Posted in Life Lessons, Mindfulness Matters

How Do You Practice Gratitude?

When I think of practicing gratitude, my first thought is, “Well, I guess I’m grateful for what I have,” but that’s not what it means. Practicing isn’t generally being grateful, it’s about actively finding and building gratitude for things (people, places, animals, moments, etc.) in your life.

A good place to start learning about gratitude practice is this article from the Greater Good Science Center (GGSC aka a cool research center devoted to the scientific understanding of happiness and altruism). When you’re done with that, check out this article that goes over four different ways to practice gratitude. It isn’t a one size fits all kind of thing so if something isn’t working it’s worth it to try something else.

I’m currently practicing ‘counting my blessings.’ GGSC suggests spending 5-10 minutes writing out three things in detail on a daily basis. I might grow to that eventually, but instead these first few weeks I’ve been boiling it down to 2-3 minutes writing down a few words (ex: getting out of class early, pizza lunch at work, taking the long way home).

It’s funny, lately I find myself appreciating things more in the present. On my walk a few days ago, the same walk I do several times a week, I saw a yellow bird and spent a few moments watching it. I thought to myself how grateful I was for my stillness and for the return of nature and wildlife after an endless winter. I felt happy, calm, and hopeful.

If you’re not sold on the benefits of gratitude practices, check out more of the research:

  • Read this piece on TIME that goes over 7 incredible health benefits of gratitude.
  • Harvard is also hip to the gratitude jive.

Both of these were posted close to Thanksgiving. It’s interesting how we seem to reserve gratitude for holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas, Father/Mother’s day, birthdays etc. I don’t see anything wrong with addressing specific gratitude on these days, but it’s so worthwhile to incorporate gratitude into your daily life.

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Posted in Topical Time

What is Cognitive Flexibility?

Are you familiar with the term cognitive flexibility? It refers to the ability to change our thinking based on new information. A link has been established between sleep deprivation and impaired cognitive flexibility. There’s ongoing research on how conitive flexibility affects our decision making.

I don’t know about you, but when I get poor sleep it’s hard to focus. It’s harder to be optimistic. It’s easy to be forgetful. It’s easy to get frustrated.

Some of us use caffeine to reduce symptoms of sleep deprivation, but it’s possible to become caffeine dependent. If you miss that morning cup and you’re sleep deprived your symptoms could be even worse.

Instead of relying on caffeine to supplement your poor sleep, evaluate your sleeping hygiene. Do you do anything to wind down before bed? Is there a set time you stop looking at your phone? Do you try to regularly go to sleep around the same time?

These questions refer to aspects of a healthy sleep routine. I’ll use myself as an example, but keep in mind I’m still struggling to establish this so it doesn’t happen every night:

  1. Wind Down – I’ll try to drink some relaxing tea, do yoga, read, or listen to soft music about an hour before bed.
  2. No Phone – This one has been the hardest to stick with. I try to stop looking at my phone at 10, 10:30 PM at the latest. Often times it doesn’t happen. I’ll grab my phone to check that my alarm is set and since it’s already in my hand I’ll open an app like Facebook and start scrolling away.
  3. Bed Time – If I’m following the ‘no phone’ rule this gets easier. I aim to be falling asleep by or before 11 PM. If I don’t put down the phone, or if I’m watching some engaging television, all bets are off and who knows when I’ll actually fall asleep.

Better sleep will give us better cognitive flexibility, but that’s not all. Improved sleep is linked with a number of health benefits. It helps curb inflammation, supports a healthy weight, and can lower depression.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that you have to follow your sleep routine every single night for the rest of your life. I’m not asking you at 9 PM on a Saturday to tell your friends that you need to go home to lay down in bed and turn on your white noise machine (BUT if you need an excuse to leave this is a hilarious one).

It’s not about perfection. It’s about trying to be mindful. After those long nights out try to wake up around the same time, avoid taking naps, and get back into the nightly routine as soon as you can.

Your body will thank you for it!

Posted in Topical Time

Why You Should Care About Mental Health Month

Did you know that 1 in 6 adults in the United States live with mental illness? Or that mental illness in adolescence is rising? Or that support services are struggling to meet the growing demand for mental healthcare?

In some states there are 6 times the individuals needing treatment to 1 mental health professional.

It saddens and angers me that someone who is in desperate need of professional help can reach out only to find there aren’t any providers available because they’re already overloaded.

Imagine how that makes someone who is already convinced they are completely alone and worthless feel? I am grateful we have the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, but there is still a dire need for more accessible mental health resources.

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. 123 people commit suicide every day. 44,965 each year. For every suicide there are 25 attempts. Here in Chicago the CTA has begun posting signs in hopes to reach those who are struggling before it’s too late:

Image result for national suicide prevention train stops

Even as an advocate I wasn’t aware of how daunting the statistics really are. It’s hard to look at. It’s harder to talk about. There is so much resistance to mental health awareness because stigma is still so strong.

