Deal with Stress Before It Deals with You

“What an awful day.” Have you ever heard yourself – or someone close to you – express that sentiment? Some days are tougher than others . . . nothing seems to go right, time feels like your enemy, and whatever is plaguing you throughout the day follows you home like a stray cat. There you cope with bills, things that are broken (there’s always something broken), kid troubles, dog troubles, neighbor troubles – it’s a long list that seems overwhelming, especially when your work life is stressing you out, as well. Then you can’t sleep, and tired and cranky, you arise to face another day, frustrated, worried and exhausted.

Stress and work go hand in hand, but the physical and emotional costs of employee stress taxes employers as well through reduced productivity, low morale and teamwork issues. Together, these problems affect quality, service and overall performance.

Stress is insidious and pervasive. According to a survey by the American Psychological Association (APA) Center for Organizational Excellence, more than one-third of American workers experience chronic work stress. The APA also found high levels of employee stress, with two-thirds of those surveyed citing work as a significant source of stress, and more than a third reporting that they typically feel stressed during the workday.

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 and meet their mental health needs.

People 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.

Additionally, you can sponsor team walks, charity events and after-hours athletic activities, supplement fitness center fees, host on-site health screenings, and take many other steps to foster improved wellness and comradery – the list of potential steps is long, as are the benefits.

Coping with Financial Stress

There’s an insidious nature to how we spend money, how we talk with our significant others about it, and the impact finances have on our mental and physical health. Worrying about money and debt causes increased anxiety, sleeplessness, depression, and stress that taxes our hearts, contributes to high blood pressure, aggravates stomach issues like acid reflux and ulcers, and can lead to strokes and heart disease.

Three out of four American families are in debt, and the weight of all that anxiety can become more apparent in our performance in the workplace, as well. Whether it’s lack of sleep, irritability, lower productivity or increased absenteeism due to the side effects of stress and depression, money woes cost us professionally and personally across a wide spectrum. Unhealthy spending behaviors and debt are a major cause of relationship problems and often cited as a contributing factor in many divorces and breakups.

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

Employers pay attention to the health and well-being of their employees, so why should employees’ financial health be any less important? Financial experts and coaches are available to come into the workplace for “lunch and learn” or after-work discussions, and employers can encourage employees to seek outside counseling and guidance, or offer to supplement the cost of these kinds of programs.

Here are tips to share for improving financial health:

  • Make a budget. While it sounds simple, many people fail to truly organize their financial lives and understand what they bring in and what they can afford. Is it possible that you spend $25 a week on coffee? Sure it is – and that’s okay, if you can afford the extra hundred dollars a month. If you have a detailed budget and you stick to it, buying things during the day that make you happy is okay. If you can’t pay your bills, you may consider making your own coffee at home for a fraction of the price.
  • Track your expenses. Write it in a notebook, record it on your computer, or download a spending application on your phone. Tracking what you spend is an important way to understanding your spending habits, course correcting, and establishing a realistic budget.
  • Avoid credit or use it wisely. Credit cards can be a good way to build your credit, but only if you use them infrequently and wisely. If you can afford something, buy it with cash or use a debit card. Use a credit card as a last resort for important purchases you don’t have the money for upfront, but be diligent about paying it off as quickly as possible to avoid exorbitant finance charges.
  • Talk to others about your financial concerns. Share your worries and issues with people close to you, especially your partner. The stigma and shame that accompanies money problems – and the weight of hiding those pressures – causes stress, anxiety and depression. Good communication and honesty can help alleviate some of the stress and the sense of hopelessness that comes with every bill or debt collector’s call.
  • Consult a financial expert. You don’t need investment income to seek guidance from a financial planner or consultant. They can help you devise a savings strategy, prioritize your debt, build your budget, and plan for the future more effectively.
  • Refinance your debt. Consolidation loans with a lower monthly finance charge can help you rid yourself of credit cards. If you can, pay more than the minimum monthly payment and avoid missed payments.

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

We all have to deal with stress – the question becomes, can we face our challenges in a healthy way, and get help when we need it, at home and at work, before it takes its toll on our physical and mental health and productivity? Employers can play an important role in helping to recognize and mitigate stressful factors and consequences.


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!

Laughter and Work Actually Do Mix

What’s so funny about work? Well, depending on where you’re sitting and your position in the organizational hierarchy, just about everything! Come on, now, you have to admit it: Who doesn’t laugh at work? And if they don’t, what do you honestly think about them?  We all know that person – stiff, always serious, never smiling or seeming to enjoy work or their life . . . a sad stereotype. But whatever their reasons for being who and how they are, the uber serious aren’t just missing out, they are likely not as healthy as those who laugh and find humor in the people and things around them.

