Stress Less Article Written for Westport Coastal Neighbors magazine, September issue

Identifying as “stressed” and “busy” has become akin to a status symbol. Here in Fairfield County, I interact daily with friends, family and, of course, clients who have packed their days full of commitments and still wonder why their stress levels are so high. As a psychotherapist, I often work with clients who are struggling to maintain an appropriate balance between their work and personal lives. Unfortunately, much of the desire to be busy comes from the social construction in American culture that busy delineates success. Our schedules are so full that we have little time in between meetings, doctor’s appointments, children’s extracurricular activities and community events, which causes us to become exhausted and overwhelmed.

Small amounts of stress provide a biochemical response that encourages us to perform and complete tasks. However, excessive stress causes a breaking point where productivity decreases, performance worsens, and people experience irritability, anxiety, depression, sleep-deprivation, and a depletion of emotional and mental wellness. Additionally, stress diminishes the energy we have available for dealing with problems, which leads to poor communication and damaged relationships. 

Creating a healthy balance between our work and personal lives is critical because if our emotional and mental health needs are not being adequately met, how are we expected to be a great employee/mom/wife/friend/community member? Simply put: we are better in all our roles when we are less stressed. 

I often hear people describe that there “aren’t enough hours in the day” to attend to all the tasks that need to be completed. But, there have always been only 24 hours in a day. This has never changed. So, the question becomes: how can we as individuals, and as a collective, create a more balanced lifestyle and, with that, achieve greater peace? The answer is: we need to do less. We must truthfully assess our responsibilities, commitments, and desires first. Then, we can re-prioritize in accordance with which tasks must be done immediately, can be done soon, and can wait until another day.  

 

How do we start making changes?  

 

Analyze what is a priority and what is a desire. I don’t mean quit your job, ignore your children, or avoid all social expectations. But, you should relinquish the belief that you are only a good employee/mom/wife/friend/community member if you are constantly on the go. Forcing yourself into too many commitments creates a domino effect and increases your overall stress. By prioritizing what is most important and should be attended to immediately, what is important but can be attended to later, and what can be attended to when there is greater disposable time, you have time for the people and tasks that matter most. Here’s an example: while you would never decide to not feed your children dinner, you can certainly wait to finish the laundry. While you would never blow off a meeting with your boss, you can absolutely respond to those emails tomorrow. 

Set realistic goals for work and home and be efficient. Dedicate time to accomplishing that which needs to be accomplished. Don’t procrastinate. Focus on what you set out to do, and only focus on one task at a time. When you are at work, work. When you are at home, be at home. This won’t be possible 100% of the time, but do the best you can. Put the phone away and shut down your computer so you can enjoy time with your family and friends. This is also important to portray to your loved ones in an effort to create a healthier environment for all and teach time management skills. Lead by example. You are likely not the only one spending too much time with technology or packing the schedule too full. You cannot possibly work 24/7 and expect to have a fulfilling and meaningful life.             

Be honest with yourself and others. When you are overwhelmed, you are more likely to lash out on others. This anger comes when your adaptive energy depletes as the day goes on. We become grouchy over small things and take our frustration out on inappropriate targets. Acknowledge that you are feeling overwhelmed and take a break if you need. Don’t complain endlessly, but speaking openly with people who care about you will offer them insight into your experiences so they can brainstorm reasonable and appropriate suggestions and help facilitate positive change. 

Learn to say no. This is a big one. So often people ask for favors, to contribute to an initiative, to schedule plans, or to volunteer. Most of us love to be involved and feel guilty if we are unable to help. But remember: saying no does not mean you don’t care. Saying no sometimes means you are choosing wisely how to spend your limited time. You are not a superhuman and no one expects you to say yes all the time. 

Take care of yourself first. Have you ever been on an airplane? The flight attendant always states you must put your own oxygen mask on before assisting others. This is because you cannot help other people if you faint. The same thinking applies here. You cannot help anyone else if you are not caring for yourself; you will burn out eventually. Your body needs to be treated with love and care. Nourish it with exercise, sufficient sleep and proper nutrition; they have been clinically proven to help people manage the symptoms of depression and anxiety while reducing stress and enabling people to better cope with stress and solve problems. Consider the sources you may rely on like excessive coffee, sleeping pills, cigarettes, alcohol and other drugs. While they may help initially, these substances have a negative effect on you in the long term by creating a vicious cycle of dopamine peaks and crashes in your brain. Lastly, find a self-care practice you enjoy and make time for it  (e.g., yoga, reflexology, hot baths, meditation, acupuncture etc).  

Get help. It is wonderful to seek advice and support from loved ones and coworkers. But if you are feeling stuck, one of the best things you can do for yourself is seek assistance from a mental health professional. We can help you process your feelings and understand yourself and your environment better, while helping you create realistic and effective changes to improve your life. 

