Category Archives: emotional health

Finding Renewal in Springtime

Originally published on my Psychology Today blog.

Springtime is on its way. The sunshine is returning and bringing with it the promise of blossoming trees, long days and summertime fun. The typical spring day carries the smell of blooming flowers on the breeze and the chirping of birds to remind us that life is indomitable, and that better times are just around the corner. Coming after a long dreary winter, the season is a natural mood booster for most of us.

But not all. Some suffer from a persistent, hard-to-describe gloom that even the brightest sunshine cannot penetrate.

So it seems like a good time for reminding ourselves that if the “wintertime blues” refuse to be chased away it may be more than just a funk caused by lack of daylight and snowy weather. It could very well be clinical depression. Perhaps you’re noticing yourself seeing more of the negative in the world and less of the positive, being less optimistic and more solitary, and less energetic both cognitively and physically. Maybe you feel you lack the energy and motivation to do things you know will make you feel better. These are all hallmarks of depression.

The most effective approach tends to be medication to boost your low serotonin levels paired with mental health counseling. These, like most to-do items, seem like insurmountable tasks when mired in the throes of depression. However, there are small (and cost-free) steps you can take on your own to moderately boost your mood and begin to make progress in conquering your low mood.

Physical: Exercise is key. Although you may not have enough energy for a workout, just walking around the block can help. Stretching is good as well, and try some basic calisthenics. Studies have shown that even these moderate exercises have mood-boosting benefits, helping to mitigate the damage done by so-called “stress hormones” like cortisol.

Emotional: The simple and easy act of talking to a friend can help immensely; it can distract you from your own world of gloom and worry that is so easy to dwell in when in depression. It can also help you gain perspective on your circumstances. Practice being kind also; the emotional benefits make being kind a definite win-win scenario.

Cognitive: Read a good book…really. A good story can arouse emotions and the simple act of reading provides important exercise of your brain, both hugely beneficial when in depression. A good book can also provide distraction. Further, the visualization your brain must carry out when reading a story can engage circuits that can be useful in revving up your brain’s cognitive capacity, a capacity which is depressed when you are.

Mind you, these are just a few of the easy-to-do activities that can help boost your mood right now, regardless of whether you’re clinically depressed or not. If you’ve been feeling mentally and physically drained for an unreasonable amount of time, see a doctor or therapist without delay. Diagnosing and treating the underlying problem is too important to put off, and research has consistently shown that the one-two punch of medication and counseling is vital to piercing the veil of depression.

Above all, remember the great lesson of springtime: Even after the harshest winter, renewal is always possible.

Creating Control in 2015

Originally published on my  Psychology Today blog.

Each New Year brings with it the promise of starting fresh or tackling that long-standing item on the bucket list. It’s a great opportunity to commit to something that can enhance your well-being, the most popular being health-related. We all want to feel our best and perform at our highest level, and this is a great time of the year to think about how to go about it. Perhaps the most important thing you can do for your physical and emotional health is to establish a stronger sense of control over your life in 2015.

A feeling of lack of control over one’s life–a vague sense of powerlessness over the micro-and-macro events and irritations thrown at us every day– can lead to depression, anxiety, and chemical dependency. Life is, of course, unpredictable and at times overwhelming, but there are a few strategies anyone can employ to counteract the feeling of a life gone out of control:

Set achievable goals in your professional and private life. Much distress and dissatisfaction comes from laboring after unrealistic goals in our professional and relational world. Keep in mind there is only so much you can achieve by yourself in an organization or a relationship.

Choose relationships that are fair and mutually healthy. This follows the previous suggestion. Learn to identify narcissists, sociopaths and other individuals driven by ego and a desire for control over others. They care nothing about destabilizing the lives of others and often leave a trail of human devastation in their wake. Avoid these toxic people at all costs in every sphere of your life, even if it means sacrificing companionship or professional gain in the short term.