That’s not to say the workplace shouldn’t be a serious place. Work is important, as is making deadlines, ensuring service and decorum, maintaining quality and increasing productivity. But humans are social beings, and laughter helps relieve stress, strengthens teams and binds us to common goals.

When you watch people sitting together at lunch or talking at breaks or at gatherings you can see them change physically and relax. Whether enjoying a joke, story or anecdote, or just reflecting on something that has happened or been observed, laughter is good for our mental and physical health and should be encouraged, as appropriate to time and place. But as we can’t legislate happiness, sadness or frustration, we also can’t control people wanting to laugh . . . nor should we. Instead, as employers, we can encourage and support opportunities for relaxing and enhancing teamwork.

People have the remarkable ability to find the humor in almost every situation. It’s an important coping mechanism, and a way to release tension and search, consciously or subconsciously, for empathy. And that is very, very healthy.

Next month (April) is both National Humor Month and Stress Awareness Month. While many health-related awareness designations have little relevance to one another, this combination is an exception. Humor plays an important role in reducing stress, and laughter, whether loud and boisterous, or soft and silent, drives biological reactions that reduce pain, strengthen our immune systems, increase productivity and improve our relationships with our fellow workers, friends, families, and even with total strangers.

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

The chemical reaction linked to humor and laughter involves endorphins, pain-relieving chemicals usually caused by physical activity or touch. Our bodies create endorphins in response to exercise, excitement, pain, spicy food, and love, among other things. In addition to giving us a “buzz,” bursts of energy and a general good feeling, endorphins raise our ability to ignore pain. In fact, researchers believe that the long series of exhalations that accompany true laughter cause physical exhaustion of the abdominal muscles and, in turn, trigger endorphin release.

Consider these facts about the positive health effects of humor:

  • People with a developed 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.

Organizations can support this spontaneous health benefit by encouraging people to dine together in and out of the office or workplace, and by creating common areas where people may congregate before, after or even during work hours. Pictures and posters that elicit humorous comments, sharing of humor online and through organizational websites and emails, as well as through speeches, meetings and presentations, shows employees that everyone – even the boss – has a good sense of humor and realizes that while we’re all working hard, we need to acknowledge our social side and not take ourselves too seriously.

The sound of laughter is far more contagious than any cough, sniffle, or sneeze. Humor and laughter have many benefits, and they don’t cost a penny. So, laugh at yourself and laugh with others — you’ll be improving your health and the health of those around you with every chuckle and smile!


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!

Being Mindful Throughout the Day

A lot has been written about stress-reduction techniques like exercise, yoga, meditation and mindfulness. While all offer methods for strengthening our bodies and our minds, each technique may not be practical at work, at school, or while shopping or driving in traffic. Yet there’s no question that the ability to calm ourselves and improve focus reduces tension, improves our mood, is good for heart health (February is National Heart health Awareness Month), and increases productivity, morale and teamwork. So clearly, there’s value in considering how to implement or support stress-reduction in the workplace.

The trick, says experts, isn’t to see relaxation through mindfulness or meditation as a magic pill you take when you’re already melting down, but rather, as a daily practice that begins when you awaken and carries forward throughout your day, regardless of where you are or what you are doing.

Mindfulness is being focused on the present moment. That means you’re not worrying about what’s going to happen tomorrow, or dwelling on what happened in yesterday’s meeting, before you left your house this morning, or what’s waiting for you later in the day. By remaining totally present, you are able to take a step back and make better decisions. That includes not reacting negatively in that moment, being able to take the time to think things through more objectively, and not making judgments based only on what could be incomplete, emotionally polluted or circumstantial information.

There are a number of ways to achieve this more peaceful, calm presence. Some steps are obvious; these include:

  • Don’t answer your phone or check your emails when meeting with another person or group;
  • Establish an advance agenda and stick to it during the allotted time;
  • Keep meetings or calls on schedule and respect other people’s time
  • Listen carefully to what others are saying, not just their words; and
  • Try to put yourself in another person’s shoes, knowing full well that whatever you think may be driving their actions or words could be completely wrong.

But getting to a more peaceful place yourself, and for your workers, takes practice. Here are a few techniques to consider:

Start your day by meditating. Meditation 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.

Taking 15 minutes to half an hour each morning before the day carries you off is a perfect way to seize control before the stress and pressures seize you. Find a quiet spot, sit comfortably, close your eyes, and focus on your breathing. Just breathe in and out, slowly and rhythmically, and feel the air entering your body through your nostrils, traveling down through your body, and then being slowly expelled.

One common trick is to practice a simple one – two count. Breathe in, one two, breathe out, one two, and repeat this step 20 times.

While you are breathing, try clearing your thoughts. This isn’t easy . . . but the idea is to let things come in and pass out without allowing them to attach. You may not be able to prevent these thoughts, but, as one meditation expert says about random ideas, “they may come to your house, but you don’t have to invite them in for tea.”

