Taking STEPS to Tackle Anxiety

By Zvi Weiss, PsyD

Most research estimates that the average person makes around 35,000 decisions a day. What to eat, what to wear, whether to take this or that route to work, whether to say that thought or keep it to ourselves. Some of these we experience as active decisions, while others are so minuscule, we don’t even realize that we are making a decision.

Sometimes, however, decisions can become so big, nebulous, and overwhelming that they morph into a whole separate category known as problems. When problems occur, anxiety is often not far behind. When we become anxious, we can get lost in worry thoughts and feelings, and even lose sight of the problem that is causing our anxiety. We can get distracted by the feeling of anxiety or the enormity of the problem that we face, and forget that underneath this balloon of worry is often simply a decision to be made, not wholly unlike the other 35,000 that we encounter every day.

It follows, then, that when we are feeling anxious, an important approach is to stop and consider ways of problem solving that we typically do automatically when approaching other decisions. Because of the anxious emotions that we’re feeling, this may not be an automatic a process, so we need a way to remember how to tackle decisions in an organized and productive way. A tried-and-tested means of decision-making and problem-solving can be remembered with the word STEPS:

S- Say what the problem is.

 We often feel so overwhelmed by the problem that we face that it’s hard to define exactly what the problem is. The first step is to define the problem operationally so that there is a clear explication of what needs to be resolved. Understanding and describing the problem is the first step in finding a resolution.

T –Think of possible solutions

 Make a list of all possible solutions – no matter how unlikely, improbable, or unrealistic. List ways in which this problem can be approached, both practically and theoretically. Even if a problem strikes you as a bad idea, jot it down anyway.

E- Evaluate each solution

 Consider each solution individually and come up with each one’s pros and cons. Be as honest as you can in evaluating, and don’t hold back from listing even minor reasons why a solution may be a good or bad one.

P- Pick one solution

 Once all the possible solutions have been listed and evaluated, pick one of them based on the factors that have been considered. It is rare that one of the solutions will emerge as perfect (if there were an easily-accessed and perfect solution, it likely wouldn’t be such a problem!), and there may need to be some addition brainstorming on how to manage and approach the cons that exist.

S- See if it works!

 Apply that solution and see if it works. If it works, great! If it doesn’t, go back to the possible solutions that were listed and evaluated, and chose another. Sometimes we need a few tries to find a solution to a problem or decision that both alleviates our anxiety as well as effectively solves the problem.

Using this system, we can methodically approach many (if not all) of our decisions and problems that fuel our anxious thinking and feeling. In fact, most of the time we use this approach naturally without even noticing that we’re doing it. However, when emotions get in the way of our employing our natural capabilities, using this simple approach may help in getting us unstuck and feeling better.

The Complexity of Eating Disorders

By Laura Vraney, PsyD

A common misunderstanding of eating disorders is that sufferers “just want to lose weight.” It’s true that the expectations of “appearance” have intensified over the years. From the abundance of unhealthy weight loss programs to the number of “likes” on social media, the pressure to appear a certain way seem countless. While the methods have expanded, the message remains the same – if you look a certain way, you are more valuable. So yes, weight is a component – it’s true that Western society has coupled thin with more desirable, but the core meaning of losing weight to someone with an eating disorder is much deeper. However, this is only the surface. Eating disorders are about obtaining a false sense of control via food intake or lack thereof. The goal is to control one’s feelings, sense of self-worth, desirability, uncontrollable thoughts, family dynamics, and much more. However, this sense of control is actually false – it’s only a perceived sense of control because while food is something a person can tangibly manage, it’s not a reliable method to change how we feel, how we think, how we hope others will perceive us, etc. Needless to say, eating disorders are complex!

Here are suggestions if you think you may be struggling with an eating disorder-

  1. Get a medical check-up. Eating disorders have the highest death rate among psychiatric disorders because the entire body is negatively impacted (i.e. heart, brain, kidneys, etc.). Your system will begin to shut down when malnourished! Even if you “look” and “feel” fine, medical complications can be silent.
  2. Meet with a therapist. A therapist will help you explore the function of your food intake (or lack thereof) while building a healthier sense of self. It is central to identify habits, warning signs, and triggers. On your own, begin tracking your patterns throughout the day. Ask yourself these questions: “Do I eat past the point of discomfort? When I have little control over a situation, do I turn to food? Do I eat certain foods only if I plan to workout after? Have I used supplements, laxatives, diet pills, and/or diuretics to help regulate my weight? Have I restricted my food intake throughout the day in order to eat something less healthy later? Do I eat when feeling sad, mad, frustrated, etc.?” Remember- an eating disorder is not really about food but more about what one wishes to control.
  3. Meet with a dietician. A dietician will help individuals make more balanced food choices while bolstering their awareness about eating disorder behaviors. Although not limited to the following, sessions can include weight management, meal planning, meal dining, grocery shopping, etc. Therapists collaborate closely with dieticians in order to provide comprehensive support.
  4. Meet with a psychiatrist or psychiatric nurse practitioner. Depending on the type of eating disorder, medication can help decrease certain urges. Also, depression and anxiety will most likely overlap with an eating disorder and medication can help alleviate symptoms. When someone is malnourished, the brain is not functioning to its full potential. It becomes difficult for individuals to make rational decisions, especially when it comes to knowing how to manage symptoms. Medication helps improve mood, while psychotherapy further provides the understanding and tools for continued symptoms management.

