Friday, 30 December 2011

My New Journal: An extremely thoughtful Christmas gift!

Hi everyone!

I just wanted to post an update on my journal (hopefully everyone has been following along this week with the Christmas Challenge!). I received this modified black journal (the celtic cross, and heart locket and leather cord with key were all added by hand) with blank pages (no lines!) for Christmas from my partner. Needless to say, I was extremely touched. So I just wanted to let everyone know that I don't just write things and say things - these are things I am doing in my life, as well!

I have found that I am drawing more than I usually do in my journal because I have no lines... The thought was that I would appreciate the freedom in blank pages... and it's true! :)

Well guys, there will be a new Challenge for the New Year Week so stayed tuned and look forward to that!

If anyone wants to talk about their journaling experience, post a comment!

                                                                    Conquer on!

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Thursday, 29 December 2011

13 Beliefs to disbelieve!

Today I will discuss distorted beliefs and how they may be influencing your behaviour.  I am including an exercise to complete, as well!(don't worry, it's kind of fun and very enlightening!)

            Distorted beliefs are rules and principles we follow that are incorrect or unhelpful. We learn many of our beliefs from our family and culture, and inevitably some of them aren’t helpful. By following my tips on thought monitoring you’ll be able to catch yourself automatically acting on your ingrained distorted beliefs. Thought monitoring can also help you discover where your own distorted beliefs lie: they vary from person to person, and most, if not all, people have them.
            Following the instructions is a list of common distorted beliefs, as originally identified by Albert Ellis (a psychologist from the ‘50’s who founded Cognitive Behavioural therapies).

Grab a piece of paper and a pen – make two columns; one will be your thought perspective, the other will be your behaviour perspective. As you read through this list and its descriptions for each point, write a number from 0 to 10 beside each letter. 0 means untrue where 10 means true.

Example:         E. I am only worthwhile as long as I am doing something for someone else.
Thought perspective                            Behaviour Perspective
                                    0                                                          5
This means that you consciously do not believe this statement, but your behaviour shows that you do – at least 50% of the time.

Continue in this manner for every thought, and at the end, make special note of any that you marked 6-10 for in the behaviour column – these are your distorted beliefs.

            You may notice qualities of friends or family as you read through the list and its description here.
  1. Life is fair.
This is probably one of the most difficult to deal with as we were all raised being told to be fair, and told how fairness and honesty were most admirable. Then of course, we logically assume that life will be fair to us as well. Well – if you truly believe this distortion then you will feel guilty when bad things happen to you. Your logic being that you must have deserved the ill-fate (because everything is ‘fair’, right?). In order to challenge this distortion, you must work at accepting that the world isn’t always fair – in order to prevent the shock when unfair things occur.

  1. Everything I do must be perfect – or else I am a failure
This is the driver of perfectionism.  There is importance to realizing that no one or thing is perfect and most of the things that humans do are imperfect in some way. The problem with perfection and requiring it to be ‘happy’ is that you’ll never be good enough and therefore never really be satisfied with your efforts. Keep reading here on Conquer the Clouds and we will address the issue of perfectionism in a future article!

  1. I have to do everything I am asked to do.
Control of your actions tends to be in the hands of other people and you will often feel taken-advantage of, as well as resentful of those who ask you favours constantly. Learning to be more assertive will help you challenge this belief. Look for an upcoming article on being assertive!

  1. If others disagree with me, then I must be wrong.
The questions to ask yourself when determining whether you follow this distorted belief are these: do you wait for others to express their opinions before sharing your ideas? If they describe different thoughts than you, do you feel embarrassed or feel like changing your opinion? Do you feel you have a right to have your own, separate opinion?  By having respect for your own thoughts and attitudes will permit you to consider other people’s opinions rather than automatically accepting them as fact; this allows you to establish confidence and independence.

  1. I am only worthwhile as long as I am doing something for someone else.
This is for all those ‘givers’ out there. You feel guilty or anxious is you take time for yourself or treat yourself.  If you find that your behaviours and thought perspectives score high for this one, remind yourself that you are an entire human being with the entire range of human requirements and rights. It is crucial that you spend time caring for yourself as well!

  1. I must always perform at my best.
An example of how this distorted belief works: you have established some kind of personal best – the fastest run, or highest mark, for example. From then on you chide yourself if you do not live up to that benchmark. You allow no ‘off’ days or ‘slow’ days or ‘bad’ weeks. The ultimate thought process here is that you feel anything that isn’t your best is a disaster and that you will continue to worsen.