Consider a mantra. This can be a positive thought, a few simple words or a phrase that is simple and meaningful that you repeat over and over while relaxing. It can be a goal, an aspiration, a prayer – whatever works for you. Again, the purpose is to help you control your breathing and relax.

Take a lunch break or quiet time. It sounds obvious, but when we’re busy, pressured or on a deadline, we may feel we don’t have time to take a break. But separating ourselves from our stress, even if only for 10 or 15 minutes, allows us to reset and refresh. How you use the time is wide open:  take a quick walk, sit and meditate, write a personal note, read, eat a meal, listen to some music . . . whatever works for you. The trick is to give your brain and body a few minutes to recharge. Taking a deliberate break and detaching from work is a mindful way to improve concentration, facilitate greater awareness, and take control of our day.

Talk with a friend, family member or co-worker. When we’re busy we get into our own heads and become preoccupied with whatever challenges we are facing. It’s good to be reminded that there are plenty of other things going on in our lives, and that work – while important – isn’t everything.  While we want to remain mindful and focused while on task, taking a few minutes during the day to get in touch with our outside world is important, as well.

Keep a journal or daily record. Set goals and record successes and actions. Each step we take is important and when we don’t achieve our goals, it’s not a failure – just part of the process for self-improvement and increased awareness. By organizing ourselves and keeping track of how we do, we can better plan for each day and see our incremental improvement.

Celebrate milestones and successes. When we hold ourselves or our teams accountable for huge successes, it’s easy to forget to recognize each step in the journey. Establishing achievable milestones – and then rewarding ourselves for reaching them – is an important part of teambuilding and boosts morale and engagement.

Establish a “quiet place.” If possible, setting aside a small area or room for people to visit during down times, for lunch, reading, or for mediation is very helpful. It can be a corner with a few chairs and lamps, or an unused office . . . the idea is to demonstrate your support for this common area, and to encourage people to find ways to relax and focus on their health and wellbeing.

Remember, learning how to be mindful doesn’t happen overnight. Like anything else worth doing, it takes practice and dedication. But the rewards, individually and collectively, are great, and the long-term value is priceless.


 

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!

 

Hashtags, Smiley Faces, and Love

Remember when we were kids and we gave each other simple cut-out valentine cards and those little heart-shaped, multi-colored tasteless candies with pithy expressions such as “Be mine,” and “love u 4ever” on them? Then, as we grew older, there were the ubiquitous chocolates and roses, perfumes and colognes, dinner at jammed restaurants and, for the truly lucky, sexy lingerie or boxers with hearts to be viewed and enjoyed.

But it all became pretty straightforward, ritualistic . . . and stressful. Sales of diamond engagement rings, jewelry and sweet and sappy greeting cards still soar in February. For all the ballyhoo, though, it remains a much-heralded and often feared annual rite of love, joy, disappointment and loneliness for millions of Americans of all ages, ethnicities, genders and religions.

Today, of course, we have social media and a variety of electronic tools to use in communicating with loved ones, families, friends and potential amours.  You typically don’t have to purchase anything; you can simply reach out and touch someone through Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, send email notes or electronic cards, text, or use any of the dozens of messaging and dating media available at your fingertips.

Many people now meet through social media or online dating sites. Electronic communication is an established norm, and allows users to more safely probe and analyze a potential love interest or find ways to disqualify them before they actually meet in person.

It’s easy to get excited when you are flirting or feeling drawn to someone, based on repeat electronic interaction. Because so much communication takes place through rapid-fire texts, messaging and the exchanging of photos, a false sense of intimacy is quickly created. This type of personal interaction, warn relationship counselors, also amplifies the desire for immediate gratification and constant access to someone you hardly know.

In fact, therapists say that many online candidates put off actually meeting because they are afraid of disappointment, either in the other person or in facing their own insecurities. The fantasy, in this case, becomes more attractive than reality, due to fear, uncertainty or previous experiences. And because relationships solidify or start to fall apart after several face-to-face dates, many people are reluctant to burst the bubble of an attractive online flirtation and face the variables and challenges present in actual relationships.

These safer online interactions might be enough to gain a smile, spread some warmth, push a boundary or potentially light a fire. And if you grew up with a smart phone attached to your hand, it is a pretty normal way to communicate. But researchers and psychologists looking at the bigger mating picture beg to differ:  In their professional opinions, if you truly want to build, cement or embolden a personal connection, romantic or otherwise, phone calls and face-to-face encounters still are the best way to go.

Electronic Media Distract from True, Healthy Intimacy

We are constantly linked to our phones checking emails and news alerts, scrolling through social media apps, playing games or interacting virtually. Much new research is being done concerning addiction behaviors linked to phones, computers and social applications, but you can do your own research, any day of the week, by walking into a bar, restaurant, coffee shop, library or anywhere people gather and observing their behavior.