We’re all so immersed in our own struggles that it’s hard to find time to observe and offer support to those around us who are suffering. What can we even do to make a difference?

Ask them how they’re doing. If they don’t want to talk about it, don’t be upset, the shame associated with stigma is so strong it can be hard to open up. Let them know how much you care and that you’re there for them if they change their mind.

By simply being present and offering your support, you are proving to them that they are wrong. You are saying to them: You are not alone. It’s something incredibly powerful and compassionate we can all offer those we love with little effort.

Posted in Topical Time

Toxic Masculinity

We have finally begun to acknowledge the damage that rigid definitions of what it means to be a woman have done. While we continue to work on expanding the definition of what it is to be a woman it is important that we also recognize and work to shift restrictive perceptions of manhood.

Toxic masculinity isn’t just a wicked band name, Teaching Tolerance defines it as:

“a narrow and repressive description of manhood, designating manhood as defined by violence, sex, status and aggression. It’s the cultural ideal of manliness, where strength is everything while emotions are a weakness; where sex and brutality are yardsticks by which men are measured, while supposedly “feminine” traits—which can range from emotional vulnerability to simply not being hypersexual—are the means by which your status as “man” can be taken away.”

I want to talk about toxic masculinity because we cannot ignore the prevalence of violent acts carried out by men. A fair point to make about the staggering statistics is that they are slightly skewed because when it comes to things like rape and domestic abuse men are shamed for coming forward when these crimes are committed against them. An example of toxic masculinity at work.

With this criticism in mind we can still acknowledge that when it comes to mass shootings in the U.S. 94 of 97 have been committed by men (and primarily white men).

I have already made clear in prior posts that I agree with sensible gun reform to combat school shootings, but I think it is important to consider why these incredibly violent crimes are almost exclusively carried out by men.

If you still aren’t clear on what toxic masculinity is or why it matters I have a few resources that have helped me realize there is a problem:

What Do We Mean When We Say “Toxic Masculinity”?: Luke Humphris made an incredibly accurate short comic explaining toxic masculinity. I’ve put the first panel here as a preview, but I highly recommend reading the whole comic. It won’t take more than 5 minutes of your time and will clear up any confusion you have on what toxic masculinity is.

Image result for luke humphris toxic masculinity

Tough Guise: Violence, Media, and the Crisis in Masculinity: I’ve linked to a short YouTube clip from the documentary, but if you can find a full version it is well worth your time. This documentary came out in 1998 and despite the 20 years that have passed the majority of the issues outlined here are still too relevant.

This topic is so important to me because I have always done my best to alter behavior when it was brought to my attention that it was hurtful or limiting. My participation in toxic masculinity is the most recent behavior I have been working on.

A few months ago my good friend Thom brought to my attention that as passionate as I am about equality, I make reductive judgments of my own. We were watching Doctor Who and there was an episode with James Corden guest starring. I made some comment about him being gay and was embarrassed to find out that not only was he not gay, he married the same woman he was dating in the episode. I felt bad. For all the time I have spent working to expand the rigid definition of what it is to be a woman, here I was limiting manhood to a narrow definition.

In the same way we are empowering women to embrace their diverse range of roles and emotions, we need to encourage our men to do the same. As most changes begin, it starts with you. Whenever you find yourself being surprised by someone’s behavior, think about why it is surprising. If it’s surprising because it doesn’t fit the image you have of what being a man/woman should be, check yourself. Don’t judge yourself (as I often do) because we are human. These traditional perceptions of manhood/womanhood are images that we have internalized as they are continually reinforced by the dominant society everywhere we look.

We don’t need to shame ourselves for automatic thoughts, but we can recognize them and stop believing them to make for a world of boundless expression full of people comfortable presenting as their authentic selves.

Posted in Review Rant/Rave

S.A.D. Light Therapy Lamp Review

I got a light therapy lamp shortly after my post in October to assist with seasonal affective disorder. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t awkward at first sitting in front of a little box beaming a bright light in my general direction for twenty minutes after waking up in the morning. I struggled for the past two months to choose the lamp over hitting snooze and sleeping until the last possible minute. Now I’ve found myself in a daily routine that has been solid for a few weeks.

A portion of the credit for my commitment should go to my cats. We switched them to an all wet food diet twice a day and they have determined that 7AM is the absolute latest that I can sleep before they start making my life a living hell by demanding to be fed. They are ruthless. I don’t need to leave for work until at least 7:45AM and only spend maybe 15 minutes total getting ready. Instead of being miserable about lost sleep, I looked on the upside that my wake up call left plenty of time to hang out in front of the lamp.

I read, I write, or most days I play Animal Crossing Pocket Camp. Whatever may happen throughout the day, it’s really comforting knowing that those first fifteen minutes are mine to do anything or nothing at all.

