Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Disagree Better: Reducing Stress by Avoiding Fights in Communication with Others

One of the most common causes of stress living in a social world is the disagreements that we can have with others throughout the day.  Whether it is with a spouse, a coworker, a family member, or a child, disagreements are a natural part of communicating our individual opinions.  Stress enters into this world when disagreements turn into fights.  As our conversations decline to fighting, most of us feel the anxiety that comes from having to defend ourselves and the anger that often accompanies it.  We can avoid these feelings if we learn to disagree better! 
In order to avoid fights, we first have to identify some of the pitfalls that get us from civil disagreements to all out brawls.  Being dismissive of others is a common complaint that often heats up a conversation.  If we don’t take the time to listen to the other person and at least consider their perspective, then it is natural for them to get angry and not afford us the same luxury.  This pitfall is a sign of disrespect that no one appreciates.  Another trap that people fall into is letting the focus of the disagreement get away from them.  We often begin a discord on one topic, but end up fighting about every little thing that has every annoyed us about the other person.  We need to learn to stay on topic and not bring up any previous slight that we’re hanging on to- those are best discussed at a separate time.  A third pitfall is when we attack every argument with the same energy and gusto no matter what the topic.  It is important to learn to pick our battles.  Knowing that we’re trying to avoid fighting, we need to ask ourselves “is this fight really worth the stress that it will bring me”.  If the answer is no, then we need to have the strength and courage to move on.
When we get involved in an argument, we are often so wrapped up in our own feelings that we forget that the other party in the discord is feeling similarly.  Empathy can be your biggest weapon in defusing fights before they occur.  While we cling to our own perspectives, it is helpful to consider the perspective of your sparring partner.  Are they as passionate about the topic as you are?  Do they have some emotional connection to this topic?  If we try to understand the perspective of the other person, it often leads us to a better grasp on why this fight is occurring.  Even if we continue to disagree, empathetic disagreements often avoid some of those pitfalls that lead to fights.
It is also important to realize this simply fact: you can’t have a fight with only one person.  We often feel like we need to defend our position and fight when challenged, but the reality is that this is not the case.  If we are working to avoid the stress caused by fights, then the best weapon we have is the ability to avoid fighting altogether.  Learn to avoid hot button topics that you know usually lead to fighting.  Make efforts to eliminate people from your life who thrive on consistent conflict.  Most importantly, remember that you don’t have to participate in an argument just because someone else wants to fight with you.  This technique is particularly important for parents of teenagers who often seek out conflict as they search for their own identify. 
If an argument seems inevitable, there are methods to assert your feelings in a way that can disarm your partner and reduce the stress involved.  First off, try to use “I statements” as much as possible.  “I statements” are a way of taking ownership of our feelings and problems and avoid throwing blame at others.  Instead of saying, “You make me so angry when you don’t listen” why not try, “I feel like we’re not communicating well together”.  The new statement feels less like a jab and more like an issue that we can solve together.  Secondly, make sure you identify the change that you want to happen.  Going into an argument with no clear plan of solution puts added stress on both parties.  If you don’t know what change you want, perhaps that’s something you should consider before addressing the issue. Finally, try not to generalize your thoughts with words like “never”, “always”, or “only”.  It's much more effective to say "I rarely get to go to parties, and I'd really like to go to this one." than to shout about how "You NEVER let me go ANYWHERE! I'm going to be the ONLY person not there!"
By learning to disagree better, we can reduce a great deal of stress from our daily lives.  If we can be empathetic, avoid common pitfalls of arguments, utilize “I statements”, and be clear about the change we want to see then we can live happier lives with less conflict and more pleasant communication.
Bill Knor, LCPC
Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Stress and the Internet: Unhealthy Internet Use

The internet is an extremely useful tool that has reshaped our lives. We can gather a variety of information at lightening speed, establish new relationships and reestablish old social contacts, make purchases ranging from minor to significant, watch movies, peruse various educational videos, gamble and listen to music. Easy access to the internet world can be obtained from smart phones, computers, and tablets. The cyber universe is immense and is literally at our finger tips. For some, the internet allure encourages unhealthy use.

Unhealthy internet use is characterized by spending so much time on the internet that other important activities are neglected such as work, academic responsibilities, relationships or anything else that is important. Some people use the internet to deal with painful emotions such as depression, loneliness, anxiety and stress. Immersing oneself in the internet to avoid dealing with life's problems can temporarily soothe the discomfort but does little to resolve the problem in the long run. Excessive internet use can worsen the experience of stress, loneliness and isolation. Physical symptoms associated with excessive internet use include: carpal tunnel syndrome, dry eyes or strained vision, sleep disturbances, severe headaches, back and neck aches.

There are a number of different types of internet addictions. They are:
Computer Addiction-using the computer excessively to play games or to do computer programming
Information Overload-obsessively searching the web such that work performance and relationships with family and friend are affected.
Net Compulsions-compulsive online use of gaming, gambling, trading stock, or use of auction sites
Cybersex Addiction-excessive use of internet pornography, adult chat rooms or sexual fantasy role play sites such that real life relationships are affected.
Cyber-Relationship Addiction-excessive use of social networking, chat rooms etc. where real life relationships take a back seat.