Chances are, their phones are on the table or counter near them or they’re using them, even when they’re with another person or in a group. And as long as this appealing electronic candy is there, vying for our attention, we aren’t fully focused on the conversation or interaction going on right in front of or around us. Sadly, our phones are getting in the way of true listening, bonding and intimacy.

Venues for instantaneous communication work for and against us. In the old days, we might pen a letter or write a love or hate email note, and then have the wisdom to sit on it until the next day, when we were thinking more clearly. On the other hand, writing something is often safer than saying it face to face, though you lose the advantages of eye contact and body language, all-important nuances in love and life.

So, while it’s important to not respond to a post or comment when you’re feeling emotionally charged, angry or frustrated, oftentimes those are the emotions that drive honesty, as well . . . if you react on the spot, you don’t take the time to soften the edges, edit yourself or manipulate the message. It’s more from the gut than it is politically correct, and that can have positive and negative consequences.

Remember, also, that everyone is entitled to their own opinions . . .and learning those opinions is an important part of developing a personal relationship. How much do you want to glean by voyeuristically scouring someone’s Facebook page, Instagram or Twitter posts, compared to sitting across the table from them, sipping a beverage of your choice and talking about movies, hobbies, roommates and world events?

And keeping our private lives private is still a valuable commodity – when birthdays, breakups, job woes and vacation chatter is splashed across social media for your “friends” and the world to see, it loses much in the translation, or worse, allows someone to make a less-informed, virtual choice about your potential worthiness as a romantic partner or friend. All without you being able to defend or explain yourself.

Part of the thrill of getting to know someone is through personal exploration. And while you can ask plenty of questions online, it doesn’t replace those quiet moments together when your prospective partner talks about his or her fears, likes and dislikes, families, work associates, dramas and joys. It’s these surprises and this sharing that gain us valuable insight and either turn us on, romantically or fraternally, or push us away.

So, if you’re on the market for a love interest, trying to get to know someone better, or just conversing with a new or old friend, pick up the phone or meet in person. Conducting mating rituals online and playing 20 questions electronically may be less risky than face-to-face encounters, but it’s not as rewarding, either.

Happy Valentine’s Day!


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!

Failing to Plan Is Planning to Fail

As we race to the end of another calendar year, it’s time to take stock of the health and wellness goals we set for ourselves in early 2018. Whether our intention was to lose weight, get to the gym regularly, run our first 5k, bicycle or hike, stop smoking or do something about stress, the remaining days of this year are short, but there’s hope:  after December 21st, each day is getting longer and we have a clean slate for implementing our healthcare plans for 2019!

Start with a glass-half-full approach: whatever we did do in 2018 counts and is better than nothing. There’s no point in lamenting about all the well-intentioned health and wellness options we never fulfilled, how badly we ate at the holidays or missing our weight-loss goal. Rather, now is a great time to make a firm and achievable personal wellness plan designed to improve physical, emotional and spiritual health in 2019 and beyond.

But first, we have to get through the holidays – so take it easy and enjoy the season. That may not sound like sage nutritional advice, but we all know what the coming weeks bring. It’s a stressful time of year without putting additional pressure on ourselves. Eat and drink consciously and in moderation, try substituting healthy snacks like vegetables and fruit when possible, and think about your personal goals.

Be it eating more healthfully, exercising more, finding time to relax or whatever suits you, change takes place progressively and through conscious choice. Making resolutions is as old as the hills, but setting simple goals includes taking the time to determine how we’ll achieve them, and how we will measure our success. This isn’t difficult and may be the best gift we can give ourself as we approach the new year.

When it comes to reasonable health and wellness planning, “simple, achievable and realistic” are our keywords. Here are some tips to help guide your steps:

  • Acknowledge a realistic vision of success. If losing weight is one of your goals, set a realistic number and timetable, so you can achieve your goal safely. Avoid “fad diets,” and take the time to learn about potential problems, such as vitamin deficiencies or other health risks that accompany weight loss. Read about sugar, fat, carbs, and the chemistry of food.
  • Adopt an effective strategy. Focus on relatively short-term goals, like eating vegetables four times a day, cutting back on carbs and sugar, eating healthy snacks, and doing at least 20 minutes of cardio a day. Keep track of your efforts daily and weekly by writing on a calendar or maintaining a journal, and create simple “rewards” for your weekly or monthly successes, such as buying a gift or doing something personally meaningful.
  • Seek professional assistance: If, for example, losing weight is an important health goal, speak with your physician, fitness expert and/or a licensed nutritionist about longer-term lifestyle changes that will help you achieve your mission. If you’re planning on losing or gaining weight, or considering supplements or aggressive options, seek professional input to ensure healthy results. And if you want to stop smoking, there are a variety of smoking-cessation programs and medications to assist you.
  • Review and adjust your commitment. To be successful you have to set goals, measure your progress, and adjust. Be flexible — if you find, for example, that walking every day is impossible, walk four days a week, or longer on the weekends. Sign up for a yoga or fitness class. And when you give in to that yummy, calorie-rich dessert, don’t despair . . . tomorrow is a new day. You know yourself better than anyone — make adjustments that will work for you if you fall off the wagon or fail to achieve your weekly goals.
  • Use the “buddy system.” Tell a friend about your goals and see if you can work out, walk, or practice your new diet together. Share helpful articles and tips, check in regularly, support each other when you miss a goal, and celebrate your individual and mutual successes.

