Why feeling bad isn’t all bad news

July 1, 2019
feeling bad, feeling good

It goes without saying that we’d all prefer to feel good most of the time. No-one particularly wants to feel sad, anxious, angry or any other ‘negative’ emotions. If you’ve been influenced by the kind of positive thinking messages that teach you that creating a good life means focusing on always feeling good, you might have even become fearful of allowing yourself to feel bad. (For example, you might worry that you’ll attract bad experiences into your life if you let yourself slip into negative thoughts and feelings.)

Sometimes as children, we’ve been exposed either directly or indirectly to the message that anger is unacceptable or sadness is unnecessary or your fears are silly and so, naturally we learn to hide or suppress those feelings. But attempts to stifle, avoid, or deny your unpleasant emotions are usually counterproductive. If you routinely use strategies to avoid feeling bad, such as taking the edge of your stress with a drink, cheering yourself up with a bit of retail therapy, or talking yourself out of your hurt feelings when someone has upset you, you ultimately create more problems. Your stress is compounded by poor quality sleep after that wine. Your credit card bill eventually arrives. And resentments in a relationship continue to grow when they’re unaddressed.

The value of painful feelings.

Sometimes your uncomfortable feelings can act like inner alarm bells telling you there is something to fix or change and if you’re more concerned about avoiding those feelings, you’re not tuning into the valuable inner guidance of your own emotions. For example, if you feel remorse, that’s a useful clue that you’ve acted out of alignment with your integrity and you might need to modify your behaviour or make amends to someone. If you feel angry, you might realise that you’ve been allowing people to take advantage of you for too long and it’s time to learn to be more assertive. If you’re feeling stressed a lot of the time, it’s much more useful to look at the conditions of your life contributing to your stress than it is to keep numbing those feelings.

It’s only by learning to sit with that discomfort that you can look at what it’s telling you. When you learn to accept unpleasant emotions, they lose their power over you because, paradoxically, the more you reject or deny them, the stronger they become.

You know what they say: “What you resist, persists.”

If you have trouble being with unpleasant feelings, there are a few things you can practice that make it easier to tolerate that discomfort and use it to your advantage.

1. Break it down

When you experience a strong emotion, it often shows up as a bundle of thoughts, feelings and sensations in your body and a strong urge to act or react. As best you can, try to slow down your experience as if you’re watching it on a movie screen and tune into it part by part. What are the stories in your mind? What are the emotions? (Try to be as specific as possible.) And where do you feel those feelings in your body? Be aware of emotional reactions and see if you can resist that urge to immediately do something to escape or discharge the emotion.

2. Stay with the sensation

Where most people go wrong is that they get very caught up in the story in their heads; that is, all the thoughts and justifications for why you feel this way or shouldn’t feel this way. Thoughts create feelings, but thoughts are not feelings, so try to let go of the thinking part and tune into the sensation in your body. Anxiety might feel like a knot in your stomach or sweaty palms. Anger might feel like a weight in your chest. See if you can observe these sensations objectively, mentally tracing around them, noticing the quality of them and describing them in your mind. Emotions always show up in your body, so try to stay with those physical sensations and don’t get caught up in your stories about them.

3. Check back in with the emotions

Every now and then, move your attention away from your physical body and back to the emotion and note if there has been any change. Has your emotion intensified, or has it dissipated? Has the original emotion been replaced by a different one? (Sometimes anger makes way for sadness when you sit with it for long enough.) Be curious about what happens to the emotion as you simply allow it to dwell in your body.

4. Make a wise choice

Now that you have a safe way of relating to strong emotions, you’re in a more calm and mindful position to decide about what to do next. Rather than (over)reacting emotionally or running away from your feelings, you are able to see more clearly what your feelings are trying to tell you. This puts you back in control of your feelings and choices which is a much more positive and empowering position to be in.

Learning to stay with painful emotions, to observe your thinking mind and to not be hijacked by your thoughts and feelings is one of the most profound benefits of mindfulness. Contrary to popular opinion, the task is not to eliminate stress from your life but to learn a way of relating to it so that you have more more and freedom over your choices.

All of this and more is covered in my 8-week online course, “Mindfulness for Busy People”. To find out more, check it out HERE.

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Read next article: Stop apologising.


Is forgiveness the key to your inner peace?

