Take charge of your stress

December is a busy, chaotic, pressured, stressful time. The holidays bring joy and frustration, although sometimes it’s hard to separate one from the other. The end of the business and calendar years also increase tension as we rush around trying to multitask, wrap up projects and budgets, deal with personal and family angst and prepare ourselves for the coming year.

What we need is our own way to help reduce stress and disorganization, improve our focus, and slow down enough – in a short, manageable period – to regain our emotional and physical footing without losing traction or productivity. Some people hit the gym, run or take a walk; others go out to eat, read, nap, pray or call a friend. Many also find that the pursuit of mindfulness – the ability to slow ourselves down, focus and truly be present in the moment – can be enhanced through meditation.

Anyone can practice meditation. It’s simple and inexpensive, and it doesn’t require special gear, clothes or equipment. And we can practice meditation wherever we are – out for a walk, riding the bus, waiting at the doctor’s office or between meetings. Spending even a few minutes in meditation can restore our calm and inner peace.

Inserting calmness in our day

Meditation has been practiced for thousands of years. Originally meant to help deepen understanding of sacred and mystical forces of life, meditation is now commonly used for relaxation and stress reduction.

During meditation, we focus our attention and eliminate the stream of jumbled thoughts that may be crowding our mind and causing stress. And the benefits don’t cease when our meditation session ends. Meditation can help carry us more calmly through the day and may improve certain medical conditions.

The emotional benefits of meditation can include:

  • Gaining a new perspective on stressful situations
  • Building skills to manage our stress
  • Increasing self-awareness
  • Focusing on the present
  • Reducing negative emotions

How you can help yourself relax

Meditation is an umbrella term for the many ways to a relaxed state of being. There are many types of meditation and relaxation techniques that have meditation components. All share the same goal of achieving inner peace.

Meditation also is useful in dealing with medical conditions worsened by stress, such as anxiety disorders, asthma, cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, pain and trouble sleeping.

Don’t let the thought of meditating the “right” way add to your stress. If you choose to, you can attend special meditation centers or group classes led by trained instructors. But you can also practice meditation easily on your own.

And you can make meditation as formal or informal as you like, however it suits your lifestyle and situation. Some people build meditation into their daily routine. For example, they may start and end each day with an hour of meditation. But all you really need is a few minutes of quality time for meditation.

Here are some ways you can practice meditation on your own, whenever you choose:

  • Breathe deeply. This technique is good for beginners because breathing is a natural function. Focus all attention on breathing. Concentrate on feeling and listening and inhale and exhale through the nostrils. Breathe deeply and slowly. When attention wanders, gently return your focus to breathing.
  • Scan your body. When using this technique, focus attention on different parts of your body. Become aware of your body’s various sensations, whether that’s pain, tension, warmth or relaxation. Combine body scanning with breathing exercises and imagine breathing heat or relaxation into and out of different parts of your body.
  • Repeat a mantra. You can create your own mantra, whether it’s religious or secular. Examples of religious mantras include the Jesus Prayer in the Christian tradition, the holy name of God in Judaism, or the “om” mantra of Hinduism, Buddhism and other Eastern religions.
  • Walk and meditate. Combining a walk with meditation is an efficient and healthy way to relax. You can use this technique anywhere you’re walking, such as on a wooded path, on a city sidewalk or at the mall. When using this method, slow down the pace of walking so that you can focus on each movement of your legs or feet. Don’t focus on a particular destination. Concentrate on your legs and feet, repeating action words in your mind such as lifting, moving and placing as you lift each foot; move your leg forward and place your foot on the ground.
  • Engage in prayer. Prayer is the best known and most widely practiced example of meditation. Spoken and written prayers are found in most faith traditions. You can pray using your own words or read prayers written by others. Check the self-help section of your local bookstore for examples. Talk with your rabbi, priest, pastor or other spiritual leader about possible resources.
  • Read, write, listen and reflect. Many people report that they benefit from reading poems or sacred texts, and taking a few moments to quietly reflect on their meaning. You can also listen to sacred music, spoken words or any music you find relaxing or inspiring. You may want to write your reflections in a journal or discuss them with a friend or spiritual leader.
  • Focus your love and gratitude. In this type of meditation, you focus your attention on a sacred object or being, weaving feelings of love, compassion and gratitude into your thoughts. You can also close your eyes and use your imagination or gaze at representations of the object.

Don’t judge your meditation skills, which may only increase your stress. Meditation takes practice. It’s common for your mind to wander during meditation, no matter how long you’ve been practicing meditation. If you’re meditating to calm your mind and your attention wanders, slowly return to the object, sensation or movement you’re focusing on.