  1. Anger is bad.
As one of the natural human emotions, it has full rights to expression; however, many of us grow up suppressing anger or releasing it in uncontrollable rage-fits. The importance of anger is that it lets us know when people are crossing our boundaries and gives us strength and courage to defend ourselves, when needed.
While it is important that the expression of anger does not violate the rights of another, we cannot violate our own rights by ignoring anger when it does come up.  If you show evidence of believing this (in thought or action) remember that you have the right to be angry; though you do not have the right to hurt another with that same anger.

  1. I have the power to change people.
The question to ask to determine if you think/act this way is: do you believe that if you provide or care for someone in just such a way, they will become who you think they could or should become? You may believe that be providing security, love or the force of your personality you can get a person to change (quit smoking, go back to school, quit video games, etc.).  This belief leads to a lot of resentment of the other person as they will most likely remain unchanged even after all of your efforts and energy are spent.

  1. Good relationships have no problems.
This distorted belief comes from fairy tale endings fed to us as children (and even so as adults) by mainstream culture. The basis for this belief is that after you have found the “right” partner, you will never need to work on the relationship and it will be always perfect. The truth is that every long-term relationship requires work, commitment and effort by all parties. Any difficulties encountered are not indications that the relationship was doomed from the start.

  1. I need someone stronger or more powerful than myself to rely on.
If you believe this one, chances are you feel helpless most of the time. That is the nature of this thought – it makes you helpless. This ends up causing issues in relationships as you fear for asserting yourself or taking control because the other person might leave. You constantly feel as though someone needs to be responsible for you. To challenge this thought and show its deceptive-nature think to some time in your life that you have managed without someone else holding your hand.

  1. It is easier to avoid life’s problems than to face them.
The best way to check if you use this belief is to review your actions over the problems you have had during the past year: how many did you put off to be solved later? Did they get resolved or ‘just go away’? Chances are, most problems in your life will get bigger the more you ignore them (think: dealing with loans, the bank, overdue bills, etc...).    

  1. It is unbearable when life is not the way I would like it to be.
Do you ever think to yourself: “Alright, when my loans have been settled, the family-issues are dealt with and the other thing are solved, I can finally be happy” ? It is nice to have our “ducks in a row” but, by the time we’ve aligned them all, there are other ducks falling out of line – it’s the nature of life! This belief makes it seem that everything has to be going well in order for you to be happy. But how often does everything come together like this? In order to cope with this assumption you need to allow a certain amount of disarray and upheaval in your life – do not get caught in defining what it will take for you to be happy.

  1. The way to be accepted and appreciated by others is to give and give.
If you are someone who has this thought dictating their actions or thoughts, you are likely the one who gives more in your relationships (friendships, bfs/gfs, or even with family). A couple of questions to ask yourself if you find this is a distorted thought of yours is why you give of yourself so freely. Perhaps you are trying to buy love and acceptance because you see yourself as unlovable; do you expect the other person to return in kind? What do you expect? Unfortunately, though giving is kind and generous, extreme giving of oneself (time, gifts, favours, etc.) may cause others to lose respect for you. The key here is to respect yourself just as much as others.

Comment and let me know what your distorted thought and behaviour scores are! Tell me if you think of any more that I haven’t mentioned on here!

                                                                Conquer on!

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Thought Monitoring

When you are depressed, it may seem as though your mood is uniformly down-in-the-dumps and low. It’s not, it rises and falls. You may not notice, however, as you are focused on the negative aspects of your life and situations. Also, when you are depressed, you are likely to fall into the downward-spiral trap making it even harder to notice the rises.

            You might not believe me that it rises, but if you think about it, maybe it’s a 2/10 right now, but earlier it was a 3/10. A good exercise for noticing when and what triggers your dropping mood, carry around a pen and pad of paper for a week and whenever you notice your mood dropping (even a little) write down what was going through your mind. It also helps to write down the situation in which you noticed the mood drop. You don’t need to wait for obvious traumatic experiences, just whenever you notice yourself feeling worse.

            Initially this might be frustrating as you draw blanks when questioning what was going through your mind – settle with answering in guesses “uhh... maybe I didn’t want to get bit by the dog I just saw”. That’s fine, work with the guesses for now – it gets you into the flow of noticing your thoughts and your feelings and how they correspond. Eventually it will get easier (as all things do with practice!). These automatic thoughts will gradually start to show themselves. You may start noticing a pattern (which will reveal some distorted beliefs you hold) as you recognize the same thoughts over and over – these are your primary negative automatic thoughts.
            If it gets too redundant to re-write the same thoughts, just put checks or x’s beside the thoughts and tally them up at the end of the week! You will then notice which of these automatic thoughts contribute the most to shaping your mood.