June 24, 2019
asking for forgiveness

You’ve no doubt heard the saying that holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die, which basically means that when you carry around resentments and grudges, the only person suffering is you. Studies have shown that when people focus on someone who has hurt or mistreated them, their mood spirals downward and they experience all the physiological symptoms of stress including higher blood pressure, elevated heart rate, sweating and tension in their body. Holding grudges is really bad for you.

But letting go of those old grudges is sometimes easier said than done. In fact, it can sometimes feel impossible. When we see stories in the media about people extending forgiveness to the person who killed their child, for example, it almost beggars belief. Where do people find the capacity for forgiveness when they’ve lost so much? It might be that they practice forgiveness not for the person who has wronged them, but for themselves – because sometimes forgiveness is the very thing that releases you from your pain and allows you to move forward in your own life with peace and positivity.

Forgiveness means reducing (or eliminating) the drive for revenge or retaliation and if possible, replacing it with thoughts that are based on more empathy or goodwill.  Maybe ‘letting go’ is a more effective description and if you have trouble letting go, it might help to remember these key points:

1. Forgiveness doesn’t require reconciliation

Forgiveness does not have to involve reconnecting with the person or having any relationship with them at all. In fact, forgiveness doesn’t even require you to communicate with the person and they need never know of your decision to let go of your anger.

2. Forgiveness is not condoning the other person’s behaviour

Another misconception is that extending forgiveness to someone means you condone or pardon their actions. It might feel as if you are letting the other person off the hook but in fact, you’re letting yourself no longer be hooked into feelings of bitterness and hostility.

3. Forgiveness isn’t weak

Probably one of the biggest hurdles to overcome is the idea that forgiveness is weak or foolish. In fact, it’s people who are emotionally stable who have been shown to be more likely to practice forgiveness. It can help to remember that offering forgiveness has nothing to do with what’s ‘fair’. Focusing on fairness and wanting to maintain the upper hand can keep you unnecessarily stuck and unable to move on.

Practising forgiveness

When you choose to forgive someone for their wrongdoing, you are making a conscious decision to let go of the pain you are carrying.  Psychology professor and leading forgiveness researcher, Everett Worthington has developed a five step process he called REACH forgiveness, which has been found to be an effective tool for people wanting to forgive. I’ve outlined his process below so that you can decide if it’s something you’d be interested in exploring further. (Note: Professor Worthington’s own mother was murdered and both he and his siblings forgave her murderer within a very short space of time so this is not just academic theory to him, but a lived experience).

R – Recall the hurt.

The first step is acknowledging that you have been hurt as objectively as possible. It’s dropping the defensiveness and the snark and facing up to the fact that this situation occurred and the impact it had on you.

E – Empathy

Empathy involves seeing the situation from the other person’s perspective. You may not agree with it, but the more you can try to see their point of view, the more likely you are to reduce feelings of anger and make space for compassion. We all know that it’s hurt people who hurt other people and sometimes it can help to remember that anyone who is driven to cause harm to others must be carrying a lot of emotional pain within themselves.

A – Altruistic gift.

Offering forgiveness is an act of altruism because it doesn’t require the other person to do anything for you. It’s recognising that you have been forgiven for transgressions in the past and you have the capacity to do the same for someone else.

C – Commit.

Make a commitment to your decision to let go and move on. A commitment has staying power. It means every time you revert to old resentments, you remind yourself of your decision and don’t question it.

H – Hold onto forgiveness.

When you notice those old stories or resentments coming up again, do your best to hold onto forgiveness and not be derailed again by hostility.

Ultimately, forgiveness is a gift to another person as well as an act of kindness to yourself, and a small contribution to living in a more understanding and compassionate world.

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Read next article: Why feeling bad isn’t all bad news?


Why happiness is good for your health

June 10, 2019
happiness and fitness

Health and happiness go hand in hand. For example, we know that exercise triggers the release of endorphins, that movement can be a great way to discharge strong emotions like anxiety or anger, and that staying fit gives you the energy to manage the demands of your day, thus reducing stress. Conversely, we know that toxic emotions are bad for your body. Chronic stress can compromise your immune functioning, disrupt your hormonal balance and cause physical aches and pains. Mood disorders can disrupt your sleeping patterns, leading to a whole range of potential health risks including heart disease, hypertension and even Alzheimer’s disease.  

