Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Winterize Your Heart for the Holidays

Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. - Haruki Murakami

As the cold is upon us, many of us are in the process of winterizing - taking precautions to protect our bodies with extra layers, and our animals, plants, and dwellings with extra heat. The days are getting shorter, darker, and colder, which for many also has emotional effects. For some, it may be a mild and temporary case of the "winter blues" as you adjust to the season.

For others, emotional changes may be more intense. You may feel a lot more tired, your brain may feel sluggish, and your body may feel heavy. You may wake up in the morning only to spend all day looking forward to getting back to bed as soon as possible, with not much energy or motivation to socialize or do more than the bare minimum. There may be habits like spending too much time with electronic devices, and turning to unhealthy food and drink on a more regular basis. With the festivities and chaos of the holidays upon us, this feeling and need to cocoon may get more intense, which can create an extra burden if there's a social expectation to be out, about, and celebrating.

If this sounds familiar, you might have Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.). S.A.D. is a type of depression that affects some people during the fall and winter season when days become shorter and colder. The exact causes of S.A.D. are not fully understood, but it is likely the body's reaction to outside seasonal changes - causing changes in circadian rhythm and levels of melatonin and serotonin. Women, people with a history of depression, and those who have a family history of S.A.D. and/or depression are at the greatest risk for S.A.D.

Regardless of your susceptibility to the winter blues or S.A.D., it's a good idea to winterize our hearts and souls, if anything, for preparation and prevention's sake. Don't wait until you're caught in the chaos or out of sync. Here are some things you may wish to consider to take care of yourself this season.

  • Get outside. Even though the instinct may be to hunker down, just a bit of time spent in daylight can help increase energy levels and improve mood. You can layer up and try a walk, or even jog or run. Even going for a drive, getting a cup of coffee, or meeting up with a friend can help reset your mood and activity level. 
  • Move your body. Again, snuggling with Netflix may sound a lot more appealing. However, exercise doesn't have to take long, and joining a friend in an outdoor movement activity can boost positive effects with activity and social support. Or join an exercise class - knowing that others are there sweating with you can boost motivation. A body in motion stays in motion. 
  • Eat high quality foods. When it's cold and dark, fast, fatty, and comfort foods become more alluring. Just make sure your food includes healthy components - dark, leafy greens, fruits and veggies across the color spectrum, nuts and seeds, whole grains. Omega 3 fatty acids have been shown to boost brain power. Healthy soups and stews can be made ahead and frozen for later use. Try to avoid alcohol over-use, as it is a depressant and can lead to more sluggishness. 
  • Nourish your spirit and soul. Lots of small things are at our fingertips to do so. The trick is to add soothing, positive energy and take away draining energy. Spend time with a quality friend who adds positive energy to your life. Meditation, yoga, hot baths, nice candles, aromatic oils, and a good book can provide much needed nourishment that isolation and electronics cannot give. 
  • Reach out to others in need. Stepping outside of ourselves and giving back helps draw attention to the bigger picture in life and away from internal negative rumination. Check in on a friend or smile at random strangers. Buy coffee for someone, or pick up volunteering if you can.
  • Practice gratitude
  • Ask for help. If it is difficult to get out of the winter blues or you believe you may have S.A.D., help is available from physicians, psychologists, counselors, and other healers. By working with a professional, you can determine how to best manage your concerns. 
I am a Houston psychologist. For more information about my practice, visit DrGortner.com.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Help! I Have Intense Emotions!

Feelings are like children:  You don't want them driving the car, but you don't want to stuff them in the trunk either. (Quote from the movie "Thanks for Sharing")

Most of us have been conditioned by our environment that having positive emotions means success, and having negative emotions means failure.  However, both positive and negative emotions are a normal and desirable part of life.  Like children, they can be unpredictable.  Just the same, they can be brutally honest and teach us about ourselves.  Unlike rational thought, the experience of feelings is often non-linear, it can feel like a spiral or circle, or an endless loop.  This can be a challenging experience.

Some emotions can create an intense experience.  Feelings such as anger and fear can leave us with the perceived notion of feeling overwhelmed or out of control. When faced with such intense feelings, we may often feel compelled to stuff them away and supress them. We may have been taught not to listen to, show, or express our feelings.  Most of us believe we shouldn't have negative or challenging emotions or that if we allow ourselves to have them, we may lose control and something "terrible" might happen.  So when we are faced with a difficult situation in our life, we may feel upset or angry, and tell ourselves that we shouldn't be feeling this way.  Our habitual response may be to stuff those emotions in the trunk of our car.  But what happens? The stuffed away emotions start knocking, screaming, and expressing their discontent at being in the trunk.  So we try to block out the noise.  In real life, this manifests as numbing out: by staying busy and filling our lives with escapes, pursuing addictions and distractions such as overworking, substances, food, shopping, sex, getting in and out of relationships, or other impulsive behaviors.  This can give us the false illusion that the emotion has gone away.  This may work...temporarily.

What's the true "fix" for intense emotions?  Some musings and food for thought:

  • There is no need for a "fix".  Emotions are merely experiences that are temporary.  Usually they can teach us some important insight about ourselves.  
  • It's important to accept there is nothing wrong with having emotions: being afraid, angry, upset, surprised, disgusted, being happy, being excited.
  • Try not to get caught up in what your emotions mean about other people, but rather what they mean about yourself.
  • If you have a tendency to stuff your emotions in the trunk of your car, play with the notion of putting them in the back seat instead.  Check on them in the rearview mirror - acknowledge that they're there, talk to them every once in a while.  Maybe listen to what they have to say.
  • Letting go of the success/failure duality of emotions opens up amazing freedom.  Emotions just "are", without being good or bad, until we tell ourselves a story about what they mean, could be, or should be.
  • Don't be scared of emotions, just ride the wave.  They are temporary.