The warning signs that internet use is a problem are not the same for everyone. There is no set number of minutes or hours that define internet addiction. However, there are some common warning signs:

* loosing track of time while online
* isolation from family and friends
* not getting done and completing responsibilities at work or home
* feeling guilty or acting defensively about internet use
* feeling euphoric when engaged in internet activities

If you recognize that your or a family member's internet use is a problem, there are several things that can be done to address the problem. First, if there is an underlying problem, like depression or anxiety, for which internet use is attempting to soothe, treatment dealing directly with the problem is needed. Second, if the internet is a way to de-stress or is used as a way to connect to people due to shyness, then additional coping resources must be established i.e. relaxation strategies or social skills practice. Third, the more activities and social relationships that engage one's time, the less will be the urge to turn to the internet. Finally, cognitive-behavioral therapy, provided by a mental health professional, can help teach the skills necessary to cope with internet addiction and healthier ways to handle distressing emotions.

Submitted by Holly O. Houston, Ph.D.   Licensed Clinical Psychologist
Adapted from Internet & Computer Addiction at HelpGuide.org

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

De-Stress Your Sleep: Managing Insomnia

Insomnia affects as much as 40% of the population in a year, as many as a third of adults suffer sleep disorders at some time in their lives and 10-20% of the adult population suffers from chronic sleep disturbance. Sleep disruption can result from environmental factors, everyday stress, medical issues, mental health disorders and substance use. In a few people, insomnia is a primary disorder, one that is not associated with another medical or mental health disorder but most people who suffer from insomnia have a related disorder. Many medical disorders, including heart disease, diabetes, allergies and hormonal fluctuations, may affect sleep. Ingestion of stimulants, like caffeine and nicotine, prescribed medications and recreational substances, including alcohol, may all disrupt sleep. Mental health disorders, especially anxiety and depressive disorders, may both cause and be exacerbated by sleep disturbance.

Sleep difficulties may manifest as an inability to fall asleep (initial insomnia), frequent awakening (middle insomnia) and/or early awakening (terminal insomnia). Initial insomnia is often associated with anxiety, ingestion of stimulating substances and food, stimulating activities (like television and computer use) and/or exercise too close to bedtime. Both middle and terminal insomnia are often associated with depression and may be exacerbated by alcohol and drug use and withdrawal. Alcohol and some drugs may initially induce sleep, only to disrupt sleep cycles or cause awakening later on. Withdrawal from substances, especially alcohol, benzodiazepines and opioids, may cause sleep disruption long after acute withdrawal symptoms subside.

Normal sleep is divided into two types: REM (rapid eye movement) and NREM (non-rapid eye movement or quiet sleep); NREM sleep is further divided into four stages, from light to progressively deeper. During quiet sleep, the physical body is rejuvenated through tissue repair and regeneration, bone and muscle growth and strengthening of the immune system. REM sleep is characterized by dreaming and increased brain activity accompanied by muscular paralysis. Cycles of sleep lasting about 90 minutes alternate between NREM and REM sleep, with REM sleep cycles gradually lengthening from about 10 minutes in the first cycle to as long as an hour at the end of sleep. The function of REM sleep is not completely understood but seems to be related to learning, emotions and stress management.

Primary insomnia can be treated with sleep hygiene and cognitive-behavioral interventions. (See our website for sleep hygiene tips: http://www.anxiety-stresscenter.com/stress/sleep-hygiene). Insomnia associated with another medical or mental health disorder should include treatment of the primary disorder as well as direct treatment of the insomnia. A positive synergy is created with the treatment of both the primary disorder and sleep problems: reducing other symptoms of anxiety and depression will generally lead to better sleep and improving sleep will usually improve other symptoms of anxiety and depression. A number of approaches to managing insomnia can help:
  •       General health guidelines for diet and exercise will also help insomnia. A healthy diet, reduced use of stimulants and alcohol, and 30 minutes of aerobic exercise are all associated with improved sleep.
  •       A relaxing bedtime routine will help you fall asleep more easily. Turning off the computer, taking a warm bath, soothing music, prayer or reading, and a warm drink may all help you relax and let your body know it is time to prepare for sleep. Think about what routines would help you relax most and repeat these nightly.
  •       Stimulus control: re-learning to associate being in bed with being asleep rather than with being awake. If you can’t fall asleep within 10-15 minutes, get up and go to another spot, engage in a relaxing activity and return to bed only when sleepy. Allow another 10-15 minutes in bed to fall asleep and leave the bed again if you still don’t sleep. Repeat as often as necessary to result in sleep and be patient: it may take several nights of this process to re-learn a positive association between bed and sleep. The association bed and being awake was learned over a long period of time so it may take days or weeks to reverse it.
  •       Relaxation therapy: Reducing levels of arousal during the day and at night will result in improved sleep. Progressive muscle relaxation, imagery, meditation and relaxing exercise like hatha yoga can all reduce arousal and improve sleep. Activities like reading, listening to music, crafts and games may help you relax and fall asleep, as long as they are not too exciting. Television may help some people relax but beware of getting caught up in a program and staying up to finish it. Both television and music interfere with sleep if left on so use a sleep timer or, even better, only use these in another room. Computer use and work activities generally have an arousing effect and should be avoided right before bed and when trying to return to sleep.
  •       Cognitive intervention: On your own or with a therapist, examine your own thoughts and beliefs about sleep and insomnia, challenging the validity and adaptiveness of your beliefs and replacing them with ideas that are more evidence-based and useful in facilitating restful sleep.
  •       Medical intervention: Medications may be useful in some cases to disrupt insomnia and re-establish sleep/wake cycles and when used in conjunction with sleep hygiene. Discuss which medications may be best for you and your sleep symptoms with your medical provider.

 Nancy R. Soro, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist