Stressed, anxious, overcommitted—the unholy trinity the undermines mental health and wellbeing for so many people today. I’d argue that chronic stress is the number one threat to health and happiness. Yes, even more detrimental than modern diets, being too sedentary, overexercising when we do exercise, and all the other ways we mismanage our genes nowadays.
By and large, we accept chronic stress as a standard, even inescapable, part of life. To some degree, that’s true. It’s hard to detach from workplace demands, financial pressure, social media and other time sucks, and the generally frantic pace of modern life. That said, most of us have more control over our daily schedules, environments, and habits than we choose to exercise. We don’t set the boundaries we need, nor take even relatively small steps to mitigate life stressors. Why is this so challenging?
Paradoxically, simplifying life and making it easier almost always involves some investment of time and/or money up front. Don’t let this deter you. This is a short-term investment for long-term payoff, which you deserve.
Wondering why your feed is filled with tips on how to declutter your space? Clean mildew out of the showers. Swap your regular detergent for a better-for-the-environment one? It’s National Cleaning Week, or, as one of my clients put it, national “feeling bad because my house is a mess and I have zero interest in doing anything about it” week.
Even though having a clean, organized space can increase your focus, reduce stress, and sometimes even improve your relationships, most people are far too busy to embrace the decluttering-is-awesome mindset, but is it really a lack of time that prevents you from doing it or is something else at work?
I’m willing to bet there are lots of things in your home you’re not using (hello, burnt up plastic food storage lids), but for some reason, you just can’t bring yourself to throw anything away or even donate it.
Why Can’t You Get Rid of Stuff?
Jean Piaget, one of the founding fathers of child psychology, says the reason we’re so attached to our belongings is due to a psychological phenomenon called the Endowment Effect. Basically, we put more value on items we own versus items we don’t own.
There have been tons of studies on this phenomenon too. Like this one where participants were divided into three groups, then asked to assist with research and given a reward for helping out. The first group was offered two choices for their reward: a coffee mug or a bar of chocolate. Half chose the mug, and the other half chose the chocolate, which suggests that they valued each reward equally. In the second group, participants were given the mug first, then offered a chance to swap it for the chocolate bar, but only 11% took the researchers up on the offer. A third group started out with the chocolate bar, and most preferred to keep it instead of swapping it for the mug, which was offered after the fact.
The participants always put greater value on whichever reward they started off with.
Decluttering Has an Emotional Component
Another reason it’s so hard to part with your stuff? According to this study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, it all comes down to self-worth. Rather than looking at the things you own as “mine” you think of them as part of who you are.
If you value relationships, you might have trouble parting with gifts. Kind of like you’re being disloyal to the person who gave it to you. If you value success, it could be challenging to part with items that serve as a reminder of your accomplishments, like an award at work or a decades-old trophy from your high school soccer days.
Some possessions also make you feel closer to people. Take family heirlooms for example. Maybe you’re having a hard time getting rid of a piece of artwork or jewelry that was passed down from your great grandma, because those items make you feel connected to her.
