suffers, so does the ability to process one’s internal and external environment, so little demands become big ones. By depleting mental energy with high visual and cognitive input, screen time contributes to low reserves. One way to temporarily “boost” depleted reserves is to become angry, so meltdowns actually become a coping mechanism.
  • Reduces physical activity levels and exposure to “green time.” Research shows that time outdoors, especially interacting with nature, can restore attention, lower stress, and reduce aggression. So time spent with electronics reduces exposure to natural mood enhancers, as well as to chemicals which also keep us alert, and wake us up.

Most Americans admit to using electronics a few nights a week within an hour before bedtime. But to make sure technology isn’t harming your slumber, give yourself at least 30 minutes of gadget-free and TV–free transition time before hitting the hay. In fact, it’s even better if you can make your bedroom a technology-free zone. And just because you’re not using your cell phone before bed doesn’t mean that it can’t harm your sleep: Keeping a mobile within reach can still disturb slumber, thanks to the chimes of late-night texts, posts, emails, calls, or calendar reminders.

This is a growing and serious public health hazard that isn’t being adequately acknowledged and addressed by both the medical community and technology industries. About 72 percent of children ages six to 17 sleep with at least one electronic device in their bedroom, which leads to getting less sleep on school nights compared with other kids. The difference adds up to almost an hour per night, and the restful quality of their sleep is negatively affected too. To ensure a better night’s rest, parents should limit their kids’ technology use in the bedroom, and can be solid role models and improve their own health by doing the same.


Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Emotional Wellness During the Holidays

The holidays are great, aren’t they? They’re also exciting and fun, right?  Sure, they’re stressful, expensive and busy, too . . . and can be nostalgic and a little sad, especially when we think of those who aren’t alive anymore, or who live far away, or have fallen out of our lives. Maybe we’re feeling a little isolated, or alone, and all this happiness around us is just making us more miserable. And wow, somehow another year has passed, and we’re kind of in the same rut – and now we have to put on our best mask to face family and old friends. Honestly, January can’t come fast enough.

Perhaps the best adjective for this season is “complicated.” For many people it’s a time of joy and happiness, but for others, sadness, depression and sorrow.  Add to this potent mix the stress of running around, shopping, cooking, parties, cold weather and time and fiscal constraints, and we have the makings of a poignant spicy holiday chili and the accompanying emotional heartburn.

It’s important to find ways to calm ourselves in the moment, to find perspective and to reduce stress and anxiety. Some people find release through exercise or physical activity, others through music, cooking, reading or scores of other favored activities. But we can’t always just drop whatever we’re doing to prepare a meal, take a hike in the mountains, or practice yoga stretches. Sometimes, we need to simply catch our emotional breath.

Meditation and the pursuit of “mindfulness” are valuable approaches to gaining control of attention span, focus and concentration, and for reducing stress. Meditation takes guidance, practice and, for some, years to truly understand and incorporate. It’s a cognitive “cleansing” that allows us to relax, rest our brains, regain contact with our bodies, and establish context for things going on around us. Millions of people around the world incorporate daily meditation in their lives, and find it extremely valuable and healthy.

Mindfulness essentially means moment-to-moment awareness. Although it originated in the Buddhist tradition, you don’t have to be Buddhist to practice or find value in its benefits. In fact, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is being taught in colleges, yoga studios, meditation centers and workplaces across America.

The benefits can be dramatic — in addition to supporting overall health and well-being, mindfulness has been linked to improved cognitive functioning and lower stress levels. That’s even more important when we are being constantly bombarded by email, texts, Facebook, and Twitter.

When we are mindful we become keenly aware of ourselves and our surroundings by simply observing these things as they are. We are aware of our own thoughts and feelings, but do not react to them in negative or distracted ways. There’s no “autopilot” when we’re focused. By not labeling or judging the events and circumstances taking place around us, we are freed from our normal tendency to react to them, and shift from a subjective to an objective mindset.