The health benefits of happiness stretch far beyond simply neutralising stress or reducing risk factors for disease. Optimistic people actually live longer than their pessimistic peers. This is partly explained by the fact that people with a positive outlook tend to adopt a healthier lifestyle but they also recover faster from illness and injuries suggesting there might actually be physiological benefits that come from having a positive outlook on life.

Similarly, people with a sense of purpose are less likely to show genetic expression of inflammation in the body and people who practice compassion have been shown to have longer telomeres (those are the caps on the end of your DNA strands that shorten with illness and ageing).

It seems that ensuring you get your daily dose of positivity is just what the doctor ordered, so here’s a reminder of some fast ways to adopt a more optimistic outlook and start reaping the health benefits.

1.    Count your blessings

Gratitude is probably the number one way to turn around a low mood and boost your positivity. Whether you do it formally by keeping a gratitude journal or simply acknowledge in your own mind the things and people you appreciate, the benefits of gratitude are immediate and profound. You can take it up a notch by telling people in person or in writing how much you appreciate them.

2.    Savour the good things

‘Savouring’ is a positive psychology practice that involves plumbing all the joy out of a positive experience. The important thing about savouring is that it doesn’t only apply to the joy you might be experiencing in the present moment. You can savour the anticipation of something you’re looking forward to and you can also savour a happy memory. In fact some research has shown that the anticipation of a happy event can have more powerful mood boosting effects than the event itself, so it pays to intentionally focus on the things you are looking forward to (without wishing away the present moment of course!)

3.    Do something for others

Volunteering has been repeatedly shown to boost people’s wellbeing and satisfaction with life. The key is to choose a cause that you feel passionately about and devote an hour or so each week or fortnight. We’re all time poor these days but taking some time out to walk dogs at your local animal rescue or serve meals at a homeless shelter can make a huge difference to your life and the lives of others. Focusing outwardly takes your attention away from your own problems, gives you a sense of perspective and interestingly, it raises your own opinion of yourself. When you do something that reinforces that you are a good person, your sense of self-worth gets a boost. And most importantly, there is real joy to be experienced in witnessing someone else’s joy and appreciation for something you have done.

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What does it mean to be authentic?

June 3, 2019

In the past few years, there’s been a lot of focus on the importance of being your true self. Especially in the shiny world of social media, where we are continually bombarded with polished and curated images of people’s lives (and if we’re honest, usually presenting our own highlights reel), it can feel as though authenticity is becoming a scarce commodity.

It’s not just our online lives that are affected by inauthenticity though. Sometimes our attempts to maintain harmony in relationships, to fit in with a social crowd or even to avoid judgement or criticism can lead to us watering down our opinions or making choices that aren’t 100% in line with our values or personal preferences. We might laugh at jokes we don’t find all that funny, go along with plans we’re not all that excited about or pretend we’re fine when we’re really not.

What does it really mean to be authentic though? We all have social roles we perform and so we can tend to slip in and out of character depending on the circumstances we’re in. When does this social role-playing turn into being ‘inauthentic’? Is it actually possible (or desirable) to be fully and completely yourself whether you’re at home with your kids, in a board meeting at work or socialising with acquaintances?

I think, while there will always be times we need to prioritise tact and diplomacy over brutal honesty, there are a few guideposts we can all use to help steer us towards being more authentic more of the time.

1.  Start with self-acceptance

Pretending to be something you’re not usually stems from a belief that people wouldn’t like, accept or approve of you if you were really honest about who you are. When you accept yourself and (this is important) when you know deeply that you are a quality human even if your life isn’t perfect, your opinions aren’t popular or someone else judges or criticises you, then you are free to really be yourself. We get stuck in posturing, pretending and people-pleasing when we rely too heavily on other people’s approval for our sense of worthiness. Until you’ve truly learned to like and approve of yourself, you’ll probably struggle with being genuinely authentic.

2. Stay true to your values

Your values are the things in life you hold as most important to you and the principles you stand by. Honesty, respect, or equality are all examples of values you can express in every area of your life – personally and professionally. Authenticity means not compromising on those principles, and making decisions every day that align with your  values, regardless of the context or the circumstances in which you find yourself. The good news is that knowing what matters most to you helps with the liking yourself part. The more clear you are about who you are and what you stand for, the stronger your sense of self-worth.

