Self compassion

Many people believe that they will function better if they “beat themselves up”. They believe that harsh self criticism is an effective way to motivate themselves.

Actually, research shows that those people that are high in self compassion, which does not imply self indulgence or self deception, are better adjusted and recover better from life crisis. They do not waste their  energy on self blame.  

For those who struggle with being compassionate to themselves,  the best path is to  focus on the compassion they have for others.  It is  beneficial to view those things that anger us about ourselves through the prism of those around us. We are often more forgiving to failings in those around us than those failings in ourselves.  We may perceive this as a strength but it is actually a weakness. Through compassion to others it is possible to learn a degree of self compassion.

You can find recorded meditation for self compassion here:

Guided Meditation

According to  Kristin Neff, The power of self compassion.


Holidays Blues

Many people experience stress and depression around the holiday season. There are many factors that can contribute to this feeling of stress. The incessant message of cheer and happiness can seem in stark contrast to our mundane lives and can accentuate our feelings of unhappiness or dissatisfaction. For those of us who are alone during the holidays, or not in a fulfilling relationship, the holiday is a reminder of our unsatisfied state. it is challenging when  many rituals and festivities during the holidays focus around family. Family itself can often be the source of stress. Families congregate during the holidays, old tensions surface, people may say tactless hurtful things. Indeed it often seems that, among our larger family, we revert to some earlier unfinished version of ourselves. For those of us who are alone during the holidays, the period of year seems to exclude us, as if we are standing on the outside in the cold with our face pressed up against the pane looking at the warmth and cheer inside.

If you don’t have family to be with and are feeling lonely and left out make an effort to comfort and support yourself. Do things that bring you pleasure. Be on your guard for destructive behavior that you will regret such as overeating and excessive drinking, which is a pale and false stand in for happiness.

There are additional sources of stress which may be financial, with expectations of gifts and particularly children’s expectation which may be difficult to fulfill. There are many complications over sharing family among sets of parents that expect you to come to one festive occasion or another.

Make an effort to remember that the holidays are meant to be a joyous time. If the holiday is causing you stress because of some demand on your wallet, your time or a strained relationship, take a step back and remember that you are in control. You can decide not to purchase a gift or can take some time to disconnect from a stressful situation.


A New Approach to Stress Management

Stress is often portrayed in the media as the bane of modern life, a source of many of our ills and difficulties. There is no doubt that excessive stress is not good for us and can affect both our mental and physical well-being.

Stress management is a set of skills used to reduce stress in our daily life.  A recent study by Dr. Epstein sheds new light on this concept.

Dr. Epstein looked at different skill sets associated with stress management. These skills are commonly taught in courses, coaching or psychotherapy. Dr. Epstein looked at three broad sets of skills.

1 .Preventing and managing the sources of stress. This includes proper organization of home and work space, good time management, and effective prioritization and planning of tasks.

Some of these skills are reactive, for example, I have just noticed how stressful overstuffed and disorganized my filing cabinet is. Some skills are proactive such as buying Christmas presents early thus avoiding last minute stress and long lines.

2. Relaxation skills. These skills are what many of us tend to think about as stress management tools. These include practices such as meditation Yoga and guided imagery

3. Cognitive coping skills. These include Reframing situations and control of irrational thought patterns.

To the surprise of the investigator, the most useful coping skills were those mentioned in the first category. Good organization, planning, and time management had the most benefit. The second category, of relaxation techniques, although useful, had less of an impact. Cognitive coping skills ranked last. Cognitive skills are very helpful when coping with depression but apparently less effective when dealing with stress.

Dr Epstein’s study shows that while it is nice to do yoga, meditation and other relaxation techniques, if you really want to manage your stress,  go back to basics. Organizing your physical environment, managing your time and prioritizing your tasks are all straightforward tools to reduce stress.

Managing your physical environment means that the pile of papers on your desk, the one next to the three coffee cups, needs to go. You need adequate storage for you papers and other things.

