Category Archives: Stress Management

5 Tips for Reducing Holiday Stress

by Kassandra Lamb

ornaments on a tree

photo by Kris de Curtis CC-BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

This is a joyous time of year, but it is also the most stressful time of year for many of us. Especially for those who are trying to make Christmas happen for their families.

Here are a few helpful hints on how to keep the stress manageable and the joy optimal.

1.  Write It Down.

Santa isn’t the only one who should be making a list and checking twice.

This is actually 3 tips in one. First, making a list of everything that needs to be done will keep you from forgetting something that might then become a last-minute crisis/super stressor.

Second, you get the list out of your head and onto paper so you don’t have to stress yourself with trying to remember everything.

And third, it is very satisfying to physically scratch things off a list. Sometimes I put things on there that I’ve already done, so I can immediately scratch them off again. 😀

2. Keep It Simple.

Are there things you do for Christmas that nobody really cares about, maybe not even you?

A few years ago, during a stressful time for my family, we opted for a cold buffet instead of a big Christmas dinner. I was amazed at how little I missed the fancy meal (and all the prep, not at all).

We made the cold buffet a new tradition. We still have special things to eat (my DIL makes awesome cranberry chicken salad), but it can all be prepared a day or two in advance. Christmas Day, we open presents and enjoy each others’ company and spend very little time in the kitchen.

3. Pace Yourself.

This is a marathon, not a sprint. If you try to do too much in one day you will wear yourself out, and be tired and grouchy the next day.

If you want to be super-organized, you could mark the day you plan to do certain things on your list. Then on any given day, you are only stressing about that day’s chores.

hand and book

Take a break. Read a book! 🙂 (photo by David, CC-BY-SA 2.0 Wikimedia)

Also this time of year, getting too fatigued can lead to illness, with all the nasty flu and cold viruses floating around.

Getting sick is definitely not going to help! Which brings us to…

4. Take Care of Yourself.

Schedule proper rest, eating and some exercise into your days.

My mother used to wear herself down to the nub by Christmas Eve. My brother and I would hide in our rooms as much as possible. She was so exhausted and cranky, if we landed on her radar, who knew what would happen?

By the next day, she was much better and we always had a great Christmas, but much of what she had done to prepare for it wasn’t really what made it special for us.

The specialness of Christmas came from having a whole day of relaxation and freedom to play and undivided attention from the adults in the family. Everybody was in a great mood and we had a blast.

child with toys

You can’t see my face but I’m grinning.

Oh, and there were new toys, of course.

5. There Is No Report Card!

Christmas should not be a contest or a performance for which we receive a grade. If you have someone in your life who tends to be that judgmental, you have my permission to uninvite them for Christmas.

If that’s not an option, then practice some lines you can fire back if they comment or even just glare at you judgmentally.

Something like “My house may not be perfect but my kids are happy.”

Or maybe “What would Jesus do?” to remind them that judging is definitely not in the spirit of the season.

Merry Christmas, Everyone!

Our blog will be on hiatus until January 3rd, at which point we have a BIG surprise for you. Stay tuned for an awesome 2017 giveaway!!

Merry Christmas

image by Ac1983fan CC-BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological suspense series, set in her native Maryland, and a new series, the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries, set in Central Florida.

We blog here at misterio press once (sometimes twice) a week, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

Please follow us so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun! (We do not lend, sell nor otherwise bend, spindle or mutilate followers’ e-mail addresses. 🙂 )

6 Tips for Coping When Change Is In the Air

by Kassandra Lamb

In addition to the crispness of fall and the hint of wood smoke on cooler evenings, change is in the air at misterio press. We have a lot of new releases coming up, and new series being started by some of our authors.

Change can be both good and bad. And even good changes are stressful.

Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe, authors of the very first psychological stress test, knew that. “Marriage” is #7 on their inventory with 50 adjustment points attached to it (“death of a spouse” is first with 100 pts). “Retirement” is #12 and “outstanding personal achievement” is #25 with 28 points.

Holmes and Rahe contended that anything that requires adjustment adds to our stress level, even going on vacation (#41, 13 points) which is mostly about de-stressing.

moving truck outside house

(photo by William Grimes, English Wikimedia, public domain)

The biggest adjustments of course are the life-transition ones—getting married, changing careers, moving, etc. Here are some tips for reducing the stress of such transitions:

1.  Remember that even positive events can still have their down moments. If one approaches life transitions with a black and white attitude, the first thing that goes even a little bit wrong can be devastating, and can then influence your emotional view of later developments.

It’s a natural tendency when we are excited about something to be thrown for a loop if there’s a glitch. The more intense the positive emotion of anticipation, the more intense the disappointment can be if something doesn’t go just right. At such moments, we need to step back and look at the big picture. More on this in a moment.

2.  Research what to expect, good and bad, and see yourself dealing with it. If it’s a big move or a new job/career, find out as much as you can about that locale or vocation. If it’s a new level of relationship commitment, do a lot of talking with your partner about how this change will affect both of you.

Why is it important to be so well informed? Because stressors that take us by surprise are a lot more stressful than those we see coming.

Then visualize yourself in the new situation; this is a form of emotional practice.

basketball game

Practice makes us better, at sports and at life. (2004 Army-Navy game~public domain)

Like the athlete who practices jump shots or the back stroke, if we practice dealing with a situation in our mind’s eye, we will be better prepared for it when it becomes reality.

Imagining the challenges, payoffs and problems of the new situation will also allow us to develop some strategies ahead of time for dealing with them. One time, I took a new job that was an hour from home. It was a good opportunity, better pay, but as I contemplated the downside of that long commute, I felt my excitement eroding. I imagined myself listening to the radio. That helped some.

Then a better answer hit me. Audio books! The commute ended up being the best part of my day.

3.  Realize there may still be unforeseen developments. Don’t let all this researching and imagining and advance problem-solving lull you into believing that you are ready for anything. There may still be some things you don’t foresee, good and bad, but if you are prepared for most aspects of the transition, you can focus more of your coping skills and emotional energy on the things you didn’t anticipate.

4.  Be prepared to grieve, at least a little, for how things used to be. Very little is gained in this life without having to give something up. Realize that missing the freedom of single life doesn’t mean you don’t want to be married, or occasionally remembering a simpler time with nostalgia doesn’t mean you don’t want this new, more challenging job.

Life, and emotions, are more complicated than that. There are trade-offs and nothing is all good or all bad.

Brillant red leaves

We don’t get these vibrant colors in Florida; the deciduous trees turn a sickly yellow or just go straight to brown.  (photo by Mckelvcm CC-BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia)

When we moved from my home state of Maryland to Florida, I found I missed the strangest things, not always the things I’d liked all that much when we lived up north. I missed the crispness of the air in the fall (humid Florida air is never crisp!) But I’d hated autumn when we lived in Maryland because the dreaded winter was right behind it.

After a couple of years of adjustment, autumn is now my second favorite season.

5.  If your life transition involves another person (or persons), maintain a “we’re in this together” mentality. It’s easy to get snippy with each other if things aren’t going perfectly (again, emotions are running high). But a strategy of “we’re over here together and this thing we’re dealing with is over there” will help keep the stress of adjustment from coming between you. And it will strengthen everyone’s ability to cope.

