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How to connect with negative emotions: sadness

Being raised in an environment of emotional neglect does not mean you cannot have a healthy relationship with your emotions as an adult. When you approach them with maturity, they become a natural expression of your humanity, and not a “pathology” or an inconvenience that has to be dealt with, medicated or controlled. Because emotions tell us about who we are, the moment we are currently living and how certain events and others affect us, they are a great source of self-knowledge. Moreover, self-regulation does not materialise without emotional connection, no matter how hard you try to avoid or deny the presence of your emotions, they will stay with you until you give them the attention they require to be fully processed. To help you befriend your negative emotions and increase your ability to self-soothe, the upcoming articles will cover some basic techniques on how to build an open relationship with sadness, anger and fear. Below, you will find 5 simple tips on how to connect with sadness:

How to connect with negative emotions: sadness
Sadness reminds us of what is missing in our lives that is important to us

1- Raise self-awareness

If you do not know how you are feeling right now, you will not connect with your emotions, positive or negative. For that reason, it is vital that you create the habit of checking in with yourself, every so often, to find out how you are doing. From time to time, or when you detect some kind of emotional discomfort, ask yourself, “How am I feeling?”. Then, identify when you are feeling sad and move to the next step.

2- Take a break and focus

When you notice you feel sad, go somewhere quiet and private to connect wholeheartedly with that feeling. Consciously direct your focus to your inner world, what is going through your mind and your bodily sensations. In this open and mindful state of being, there is nothing more urgent and relevant than the present moment. Stay with yourself and your feelings for a little while until you have an open channel of communication with your body.

3- Listen to the body

What is your body saying about your current emotional state? Are you feeling energetic, socially engaged and motivated, or lethargic and wanting to be alone or even isolate from others? Do you feel like you could cry, or pressure/tension in the chest and/or throat area? Is there a feeling of heaviness in your limbs and body? Connecting freely with those physical sensations, or listening to your own body, will open the channels of communication with your sadness.

4- Register your sadness’ message

Now that you have accessed your sadness, what is it telling you? One of the main roles of sadness is to grieve our losses and remind us of what is missing in our lives that is important to us. Are you missing a sense of purpose, yourself, or the company of others? If not, could you be missing someone, a good feeling or time in your past, or something you might never have experienced to the fullest, such as a true sense of community or love?

5- Let the tears flow

The quickest and most effective way to process sadness is to have a good cry.  When you feel your eyes hot with tears, just let them flow. Do not hold them back or make them stop, but let them find their way out of your body and free you of your pain. As emotional tears contain stress hormones, they are a natural means to help you regulate and restore your emotional balance.

As it is the case with all other “negative” emotions, such as fear and anger, deeply connecting with your sadness can be extremely beneficial to your emotional, psychological and physical health. Instead of fighting against it, embracing your sadness and learning from it help you redirect your focus to what you identify with and makes you feel good. If you would like to live a more fulfilling, authentic and happier life, it is vital that you replace your rigid beliefs about sadness as something to be avoided or repressed, and open your body to its wisdom and healing power.

How to cure insomnia naturally

If you struggle with sleep disturbances and would like a natural cure, this article will help you reduce or even end your reliance on medication. As you may already be aware, insomnia and anxiety have a high comorbidity rate. In other words, they tend to co-exist. As understandable as that sounds, determining the root cause of the problem could pose its own challenges. Are you having sleep disturbances because you are anxious, or are you anxious because of sleep disturbances? The good news is that even if you are unable to pinpoint the main cause of your current inability to sleep soundly, you might still be able to restore it by tackling it from different angles.

