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!

Shake Off Those Winter Blues

February is the shortest month, and as it often appears, the month when people’s tempers, patience and energy levels are the shortest, as well. Blame it on the cold, gloomier days, lack of sunshine in general, and too much physically idle time indoors. We don’t tend to sleep or eat as well, and we don’t exercise or socialize enough. Whatever the cause, depression runs high in the dead of winter, though there are several steps we can take to keep our spirits – and energy levels – at a higher, and healthier level.

Thought it’s not the only cause, one common diagnosis for the “winter blues” is Seasonal Affective Disorder Association (SAD). This is a winter malady that causes depression, lethargy, and lack of motivation. It affects up to six percent of the U.S population, particularly women in their twenties, thirties, and forties. The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that SAD can also occur in men and children and that many SAD sufferers have at least one close relative with severe depressive disorder.

The key symptoms of SAD include extreme fatigue, sleep problems, depression, anxiety, irritability, carbohydrate cravings, increased appetite, weight gain, and loss of libido. Sufferers are also more vulnerable to winter illnesses because their immune system can become weakened. Due to its symptoms, SAD can be misdiagnosed as hypothyroidism, hypoglycemia, infectious mononucleosis, and other viral infections.

Here are tips to help combat Seasonal Affective Disorder and for fighting the “winter blues:”

  • Light up your day. Even if it is gray and cloudy, the effects of daylight are beneficial. In addition to more exposure to daylight, daily light therapy has been shown to be effective in 85 percent of diagnosed SAD cases. Daily light therapy involves one to four hours of exposure to lighting that is 10 times the intensity of regular domestic lighting.
  • Balanced nutrition. A well-balanced, nutritious diet will provide more energy and possibly quell carb cravings. Comfort food tastes good and it may make you feel better for the short-term, but a balanced diet of vegetables, fruits, lean proteins, and whole grains will healthfully keep your weight in check and make you feel better in the long-run.
  • Get your supplements. Getting your recommended daily amounts of vitamins and minerals can help alleviate some of the SAD symptoms and improve your energy, particularly if you are deficient in key nutrients. There is a variety of seasonal supplements available but check with your physician or naturopath before taking mega-doses or herbal formulations. A multi-vitamin and mineral supplement may be all you need.
  • Move your body. Regardless of the time of year, regular exercise is essential for overall health. Even if the weather has you mostly relegated to the indoors, you can still head to your local gym or exercise in the comfort of your home. Getting your body moving will help you battle winter weight gain, boost your endorphins, and may even help you sleep more soundly. If dressed for the weather, walks and hikes outdoors are invigorating and good for you physically and mentally. And yoga, meditation and classes that promote group stretching and exercise are good for you physically and socially.
  • Prioritize social activities. Stay connected to your social network. Getting out of the house and doing enjoyable things with friends and family can do wonders for cheering you up. Go to a movie or make a dinner date. Plan regular social activities and, if weather permitting, get outdoors for a group ski or hike — you can meet your exercise, social and daylight needs in one shot.
  • Get help. If you have exhausted your attempts at natural remedies and the symptoms of SAD are still interfering with your daily functioning, seek professional help. Antidepressants and certain types of psychotherapy have proven effective in treating SAD and helping people cope with seasonal mood changes.

Winter is a beautiful time of year, and doesn’t have to drag you down. Take proactive steps to keep fit and healthy, and remember, the days are getting longer and spring will be here soon!

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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!

Stretching toward improved physical and spiritual health

People come to yoga for a wide variety of reasons, including fitness, stress management, and relief from physical or emotional pain. September is National Yoga Awareness Month, and a good time, with the holidays and colder weather rapidly approaching, to look into yoga’s spiritual and physical healing properties. Regardless of your motivation, most yoga enthusiasts credit yoga’s meditative component — as well as the physical training and discipline — with allowing them to reach a deeper, more spiritual place in their lives while helping them relax and improve their overall health and wellness.

Yoga has been practiced for more than 5,000 years, and approximately 11 million Americans enjoy its health benefits. The traditional series of yoga poses, called asanas, work by safely stretching your muscles. This releases the lactic acid that builds up with muscle use, which may cause stiffness, tension, pain, and fatigue. Additionally, yoga increases the range of motion in joints and stretches not only your muscles but all of the soft tissues of your body. That includes ligaments, tendons, and the fascia sheath that surrounds your muscles.