6.  Nurture your sense of adventure. If you can view life transitions as an exciting new opportunity, you’ll be in a more upbeat place to handle the transition. Being anxious tends to make us view change with suspicion and negativity.

If you can balance a realistic, “This may not go completely as planned,” with “This is gonna be great,” this new phase of your life will indeed be more great than not!

At my wedding rehearsal, Murphy’s Law was in full swing. Everything went wrong, and I ended up having a meltdown.

h5a3-my-wedding-going-in

Mom and I intent on keeping me cool on my wedding day!

I was still crabby at the rehearsal dinner, until my mother took me aside. “You’re about to embark on the biggest adventure of your life,” she said. “Do you really want to start it in such a foul mood? Just remember no matter what might go wrong tomorrow, at the end of the day you will be married, and that’s what counts.”

Her pep talk worked as she got me to step back and look at the big picture. Several things did go wrong the next day, starting with my father tripping over my train and letting out a loud “Oops.” But instead of being embarrassed, I laughed along with everybody else!

Two of our authors have new releases that fit this theme of life transitions. And since they are murder mysteries, of course the unexpected happens early on.

Here they are, now available for preorder. I think you’ll love them; I do!

book cover

BELOVED AND UNSEEMLY, Book 5 of the Concordia Wells Mysteries, by K.B. Owen

A stolen blueprint, a dead body, and wedding bells….

Change is in the air at Hartford Women’s College in the fall of 1898. Renowned inventor Peter Sanbourne—working on Project Blue Arrow for the Navy—heads the school’s new engineering program, and literature professor Concordia Wells prepares to leave to marry David Bradley.

The new routine soon goes awry when a bludgeoned body—clutching a torn scrap of the only blueprint for Blue Arrow—is discovered on the property Concordia and David were planning to call home.

To unravel the mystery that stands between them and their new life together, Concordia must navigate deadly pranks, dark secrets, and long-simmering grudges that threaten to tear apart her beloved school and leave behind an unseemly trail of bodies.

Available for preorder on  AMAZON    APPLE    NOOK    KOBO

Or get it NOW in paperback on Amazon!

FOR PETE’S SAKE, A Pet Psychic Mystery (#4), by Shannon Esposito

A picture perfect wedding in paradise…what could possibly go wrong?

Pet boutique owner and reluctant pet psychic, Darwin Winters, is looking forward to watching her best friend and business partner, Sylvia, say “I do” to the man of her dreams. But when their wedding photographer turns up dead on the big day—and Sylvia’s superstitious mother believes his heart attack is a sign their marriage will be cursed—Sylvia’s dream wedding quickly becomes a nightmare.

Darwin only has a week to help her detective boyfriend prove the photographer’s death was not from natural causes before Sylvia’s family jets back home to Portugal, and the wedding is off for good.

As more than a few suspects come into focus—including Peter’s model clients, a rival photographer and the director of an animal shelter being investigated for fraud—time is running out. With just one clue from the photographer’s orphaned Yorkie pup to go on, can Darwin help save Sylvia’s wedding and capture a killer? Or will both justice and Sylvia’s wedding cake go unserved?

Available for preorder on  AMAZON    APPLE

~~~~~~~~

How about you? How well do you cope with life transitions, and change in general?

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological suspense series, set in her native Maryland, and a new series, the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries, set in Central Florida.

We blog here at misterio press once (sometimes twice) a week, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

Please follow us so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun! (We do not lend, sell nor otherwise bend, spindle or mutilate followers’ e-mail addresses. 🙂 )

When Does a Stressor Become a Stressor? (encore)

by Kassandra Lamb

I am in editing hell the process of polishing a manuscript, so I thought I’d re-run a post that was a hit a few years ago.

It seemed appropriate to go with a post on stress!  From May, 2013:

As I mentioned in an earlier post, one of the main factors in how stressed we feel is our own interpretation of the events in our lives. With a few exceptions, a stressor isn’t a stressor until we view it that way.

This is why something can be soooo stressful to one person and someone else thinks they’re nuts for worrying about it. The interpretation of a stressor is unique to each individual, influenced by personality and past experiences.

This used to be one of my husband’s biggest stressors:

airplane flying overhead

(photo by Dylan Ashe, CC-BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)

When we were first married, he was a basketcase whenever we had to fly somewhere. We had to get to the airport extra early, so he could have a couple drinks in the airport bar to brace himself. But once we were on the plane, he wouldn’t drink. This was back in the days when alcohol on the plane was free (Yes, folks, once upon a time, airlines not only fed you for free, they would get you liquored up as well. No extra charge!)

So not only did I think the man was crazy, I was pissed that he was buying overpriced drinks in the airport and then not drinking the free stuff on the plane. One day, I confronted him about this and he explained that he couldn’t drink on the plane because he had to be able to concentrate.

“Concentrate on what?” I asked.

“On willing the plane to stay in the air,” he answered.

At that point, I truly thought I’d married a madman.

I later found out, as a psychology grad student, that this wasn’t an unusual fantasy on the part of folks afraid of flying. It’s their way of taking control of a situation where they feel out of control. (As I mentioned a couple weeks ago, control is often a big factor in stress.)

Fortunately, my husband finally figured out what was going on with his fear of flying. I won’t go into details since it’s not my story to tell. Suffice it to say that he’d had some bad experiences with people being in charge who were quite incompetent. So having someone else in control of his safety made him very nervous.

view from airplane window seat

(photo by Peretz Partensky, CC-BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)

I, on the other hand, am one of those people who will run you over to get to a window seat. Then I squeal, “Look at the cute little cars and houses down there. It looks like a Christmas garden” as the plane is taking off. (My husband wears earplugs on planes; I can’t imagine why.)

My attitude is that since I can’t control whether or not the plane stays in the air, I might as well not worry about it and just relax and enjoy the ride.

Now, let’s talk about job stress. My husband handles it very well. Why? Because he doesn’t mind having bosses. He’s an easy-going guy (has to be to put up with me!) and he’s okay with someone telling him what to do as long as they’re not an idiot. And if his boss is an idiot (he’s had a few of them through the years), he just figures out how to work around the idiocy and moves on.

I, however, have no patience whatsoever for idiot bosses, and it seems like I have had way more than my share of them. Of course, the fact that my definition of an idiot boss is any boss who doesn’t leave me completely alone to do my job without any interference could be part of the problem.

Yes, I am cussedly independent! So much so that by the time I was 30, I’d decided that the only way I could function in the world of work was to be self-employed. I went into private practice as a mental health counselor.

coffee mug with "The Boss"

(photo by ThisIsRobsLife, CC-BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)

It was the best decision I ever made. For the first time in my life, I totally loved my job! There were plenty of other stressors involved in being self-employed, but they all paled by comparison to how I had felt when I was being micro-managed by others. So I was a happy camper!

Fast forward 13 years and I was starting to burn out on listening to other people’s descriptions of their stressful lives. I had done a little bit of teaching here and there and had really loved the interaction with students. So I decided to apply for part-time teaching positions at the colleges in my area. My goal was to teach half-time and cut my practice back to half-time so it wouldn’t be so stressful.

After papering the Baltimore-Washington area with my resume, I finally got a call from the psychology department at Towson University. I  liked the department chair and the whole atmosphere in the department, and I was reassured that there would be an ongoing need for my services as long as I did a good job.

Imagine my shock when halfway into the first semester I started having anxiety attacks any time I crossed paths with my department chair. Did I mention I liked him? I really did, so why was I so nervous around him? By the end of the semester, I was actually considering quitting teaching, even though I loved everything else about it.

To cut to the chase, I finally figured out that having a boss again, even one I liked, was pushing my control buttons. I wasn’t completely in charge of my own destiny anymore, as I had been for years. Indeed, when you teach college part-time your employment is completely at the whim of your department chair. He or she can choose not to hire you back the following semester and there is absolutely no recourse, because you are a contractual employee. This was the source of my anxiety, and no amount of lecturing myself about how everybody at Towson liked me and said I was doing a good job seemed to help.

After much thought, I hit on a solution, a way to reframe the situation to myself. I reminded myself that there were roughly fifty colleges within commuting distance of my home, and I should think of myself as a self-employed contractor, who was offering my expertise to these schools on a contractual basis. If I didn’t like the set-up at one school or they didn’t hire me back, I would just take my expertise elsewhere.

It worked! I felt so much better. I was able to relax and really enjoy teaching. I taught at Towson for 9 years, until my husband and I both retired and we moved to Florida. It turned out to be my favorite job ever!

Now if you’re thinking, “How silly. All you changed is how you thought about the situation,” you are exactly right. Except about the ‘silly’ part.

That’s the whole point. How we think and feel about a stressor very much affects how much it stresses us!

Back to my husband and his fear of flying for a moment. His fears dissipated dramatically when we started using a certain airline that had two things going for it. One, the crews are trained to be super friendly; the pilot stands at the door and greets the passengers as they board. Two, a friend of ours is a pilot for this particular airline and we know he’s a competent guy.

When my husband felt that those in charge of keeping the plane in the air were real people, friendly and competent like his friend, he was able to relax. Over time, his fear of flying completely disappeared. Today, he prefers flying over driving, whenever possible.

How about you? Any stressors come to mind that might not be so stressful if you were able to shift your interpretation of them?

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She writes the Kate Huntington mystery series set in her native Maryland, and a new series, the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries, set in Central Florida.

We blog here at misterio press once (sometimes twice) a week, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

Please follow us so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun! (We do not lend, sell nor otherwise bend, spindle or mutilate followers’ e-mail addresses. 🙂 )

10 Ways to Make Your Imperfect Holiday a Happy One (encore)

by Kassandra Lamb

Since I’m traveling today, on my way to visit my son and family, I thought I’d re-run one of my more popular posts. (The mp blog will be on hiatus until January 12th)

Merry Christmas, Everyone!!