                                                                        Conquer on!

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Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Coping with insomnia: The day after and how to stay productive.

            2:07am... okay, I’ve got 5 hours left to sleep. Let’s do this, I’m ready...
            3:46am... Really? I’m going to be so tired at work, but I can still sleep a bit...
            5:57am... Alright, let’s just get the day started...

You headed to bed at a reasonable hour, but just couldn’t sleep. Spending the entire night tossing and turning in the sheets and then having to face the new day unrested is a bitter feeling, and may leave you more anxious than before. Sleepless nights are quite common for people coping with anxiety and depression, and many find that the combination of little sleep, low motivation and high stress makes it even harder to sleep the next night. This is especially true if you have spent more than one night doing so, but don’t worry too much about it, you can’t change it now and it’s time for work or school.  
                    There are ways you can manage this set-back and stay productive.

One thing that many who struggle with their sleep may fear is that their sleepless nights will somehow bring harm to them. Our bodies are extremely resilient; just think of how many new parents have to cope with sleepless nights after having children! It’s definitely not a habit you want to maintain, but it’s not something to fret about if it makes trying to sleep more difficult.

Staying productive the next day may be hard, as your head and body feel heavy, and everything around you seems to resemble a pillow. Your work may seem overwhelming and lunch may be unappetizing. I am going to share a few ways you can keep up your energy and productivity without resorting to many cups of coffee and cold showers!

Have a nutritious snack before work or school.  If you feel up to eating, have a full breakfast. Make sure to include a source of protein (an egg, whey-protein powder, or a glass of milk/soy milk). If you haven’t slept, at least you don’t have to run on fumes. This will give you the energy needed to stay awake.
Tip: Skip the coffee – it’ll wake you up now, but it will likely lead to the jitters, more anxiety and a crash later in the day. Try instead to have some tea (Green or White has caffeine as well – choose wisely, you know how your body reacts to caffeine. And if you don’t yet, read this article on caffeine-free alternatives)

Have a bottle of water at your desk or workspace, and whenever you remember, take a sip. Remaining hydrated helps to prevent the headaches that come with insufficient sleep, and the continuous action of drinking might help to keep your brain awake while you plod along through your day.

20-30 minutes around or before lunch-time if your schedule permits. This gives your brain a bit of a boost, makes up a bit of the time you lost during the night. If you sleep longer, you risk falling into deeper delta-wave sleep and will wake up feeling more sluggish and groggy than before. Sleeping too much during the day can also lead to another night of sleeplessness.

It’s not what it sounds like (what does it sound like?)! What I mean here is your workload: don’t start with the biggest project on the list. Break down your tasks into small, manageable chunks.  This ensures that you get some things done, while not overwhelming yourself. See Step 3 of Staying motivated when discouraged for a further explanation of this point. 

Now that you have some tools, coping with insomnia the day after will be easier. It's not easy, but you're doing it, and that's what counts!

                                                              Conquer on!

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The top 5 caffeine-free alternatives to coffee!

I trust you are all faring well on your journal projects! 
I received a very thoughtful gift for Christmas this year. It was a black, leathery-type, large journal with blank pages, with added silver celtic cross to the front, as well as a self-adhered locket-type addition on the side with a leather clasp and a key. It doesn't lock but that is okay. There is also a message inside. It's perfect because I recently finished my last journal, so I am well on my way in my new one!

Today I wanted to share with you some of my favourite caffeine-free alternatives as caffeine can make people who are prone to anxiety or depression worse. It's worth a shot (of decaf espresso!) trying one of all of these alternatives to coffee! I am currently sipping a cup of #3 while writing to you!

This is the most obvious choice for many people who are avoiding caffeine for various reasons. It provides a similar flavor and is just as versatile as full-caffeinated coffee. If you find you’re not that sensitive to caffeine and wish to have a bit of that pick-me-up, try half-caf.
Warning: Caffeine-sensitive individuals may find that this alternative induces anxiety as there is a residual 3% of caffeine remaining [compare 2-3mg/8 ounces  in decaf with 104-192 mg/8ounces in full-caf].

I enjoy these caffeine-free alternatives the most as there is such variety to choose from and many brands as well. My favourite are cinnamon and clove mixes (excellent for the winter months) but I also enjoy fruit-combinations. The flavours range from mint, flowery, to sweet or spicy teas. Whatever suits your fancy. These can be found in most grocery stores (common brands include Stash, Celestial Seasonings, and Lipton).
Tip: To change it up, pour steeped tea over ice cubes for a refreshing cool treat in the summer. Sweeten as desired.