Work in a healthy atmosphere. If at all possible, choose a healthy work arrangement. Having a difficult or incompetent boss or a clutch of difficult colleagues can make any job harder. If you’re stuck with a bad situation, try to communicate to your boss that his or her behavior is negatively affecting your ability to function. You might not change their personality or management style, but making them aware of how their approach is detrimental to your performance might make them more thoughtful in their interactions with you.

Follow your passion. Another significant source of dissatisfaction is laboring in something we don’t care much about. Locate your passion in your professional and personal lives and pursue it with all your energy; you’ll find it energizes you rather than depletes you.

Practice meditation. This is one of the most impactful ways to spend a few minutes of your day, and doesn’t mean you have to reach Bhudda-like levels of transcendence or don an orange toga. Neural research shows that even a few minutes of quiet contemplation and measured breathing can restore our mental equilibrium, reduce the cortisol in our system and lower our blood pressure. Even recalling a favorite memory can produce emotional and physiological benefits.

Learn to say “no.” This is a hard one for so many of us. Especially those who like to please and hate to disappoint a friend who’d like us to join a last-minute party, a lecture or a chore like helping them move house. But not having the skill of knowing when—and how—to say “no” to certain things –i.e. things that will clog up our schedule and end up inflicting stress as a result—can undermine our well-being. Learning to politely but firmly decline is vital for maintaining peak emotional health.

To a great degree, gaining a sense of control is about knowing oneself, and as Shakespeare adroitly advised, “To thyne own self be true.” Knowing your priorities and establishing your boundaries accordingly can guide your decision making as you face the myriad of opportunities in the year ahead, and can help you choose the kinds of situations and relationships that empower you rather than demoralize you. Control is something we create and foster, and it is up to each individual to maximize their own sense of control over an increasingly complicated life.

New Studies On Emotional Impact of U.S. Work Culture

Originally published on my Psychology Today blog.

An ongoing theme of this blog has been the profoundly negative effects of stress and overwork induced by our work culture, both of which are chronic problems that are undermining our emotional (and physical) healthy every day.

Now comes news of two major studies on the emotional and practical dimensions of the topic and their interesting findings, helpfully described in a new article by Quentin Fottrell of MarketWatch (link to article is here). One study discourages the long-held belief (promoted by big business) that more lenient workplace schedules depress a nation’s economic competitiveness, while another suggests that cutting the length of the work week boosts emotional health among a variety of other positive value for society.

Dean Baker, co-director of the left-of-center Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. addressed some of the economic trends involved: “Countries like Germany stand out,” he says of the prosperous European economies known for their generous time-off policies. “It’s been remarkably successful.” He goes on to cite the fact that the unemployment rate in Germany (5.2 percent) is down more than 4 percentage points since before the 2008 recession, while the U.S. unemployment rate (6.1 percent) is still more than 1.5 percentage points higher than it was before the recession.

This suggests that the correlation between hours worked and actual productivity is not nearly as straight forward as most Americans would assume.

Addressing the emotional and social aspects of the issue, a report from the London-based, left-of-center think tank New Economics Foundation found that cutting the workweek roughly in half would help to address overwork, overconsumption, high carbon emissions, low well-being, and, crucially, the “lack of time to simply to enjoy life.”

The writer also quotes Anna Coote, head of social policy at NEF, as adding that the deputy mayor of a major Swedish city is trialing a 30-hour week for staff, on the theory—recently gaining in popularity due to other findings—that thirty hours per week is roughly the limit for productive time in an office environment.

In fairness, Fottrell cites researcher Robert Rudolf, assistant professor in the Division of International Studies at Korea University, whose own study found that people given a reduction in working hours reported no strong impact on job or life satisfaction.

Of course these are just studies, and their findings may or may not be accurate. But the fact remains that more and more research seems to be indicating that the societal ills of chronic stress, mental illness and physical illness are tightly connected, and that an adjustment in the work culture of the United States might likely bring emotional benefits that offset these afflictions.