~~~~~~~~~

This time of year is supposed to be joyful – full of good food, time spent with family, tinsel and bright lights and lots of packages under the tree.

We tend to have high expectations for the season, and also to feel that we have to meet others’ expectations so that everyone has a fabulous holiday! The reality sometimes falls short, and all too often in our attempts to make the holidays perfect, we end up short – as in short-tempered, and major stressed out!

Maybe we need to loosen up on some of those expectations… and prioritize what’s most important for ourselves and our families. First, let’s break things down a bit. We have gifts, decorations, food and family (I refer to Christmas below, but the same ideas apply to other holidays of the season.)

(This is actually a shopping mall in Canada; photo by Benson Kua, from Wikimedia Commons)

A shopping mall in Toronto, Canada (photo by Benson Kua, CC-BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)

GIFTS: Some people (like me) love to shop; other’s loathe the process. If you fall into the latter category the first thing you can do is…

1. CULL THE GIFT LIST. Do you have people on your list for whom you have no idea what they want or like? Then you probably don’t know or like them well enough to be spending money on them. Are there relatives on the list with whom you exchange token gifts, neither party really caring whether the other likes what they get?

See if you can get them off the list without offending them. Suggest that you not exchange gifts, just enjoy each others’ company. (They may very well agree with great relief.) Or buy them something inexpensive and consumable, and repeat next year. You don’t have to be creative when nobody cares. (My mother-in-law got scented hand lotion from me every year. She was fine with that.) Suggest your extended family draw names and each person gets, and gives, just one gift.

2. SHOP EARLY. Whether you love or hate shopping, this is good advice. Yes, there are great bargains closer to Christmas but there’s also a lot more pressure. And these days, retailers often have sales going off and on throughout the fall.

Christmas shopping tends to bring out the procrastinator in many of us. It feels like such an overwhelming task. But the longer we put it off, the worse it will be. On the flip side, the sooner you start, the less pressured and the more fun it can be.

My brother and I begin in October with an all-day shopping trip. I love to shop; he’s not that keen on it. But we make it a fun outing. And because it’s only October, we know we have lots of time to find those items that don’t jump into our cart that day.

Get started early and get done early. You will be the envy of all your friends, and so, so much more relaxed as the holidays draw nearer.

3. DO YOU HATE TO WRAP? Or do you love it? If you love it (as I do) starting early on your shopping means you have plenty of time to enjoy the wrapping process. I make it part of my evening routine as I watch TV. Wrapping three or four packages a night, I’ve got it done in no time. And it gets me in the holiday spirit!

tow of red gift bags

Photo by Melinda & Cristiano, CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr/Wikimedia

But if you hate it, I have two words for you…

Gift Bags!!! For a buck or two apiece, your wrapping is done!

DECORATIONS:

4. DECORATE FOR YOU AND YOUR FAMILY, NOT THE WORLD. Unless you totally get off on decorating (I know a couple people who do), keep it simple. Ask yourself what is most important for you and yours?

For years I struggled with those #%@&* outside lights, stringing them over trees and bushes and freezing my tuckus off in the process. Today, the inside of my house is a Christmas wonderland, because I enjoy putting up those decorations. But outside, there’s a wreath on the front door and a pre-lit table tree in the dining room window. That’s all my neighbors are getting from me.

And you know what? None of them have complained.

5. MAKE IT A FAMILY AFFAIR. When I was a kid, my father was in charge of decorating the tree. He was meticulous. All the ornaments had to be balanced, the tree totally symmetrical. (He was an engineer.) He would carefully put one strand of tinsel on each branch.

449px-Christmas_Tree_(1) pub domain wiki

A slightly off-kilter tree, but still gorgeous! (public domain–Wikimedia)

He made my mother nuts!! And my brother and I fled to our rooms until the tree was done.

The blinkin’ tree doesn’t have to be perfect. Get the whole gang involved and it will be done in no time. And if you must have symmetry, you can move a few ornaments after everyone else is in bed.

FOOD: If you love to cook, go for it. If it’s not so much your thing (like me), look for ways to keep it simple.