Life inevitably tests our ability to manage our time and stress. There is a level of comfort we naturally find in our daily life and patterns, but those habits may be facilitating stress. A tweak in the perception of the stresses that surround you can lead to better prioritization of responsibilities, and an ability to spend time doing what matters most to you. Your work, your family, and your body will thank you. Break the mold of daily routine and decision-making patterns and strive for balance.  Say goodbye to quantity and hello to quality.    

QnA Interview For Westport Magazine, As Featured In Their September Issue

Why is transitioning from high school to college a challenging time for teens?

There are many reasons why this transition is challenging, but first let’s consider age and biological development. Young adults typically leave for college around age 18, which is years before the prefrontal cortex is fully developed. The prefrontal cortex is predominantly responsible for maturation; this includes focusing and organizing, controlling impulses and emotional reactions to stimuli, and processing information while adjusting behavior. These are essential components to a successful transition from high school to college where, suddenly, the young adult is met with new independence and increased responsibility.

College students must identify who they are as individuals, who they are in the context of families, friends, and the larger community, and who they want to be as they move through life. Self-esteem and self-concept are vulnerable to assessment by others, and further complicated by the formation of peer groups and social roles. Add in a roommate or two and not only must college students socialize in a new environment, but they must adjust their living style to successfully live with others.

There are also concrete challenges of independence including: managing schedules, maintaining a clean living space, ensuring proper nutrition and sleep, completing assignments, socializing, and planning for success.

 

Is it more so now than ever – and why? 

Yes and no. It’s harder for today’s teens to transition from high school to college because the pressure to succeed is at an all-time high. Incoming freshmen enter school full of excitement but, typically, with anxiety about expectations as well. The preconceived notion that excellence is expected makes the transition more difficult.

There are also greater distractions (e.g., electronics and social media) that detract from student focus on classes and assignments. While social media may play a positive role aiding the transition from high school to college by offering a connection to home, the images of perfection prevalent across social media platforms increase anxiety and decrease self-esteem. Unfortunately, the discourse around the benefits and caveats of social media allows students to intellectualize and internalize the problems, but fails to diminish the feelings and symptoms of anxiety. When this happens, college students’ mental health and wellness may suffer.

 

What can parents do/not do to help?

I remember when my parents moved me into Skidmore College when I was 18. They had a hard time leaving – my mom in particular. I am the oldest of 4 children, so this was the first time they had done this. I can still picture my mom looking back at me with tears in her eyes, and I watched my dad take her hand and gently guide her away from me. As much as they wanted to stay just a few more minutes, there was nothing left to do. My bed was made, I had met my roommates, and it was time for orientation activities. It was time for them to go and trust that they had prepared me so that I would be okay. My parents had the right idea.

 It’s imperative to let your children try new things, challenge themselves, and grow. You raised your children well and taught them to the best of your ability. Of course, you love them and want to help them every step of the way—but, it’s time for them to discover who they are going to be. They will always be your child even if they come home for Thanksgiving with a mustache or a new nasal piercing.

Learning to navigate this new relationship, one where your child has increased independence and greater responsibility, may not come easily. It is a significant change for both of you. Having a discussion with your child about their hopes, expectations, and fears will be helpful. You may also want to discuss how much involvement they would like you to have, and how you can best support them while giving them the space to explore.

No one expects college kids to have it all figured out, and they’re bound to make mistakes. That’s okay. Whatever your child doesn’t know, they’ll figure out, or find someone on campus (a friend, professor, guidance/resource center etc) to help them. Trust that if they really need you, they’ll call.

As a parent you should love and support your child, and make sure they know you are just a phone call away if they need you. Check in sometimes, but don’t text them every two hours. Have you heard of “helicopter parenting?” It’s when parents monitor and micromanage their children. It’s not a good thing. Not only will it frustrate your child, but when you do this it communicates to them that you do not have the faith in them that they can do this on their own—that is, they can’t adapt to living on their own, they can’t decide their paper topic etc. They should grapple with their environment and test different ways of solving problems independently.

If you find your child is seeking your guidance too often during this transition, it is possible he or she may be feeling insecure. You can remind your child of their ability to solve problems on their own or seek the assistance of college resources like peer tutoring, writing centers, health services, counseling centers, health services and more.

Remember that this is new for them too, so your child’s communication may fluctuate while they adjust to this new lifestyle. Moodiness can be normal in college and they will probably struggle at times whether on exams, in problems with roommates, or by feeling lonely. While some emotional difficulty is normal during this time, depression and other mental health concerns should be appropriately addressed. If you are concerned for your child’s mental health and/or safety, please seek emergency services.