Experiment, and you’ll likely find out what types of meditation work best for you and what you enjoy doing. Adapt meditation and mindfulness to your needs at the moment. Remember, there’s no right way or wrong way to meditate or to relax. What matters is that you’re taking control and doing something to help you reduce your stress and feel better overall.

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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!

 

 

The costs of distraction ADD up

We are a society driven by time demands, technology, and ever-increasing pressures to succeed . . . at work, at school, at play. Drawn in many directions simultaneously, often with multiple conflicting priorities nipping at our heels, it’s often difficult to remain focused, to complete tasks without interruption or distraction, or to finish an assignment before moving onto something else. Creative, impulsive and over stimulated, little wonder we get anything done, or done well. And some days, we don’t.

For many of us, that’s simply life in today’s modern world. Some people manage time better than others, thrive with deadlines, or are highly organized and activity focused. Fear of failure plays a role, but so does ambition, achievement, and discipline. But for others, the failure to remain focused, the inability to complete tasks without interruption, and the inability to successfully negotiate the distracting pull of multiple requirements can be signs of chemical, emotional and genetic challenges such as Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

Over the past decades, these symptoms have been more readily diagnosed in children, especially those having trouble in school or unable to relax, play quietly or get along effectively with others. With today’s technological advances, it’s easy to blame over-stimulation for playing a strong supporting role in keeping kids off balance, more easily bored without technology, and wanting more all the time. But for adults, these same symptoms can be more insidious, limiting our efficiency at work and at home, straining relationships, and interfering with sleep and health.

ADHD affects at least five percent of children, and about half of them will carry those symptoms into adulthood, says the American Psychiatric Association. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates numbers are even higher. On top of that, many adults have ADHD or ADD but have never been diagnosed.

Signs you might have ADD or ADHD

Lack of focus. Possibly the most telltale sign of ADHD, “lack of focus,” goes beyond difficulty paying attention. It means being easily distracted, finding it hard to listen to others in a conversation, overlooking details, and not completing tasks or projects.

Hyperfocus. While people with ADHD are often easily distracted, the flip side of the coin is called hyperfocus. A person with ADHD can be so engrossed in something that they can ignore anything else around them. This kind of focus makes it easier to lose track of time, ignore those around you, and cause relationship misunderstandings.

Forgetfulness. We all forget things occasionally. But for someone with ADHD or ADD, forgetfulness is an everyday part of life. This includes routinely forgetting where you’ve put something or important dates. Some can be menial. Others can be serious. The bottom line is that forgetfulness can be damaging to careers and relationships because it can be confused with carelessness, lack of intelligence, or ambivalence.

Impulsivity. Impulsiveness in someone with ADHD or ADD can manifest in several ways:

  • Interrupting others during conversation
  • Being socially inappropriate
  • Rushing through tasks
  • Acting without much consideration to the consequences

Even a person’s shopping habits are often a good indication of ADHD. Impulse buying, especially on items they can’t afford, is a common symptom of adult ADHD.

Restlessness and anxiety. As an adult with ADHD, you may feel like your motor can’t shut off. Our yearning to keep moving and doing things constantly can lead to frustration when we can’t do something immediately. This leads to restlessness, which can lead to frustrations and anxiety. Anxiety is a very common symptom of adult ADHD, as the mind tends to replay worrisome events repeatedly.

Poor health. Impulsivity, lack of motivation, emotional problems, and disorganization can lead a person with ADHD or ADD to neglect their health. This can be seen through compulsive poor eating, neglecting exercise, or forgoing important medication. Anxiety and stress negatively affect health, so without good habits, the negative effects of these illnesses can make other symptoms worse.

Relationship issues. An adult with ADHD or ADD often has trouble in relationships, whether they are professional, romantic, or platonic. The traits of talking over people in conversation, inattentiveness, and easily being bored can be draining on relationships as a person can come across as insensitive, irresponsible, or uncaring.

Treatment and coping mechanisms

People who experience some or many of these symptoms also change employers more often, miss deadlines, experience higher use of alcohol, tobacco and drugs, and suffer from repeated relationship failures, including divorce. If all of this sounds too familiar, it doesn’t mean you suffer from adult ADD or ADHD. But if you do, here are a few steps you can take to improve your life.

Treatment for adult ADHD or ADD is similar to treatment for childhood ADHD/ADD, and includes stimulant drugs or other medications, psychological counseling (psychotherapy), and treatment for any mental health conditions that occur along with adult ADHD.

