Forest Fires and Mental Health. How to deal with life’s disasters.

I'm currently living in an area impacted by a large wildfire. Although I used my personal impact for the topic, this was written for anyone who is living through stress and overwhelm regardless of the cause.


Every year fire season rolls around and we talk about it. We talk about how dry or not dry it is, how much snow we did or didn’t get. We talk about the trees, the heat, the lightening potentials. We try to predict where and when we’ll come around the corner and see the plume of smoke we know is not a cloud. We desperately hope it won’t be in our backyard. 

And then it happens. Somewhere, somehow a fire starts, we come around the corner and we see it, we can smell it, we hear the people on the street, the radio, and at work or play talking about it. 

We all stop and look, pointing while trying to determine how much space is between us and it, where’s it’s located, and is it affecting spaces I know. At first there is usually a lot of chatter, energy, maybe even excitement that parts of the forest may become more healthy, yet over time our endurance wanes and our hearts become heavier. 

We run out of “fuel” to stay positive about the impacts of such a natural event. At these times it is important to take care of ourselves because the effects do not go away easy.  Caring for our mental health is as important as caring for our physical health during forest fires (or any other disaster in our lives). 

Physical Health:

First, lets talk about physical health and mental health intersections. With an event like a fire we have a strong response in our bodies. We feel the primal nature of the event and register the lack of control. These add stress to the body and mind. Mind and body are not separate entities to be regulated to sections of your physical frame. In fact, if I want to know your serotonin levels (a marker for depression) I would take your blood or look at your gut health where the majority of it is made. 

If I want to know how stressed you are, I’ll take a saliva sample to check your cortisol levels. Cortisol is a stress hormone that impacts inflammation. Inflammation impacts joint pain, brain efficiency, heart health, and obesity to name a few mental to physical health connections. 

Your breathing rate is tied to your heart rate, and both are tied into your nervous system. When breathing or heart rate run too fast or too slow, your brain registers danger. When you feel like you can’t breathe it’s a big deal. Breathing is necessary for survival and your brain’s ultimate goal is to keep you alive.  This lack of oxygen (or the perception of it) shifts the brain into a hyper-vigilant state because it needs to find the danger. This elevates your nervous system and impacts items like digestion, rest, inflammation rates, and positive social connections. 

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Sleep is a huge piece of physical and mental health. When we can’t sleep all sorts of things happen to the body and mind. The body goes through a number of important cycles during sleep. When we miss these cycles – guess what happens … the brain registers the lack of these important steps as a problem, it’s stressed because it’s running on lower than normal / needed systems. It’s like taking your car out but forgetting to top off the oil and then wondering why things don’t run smoothly. 

Here’s a concrete example of how the body and mind interplay on our health during an event like forest fire:

On a concrete level we have to deal with lots of smoke. This smoke makes it hard to breathe – stress response in the body – and may have a direct or indirect response getting enough sleep. So much smoke, gotta close my windows, now I can’t sleep because it’s hot or I’m so worried or sad for those effected. I can’t sleep because my mind is playing images over and over, or I’ve been evacuated and now I can’t sleep with all these people around me in the center. Soon our ability to mange regular daily stressors wanes and we have a harder and harder time being present to our life routines and relationships. Bottom line, because our physical systems are impacted – our mental health will be too. 

Here’s how to help make sure you are as physically strong as you can be during a stressful event. Get enough rest, good foods – these help make sure the body has what it needs to make the right neurotransmitters. Engage in healthy social contact. Being with people who help us feel safe and connected tells the brain that we are ok and the environment is ok, we have support. Move everyday. Moving gets things flowing through the system and allows your body to help you metabolize stress hormones and other emotion traces. It also helps you be grounded in the moment. This is important because all we have is this moment. Exercise helps us learn to be present to the current experience through physical sensations and teaches us that our behavior matters. Practice breathing with control. Do your best to slow down your breathing rate. When you slow the breath it slows the heart rate, when you slow the heart rate the brain registers that you are safe. This allows your body to help calm your mind. In as little as 3 deep breathes your body will begin to shift from stress responses to the relaxation response and re-set your nervous system, even when mind is trying hard to throw you off with all her chatter.