Better management of time entails making realistic estimates of what you can and cannot do, so you will not stress yourself later.

Managing priorities can best be done with a good old “to do list”.  The list can be High-Tech or simple low-Tech pen and paper, as long as it lists all your tasks, and assigns priority to each. If you do your tasks according to their priorities, you will get ahead in your work. Plan your day in the morning. This way you will be more productive. Try and plan ahead for a week, a month, even a year.

After you have done all of these, you will probably have a time to do yoga. (And I am all for it…)

People that report better stress management skills, report feeling lower levels of stress, being happier, and being more productive and successful professionally. The good news is that these skills can be learned.

Adapted from Scientific American Mind October 2011, 31-35

Dr Epstein actually defined four types of stress management skills. Since two of them overlap to a large degree, I grouped them under one heading.


The longevity project – psychosocial factors that affect health

The longevity project is a long term study that followed the lives of 1500 children from the age of ten over a period of eight decades. The study was initiated by the psychologist prof. Terman in 1921, with other researches continuing the work of tracking these children through their adult life after he passed away. Prof.  Terman was very diligent in his approach and collected a vast trove of information about the background, upbringing and families of the children he chose. While Professor Terman started the study in a quest to understand intellectual leadership, his detailed work, and the detailed tracking of 1500 people through out their lives yields rich information about many facets of Human development. The book ” the longevity project” focuses on what the study can teach us about health and longevity. The study looks at longevity as a reliable indication of health, more so than many other studies based on subjective self reporting. The study comes to some fascinating conclusions that at time run counter to commonly accepted notions.

Among the many findings of the study that I found most compelling or surprising:

  • The most important personality trait that predicts long life and health is being conscientious ;  being prudent and  persistent. This was a very statistically significant result. This runs counter to today’s accepted wisdom that optimism cheerfulness and lack of stress can lead to a longer life. You can be a dour contentiousness person and you statistically have a chance to live longer than the cheerful optimist.
  •  Exercise in childhood and adolescence does not predict health and longevity later in life, but exercise  in middle age does. So even if you were a couch potato as a child, it is beneficial  to start exercising at an older age.
  • The happiness of husband in a marriage is a much better predictor of health and longevity of both  husband and wife, than the wife’s happiness. ( No explanation for that one, unfortunately.)
  • A person’s social network is an important factor that contributes to one’s health and longevity. What counts is not how much you feel loved, but  how much you feel needed and the sheer volume of your social network.
  • People that are accomplished in their career tend to live longer, even if they work very hard under stress for many years.
  • A parent’s death, although traumatic and devastating  for a child, does not affect their longevity and health later. Divorce of parents does  have a detrimental effect on children’s health and longevity . That does not mean that couples “need to stay together for the children”. Living in a stressful environment is not good either.
  •  A fulfilling sex life  predicts longevity, even after controlling for general happiness in the marriage.
  •  Hand writing of future physicians and lawyers  was illegible relative to their peers even as children…

Food for thought.
The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study


The U of Happiness

Most people look at old age with dread. The common image is of failing health, failing cognitive ability, and general misery.

However, new studies point out that this is not the case. Actually, older adults tend to be happier than the middle aged. Curiously enough, this finding is true across many countries and cultures.

It appears  that happiness, measured in many different ways, is shaped like the letter “U” across life. People tend to be happy and hopeful starting their life as young adults, in their twenties. Than stress, and the disappointments of life take their toll. There is steady decline of happiness until middle age. Than something surprising happens: In spite of all the losses that age may bring, people start to feel happier. Even after controlling for income level, health and many other variables the distinctive U shape is maintained. The lower point of happiness, averaged across many people, is around the age of 46. Even more surprisingly, average happiness during old age surpasses that of early adulthood.

At first glance, a cynical observer may be excused for thinking that this is wishful thinking of a cohort of aging baby boomer researchers. Taking a closer look, the research appears valid and is worth understanding.