Stimulants (psychostimulants) are the most commonly prescribed medications for ADHD, but other drugs may be prescribed. Stimulant drugs are available in short-acting and long-acting forms. Other medications used to treat ADHD include antidepressants. The right medication and the right dose vary between individuals, so it may take some time in the beginning to find what’s right for you. Talk with your doctor about the benefits and risks of medications. And keep your doctor informed of any side effects you may have when taking your medication.

Counseling for adult ADHD can be beneficial and generally includes psychological counseling (psychotherapy) and education about the disorder. Psychotherapy may help you:

  • Improve time management and organizational skills
  • Learn how to reduce impulsive behavior
  • Develop better problem-solving skills
  • Cope with past academic and social failures
  • Improve self-esteem
  • Learn ways to improve relationships with family, co-workers and friends
  • Develop strategies for controlling temper

It’s important to remember that ADD and ADHD are neuropsychiatric conditions that are typically genetically transmitted. They are caused by biology, by how our brain is wired. It is not a disease of the will, nor a moral failing or weakness in character. Many people with these behaviors have trouble accepting these syndromes as being rooted in biology, but through professional help, support groups, education and communication these challenges can be managed, or even overcome.

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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!

Who’s got time for sleep?!

It’s April. We’ve already sprung forward an hour, and can now enjoy the lengthening days and milder temperatures. With the longer daylight hours, though, come increased outdoor activity and often a quickening life pace. If you’re already tired, it’s just going to get worse, and that hour of sleep you lost a few weeks ago is one of several elements potentially wreaking havoc silently.

When we’re tired, we become irritable. Productivity, service 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 is, 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. The more times we awake at night, the more likely we will feel unrefreshed and unrestored in the morning.

Psychological stressors like deadlines, exams, marital conflict 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. No way around it. If you work right up to the time you turn out the lights, or are reviewing all the day’s events and planning tomorrow, you simply can’t just “flip a switch” and drop off to a blissful night’s sleep.

What we can do to sleep better

You’d think that because we all sleep, we’d be good at it by now . . . but of course, that isn’t the case. 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 running off to get 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 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 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.

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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!

Becoming mindful of the stressors around us

How many times have you sat in meetings watching people check their emails and text messages, or had everything stop for a phone call? Have you ever been at your desk, on the shop floor, at a team function or driving a vehicle while thinking about life, other work, a relationship, a sick parent, or how you’re going to get your kid to soccer practice at the end of the day? Have you ever blown past an exit on the highway, made a mistake on an assignment, gotten hurt or missed a deadline because you were distracted or not paying attention to details?

We’ve all been there. Truth is, we have a lot on our minds — and pressure to get too much done at once. In today’s world, multi-tasking is seen as an essential skill, not the liability it actually is. Oftentimes, it becomes more important to get things done than to get them done well — or we struggle finding that “well-enough” zone.

When we allow our minds to drift — when we are not present in the moment — we can’t achieve our potential. The need to remain focused is critical, but we also need tools to help us concentrate effectively, as well as to relieve stress, frustration, anger, anxiety and negativity. These side effects of our work and lives interfere with our relationships, and have an impact on teamwork, morale, productivity and our physical, mental and spiritual health.

April is Stress Reduction Awareness Month. If we clarify our thoughts, use relaxing techniques and calm our approach to life and work, it will make us more productive, happier and healthier.

The pursuit of “mindfulness” is one valuable approach to gaining control of attention span, focus and concentration. It is now gaining significant traction in large and small organizations across America, especially for its value in reducing the unhealthy results of stress.

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, Twitter and other electronic and social media.

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.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, is founding executive director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts. He established MBSR in the 1970s to help patients suffering from chronic pain. 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.

Mindfulness is being practiced at a number of large companies including Proctor & Gamble, Apple, Google, Deutsche Bank, Astra Zeneca, General Mills and Aetna. It includes a broad spectrum of informal activities, in addition to meditation, movement and structured MBSR techniques.

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 their power over us.
  • Pay attention to our 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, remind yourself of our organization’s purpose, 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 spiritual reading.

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If you’re not enjoying the benefits of a wellness program at your company, join CBIA Healthy Connections at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Sound ideas for a perfect Valentine’s Day

It’s February already, and we’re coming up quickly on that annual ritual that can delight, mystify, frustrate or make us nuts. . .and we’re not talking about President’s Day! Maybe you finally have it all figured out — flowers, chocolate, a nice card, even a special dinner. It sounds like a perfect recipe for romance…so what could go wrong, right?