The Mind:

Second, let’s talk about mind. One of my favorite things is the mind. Mind is so creative and interesting. Sometimes mind drives us bonkers with it’s constant flow of ideas, thoughts, and review of our life. As noted above mind is influenced by the body and that means body is influenced by the mind. 

We are just chemical-electrical little beings. Every thought we have produces a chemical and electrical pattern we can map using fancy machines to look at live brains in action. When you have a negative thought it increase stress in the body by changing the balance of chemistry in your body. As your cortisol and adrenaline rise these influence and impact things like heart rate and inflammation levels. As noted above, these have physical health complications over time. 

In situations like a fire our mind runs rampant with worry and fear, which raise our stress hormone levels. We watch the news feed and look at the pictures. We talk to our neighbors and friends and strangers and repeat the same stories. All these actions create an electrical – chemical pattern in our brains. 

As humans we are very, very adaptable. We are made to adapt. When we follow a thought pattern over and over we create a neurological change to make it easier to access information “if we are repeating it we must need it”, says the brain. 

When something is continuing to happen repeatedly our brains figure we need it for survival, so it better adapt. It does this by changing it’s wiring. We call this neuroplasticity. Great when we learn to drive a car, not so great when we adapt toward more fear and worry. During an event like a forest fire, it is hard not to feed the fear, worry, grief, anger, and sadness. 

To maintain health we must work with our minds and shift our focus from what is not working to what is. Look for positive things in your life, even small things make big gains. Find a flower, the way the aspen leaves move, the fact that the smoke gets easier during the day, that you like the meal you are eating, or the book you are reading. It doesn’t matter what you shift to, as long as it’s something you like, even for a moment. Those small shifts break the cycle of negative thinking patterns.

We must take responsibility for the thoughts we think and the direction we allow our focus to take. If we let mind run rampant, it will. Those repetitive thoughts feed themselves, creating more negative thinking. Remember, if we feed it fear and worry, we’ll have more fear and worry. Due to adaptation, we’ll focus on and find more negativity all around us. If we honor the fear and worry, then shift our focus to something more positive we are able to control the effects on our body for the better. 

Now, some of you may be thinking, “you just don’t understand, I can’t turn my mind off” or “this is so horrible it won’t get better, this is a very bad thing” or some other version of the negative story. Switching your focus to something positive, does not mean you are ignoring the negative. It just means you are in control of your thought focus and you are managing what you pay attention to, thus what you experience in the moment. 

Happy people do not experience less negative things, they control their focus and perception. They find the positive or neutral pieces of those experiences better than less happy people. They also do a better job of accepting what is in the moment which gives them more control over their experiences and options for changing it. Happier people know they always have choices (hint: we all do) and they know how to manipulate their choices for the best outcome in the moment. 

Acceptance doesn’t mean you like the experiences, want it, or agree with it. It just means you acknowledge what is happening in this moment – not the one you want, not the one you wish you were in, not the one that would be easier. From the place of acceptance, it is easier to see what small step you can take in the direction of positive experience right now. A string of positive experiences creates a different neurological footprint and focus point. From here you have more control of your focus and thus the perception of the event. 

Life happens to us all the time. I can’t control most of it. What I can control is how I perceive it. This makes all the difference in the world when in comes to living under negativity or positive experiences. Acceptance isn’t just about the mind, it’s also about accepting your emotional state. 

 

Emotions:

Onto the third element of mental health, emotions. Emotions are a method of intelligence. Although many do not like feeling emotions or are confused by them, they are important pieces to understanding our experiences. Emotions help us know what we need to do with the experience we are having. During a fire we can feel lots of different emotions from fear, anger, sadness to guilt, despair, and even shame to excitement and happiness. 

When we first hear the news, we often feel fear right off the bat. Where is the fire, who is effected, where will it spread, how will it move, will I be effected? The unknown is scary. It’s hard to feel safe when we aren’t sure of what’s going to happen. This creates fear.

Fear doesn’t live well when we take control of the moment by being present to what we can control and practicing acceptance. Fear is helped by asking for help and support when needed, too. Seek out information that helps you feel supported and safe.