How to cure insomnia naturally
Our circadian rhythm, or internal clock, regulates our sleep/wake cycles

1- Regulate your circadian rhythm with light therapy

If you are not suffering from depression or a medical condition such as gastroesophageal reflux disease or asthma, your insomnia might be a result of circadian rhythm dysregulation. Our circadian rhythm, or internal clock, regulates our sleep/wake cycles. Light exposure to the eyes is one of the main factors that keeps our body clock functioning properly, as well as a fixed sleep routine. If you believe your insomnia could be related to circadian rhythm dysregulation, I highly recommend light therapy with the help of a 10000 Lux light therapy lamp. To reset your internal clock successfully, follow the below steps:

  • Set up a time when you would like to wake up every morning. If you need to be awake at 7 am, for instance, set up your alarm clock for that time
  • Only go to bed when you are exhausted
  • Get up when the alarm goes off, regardless of how tired you feel. Immediately after getting up, have a 20 to 30 minute session of light therapy
  • Have your 10000 Lux light therapy lamp positioned diagonally from your eyes, at eye level and at arm’s length
  • Repeat that routine on a daily basis, especially throughout the winter months

2- Listen to your body

If you are not tired enough to fall asleep, that probably means you will not. Tossing and turning in bed while forcing yourself to sleep may only increase your anxiety and further delay sleep onset. If that happens to you, stop berating yourself and use self-compassion and tolerance to accept when you are not ready to fall asleep. While sleep does not come, rest, do a breathing exercise or read. Do not look at your phone. The brightness of its screen can send the wrong message to your brain and interfere with your sleep/wake cycle.

3- Be patient and persevere

Treating your insomnia naturally is possible, but it requires patience and perseverance. Stick to a very strict waking up time and do not take naps or make up for lost sleep in the morning or during the day. Even when exhausted, get up when the alarm clock goes off. Give your body time to process your new sleep routine and do not give up.

4- Practice vigorous exercise

If your body is stuck in fear mode (anxiety is a fear based feeling), or fight or flight, it will often not allow you to be tired. You can change that scenario by doing some form of vigorous exercise such as running, swimming, playing football, practicing martial arts or taking fast dance lessons. Whatever your choice, do not exercise vigorously 3 hours before bedtime.

5- Do therapy for unresolved childhood trauma

Insomnia caused by anxiety and hypervigilance is one of the effects of unresolved developmental/childhood trauma. Complex trauma victims tend to struggle with sleep disturbances over certain periods, which can increase their anxiety particularly when going through tough times in their lives. In such cases, therapy can help you heal your trauma wounds and improve sleep.

Other sleep hygiene tips include:

  • Read “light” books at bedtime and avoid highbrow, textbook or technical reading that requires concentration
  • No computer or mobile phone screen 2 hours before bedtime
  • No coffee after 2 pm
  • No alcohol, heavy meals or smoking in the evenings
  • Sleep in a quiet and dark place
  • If you suffer from night terrors, practice the self-soothing techniques listed here

20 self-care ideas and activities for 2019

20 self-care ideas and activities for 2019
Change does come about when you look after yourself

As another year draws to a close, the need for lifestyle changes may feel more pressing to some of us. Whatever your needs are, change does come about when you look after yourself and prioritise what favours the whole of you, body and mind. If you believe in this concept but would like help translating it into action, below you will find 20 self-care ideas and activities to take better care of yourself in 2019:

  1. Go for short power walks (20 to 30 minutes) to keep you physically and mentally fit
  2. Put in place good sleep hygiene practices such as avoiding caffeine, smoking and drinking alcohol close to bedtime to improve sleep quality
  3. Incorporate breathing exercises into your daily routine to help you manage stress
  4. Try out a 8-week mindfulness meditation programme to help you focus and reconnect with yourself
  5. Stop smoking and cut back on alcohol and sugar to prevent disease
  6. Drink more water and eat more fruit and vegetables to boost your immune system
  7. Do yoga from home or go to a yoga studio once or twice a week to feel more flexible
  8. Start a Daily Record of Dysfunctional Thoughts to help you question negative thinking
  9. Listen to your body and slow down when feeling overwhelmed to avoid burnout
  10. Raise you level of awareness and identify the emotions that precede dysfunctional and excessive behaviour to promote self-regulation and control
  11. Practice self-acceptance and love by regularly recognising the value of your efforts to raise self-esteem
  12. When sad, angry, fearful and/or ashamed, connect with those feelings to become emotionally congruent and whole
  13. Treat emotional and psychological issues with respect and seek the help of a mental health professional to deal with them
  14. Watch comedy films and series to remind you to laugh and be silly
  15. Invest time and effort in functional and rewarding relationships to feel truly connected and happy
  16. Keep contact with friends to have a good support network
  17. Make time for socialising and meeting new people to have a satisfying social life
  18. When walking, cycling or driving, get out of your head to appreciate your surroundings
  19. Take longer or more frequent walks with your children and/or pets to keep you all healthy
  20. Start a new activity (be it mental or physical) to stimulate cognitive functioning

To take full advantage of the above and notice a change in the way you feel, make your chosen practices routine. Remind yourself that perseverance and patience are key when it comes to effective change.

