Optimistic By Nature

sunriseI would love to say that I am an optimistic person by nature.  I would love to say that–but I would be lying.   Unlike some of my friends who always seem to see the bright side,  I would usually plan for the worst case scenarios.  Optimism is not something that comes easy to me, but over the years I have discovered that optimism is a key factor in achieving happiness.

Optimism  plays an important role in determining how resilient we are when facing stressful situations.  Without an optimistic perspective, it can be very difficult and at times almost impossible to navigate some of life’s challenges and bounce back quickly .  The good news is that while we may not all be born optimists, we can train ourselves to be more optimistic.

There are good reasons to cultivate optimism if it isn’t one of your premier strengths.  The first one is simple–no one likes to be around a pessimistic person.  If someone is constantly expecting the worst, their attitude will begin to affect those around them. No one likes to be around a Gloomy Gus, so pessimism has an adverse affect on support networks, both personally and professionally.  Also, when someone is optimistic they tend to be more flexible and creative in their thinking.

This flexibility comes in very handy when coping with stress.  Mental flexibility helps people look at stressful situations from various perspectives.   It helps them reframe a situation in a positive manner.  Flexible people can explore multiple solutions to a problem, and they can also find a positive meaning in difficult events.  These techniques sound relatively simple, but they can be very difficult, especially during stressful times.

So how can you develop an optimistic outlook?  Just like getting to Carnegie Hall, it takes practice.  Here are some steps you can take when something bad happens.

  • Remember that difficulties won’t last forever.  The only thing that is constant is change.  Sometimes it is almost impossible to believe that problems won’t last forever, but they won’t.  Eventually the good times will come back.
  • Keep a problem in perspective–don’t let it spread into other aspects of your life.
  • Explore ways and resources available to solve the problem.  Take responsibility for your actions and don’t expect a problem to solve itself.
  • Be grateful for your support network and those around you who appreciate your struggle.

On the other hand, these are some things to do when something good happens (because good things do happen).

  • Accept responsibility for whatever part you played in the event.  As the old adage says–take credit where credit is due.
  • Feel gratitude  for what happened, whether it came by design or just good luck.
  • Think of ways to expand on the positive event.

These are a few ways to increase optimism, but are certainly not the only ones.  There are a lot of factors that determine how optimistic a person is.  Some are genetic and some are developmental, but it is possible to increase a positive outlook.  A few years ago, I decided to explore ways to increase my happiness and overall satisfaction with my life.  Stress seemed to be taking over, and I had trouble finding enjoyment in even the simple things.  It certainly wasn’t the way I wanted to live. In a nutshell, I just wanted to be happier.

After practicing these steps during both good and bad times I can now proudly say I am a realistic optimist (and much happier).  Building optimism and a positive outlook helped me to neutralize stress and find enjoyment in daily life.  I am not saying that optimism eliminates stress–that would be foolish.  But keeping an optimistic outlook helps to deal with bad times and minimize their consequences while enhancing the good times.  Maintaining an optimistic attitude may not always be easy, especially if it doesn’t come naturally, but it is certainly worth the effort.

Suggested Reading:  Resilience, The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges, Steven M. Southwick, M.D. and Dennis S.Charney, M.D., 2012



A Time-Out for the Mind

monkeyHow many times have you been in a meeting at work and suddenly realized  you have no idea what has just been said?  Or you have a deadline looming but every time you sit down to finish up the project  something else suddenly seems more important?   It happens time and time again.  As soon as we try to concentrate on one particular issue, our mind is flooded with a thousand other things we could or should be doing.   It’s as if  our mind is purposely trying to sabotage us and distract us from what we need to do.

The bad news is that it’s true–our minds continually try to distract us.  The good news is that we can control that.  To some degree  we learn to control our thought processes as we age.  It is a natural progression.  But like any skill set, concentration can be improved and strengthened with use and training.  After all, an olympic runner may naturally be pretty fast and beat the other local runners, but she isn’t going to make it to the top of podium without major practice and training.

What are some of the benefits of enhanced concentration?  One of the most popular benefits is improved work performance.  When you can focus on one topic and give it your full and undivided attention, the resulting product will undoubtedly be of a higher quality, completed in less time.