Many feel anger. Anger is a normal emotion when we feel something is unjust or that someone / something we care about has been hurt somehow. Anger is a healthy response that helps us do something with our emotional energy by making changes. This shift helps us feel empowered and more in control of our world, which decreases our level of fear and changes our perception of experience. 

For those of us taught to ignore our anger or those who fear their behavior when angry, it can be hard to honor and express it. It is important to express your emotions in healthy ways to help process and move beyond them. If you are feeling angry it can be helpful to get engaged with an organization we believe in making change in the area of concern, or talking with a trusted friend about your feelings and options for making change. 

It is not helpful to repetitively vent, blame others, use violent language or physicality, or ignore your anger completely. It can also be helpful to do the exact opposite of your anger impulse. Anger wants you to yell, honor it and talk softly, anger wants you to hide, find a friend to talk with, anger wants to stew on the topic, do something completely different, go volunteer to distract yourself. 

Sadness is often a large component of forest fires. As humans we are biological creatures and connected to nature thus we feel loss at the loss of natural life. It is sad and sadness is all about loss. For some of us we have lost our routines, sleeping in our own beds, or habitats we love. For some we’ve lost freedom of being outside and being comfortable. There are lots of things we’ve lost as the fires continue. 

Honor the sadness as it shows us what’s important and helps us create a life worth living around things that matter to us. If you feel your sadness, you know what you care about losing. Then you can make sure to build life experiences that allow you to engage with items most important to you, while honoring change. 

Guilt may arise as we find ourselves in conversation with others who are having a harder experience or we may be feeling a different emotion than others. Shame could also arise. Simply put, shame is about feeling like “I’m a bad person” where guilt is more about “I’ve done something bad”. It can be difficult to pick apart these emotions and deal with them. We often want to push them away and hide from them, however as with all emotions it’s more important to acknowledge them and make your choice to act on them from a place of authenticity. Both want you to hide and neither survive well when you are in connection with an empathic and supportive friend. Tell someone you trust what you are feeling to help mitigate these two. 

Despair can also arise, especially because this is a repetitive cycle. We hope and pray for snow and water, yet experience drought, we have a good year or two, followed by some bad years. Maybe we are engaged in the conversations about human impact on the climate.  All of these create situations where we feel helpless and small, we feel struggle not ease, and we feel as though the problems are so big we cannot solve them. As with anger, it is important to work toward small changes you can feel competent making in your own life. As one person we work in our individual environments to make change, then connect with others making small changes to make a larger impact on the world. Despair results when our sense of helplessness becomes so great that we see no way out. The way out is making small changes we feel good about it. 

Happiness, excitement, or joy could also be part of our experience. For many we understand the transformative power of fire and may feel an excitement at the change fire brings. For some we feel excitement or joy knowing fire is natural part of nature and part of healthy forest development. For some we recognize fire is about creating a new beginning and we enjoy seeing the resiliency of the forest as it returns, reminding us all that we, too are resilient beings. 

The bottom line on emotions is: whatever you are feeling know it’s normal and it is ok. As humans we can feel a lot of emotions all at once and that is ok. When we work to honor our current experience through emotions, we use them to form actions in healthy outlets. As a result our life becomes more vibrant and rich. 

Final Thoughts On Dealing with Difficult Life Events:

If you feel overwhelmed by your experiences seek extra help from a professional. Therapy is great, when else can you sit with someone trained to actively listen to you talk about you for an hour with no bias in your situation. We need other humans to build our brains and make sense of our experiences. Seek out help if you need it. 

Finally, perception is everything. Life happens, and it happens to all of us. We have little control in what is going on around us, however we have much control in how we respond to it. The way you manage your physical environment and body, pay attention to your thoughts and focus, and allow yourself to gather information from your emotions and make informed healthy action choices as a result, keep us regulated. This regulation is important as we continue to be stressed by disruptions and as we continue to move through this year’s fire season and beyond. 

Make sure to take care of you. 

If you enjoyed this article try one of these:

What to do with my emotions  Or  Making sense of physical emotions

#416Fire   #fitnesspsychologist

For years I have worked with people who are lost when it comes to follow through on goals and behavior changes. It can be frustrating to set goals only to fail at achieving them. One reason people do not reach personal goals is they do not prioritize themselves above others. Now this may sound selfish, and many of us have been taught that to focus on myself would mean I am not a community player. However, the reality is … you MUST focus on yourself first. You cannot take care of anyone else if you are depleted. You HAVE to put yourself first if you are to be in a place to give. 