My ultimate favourite tea is Celestial Seasonings’ “Tension Tamer Tea”.

While a nice, tall mug of coffee in the morning sounds appealing, try exchanging it with a citrus-infused cup of hot water and honey. Lemon and lime have many health benefits and if you are looking to cut caffeine, or reduce it, this may just be your answer! Add honey to sweeten, if desired.
Tip: Try orange or grapefruit as well. Just squeeze some of the juices into a mug of hot water and your preferred sweetener.

I always loved a cup of Postum when I was little. It let me feel like I was an adult drinking coffee. The flavor is amiable. There are various brands of roasted grain beverages out there. You might have to do some searching for this one as herbal teas have taken over the caffeine-free beverage market.
Tip: You can add cream and/or sugar to this one as well.

This one is for those adventurous types out there! This is more like soup, really. If you heat up some V8 it’s like a sugar-free version of tomato-soup. I know, you’re thinking, “sugar-free”? As if it’s only vegetables in those cans of soup? No... It’s not. There is most definitely sugar in Heinz and other popular brands. If you look hard enough you can find expensive brands that are sugar-free. But why pay more, when you can buy V8 or a plain tomato juice that has no sugar.
Tip: As I mentioned, the very adventurous may be up for this one! Bonus: you get servings of vegetables! I actually really enjoy this as a canned-soup alternative, or juice alternative, even.

Get your caffeine-free drink on, Conquerors! 

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Sunday, 25 December 2011

The downward spiral: the fastest way down!

Ever have a train of thought, downward-spiral that goes something like this?

"I can't find my keys! I'm going to be late! If I'm late, the boss will be angry. If they're angry, they might not accept my report - if it doesn't get accepted, I'm going to get fired! If I get fired, I'll lose my house and my car! I'm going to end up homeless! It's all over, my life is done!"

That is an example of negative thought-associations... What starts as a single negative thought arising from a situation or comment quickly turns into a spiral of despair that's out of control and totally unreasonable!
The extreme feelings associated with the statements and beliefs that flow from a certain event are understandable: anyone who thinks this way truly believes the thoughts and the feelings correspond. They make sense.

People fighting anxiety and depression tend to have these types of thoughts and associations frequently, and they can be frightening or overwhelming and in some cases even lead to a panic attack. It's very easy to get hooked into following the associations your brain brings up - the "logical" series of events your anxious mind comes up with seems reasonable at the time.

The unfortunate outcome of these downward-spirals is that they can bring your mood down with them, or make a low mood even worse. So where did this pattern of negative thinking come from and how can you combat it?

If we do a quick analysis of the types of thoughts that flow from a potentially negative experience we’ll see what kinds of assumptions underlie the statements.

  • If I misplace my keys, I am going to be late
  • If I am late, I will enrage my boss
  • If he/she is mad, they will fire me
  • If I am fired, no one will hire me again!

If we do some prodding of the assumptions that are made in this thought-stream, we can point out some core beliefs: “I am air-headed.” “I am stupid and unreliable.” “I am unworthy.”
            The process of analyzing your automatic thoughts during a downward-spiral will help you to identify some of your personal core beliefs. (See 13 Beliefs to disbelieve).

Often, people might realize where this pattern of negative thinking arose in their life - maybe they picked it up from a parent who always stressed about really negative events and made "logical" connections to even worse possible events that may arise. Or perhaps your friends have influenced you over time. In any case, it's a behaviour that can be challenged and changed for the better.

1) Recognize the negative thoughts  as just negative thoughts. Thoughts are not reality. Remind yourself you can control your behaviour and you are not destined to fulfill every potential outcome your brain comes up with.

2) Ask yourself whether the thought is reasonable; that is, is this outcome likely to happen?
            ex: “My life will be over”
            Will your life really be over, or is it just going to be a little more complicated? Once you take things into perspective, from a more rational point of view, you’ll see that many of the thoughts in the downward spiral are irrational thoughts that come from ingrained beliefs.
3) Is this a negative bias against yourself?
            ex: “I always mess things up; I’m going to be a failure forever”
            This can’t possibly be true. Not one person in the world can mess everything up. In order to face this negative thought pattern-style you’re going to have to practice a little. In the moment, realize that you are applying a negative bias to yourself and the thought is not necessarily true. This will help dispel some of the anxiousness of the thought. In order to change your automatic negative bias you will have to practice writing in your journal.