The light seems to be working! I feel like I’m less tense, I have more energy, and I have a more optimistic outlook on things. If you experience seasonal affective disorder and can find room in your budget I think it’s worth a shot to alleviate some symptoms.

The light therapy lamp I have is from Amazon. The brand is NatureBright. The model is not on Amazon any longer, but I found similar models elsewhere at Walmart, Walgreens, and Target. There are a ton of other brands and options out there to choose from, but make sure it’s at least 10,000 LUX.

Posted in Free Time Fun, Life Lessons

New Year: Reflections and Hopes

There’s no way to avoid it. 2018 is quickly approaching. Not only are we still recovering from the holidays, we’re dealing with the stress of reflecting on the year that’s passed and the pressure that can come with hopes for the new year that’s on the horizon.

Instead of waiting for the new year to begin my resolutions I started some of them in December. I started a strict paleo diet that I am going to do my best to hold onto in the new year. After only a few weeks the new diet has resolved the majority of my stomach troubles which I am incredibly grateful for. I’m lucky enough to have a close friend, Carly, who went paleo as well and the buddy system is so helpful and encouraging.

This week I noticed a lot more people at my gym. It’s something I joke about every year and I’m sure I’m not the only one who notices. Thousands of well meaning people promise themselves that this is the year that they’re going to get “fit” and for the first few months of the new year the gyms are a lot busier. Mid-February most of the crowd has thinned because the excitement of the new year has worn off and keeping such a vague commitment can be tough. There isn’t one way to be “fit” and if you aren’t doing something that works for you it’s hard to establish a habit and easy to lose motivation.

I’m one of those people, or at least was. This year instead of setting a weight goal I’ve set feats that I’d like to accomplish. Sure, I’d like to be ‘skinny’ and I do have a goal weight in mind, but for fitness to work for me I can’t stress the number on the scale. I get obsessed with it and feel defeated so quickly. Instead in 2018 I want to complete a half marathon and I’m considering signing up for the Half Tough Mudder as well (if you’ve done it any tips would be appreciated!).

More importantly, this year I’m going to strive to be kinder and more considerate of others. 2017 was brutal for me. I faced a lot of hard truths that I had been avoiding. I sought out treatment realizing that I could not handle my mental illness on my own any longer. Now I’m regularly seeing a psychologist and psychiatrist that I actually respect and listen to. I created this blog and poured my heart into being honest and open about my experiences and interests.

There’s been a lot of introspection this year which is great, but it’s so important to me that the people in my life know that I care for them and am here for them as well which is why that’s a big hope for me in 2018. I’m going to do my best to continue working on myself, but make more room to nourish the relationships that mean so much to me. I hope to spend more time with friends, finally remember some birthdays, and become a better listener.

There are a few more hopes I have for the new year, but I’m keeping those to myself. I’m writing a letter to the universe asking for support in my ventures in 2018. It may seem silly, but it works for Keltie Knight and Christina Perry, so why not give it a shot?

 

Posted in Life Lessons

Holiday Survival Guide

It’s the most wonderful time of the year… and for many it’s also the most stressful. The intent of gathering with friends and family is to celebrate and spread happiness, but often we lose the meaning and end up stuck on the logistics of gift giving and the strain of dealing with difficult personalities.

So, how do you cope and keep yourself from having a breakdown when you burn the casserole and Uncle Jim brings up politics at dinner? I turned to the wealth of knowledge that the internet provides for answers.

Mental Health Today has a great article written by Patty E. Fleener M.S.W. on How To Survive The Holidays with a ton of helpful advice. Brief highlights for me are their suggestions to:

  • “Be careful of “shoulds” – it is better to do what is most helpful for you and your family. If a situation looks especially difficult over the holidays, don’t get involved if possible.”
  • “There is no right or wrong way to handle the day. “
  • “Stop putting unreasonable pressure on yourself to be happy during the holidays. When you have legitimate reasons for being happy, acknowledge them and be gentle with yourself.”

I have a habit of getting stuck on what a family oriented holiday should be, how I should feel, and what I should do. This is problematic because I end up putting pressure on myself to perform family verses experiencing it. Wherever you end up whether it be with your family, your partner’s family, in a soup kitchen, on a trip, or at home alone there is no right way to celebrate.

Even Kesha can relate to the holiday mental health struggle! In a recent essay for TIME she wrote, “Around the holidays, I often feel like I’m supposed to be everywhere, with everyone — all with the added guilt that it’s the season of giving.” To combat this societal pressure and maintain her mental health she constantly reminds herself, “It’s not selfish to take time for yourself.” When you make it a priority to take time for yourself, “you will actually be much better company for those around you.”

Be kind to others, be kind to yourselves, and let’s leave the stress and pressure of getting the holidays right behind us.