5 self-soothing techniques for sleep disturbances caused by trauma

5 self-soothing techniques for sleep disturbances caused by trauma
Sleep disturbances are not uncommon for those with a history of trauma

Sleep disturbances are not uncommon for those with a history of trauma, be it psychological/emotional and/or physical, of a single or complex nature (a series of adverse events). That is because some trauma victims, especially those who grew up in a stressful environment (developmental trauma), often suffer from hypervigilance. Hypervigilance is a state of constant arousal, which is experienced in a conscious or unconscious manner. For a number of trauma sufferers, their brains are stuck on survival mode, even when there is no reason to feel unsafe. As a result, they may experience at least one of the following sleep problems:

  • Difficulty falling asleep
  • Waking up during the night or too early and struggling to fall back asleep
  • Feeling scared while trying to fall asleep
  • Having a strange feeling that there is an image, something or someone in the room
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Jerking awake right as falling asleep
  • Having racing and/or incomprehensible thoughts
  • Feeling scared of falling asleep
  • Not being able to fall back asleep after having a nightmare
  • Waking up scared and lost and not knowing why
  • Not being able to sleep in complete darkness and/or without background noise

To better deal with the above, I suggest the following 5 self-soothing techniques for sleep disturbances caused by trauma:

1- Tell yourself you are safe

As simple as this sounds, telling yourself, “I am safe”, silently and repeatedly, can remind you that there is nothing to worry about anymore. Reminding yourself that you are safe now works as to bring you back to the present. Moreover, when you say to yourself that you are OK and that there is no current threat to your well-being, you return to your own, grown up body, as well as to the safety of your own home (or wherever you are sleeping).

2- Physically comfort yourself

As the renowned trauma therapist Peter Levine explains in this video, by giving yourself a cuddle or touching your forehead and chest simultaneously, you can help yourself regulate the negative feelings that make you feel overwhelmed, such as fear and anxiety. I often recommend my clients to gently stroke their arms to feel a sense of tenderness and love for themselves, not only when having sleep disturbances, but also when feeling rejected. Touching, even when performed independently and without another human being, helps us calm down and relax.

3- Connect with your inner child

If you have suffered developmental/childhood trauma, your inner child requires your attention from time to time. As much as your self-esteem needs nurturing to stay high, that little boy or girl inside of you also craves attention and care to feel safe, particularly when your fears do not seem to correspond to that competent adult you have become. When that seems to be the case, close your eyes, breathe deeply for a few minutes and go to a place inside yourself where you can connect with that little person. Picture yourself as a figure of protection, love and safety, as your inner child’s ideal father or mother (not the ones you have in real life), and spend some time comforting, talking or even playing with him or her.

4- Do a breathing exercise

Breathing exercises are effective practices to reduce arousal and stress. Physiologically, they help calm down your nervous system, which is a simple and useful means to manage not just the symptoms of PTSD or C-PTSD, but also those of other anxiety disorders or episodes. I highly recommend this Pranayama exercise at least once daily to help you manage your anxiety and prevent sleep disturbances, as the ones above listed.

5- Challenge negative thinking

If your intrusive/racing/automatic/negative thoughts are discernible, challenge them immediately. If they are telling you that something bad is about to happen or other such nonsense, shut them up with objectivity. Regain control over your own mind and do not let them run the show. You can do that by questioning their meaning with rational explanations that expose their incoherence. If you are truly enraged by the effect they have had on you and your sleep, you can also openly curse them or tell them to go away and leave you alone.

The 5 self-soothing techniques for sleep disturbances caused by trauma related in this article could also become part of your self-care routine, and not be limited to what happens before and after sleep. The most productive way to manage hypervigilance is consciously and proactively. You do not to have to wait until you lose sleep to be made fully aware of its power. The earlier you start taking care of yourself and your emotional, psychological and physical health, the longer you will be able to enjoy its benefits.