Where are my high achievers at? These are the folks that constantly knock their goals out of the park and make it look easy, whether they’re training for a marathon, dialing in their diet, or Marie Kondo-ing their house. They’re the ones who get the promotions, the bigger bank accounts, the smaller pant sizes… We live in a culture that celebrates busy-ness. I’ve seen it manifest in my clients (they typically come to me in the post-crush-my-goals stage, once their nervous system is toast) but also in my personal life. As a curriculum director, health coach, fitness instructor, and small business owner, I’m indeed a high achiever, to the point of it being a real problem. I am physically uncomfortable in the presence of low productivity or what I often perceive in myself as “laziness”. I don’t settle for mediocre outcomes either. I will torment myself to produce nothing short of perfection, to the detriment of my mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual health. Are You Born a High Achiever? I wasn’t always this way. And there’s a good chance you weren’t either. Being a high achiever often goes hand-in-hand with people pleasing and perfectionism – all things you likely picked up as a kid. You might have been rewarded for straight A’s or gotten kudos after a game-winning goal. Maybe you had a parent or caregiver that was never satisfied or emotionally distant (which you mistook as unsatisfied). Or perhaps you learned that by achieving more, you managed to secure the love, safety, and acceptance of your family or caregivers. In these situations, your self-worth becomes tied to your performance, meaning you’re only “good enough” if and when you’ve accomplished something exceptional. And even then, your inner critic probably doubts that it’s enough. The Need to Always Do Better What we’re really talking about here is fear. Fear that you need to continue excelling, producing, winning, and succeeding in order to not be rejected or lose the approval of others. It’s sort of a security blanket to make sure you’re safe and accepted, even if it’s only a temporary feeling. That’s just one of the reasons it’s so exhausting to be a high-achiever. You’re always striving to do better for fear of decreasing your self-worth, constantly operating at 110 percent. The problem is, this amount of chronic stress takes a huge toll on the body and eventually leads to some sort of physical, emotional, or mental breakdown. Keep in mind this isn’t true for everyone. But for a lot of us, especially those of us with perfectionist tendencies, it’s quite accurate. Pros of being a high achiever: You always bring your A-game You’re driven to get results You’re highly motivated You’re passionate about what you do You’re competitive You thrive on positive feedback Cons of being a high achiever: You hold yourself to perfectionist standards You’re afraid of failing You believe you’re only as good as your last accomplishment You tend to overcomplicate things You don’t take time to … Continue reading “The Curse of Being a High Achiever”
Stress is physical. It’s caused by physical phenomena in the material world. It manifests as a physiological response using physical hormones and neurotransmitters and other chemical messengers in the body. It changes biomarkers, neurochemistry, behavior, appetites, and our perception of the world around us. Stress can make us fly off the handle at something that we wouldn’t even notice in a normal state of mind. Stress can make us eat food we’d never normally consider eating.
And, like other physical phenomena our bodies interact with, stress can affect our gut health.
The first hint of this relationship lies in that split second sensation most people feel in high-intensity situations. You feel it right there in your gut. It’s a cue from the environment that things are going to get hairy for a little while, and you should prepare yourself. The gut is so central to everything, it’s our first real interface with the outside world. The gut is where food goes. It’s where outside nutrients or pathogens or interlopers try to gain entry to our inner world. The “gut feeling” is a Primal one that we cannot ignore.
When you were a kid, adults probably drilled into you that you should “be nice,” share your toys, and put yourself in other people’s shoes. Those are necessary lessons, of course. Humans are prosocial creatures. Our ancestors needed the protection of the clan, so they had to get along and be team players. Individuals who caused strife within the group risked being kicked out, which could be a death sentence.
It pays to be considerate of others, but that message often gets twisted into “don’t rock the boat” and even “other people’s needs are more important than your own.” When getting along is your top priority, you become loathe to assert your own needs. However, in the long term, being too self-sacrificing is detrimental to your relationships and your own mental wellbeing. It’s a slippery slope into allowing other people to make unreasonable demands on your time or say or do things that hurt you (often unintentionally).
Moreover, not being honest about your needs is unfair. Other people never get the chance to reciprocate the consideration you’re offering, and all the while you are stewing in hurt or resentment because you aren’t getting what you want.