Another benefit of concentration is peace of mind.   If we can train our minds to remain on the situation in the present moment,  there is less chance to let our minds wander to the future and the “what if” possible scenarios.   These scenarios are the basis for a lot manufactured stress in today’s world.  We spend too much time thinking about what may happen, or what could happen.   These thoughts tend to generate anxiety  about situations that may not even occur.

Improving concentration and focus in the present moment is a great way reduce stress, but many people are at a loss when asked just how to do that.  Some feel they have no problem concentrating.  Here is an exercise to see just how distracted your mind may be.   Set a timer for three or five minutes.  Without a given subject in mind, begin to write down whatever comes into your head.  Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, or grammar.  Don’t even think about what you are writing, just let it flow as a stream of consciousness.  When the timer goes off, take a look at what you’ve written.  Chances are that you will see a variety of subjects, and many thoughts or ideas which are only half-finished before switching to another topic.  It is a fascinating exercise to see how quickly the mind can jump from subject to subject.

In mindfulness circles, this behavior is often referred to as monkey-mind.  Swinging from one idea to another, the mind is like a monkey in the trees swinging from vine to vine.  This is the monkey that worries about the future and keeps us up at night.  Even when we are enjoying ourselves, that monkey is swinging around and trying to distract us.  I also like to think of it as the squirrel syndrome.  Picture  a cartoon dog who stops mid-sentence because he is more interested in the squirrel or  shiny object that just saw rushed by.   Not only is it hard to concentrate or enjoy any activities at hand,  quite frankly chasing those squirrels can be downright exhausting.

So when the mind is misbehaving and running amuck, treat it like the preschooler that it is and give it a time out.  For just a few minutes, stop what you are doing and concentrate on nothing.  Now, most people will find when they try to clear their minds, it only allows space for more thoughts to rush in, so finding a starting point is good.   Instead of nothing, concentrate on your breath.  Breathe in, count for three counts and out for five counts.  Think about how it feels as you breath in and out through your nose.   Here’s a tip–you will probably think about other things as you do this.  That’s perfectly normal.  Just acknowledge the thought and move on.  Let  it go out as easily as it came in.  Like the writing exercise, try this for three to five minutes.

The good thing is that you can do this anywhere (except possibly behind the wheel).  Steal a few minutes at work and give yourself a mini-vacation.  Try it while taking a bath and create a spa-like experience.   Like any exercise, the more you do it, the better you will become at it.  You will be able to focus for longer periods of time.  You may start to see improved concentration in areas you didn’t expect.  Anxiety levels may decrease.  Enjoyment of the present moment may increase.

Just like a monkey or a toddler, training  the mind to behave is never easy.  However,  you can train your mind to focus  on one item at a time (or nothing at all).   When you do that, you eliminate trips into the past or the future and thus reduce feelings of regret or anxiety.   Aside from boosting self-confidence from mastering a new skill, you can’t help but improve your quality of life.  And that, I think, is definitely worth the effort.

So when the monkey is swinging in the trees,  give your mind a time out.  Put it in a corner and let it rest.  You’ll be glad you did.



Exercising Self-Control

It is hard to believe that the Holidays are upon us.  After all, for those of us in the United States, Thanksgiving is happening next week.  From there it is a mad dash for the New Year with barely enough time to come up for air.  So it’s  not surprising that this is not the time of year that people think of making great changes in their lives.  If you look at corporate wellness campaigns during this season, most focus on a message of maintaining, not gaining.    I think that holds true for many of us in our personal lives as well.  What with the added pressure of the Holidays, year-end projects, and annual deadlines at work,   finding the time and energy to focus on change or growth can be nearly impossible.

What we can do during this season, however, is to start an exercise program so we can jumpstart our New Year’s resolutions.  Before you click delete, (after all who wants to start an exercise program around Thanksgiving?) let me explain.

