The science behind relaxing

anna.serlachius, Kommentit: 0
Relaxation techniques are a burgeoning field of study. Increasing evidence points to their effectiveness for managing stress, for improving health and immune function, and for improving productivity at work.

Relaxation techniques include more formal techniques such as meditation, visualization, and progressive muscle relaxation which are often performed with the aim of producing a relaxed state. However many less structured daily activities such as physical exercise, social activities, as well as hobbies like gardening or even playing chess can produce the relaxation response.

Why do relaxation techniques work? Because they counter the effects of stress. Effects like rapid breathing, increased heart rate, and increased blood pressure. As well as these immediate benefits, recent studies have also discovered that certain relaxation techniques can have structural long-term changes on the brain. For example MRI studies have shown that people with extensive experience in meditation have increased grey matter density in the brain. Increased grey matter is important, as grey matter is found in the brain regions involved in the processing of emotions, memory, and other high level cognitive processes.

Lastly, these techniques are an essential aspect for improving productivity and well-being at work. Employees who engage in relaxation techniques such as exercise on a regular basis are less likely to suffer from burnout or other mental health problems. Organizations are discovering that encouraging activities like mindfulness or yoga during work breaks can significantly improve productivity, improve employee health, and reduce absenteeism.

So what are the key ingredients to finding a relaxation technique that works for you?

1.      Choose something that you find pleasure in. Relaxation exercises are individual, and you will only stick with the ones that you enjoy.

2.      Practice on a daily basis. Even 10 minutes of meditation a day can have profound effects on biological markers such as blood pressure.

3.      Join a group relaxation activity to guide and motivate you, for example tai-chi or yoga.

4.      Prioritize relaxation. We are least likely to use these techniques when we are busy or stressed, but that is when we need them the most.

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The parent trap: do children make us more stressed and less happy?

anna.serlachius, Kommentit: 0

I remember being in my early twenties and listening to a presentation discussing the impact that having children has on your happiness. One of the world’s leading psychologists was presenting results from a study demonstrating that your happiness decreases dramatically after having children, and more alarmingly does not recover until your children have grown up and moved out. I remember all the parents in the audience that day and their collective moan, almost as if to admit to themselves and everyone else-yes, parenting sucks.

The vast majority of studies which have examined this issue have found similar results. Not only does having children seem to decrease measures such as life satisfaction and positive emotion, but it also seems to have a negative impact on marital satisfaction and even mental health.

Of course the findings are not quite that straightforward. Many prominent psychologists have argued that the measure of happiness which is most affected by having children is the more ‘superficial’ type of happiness associated with pleasure and positive emotions, while other aspects of happiness are often enhanced by having children, such as having more meaning and engagement in your life.

Do I believe in the parent-trap? No. I also think that most other parents would say that the positive aspects of parenthood rule out the negative aspects of parenthood. But to really enjoy being a parent and to reverse the trends seen in these types of studies, parents need an arsenal of coping skills and most important of all-they need social support.

Human beings are social animals, and never is this social support needed more than when you become a parent. Time spent with family, friends and the community offers a new parent a valuable outlet to share experiences and learn from each other, as well as tangible help with child rearing. However, the reality is that a lot of new parents feel increasingly isolated. The old African proverb ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ is no longer a reality in many Western societies. It is increasingly common that parents with young children live far away from their extended families. These days having grandparents around to help care for your children is a luxury, definitely not a given. The social support that used to be in abundance for a new parent (as is still the case in more collectivist societies) must now often be found elsewhere.

Learning to effectively cope and even thrive during significant life changes, whether joyful changes such as becoming a parent, or more unfortunate life changes such as ill-health, requires resilience and a positive mind-set. One does not become resilient by avoiding change or challenges; rather resilience is cultivated by overcoming these challenges and growing from them. Becoming a parent has its ups and downs, but like all major life events, it also offers a golden opportunity to learn, grow and ultimately thrive.

To learn more about our programs offering coping skills training, please see our training courses.
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Are you positive enough?

anna.serlachius, Kommentit: 0
What would you do if you were told that your quality of life could be improved by following three concrete steps? Several years ago I was involved in a study looking at the impact of positive psychology techniques on improving quality of life in cancer patients. Since being involved in this trial, I have been fascinated by the ability of such relatively ‘simple’ techniques in improving people’s quality of life, mood and overall well-being.

Positive Psychology is a relatively new field of psychology which studies the positive side of human functioning and performance. Instead of focusing on psychological problems, positive psychologists try to understand what makes people thrive and flourish. Positive psychologists are interested in aspects like character strengths or traits, positive social relationships, positive experiences and other factors which contribute to positive functioning. This growing field of research has also led to many techniques and interventions that aim to improve all aspects of positive functioning, such as mood, health and even work performance.