Ultimately, the best advice about getting healthier is to just get started and to not give up, even when you miss a day or have a bad week. By setting realistic goals and a simple, formal plan, the gift of improved health and wellness is yours to keep.


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!

Giving to Others Is Giving to Ourselves

It’s hard to get through the holiday season without stumbling into some version or reference to A Christmas Carol, the popular and famous tale by Charles Dickens that speaks to the value of giving, charity and kindness. In the Dickens tome, the curmudgeonly old miser, Ebenezer Scrooge, is shown the consequences of his nefarious behavior, and given a chance to repent. Through, ultimately, his charitable turnaround, good things befall all the characters, especially Scrooge himself.

Today, the label “Scrooge” is synonymous with “cheap,” “selfish” and “miserly.” But even in these busy times when we’re all stretched to the max, counting our pennies and trying to juggle multiple conflicting priorities, we can all benefit from the lesson Ebenezer learned about how giving is receiving, and how good it is for our own health and wellbeing.

When we engage in good deeds, we reduce our own stress — including the physiological changes that occur when we’re stressed. During this stress response, hormones like cortisol are released, and our heart and breathing rates – the “fight or flight” response – increase.

Over an extended period, stress taxes the immune and cardiovascular systems, weakening the body’s defenses, and making it more susceptible to illness and abnormal cellular changes. Continuous stress can hasten aging and shorten our lives, as well. And medical researchers have taken note, discovering that the process of cultivating a positive emotional state through positive and proactive social behaviors such as generosity may lengthen our lives.

Altruistic emotions – the “helper’s high” – can override the stress response, producing higher levels of protective antibodies when one is feeling empathy and love. Studies have identified high levels of the “bonding” hormone oxytocin in people who are very generous toward others. Oxytocin is the hormone best known for its role in preparing mothers for motherhood. Studies have also shown that this hormone helps both men and women establish trusting relationships.

In one animal study, researchers looked at the numerous effects that oxytocin can produce in lab rats, and discovered it lowered blood pressure, reduced stress hormones, and produced an overall calming effect. Altruistic behavior also triggers the brain’s reward circuitry — ‘feel-good’ chemicals like dopamine and endorphins, which our bodies produce naturally.

Altruism is Good for Our Health

There are as many ways to give as there are people. Certainly, making, purchasing and presenting gifts to others evokes a strong positive feeling. But gift-giving, like gratitude, comes in many forms – it’s the myriad acts of random kindness like letting someone have your spot in the bank or supermarket line, stopping for pedestrians, holding open a door, giving up our seat on a bus or train, helping a child, talking with a stranger . . . the list is endless.

Then there are more formal ways we help others, such as serving the poor and needy in shelters and soup kitchens, making donations to charitable organizations, mentoring adults or children, volunteering in hospitals and animal shelters, service through houses of worship, organizing for causes we support – the benefits are the same, regardless of how we express our need to give.

Not only does helping others have a positive effect on own mental health and wellbeing, it improves mood, self-esteem and happiness, reduces isolation (ours and for others), and increases our sense of belonging. A 2006 study published in the International Journal of Psychophysiology found that people who gave social support to others had lower blood pressure than people who didn’t. Supportive interaction with others also helped people recover from coronary-related events. The same study also found that people who gave their time to help others through community and organizational involvement had greater self-esteem, less depression and lower stress levels than those who didn’t.

According to a 1999 University of California, Berkeley, study, people who were 55 and older who volunteered for two or more organizations were 44 percent less likely to die over a five-year period than those who didn’t volunteer – even accounting for many other factors including age, exercise, general health and negative habits like smoking. And in a 2003 University of Michigan study, a researcher found similar numbers in studying elderly people who gave help to friends, relatives and neighbors – or who gave emotional support to their spouses – versus those who didn’t.