Mindfulness experts teach us to not resist our mind’s natural urge to wander, but to train it to return to the present, and to center ourselves in the moment. Mindfulness enhances emotional intelligence, notably self-awareness, and the capacity to manage distressing emotions. It also reduces stress, lowers blood pressure, improves memory and lessens depression and anxiety. There are many classes offered locally, as well as books and online instruction. Additionally, here are simple tips that we can incorporate every day, even at work:

  • Spend at least three to five minutes a few times each day doing nothing but breathing and relaxing in the moment, whether at work or at home.
  • Manage distractions like noisy co-workers by tuning into them, instead of letting them drive us crazy. . . by noticing the sounds and their effects on our bodies, we rob the distraction of its power over us.
  • Pay attention to walking by slowing our pace and feeling the ground against our feet.
  • Anchor our day with a contemplative morning practice, such as breathing, Zen, yoga, meditation or even a walk.
  • Before entering the workplace, we should remind ourselves of our organization’s purpose and our personal and professional goals, and mentally recommit in that moment to our vocation and to being a leader.
  • Throughout the day, pause to make sure we’re fully present before undertaking the next critical task, call or meeting.
  • Practice “strategic acceptance,” which is not seeing every setback in catastrophic terms. When we feel our stress levels rising, we shouldn’t try to force ourselves to cheer up or calm down — rather, simply accept how we feel. That doesn’t mean to ignore the problem, but instead, to observe and accept reality in that moment before making a plan to tackle the problem.
  • Find time to unplug from electronic gadgets, phones, computers and video games — studies have shown that excessive reliance on technology can make us more distracted, impatient and forgetful.
  • Get in touch with our senses by noticing the temperature of our skin and background sounds around us.
  • Review the day’s events at the close of the day to prevent work stresses from spilling into our home lives
  • Before going to bed, engage in some relaxing or spiritual reading.

There are so many simple, inexpensive things we can do to regain emotional control, and to help reduce or prevent stress in our lives – at the holidays, or any time of year. Learning to appreciate and be grateful for what we have is a wonderful gift, and seeing the New Year as a fresh start can be liberating. But we often need perspective and useful coping mechanisms to get us to this cheerier and healthier horizon, and to help us avoid the “holiday blues.”

 


Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Falling Into a Healthy Rhythm

While it’s only October and the autumn leaves haven’t even peaked, the pull of the end-of-year chaos is already sucking us in like a dark hole absorbing matter. Halloween is right around the corner, and Thanksgiving isn’t far behind. We know what’s coming, and it can’t be stopped or even slowed. Youthful exuberance and idealism aside, we’ll soon be smack in the middle of the craziest time of the year, and for many, the toughest, emotionally and physically.

The next few months can be especially difficult to face if you’re not happy with yourself, your job, your relationships, finances, your family and many other factors. End-of-year blues are common even for those who appear emotionally happy and balanced – it’s when many people take stock, realize how quickly time is passing, and check into their personal “dashboard” of achievements, goals and tasks.

If we made resolutions back in January, we can’t avoid measuring what we have – or have not – accomplished. And for many people, the upcoming holidays serve as a reminder of lost or distant friends and family. If you’re alone, the holidays can be even more isolating as people celebrate around us and we feel invisible and detached.

Maybe we thought we’d already have been promoted by now, a significant relationship would have appeared or matured, some pounds lost, some light found. We may have disappointed someone or ourselves by things we did or did not do, find or accomplish.

These difficulties are exacerbated by the loss of light and return of cold weather. Colder days and reduced sunlight can trigger Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a psychological state that literally changes our biology and can cause or add to depression.

Even if we don’t suffer from chemical or emotional depression, the final months of the year are challenging. Psychologists point out that there is a difference between the holiday blues, which are often temporary and go away once the season ends, and more serious conditions such as depression, SAD, and anxiety disorders. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), depression occurs when feelings of extreme sadness or despair last for at least two weeks or longer and when they interfere with activities of daily living such as working or even eating and sleeping. Depressed individuals tend to feel helpless, and hopeless about changing their situation.