Try taking a step back next time you end up overwhelmed over a seemingly trivial event or comment and identify the assumptions you might be making (write in your journal to keep track of how your thoughts change throughout the days and weeks). It’ll help you to be more aware of automatic thoughts.

                                                               Conquer on!

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Weekly Challenge 2 - Week of December 25 - 31

Merry Christmas Conquerors!

I have an especially fun challenge this week. I hope you kept up with last week's challenge, but if you are just joining us, or didn't do last week's challenge, check this page to see what you've been missing out on!

This week I would like you to treat yourself. Go out and buy a nice journal or decent-sized notebook. It should appeal to your tastes, and fashion. If you like the look of dark leather, buy a nice black journal. If you like things that are cute, check the school-supply area of a local stationery store (like Staples, or Wal-Mart, even) for the hottest, trending little books.

Then buy a special pen, in your favourite colour, if you can.

These will be your motivational tools. You will be starting your motivation and goal journal this week!

In the front cover, write this as a table of contents (or raw-format criteria):

Date, time

Three things I achieved today:

One thing I learned today:

That's it, that's all you have to write. Everyday this week I want you to fill out a portion of a page, or a whole page with at least three things you achieved, and one thing that you learned. If you have more, great! But you need to make it to at least three. In a previous post, I mentioned about how to motivate yourself and this was one of the ways. Looking back through pages of success does wonders for keeping your spirit high when you hit a roadblock in your goals.
Like I mentioned in "Staying Motivated When Discouraged", it doesn't matter if the things you did or learned are fairly typical tasks. What matters is that you did them and are accumulating a book of successes. Of course this journal can be used to do some major life-plans or whatever you want! But keep in mind that it can be helpful for achieving goals which may have long timelines.

The great thing about this is that it re-trains your mind to think about positive things when reflecting on your day as well as encourages you to explore your world further to learn new things. To make this especially effective, do it at night as part of your wind-down ritual, it will help you to relax (writing quietly in your favourite book) and re-focus your thoughts to positive and motivating things. Every few days, take a peek back at how you have been doing and adjust your goal timelines accordingly. This will help you keep track of tasks you may still need to complete or enlighten you to possible solutions for obstacles you may be facing currently or perhaps may encounter in the future on your development journey.

                                                           Conquer on!

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Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Staying Motivated When Discouraged. 5 Ways to Stay on Track!

How can you stay motivated when you feel discouraged, the cloud-cover gets a little thicker and your goals seem so distant?
I'd like to share with you a couple of ideas I came up with today!

I know how awesome I usually feel after a hard run or heavy weights. I feel renewed and rejuvenated and ready to take on the world! I actually pulled off a decent workout at lunchtime today. The lunch workout gave me an energy boost and a sense of accomplishment which powered me through the rest of my day!
If you're in an office-setting, this is a good way to get the blood back into your legs after long hours at the computer. Just run up and down the steps a few times, or if weather permits - take a good walk. If you're really ambitious and your office space provides changerooms or showers: take a good run. If you get the typical 1hr lunch, do a 30-45 minute run and leave just enough time to clean up and smell fresh.
Tip: eat your lunch slowly at your desk after your workout to avoid pigging out before or after, which can make you feel sick.
If your boss or company doesn't allow food at your desk, just do a smaller run and leave enough time to have a decent-sized snack. You can always do exercises in your chair at work, as well.
Also, if you find you are so discouraged that you can't motivate yourself to work out, try taking a short walk around your block, or just walk the stairs in your house a few times. Everything counts. 

       Maybe your environment is uninspiring!

2) CHANGE THINGS AROUND A BIT - I find tidying up and re-organizing my workspace is sort of zen-like, plus it allows you to change the scenery. Once you get moving physically, the things on your desk, that is, it is likely to transfer over mentally as well and get that engine started!
Tip: Put on some uplifting and mood-boosting music. You never know, you might even start dancing :)
If it's de-motivating to look at the clutter of your desk and wonder where your mouse went, then start small. Grab one pile off the desk (a manageable size) and take it to another room to sort it. This will keep your mind off the large desk-problem and on the small, easy-to-fix pile in your lap. Once you're done and you feel like you can do more, keep going with small piles. If one is enough, then today, you have done one pile! :) That's a great step in the right direction.