6. PREPARE AHEAD OF TIME. I learned this from my grandma. Every year, she came over to our house on Christmas Eve. She made the dressing that night, and prepped the turkey. The next morning, Mr. Turkey just needed to be transferred from the fridge to the oven.

7. IS THAT BIG MEAL REALLY WHAT YOU WANT? Again, ask yourself what really matters. You just had a big turkey dinner on Thanksgiving. Is it crucial that you have another one a month later?

A few years ago, my family was facing some stressors around the holidays that made us want to simplify things as much as possible. We decided we would have a cold buffet for Christmas dinner, for just that year. I baked two turkey rolls the day before and my daughter-in-law and I made or bought various salads. I was sure it would be a letdown not to have the traditional big Christmas dinner.

Guess what? We didn’t miss the traditional dinner one bit! The meal was just as tasty, and so much less stressful. Instead of spending inordinate amounts of time in the kitchen prepping and then cleaning up from a big meal, we spent that time balancing plates on our laps and laughing and talking as we enjoyed each other’s company. We’ve been doing Christmas dinner that way ever since!

FAMILY: This is, after all, the heart of Christmas, being with family. But how do we define our families?

8. SPEND CHRISTMAS DAY WITH THE PEOPLE WHO MATTER THE MOST. One of the mistakes I sometimes see people making on Christmas is that they spread themselves too thin. Christmases were special for me as a kid because they were relaxed. We opened our stockings, then had a leisurely breakfast. We opened our presents, then had a leisurely dinner.

Christmas with the extended family.

Christmas with the extended family, on 12/26. We’re having a ball, can’t ya tell? 😉

We went to visit the extended family the day after Christmas, or the following weekend. We saw everybody eventually, but NOT on Christmas Day!

The first year I was married, my husband and I tried to keep everybody happy. We got up extra early to exchange our own presents, then went to my parents’ house for brunch. Then we jumped in the car and drove for two hours to have Christmas dinner with his family.

Never again!

9. WHAT IS YOUR FAMILY OF CHOICE? If you don’t like your biological family, do NOT spend the most precious day of the year with them. Politely tell them that you want to spend Christmas with just your spouse and your children. If you’re not married, it’s okay to make your close friends your family of choice. If it feels too hurtful to say no to your biological family on December 25th, then designate another day–perhaps Christmas Eve or the day after Christmas–as your “family of choice” Christmas.

Last but definitely not least…

10. BE JOYFUL. The bottom line here is that this is a joyful holiday! So do your best to set it up so it is fun and relaxing for you and those who are most important to you!

Any other ideas for simplifying Christmas preparations and minimizing holiday stress? (Note: since I am traveling, it may b e a couple of days before I respond to comments.)

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She writes the Kate Huntington mystery series.

We blog here at misterio press once (sometimes twice) a week, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

Please follow us so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun! (We do not lend, sell nor otherwise bend, spindle or mutilate followers’ e-mail addresses. 🙂 )

10 Ways to Make Your Imperfect Holiday a Happy One

by Kassandra Lamb

(Note: If you read my teaser last week and you were expecting more about psychopaths today, I’ve postponed that post to January. I decided it was getting too close to Christmas to be talking about such a grim subject, so instead here’s a post on how to keep the holidays from stressing you out!)

This time of year is supposed to be joyful–full of good food, time spent with family, tinsel and bright lights and lots of packages under the tree.

We tend to have high expectations for the season, and also to feel that we have to meet others’ expectations so that everyone has a fabulous holiday! The reality sometimes falls short, and all too often in our attempts to make the holidays perfect, we end up short–as in short-tempered, and major stressed out!

Maybe we need to loosen up on some of those expectations… and prioritize what’s most important for ourselves and our families. First, let’s break things down a bit. We have gifts, decorations, food and family (I refer to Christmas below, but the same ideas apply to other holidays of the season.)

(This is actually a shopping mall in Canada; photo by Benson Kua, from Wikimedia Commons)

A shopping mall in Toronto, Canada (photo by Benson Kua, CC-BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)

GIFTS: Some people (like me) love to shop; other’s loathe the process. If you fall into the latter category the first thing you can do is…

1. CULL THE GIFT LIST. Do you have people on your list for whom you have no idea what they want or like? Then you probably don’t know or like them well enough to be spending money on them. Are there relatives on the list with whom you exchange token gifts, neither party really caring whether the other likes what they get?

See if you can get them off the list without offending them. Suggest that you not exchange gifts, just enjoy each others’ company. (They may very well agree with great relief.) Or buy them something inexpensive and consumable, and repeat next year. You don’t have to be creative when nobody cares. (My mother-in-law got scented hand lotion from me every year. She was fine with that.) Suggest your extended family draw names and each person gets, and gives, just one gift.

2.  SHOP EARLY. Whether you love or hate shopping, this is good advice. Yes, there are great bargains closer to Christmas but there’s also a lot more pressure. And these days, retailers often have sales going off and on throughout the fall.

Christmas shopping tends to bring out the procrastinator in many of us. It feels like such an overwhelming task. But the longer we put it off, the worse it will be. On the flip side, the sooner you start, the less pressured and the more fun it can be.

My brother and I begin in October with an all-day shopping trip. I love to shop; he’s not that keen on it. But we make it a fun outing. And because it’s only October, we know we have lots of time to find those items that don’t jump into our cart that day.

Get started early and get done early. You will be the envy of all your friends, and so, so much more relaxed as the holidays draw nearer.

3.  DO YOU HATE TO WRAP? Or do you love it? If you love it (as I do) starting early on your shopping means you have plenty of time to enjoy the wrapping process. I make it part of my evening routine as I watch TV. Wrapping three or four packages a night, I’ve got it done in no time. And it gets me in the holiday spirit!

tow of red gift bags

Photo by Melinda & Cristiano, CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr/Wikimedia

But if you hate it, I have two words for you…

Gift Bags!!! For a buck or two apiece, your wrapping is done!

 DECORATIONS:

4.   DECORATE FOR YOU AND YOUR FAMILY, NOT THE WORLD. Unless you totally get off on decorating (I know a couple people who do), keep it simple. Ask yourself what is most important for you and yours?

For years I struggled with those #%@&* outside lights, stringing them over trees and bushes and freezing my tuckus off in the process. Today, the inside of my house is a Christmas wonderland, because I enjoy putting up those decorations. But outside, there’s a wreath on the front door and a pre-lit table tree in the dining room window. That’s all my neighbors are getting from me.

And you know what? None of them have complained.

5.  MAKE IT A FAMILY AFFAIR. When I was a kid, my father was in charge of decorating the tree. He was meticulous. All the ornaments had to be balanced, the tree totally symmetrical. (He was an engineer.) He would carefully put one strand of tinsel on each branch.

449px-Christmas_Tree_(1) pub domain wiki

A slightly off-kilter tree, but still gorgeous! (public domain–Wikimedia)

He made my mother nuts!! And my brother and I fled to our rooms until the tree was done.

The blinkin’ tree doesn’t have to be perfect. Get the whole gang involved and it will be done in no time. And if you must have symmetry, you can move a few ornaments after everyone else is in bed.

FOOD:  If you love to cook, go for it. If it’s not so much your thing (like me), look for ways to keep it simple.