No matter your level of yoga, you most likely will see benefits in a very short period of time, though you should seek guidance from an experienced yoga teacher to help avoid possible injury and to learn how to get the most value. The greatest gains typically are in shoulder and trunk flexibility. Yoga includes postures (asanas), energy and breath control (pranayama), meditation, music, philosophy and other approaches. While many people equate the word Hatha with a particular style of yoga, the word actually refers to the physical aspect of yoga — to the asana and pranayama practices.

Meditation is important to all styles and traditions of yoga but is often the least understood aspect of yoga. The art and science of transcending one’s thoughts and liberating the mind, meditation may involve simple breath awareness, chanting or movement. For some, it is the heart of the practice, for others it is integrated with the asanas, often at the beginning and the end of the class.

Common styles of yoga

The following are some common styles of yoga:

Gentle yoga: Gentle yoga can be as dynamic as some of the more vibrant styles, yet is gentle on the body. Classes are often multi-level and do not assume prior yoga experience. They include breathing techniques, warm-ups and basic postures to increase mind-body connection, self-awareness and self-confidence.

Yoga flows: Yoga flows are more invigorating. Postures are linked in a flow and provide some aerobic components while also improving strength and coordination. The classes assume a participant begins with a certain degree of strength and endurance.

Power yoga: This dynamic yoga style includes specific sequences designed to build strength and stamina. These classes are often recommended for people with some familiarity of the basic postures.

Fitness yoga: Fitness yoga is a newer expression designed to incorporate traditional yoga postures in a form common to most fitness clubs. Students warm up, practice more strenuous postures and then cool down. They tone the body, especially the core, and increase flexibility, balance and mind-body awareness.

Specialty yoga: Yoga can also be customized for the special needs of a broad spectrum of groups including expectant mothers, seniors and children, as well as for those battling life-threatening diseases or debilitating chronic conditions. Specialized training is important for teachers who work with these groups.

Spiritually-oriented yoga: Originally, Hatha yoga was primarily a tool for spiritual growth as well as for physical well-being. Modern styles that emphasize the spiritual dimension of yoga practice tend to involve slower movement and often include meditation practice.

Therapeutic yoga: Yoga therapy is the adaptation and application of yoga practices and techniques to help those facing health challenges manage their condition, reduce symptoms, restore balance, increase vitality and improve attitude.

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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!

Too stressed to take a vacation? Think again.

Considering we’re a society that claims to love our vacations, it’s curious that Americans don’t take enough vacations, and often don’t even use the vacation days we’ve earned. What’s up with that?!  It’s a sad reality, but job reductions, doing more with less, pressure from employers, financial challenges and our own sense of insecurity drives us to make bad choices about our need for healthful relief from our jobs. And whether you’re an employer or an employee, you’ll both suffer for the lack of time off, whether it’s staff or management time.

We all get it. Every day seems an endless cycle of deadlines, customer, associate or employer demands, tough decisions, endless house chores, commuting, kid duty, and more.  There’s stress whether you’re employed, under employed or unemployed, and everyone who has a job worries about keeping it. Even trying to arrange and take the time for a vacation is stressful – little wonder we often put off making our vacation decision, feel guilty taking time off, and have trouble relaxing when we finally do get away.

Time off from our jobs and our regular routines helps us manage stress, improves our bonds with family, friends and co-workers, can alleviate fatigue, and strengthens our immune systems. When we’re stressed our work performance suffers. That has an impact on customer service, as well as safety, quality and productivity. Most of us are harder to get along with when we’re under pressure and feeling anxious, and more prone to depression, memory loss, distraction and bad decision making. We eat poorly and sleep less. Whether you’re typically healthy or not, that’s an insidious mix, and while vacation or time away from work and our regular routines won’t cure it all, vacations offer an important break.

Ironically, the United States lags behind most developed countries when it comes to paid vacation time, and vacation is typically not mandated in our country, or a legal right. In contrast, the United Kingdom requires employers to give at least 28 vacation days. In Finland, France and Greece the minimum is 25, and in Germany and Japan, it’s 20.