A lot of the time, people get overwhelmed when thinking about the magnitude of the tasks they need to complete and so continue putting them off until too late (you know, missing deadlines or having to beg for extensions!). So, instead of thinking of the whole picture, break it down into smaller sized projects.
For example, if you have a large paper to write, focus first on what your topic will be. Then think of a few points you would like to make regarding that topic and find resources for those. Then write your thesis statement and supporting points together and start jotting little notes down. It's like a downward brain-storm.
Writing a list out is usually a great way to facilitate the chunking-process as well because it makes it visual.
I find it very hard to concentrate or figure things out if they are floating around in my head. I need a solid piece of paper that I can write all over and then figure out what to do from there.
Tip: Brainstorm on paper, and find the best way from there.  It'll ease the stress on your mind!
 Constantly being the "procrastinator" wears on you as well, and sets your mind up for thinking negatively about yourself (self-talk like "oh I never get anything done on time, I'm so lazy"). That doesn't motivate very well does it.

I don't mean permanently, but as our motivation drops, so too does our ability-level. It's extremely discouraging and de-motivating to attempt doing things you used to be able to do and continually not reaching that same level of achievement. Instead of aiming for perfection, just do what qualifies as "good enough".It will ensure the project or goal is completed, and satisfactorily, without stressing you out that you aren't as good as you were.
You'll get back to your old-self (or find a new pinnacle of success for your new self!) in time. For now, or today, good enough really is good enough.


Whether these relate to a specific project or goal (new job, exercise goals, homework goals, etc.), or whether they are random achievements throughout the day, it is continually motivating to see progress. Additionally, it can help us keep on track, knowing that we have to account for some achievements at the end of the day!

Tip: Do this during your wind-down time at night in your journal and read back over it every few days. You will have things to feel proud of and motivated by. They are all successes, and they are all yours and they are leading to a great success. Own them all.


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Sunday, 18 December 2011

Weekly Challenge 1 - Week of December 18 - 24

Welcome all Conquerors to the very first Conqueror's Weekly Challenge!

I am intending on coming up with a challenge for everyone to undergo every week as we continue our journey of personal development.
This week, I am proposing that everyone of us resists the urge to complain or speak negatively about things in our life. For one week. That's only 7 days.
The power of our minds is incredible and most people are unaware of how quickly one comment about a negative event or situation can turn into a full-blown rage-fest about the entire state of the world. This is a cognitive approach to becoming your best you! Your mind, your friends and your family will thank you when you resist those little nuggets of negativity that come flittering into your thought-stream.

I have challenged myself with this one before, and my results were incredible. I still had the thoughts, of course, but I didn't let them have the room in my mind that they wanted. I acknowledged their presence, but didn't explore them further.

So when you find yourself with the negative thought(s) or comment(s), take a moment, acknowledge that you are having one, but ignore it and do not let it materialize, that is, do not speak it aloud.
Part of the reality of anxiety is that the feelings and thoughts one experiences internally are manifesting in subsequent behaviour. If one can stop the cycle of destructive thoughts and feelings at the behavioural-level, there is only one recourse - the thoughts and feelings must change to accomodate the new behaviour.

This is only a small step in the direction of our best success, but it's a great first weekly challenge!

You got this one Conquerors!

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Vitamin D and mental health: Clear away the clouds, make way for sunshine!

Vitamin D3; Cholecalciferol. No, we’re not back in high-school chemistry class struggling with compound names; we’re talking about “the sunshine vitamin” – vitamin D! We’ve all heard about “the sunshine vitamin” and how it helps maintain our bones and teeth, but did you know it also has functions related to maintaining mood and mental wellness?
Today I am going to discuss vitamin D and its relation to anxiety and depression.

Recent research into vitamins and their effects on the body have shown evidence for a relation between vitamin D and basic cognitive function, mood and general mental health and well-being, especially for depressive symptoms1.
This has important implications for those suffering especially from Seasonal Affective Disorder (where mood drops during seasonal changes), depression and anxiety, as well as other mental illnesses. There are a few theories out there regarding SAD’s prevalence in higher latitude regions. One of which regards seasonal fluctuations in vitamin D levels as the sun’s intensity and prevalence drops during the darker winter months.
Dr. Serdar Durson, author of “Vitamin D for mental health and cognition”, mentions that vitamin D and its receptors have been found to be involved in the development and progression of mental illness. Vitamin D (whose active form is more like that of a steroid hormone2) activates neuron receptors in areas of the brain that are responsible for regulating behaviour.
Further research into the field of vitamin D and its role in mental health and illness reveals that it is an important element of maintaining mental wellness. Vitamin D and its role in bone formation and calcium regulation has long been known and studied well but its likely link to mental illness such as depression, schizophrenia, anxiety and even alzheimers is only just being discovered.
Low serum (blood component) levels of 25-hydroxyvitamin D (the inactive form of vitamin D) have been linked with various psychiatric disorders, including depression. In 1998 a pair of researchers4 supplemented 44 healthy people with either 400 or 800 IU of vitamin D daily for five days. They found that, when compared with a placebo group (receiving an inactive ‘dummy’ pill), the self-reported positive effect was elevated while the negative affect was reduced for either dose of vitamin D.
In a related study, vitamin D receptor knockout mice5 were found to exhibit increased anxiety behaviours. This isn’t to say that vitamin D necessarily has a mechanistic affect on mood or cognition as lower levels of vitamin D in the blood may just be an indicator of poor health – which then would lead to depressive symptoms on its own. There is also the potential that depression and its associated behavioural changes lead to lower levels of vitamin D as many depressed people tend to stay indoors, reducing outdoor activities
Given that there is some evidence for the affect of vitamin D on mental health and wellness, it could be a good idea to get some supplemental vitamin D, or even experiment with sunlamps and full spectrum lights. I find the idea of sunlamps appealing as the winter days grow shorter as it is easier to get some UV rays while the sun is less prevalent during the season.
I must caution, however, that if you decide to supplement with vitamin D pills that you first speak with your doctor and obtain clearance (as it could potentially interact with other medications or supplements you may be taking). Also, do not exceed the recommended daily intake of vitamin D unless otherwise advised by your doctor or medical counselor.