Well, plenty — as we all know, despite our hard work and best planning. So what can we do to improve our odds of fully enjoying this Valentine’s Day? Start by considering a gift that doesn’t have to cost a penny, but can pay back richly…the gift of silence.

We live in a noisy, chaotic world full of sounds we like and don’t like, and noise we can and can’t control. Noise at high decibels can physically injure us, temporarily or permanently. But constant noise — even at lower decibels, such as the fans whirling in our computers, furnaces in our homes, road noises and the refrigerator compressor — are all contributing to a heightened level of stress that can make us irritable, short tempered, harder to get along with and certainly not in the mood for love. What’s more, noise-induced stress inhibits our ability to relax, to concentrate and to sleep, adding fatigue to this insidious mix.

We have two nervous systems that are affected by sound, accelerating or suppressing metabolic functions that control alertness, stress and relaxation. The trouble is that as our bodies react to different stimuli, some stress hormones remain active in the brain for too long. It often requires conscious effort to initiate our relaxation response and reestablish metabolic equilibrium, including breathing, heart rate and blood pressure.

According to Branwen O’Shea-Refai, LCSW, a therapist, yoga teacher and sound healer, stress management is the key to enhancing relationships, and for improving intimacy.

“We can’t totally eliminate noise and stress, but we can learn how it affects us and practice techniques that can help activate our relaxation response,” explains O’Shea-Refai. “When we are flooded by texts, calls, emails and social media, we become overstimulated, either shutting down or becoming irritable. Exposure to natural sounds like waves, bird songs, rain or healing sounds such as drums and Tibetan bowls helps us reconnect with ourselves.  We have to be grounded in our bodies to have healthy relationships with others.”

For some women, especially those in long-term relationships, the need to feel relaxed and to have their stress under control is an important precursor to intimacy, O’Shea-Refai adds. She suggests that an effective way to prepare for “date night” is to de-stress by getting a break from the kids and work. Seek time alone, she consuls, take a warm bath, read, get a massage, exercise, and listen to or create sounds that suit the mood you’re hoping to capture.

“It isn’t as simple as just putting on classical or New Age music,” she observes. “Soothing music alone won’t eliminate work or life anxiety, though the movements in classical pieces often can match — or help transform — our moods. But silence is also therapeutic, as are ‘cleansing’ or ‘clearing’ noises such as drums, Tibetan musical bowls and chanting. Sound therapists also teach people how to use their own voice to manage stress.”

An exercise that’s very effective, she says, is the healing vibration produced when you chant the “ahhh” sound. She has her patients practice this “heart sound” and breathing exercises whenever they feel their stress levels rising, and adds that it even helps calm young children. She also recommends Naad Yoga, the yogic practice of using sound vibrations to affect the mind, body, and spirit, as an excellent way to strengthen metabolic systems that aggravate stress.

“It’s harder to feel attractive, sexy and passionate when you feel emotionally agitated, out of touch, or are being bombarded by work, family and outside stimuli,” O’Shea-Refai concludes. “’Me time’ is not selfish. All our relationships benefit when we actively reduce extraneous noise, center ourselves, and positively shift our energy.”

That’s good news, especially as February 14th, World Sound Healing Day, approaches. And it’s good advice for that other thing we observe on February 14th, too!

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O’Shea-Refai  lives and practices in Bethany. For more information about sound, yoga or alternative healing practices, she can be reached at 203.393.1717, or visit EarthDancing.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!

Is it time to see a therapist?

The holidays and cold wintery months bring many types of pressures that can cause stress, irritability, sleeplessness, anger, and depression. Additionally, isolation, family dynamics, work and financial hardships strain us in many insidious ways. When you throw in the challenges of day-to-day life, it can result in depression and anxiety.

Many of us have the tools and resources to deal with these issues patiently and reasonably. But for others, daily stresses accumulate to unhealthy levels and can result in unpleasant and sometimes dangerous behaviors. Situational or cumulative triggers affect us in a variety of ways. But it becomes far more complicated when you add to the mix chemical imbalances or deep-rooted psychological problems that may be undiagnosed or untreated.

Seeking help from a therapist is a healthy choice. Unfortunately, it’s often avoided due to the stigma of therapy, lack of health insurance, or financial resources. However, contrary to popular perception, you don’t have to be “falling apart” to seek help. Most people can benefit from therapy at some point in our lives. Many of us turn to family and friends as support groups, but that doesn’t always provide the answers we seek.

When things start to become unmanageable or worries and pressures start redefining us, affect performance or control our actions, it’s time for assistance. Support can be found through Employee Assistance Programs at work or through school, or by talking with social workers, counselors and other providers. We can visit walk-in clinics or hospitals, speak with our physicians, or seek access through the panels of behavioral health professionals and programs available in every community.

