Apr 18, 2009

Seeking Inner Guidance in Times of Stress

In times of stress and transition who doesn't want a trusted advisor or
mentor? Wouldn't we all want someone to turn to who can help us with our
decisions and guide us in our actions? I sure do. But what if you don't
have that in your life? Or if you do have that trusted relationship with
friends or a family member, but they just aren't available when and how you
need them to be? That's when you need to develop your own inner guidance.
Mature adults seek guidance, not reliance on someone else for their
Always relying on the advice of others is a form of dependency,
not self-sufficiency. It can also be very confusing. Ask six different
people what to do in a situation and you'll get six different answers. Then
how do you decide?

All the self-help books and psychotherapists, like me, encourage,
well....self-help, which is helping someone discern their own inner wisdom
and find the courage to act on it. All you need to run your life
successfully lies within you.
You just need a way to become aware of it,
access it, and have the courage to act on what you know is in your best

So, if advice doesn't work and your outer mentors are not available, what
methods can you use to access your inner guidance? There are so many ways to
do this - journaling, prayer and meditation, interpreting your dreams, or
just having a good listener mirror back to you what you are saying, so you
can hear yourself.

I'm a big fan of journaling. Sometimes I don't know what I think or feel
about something until I write about it. In my journal I'm free to express
anything and everything without censoring myself. In it, I write letters to
people I'm upset with as a way to work through my hurt, fear or anger -- so
I can calm down and find out what I really want to do about the situation.
Once I'm done expressing my feelings fully, I focus on looking for
solutions, instead of blaming. I also write "letters to God," Higher Self,
or Inner Advisor asking for guidance. This is one of my favorite techniques
because it calls on the innate wisdom we all have. I'll put a concern
before this wiser self and discuss it thoroughly. Many times I'm surprised
by the insights I get. Generally, I feel comforted because that part is
kind and compassionate and reminds me that to be human is to okay, to
struggle is okay, and to strive towards my goals takes courage.

I also like to ask my dreams for assistance in discerning what to do. One
technique to do this is to asked for dreams that will address a certain
problem you're having. Do this right before you go to bed. It's a good
idea to keep a notepad next to your bed to write down the request before you
go to sleep and record your dreams immediately upon waking. A lot of people
say they don't remember their dreams, but more likely it is the case that
they just forget quickly because they jump out of bed to start their day and
don't take time to capture their dreams.

If you start telling your subconscious that you want a dream about a
situation, but don't take time to listen to what you get, it's like any
other conversation. The subconscious will clam up. If you start recording
your dreams and working with them, they can become a source of inner
guidance for you. If you look at dreams as metaphors, like fairy tales,
full of layers of meaning, you will have a rich source of guidance. Rarely
are dreams meant to be interpreted literally. Dreams images are symbolic.
Get to know your dreams and ask yourself what themes keep appearing in them.
For example, I often have a dream that I'm driving in a car and the brakes
fail. To me this dream symbolizes that my life is going too fast and I need
to find a reliable way to slow down. If you had the same dream it might
mean something else.

Prayer and meditation are other great ways to access guidance. I like this
saying; "prayer is talking to God. Meditation is listening to God." Both
are intended to get our egos out of the way, so we can access higher wisdom.
The goal of meditation is to quiet the mind, learn to detach from the ego
chatter that distracts us and masquerades as Truth, and just observe the
rising and falling of our thoughts, sensations, and feelings.

Once you get accustomed to seeking inner wisdom you will be able to
distinguish between ego chatter and wise counsel. Ego chatter is all about
our personal history and is characterized by fear masking as truth. Jack
Canfield says that F.E.A.R. = " False Expectations Appearing Real." I've
never found fearful thoughts to contain much wisdom. Fear tends to paralyze
instead of catalyze action. Fear's message is to stay small and don't be a
target, when most likely what we need to do in a new situation is to expand
and grow -- step out of our comfort zones. Fear looks back on all the bad
things that's ever happened in your life and projects that into the future.
It warns, if something bad happened before, it WILL happen again. That is a
lie. Wisdom will tell you there's no connection between the past and
future, there's only the present and that you are free to think, act, and
feel differently in the present. Different choices lead to different
results. Wise counsel leads to self-confidence and inner resourcefulness.

Annette Vaillancourt, Ph.D. is a psychotherapist and motivational speaker
with offices in Carbondale, IL and St. Louis, MO. www.GotStressGetHelp.com

Mar 2, 2009

Signs and Symptoms of Stress Overload

Learning how to manage stress starts with becoming aware that you are under
too much stress. You need to know the signs and symptoms of stress overload
in the following areas of life: emotional, social, physical and cognitive.
Too much stress can affect any or all of these areas of life.

Once you are aware of how stress overload shows up in your life, you can
make a plan to keep your stress within a manageable range. The elimination
of all stress is not the goal. Since both negative and positive events in
life can be stressful, without any stress life would be boring and you
wouldn't have anything to look forward to. The goal is to keep your stress
in a range that is motivating and not let it spill over into a debilitating

So what are the commons signs and symptoms of stress in each of these four
areas? Emotionally, stress can manifest as anxiety, panic, depression,
irritability, moodiness, and feelings of being overwhelmed and burned out.

Physically, stress can manifest as headaches, tension, unusual aches and
pains, increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, chest pains,
unexplained rashes, sweaty palms, jitteriness, clumsiness and an increase
susceptibility to infections (because chronic stress weakens the immune
system). Further, stress contributes to the onset or worsening of the
following diseases: ulcers, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, hypertension,
irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia and alcoholism. In fact, it is
estimated that between 60 - 90% of all doctor's visits are due to stress.