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1 -  Shipowick, CD; Moore, CB; Corbett, C; Bindler, R. 2009. Vitamin D and depressive symptoms in women during the winter: A pilot study. 22(3):221-225.
2 – Norman, AW; Roth, J; Orci, L. 1982. The Vitamin D Endocrine System: Steroid Metabolism, Hormone Receptors, and Biological Response (Calcium Binding Proteins).  3(4): 331.
3 -  Lee, DM et al. 2010. Lower vitamin D levels are associated with depression among community-dwelling European men. J Psychopharmacol. 0(0): 1-9.
4 – Lansdowne AT and Provost SC (1998) Vitamin D3 enhances mood in healthy subjects during winter. Psychopharmacology (Berl) 135: 319–323.
5 - A strain of mice bred for experimental procedures whereby the receptors for vitamin D have been de-activated through genetic manipulation.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Sleep, Insomnia and Anxiety

            Insomnia is defined as: trouble falling asleep or staying asleep through the night1. Its time-frame may be episodic (comes and goes), short-term (3ish weeks) or chronic (long-lasting).   There are many potential reasons to experience insomnia, but many relate to anxiety. It can take someone the better part of a few years to get their night-time anxiety under control. For some, their anxiety peaks in the morning, when the body’s level of cortisol is highest. For others, while they may experience this cortisol-peak physiologically, their anxiety isn’t affected by it nearly as much as the thoughts regarding falling BACK to sleep later that evening...
        It’s a vicious circle.
             The problem with anxiety-caused insomnia is that it’s not only the thoughts about potential important events, or maybe even about the insomnia itself, it’s about environmental triggers that you have unwittingly conditioned your body to react to. Your bed, for one, is a very powerful physical trigger – ever notice that as soon as you lie in it you are likely to start feeling drowsy? That’s because your body knows this is where you sleep. The problem comes when your body and your brain knows that this is where you do most of your “freaking-out”...
            Another physical conditioning effect that many parents try to instill in their children is a nighttime routine, also known as “sleep-hygiene”. In order to ensure you have the best sleep possible, there are a few general rules to follow. At this very moment, I am violating one of the main rules of good sleep hygiene: I am working in my bedroom, lying on my bed. That’s a sleep no-no.
            Your bed should be for sleep and sex. That’s it. Take your homework to the table. There is so much power in physical conditioning that your sleep-quality is affected, even if you don’t have insomnia. Another thing is that around an hour before you are planning to lie down for the evening you should begin to wind down your mind. Turn off the TV, computer or any electronics (music is okay), and write in your journal, do some stretches (nothing vigorous, you are going to sleep soon), and maybe read a little bit of a book (nothing too exciting, you don’t want to get your brain fired up). The idea here is to get a routine established. Usually about an hour to wind-down before bed works for me, when I do practice good hygiene.
            The most important thing is to establish good sleep-hygiene as a routine - it will serve you well. You will definitely begin to notice your sleep-quality decreasing the less you maintain your nightly habits.