3. Honour your own needs.

If you regularly subjugate your own needs to accommodate others, defer to other people’s opinions or go along with plans when you’d rather not, aim to be more assertive in expressing your opinion and stating your needs. You might think it doesn’t matter, but in the vast majority of cases (that is, unless you’re hanging out with a narcissist), the people you’re with actually want to know your opinion and prefer you to tell them your preference. We all like to know where we stand and not have to guess at someone else’s position. If that feels uncomfortable perhaps due to bad experiences you’ve had in the past, start small.

If someone asks what you’d like to do, rather than falling back on the old, “I’m easy. Whatever you want is fine with me”, think about what you would really like to do and tell them! If doesn’t mean be uncompromising, it just means being prepared to put your preference out there for consideration along with all the others. And if it occurs to you that you don’t actually know what your own needs and preferences are, then that’s a good sign you could do with spending some time reconnecting with what matters to you. You may have become so adept at burying your needs to keep harmony with others that you need to dig deep and undo that damage.

4.     Have honest conversations

Having difficult conversations is not something that comes easily to most of us and being authentic means owning up to what you really feel. We often err on the side of protecting someone’s feelings or avoiding awkward topics completely. At work, it’s easy to go along with majority opinion and in relationships we can stay quiet under the guise of ‘keeping the peace’. It’s also much more comfortable to maintain superficial banter than to discuss topics with a bit more emotional depth. Striving to tell the truth even when it feels uncomfortable or to have the courage to discuss the issues that matter to you is the way to build trust.

I’m not talking about being brutally honest or sacrificing tact or diplomacy in the name of truth-telling. But at the end of the day, authenticity is a prerequisite for trust. Trusting yourself to do what’s right for you and being a trustworthy person in the eyes of others so that you have a chance of creating deeper, lasting and genuine connections.

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Read next article: Why happiness is good for your health?


Ditch the mummy guilt for good

May 27, 2019
Ditching the mummy guilt for good

Any mother knows that parenthood brings countless blessings but also a seemingly unending list of reasons to feel like you’re not measuring up. The guilt often begins pre-conception if you are actively trying to conceive (“Did having that glass of wine reduce my fertility this month?”) and continues throughout pregnancy (“Is my stress affecting the baby’s development?”)

The minute your baby arrives in the world, the full power of mother guilt is unleashed as you second-guess every decision you make:  Breast or bottle; cot or co-sleeping; cloth nappies or disposable? Tummy time, screen time, play time, music time, when to start solids, should fruit or veges be first, jar food or home-made, and is it organic? Every stage of development creates new opportunities to question yourself and your choices, and I’m not sure when, or if it ever ends.

(I’d like to throw in a disclaimer here that parent guilt is not exclusively the domain of mothers, with one online survey finding that 1 in 5 fathers experience some kind of dad guilt, but this blog is for the women who frequently ask me to help them overcome their mother guilt.)

It’s mothers who are most commonly the primary caregiver in the early months and years, and therefore we are the ones most attuned to our children’s needs and their strongest attachment figure. Handing over their care to another person – be it family, friends or your local daycare centre – can be a momentous and angst-ridden decision. (Cue that mother guilt!) When you return to work or study, every moment with your child becomes more precious, and many mothers find themselves forgoing any kind of leisure time, in order to be available to them. Most of us are more than willing to do what it takes to be there for our kids, but there comes a point when your angst about your parenting choices and your willingness to sacrifice your own needs becomes counterproductive to both yourself and your child.

Today I want to give you three reasons why prioritising your own self-care is one of the best things you can do for your kids and why you need to ditch the guilt for good:

1.    More is not better

Research has found that the amount of time mothers spend with young children has no correlation to those children’s academic achievement, behaviour or emotional wellbeing. Quality time, on the other hand, i.e., time spent reading, teaching or engaging in activities or sports is correlated with positive outcomes. Child-care providers, family and/or friends, however, can perform those structured activities, so it’s ok for mums to be let off the hook occasionally! Note that the more time mums (and parents generally) spend with kids during adolescence actually does have positive benefits, but for kids up to the age of 11, you can drop the guilt if you’re not with your kids 24/7.

2.    You can’t pour from an empty cup

What we do know for sure is that high levels of maternal distress are linked with negative outcomes for children. If the sacrifices you are making for your kids are leaving you depleted, depressed or resentful, this can impact your ability to parent well. It’s essential that you take time to attend to your own physical, social and emotional needs and do the things that fulfil you in order to be the best parent for your children.

I would add as an aside, that you teach your children by what you model to them so it can pay to ask yourself if you would like your children (especially daughters) to heed the message that their own self care should go out the window when they grow up and become parents themselves.