6. PREPARE AHEAD OF TIME. I learned this from my grandma. Every year, she came over to our house on Christmas Eve. She made the dressing that night, and prepped the turkey. The next morning, Mr. Turkey just needed to be transferred from the fridge to the oven.

7.  IS THAT BIG MEAL REALLY WHAT YOU WANT? Again, ask yourself what really matters. You just had a big turkey dinner on Thanksgiving. Is it crucial that you have another one a month later?

A few years ago, my family was facing some stressors around the holidays that made us want to simplify things as much as possible. We decided we would have a cold buffet for Christmas dinner, for just that year. I baked two turkey rolls the day before and my daughter-in-law and I made or bought various salads. I was sure it would be a letdown not to have the traditional big Christmas dinner.

Guess what? We didn’t miss the traditional dinner one bit! The meal was just as tasty, and so much less stressful. Instead of spending inordinate amounts of time in the kitchen prepping and then cleaning up from a big meal, we spent that time balancing plates on our laps and laughing and talking as we enjoyed each other’s company. We’ve been doing Christmas dinner that way ever since!

FAMILY: This is, after all, the heart of Christmas, being with family. But how do we define our families?

8.  SPEND CHRISTMAS DAY WITH THE PEOPLE WHO MATTER THE MOST. One of the mistakes I sometimes see people making on Christmas is that they spread themselves too thin. Christmases were special for me as a kid because they were relaxed. We opened our stockings, then had a leisurely breakfast. We opened our presents, then had a leisurely dinner.

Christmas with the extended family.

Christmas with the extended family, on 12/26. We’re having a ball, can’t ya tell? 😉

We went to visit the extended family the day after Christmas, or the following weekend. We saw everybody eventually, but NOT on Christmas Day!

The first year I was married, my husband and I tried to keep everybody happy. We got up extra early to exchange our own presents, then went to my parents’ house for brunch. Then we jumped in the car and drove for two hours to have Christmas dinner with his family.

Never again!

9.  WHAT IS YOUR FAMILY OF CHOICE? If you don’t like your biological family, do NOT spend the most precious day of the year with them. Politely tell them that you want to spend Christmas with just your spouse and your children. If you’re not married, it’s okay to make your close friends your family of choice. If it feels too hurtful to say no to your biological family on December 25th, then designate another day–perhaps Christmas Eve or the day after Christmas–as your “family of choice” Christmas.

Last but definitely not least…

10.  BE JOYFUL. The bottom line here is that this is a joyful holiday! So do your best to set it up so it is fun and relaxing for you and those who are most important to you!

Any other ideas for simplifying Christmas preparations and minimizing holiday stress?

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She writes the Kate Huntington mystery series.

We blog here at misterio press once (sometimes twice) a week, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

Please follow us so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun! (We do not lend, sell nor otherwise bend, spindle or mutilate followers’ e-mail addresses. 🙂 )

This is Your Brain on Stress (encore)

by Kassandra Lamb

Eeck! I just realized I have no post written for today. The other misterio authors will tell you that isn’t like me. I’m organized to the point of being annoying obsessed awe-inspiring.

I’m pretty stressed out right now, getting ready to launch a new book, and I am NOT one of those people who thrives on stress and deadlines (which is why I try to be organized waaay in advance).

So I decided that an appropriate “encore” post for today would be one that I posted almost two years ago. It explains why some of us thrive under pressure and others, like me, collapse in a little puddle.  ~~~

Why is it that some of us perform better under pressure while others are more likely to buckle under the load? Was it how the person was raised? Were they taught to believe in themselves? Did their parents and teachers push them to keep trying when they encountered obstacles?

We tend to assume that one’s ability to work well under stress is a function of character. But that’s not what brain research is telling us. It may be much more about differences in how our brains work–differences that are dictated by genetics.

A PET scan of a brain showing a very high level of activity (public domain, Wikimedia Commons)

Scientists have identified a specific gene, the COMT gene, that may dictate more than anything else whether we are the ‘push through the stress and shine’ type of person, or the one who collapses on the floor and feels like a failure when the load gets too heavy.

This may sound like bad news, but I’m not sure it is. Knowing that something is beyond our control can help us figure out a work-around. More on the real-life ramifications of this in a minute. First, let me try to boil the research down into a few paragraphs so I don’t bore you to tears.

This COMT gene controls how quickly a certain neurotransmitter, dopamine, is removed from a part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain where our most complex reasoning occurs–problem-solving, moral decisions, conflict resolution, anticipating long-term consequences, etc.

Brainstorming with the prefrontal cortex

(Okay, it’s a lame cartoon. Give me a break. it’s hard to make the brain funny!)

Dopamine is the brain chemical that helps us think clearly by inhibiting unwanted thoughts and allowing us to concentrate. But to do this, it has to be at optimal levels. Too little and we are overwhelmed and distracted by random thoughts. Too much and the thoughts we want to focus on are also inhibited, i.e., our brains are too shut down.

There are two versions of this COMT gene, one that clears dopamine away slowly and one that removes it quickly (it’s originally released by the neurons, i.e., nerve cells, in the brain). Under normal circumstances, people with the rapid-removal version are at a disadvantage; their dopamine levels are often too low. The folks with the slow-removal version often have an advantage, and do better in school for example, because overall their prefrontal cortex thinks more clearly.

However, things change when you introduce high stress levels.

The study that tied all this together was done in Taiwan where researchers determined which gene was present in 779 junior high school students who were about to take a difficult entrance exam that would determine the quality of high school education they would receive.

The students with the slow-removal gene tended to have higher grades in school than those with the fast-removal gene. But when the stress of this high-stakes test flooded their prefrontal cortex with dopamine, their brains couldn’t remove it fast enough. Now their thinking was impaired by too much dopamine.

The fast-removal students (the ones with the lower grades in school) scored an average of 8 percentage points higher than the slow-removal students on this test. Their brains could handle the stress better, get rid of the excess dopamine, and allow them to excel.

(from en.wikipedia, public domain)

So what are the real-life implications of this? If something is genetically programmed, we can’t change it, but we can learn to cope with it and work around it.

If you were one of those kids who crashed and burned on big tests and class presentations, or if you have a child who falls into this category, you should find it comforting to know that this is not a character flaw. Knowing something is not our fault can help us be more matter-of-fact about dealing with it. It is what it is.

So how do we deal with it?

1. Stop beating up on yourself for not coping well with pressure. You’re not dumb, morally deficient or mentally ill. Your brain just works differently than those who thrive on stress.

2. Be selective about the types of situations you expose yourself to. Forcing yourself to deal with high-stakes situations is a set-up for disaster. For example, marketing, where you have to give make-or-break presentations to clients on a regular basis, may not be the best career choice.

I suspect that both my son and I have the slow-dopamine-removal gene. We both got good grades in school but tended to score rather mediocre on high-stakes standardized tests like the SAT.

My son had his heart set on a certain college. But his SAT scores were not high enough to get a merit scholarship despite his almost 4.0 GPA. At our insistence, he took the test again, without much improvement (despite tutoring beforehand).