I can imagine how painful it would be as a parent to worry about your child in any capacity. College can be difficult, but unless there is risk to safety, working through these obstacles can provide immense opportunities for growth and maturation.

 

Good resources for next steps: book, online, etc.?

https://www.parenttoolkit.com - a great website that features advice for parents and children of all ages. If you select “Life After High School” you will find helpful articles offering advice to parents. The website also provides guidance on how to have difficult conversations with your children relating to alcohol and substance use, mental health, and the importance of consent in exploring their sexuality with others.

The book Letting Go, Sixth Edition: A Parents’ Guide to Understanding the College Years by Karen Levin Coburn and Madge Lawrence Treeger is recommended across the country by universities and colleges. Revised in 2016, it addresses the challenges parents experience when their children begin college within the context of today’s modern world.

https://www.nami.org/ - NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) is an incredible organization, with regional and local chapters, that educates the community and advocates for mental illness awareness.

 

Please educate yourself on risk factors that may present in college. While it is painful to even think about your child suffering in any way, you should be aware of the risks of loneliness, major anxiety, alcohol and substance abuse, disordered eating, reckless behavior, self-harm, unprotected sex, depression and suicide. The more you know, the more you can help.

 

Important Phone Numbers:

911 – For any type of emergency or immediate danger, call 911. If it is a psychiatric emergency, tell the operator this so they can assist in accessing the best professional trained to help.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 800-273-TALK (8255) Appropriate for someone in crisis. Even if they are not planning suicide, there are trained counselors in crisis intervention who can help.

National Domestic Violence Hotline – 800-799-SAFE (7233)

National Sexual Assault Hotline – 800-656-HOPE (4673)

NAMI – 800-950-NAMI (6264) is available M-F 10 am – 6 pm. In a crisis you can text NAMI to 741741.

 

Why are we so busy?

Many people are struggling to maintain an appropriate work-life balance—especially here in Fairfield County, Connecticut. Busy professionals and busy parents have hectic schedules and many responsibilities. We usually feel like there “aren’t enough hours in the day” to get it all done. But, the fact is that there have always been only 24 hours in a day, no more and no less. So, why do our endless responsibilities create this stress spiral, especially when we have incredible technological improvements that make our lives easier and save us time (for example, dishwasher, washing/drying machines, smart phones and Siri, word processors etc). How can we, as individuals and as a community, keep the balance?

Well, it starts with being truthful about our responsibilities. Here’s the thing. We often MAKE ourselves busier than we need to be. We create more work for ourselves and pack our schedules so full that we have little time in between events, meetings, doctor’s appointments, children’s recitals, community events and other places we need to be. There is a perception in society that the busier we are means the more successful we are. Or, at least the less lazy we are. But, having a job, hobbies, children’s extracurricular activities, volunteer work and community engagement while managing a household and caring for family, and working to remain healthy and balanced, and possibly maintaining some semblance of a social life becomes exhausting. Often overwhelming.

 

While it is great to be involved in the community, how many of you can relate to the extra stress that is created by over-scheduling ourselves? So often we develop anxiety, sleep deprivation, and burnout because of this.

 

How can we as busy professionals in a busy world, allow ourselves greater balance and, with that, greater peace? It starts with taking a concentrated look at our lives, our schedules, our habits, our time sucks and our needs. While most of us cannot (or would not want to) up and quit our jobs, we can make other changes to our daily lives to offer improvement and relief. We can assess our habits around food and exercise, work, and extra activities. Where is the time and energy going? Remember, time spent = energy spent. We only have so much adaptive energy per day and when we overexert ourselves trying to get everything done and address every commitment, we are bound to burn out. Maybe not this week, maybe not this month – but, at some point, we are going to experience burnout.  

 

We need to do a little less. I don’t mean quit your job, stop volunteering, or stop being a good parent. What I mean is ease up on the expectations you set for yourself, because by creating so many expectations of things you must do, expectations of what it means to be a good employee/mom/wife/friend/community member etc pile on, and creates fear of being less than. This, in turn, creates a ripple effect into other areas of your life and the stress cycles.

 

While you would never decide to not feed your children dinner, you can certainly put off folding that load of laundry. While you would never blow off a meeting with your boss, you can certainly address your full inbox the following day. We need to prioritize what is most important, and make room for those things, and allow ourselves to complete other tasks when the time is appropriate. This is essential because as people we NEED sleep. We NEED nutritious food and exercise. Just because we are busy does not mean we should neglect movement, sleep, and eating well. In fact, neglecting these things will likely contribute to more feelings of overwhelm.