There are a number of explanations that may clarify this trend. One explanation is demographic. The stress of raising children passes as they leave the house and life becomes calmer. But this explanation is not enough by itself. It seem that the growing happiness is a result of inner transformation.

As young adults we feel the need to prove ourselves and we are constantly and restlessly striving. As middle age advances, we become more accepting of the point we have reached in life. We are able to enjoy what we have with less constant frustration over what we have not attained.

Maybe this is what is called wisdom.

At a later age, in spite off losses around them, people enjoy and value their time, in spite of difficulties that age imposes, precisely because they do not take the time they have for granted. Older people are less concerned over what others may think of them. They use skills they acquired over lifetime: They are better at managing their emotions. They are much less angry and judgmental. They are better at managing conflicts, so their support system is better.

Happiness is a valid goal in itself. It also has tangible benefits. Happiness has been shown to lead to  a healthier and more productive life.

The question is,  how can we accelerate our path along the happiness curve without having to wait for the passage of time.

adapted from an article published in the Economist, December 18th, 2010.


Mindfulness – Useful Tool for Stress Management

Recommended book:

Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life

This book is a valuable introduction to the concept of mindfulness. Dr. Zinn brought the concept of mindfulness from Buddhist meditation, and has shown how it can be applied as a basic technique for improved well being and stress relief. The practice of mindfulness has been shown to increase one’s quality of life.

Mindfulness means the ability to live in the present moment, to be absorbed completely, fully aware of each thought, feeling or sensation that arises. This awareness implies a nonjudgmental attitude towards our flow of thoughts, even unpleasant sensations or mental events.

The mere act of watching our mind,  allows us to distance ourselves from our emotions. This enables us to gain a better perspective on our challenges.  Through mindfulness  we realize that our emotions are just that, not the ultimate truth about reality. The common thought distortion “I feel, therefore it is reality” loses its hold on us.

Living in the present means that we do not dwell on the past, or think anxiously about the future . Many people believe that if they immerse themselves in painful emotions, it will provide them an insight and ultimately lead to inner transformation. Delving into the past must be done with care, as it may  strengthen and reinforce  the neural pathways of pain and depression.  This reinforcement may lead to further deepening of the depression and pain, as opposed to the hoped for alleviation. Mindfulness offers an additional method for dealing with one’s challenges.

Studies have shown that practicing mindfulness is a good tool for stress management, depression management, and  it leads to better quality of life, enhance creativity, and can  improve chronic pain and other medical conditions.


Emotional Inteligence

The Funny Thing

I love children’s books, fairy tales, and picture books. This books occupies a special place in my library and in my heart. It  teaches emotional intelligence to children and to adults  that take the time to read this book.

The story is about an old man (In fairy tales, the wise  are usually portrayed as old) . The old man tricks a monster, by taking advantage of the monster’s narcissistic traits. The monster used to eat little children’ s dolls; especially those dolls that belong to good children. The wise old man convinces the monster that she will grow more beautiful if she eats his very special food.  The special food is really just his normal everyday food that he has given a fancy new name .  The monster agrees to eat this special fancy food instead of little dolls. She does become more beautiful (the power of placebo?) but also becomes very self centered, disconnected from everyone, and nearly loses her power of speech. In the end the monster resides in a self created prison on a mountain.

This simple plot, beautifully illustrated,  teaches the reader the  basics of emotional intelligence, without excessive moralizing overtones.    The story shows how  narcissism  makes you vulnerable to manipulation; paralyzes you and makes your life devoid of meaning,  real love and  connection.


Positive Psychology

A different approach to mental health. Historically, psychology and psychiatry developed though trying to understand – and correct – pathology. Prof. Zeligman, one of the prominent psychologists today, recommends using our strengths. According to him our mental health consists not in overcoming our weaknesses but recognizing and using our strengths. It give a fresh look at the ancient saying “know thyself”. The site contains articles, videos, and self tests. The self tests are particularly helpful. We are so used to think in terms of our faults, that we forget to look at our strengths and use them more.

Positive Psychology Website