If I’d known then what I know now, I wouldn’t have insisted that he take the SAT a second time. I would have gone immediately to our alternate plan. We found a couple other schools that did not place as much importance on SAT scores. He got accepted into the honors program at one of them, and received a scholarship!

3. Use stress management and relaxation techniques to help lower your stress level, and thus your dopamine production, in high-pressure situations.

More on how to do this are in these posts: Relaxation Made Easy and When Does a Stressor Become a Stressor?

So talk to me. How well do you perform under pressure? Do you think you are a fast-dopamine-removal or slow-dopamine-removal person?

How can we help our kids adjust and learn to cope if they tend to fold under pressure?

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She writes the Kate Huntington mystery series.

We blog here at misterio press once (sometimes twice) a week, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

Please follow us so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun! (We do not lend, sell nor otherwise bend, spindle or mutilate followers’ e-mail addresses. 🙂 )

A Check-Up From the Neck Up (and Book Giveaway Announcement)

This is the last installment of my Tour of Fives, celebrating the release of the 5th book in my mystery series. I felt I should bring things back home with my Five Top Tips for Maintaining Mental Health. (This is a revised version of a post I wrote as a guest of Ginger Calem last year.)

When I was a psychotherapist, I realized that doing my job well meant that I worked myself out of a job. Eventually my clients didn’t need me anymore to boost their self-esteem and figure out how to stay on track mental-health-wise in their lives. A few would pop back now and then, when they needed a sounding board for some major life decision. But for the most part, I never heard from them again after they graduated from therapy.

One of my clients, however, had a different take on this. She came in about once a year or so for what she dubbed her “check up from the neck up.” Sometimes she had specific things to discuss but sometimes she just wanted to catch me up on her life and get my feedback.

(photo by safedom, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)

(photo by safedom, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia)

I realized this was a very healthy thing she was doing–checking things out with a professional before they became a big deal.

I can’t help but wonder why we don’t have mental health check-ups, like we do for our physical health. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we nipped our psychological problems in the bud, instead of waiting until they fester and make us miserable?

And more emphasis on preventive mental health practices would be an excellent idea as well. So here are:

My Five Top Tips for Maintaining Mental Health.

#1: Check in with yourself several times a day and notice how you’re feeling. Make it a habit that you link to something else in your routine, like mealtimes or driving to and from work. Just stop and take a few seconds to assess where you are emotionally.

I do this when I’m in the car by myself. Then if I realize I’m not completely content, I have some alone time to explore why not, and what I want to do about it.

There are three basic things we can do about something we don’t like. We can (1) change it; (2) get away from it; or (3) change our attitude toward it. This list may sound a bit oversimplified, but it gives us a good place to start to make proactive decisions about a situation that is keeping us from feeling content with our lives.

This ties in with…

#2: Avoid doing things you don’t like to do. Now I’m not advocating being irresponsible (nor procrastination, which tends to just spread out the stress). But when we don’t like something, instead of just forcing ourselves to do it, we can look for ways to make it more palatable.

I don’t like to exercise, but I know it’s a necessary evil. So I looked long and hard for a way to exercise that I didn’t mind, and I found it.

Zumba class! Yay!

Zumba class! Yay!

I love Zumba dancing! Now I’m not saying I jump up with joy when it’s time for Zumba class. I still face some inertia, but that’s a lot better than dread and loathing.

I dislike cleaning even more than exercise, but I discovered that if I do one or two chores every day or so–clean a toilet here, dust a room there–I always have a relatively clean house without spending a huge chunk of time on it.

Delegating or trading off tasks with others is another option. When my husband and I were dating, we would often end up at K-Mart during the course of the evening, so he could buy yet another package of underwear and put off doing laundry a bit longer.

boxer shorts laid out on floor

You own enough of these, you never have to do laundry again!

Now you might be wondering why I kept dating this guy. Actually I am too because it sounds kind of creepy in the retelling, but we’ve been married almost 37 years, and that’s the weirdest thing he’s ever done. He just really, really disliked doing laundry. But he likes to cook, which I’m not fond of. So he took over the kitchen and I rule in the laundry room and we’re both a lot happier.

If you truly hate something, you definitely should not force yourself to do it. If you do, it will make you mentally and emotionally sick. Kinda like forcing yourself to eat spoiled food. Ick!

Instead, try to figure out why that situation is pushing your psychological buttons. Once you know this, you may be able to pull the wires loose from it. But even if you can’t disconnect the button, at least you will know why you need to avoid that thing that you really hate. You’ll go from feeling a little crazy to knowing you are taking good care of your mental health.

Now let me make an important distinction here, between the things you hate and the things you fear.

#3: Face the things you fear IF they are obstacles to getting where you want to be. If you’re afraid of snakes and you live in the city and never go hiking, don’t worry about it. We do not have to face every one of our fears. Only the ones that are stopping us from achieving our goals. But facing your fear doesn’t mean you just forge ahead, making yourself do something. That may make matters worse.

Again, identifying the psychological button may help you disconnect it, or at least work around it. But sometimes we are just afraid of the unknown or the unfamiliar.

I was that way regarding promoting my books. I had no idea what I was doing. I’m not very techno-savvy and I knew I’d have to learn about Twitter and Facebook and blogging, and… and… *grabbing my paper bag*   So I reminded myself of my own advice to clients.

When we’re feeling overwhelmed it can really help to “chunk it down.” I gave myself permission to take it slow, to just learn one thing at a time until I was comfortable with it. So I got on Twitter. A month or so later, I was tweeting away with ease; then I tackled Facebook. Now I’m feeling comfortable with both and I’m contemplating whether I should try Pinterest or Google+ next (it’s more a matter of available time now).

Also, don’t be afraid to ask for help! We Americans come from independent stock. We feel we should do things for ourselves. That’s great, but there’s no shame is asking for help. Don´t you feel good when you know you´ve helped a friend? Give others the opportunity to experience that good feeling.

female friends offering a comforting hand

(photo by Mathias Klang from Göteborg Sweden CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)

Knowing I had my friend, Shannon, to coach me made it a lot easier to tackle my fear of social media. Friends can reassure, offer suggestions, or just hold your hand.

But ultimately you also have to…

 #4: Trust your gut!

If you’ve got a gut feeling about something, know that there is a reason for that feeling. What we call our gut instinct is really some part of our brain, that we are not currently in direct communication with, that has noticed something is off, or has made some connection between two or more pieces of information that puts a different spin on something.

Your gut instincts are never wrong! Let me repeat, your gut is never wrong. It has picked up on something relevant! The problem is that we get these instinctive hits as vague feelings, not in words. So we have to figure out what our gut is trying to tell us. And sometimes we misinterpret the message.

One of the tricky things here is trying to tease apart what are true gut feelings and what are irrational fears, either of the unknown or residuals from past experiences. Here’s where friends (or a therapist) can again come in handy. Running the whole situation past someone whose judgement you trust–and whom you know will not be judgmental of you!–can help you put it in perspective.

But while you’re trying to sort it out, you need to continue to respect that gut feeling. (I’m thinking I need to do an entire post on this soon.)