One of the basics concepts behind behavioral change deals with self-control, or self-regulation.  In order to achieve a goal, we usually need to modify something we are currently doing that is blocking us from reaching our desired outcome.   That requires self-control.  Or willpower.  As a wellness coach, one of the most common reasons I hear when clients discuss previous unsuccessful attempts to make or sustain a behavioral change is that they just didn’t have the willpower.

So here is the good news.  Self-control has the same characteristics as a muscle.  If you exercise it, it will grow stronger.  But here is the kicker.   Just like any muscle, strength training needs to be gradual.  You cannot spend 24/7 in a gym, exercising all the major muscle groups at the same time and expect to get anywhere except exhausted.  If you have a plan though, and exercise different muscles at different times, allowing rest periods in between sessions, you will see results.  The muscles will grow, get stronger, and be able to lift heavier burdens as the training continues.  The same can be said for developing self-control.   If you exercise it on a regular basis, it will get stronger.  If you exercise it continually, it will fatigue and let you down.  If you don’t exercise it at all, it will atrophy and you will lose it.

The Holidays can be a great time to strengthen self-control and put us in a position to kick butt when it comes to our New Year’s resolutions.  One way to do this is to target exercises for a given period of time.

For example:  we all know that this is the time of year that offices and workplaces are filled with special holiday treats.  Co-workers bring in cookies, vendors send gifts of candy, or  popcorn, or nuts.  All of it is enough to drive us nuts if we are trying to maintain our weight during the season.  This is a prime scenario for trying to resist all temptation all the time.  Ultimately, self-control gives in and we end up grazing through whatever we can find.  Try this instead–avoid the treats during the day, but let yourself have a healthier snack once home.  Or chose one item per day to indulge in–but stop there.    You can still enjoy the holidays, not feel deprived, and still feel like you have some control over your behavior.    And you are building self-control at the same time.

If battling the office treats seems like too ambitious a start, try beginning with something smaller.  Maybe increasing the amount of water you drink during the day.  Dehydration is a major problem during the winter months,  so increasing water consumption for a period of time can be a great exercise in self-regulation.   Possibly you just may want to carve out a half an hour per evening just to focus on downtime for you.  Can you lose one sitcom a night to give yourself quiet time or a self-care period?  Maybe read a book, meditate, write in a journal, or take a bath.

Do this for a week and see how you feel.  Usually when people target a self-regulatory behavior, they notice improvement in self-efficacy.  The control they develop in one situation spills over into other aspects of the their lives, and suddenly there is more confidence in their own self-control as a whole.    The changes they would like to make in other areas suddenly  don’t seem so impossible or out of reach.

If you practice some form of self-control exercise during this season, chances are that you will feel less stressed and more in control during this most hectic time of year.  That is one great side benefit.  Another will be a very solid foundation for the coming year, when you are ready to focus on your own personal development.

And that is a great thing.  After all, when it comes to keeping those resolutions,  most of us can use all the help we can get.





Recognizing and Reacting to Stress

This may seem like an odd thing for wellness coach to say, but stress is not necessarily a bad thing.   When described  in the very simplest terms, stress is a psychological or physical reaction to pressure applied to a person from external or internal sources.  While pressure is generally characterized as a bad thing, that isn’t quite the truth here.  That pressure is a good thing, because it shows that you are actually interacting and involved with your life and the world around you.  It is similar to the old saying we hear about having a birthday (usually starting somewhere after 40) that it is better than the alternative.   The best part of experiencing stress comes when you realize that how you react to it is up to you.  It is your responsibility to determine the role stress will play in your life and whether it is to be a positive or a negative partner.

One of the first steps of stress management is to explore the types of stress that we normally experience.  Generally,  stress comes at us from two directions.  It is either internal or external.  External is pretty simple.  Job pressure,  family, friends, pets, finances, aging parents–these are all examples of external stressors.   When you are concerned about the world around you and how it affects you and the people you care about, you will experience some level of stress.  Again, it is not necessarily a bad thing.  This shows that you are alive and connected with a community.