How to stop taking everything personally and raise self-esteem

If like most of us, you were raised in an environment of emotional neglect, you may believe – even without awareness – that you are not good enough, unlovable and/or incompetent. That is because growing up not having our emotions validated by our primary caregivers leaves us feeling empty and unworthy. Systematically ignoring a child’s need to have his or her feelings acknowledged – be it consciously or not – has an impact not only on his or her emotional health, but also psychological one. As children learn how to regulate with the help of caring, empathic parents who are attuned to their individual needs, when their caregivers do not respond as often and as consistently as it is required for them to build an inner sense of wholeness and safety, they grow up without being able to secure their own emotional wellbeing.

Not knowing what to do with one’s own fear, anger, sadness, guilt and/or shame after having witnessed them being dismissed or – what is worse – having been judged for expressing or even having such feelings is disconcerting to the developing child. In fact, the message anyone registers when their feelings are discarded is “If my emotions do not matter, I do not matter”. This cognitive process, even if not conscious in nature, affects us deeply, regardless of age. For this reason, it is virtually impossible to truly believe in our value, as well as naturally and autonomously feed our own need for love and acceptance, when what we feel is not worth the attention of those who are responsible for our care and influence us the most.

What’s wrong with me?

So, you grew up in an environment of emotional neglect and now your self-esteem is volatile. As a result (and because you do not have solid emotion regulation skills), you are very sensitive to the changes that take place around you, especially when it involves people. If a colleague snaps at you for no apparent reason, you start wondering what you have done to upset him or her. As you worriedly go over the latest interactions you have had with this person, you analyse your actions repeatedly and meticulously so to identify what you could have said or done to have triggered his or her reaction. You ask yourself, feeling powerless and exposed: “What have I done (wrong)?”.

Taking things personally is a cognitive error frequently committed by those with low self-esteem, because it stems from the principle that if something unpleasant or “not right” happens to you, it should be your fault. Naturally, as a lover of cause and effect, it also makes sense for the human brain to think that what happens in our life is a consequence of who we are. Therefore, associating what goes wrong with your core self feels rational, particularly if you think not to be competent, good enough or worthy of love and respect. Knowledge, even if of a highly subjective, biased and inaccurate nature as illustrated above, helps us find a sense of direction and safety, particularly when we lack them, as the ability to separate from others’ feelings and regulate our own independently. On that account, taking things personally can easily become a habit for those who self-regulate poorly and hold strong negative beliefs about themselves.

How to stop taking everything personally: start asking the right question

How to stop taking everything personally and raise self-esteem
Changing the way you place yourself in the world helps you manage your own inadequacy

To break this habit and save you from making yourself feel on edge every time there is unease around you, I suggest a simple technique. Whenever you feel inadequate as a result of the way others are behaving around you, instead of wondering what you have done wrong, ask yourself the following:

“What is going on here?”

Asking yourself “What is going on here?” rather than “What have I done (wrong)?” will put you in a better place in which to evaluate a situation. By asking that simple question, you are already moving away from what is happening. As a spectator, you gain the necessary distance and detachment to see things more objectively. Please notice that becoming an observer does not mean avoiding or denying responsibility for the impact your actions have on others (should they have any), but it provides you with the space you require to become mentally composed and address your feelings in a more centred manner.

To keep self-esteem at a high level may come as a challenge for those who grew up in an emotionally neglectful environment. Nevertheless, you have the power to replace old thinking patterns with healthier ones. By changing the way you place yourself in the world and by creating an open-minded and impersonal perspective, you are in a more favoured position to manage your own inadequacy and act with confidence, even when there is evidence of fault in your behaviour.

Understanding negative emotions: shame

Shame is built in our bodies based on the experience we have had with other people, such as our caregivers, relatives, friends and teachers. Shame is morally, socially and evolutionarily relevant, because it favours the integrity of human groups, helping increase their survival rates. When we stick together, we tend to live longer and healthier lives. While behaviours such as altruism, treating each other well, being empathetic, sharing and helping each other favour the quality of our relationships, acting in an exclusively narcissistic, selfish, aggressive and anti-social manner threaten their unity. Fortunately, shame is an emotion that is there to regulate such behaviours, so that the interests of the group prevail. For that reason, shame may feel like “emotional punishment” for not respecting the integrity and harmony of a group, or the rules that make us identify with each other and work in cooperation.