We also turn to therapists for many positive reasons such as improving the overall quality of our lives, career or interests. Sometimes it’s for help with grief or trauma, but it can be to help us learn how to face situations that may be preventing us from reaching personal goals.

Whether the need for therapy is short-or longer-term, there are a variety of different therapeutic options to pursue. However, it all starts with determining whether or not we should see a therapist.  Here are some common catalysts, concerns and behaviors:

  • Feeling sad, angry or otherwise “not yourself.” Uncontrollable sadness, anger or hopelessness may be signs of a mental health issue that can improve with treatment. If you’re eating or sleeping more or less than usual, withdrawing from family and friends, or just feeling “off,” talk to someone before serious problems develop that can have a significant impact on your quality of life. If these feelings escalate to the point that you question whether life is worth living or you have thoughts of death or suicide, reach out for help right away.
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    • Abusing drugs, alcohol, or food to cope. When you turn outside yourself to a substance or behavior to help you feel better, your coping skills probably need adjustment. If you feel unable to control these behaviors or you can’t stop despite negative consequences in your life, you may be struggling with addictive or compulsive behavior that requires treatment.
    • You’ve lost someone or something important to you. Grief can be a long and difficult process to endure without the support of an expert. While not everyone needs counseling during these times, there is no shame in needing a little help to get through the loss of a loved one, a divorce, significant breakup, or the loss of a job, especially if you’ve experienced multiple losses in a short period of time.
    • Something traumatic has happened. If you have a history of abuse, neglect or other trauma that you haven’t fully dealt with, or if you find yourself the victim of a crime or accident, chronic illness or some other traumatic event, the earlier you talk to someone, the faster you can learn healthy ways to cope.
    • You can’t do the things you like to do. Have you stopped doing the activities you ordinarily enjoy? Many people find that painful emotions and experiences keep them from getting out, having fun and meeting new people. This is a red flag that something is wrong in your life.
    • Everything you feel is intense. Feeling overcome with anger or sadness on a regular basis could indicate an underlying issue. Also, when an unforeseen challenge appears, do you immediately assume the worst-case-scenario will take place? This intense form of anxiety, in which every worry is super-sized and treated as a realistic outcome, can be truly debilitating.
    • You have unexplained and recurrent headaches, stomach-aches or a rundown immune system. When we’re emotionally upset, it can affect our bodies. Research confirms that stress can manifest itself in the form of a wide range of physical ailments, from a chronically upset stomach to headaches, frequent colds or even a diminished sex drive.
    • You’re getting bad feedback at work. Changes in work performance are common among those struggling with emotional or psychological issues. You might feel disconnected from your job, even if it used to make you happy. Aside from changes in concentration and attention, you might get negative feedback from managers or co-workers that the quality of your work is slipping. This could be a sign that it’s time to talk to a professional.
    • Your relationships are strained. If you find yourself feeling unhappy during interactions with loved ones, family or friends on a regular basis, you might make a good candidate for therapy. Oftentimes, those closest to us recognize changes in our behaviors that we might not be ready to personally acknowledge — when these changes are pointed out to us, they’re worth considering.

Seeing a therapist doesn’t mean a lifetime obligation. A study in the Journal of Counseling Psychology found that most people feel better within seven to 10 visits. In another study, published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 88 percent of therapy-goers reported improvements after just one session.

Although severe mental illness may require more intensive intervention, most people benefit from short-term, goal-oriented therapy to address a specific issue or interpersonal conflict, get out of a rut, or make a major life decision. The sooner you choose to get help, the faster you can return to enjoying life to its fullest.

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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!

Stress at Work is Costing a Fortune

Feeling stressed lately, moody or irritable? Falling behind on your sleep? Finding it harder to come to work? Requiring more patience than usual with work associates, family members, friends or your kids? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions — and let’s face it, most of us recognize at least one of those behaviors in ourselves at one time or another — you’re probably experiencing some normal side effects of workplace-related stress. How much stress, and what you can do about it varies, but one thing’s for certain:  If you ignore the causes or effects, they’re not likely going to disappear on their own anytime soon.

When we’re experiencing stress, we’re distracted, fatigued and less focused. The quality of our work and the service we provide slips, accidents are more common, and we’re harder to get along with in general. This can have a negative impact on teamwork, morale and customer satisfaction. It also can facilitate or aggravate chronic illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, asthma and hypertension, and reduce our resistance to common illnesses.