            There are a few ways to get yourself ready for bed in addition to drinking a glass of warm milk or having a nice, hot herbal-tea.
            Melatonin is a hormone in the brain that signals it’s time to sleep. Our bodies make it naturally (the pineal gland in the brain), and it is triggered by darkness. It can be obtained in pill-form, kind of like a “vitamin” from most grocery stores, and virtually all pharmacies. There are varying doses, but 3mg is fairly standard. If you are thinking about trying melatonin for your sleeplessness I would suggest reading the information available on the packet before-hand and definitely consulting your doctor. There are potential allergic reactions, and side-effects that you will need to be aware of.
            Deep, abdominal breathing is a great way to relax your body as you prepare to sleep. It begins with inhaling slowly and intentionally from your belly. Don’t let your chest rise while doing so, and exhale through your nostrils. Focus on making your belly rise and fall with each breath. You can count your breaths, from 1 to 10, and then start again back at 1 with each breath. The idea here is to focus the mind on something other than what you are thinking, and because this deep-breathing slows your heart rate (it’s a physiological reaction) it actually calms your nervous system down so that over time your anxiety should decrease, and with it, your thoughts should clear a bit. Of course, however, like all things, this takes practice to master. So while you may not feel relief the first time you try the deep-breathing, if you are consistent in your nightly routine, you will start noticing the calming effects. I will write more, detailed descriptions of deep-breathing and provide some exercises and visualizations in an upcoming article.

Thank you for reading.

                                         Conquer on!

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1 PubMed Health Encyclopedia

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Anxiety - What's It All About Anyways?

Many have felt the dark cloud of anxiety and depression in their lives. Usually they manifest during times of life change and stressful events. For anxiety, you may experience sweaty palms, a pounding heart, light-headed or feel even worse.  For depression you may feel low, down, heavy or just not-like-yourself. These are natural stress-reactions but if these symptoms of anxiety and depression seem overwhelming or are preventing you from doing what you’d like to be doing, or living your life the way you’d like to be living it, you might have an anxiety disorder or depression.

Today I am going to discuss anxiety. Depression and anxiety are often co-morbid disorders. This means that they usually present together, or as one after the other. I will explain in another article how depression is linked with anxiety, but for today, we will consider anxiety and panic attacks.

            Anxiety is a natural reaction of the body to perceived threats. Our minds and bodies are hardwired to understand the immediacy of escaping or fighting to protect ourselves... Unfortunately, in this day and age, we are no longer facing live-or-die type situations on a regular basis. Our hardwired anxiety machinery has nothing to fret about! So, we fret about traffic. We worry about money. We are scared of seemingly harmless things. This is because of our “fight-or-flight” system.
When a threat is perceived by a part of the brain known as the amygdala (the oldest portion of the brain) the sympathetic nervous system sparks into action, triggering cascades of hormones coursing throughout your brain and body. The adrenal glands (special glands atop the kidneys) release adrenaline. We’re all familiar with this hormone – the rush of excitement and fear when on a rollercoaster is due to adrenaline’s release into our bloodstream.
That same fear and buzz we get on the rollercoaster is what plagues most anxiety sufferers. Generally, it comes out of the blue. Suddenly the room begins to spin and you feel your heart pounding! Are you having a heart attack? Are you going crazy? No! this is an anxiety attack in the making!
Anyone who has ever experienced one of these will know that it’s a rough ride. You might even end up in emergency thinking you really are dying or going crazy! Don’t worry though no one has ever died from panic. It’s almost impossible.

            Now, after the panic attack is over, the frightening physical symptoms you’ve experienced will influence you to have thoughts about what just happened. These tend to be negative and future-based thoughts. You will definitely start thinking about how you’ll want to avoid another panic attack in the future! These thoughts can become more and more detailed and will ingrain themselves on your mind. You see, in the wild when we were foraging and fighting for our survival daily against large predators, we had to remember the situations in which we felt these fearful things – so that we could prevent it in the future to continue living.

            So our ancient little amygdala is only doing its job. Unfortunately for us, its software is a few thousand years outdated. 

            So we get ourselves worked up and negative thoughts begin to muddle and cloud our brains. This leads to us changing our behaviours in order to avoid these feelings and thoughts. However, this is not a practical solution for the long-term because it actually makes the anxiety worse! By trying to avoid the situations in which you’ve experienced anxiety you are feeding the anxiety. Your next panic attack may be worse, and will likely be in a place you’ve never experienced one – by the fact that you have been avoiding those previous places associated with panic.

The best way to deal with a panic attack is to: wait. That’s all. Breathe deeply through your nose and exhale through your mouth and wait. Panic attacks are short-lived – it’s the nature of the system. They may last up to thirty minutes but their intensity usually doesn’t exceed an hour or so. You may feel residually shaky for another few hours, but the brunt of the storm is usually over after 30 or so minutes.
Take a deep breath. Feel better?

Conquer on!