Let me introduce you to my top three Positive Psychology techniques for improving overall well-being:

1.       The gratitude journal. This is one of my favourite Positive Psychology techniques, and perhaps one of the easiest one to adopt as part of your daily routine. Every night before going to bed write down at least three things you are grateful for. This simple daily habit helps you reflect on all the things that you are grateful for (therefore training your brain to think more positively) and can do wonders for your mood as well as your sleep.

2.       Experience ‘flow’ on a daily basis. The notion of ‘flow’ is when you are totally immersed in what you are doing, to the extent that time seems to stand still. You are so ‘in the zone’ that you may even forget to have lunch. Routinely experiencing flow can improve our creativity as well as our well-being at work. So allow yourself the space and time needed to work on a single challenging task (no multitasking allowed!) and let the flow begin…

3.       Practice mindfulness. The concept of mindfulness has stemmed from Eastern traditions and is about learning to focus our minds on the present moment. The idea behind mindfulness is to acknowledge each sensation, thought, and emotion without analyzing or judging it in any way. Mindfulness-based techniques take a lot of practice, but they can do wonders for decreasing stress. Try to find moments every day where you can practice mindfulness, whether it is when you are eating breakfast or taking the bus to work. Practicing mindfulness on a daily basis can decrease stress, increase positive emotions, and improve overall well-being.

Positive psychology interventions are cropping up everywhere. They are being used in schools, in health-care, and also in organizations. Organizations are starting to realize that attributes that are linked to good performance, good leadership, and success (attributes such as optimism and resilience) can in fact be learned. For example, even if you think you are not a natural optimist, you can in fact train your brain to start thinking more positively.

If you would like to know more about Positive Psychology, contact us to learn how Positive Psychology techniques can be applied to your organization.

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5 reasons you need to exercise when stressed

anna.serlachius, Kommentit: 0
Studies have consistently demonstrated that employees who exercise regularly are less likely to suffer from stress-related disorders or take sick-leave.

Why is exercise such an effective antidote to stress? Number one-it strengthens your cardiovascular system. During chronic stress your body is constantly turning on and off the stress-response, which puts extra demands on your cardiovascular system.

Number two is it releases endorphins, those hormones which naturally make you feel better. This so-called 'runner's high' not only lifts your mood but also acts as natural pain relief.

Number three-exercise is often a form of relaxation, thereby also reducing stress. In most types of exercise you are intensely focusing on certain movements, your technique, and often also your breathing-all of which help you enter an almost meditative state.

Number four-exercise often means you get more social support, especially if you participate in team sports or exercise with others, whether at your local gym or sports class. And more social support means more opportunities to get things off your chest and debrief after a stressful day.

Number five-regular exercise helps you sleep. Sleep is essential for well-being and health, being implicated in things like memory, mood, and even your immune function. Being sleep deprived also negatively impacts on your performance, decreasing your ability to concentrate, your ability to multitask and even your ability to be creative.

So the next time you go for a run remember that not only are you improving your fitness but also your ability to handle stress.

If you would like to find out more about issues relating to managing stress, please refer to our stress management training course.

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Why stress can be a good thing

anna.serlachius, Kommentit: 0
When we think of stress we almost inevitably think of the negative effects of stress. However stress can also be thought of in terms of 'good stress' or what the famous researcher and Endocrinologist Hans Selye termed eustress.

I am sure you can relate to that positive buzz you get when you are on a tight deadline, highly motivated and most of all, highly effective. This is when you view something as a challenge, rather than as a threat. Your body is undergoing a stress-response, and producing hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. However, when you are experiencing positive stress you are using these hormones to your advantage. They give you energy, they help you concentrate, they improve your endurance.

So how do we avoid the type of stress that depletes our energy, makes us forgetful, and in worse case scenarios leads to burn-out? By focusing our attention on our perception of the stressor, rather than trying to avoid the stressor. We all experience stress, that is something we cannot change. However we can change how we think about stress.

Although our perceptions of a stressor are important, so is the duration of a stressor. Few people can continue experiencing positive stress if the stressor is long-term or chronic. Nevertheless, even in the face of long-term stress, positive thinking and re-framing the stressor into a meaningful challenge, remarkably improves your resilience.

In summary, Hans Selye's quote “Adopting the right attitude can convert a negative stress into a positive one” says it all.

For more information on positive stress and performance see the following article published by the Wall Street Journal When Stress is Good For You

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