And last but never least…

#5: Relax at least three times a day. This is basic stress management. And no whining that you’re too busy and can’t do this. I’m talking about a 5 to 10-minute break (although 15 to 20 minutes is better). I have talked about this at length before. If you take the time to relax and lower your stress level for a few minutes, you will be more focused and more productive when you go back to what needs to get done.

And you are much more likely to be happier and healthier at the end of the day!

 

Reading is one of my favorite ways to relax. And our own Kirsten Weiss is one of my favorite authors. She has a new teaser video out to get us psyched up about her next book (her Book #5!)

And she has Book 4, The Infernal Detective, FREE on Amazon this Thursday and Friday, July 4th and 5th!

Make a note on your calendar to snag yourself a copy for some great summer reading! Then talk to me in the comments.

What helps you relax and/or keeps you on the right track mental-health-wise? Have these tips helped you rethink how you approach certain things?

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She writes the Kate Huntington mystery series.

We blog here at misterio press once or twice a week, sometimes about serious topics, and sometimes just for fun.

Please follow us so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun! (We do not harvest, lend, sell or otherwise bend, spindle or mutilate followers’ e-mail addresses.)

“BOSTON STRONG”–YES!!

I had intended to finish my stress management series today, but in light of the events in Boston last week, I’m going to do a variation on that intended post.

(image by LADreamzinc — CC-SA-3.0 license, Wikimedia Commons)

The post I had planned would have talked about how our cognitive and emotional interpretation of an event makes a huge difference in how stressful that event is for us. I will talk more about that topic soon.

One of the biggest factors in that cognitive/emotional interpretation is how much control we feel we have over a particular stressor and its impacts. We human beings hate to not be in control. I would venture to say that feeling out of control is the worst feeling we can experience. It scares the bejeezus out of us!

We will even sometimes blame ourselves for a negative event that wasn’t our fault, just so we can have some feeble sense that we could have controlled the outcome if we’d just realized what was coming. (If I’d gone a different route that day, the car accident wouldn’t have happened.) For even a horrible feeling such as guilt is preferable to facing the reality that the event was truly beyond our control.

Another pitfall when we are running from that reality is to blame others, especially those in authority. Right now the country is united in its grief and sorrow for the victims of the Boston Marathon explosions and their families. But I know the reports will start on the TV news soon… the investigations, the demands that “they” do something to keep this from happening again.

Do what? Stop having marathons? Or football games, or golf tournaments? Cordon off the entire area and not let anyone be nearby, so there is no one on the sidelines cheering the participants on? But what’s to stop some nutcase (and make no mistake about it, these men were nutcases who were using their religion for their own sick purpose) from planting a bomb the night before, or the week before?

Of course, “they” should do what they can–increase security, bring in the bomb-sniffing dogs, etc. But the reality is that some nutcase could, at any moment, disrupt your life or mine and bring tragedy into it because of their own twisted agenda.

So what should we do about that? Exactly what the citizens of Boston are doing! Going about their business, refusing to give in to fear.

We cannot always control what happens to us. We can control how we lead our lives. If we lead with fears about what might happen, then the terrorists and nutcases have already won! If we refuse to give in to that fear and live our lives to their fullest every moment, than we are having the best life we can have in an uncertain world where not everything is controllable.

Now don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad thing that we humans want to be in control. That may be the single most driving force behind our progress as a species. And we have a lot more control over our environments and our destinies than we once did.

The winner of the 13th Boston Marathon in 1910, during a time when people routinely died of pneumonia because antibiotics had not yet been discovered.

But I do wonder sometimes… Has the control that science and technology’s given us over so many once uncontrollable things led us to a false belief that we should somehow be able to control everything?

I doubt that will happen, at least in our lifetimes, and probably never. We really need to come to grips with the reality that we cannot control everything, such as hurricanes and lunatics. But we can control how we respond to the natural disasters and the fanatics who intentionally create unnatural disasters. We can band together as the people of Boston have so heroically exemplified.

And we can yell, “Boston Strong!” from the rooftops. And never let fear win!

Celebration in Boston after the capture of the 2nd suspect (photo by Grk1011 — CC-SA-3.0, Wikimedia Commons)

 

On a lighter note, if you’ve been wondering why I haven’t been around much for the last week, it’s because I was in Maryland painting our summer place up there (with the help of my wonderful brother). I promised pictures so if you hop over to my website, you can see the transformation of my shabby shack into a cute cottage (it looks like mint chocolate chip ice cream with chocolate syrup on top 🙂 )

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She writes the Kate Huntington mystery series.

We blog here at misterio press once a week about more serious topics, usually on Monday or Tuesday. Sometimes we blog again, on Friday or the weekend, with something just for fun.

Please follow us by filling in your e-mail address where it says “subscribe to blog via email” in the column on the right, so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun!

Relaxation Made Easy

We all know that the best antidote to stress is relaxation. But what do you think of when you hear that word relaxation? A long soak in a hot tub, a massage, a vacation to the beach…

photo by Nick Webb (Flickr Massage) CC license 2.0 — Wikimedia Commons

Those are excellent ways to relax but they require some time and effort. So if you’re like me, you may very well put off doing those things. “I’ll schedule a vacation/book a massage, etc. when I get past this deadline,” I tend to say to myself.

There are however, many simple ways to relax throughout every day. AND it is important to relax throughout the day every day. Those big relaxers are great, but they don’t last. I get a massage and the tension is back in my shoulders by the next day–sometimes sooner.

Why is it important to relax throughout the day? Remember that part of the nervous system that controls arousal vs. relaxation that we talked about awhile back? Quick refresher: the autonomic nervous system controls our body’s response to challenges and threats in our environment. When something is threatening/challenging us, the sympathetic branch of the ANS arouses our body to meet that challenge. Our heart rate, blood pressure, etc. go up, muscles tense, respiration increases, etc. When the challenge is over, the parasympathetic branch calms us down again so everything can go back to normal.

These two branches counterbalance each other, like the old-fashioned teeter-toters on children’s playgrounds when I was a kid. When one kid pushed off and went up, the kid on the other side went down.

So every time we activate the parasympathetic branch (relaxation) we are deactivating the sympathetic branch (arousal). And then it take a little while for the body to get all stressed out and tense again.

In terms of our minds, when we take relaxation breaks throughout the day, we recharge our coping batteries so that we go back to the tasks at hand with a clearer focus. Thus the time spent on these little relaxation breaks will enhance our productivity, making them well worth it.

So here are some quick and simple ways to relax periodically throughout the day. All of these can be done in 5-10 minutes, some of them even less than that. Btw, with all of these (except #4) it’s a good idea to be seated or lying down with every part of your body comfortably supported.

1.  Progressive relaxation: Closing your eyes, you take a deep breath, then focus on each muscle group, telling your brain to send the signal for those muscles to relax completely. You can start either with your scalp or your feet. I’m a scalp person myself. I imagine the tension just flowing down and out of my body.

Try it! Close your eyes, deep breath, focus on your scalp and let it relax, then your face muscles (sometimes the jaw needs separate attention), then your neck, shoulders, etc.