9 Tips for a Productive School Year

by Yoni Sobin, PsyD

The beginning of the school year brings many challenges for children and parents alike. Perhaps most of all is the challenge of staying on top of all the tasks that need to get done! For some, staying productive may feel overwhelming, for others it may seem impossible – we stay on top of things for a few days, a week or two, maybe close to a month, yet eventually we find ourselves falling behind and overwhelmed once more. These tips can help make this coming school year your most productive one yet:

  1. Consistency

Humans work well with schedules. Wake up, brush teeth, eat, work, come home, eat, sleep, rinse, repeat. Performing a behavior consistently daily for a month is usually enough to set a habit. One great trick is to make sure you start the day with a consistent routine. For example, make your bed every morning. Starting every day with a small accomplishment sets you up to feel productive and ready to tackle the day’s challenges.

  1. Set one alarm (at most)

Alarms, especially multiple alarms, interfere with our circadian rhythm. So, at most set just one for the (actual) time you need to get up, and try not to snooze it. Even better, set a bedtime 7.5-8.5 hours before you need to get up, and let yourself wake up sans an alarm. If you get to bed on time and live somewhere with natural light in the mornings, let that be your alarm clock. By helping your body to learn to sleep when it’s dark and awaken when it’s light, you’ll maximize your productivity throughout each day.

  1. Delay morning phone/email use

This helps you to focus on priorities – getting kids out of the house, getting to work on time, and eating breakfast. It reduces your level of overall stress. Your most pressing needs in the morning are the immediate proximal stressors in your environment. Check the time, clean yourself up, and eat. Distal stressors can usually wait 20 minutes until you are more alert. No need to add stress the moment you wake up. Relatedly…

  1. Disable push notifications

Even when we quickly check a message notification without responding, it can take up to 10 minutes to reorient to another task. All that distracted time adds up throughout the day. Unless your job requires it, disable notifications for all social media, and any other distractions that are not essential to the day. Then, set aside time each day to allow yourself to govern your social media, instead of letting it govern you.

  1. Buy a planner / notebook

When were you last able to remember everything to do in one day without writing something down? Well, that’s because our brain is not designed to remember lists of tasks. Numerous studies have shown we can hold in mind a maximum of 7±2 units of information at a time. The solution is to get something simple;a weekly planner with a monthly page for long term planning should suffice. Use only one planner and stick to it, and get into the habit (see item 1) of looking at that planner several times daily and adding to it ANYTHING that needs doing. A task that is not completed must carry over to the next day.

  1. One planner only

One planner means one place to look and find out what you need to accomplish. With Google, Outlook, Slack, sticky notes, and more, we get overwhelmed trying to keep it all together. Consolidate everything in one place. Studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of a handwritten planner over digital tasks. The simple aspect of writing down tasks makes you remember them better. Digital means distraction.

  1. Break it down

It helps to break tasks down into manageable pieces. Manageable goals leave you satisfied and accomplished; overly optimistic goals result in feeling overwhelmed and procrastination, furthering a cycle of feeling overwhelmed, stressed, and being unproductive. When you finish a task, cross it off the list, physically, and then smile J The act of removing it from the list and rejoicing in small accomplishments serves to reinforce further completion of tasks.

  1. Ask for help

Do not be afraid to ask for help. If you do not like asking for help from other people, get help from digital aides like StayFocusd and Boomerang for Gmail. StayFocusd lets you choose how much time you will let yourself spend on distraction websites; once you have hit that cap, the application will block further access to your distraction website. Boomerang for Gmail helps keep your inbox clean, allowing you to “boomerang” messages you do not need to deal with now, and schedule them to return days, hours, or even weeks later when they are more important or pressing. You can also schedule messages to send later, helpful for night owls or for dealing with something in advance you worry you might forget about.

  1. Batch tasks to be more productive

When planning your day, batch similar tasks together. For example, don’t make a phone call, then answer an email, then eat lunch, then deal with 2 other phone calls. Plan to make all 3 phone calls together, then deal with emails, then eat lunch as a reward. This will help you stay further focused.

Stress-free living may not be possible, especially in this ever-changing, ever-complicated era of history. But by employing these 9 tips you will certainly find yourself more productive and relaxed. Try it for a month…