Stress also affects your social life. When you are under stress how you
related to others may change. Some of us withdraw from social contact and
need a lot of quiet time alone to rest, recharge and regroup. Others need
more people contact when they are stressed to distract, discharge and dumb
(seek support). Plus, if you are already feeling the emotional impact of
stress then problems may arise in your interpersonal relationships. Signs
of this may be increase bickering or discord, a change in the level of
interest in sexual contact, and a change in your patience with the other
person. Yes, if your sex life comes to a screeching halt, look at the level
of stress in your life first as the likely culprit. Also, stress may
increase addictive behaviors, like drinking or smoking. These can also
affect your social life, especially if the people you are around object to
these behaviors.

Finally, stress affects how well your brain works. Cognitive signs of stress
include: forgetfulness, poor comprehension, inability to learn or retain new
information, reduced ability to access or recall information (ever forget
your kids names?), and difficulty making decisions. In short, your mind has
too much to think about because it's dealing with too many other things. It's
full and nothing is going in or coming out quickly or easily. I like to say
you need a dose of "Braino" - time to rest, let go of worries and cares,
daydream, meditate, listen to music or just watch your thoughts go by like a
train on a track, except your not on the train of thought. You are standing
aside and just watching it go by.

My recommendation to you is to identify your unique constellation of stress
overload indicators, so when you start to notice them, you can take action
to reduce the stress and let it become chronic. Chronic stress can kill.

Annette Vaillancourt, Ph.D. is a psychotherapist and motivational speaker - www.GotStressGetHelp.com

Nov 21, 2008

This is Your Brain on Stress

"I can't stand it when....What if.....I'm trapped.....I'll never have....Oh, my God....this is awful!" This is what worry, anxiety, fear and pessimism sound like in your head. This is your brain on stress. Actually, this is your brain producing your stress.

Yes, it's your thoughts, your perceptions, assumptions and interpretations of life's situations that actually cause stress and NOT the situations (or people) themselves. Therefore, the way to reduce stress is to become aware of your stress-producing thoughts, learn to "turn down the emotional volume" or change the channel altogether on those thoughts. I'll describe this in a minute.

But first, you have to realize that your thoughts are not all TRUTH. Just because you can think something doesn't make it true...well, it might bring it about, but that's another story. You have to begin to put some "wiggle room" in your thinking, loosen your grip on your assumptions and allow yourself to modify your thoughts. I used to have a bumper sticker on my car that read, "Don't believe everything you think." That's the place to start.

The more rigidly you hold to a certain thought and the more you repeat it mentally, it becomes harder to change. Through sheer repetition you've worn a groove in your brain and have mistaken that groove for reality. I had a friend, another therapist, who once said, "If you're going to assume something about a situation, why not assume something that flatters you?"

So let's take some examples. Try changing "I can't stand it when..." to "I really don't like it when...." Just that subtle change turns down the emotional volume or intensity of that thought. The reality is you CAN stand it and probably have stood it for a long time, but not without complaining to yourself or others. What you're really saying is, "I don't like it!"

Next, let's take a worrisome thought. These usually come in the form of some sort of catastrophizing and start with "Oh, my God, what if I don't get that job promotion? I won't be able to deal with it. I'll get so depressed, lose the job I do have. Then we'll lose the house, end up homeless, and die alone on the street." It takes just as much energy to think, "Oh, my God, what if I DO get that job promotion?" Then you can spend your time focusing on how you're going to enjoy the new challenge, become a stronger person, gain the respect of family and friends, etc.

What I've noticed about people who are worriers is that a) they have a very active, vivid imagination, but they tend to use it only on negative scenarios. I think of worry as something akin to a Superpower. If you can imagine something going wrong in vivid detail, you can harness that same ability and use it for good....imagine things going right instead. Each outcome is equally as likely to occur and your positive expectation might actually tip the scales in your favor.

Now, if your thinking goes repeatedly to thoughts like, "I will never have the car/job/love/house that I want" that will become your reality because we act on what we believe. You won't even try to have or achieve those things because your thoughts have already taken you out of the game. To save face, you'll make excuses instead. "I'm just not driven/smart/attractive enough." Here's a clinical term, Hogwash! You never know until you try and you won't try if you believe you can't have what you want. I think it was Henry Ford who said, "Whether You Think You Can or Can't, You're Right."

Now for the "awfulizing." Again, that's an emotionally intense thought. Awful is in the mind of the beholder. Can you think of some food you dislike and then think of someone who loves that same dish? Can you think of some music you hate and then think of someone who loves it? Sure you can. This is an example of perspective taking. Things are only as awful as you think they are. If the "awful" thought is something like, "It's awful that my son didn't make the basketball team" try changing it to "it's great that he tried out and that he'll continue to improve until he does make the team. It's great that he has goals and ambitions."

Finally, for those situations where you think you are "trapped" or have no choice. You always have and always are making choices. Your choice might be to stay in a situation that isn't pleasant or healthy for you. Why you're choosing to stay is because you either don't see or don't like the alternatives. Maybe you choose to stay at a job you hate because it pays alot of money and you don't know how you'd replace that income. Maybe you stay in an abusive relationship because you don't like the alternative of breaking up, being alone, or starting over with someone new. Either way, you're not "trapped." You just don't see alternatives or don't want to choose something else right now.

In conclusion, be careful what you think. I could be a hazard to your mental health.

Annette Vaillancourt, Ph.D. is a psychotherapist and motivational speaker.