There’s no down side to giving. It helps us keep things in perspective, improves our outlook on life, and makes the world a happier place. Happiness and optimism are contagious – that isn’t a formal medical evaluation, but we know it’s true. The fallout from negative emotions such as anger and hostility, loneliness and isolation can be debilitating and bad for our health – but we can rid ourselves of many of these issues by volunteering and by giving generously to others, and to our ourselves.


 

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 Power of Nostalgia

We may not know how to measure – or harness – the power of nostalgia, but there’s no denying the intensity of memories, traditions and rituals in altering our moods, changing perspective or helping us through difficult times.

Nostalgic “triggers,” especially at the holidays, can include a wide variety of sensory stimuli, from the smell of a pie baking or turkey roasting, to a favorite song or sound, decorations on the wall, a family member’s or friend’s voice or the crinkling of wrapping paper being torn off a package. Familiar objects, such as serving dishes, plates or glasses can connect us to our history and help us celebrate generations of family, alive and past. And visiting a home or valued place from our past can seemingly transport us through time.

The recognition or recollection of these items helps keep the memories of the past alive, and by sharing them with newer generations we perpetuate traditions, stories and loved ones. Regardless of details, the rituals we observe, similar in many families yet unique for each, bring us pleasure, joy, feelings of love and goodwill, or alternately, melancholy or even intense sorrow.

That’s the rub: while it can have amazing healing powers, nostalgia isn’t always a panacea for what ails us. Bad memories, reminders of lost friends and family members, past jobs and homes, all are retained. While we may not think about them from day to day, our power of recall is strong and, when properly stimulated, capable of exacting chemical reactions in our brains and bodies that influence feelings and behavior.

Good Memories and Bad

Clinical psychologists often view nostalgia – defined by the Oxford dictionary as a “sentimental longing for the past” – as a symptom of depression. As early as the 17th century, nostalgia was considered to have a demonic origin, and it was later classified as a type of melancholia or psychosis. But researchers today also see nostalgia’s positive attributes and ability to calm, heal and help people cope.

Psychologist and American Psychological Association member Krystine Batcho, PhD, is a professor at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y., and an expert on nostalgia. Her research finds that people who are prone to nostalgia excel at maintaining personal relationships and choose healthy social ways of coping with their troubles.

People feel more nostalgic during the holidays, Batcho explains, because many memories are reawakened and relationships renewed. Batcho theorizes that for many, holidays bring back memories of simpler times along with the sense of the security of childhood or the carefree feelings of being young, with fewer of the worries and stress that accompany responsibilities.

“Most often,” she adds, “holidays remind us of people who have played important roles in our lives and the activities we shared with them. This is one reason why people who are away from home are especially likely to feel nostalgic during the holidays and why so many people travel to be with family and friends.”

Unpacking Our Memories

Like anniversaries and other temporal landmarks, holidays remind us of special times and help us keep track of what has changed and what has remained the same in our lives, and in ourselves.

During difficult times, attention to our past can strengthen us by reminding us of how we survived challenges, loss, injury, failure or misfortune in the past. When we are sad or discouraged, it can be uplifting to remember that we are still the person who had been happy, strong and productive at times in our past.

Our sense of who we are is closely related to how we see ourselves in relation to others. Research has shown that nostalgia can strengthen a sense of social connectedness by helping us appreciate what we have meant to others as well as what others have meant to us. Nostalgic memories can help someone who is away from home or someone who is mourning the death of a family member by reminding us that the bonds we share with those we love survive physical separation.

Researchers studying memory and reward systems in the brain have focused on the mesolimbic system, which is responsible for determining if something is worth retaining in our memory. Many scientists in the field study dopamine, the chemical released when our brain is rewarding us for doing something we enjoy or find interesting or challenging. When dopamine is released, it helps our brains “remember” things more effectively, improving recall. The limbic system, which includes the hippocampus and amygdala, also plays a role in the processing and storage of memories, emotions and the “emotional memories” that result when a memory is stored during a highly emotional state.

Researchers studying the connection between nostalgia and wellness have created a scale used to rate the value and intensity of nostalgia. For example, nostalgia has been found to:

  • Reconnect us with our roots
  • Provide continuity in our lives
  • Help us find meaning and identity
  • Counteract loneliness
  • Decrease boredom
  • Ease anxiety
  • Increase generosity and tolerance toward others
  • Increase intimacy
  • Act as a buffer to depression
  • Enhance feelings of physical warmth

While we can’t control how nostalgic reactions will affect us, we generally appreciate the recall of familiar sights, sounds and smells. These powerful memory stimulants can bring us much joy, reduce stress and anxiety and increase overall wellness. The holidays are a treasure trove of these memories, and another reason we look forward to this time of year, and hate to see it pass too quickly.


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!