 

American society maintains a belief that we must be busy at all times. But this impacts our emotional and mental health! If our emotional and mental health needs are not being adequately met, how are we expected to be a great employee/mom/wife/friend/community member, anyway? When we are overwhelmed and overworked, our performance and our productivity lapse. Simply put, we are better in all our roles when we are less stressed. And in order to be less stressed, it is essential that we examine and re-prioritize that which must be done immediately, can be done soon, and can wait until another day.

How to set goals and stick to them

 Often I hear a disappointed person say something along the lines of “well, I planned to but it didn’t happen” or “I’ll get around to it, I just haven’t had the time yet.”

The thing about goals, whether big or small, is that they really can help you achieve more and experience greater happiness.  Setting, working towards, and accomplishing goals is not always easy and our lives sometimes do get in the way. This is part of what it means to be human, and part of what it means to be a member of an ever-changing community. We need to be adaptable in order to flourish (Darwinism, anyone?)

 

When we set goals we may need to revisit or alter them along the way. This is okay. This is good! It does not mean we have failed or have not “stuck to the goal.” Rather, it means we are adapting and making decisions that make sense for our busy and often complicated lives.

 

Let’s break down the process of setting and working on goals in a realistic, manageable and effective way.

 

1.             Establish your goal. This seems obvious, but so many people have a goal that is too abstract to be clearly identifiable and understood, let alone carried out. Decide what it is you want to work on or work towards. Be clear and be specific.

2.            Write.Down.Your.Goal. “But if it’s important to me, I won’t forget.” Right. You probably won’t forget, but it also might not be front and center in your mind. Life gets in the way. Work, family and responsibility take up your time and energy and you are left with little of each available to work on your goal. When you write down your goal, you have a much greater chance to actually achieve it. What will it feel like to reach your goal? Will you feel proud, or happy, or like you have added value to your life? Chances are that you will experience a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. You will likely to feel motivated to continue establishing and working towards goals. I recommend you be specific. It’s not just “I want to clean out my house” or “I want to lose weight.” It’s much more detailed and specific than that.

Remember, thoughts become things, so put out into the universe exactly what you want! “I want to remove the extra clutter from the storage closet and create an organizational solution for my shoes.” Or “I want to lose 5 lbs so that I will feel more comfortable in my skin.” Whatever your goal is, be specific.

 

3.           Make your goal manageable. If your goal is large, or has many steps/parts to it, break it down into smaller more manageable goals. This will keep you excited and motivated, rather than stressed, overwhelmed, or worried about failure. “I want to organize my house better.” Great. Is this something you can do in 1 day? Probably not. But you can in 1 day: Organize your closet, fridge or your child’s play space.

 

What about the weight loss goal? “I want to lose 30 lbs because my doctor said I am overweight and I want to be healthier for my children.” It’s great that you want to be healthier for yourself/your family / to feel stronger or feel more confident. That goal will take time and dedication. You don’t want to feel discouraged or let down if you don’t reach your goal as quickly as you hoped or planned. If you break it down into smaller, more manageable goals not only will you be more likely to follow through, but also you will experience a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment with each piece of the goal you reach! You will be proud of yourself for the work you put in and be determined to continue. In sticking with this example, maybe you set 5 lb goals. 30 lbs is daunting. But 5 lbs? That’s not so intimidating. Losing the first 5 will feel like a great success and a check mark on your progress. Onto the next 5!

 

4.            Do not give up. It is normal to feel that working towards goals is slow and tedious, maybe even challenging and frustrating. Ideally, you want to be excited by your goal. But sometimes the emotions kick in. We are only human. When you find yourself feeling frustrated or like it’s taking too long to reach your goal, remind yourself why you started. Look back at that note you shoved in your desk drawer or taped to the fridge or stored in your cell phone. Why did you set this goal? How will it feel to accomplish your goal? Keep going.

 

If you need to brainstorm again or re-work your plan because your current plan is not yielding the results you hoped for, that is great. Do it! This is the whole point of adapting. If your goal becomes hard, don’t give up. You’ll regret it. Find a new approach or a new way of thinking to give yourself the motivation to keep going. Maybe you talk to your friend (or your therapist?) about the feelings or struggles you are experiencing. Opening up to someone you trust is very powerful and can certainly help give you the encouragement to keep going.

 

5.             Enjoy the result and reflect on your process. You have eliminated the clutter from your home and now you feel more peaceful in your space. You have lost the excess weight your doctor recommended and feel healthier, happier and more able to enjoy your life. Incredible!!

 

Whatever your goal was, you should be very proud of yourself. Improving yourself and your life is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself. Enjoy it. Relish in it. Remember this feeling of satisfaction (write it down?) so when it is time to establish and work on your next goal you will have personal experience and growth to guide you and self-given encouragement as your greatest cheerleader.