Many of us are so busy. In fact you may be saying “if I take that hour for myself, I won’t be able to feed my kids dinner or walk my dogs or get that project done at work”. Believe me I know. This is a constant struggle in my life. How can I balance my personal creative outlets, workouts, work tasks, feeding people, being a good pet owner, and showing my kids and husband how much I love them? Some days it feels like an unsurmountable task.

Yet what I know is … if I take care of me first, then the other stuff gets done AND gets done better. I’m more focused, engaged, and connected to my family, friends, and pets. I am more efficient at getting my work done because I am focused. I am happier because I feel better about myself. This is a direct result from accomplishing a goal I set in front of me. I feel masterful. The feeling of mastery is important in building self confidence which brings out my best self to share with others. To have all this, I MUST put myself first. 

In a study done by Burke, Swigart, Warziski, Derro, and Ewing (2009), the authors found that self-monitoring is a great way to increase understanding of behavior choices and change options, however 2 groups of people struggled to follow through. One group committed half way and the other gave up, completely. Key factors included making themselves and their goals a top priority and finding positive supportive people to surround themselves with. The pieces that separated those 2 groups from the one that solidly made their goal during the year of weight loss, and maintained it 6 months later, outlines ideas we can all use. 

First, the group that made it was organized and focused on the goal. They carried their food diaries (part of the study guidelines) with them, recorded their food and exercise choices, and had supportive people in their lives. They reported an understanding of cause and effect. They knew and/or learned how their choices everyday contributed to the goal they’d set and they made their choices in ways that promoted their success. On the other hand the groups that struggled had some big differences.

In both groups that struggled to meet the goals people were not as organized. They spoke of forgetting their journals or writing down daily food choices on scrapes of paper they later lost. They didn’t have strong support people in their corner and they didn’t prioritize themselves over other obligations. They used more excuses regarding busy life tasks and other responsibilities to make up for emotional eating and lack of adherence to the plan set forth by the study. Some even hid their goals and hopes from their loved ones and co-workers or commented on the sabotaging behavior toward them partners and friends did regarding their goal. In the group that struggled the most they were more overwhelmed with life, reported more physical exhaustion, had more self blame, and were not able to nurture and take responsibility for themselves. 

Want to take control of your life? Track yourself!
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It’s interesting how we get in our own way. In the last article on the imposter phenomenon (Feeling Like a Phony. The Imposter Phenomenon) we discussed how we might come to hide our brilliance or feel like we can’t really try because we might fail. Many of us use this as a way to circumvent reaching our goals. Today, we are looking at how not taking full responsibility for ourselves and our personal choices gets in our way. Do either sound like you? If so they may be keeping you from your health goals.

Do you set a goal only to find ways around by blaming yourself or others? I hear things like “I can’t eat that way, my family won’t like it” or “I had to stay late at work because I couldn’t say no” or “everyone does it that way in my family, I don’t think I could go for a walk instead of watch TV”, this list goes on.

Do you find yourself setting the bar so high you’ll never make it on the first try and then blame yourself or others for your failure, shame yourself, or collapse under the strain of trying to be prefect?

What about organizing and planning well? Do you find yourself disorganized and unable to find your keys, journal, pen, a shoe not to mention find the time to collect your thoughts and write them down/track your food and moods?

The bottom line is you have choices everyday all day long. When we understand the link between our choices and our outcomes – plus take full responsibility for those outcome – we become more powerful. Here are some questions to get you started:

  1. Are you the top priority in your life?
    1. If not, why not?
  2. Can you keep your goal in your sights all the time (i.e. the office lunch? Holiday dinner? Getting to bed on time so you can work out early?)
    1. If not, what gets in your way?
  3. When planning your focus, can you follow through on packing snacks, choosing healthy movement/eating options, and getting enough down time in your daily life?
    1. Again, if not, why not?
  4. And if you can do those things – how do you do it? 
    1. What makes you successful? 
    2. How do you hold your focus?