As if that wasn’t enough, researchers have actually tried to put numbers on the costs of stress in the workplace, and the potential losses are staggering – estimated at up to $300 billion per year in absenteeism, turnover, diminished productivity and healthcare costs, according to a recent Randstad Engagement study.

When asked to select up to three out of 10 possible factors that might push an employee to leave their job — including excessive workload and difficult working relationships — a high stress level (at 24%) was the third-most-selected reason, behind pay (37%) and opportunity for advancement (27%).

The study found the negative effects of workplace stress vary by gender and, to a lesser extent, age. For example, 27% of women (compared to 22% of men) cite a high stress level as a top reason to leave their current job. Within generational groups, one quarter (25%) of Gen Y/Millennial employees say stress is a likely reason they would leave their current organization, similar to Generation X and Baby Boomers, both at 24%.

How can you help?

The good news, according to the Randstad study, is that workplace stress can be managed, especially when employers provide support — and that starts with being well-connected to your workers. Companies can help reduce employee stress by communicating regularly with workers to identify their concerns, and establishing wellness programs that make healthy stress management a top priority across the organization.

Some of that relief can come through team athletic activities, sponsorships, gym or fitness center memberships, walks during work hours, health-related classes during the day, yoga, massage, meditation, or a variety of other options.  Access to Employee Assistance Programs, if available, can make a significant difference as well for workers struggling to keep it together and seeking assistance outside the office. The important thing is to be tuned in to your own – and your workers’ – behaviors, realize what may be driving additional stress, and figure out how to step away from it, regain perspective and relax.

Here are five tips to help alleviate workplace stress:

  • Communicate often: By effectively communicating with workers, managers can better gauge the stress level of their employees and work to diminish pressure before it affects morale and productivity.
  • Encourage camaraderie: Employees who actively connect with one another often create a better office environment. It’s important to set aside time for staff to socialize and get to know one another, and to encourage extracurricular activities such as sponsored walks, softball, bowling or whatever works for your team. 
  • Promote wellness: Give employees access to wellness programs that help relieve stress. Whether it’s a company workout facility or reimbursements for yoga classes, wellness programs are proven strategies to help relieve workplace stress.
  • Set an example: Healthy stress management starts at the top. If employees consistently see their boss as being stressed, the negative energy can trickle down and have an impact on the entire team.
  • Empower your employees: One of the most stress-inducing triggers is feeling out of control, so allow your staff to take ownership of their work and give them as much control as possible when it comes to making decisions on how work gets done.

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If you’re not enjoying the benefits of a wellness program at your company, join CBIA Healthy Connections at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Navigating complementary and alternative health options

When it comes to our complicated medical and health worlds, there are many questions to ask and a confusing morass of information and suggestions. Even the terms are confusing, such as complementary, alternative and integrative medicine. While these terms are often used to mean the array of healthcare approaches with a history of use or origins outside of mainstream medicine, they are actually hard to define and may mean different things to different people.

Many Americans — nearly 40 percent — use healthcare approaches developed outside of mainstream Western, or conventional, medicine for specific conditions or overall well-being. When describing health approaches with non-mainstream-roots, people often use the words “alternative” and “complementary” interchangeably, but the two terms refer to different concepts.

“Complementary” generally refers to using a non-mainstream approach together with conventional medicine. “Alternative” refers to using a non-mainstream approach in place of conventional medicine. True alternative medicine is not common. Most people use non-mainstream approaches along with conventional treatments. And the boundaries between complementary and conventional medicine overlap and change with time. For example, guided imagery and massage, both once considered complementary or alternative, are used regularly in some hospitals to help with pain management and stress reduction.

The array of non-mainstream healthcare approaches may also be considered part of integrative medicine or integrative healthcare. For example, cancer treatment centers with integrative healthcare programs may offer services such as acupuncture and meditation to help manage symptoms and side effects for patients who are receiving conventional cancer treatments such as chemotherapy.

There are various definitions for “integrative healthcare,” but many individuals, healthcare providers, and healthcare systems are integrating various practices with origins outside of mainstream medicine into treatment and health promotion. Still, the scientific evidence on some of these practices is limited, and a lack of reliable data makes it difficult for people to make informed decisions about using integrative health care.

“Natural” products, and mind and body options

This group includes a variety of products, such as herbs (also known as botanicals), vitamins and minerals, and probiotics. They are widely marketed, readily available to consumers, and often sold as dietary supplements.

Interest in and use of natural products has grown considerably in the past few decades. The most commonly used natural product among adults is fish oil/omega 3s (reported in surveys by 37.4 percent of all adults who said they used natural products). Popular products for children include Echinacea and fish oil/omega 3s.