3.    Good Enough Parenting

Donald Winnicott was a paediatrician and psychoanalyst in the 1940s and ‘50s who famously coined the term ‘good enough mother’ to describe an approach to parenting that allows children to develop independence and resilience. Good enough parenting, according to Winnicott, requires being available and attuned to your child’s needs 30% of the time. You read that right – 30%. So the next time you feel guilty for your lack of perfect parenting – remember that ‘good enough’ is all your children need to grow up healthy, safe and happy.

Now, how about calling the babysitter and taking yourself out to a movie?

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How to break your phone habit

May 20, 2019
phone habit

In Australia, 84% of people over 14yrs old own a smart phone and according to some surveys, we spend an average of three hours each day using our phone (many more hours are spent on other internet-connected devices such as computers). As adults, we despair about the effect of screen time and social media on our kids, but you know what they say – change has to start at the top – and when we (the grown ups) are hooked on our phones, we’re not really modelling the kind of behaviour we expect of our kids.

Putting down your phone gives you a better chance of having more connected conversations and is good for your physical and mental health, but it can be easier said than done when so much of our everyday lives is managed within these tiny devices. If you know it’s time to set some limits on your phone use – as an individual or as a family – you might want to try some of these suggestions to help you break your phone habit:

1. Monitor screen time

Many smart phones now have a ‘screen time’ function built in and it can be pretty confronting to see just how much of your life is being spent on your device. If your phone doesn’t have it built in, there are plenty of apps you can download to monitor your phone use. You might be shocked by what you see and sometimes that can be enough to jolt you into making a change. What it will also give you is a breakdown of where you are spending most of your time and that can help you formulate a strategy for cutting back.

2. Audit your apps

We tend to talk about ‘screen time’ as an all-encompassing activity but there are many different kinds of activities you can be doing with the assistance of your smart phone. Fitness apps and trackers are housed in our phones, as are meditation apps, budgeting planners, calendars and mood diaries. A lot of these serve a useful function in supporting our health and wellbeing. The kind of screen-time that can become compulsive and begin to compromise our health and wellbeing are social media and messaging apps, games and even email. Before you ban your phone altogether, you might want to do a review of what’s working and what’s not. Decide specifically which apps need firmer limits.

3. Remove the problem

When you know which particular apps are the biggest time wasters, whether it’s a game you’re addicted to, watching cat videos on YouTube or scrolling Instagram or Facebook, try removing the app from your phone for a while. It’s not to say you can’t still access those things on a computer, but it does mean you’re not going to be tempted to hit that icon on your phone every time you find yourself with a spare few minutes. Removing the temptation by uninstalling the app will help you break the habit faster.

4. Turn off notifications

The thing that most often sucks us into looking at our phones is seeing a notification come up as a banner on your screen (even when you’re not using it!) or hearing the ping of an alert or notification. You are much more likely to be successful in defining your own limits and checking your phone at times that suit you if you deactivate all those notifications, alerts and alarms. Take back the power to choose when you want to look at your device rather than have it continually demanding your attention.

5. Set phone free times (and places)

It’s really important to allocate some time during the day and the week as phone-free – both as an individual and, I would suggest, as a family. It might be no devices during dinner or before 7.30am in the morning. By making this a family rule, you are all more likely to hold each other accountable. You might also make the rule that phones are not to be used in bedrooms so no-one is tempted to pick up their device and start scrolling first thing in the morning or last thing at night. Decide on what’s reasonable and enforce it strictly.

Good luck. And remember H. Jackson Brown Jr’s sage advice from his Life’s Little Instruction Book (advice he proffered long before the invention of smart phones, I might add), “Don’t allow the phone to interrupt important moments. It’s there for your convenience, not the caller’s”.

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Calling time on Wine O’Clock. How to break the alcohol habit.

May 13, 2019
two friends drinking in habit

As much as we normalise regular drinking and it is very much an accepted part of our Aussie culture, when alcohol consumption becomes very habitual, it can get in the way of your fitness goals (or any other goals) and compromise your health.  Typically, the more you drink the more you drink, meaning that your tolerance for alcohol increases with repeated use and you find you need to drink more to achieve the same effect. You might have noticed that your ‘Friday drinks’ have moved up on the calendar to Wednesday night or your one glass has turned into three or four. Typically, the longer you keep up the habit, the more you’ll be frustrated by your apparent inability to stop as alcohol starts feeling more and more necessary in your life. If you’re frustrated with alcohol getting in the way of your ability to lose weight or you’re concerned that alcohol is becoming more a necessity than a luxury for you, there are lots of things you can do to kick the habit or cut back.