Hi folks, in this edition of Ask a Health Coach, Erin helps out her fellow over-doers with strategies for managing the hustle mentality, overthinking calories, and enjoying the holidays guilt free. Got questions? Share them in the comments or in our MDA Facebook Group. Cassie asked: “I always burn the candle at both ends making sure everyone is happy this time of year, but I can already tell I’m burning myself out. How do I get through the holidays without needing a vacation afterward? Overdoing it is kind of my specialty. At least it has been in the past, so I totally get where you’re coming from. If you’re like me, you have a long history of being highly productive — and wearing a huge badge of honor about it. The more hustle, the better. The less rest, the better. Even to the point of total burn out. You might also be a bit of a people pleaser, which, by definition, suggests that you’ve got a deep emotional need to please others at the expense of your own needs. For many of my clients, the eagerness to please ties into their self-worth and the need for approval and external validation. And it always gets put to the test around the holidays. By ensuring that everyone’s dietary preferences are met at dinner or getting the decorations “just right,” they feel more worthy, likeable, and accepted. Keep in mind that people pleasing isn’t the same as being a good host. To others, it probably just looks like you’re being really gracious and accommodating — and I have no doubt in my mind that you are. But being helpful at the expense of your own health and happiness isn’t a good trade off if you ask me https://guilfordjournals.com/doi/abs/10.1521/jscp.2012.31.2.169. If you’ve always felt compelled to put everyone else’s needs before your own, it’s hard to imagine it being different, since people-pleasing isn’t just what you do, it’s a big part of who you think you are. Here’s the good news though. The fact that you’re aware you’re doing these things is a sign you’re open to change. So, here are a few strategies you can start putting into practice right away: 1. Understand what you are and aren’t responsible for. If you’re hosting, providing food and conversation is likely in your responsibility wheelhouse; however, taking on the burden of ensuring your guests are happy every second of their visit isn’t. 2. Determine your boundaries and be assertive about them. Are you really okay with making four kinds of potatoes or having people stay later than you wanted? Get clear on your boundaries and practice sticking to them. And remember, asserting yourself can be scary at first, but it’s worth it in the long run. 3. Know that everything will work out fine. If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that the world is a crazy, unpredictable place and no amount of planning and people-pleasing can possibly ensure a perfect outcome. I think that you’ll … Continue reading “Ask a Health Coach: How to Stop the Cycle of Overdoing It”
It’s the most wonderful time of the year again! The time for family gatherings (but not this year), holiday feasts (maybe), and, according to my TV, buying brand new his-and-hers SUVs (not ever).
I’m not being sarcastic, I do enjoy the holiday season, but there’s no question that it’s stressful. The whirlwind of holiday excitement, decorating the homestead, dredging up the same old family fights, last-minute shopping, and love-hating the winter weather can be a lot, even under the best of circumstances. For all the people who relish this time of year, there are others who dread it.
Some stress is unavoidable, especially if the holidays are difficult due to complicated family situations, past losses, or financial hardships. However, a great deal of holiday stress is self-imposed. As much as you might feel like you have to do certain things to make the holidays magical for everyone, very few are truly non-negotiable. Just because you usually put up elaborate decorations, bake 12 types of cookies, and produce homemade gifts doesn’t mean you’re required to this year. It’s possible—though not always easy—to opt out of the things that cause more stress than pleasure.
Serotonin is a funny one. Although the prevailing sentiment is that we want to “increase serotonin,” it’s not that simple. There’s no indication that more serotonin is necessarily better in every situation, or even generally. The link between serotonin and “happiness” or “mood” isn’t so clear-cut as the experts would have you believe, either. So while I am going to tell you how to “boost” serotonin levels because serotonin is a vital neurotransmitter, I plan on sticking to foods, supplements, and behaviors that promote physiological levels of serotonin. Boosting serotonin beyond what the body is designed for may not help you, and it may have unpleasant and unwanted effects. Is Serotonin a Mood Booster? Yes and no. For evidence, I submit two items. The first is clinical research and the second is pure anecdote, albeit personal anecdote. Everyone has heard of SSRIs, or selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors. The most common form of antidepressants, their purported mode of action is to reduce the re-absorption of serotonin by neurons which increases the circulating concentration of serotonin in the brain. They increase brain levels of serotonin so it’s able to act longer. The evidence in favor of SSRIs in treating depression is mixed. Not everyone benefits, and it often takes several months to take effect. But they do help some people. In recent years, depression studies have pitted SSRIs against another drug—tianeptine—that does the opposite: increases the absorption of serotonin by neurons and decreases the concentration of serotonin the brain. If the “serotonin=happy” hypothesis is correct, tianeptine shouldn’t improve depression. It should worsen it. But that’s not what happens. Both tianeptine, which lowers brain serotonin, and SSRIs, which increase it, have been shown to improve depression symptoms in patients with clinical depression. If anything, tianeptine might even be more effective. This doesn’t mean that serotonin has nothing to do with depression, or that it’s bad for depression. It just means that the story is a little more complicated than we thought. Now the anecdote. Back when I was doing some research for a new probiotic supplement, I tried one that had been shown to increase serotonin levels: B. infantis. This is how I do things usually. Most all my products are created to solve a problem in my own life. I figure that if something appeals to me or fixes an issue affecting me, it will help others too. So this time, I added the powder to a smoothie and down the hatch it went. About half an hour later, I got the distinct sense of what I can only describe as emotional numbness. There was just this big blank emptiness in my heart and mind. I felt robotic, except I was a robot who had memories of what it was like to feel. It was a very uncanny, unnerving feeling that I don’t ever want to feel again. Maybe the dosage was too high. Maybe I shouldn’t have been taking a probiotic strain meant for human infants (B. infantis is present in infant guts … Continue reading “12 Ways to Boost Your Serotonin”
Humans are hardwired to crave certainty. Psychologists argue that it’s an innate need, programmed into our biology and reinforced through evolution. Understanding our environment allows us to predict, with some degree of accuracy, what will happen in the future. From an ancestral perspective, certainty allows us, theoretically, to avoid danger, reap desired rewards, and ensure survival.