Appreciation Boosts Productivity, Morale, and Health

How important is it to you to know you’re doing a good job, or to hear someone say “thanks” for your work and efforts? While the personal satisfaction and pride we take in knowing we’ve done something well or right can be its own reward, numerous studies have shown that overall personal satisfaction is enhanced when we receive praise, recognition and constructive feedback from employers, customers, parents, teachers and friends. It’s simple, it’s free, it helps increase productivity and quality, boosts job satisfaction, morale, teamwork and retention – and helps improve emotional and physical health.

When someone feels taken for granted, unrecognized or under-appreciated, it has a direct impact on their emotional health and stress levels. Lack of recognition, especially in the workplace, often is mentioned as a contributing factor to overall employee dissatisfaction. And the more employees are unhappy at work, the more productivity, teamwork and customer relations may suffer.  Quality suffers, as well, and increased stress is a known factor in promoting irritability, increasing conflict, interfering with sleep and diet, boosting absenteeism and increasing “presenteeism,” a loss of workplace productivity resulting from employee health problems and personal issues. It also contributes to increases in blood pressure, heart disease, poor nutrition, sleeplessness and weight gain.

Americans like being told “thanks” but aren’t that great at thanking others, according to a national survey on gratitude commissioned by the John Templeton Foundation. The polling firm Penn Shoen Berland surveyed over 2,000 people in the United States, capturing perspectives from different ages, ethnic groups, income levels, religions and more.

Gratitude was enormously important to respondents, who also admitted they think about, feel, and espouse gratitude more readily than expressing it to others. This might be why respondents also felt that gratitude in America is declining. Some of the findings included these facts:

  • More than 90 percent of those polled agreed that grateful people are more fulfilled, lead richer lives, and are more likely to have friends.
  • More than 95 percent said that it is important for mothers and fathers to teach gratitude.
  • People are less likely to express gratitude at work than anyplace else. Seventy-four percent never or rarely express gratitude to their boss. But people are eager to have a boss who expresses gratitude to them. Seventy percent would feel better about themselves if their boss was more grateful, and 81 percent would work harder.
  • 93 percent of those polled agreed that grateful bosses were more likely to be successful, and only 18 percent thought that grateful bosses would be seen as “weak.”

It’s human nature:  We’re better at noticing and tallying what we personally do than what other people do.  According to the data, most of the people surveyed appreciate being appreciated, but lack in their tendency to say “thanks”– despite knowing that expressing gratitude can bring more happiness, meaning, professional success, and interpersonal connection into their lives.

Taking the time to express gratitude to others goes a long way toward improving individual and organizational health. Ultimately, there are so many ways to say “thanks” to our employees. Whether verbally, through written or public commendation, one-on-one recognition or in front of peers, gratitude is an important employee relations, productivity and stress-reduction tool. And while bonuses, pay raises, gift cards, and compensatory time off are terrific recognition tools, employees want to feel like it is more than simply “doing their jobs and meeting expectations” that matters. Increased responsibility, promotions and inclusion also are important factors, but it all starts with feeling appreciated and respected.


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!

 

 

Who Has Time for Vacation?

Are you one of those people who swears you’ll never become one of those people when it comes to “working vacations,” checking your laptop while you’re away with the family, or avoiding vacations entirely? If so, you’d be a member in a surprisingly large club; but you would also be part of an even larger club of people who suffer from cardiac disease, high blood pressure, strokes, sleep disorders and a variety of other dangerous illnesses that often are aggravated by stress, fatigue and the willingness to ignore our bodies’ needs.

It’s easy to understand why many people resist taking personal time off from work. Maybe you own a small business with limited staff or help you can trust running things in your absence. Or things are really popping and you just can’t afford the time or cost of a vacation. No work no pay – or the fear of losing a job if you take time off – sidelines many. And so-called “workaholics” who thrive on being busy and are strongly emotionally linked to their work also resist time away, sometimes for fear things will fall apart, someone will take advantage of the perceived gap, or simply because they believe they are irreplaceable, even for a week or two.

Beyond the obvious ego issues, the simple truth is that we all need time to relax, alter our pace, and get away from the day-to-day hassles and pressures of work . . . even if we like our jobs. Think about the need to shut down a laptop or smart phone so it can refresh programs and download applications. Taking time off works that way for our brains and bodies, too – it doesn’t really matter what we do or where we go, it’s simply important and healthy to take the break.

In other countries around the world, especially the UK and across Europe, employees take up to six weeks of “holiday” to relax, travel, read, work in their gardens or homes, visit with family or pursue whatever pleases them. They look on Americans with dismay and shake their heads at our work philosophy and customs. It’s not that they don’t enjoy or value their work or need the paycheck as much as we do – it’s just that taking time off is normal, accepted and a welcome practice.