We don’t take time off for many reasons. Typically these include having too much work to do, fear of losing our jobs, or because people are unable to afford to go away. But there’s more at work here, if you can excuse the bad pun. With tough workloads and schedules, cost issues and market demands, employers often send mixed signals to their staff about accommodating time off. Instead of being supportive, there’s often the unspoken caveat, “Sure, take the time off, but make sure all your work gets done and nothing falls through the cracks.” The insinuation is that vacations are inconvenient, and the time is allowed reluctantly instead of graciously as the earned benefit and healthy break it represents. According to a 2011 survey conducted by Harris Interactive for Jet Blue, about 57 percent of working Americans had unused vacation time at the end of that year, many leaving as much as 70 percent of their time untouched.

Sometimes vacation days carry over from year to year, and employees “stockpile” them, but it isn’t healthy, despite longer-term intentions. And while in today’s unstable job market it’s understandable that employees – or managers – are reluctant to take time off, employers should be encouraging this healthy respite.

Vacations have the potential to break the cycle of stress that plagues most working Americans. We emerge from a relaxing vacation fresh, more enthusiastic and better able to solve problems. Time off helps us regain perspective on our problems, allows us to reconnect with our families and friends, and gives us a break from our usual routines. When we return to work we’re happier, better focused, more pleasant and more productive. Everyone benefits – so if you’re an employer, start asking your team when they’re planning time off, make it as easy as possible for them to take their breaks, and book yourself some time off as well!

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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!

Reducing Stress at Work

Last month was National Stress Awareness Month and we examined the impact of stress on employee wellness. This month we’ll address how to set up a roadmap for decreased stress in the workplace.

According to the 2013 Work and Well-Being Survey released in March by the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Center for Organizational Excellence, more than one-third (35%) of American workers experience chronic work stress. The APA’s most recent Stress in America survey (released in February 2013) also found high levels of employee stress, with 65 percent of working Americans citing work as a significant source of stress, and 35 percent  reporting that they typically feel stressed during the workday.

According to the Work and WellBeing Survey, fewer than half of working Americans report that they receive adequate monetary compensation (46%). Of course, employers can’t be expected to arbitrarily increase employee compensation across the board and stay in business. But it’s critical to note that almost half of the employees surveyed (46%) talked about non-monetary compensation. Additionally, just 43 percent of employees say that recognition is based on fair and useful performance evaluation, and just over half (51%) say they feel valued at work. Besides feeling undervalued, employees also report feeling unheard: Less than half (47%) say their employer regularly seeks input from employees, and even fewer (37%) say the organization makes changes based on that feedback.

These numbers help put into perspective what organizational development experts see as an epidemic-level wave of unhappy employees. If you’re wondering what the impact of this unhappiness may be on your workplace, consider that stress at work manifests itself in increased absenteeism and presenteeism, lower productivity and increased service errors, and has a negative impact on safety, quality and teamwork.

Yet 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 percent of employees say that their organizations promote and support a healthy lifestyle, and only 36 percent report regularly participating in workplace health and wellness programs.

That sounds like a boatload of opportunity for savvy employers who want to do more to address workplace stress, but don’t want to spend a fortune.  People want to be heard and feel that their opinions count. They want to see an employer show an interest in them as human beings, and want to be recognized for their hard work, dedication and value. And since health is important to all of us, investing in health and wellness planning, and involving your workforce in both the planning and execution can result in a significant return on investment.

Taking time to ask employees what they think is important. That can be done informally at lunches, team meetings, small-group interactions, and one-on-one. There are a variety of inexpensive online tools available for surveying attitudes and communication, as well. But the easy steps, like building employees into planning and decision making is invaluable for improved execution and buy-in. And recognizing performance, personally and in front of the team, pays back in spades. Small gestures like gift certificates, comp time, and team lunches go a long way toward improving morale.

You can sponsor team walks and charity events, supplement fitness center fees, host on-site health screenings, and many other activities – the list of potential steps is long, as are the benefits. Additionally, if you haven’t yet, consider establishing a wellness champion and having your employees participate in a free, online health assessment. You can do this by joining CBIA Healthy Connections at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

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