Do you have the right support people in your corner? Who are they and what do you like about their support? If you don’t have supportive friends and family, where can you find them? A group? Work? Trainer? This was an important part of success for the group able to maintain their weight loss and a huge factor for the group that struggled the hardest. Here are some tips on finding a workout buddy who can support you: 3 things to consider when choosing a workout partner. 

If you are struggling with any of the above connect with me. Sometimes the behaviors getting in our way are serving a purpose. For instance, you might not know anyone you respect who is organized, or you may have been taught to be perfect is the only option. You might find that to reach your goal means your friends and family become distant and that is painful and confusing. At times the lack of accomplishing a goal is about the meaning we place on the goal and our identity tied into who we are today and who we believe we can be tomorrow.

Reference:

Burke, L.E., Swigart, V., Turk, M. W., Derro, N., and Ewing, L. J. (2009). Experiences of self-monitoring: Successes and struggles during treatment for weight loss. Quality Health Res 19(6), 815-828. doi:10.1177/1049732309335395 

Photo Credit: Confessions of a Jesus Freak Blog Post

 

Outlining Your Next Fitness Plan & Sticking with Your Goals.

It’s time to consider what the next steps of your health goals will be. If you started something new with the new year, it’s time to consider how you will evolve it. In December we taught you SMART goal setting, a few weeks ago we started asking the questions to focus your workouts for the next stage of your healthy living. Now it’s time to make a concrete plan for the next level. Are you ready to take control of your life and move toward ownership of your life experiences?

It’s often hard to stick with a new year’s goal as we move past February and into spring. As the seasons change so does our motivation, focus, and routines. It’s time to consider how you will change your patterns to reflect these changes so you stay on track and aren’t waylaid by unexpected obstacles – like time changes and sunny, warmer weather.

What days of the week will you workout? What time of day? What type of activity? With who? How long will you do these activities? Research shows us that people tend to be most successful when they plan 3-4 days of “exercise” per week, engage in activities they find fun and enjoyable (read this may mean hard, even uncomfortable – because accomplishing a challenge is important to motivation), and with friends they feel supported and challenged by.

This is a fun video – I don’t necessarily subscribe to doing the same exercise everyday, yet notice how these 3 people begin talking about themselves and their ability to accomplish their goal just by nature of making it a challenge to complete everyday. That’s what you are after – day 10’s surprising and spontaneous focus on the goal.

How will you incorporate these items into your life moving forward? Now’s the time to make your dreams happen. You have the power within you to determine your life and make things happen. Start small, focus on one small step each day, and watch changes in your self confidence and sense of personal mastery grow.

I challenge you to see what you can accomplish next … make it count!

Feel like you need a little motivation and guidance? Try an online class.300x250 YogaVibes Barre and Core Fusion Save 25% Off Monthly

Be Present and Play Hard

Ok, it’s getting to be crunch time and you are bored with the same ole same ole workout. You hit the trail and see kids playing by the park. They look excited, engaged, and exhausted at the same time. You think to yourself … “if only I had their energy”.

Well, some of their energy comes from being in the moment, happy, and focused. Research as shown people who are focused tend to feel more fulfilled and less overwhelmed with daily life. So if you are feeling a bit burnt out – find a way to play.

Engage your whole body, all your senses in something fun and silly. Who cares if you look a little funny chasing your kids around the playground or laughing hysterically with your head thrown back and feet out riding your bike down the hill. Just trust that if you love what you are doing in the moment and all will fall into place.

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Photo Credits: Kids Playing ~ Journeys Are My Diary & Mindful Monday ~andrewmellen.com

 

The Power of Walking

DO NOT underestimate the power of this activity. It may seem like it doesn’t matter much, something you have to do each day, or “not enough” work for you, but DO NOT underestimate how powerful walking can be for an overall active and healthy lifestyle.



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Aim to get at least 10,000 steps in per day. At this level people tend to be more active overall and live a healthier lifestyle. Walking is a great way to get your body moving, help digestion, elimination, and strengthen your heart and circulatory system.

Find walking boring? Download your favorite podcasts or playlist. Try this workout and walk right in your living room! Enjoy.

When is your best time to workout? Morning? Noon? Night?