Internal stress can seem a little less clear.  After all, why would we intentionally stress ourselves out?  This is a question of reality matching ideals.  We all have a vision of how we would like our lives to be.  A certain level of comfort, perhaps, or financial security.  A  deep, loving relationship with the perfect soulmate.  A home that is the ideal nest for a new family.  All of these are examples of ideas of how we might want our lives to look.  They are things we strive for, consciously or unconsciously.  When the reality of what we experience on a daily basis doesn’t match up to what we would like to have or be, stress enters the picture.

The next piece of the puzzle is to figure out how often and for how long something stresses you out.

Acute stress is triggered by a major life change.  Job loss, divorce, death of a loved one will knock the wind out of us.  Even something like an argument with a spouse or a fender bender can play havoc with our equilibrium.  Obviously, these are examples across a broad spectrum, but how we deal with them will affect us until we can accept, understand, and integrate them into our lives.

Sometimes it isn’t just one thing that sets our world on edge.  Sometimes it is a cascade of small events, each one in itself not seeming like that big a deal.  It isn’t until they keep coming at you, and at you, that you feel you can’t catch a break.  This is known as episodic stress, and is generally seen as a series of events that weaken your ability to cope successfully and live an optimal life.  One of the worst things about this type of stress is that it usually starts small, sometimes before we even notice.  While we can’t miss being laid off as a stressor,  not making it home for dinner with your partner might not rank on the same scale.  But when you miss the bus the next day, or it rains when you weren’t expecting it, or you somehow get overage charges on your unlimited minute plan, you might be starting down a road that becomes harder and harder to navigate.

The third type of stress can be deadly.  Chronic stress is triggered by an event or situation that does not improve for a long period of time.   Having an overwhelming boss, or caring for ill and aging parents are not things that you can easily change.  These are situations where, for the most part, we are in it for the long haul.  It may not be easy to get a new job in this economy.  We certainly wouldn’t turn our parents out into the street simply because it is inconvenient to care for them.

Chronic stress can be the most difficult type to deal with,  and is often the type that requires a village.    I know many people who are care-givers to parents or spouses who feel they can deal with the situation on their own and get through it.  Yet they don’t see the awful changes taking place in their own health as they attempt to cope with the daily demands of care-giving.  The truth is, once you realize you don’t have to face an overwhelming situation alone, that it doesn’t make you less capable, then you are one step closer to managing a stressful condition successfully.

Finally, there is actually a good type of stress.  Eustress is a term for stress that motivates people to strive for their potential.  Eustress causes people to create art or inventions, to improve  and enhance the world around them.  Learning how to channel this type of stress can help someone create a life of fulfillment by  turning this pressure into a creative tool.

So with all the different kinds of stress bombarding us on a daily basis, how can we possibly begin to even think about managing it?  Awareness is the key.  Stop to think what is stressing you out.  How is affecting you?  How long has it been lasting?  Is there something you can change about the situation?  Or possibly with the way you react to the situation if the situation itself is out of your control?

Believing we can eliminate stress is naive and actually harmful in the long run.  But when you become aware of what is stressing you and how you are reacting to it, you can begin to mitigate the effects it can have on your physical, mental, and spiritual well being.  You have the ability to create the personal environment you need to thrive.  Some people actually love the pressure of packed schedule, others not so much.

At its core stress management is a personal choice.  But in order for that choice to work in your life, it has to be a thoughtful and informed one.   Once you have that awareness,  you have the first tool necessary to manage stress and create the energized and satisfying life that you deserve.

Are you ready to discover how the power of one-on-one coaching can help you focus on your health and reduce your own stress levels?  Click  here to schedule a complimentary strategic coaching session and see if wellness coaching is right for you.

Know someone who could use this information?  Feel free to pass it on. 

Five Ways to Manage Stress

It is  no surprise that when asked to name the one thing they would most like to change in their workplace, employees almost always put stress levels at the top of the list.  What with downsizing, rightsizing, and endless budget cuts,  the mantra for so many companies these days is “do more with less”.   One of the phrases I often heard in management meetings during my corporate time was “suck it up and get over it.”   Unfortunately, this places an added burden on employees that remain after  layoffs which only increases individual stress levels.  With so much economic uncertainty, not only in the workplace but at home as well, it is no small wonder that most employees are looking for ways to minimize the effects of stress from their jobs.