If your sense of sadness or “the blues” seem to linger or become more intense, you may want to seek help from a mental health professional, such as a psychologist, who can help determine if you have depression and how best to treat it. The APA also cautions about the risks of turning to alcohol for comfort. Although it may seem to bring temporary relief, it is actually a central nervous system depressant and a diuretic. Alcohol use affects balance, increases the risk for falls, may not interact well with medications, and disrupts sleep, which has a number of health consequences.

Take Charge, and Keep Moving

There are a number of steps we can take to reduce stress and depression, and to lift our spirits. To start, it’s always beneficial to try and continue our normal routines to help feel like we’re still in control. We can consciously try to not over-eat and make time for exercise and rest.

Additionally, personal outreach, especially socializing and connecting with old friends and associates is important for our emotional health any time of year. Today’s electronic world often allows us instantaneous messaging and the ability to “reach out and touch” someone far away, but virtual communication through email and tools like Facebook and Twitter can’t replace the value of face-to-face interactions. We are social creatures, and while digital outreach is valuable and sometimes our easiest option, the Internet tends to act as a buffer between us and real intimacy.

Relationships and effective communication are built on eye contact, touch, feedback and unspoken physical communication. When possible, make the effort to visit friends and neighbors, attend parties and gatherings, contribute personal time through charitable efforts and catch up with people in person.

Here are some helpful hints for maintaining your balance as we get into the deepest recesses of the year:

  • Practice forgiveness, of yourself and for others. There’s still time and opportunity to adjust your goals, set new ones, or analyze what you might do differently going forward. Negativity wears on you and those you touch – so does a positive attitude!
  • Maintain your routine. Keep going to the gym, taking your walks, doing your special projects. The end of the year is nothing but a date on the calendar . . . life continues and, in fact, can get better as you set and work toward new, achievable goals.
  • Exercise regularly. Whether you walk, go to the gym, ride a bike, take yoga or spinning classes or just hit the treadmill in your basement, take time every day to exercise. It’s good for your heart, your respiratory system, your bones and joints and your mental health.
  • Eat a healthy diet. Low fat, low sugar, low salt should be our mantra. Eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, savor low-fat milk and yogurt, avoid fried foods and go easy on red meat and useless carbs from bread, cookies and cake, pasta, processed foods and snacks.
  • Don’t smoke. Tobacco products are bad for you and for others, period. They have a serious impact on your short- and long-term health, and cost a lot of money. There are many smoking-cessation programs available, and your physician can prescribe medications or aids to help with nicotine withdrawal.
  • Don’t consume too much alcohol. Drinking shortens your life, and can lead to strokes, heart disease and other illnesses. Alcohol also is a depressant and a diuretic, and inhibits restful sleep.
  • Get plenty of sleep. Adults should try to sleep eight hours, when possible, children even more. Pushing ourselves reduces our immunity to disease, makes us irritable, and makes accidents and mistakes more likely.
  • Talk to people . . . and to your physician. If you’re feeling down, worried, anxious or depressed, share your concerns with a friend or a medical professional. If depression is affecting your sleep, diet, work, school or behavior, ask your physician about medical or counseling interventions. Seeing a therapist (clinical psychologist, psychiatrist or professional counselor) for guidance and validation is healthy, smart and practical.

Taking care of ourselves is the gift that keeps on giving, any time of year. Make room for the people and activities that are most meaningful, and as the holidays rapidly approach, remember to breathe, set daily and weekly goals, and not be so hard on yourself or on others.


Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

When too much information can hurt you

If you’re like most modern healthcare consumers, you use the Internet to search for health, wellness or medical information. That can range from fairly benign searches for healthier foods, exercises and over-the-counter drug remedies, to more sophisticated inquiries on topics ranging from sleeping disorders or joint injuries to stomach distress and skin cancer. The good news is that there is a ton of information on the Web to help us navigate common concerns and keep us better informed. The bad news is that much of the information may not be accurate or reliable, and could lead us to make poorly informed decisions like not calling a physician when we should or, in a flip of that coin, calling all the time when it may not be necessary.