Some of these products have been studied in large, placebo-controlled trials, many of which have failed to show anticipated effects. Research on others to determine whether they are effective and safe is ongoing. While there are indications that some may be helpful, more needs to be learned about the effects of these products in the human body and about their safety and potential interactions with medicines and with other natural products.

Mind and body practices include a large and diverse group of procedures or techniques administered or taught by a trained practitioner or teacher. For example:

  • Acupuncture is a technique in which practitioners stimulate specific points on the body — most often by inserting thin needles through the skin.
  • Massage therapy includes many different techniques in which practitioners manually manipulate the soft tissues of the body.
  • Most meditation techniques, such as mindfulness meditation or transcendental meditation, involve ways in which a person learns to focus attention.
  • Movement therapies include a broad range of Eastern and Western movement-based approaches; examples include Feldenkrais method, Alexander technique, Pilates, Rolfing Structural Integration, and Trager psychophysical integration.
  • Relaxation techniques, such as breathing exercisesguided imagery, and progressive muscle relaxation, are designed to produce the body’s natural relaxation response.
  • Spinal manipulation is practiced by healthcare professionals such as chiropractors, osteopathic physicians, naturopathic physicians, physical therapists, and some medical doctors. Practitioners perform spinal manipulation by using their hands or a device to apply a controlled force to a joint of the spine. The amount of force applied depends on the form of manipulation used.
  • Tai chi and qi gong are practices from traditional Chinese medicine that combine specific movements or postures, coordinated breathing, and mental focus.
  • The various styles of yoga used for health purposes typically combine physical postures or movement, breathing techniques, and meditation.

There’s an abundance of information on all-things-healthy to explore, digest, practice, or disregard. If you take the time to explore carefully, keep an open mind, and talk with professionals, friends and associates, you can start to hone in on healthcare practices that are appropriate and safe.

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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!

Why Aren’t You Laughing?!

Humor is a universal language, and good medicine. We watch comedies on television and at the movies and read humorous articles and books. We relax at the end of the day with Letterman, Fallon, or Kimmel. We enjoy sharing a joke at the office, when we’re meeting with friends, over the phone or through social media. Think about how you feel when you laugh or make someone else laugh. And when you laugh at yourself, a situation or something you’ve observed, it relieves tension, defuses situations, and helps us bond with others. 

Laughing makes us feel good — and that good feeling can stay with us long after the laughter stops. In fact, the sound of roaring laughter is far more contagious than any cough, sniffle, or sneeze.

April is National Humor Month, but every healthy day should include humor and laughter and its many benefits:

  • People with a sense of humor typically have a stronger immune system.
  • People who laugh heartily on a regular basis have lower standing blood pressure than the average person. When people have a good laugh, initially the blood pressure increases but then decreases to levels below normal. Breathing then becomes deeper, which sends oxygen-enriched blood and nutrients throughout the body.
  • Laughter can be a great workout for your diaphragm, abdominal, respiratory, facial, leg, and back muscles. It massages abdominal organs, tones intestinal functioning, and strengthens the muscles that hold the abdominal organs in place. It is estimated that hearty laughter can burn calories equivalent to several minutes on the rowing machine or the exercise bike.
  • Laughter stimulates both sides of the brain to enhance learning. It eases muscle tension and psychological stress, which keeps the brain alert and allows people to retain more information. Laughing also elevates moods.

Striving to see humor in life and attempting to laugh at situations rather than bemoan them will help improve our disposition and the disposition of those around us. Our ability to laugh at ourselves and situations will help reduce our stress level and make life more enjoyable. Humor also helps us connect with others. People naturally respond to the smiles and good cheer of those around them.

Tips for adding more humor and laughter in our life include

  • Remember to have and seek fun and opportunities to laugh
  • Spend time with those who help us see the bright side and who make us laugh
  • Get regular doses of humor from various sources such as television, movies, plays, shows and performances, or books
  • Don’t take ourselves and others too seriously…keep life and work in perspective.

Head off stress with regular bouts of laughter and by sharing humor with others. Remember, nobody’s perfect and life should be fun. Laughter can make us feel like a new person. We all can use some of that…no joke.

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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!

Don’t Let Stress Break Employees’ Hearts or Their Spirits

It isn’t a coincidence that National Stress Awareness Month and National Humor Month are observed at the same time. Stress is a very common denominator for humans, regardless if at work, home, school, or wherever our daily travels carry us. And humor is a factor we can learn to embrace in our efforts to reduce the pressure and strains that are killing us, literally and figuratively.