1.    Set a goal

The important thing is to decide what kind of drinker you want to be. If you’re drinking daily, you might want to cut back to only drinking on weekends. If you drink on weekends, you might want to limit yourself to two drinks rather than finishing the whole bottle of wine. You may decide you want to stop drinking completely. Decide now on a goal even if it’s for 30 days or 90 days. If you’re concerned about your health, perhaps take yourself to the GP for blood and liver function tests so that you can go back and review your health improvements after a break from alcohol.

2.    Know your triggers

Like any habit, there will be clear triggers that signify to you that it’s time for a drink. The trigger can be the time of day, day of week, another part of your normal routine (such as coming home from work) or certain people or places. The whole point of habits is that they bypass conscious thought so you don’t have to think about them. Knowing your alcohol ‘cues’ helps you to turn off autopilot and become more conscious of what you’re doing.

3.    Understand the role of dopamine

All of your alcohol cues trigger the release of dopamine in your brain as it begins anticipating the reward of alcohol. People often don’t realise that dopamine is not just a reward chemical released after you’ve had a drink, it is a powerful motivating force towards your reward so it will kick in with only the thought of alcohol before you’ve gone anywhere near a drink. When you notice cravings, recognise dopamine is at work – it’s just a chemical process in your brain, nothing more.

4.    Practise mindfulness (urge surfing)

There is a practise in mindfulness called ‘surfing the urge’ which is a highly effective way to manage those cravings when they arise. A craving is no more than a bunch of thoughts in your head and sensations in your body. Most people go to battle in their head and cravings ‘win’ so instead you should work on being curious about the sensations in your body, breathing into them, allowing them and watching them pass. Most cravings will arise and fall away within 20 minutes if you drop the struggle and breathe through them. Google ‘urge surfing’ for more on that.

5.  Find alternatives

When you know what primary function alcohol is serving in your life, you can come up with alternative activities to meet that need. If it’s stress relief, you might try having a hot shower, meditation, reading a book, listening to music or getting outside and playing with your dog. If alcohol is the centre of your social world, you might find other ways to connect with people like going for a walk or meeting for coffee.

6. Get inspired

Loads of books have been written by women who have successfully given up alcohol. One that many people credit for fundamentally changing the way they think about alcohol is ‘This Naked Mind’ by Annie Grace. Reading about other people’s experiences can inspire you to keep on track and remind you of the reasons why you’re doing it.

7. Don’t stress about slip-ups

When trying to change a habit, most people slip up many, many times. The most important thing is to not see it as a failure or that you’re weak or that the whole thing is hopeless. Remember that if alcohol is the tool you use to manage uncomfortable feelings, then making yourself feel bad is only going to drive you straight to alcohol. Every slip up is an opportunity to learn if you are open and kind to yourself and willing to get back on track.

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When does binge eating become a problem?

May 6, 2019
too much eating sweets

Sometimes no matter how much you try to convince yourself to put the Tim Tams back in the pantry, you just can’t help having another one.. and another and another. Overindulging in some delicious temptation is very human and while you probably want to curb the compulsive overeating, the occasional blowout won’t necessarily do a whole lot of harm. For some people though, those blowouts are all too frequent. If you feel out of control around food and are regularly eating a lot more food than is necessary or healthy, it can be every bit as harmful to your emotional and psychological wellbeing as your physical health.

For some people, it’s hard to know what falls into the category of normal ‘emotional eating’ or even mindless snacking and what would be considered a problem worth getting professional help to address. There are some clear guidelines about what a mental health professional would consider to be a binge eating disorder and they are outlined as follows:

Binge eating has two main components to it:

1. It involves eating a very large amount of food (far more than what would be considered a normal amount for a regular person) in a relatively short space of time (e.g., within two hours);

2. You experience a feeling of being out of control while eating. Perhaps you feel like you can’t stop eating or even that you ‘zone out’ and you’re not really present while you’re eating.