2.  Guided imagery: No need to book a flight and pack your bags. Just close your eyes, take a deep breath, and imagine your favorite relaxing vacation spot. Build the imagery by engaging all the senses. Lay on the beach and feel the warmth of the sun and the gentle breeze on your skin, hear the seagulls and the lapping waves, smell the salt in the air, etc.

3.  Self-hypnosis: Can’t think of a relaxing place to go, or not the best at imagining things. Then try a little self-hypnosis. Close your eyes, take a deep breath and visualize a set of steps in your mind’s eye (or a hill gently sloping downward in front of you). Imagine yourself slowly going down those steps/that hill and tell yourself (repeat several times) that with each step you will become more and more relaxed. Once at the bottom, you can tell yourself that you will relax completely for ____ minutes and then you will ‘wake up’ refreshed and energized (again repeat several times).

4.  I’ve saved the easiest and fastest for last. Have you noticed a trend above? Each time you start with a deep breath. That’s because deep breathing automatically engages the parasympathetic (relaxation) branch of the ANS and gets the ball rolling. So if you don’t have time to stop even for 5 minutes, you can just do the deep breathing. Three slow, deep breaths in a row can do wonders!

I also saved this one for last because I have a fun story to share. A friend of mine was once going through a very busy time. I kept reminding her to take time to relax and take care of herself, and she kept saying she couldn’t do that. She would relax once XYZ was off her plate. I suggested all of the above and her response was that she didn’t even have 5 minutes a day to spare, and she knew she would never remember to take the deep breaths.

I suggested that I hypnotize her and give her post-hypnotic suggestions that whenever she started to get tense she would automatically take a deep breath. She gave me a skeptical look but she did sit still long enough for me to do this.

The next time I saw her was about two weeks later. I asked her how the deep breathing was going.

“It´s wonderful!” she said. “I don´t have to think about it. I just automatically take a breath whenever I need to relax some. There was just one problem. Jim (her husband) kept looking at me funny. I finally asked him why and he said he was worried about me because I was so depressed.”

“‘I’m not depressed,’ I told him. ‘What gave you that idea?’”

“‘Well, you’re constantly walking around the house sighing,’ he said.” 🙂

What do you think? Which of these techniques appeals the most to you? Or do you have other ideas?

I suggest trying all of these and then focusing on the one(s) that work best for you. I mainly use #1 and #3 myself.

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She writes the Kate Huntington mystery series.

We blog here at misterio press once a week about more serious topics, usually on Monday or Tuesday. Sometimes we blog again, on Friday or the weekend, with something just for fun.

Please follow us by filling in your e-mail address where it says “subscribe to blog via email” in the column on the right, so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun!

This is Your Brain on Stress!

Why is it that some of us perform better under pressure while others are more likely to buckle under the load? Was it how the person was raised? Were they taught to believe in themselves? Did their parents and teachers push them to keep trying when they encountered obstacles?

We tend to assume that one’s ability to work well under stress is a function of character. But that’s not what brain research is telling us. It may be much more about differences in how our brains work–differences that are dictated by genetics.

A PET scan of a brain showing a very high level of activity (public domain, Wikimedia Commons)

Scientists have identified a specific gene, the COMT gene, that may dictate more than anything else whether we are the ‘push through the stress and shine’ type of person, or the one who collapses on the floor and feels like a failure when the load gets too heavy.

This may sound like bad news, but I’m not sure it is. Knowing that something is beyond our control can help us figure out a work-around. More on the real-life ramifications of this in a minute. First, let me try to boil the research down into a few paragraphs so I don’t bore you to tears.

This COMT gene controls how quickly a certain neurotransmitter, dopamine, is removed from a part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain where our most complex reasoning occurs–problem-solving, moral decisions, conflict resolution, anticipating long-term consequences, etc.

Brainstorming with the prefrontal cortex

(Okay, it’s a lame cartoon. Give me a break. it’s hard to make the brain funny!)

Dopamine is the brain chemical that helps us think clearly by inhibiting unwanted thoughts and allowing us to concentrate. But to do this, it has to be at optimal levels. Too little and we are overwhelmed and distracted by random thoughts. Too much and the thoughts we want to focus on are also inhibited, i.e., our brains are too shut down.

There are two versions of this COMT gene, one that clears dopamine away slowly and one that removes it quickly (it’s originally released by the neurons, i.e., nerve cells, in the brain). Under normal circumstances, people with the rapid-removal version are at a disadvantage; their dopamine levels are often too low. The folks with the slow-removal version often have an advantage, and do better in school for example, because overall their prefrontal cortex thinks more clearly.

However, things change when you introduce high stress levels.

The study that tied all this together was done in Taiwan where researchers determined which gene was present in 779 junior high school students who were about to take a difficult entrance exam that would determine the quality of high school education they would receive.

The students with the slow-removal gene tended to have higher grades in school than those with the fast-removal gene. But when the stress of this high-stakes test flooded their prefrontal cortex with dopamine, their brains couldn’t remove it fast enough. Now their thinking was impaired by too much dopamine.

The fast-removal students (the ones with the lower grades in school) scored an average of 8 percentage points higher than the slow-removal students on this test. Their brains could handle the stress better, get rid of the excess dopamine, and allow them to excel.

(from en.wikipedia, public domain)

So what are the real-life implications of this? If something is genetically programmed, we can’t change it, but we can learn to cope with it and work around it.

If you were one of those kids who crashed and burned on big tests and class presentations, or if you have a child who falls into this category, you should find it comforting to know that this is not a character flaw. Knowing something is not our fault can help us be more matter-of-fact about dealing with it. It is what it is.

So how do we deal with it?

1.  Stop beating up on yourself for not coping well with pressure. You’re not dumb, morally deficient or mentally ill. Your brain just works differently than those who thrive on stress.

2.  Be selective about the types of situations you expose yourself to. Forcing yourself to deal with high-stakes situations is a set-up for disaster. For example, marketing, where you have to give make-or-break presentations to clients on a regular basis, may not be the best career choice.

I suspect that both my son and I have the slow-dopamine-removal gene. We both got good grades in school but tended to score rather mediocre on high-stakes standardized tests like the SAT.

My son had his heart set on a certain college. But his SAT scores were not high enough to get a merit scholarship despite his almost 4.0 GPA. At our insistence, he took the test again, without much improvement (despite tutoring beforehand).

If I’d known then what I know now, I wouldn’t have insisted that he take the SAT a second time. I would have gone immediately to our alternate plan. We found a couple other schools that did not place as much importance on SAT scores. He got accepted into the honors program at one of them, and received a scholarship!

3.  Use stress management and relaxation techniques to help lower your stress level, and thus your dopamine production, in high-pressure situations.

More on how to do this over the next few weeks. The last two installments in this Stress Management series will be on relaxation techniques and one of the most important aspects of stress management, changing our cognitive and emotional interpretation of stressors.

So talk to me. How well do you perform under pressure?  Do you think you are a fast-dopamine-removal or slow-dopamine-removal person?

How can we help our kids adjust and learn to cope if they tend to fold under pressure?

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She writes the Kate Huntington mystery series.

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