When are you feeling most energetic and most active? It can be hard enough to fit exercise in, not to mention trying to fit exercise in when you are tired and feeling worn out.

Some of naturally gravitate toward early morning – others toward evenings. Some of us like to be in bed early others could stay up all night. Which are you? Try out different workout times and see which ones fit best into your life.Running Specialty GroupRunning Specialty Group

Then start to plan your workouts around those times. Keep in mind performing an intense exercise session too close to bedtime can keep you energized and up longer than you’d like. Make sure you give yourself about 2 hours to settle down after a hard workout if you are doing your exercise close to your slumber time.

Finding a Workout Tribe

Working out alone has its benefits and its struggles. Many people prefer working out with a tribe.

Find your tribe by considering what type(s) of workouts do you like to do? What time of day? Where – inside, outside, a class, a small group? Then begin participating in the activities you like where others who like the same activity are.



At first it may feel awkward and weird – remember you might the new person in class, however stick with it and give relationships a little time to develop. It’s also important to put yourself out there at times.

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If you are hanging in the corner making it impossible for others to get to know you, guess what – they won’t. Make sure you smile, make eye contact, and say hello on a regular basis. Making friends takes time and hopefully your time for socializing is limited by the time and effort you put in sweating.

Here’s a little help in case making new friends is the tough part.

If you liked this post try these: engaging your family and friends in your workouts or What to consider when choosing a workout partner.

Why Water? Reasons to Drink More Water Everyday

We are 70% water. When we are dehydrated our bodies begin to struggle. We don’t think as clearly, concentrate well, and we get irritated.

Make sure to drink plenty of water every day. It’s recommended that you drink about 8, 8oz glasses a day and compensate if you drink things like coffee, tea, alcohol as these are all diuretics.

Don’t believe me … that don’t take my word on the benefits of water. Check out this guys journey.


The water in foods and other beverages count, but don’t rely on that alone. Often we eat when we are really thirsty so before you reach for food drink some water to determine if what you really needed was hydration.

Ready to challenge yourself to get started on your fitness goals this year? Try a 7-day free trial with Jillian Michaels and take the guess work out of your fitness – Reach your goals in 2018.

Remember, if you are feeling thirsty you are already getting dehydrated! Drink more. Start Right Now.

Want more reasons to stay hydrated? Read more: Stay Hydrated

 

Healthy Living Thanksgiving! Thank Your Body This Thanksgiving.

On this day of Thanksgiving … Remember your body! Give it the thanks it deserves by eating well, sleeping well, and moving today. Practice care and acceptance for yourself and for others. Most of all enjoy your family, friends, neighbors, or the dude sitting next to you at the bar (could be coffee or beauty 🙂 – with love and grace.

Today let go and relax. Allow yourself to find ease in your doing and be present in the work that surrounds today. You deserve the balance and joy that comes with being present to your experience and fully engaged – this is living life on fire – vibrant and alive.

I am so grateful for all of you. Those of you out there focused on your health, your wellness, and building healthy relationships are what make my work so enjoyable. Those of you brave enough to reach deep inside and find those parts of you that are wounded – then work hard to heal those wounds are what make my work so rewarding. Life isn’t always easy and I know many of you work hard to balance your life. It takes work to make your life work, and I am grateful to be on that journey with you. Thank you for giving me the honor of being part of your story.

Make today one of reverence and gratitude for all the hard work you do to maintain all the things you’ve got going on in your life. Balance takes effort and ease. Make today’s efforts easy.

Read more on healthy living thanksgiving: Thanksgiving Day Plan – to stay on track for your health goals, that is. Or try: How will you give thanks this season?

 

I help people increase their fitness by leveraging psychology.

Increase your mental health by getting outside and moving everyday. It doesn’t have to be overwhelming or expensive to start.

Did you know that walking can help you maintain a positive outlook and decrease symptoms of common mental health disorders? Research expands the links between leisure time activity, being in nature, and increased mental health in a variety of conditions.

It also doesn’t have to take a lot of time. Balance your life by fitting your strength training into your trail run or walk.

Are you ready to find your adventure?

Check out the workout within a workout: walking & full body strength training workout article. 

@stacyreuille #fitnesspsychologist #superiorworkout #walkingworkout www.stacyrd.com