Some of the other criteria that signify that binge eating is potentially a clinical problem include the following (you don’t need to tick every box):

  • Eating much more quickly than normal
  • Eating until you feel uncomfortably full
  • Eating large amounts of food when you’re not hungry
  • Eating alone because you feel embarrassed or ashamed
  • Feeling disgusted, depressed or guilty afterwards

In psychology, something becomes a ‘disorder’ when it occurs repeatedly over a period of time. In the case of binge eating, if this is happening at least once a week (on average) and has been going on for three months or more that would meet the clinical definition of a Binge Eating Disorder. Binge Eating is different from Bulimia Nervosa because there is no ‘compensatory’ behaviour such as vomiting, excessive exercising or taking laxatives.

What to do about it

You really don’t need to wait until the situation is completely out of hand before you get some advice from a professional about what you might be able to do differently. Usually the problem has nothing to do with food and is more about how you deal with difficult feelings, so any help you can get to learn more effective coping strategies is going to be helpful. Here are some things you might like to do to start with.

1. Keep a food diary

By tracking what you eat and when you eat it, what you were feeling before and after you binged, you start to get an insight into your triggers and patterns. You might be able to use this information to make changes to your routine or if you see a professional, the information will give you a really good starting point for unpacking the problem and dealing with it.

2. Eat more mindfully

When you’re mindful, you make a conscious choice to bring yourself fully into the present moment and pay attention to what you’re feeling in your mind and body. This is challenging if you’re used to stuffing down your feelings with food. By slowing down and being present with yourself and your feelings, you give yourself a chance to make a different choice in that moment. Even if you don’t stop yourself from compulsively reaching for food, you might stop eating sooner than you normally would and this is good progress when it comes to changing patterns.

3. Don’t be so hard on yourself

Most people get very down on themselves for overeating. If you use food as a way of coping with difficult feelings, and then you make yourself feel terrible by piling on the shame and self-criticism you’re only going to drive yourself back to overeating and so the cycle continues. What you need most is not self-criticism but self-compassion. Remind yourself that everyone struggles with something and that you’re worthy of love and support.

Ultimately, if you recognise that you have a problem with binge eating, I highly recommend you seek support from a kind and qualified professional who can help you identify your specific patterns and triggers and develop specific strategies to start breaking the cycle. Remember you aren’t alone and there are people who are very willing and able to help if you reach out to them for support.

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Down but not out: recognising and dealing with depression

April 22, 2019
girl dealing with depression

Everyone has good days and bad days. Some days you might feel flat or sad or lacking in motivation for no real reason (or perhaps, at times, with very good reason). These ups and downs are normal and part of the whole human experience. As lovely as it would be to feel happy all the time, that’s simply not a realistic expectation. For some people though, those low moods can become so frequent and intense that it affects their quality of life and the ability to function normally. As many as one million Australian adults will experience depression in any given year and almost half the population will experience some form of mental illness in their lifetime (depression, anxiety and substance use disorder being the most common, and often overlapping, conditions).

Depression is serious but many people suffering from depression (or other mood disorders) never access professional help. Sometimes that’s because of the stigma associated with mental illness but it can also be because people don’t realise that what they are experiencing is no longer within the range of ‘normal’ fluctuations in mood. Especially if you’ve been suffering with mood disturbances for a long time, it can be easy to settle into living with a low mood, low energy and motivation and lose sight of the possibility that there could be a happier and more fulfilling way to live.

Symptoms of depression can look and feel different for different people. Many people associate it with crying and feeling sad but for some people it’s more a case of losing interest in things that you used to enjoy doing, struggling with energy and motivation, withdrawing socially, neglecting responsibilities like work (calling in sick), school assignments, housework or parenting, and feeling hopeless or worthless. Depression can also affect sleeping and eating habits but many people fail to register changes in biological functions as being related to a mood disorder.

There are lots of self-care strategies you can try for yourself that are proven to help alleviate the symptoms of depression, until you’re able to talk to a professional. Some proven effective strategies include:

1.    Exercise

Studies have shown that 30 minutes of moderate exercise, 5 days per week can be as effective as anti-depressant medication in reducing depressive symptoms for people with mild to moderate levels of depression. Remember though – lack of motivation is a symptom of depression so as best as you can, don’t wait until you feel like it – treat it like a prescription and just do it.

2.    Talking to someone

Talking to a professional is ideal but it’s also important to stay socially connected. Depression is often characterised by social withdrawal and isolation. You might feel like you wouldn’t be good company or perhaps it’s that lack of energy and motivation that keeps you from reaching out and engaging with others. Again, the key is to ignore the voice that tells you otherwise and make yourself available for connected conversations.