The interesting thing is that everyone has a different idea of what stress is.  What bothers one person may not affect another at all.  Staff members at the Mayo Clinic define stress as a situation”when the demands placed upon a person exceed his or her capabilities.”   It is actually a good definition of stress since it place the responsibility on both the situation and the individual, not just the individual as do so many other definitions.   Reactions to stress are connected to a myriad of factors.  What bothers someone one day may not be an issue the next.   Lack of sleep, hunger,  the amount of exercise in a day–these are just a few things that  can play a part in a person’s reaction to stress.

The effects of stress are a problem not only for the employee, but the organization as well.   It is estimated that 75 to 90 percent of  all doctor visits are for stress-related conditions.  If stress levels are not addressed, chronic health conditions can develop such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity.  Frequent colds are not uncommon for people suffering from chronic stress.  This all plays into a person’s productivity at work, increasing absenteeism and decreasing productivity.   These chronic health conditions have a direct impact on the healthcare costs of an organization and thus the overall profitability of that organization is reduced.  Therefore it seems like it would be in everyone’s best interest to address the stress levels in the workplace and explore ways to minimize the harmful effects of those conditions.

One of the most important things we can do is to set healthy personal boundaries.   With all the technology  flooding the market, we can no longer leave the office at the office.   People are now expected to be available  24/7, especially when the boss seems to live and breathe for their blackberry or iPhone.   Instead of making life easier,  the information age has actually had the opposite effect.  We expect results more quickly and judge ourselves and others if there is a lag time in response to an email or voice mail, even during the weekend.  The new term for this is  cerebral burnout, and is a very real condition.

Personal boundaries are one way to combat the possibility of cerebral burnout.   In today’s world it may not be realistic to think that not responding to emails or texts after the traditional end of the workday is acceptable.  But you can set a boundary as to when you will stop responding.  Let colleagues know that you put your phone away at 8:00 pm and don’t look at again until you start work the next day.  Starting work may be at the breakfast table and not when you hit the office, but  at least your coworkers or bosses will have a clear idea of when they will hear from you.   Not only does this allow you to have downtime without guilt, but  you can also begin to ween yourself off electronic devices in the evenings which will have a positive impact on the quality of sleep. Better sleep patterns contributes to a stronger ability to combat stress, so this is really a two-for-one  win.

Another great way to combat stress is to begin a program of mental training.  Used by athletes to focus on performance, mental training is a type of meditation.  Before you start each day, give yourself five or ten minutes and turn your attention to your breathing.  Think only of your breath as you inhale and exhale.   This will calm the mind, and slow down all that information zinging back and forth in your brain.  When your brain is quieter, it becomes easier to focus during the day, and the result is greater productivity.  Greater productivity naturally means less stress.

My favorite stress release is exercise.  Thirty minutes of cardio on a daily basis will have an unbelievable impact on the ability to cope in stressful situations. Other types of exercise such as yoga or tai chi show equally impressive results.   The benefits of exercise include improved brain function, neuron growth, the release of beta-endorphins, and  lower muscle tension.  It can also increase weight loss, a fact that most people would look at as the number one health benefit.

Speaking of lowering muscle tension–regularly scheduled massages can play a huge role in stress management.  Although many people still consider massage to be a luxury, muscle tension is perhaps the number one symptom of stress.  In addition to being painful, it can even compromise organ function over time.  Regular massage counteracts the effects of stress by decreasing muscle tension and increasing lymphatic drainage.  This helps to remove toxins from the body and allows better functionality.  Aside from that, a massage just feels good.  One note of caution–do not order a deep tissue massage if you are going for your first experience.   Although it may sound great, your muscles may not appreciate that much manipulation.  Try a swedish massage or a Hawaiian Lomi Lomi massage for your first few treatments.

Make time to socialize–in person.   Social support is crucial in stressful situations, but not if the only support you receive is virtual. Face time ( and not on an iPhone) can help to put things in perspective and give the support you need to get through rough times.  It is so easy to let social connections slide when you are feeling overwhelmed, but that is precisely when real friendship matters the most.  So make it a point to get together with friends on a regular basis.  Schedule lunches, potlucks, or just a coffee date.  Better yet, make it a celebration and visit a spa with friends for an afternoon of bonding and massage.  Stress levels won’t stand a chance!