We all experience stress, though it affects each of us differently. Sometimes we don’t recognize when we’re acting short tempered, impatient or easily distracted. When stress levels are high, we can become withdrawn, agitated, depressed or angry. We may not sleep well, can eat less or too much. We also may experience tightness in our chests, stomach discomfort, headaches, increased blood sugar, cholesterol and blood pressure, and other physical manifestations.

In the workplace, these symptoms often drive increased absenteeism and presenteeism (coming to work while sick), lower productivity, and service errors. Stress also has a negative impact on safety, quality, and teamwork.

According to the 2013 Work and Well-Being Survey conducted 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. The APA’s recent Stress in America survey (released last winter) also found high levels of employee stress, with 65% of working Americans citing work as a significant source of stress, and 35% reporting that they typically feel stressed during the workday.

Despite growing awareness of the importance of a healthy workplace, few employees say their organizations provide sufficient resources to help them manage stress (36%) and meet their mental health needs (44%). Just 42% of employees say that their organizations promote and support a healthy lifestyle, only 36% report regularly participating in workplace health and wellness programs, and just over half (51%) say they feel valued at work.

Employers can’t eliminate all the factors that cause their workers to feel stressed, but there are a number of items that can be addressed. Working with your staff to create wellness and feedback programs, encouraging them to take breaks, work out, walk, or nap are extremely beneficial. And providing access to stress-relief activities without having to leave work are a few solutions.

As one workplace example, Christy Graham, wellness champion at The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in Hartford, says they implemented yoga classes starting in fall 2013. The classes are held onsite once a week from 12:15 pm to 1:00 pm. Graham contacted several studios before choosing an instructor, and says the Bushnell staff really enjoys the classes. Half a dozen employees participate, she adds, and the fee is only half of what yoga classes held offsite normally would cost. She also sends out a reminder email about a farmer’s market held weekly near their office. Additionally, staff regularly walks together at lunchtime in nearby Bushnell Park, and they have added a water cooler to help keep hydrated.

Address the issues that are adding to your stress

Whether we’re the employer or an employee, often the best way to cope with stress is to find a way to change the circumstances that are causing it. And one common set of tools that traverse all aspects of our lives is our ability to efficiently manage time, especially if we tend to feel overwhelmed at work. Here are some useful tips for reducing time-related stress:

  • Set realistic goals. Work with colleagues and leaders to set realistic expectations and deadlines. Set regular progress reviews and adjust your goals as needed.
  • Make a priority list. Prepare a list of tasks and rank them in order of priority. Throughout the day, scan your master list and work on tasks in priority order.
  • Protect your time. For an especially important or difficult project, block time to work on it without interruption.
  • Get other points of view. Talk with trusted colleagues or friends about the issues you’re facing at work. They might be able to provide insights or offer suggestions for coping. Sometimes simply talking about a stressor can be a relief.
  • Take a break. Make the most of workday breaks. Even a few minutes of personal time during a busy workday can be refreshing. Similarly, take time off when you can — whether it’s a two-week vacation or an occasional long weekend.
  • Have an outlet. To prevent burnout, set aside time for activities you enjoy — such as reading, socializing or pursuing a hobby.
  • Take care of yourself. Be vigilant about taking care of your health. Include physical activity in your daily routine, get plenty of sleep and eat a healthy diet.
  • Seek help. If none of these steps relieves your feelings of job stress or burnout, consult a mental health provider — either on your own or through an employee assistance program offered by your employer. Through counseling, you can learn effective ways to handle job stress.

It’s also critical to keep your perspective. When your job is stressful, it can feel as if it’s taking over your life. To maintain perspective:

  • Get other points of view. Talk with trusted colleagues or friends about the issues you’re facing at work. They might be able to provide insights or offer suggestions for coping. Sometimes simply talking about a stressor can be a relief.
  • Take a break. Make the most of workday breaks. Even a few minutes of personal time during a busy workday can be refreshing. Similarly, take time off when you can — whether it’s a two-week vacation or an occasional long weekend.
  • Have an outlet. To prevent burnout, set aside time for activities you enjoy — such as reading, socializing or pursuing a hobby.
  • Take care of yourself. Be vigilant about taking care of your health. Include physical activity in your daily routine, get plenty of sleep and eat a healthy diet.
  • Seek help. If none of these steps relieves your feelings of job stress or burnout, consult a mental health provider — either on your own or through an employee assistance program offered by your employer. Through counseling, you can learn effective ways to handle job stress.

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If you’re not enjoying the benefits of a wellness program at your company, join CBIA Healthy Connections at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!