3.    Finding pleasure

It’s important to do something every day that makes you feel good. Things like having a warm bath, watching a movie, playing with your dog or putting your favourite music on can help turn your mood around long enough that you feel encouraged to do something else like phone a friend or go out for a walk. Taking small steps to turn a downward spiralling mood into an upward spiral will help you get there faster.

4. Check your self-talk

Negative, self-critical, problem focused thinking is characteristic of depression. The problem is that most of us tend to over-identify with the thoughts in our head, which is to say rather than seeing them for what they are, which is just a bunch of random ideas floating across your mind – we believe them to be true. It may come as a surprise to you but guess what – thoughts aren’t facts. Learning to see your thoughts for what they are and not believe everything your mind tells you is a key step in getting out of the negative loop of depression.

5. Get something done

You can slow down the negative spiral of low energy, low motivation, do nothing, feel guilty, get more depressed etc. by doing something that gives you a small sense of achievement. It could be something like putting away your clothes or washing the dishes. We’re not talking about writing your novel or spring-cleaning your whole house here! When you’re feeling down, everything can feel overwhelming and you don’t know where to start. Just doing one small thing can give you a sense of satisfaction and a little hit of dopamine to start moving that spiral in a more upwards direction.

Of course, the first step if you think you might be depressed is always to see your GP who can refer you to a psychologist or other mental health professional. There are so many great treatment options out there and you don’t have to suffer alone.

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How to get over a break up

April 15, 2019
man-and-woman moving on from breakup

When a relationship ends, it’s bound to be painful regardless of who made the decision to end it. If the break-up comes out of left-field, there’s often shock and grief, confusion and fear – especially if there are children and property involved. It’s hard to know where to start in dealing with the aftermath. Should you be calling a counsellor, a lawyer or your best friend? In a time of crisis, it’s wise to take one day at a time, allow yourself time to heal and ideally to manage your own emotions in a way that doesn’t cause harm to others.

In other words,  resist the urge to do things in the heat of the moment that you might regret later. Below are some suggestions that might help you navigate that difficult time right after a relationship ends.

1.    Give it time

In those first wobbly days and weeks after a relationship ends, emotions are jagged and raw and everything is uncertain. At this time, patience is key. Try not to push for definitive answers, final decisions or legal papers. Take some time out for your own self-care and allow time for the dust to settle. It can be helpful to familiarise yourself with the neutral zone, which is what psychologist William Bridges calls that vast no-man’s land that exists between an ending and a new beginning.

2.    Feel your feelings

It’s important and healthy to process your painful emotions. You might call on your best friend, your mum or a therapist. There is likely to be a period of mourning what you’ve lost even if you weren’t altogether happy in the relationship. In fact, even if you’re the one who ended it, you’re entitled to feel sad about what you’ve lost. Try not to numb your feelings with alcohol or drugs. It might feel like a great option in the short term but ultimately those feelings are still going to be there in the morning.

3.    Remember the good times

After a break-up, it’s tempting to paint your ex in a negative light as a way of buffering your sad feelings. After all, it’s much easier to hate someone than to love them when you can’t be with them. This is unfair to both of you and doesn’t honour the good times you shared, regardless of how it ended. Speaking badly about your ex ultimately reflects badly on you and focusing on the pain they caused you only prolongs your suffering. As best as you can, rise about the temptation to trash talk them, especially if there are children involved.

4.    Beware the rebound relationship

Getting involved with someone else too quickly is a recipe for disaster. It’s unlikely to end well and is unfair to the person you’re using to make you feel better. A one-night stand might seem like the perfect way to make you feel good about yourself again but it’s more likely to have the opposite effect so do try to seek solace in platonic relationships and give yourself some space from romantic encounters right now. If you realise that you’ve never been alone before, this is a perfect opportunity to learn how to live independently and get to know who you are outside of a relationship.

5.    Be kind to yourself

Breaking up can be a blow to your self-esteem so it’s important to remember that just because a relationship didn’t work out, it’s not because you are not loveable or worthy. Remember your best qualities and hang out with people who appreciate everything you have to offer. Use the opportunity to spend time nurturing yourself, developing your own interests and remembering who you are and what makes you fabulous so that when the next relationship comes along, you’ll be healed and whole, confident and ready to jump back into the dating game.

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