The role of shame

Understanding negative emotions: shame
Shame may feel like “emotional punishment” for not respecting the integrity and harmony of a group

Shame warns us when we have broken the rules shared by a given group. Because those values or set of social rules vary according to cultural context, what is shameful for a certain group may be acceptable for another. While guilt tells us that we have done something wrong, shame points the finger directly at us, as if saying: “You are wrong”. Therefore, shame has the potential to become extremely toxic to self-esteem, because it causes us to feel rejected and even a failure. Moreover, since it is a “learned” emotion, it can become an internalised self-sabotaging mechanism or a bad emotional habit through which we constantly criticise and judge ourselves. When that occurs, we feel vulnerable and tend to isolate from others.

Feelings related to shame

Embarrassment, inadequacy, worthlessness and regret, as well as feeling mortified or dishonoured, are all shame-based feelings (If you need help identifying feelings of shame, please click here).

How shame is felt in the body

Interestingly, shame, as a “moral feeling” (Michl et al, 2014) is triggered by the frontal, temporal and limbic areas of the brain (linked to rational thinking, learning and fear and survival, respectively). As you can notice below, the bodily sensations associated with shame prepare us to disconnect, avoid and even hide from the other:

  • Heavy body: head, torso, legs and arms
  • Elevated heartbeat
  • Shoulders rolled forward
  • Tucked pelvis
  • Eyes look downward
  • Lack of movement
  • Heated head and face

Adaptive and maladaptive shame

Because we value a sense of belonging, adaptive shame can stop us from acting against our best interests, as damaging the relationships we value. The same applies to our life goals and achievements. When a friend catches you out watching TV in the afternoon, when you had planned to study for a big exam, for instance, and, consequently, you feel inadequate, shame helps you stay focused on what is important to you in the long term (qualifications, better chance of employment, etc.). In such contexts, shame is adaptive because it favours goal attainment and psychological wellbeing. In that context, shame does not “run the show” as the sole motivator, but it arises in specific contexts to remind a confident and responsible individual to choose the behaviours that match his or her objectives. Maladaptive shame, however, does not contribute to personal and professional growth gracefully, but it has a hindering and lasting, self-destructive effect. When behaviour is dictated by shame, incredible harm is done to identity and self-esteem, which creates a great distance between our ourselves and our essence. Maladaptive shame is considered the most toxic of emotions, since its effect is extremely debilitating to one’s ability to connect not only with his or her own self, but also with others, making it impossible for one to feel contentment, as well as a real sense of love and joy in life.

What your shame says about you

As we have already noted, shame tells you when there is something supposedly wrong with your way of being or behaving. If you relate to your shame in a functional way – listening to its message from a balanced perspective – you take what you need (if anything) from it, and use it to recentre or reach a better state of alignment between your values and true identity. By doing so, you act with self-esteem and grow from the experience. That pragmatic attitude towards shame, and your ability to judge and regulate it, reflect a high level of self-awareness, respect and love for yourself. Shame that cannot be shaken off that effectively, but it seems to resonate with negative core beliefs such as, “I am not good enough” or “I am damaged goods”, however, lingers for longer than required to create a healthy sense of awareness. In that case, its purpose is not to inform and help you regain focus on what enhances wellbeing and development, but humiliate and denigrate you. Recurrent feelings of toxic shame is often a sign that you need to take better care of yourself emotionally and psychologically.

Due to its harmful effect on the psyche and body, toxic shame is connected to an array of mental health problems such as unresolved childhood trauma, as well as personality, anxiety and mood disorders, amongst others. If you are not satisfied with the relationship you keep with your shame or ability to control it, I highly recommend seeking professional health. Facing your shame head-on, with energy and courage, remains the best away to weaken its power over you and improve self-esteem.

Reference:

Michl P., Meindl T., Meister F., Born C., Engel R.R., Reiser, M., Hennig-Fast K. (2014). Neurobiological underpinnings of shame and guilt: a pilot fMRI study. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 9(2): 150–157. http://dx. doi: 10.1093/scan/nss114