Everyone knows a hypochondriac.  If it’s harmless Aunt Agnes, who believes she has had every disease in the book, we wink, respond kindly and go back to our dessert. But for millions of Americans, the fear of disease and tendency to self-diagnose can be a serious issue. And easy access to legitimate – and often wrong or unsubstantiated medical information online – can seriously exacerbate or feed these concerns.

Hypochondriasis is the fear of a serious illness that continues despite the reassurance of physicians and testing. These fears and anxieties about illness may become debilitating and interfere with daily life. In the past people would go from friend to friend and from doctor to doctor seeking an answer. In today’s online world, however, many people never see a physician and rely solely upon electronically accessed information or what they may hear on television.

This interaction of excessive anxiety brought on by the use of online and broadcast health information is now being referred to, creatively, as “cyberchondria.” It is defined as an imagined illness with exaggeration of symptoms, no matter how insignificant, that lasts for at least six months and causes significant distress. It tends to develop in the 20s or 30s, and it affects men and women equally.

Most of us know when to see a physician or healthcare professional. The blinding headache that won’t go away, an obvious injury or severe irritation or a persistent virus or cough requires medical diagnosis and intervention. But, just for fun, go to your favorite search engine and look up “headache,” and you’ll be amazed (or not) at what you find:  An enormous online smorgasbord that could take months, or even years, to review. That information is punctuated by thousands of offers for remedies, as well, many of them from unscrupulous advertisers.

For many people, a headache may mean we’re tired, dehydrated, stressed or working too hard. If we have a family history of migraines, that could be a related cause.  But for the cyberchondriac, a headache may be seem as a brain tumor or aneurism, just as a pain somewhere else could be cancer or a chronic disease. The more research they do, the more their anxiety builds. When these misguided attempts at self-diagnosis escalate, pursuing these ailments results in medical tests or treatments costing billions of dollars annually.

What are quirks to some can be obsessive for others – but the suffering is real and can be emotionally paralyzing. Patients don’t have to actually have the disease to believe they are sick, or to exhibit certain related symptoms: Our brains are complex mechanisms that can turn against us in the forms of imaginary or misunderstood aches and pains and anxiety-related behaviors that appear very real to the afflicted. Hypochondriacs tend to be very aware of bodily sensations that most people live with and ignore. The stress that goes along with this worry can make the symptoms even worse, and the more time spent online “researching” – even when the information is accurate — further escalates the concern, and the symptoms.

Part of the problem, experts say, is that information on the Internet is not truly diagnostic or intuitive, compared to a face-to-face meeting with a healthcare professional. Information online tends to be very general, too complex, and easily misinterpreted. Physicians, on the other hand, bring years of diagnostic experience and insight. They have a wide variety of easily accessible testing available to the patient, translate the patient’s family, age, personal and emotional history, and can quickly eliminate or identify potential culprits and symptoms.

It is important to remember that search engines, unlike physicians, are not versed in diagnostic reasoning and do not discriminate between common benign disorders and less common serious problems. The information we can find online is often helpful for better understanding potential medical conditions and remedies, especially when the source is reliable.

Here are a few tips for avoiding or helping to control cyberchondria:

  • Stick with one physician, rather than changing doctors regularly
  • Avoid constant “self-checking” such as constantly monitoring your temperature, blood pressure and pulse
  • Be active, and exercise regularly, which are both good for reducing stress
  • Seek help from a professional therapist or psychologist
  • Join a support group to help you better understand your obsessions and related coping mechanisms.

Ultimately, the smart practice is to take anything we learn on the internet or on television with a grain of salt, realize the limitations to analyzing medical conditions through these media, and seek professional medical information and attention whenever we’re sick . . . or believe we may be sick.

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!