The need for certainty is a central tenet of psychology. Human development is all about testing and forming theories about the environment, from toddlers throwing objects and learning about physics, to young children acquiring theory of mind, to adolescents pushing social boundaries. Even our language reflects this. Consider how many words we have around the concepts of agency, self-determination, personal freedom, and free will, especially in more individualistic societies.
At its crux, the need for certainty reflects a desire to control and master the environment. We assert control through our choices, whether that’s deciding what to eat for breakfast, opting for the highway or surface streets on our commute, or choosing whom to marry. Every decision, from mundane to life-altering, depends on our ability to weigh the odds of getting a favorable outcome. We can only do that if our world is predictable, at least to a degree.
Raise your hand if you’ve been feeling a little overwhelmed. Aside from the fact that being in the middle of a pandemic makes everything more stressful, you’ve got work obligations and family commitments, then there are food choices to make, at-home workouts you think you should be doing, and non-stretchy pants you’re feeling bad for not fitting into. It’s a lot. I get it, and it’s totally normal to feel overwhelmed. That said, staying in a state of overwhelm is a choice. Yep, you heard me, it’s a choice. And if you’re ready to get out of the seemingly relentless spin cycle of life (and the tight chest and racing mind that come with it), stick around. I’ll be unpacking the real reason you get overwhelmed — spoiler alert, it’s not because your to-do list is too long — plus, four things you can do to change it. Why Do I Get Overwhelmed? I’ll give you an example from my own life. As a health coach, I’ll often hear my clients say that they just can’t do it. They can’t swap out their toast and cereal for breakfast. They can’t make time to get outside. They can’t get to bed earlier. They can’t…fill in the blank. In my opinion, “I can’t” statements reflect limiting beliefs. They aren’t real; they’re just stories we tell ourselves, and identities we accidentally end up identifying with. It’s not that you can’t, it’s that something is holding you back. I find that most of the time, when I dig a little deeper, that thing is fear. Types of Fear That Cause Overwhelm: Fear you won’t be able to handle it Fear of getting it wrong Fear you won’t get it done (on time) Fear that you’ll be judged Fear of the consequences Fear of not being in control Fear of being embarrassed Fear that you don’t really deserve it Whether you’re experiencing worry, stress, or complete overwhelm, fear is usually at the helm, just FYI. But the goal here isn’t to be fearless (there actually are some benefits to fear), it’s to not let it rule your life. Anything that threatens your place in this world, i.e. your self-worth, can elicit a fear-based reaction. I’m sure you’ve heard of the fight-or-flight response, right? When you experience something that feels scary and stressful, the amygdala (the part of your brain that handles emotional processing) releases a rush of chemicals into the body. The stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol flood your system, preparing you to fight or flee. Not only that, the amygdala instantly shuts down the neural pathway to your prefrontal cortex which temporarily impairs all rational thinking, making you feel disorganized and out of control. So, It’s All in My Mind? Believe it or not, you’re causing this cascade of physiological effects by your thoughts alone, even though there’s no real danger other than the perceived consequences of what would happen if you failed or were embarrassed or weren’t able to keep tabs on all … Continue reading “What it Really Means When You’re Overwhelmed (and 4 Ways to Move Past It)”