Vacations for many of us are a paid benefit. As employers, we need to model correct and healthy behaviors and encourage employees to enjoy their time off at their leisure, and as they choose – but to use the time. In a Harris Poll conducted last year among 2,224 working adults over 18, two thirds (66 percent) report working when they do take a vacation. The study also found that the average U.S. employee had taken just a hair over half (54 percent) of their eligible paid vacation time over the past 12 months.

We can make vacationing easier for employees and for the business by asking well in advance about vacation plans, adjusting schedules and workloads accordingly, determining who is covering for employees when they are out and making it easy for people to be away without them feeling guilty or threatened. That means doing more than setting “out of the office” email messages, especially since 29 percent of respondents said they were contacted by a co-worker while they were on vacation, and 25 percent said they were contacted by their boss!

If you are self-employed or lack a vacation benefit, putting aside money throughout the year will help finance some play time, but even staying at home, catching up on sleep or reading, making day trips, hiking, biking, hitting the beach or just visiting with friends and family will help ease some of your daily pressure and anxiety and refresh you for the return to work.

The consequences of not taking time off – including people being fatigued, irritable and less resistant to common and chronic illnesses – affects productivity, quality, safety, retention and customer service. These costs can have a perceptible impact on your bottom line, or if you work for yourself, affect your performance and results. And when you get too run down, you are more likely to get sick, or develop a serious illness.

Encourage days away from the office, and practice what you preach. However difficult it may feel, taking a block of personal time benefits you, your family, your business and everyone around you. It’s smart, relaxing and healthy.


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!

Why Our Brains Say “Yes” When the Facts Say “No”

If you’re an employer trying to motivate your workers, how do you get past their biases to get everyone on the same page, or at least rowing in the same direction? Psychologists suggest that, rather than taking on people’s surface attitudes and beliefs directly, tailor messages so that they align with their motivation.

Using vaccinations as an example, everyone agrees that deadly diseases exist, that they are bad, and that people are getting sick and dying from them. By exploring what happens when people resist vaccinating themselves or their children – the very real possibility that those adults or children will either get sick themselves or be a carrier who gets another child or person sick – and by examining statistics from reliable sources, we can “agree to disagree,” but still make a decision based on logic and the well-being of those around us.

That same thinking can be applied to getting employees to work together toward a common cause or goal. Influential people – leaders, both natural or by ranking in the workplace – can sway opinion. People want to be accepted, recognized, and considered a valuable part of a team. By looking for the things we have in common, listening to differing opinions, recognizing how people make decisions and then finding solutions and compromises, we become more effective leaders.

It isn’t entirely our fault that we err to the side of comfort. Based on scientific research, our brains protect us, validating information that supports our biases, often to the point of denigrating the information with which we disagree, accepting compatible information that makes us feel better – or which supports our beliefs – almost at face value. Scientists link this to our innate “fight or flight” response, with the twist being we may choose to fight by latching on to what we want to believe, in essence, “taking flight” from the truth to protect our opinions.

Psychologists have identified key factors that can cause people to reject science – and it has nothing to do with how educated or intelligent they are. In fact, researchers found that people who reject scientific consensus on topics such as climate change, vaccine safety, and evolution are generally just as interested in science and as well-educated as the rest of us. It’s just that they think more like lawyers than scientists, meaning they “cherry pick” the facts and studies that back up what they already believe is true.

As hard as this is to believe, or to understand, the rationale for this behavior often comes down to a simple, though troubling truth: No matter how irrefutable the evidence is, many people reject anything which contradicts their deeply entrenched false belief.

How they arrive at their false belief often has to do with how they are raised, religious doctrine, political leaning and their willingness to accept and believe information from powerful or confident people. Oftentimes, people would rather think they are right, even if they’re wrong. It becomes a tug of war between ego, self-esteem, long-held beliefs and the desire to stick with something that meshes with your own way of seeing the world, even if facts refute or contradict your opinion.

Over 90 percent of our decisions are made at an unconscious level. Brain imaging has shown that when the brain inputs data, the emotional centers light up first (what does this mean to me?), followed by the logic centers (what do I do with it?). This means that ‘facts’ are what people use to validate decisions already made at an unconscious level.

For example, if someone believes that vaccinations aren’t safe, they will ignore the hundreds of medical studies that support vaccination safety and glom onto the one study they can find that casts doubt. These phenomena are known as cognitive bias – people treat facts as more relevant when those facts tend to support their opinions. They may not totally deny facts that contradict their beliefs, but they will say that those facts are “less relevant.”

Our brains tend to easily accept information compatible with what we already know, and minimize information that contradicts what we already know, or believe we know. The information goes into our brain, but the importance our mind allots to these facts and information is being weighted unconsciously in favor of those bits of data that already fit our preconceptions. Our brains unconsciously diminish their importance, regardless of the truth or facts, and since they are perceived as “less important,” these facts or truths quickly fade from memory.

 


 

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!