These are just five ways to combat stress.  When we think of stress, most of us focus on the workplace, but it is important to remember that stress can occur anywhere.  I know retirees with no financial worries who are more stressed-out than my executive friends.  It really is a matter of how you perceive situations and how your body reacts to them.  Of course, you can’t reduce stress levels without trying to increase levels of overall well being, but focusing on stress reduction is a good step in the right direction.

So what do you do to fight stress in the workplace or home front? I would love to hear the unique ways people have found to help them cope with our increasingly demanding world.

Are you ready to discover how the power of one-on-one coaching can help you focus on your health and reduce your own stress levels?  Click  here to schedule a complimentary strategic coaching session and see if wellness coaching is right for you.

Ready, Set, Stop

It has always been said that nothing good comes easy.  Especially in today’s turbo-charged world, that old maxim seems to resonate more than ever.  We are all moving at the speed of light, trying to balance work and home, personal and professional demands.  It can be overwhelming at the best of times.   There really isn’t a need to describe what the worst of times can feel like.

There is a way to combat this hectic pace we subject ourselves to, along with all the crazy demands we face at every turn.


It sounds like the easiest answer  but I’m not suggesting that you just throw in the towel.  Rather, I suggest that you consciously take some time and be with yourself. Just sit quietly and breathe.  It doesn’t have to be a long time, maybe just five or ten minutes.  If you want to reduce stress and increase your overall well-being, it is one of the most important, and hardest, things you can do.

Mindfulness has been practiced for centuries.  It is nothing new.  But our culture has always been one of action.  We justify ourselves by what we accomplish, by what we can show to others.  There is no outward visible reward for being mindful.   It is only recently that the practice of mindfulness has been recognized as a valid way of expanding not only our self-awareness, but our awareness of the external world.

At its core, mindfulness is simply the practice of observation without judgement.   That is one of the reasons it is so difficult.  We are very good at judging things, especially ourselves.   Almost every action or emotion comes with a corresponding reaction.   When you stop and observe, rather than react, you give yourself the choice of how to act.  We all want our actions to reflect our core values, but when we react to an emotion, such as anger or fear, our actions do not always mirror our beliefs.   It seems like such a simple concept, yet it is one of the most difficult to master.

Some people equate mindfulness with meditation.  In meditation, we try to quiet the mind, and reduce or remove extraneous thoughts.  More to the point, we can recognize a thought as just that–a thought. There is no need to analyze it, react to it, or hold on to it.  Acknowledge it and let it go.  The ability to do this holds a tremendous amount of power.  Imagine being able to focus on a complex task during the day, and remain focused when distractions arise.  It is almost impossible not to feel a sense of inner calm when you aren’t pulled in a thousand directions at once.

There are some amazing benefits from taking the time to observe what is going on around and inside of you.  Stress levels drop, and perspective increases.   We can take the time to decide what the best of course of action would be, not just what our immediate reaction is.   This leads to more self-respect and self-confidence.  With confidence comes a sense of calm.  And one of the most important traits that follows mindfulness is compassion.   When we act mindfully, we have the time to see the consequences of our actions on others.  It allows us to treat others as we would like to be treated.

This is why it is crucial to take the time to stop and reflect on our actions rather than simply rushing on through our days.  Rushing may actually be the easier way to get through a day–little to no thought involved.  But if we stop long enough to act mindfully,  those overwhelming issues can feel more manageable.  Knowing that  you acted in a way that reflects who you are and what defines you makes your life much more fulfilling.

After all, success isn’t always about crossing a finish line first, with no thought of the consequences.  Sometimes success is knowing that you acted mindfully, in the best way possible, regardless of win, place, or show.

Are you ready to discover how the power of one-on-one coaching can help you break down self-imposed barriers and reach your Personal Best?  Click  here to schedule a complimentary strategic coaching session and see if wellness coaching is right for you.