Getting the Message?

I’ve been reading some statistics online (yes, I’m a huge nerd), and according to various sources, the average American receives anywhere between 250 and 3,000 advertising messages each day. I agree with the author of the summary linked above that at the higher end of this estimate, whoever was counting the messages must’ve included everything from labels on products at the grocery store to the clothes worn by everyone we pass on the street.

Even if the estimates are a little extreme, however, think about all the messages we get every day from our environment, even beyond advertising. Maybe in the morning we’ll flip through a newspaper or magazine, full of advertisements and articles alike, often designed more to get our attention than to keep us informed. On our commute, we get radio news, content and commercials; and we pass by countless billboards, signs, and bumper stickers before we get where we’re going. There are even ads at the gas pump and in the fast food drive-thru.

On the job, many workers are bombarded by professional and non-professional e-mails: those directed to us personally, those sent to a company group, notes from friends, advertising e-mails from vendors, and posts to informational listservs. If we surf the web at lunch, we get even more advertisements and information – either from the sites we visit or the flashing ads along the header and the side panels. And according to the Internet Retailer, those of us with computers at home also spend an average of 10.5 hours a month surfing at home.

Of course, that’s when we’re not watching television. According to the Television Bureau of Advertising, in 2007 the average man in the US spent about 4.5 hours per day watching TV, while the average woman spent just over 5 hours per day. During that time, we’re bombarded with commercial messages; but even during the content portion, we’re flooded with information. Whether it’s ‘reality’ shows, sensationalized news, riveting action shows, or programs that encourage us to look and be different than we are (think about the number of home and image makeover shows on air at any given time of day) – that’s a lot of stimulation.

And very little of it encourages us to unwind and sit quietly with our own thoughts. This morning I was reading a blog post called “Don’t Believe Everything you Think,” by a fellow Atlanta therapist, who makes some great points about our internal cognitive distortions and the sheer speed at which our brains generate thoughts — not all of which are trustworthy.

Add to that the vast quantities of messages we get from the environment: what to think, what to buy, how to look and act… and it’s no wonder so many of us are feeling stressed out! Not only are we presented with increidible amounts of information, but we seem to be internalizing lots of that information without even noticing. It’s hard to tell at the end of the day which thoughts are rational or right; and sometimes it’s even hard to tell which ones are actually mine!

That’s why there is so much value in taking time out to quiet the mind and relax (which, by the way, is not the same as vegging out in front of the TV). My clients always roll their eyes when I suggest yoga or meditation as a way of reducing their anxiety, precisely because of all the stressors and stimulation we ingest each day. We’re so accustomed to this high level of stimulation that “quiet time” often translates internally to “useless time.” We think that if we are not entertained or productive for every second, then we are somehow wasting time.

But it’s actually the opposite. By taking time out each day to sit quietly with our thoughts (and eventually, to be able to clear our minds entirely for a while), we are wiping clean some of the clutter in our overworked brains and giving ourselves room to decide which ideas we want to keep, and which are better cast aside permanently. After incorporating silent reflection, calming exercises or meditation into their lives, most clients report feeling more centered and are able to approach old challenges with a new perspective.

There’s no real advantage to taking life at 90 miles an hour. In fact, sometimes slowing down gives us an opportunity to take a better road, one that we hadn’t noticed before. And maybe this one will have fewer billboards.

AW Article Now Available Online

Please check out my latest publication, an article about managing economic stress in Atlanta Woman online magazine. During these tumultuous times, more and more people are suffering from the physical and mental impact of economic stress. The article provides tips for counteracting stress in a healthy way. Enjoy!

Atlanta Woman Magazine Logo

Atlanta Woman Magazine Logo

Way to Go, America!

Congratulations, everyone! I saw on the news this morning that for the first time since 1991, consumer debt was actually down last month. In this consumption-based economy, that’s quite a milestone. On the one hand, this puts added pressure on those who make their income from the sale of retail goods; but on the other, it seems a testament to the idea that we really can prioritize and cut back when we need to (or we’re forced to).

I imagine that for many people, cutting back on discretionary expenditures and credit card debt was even tougher given the gas prices over the summer (and for those of us who live in the Southeast, a gas shortage that lead to even higher prices last month). Personally, there have been many times this past month that I’ve had to take several deep breaths as I stood in front of the gas pump, willing myself to choose the debit card linked to my bank account instead of the credit card with its outrageous interest rates.

Sometimes credit cards just feel safer; and frankly I think that’s what gets most of us in trouble with them. If our checking account balance is a little low, or we haven’t taken the time to run the budget numbers this month, it’s all to easy to plop down the credit card instead — knowing that we won’t be at risk for overdrawing our account or being unable to make the bills because of this purchase.

This strategy can be both simple and convenient. It can also be dangerous. That little plastic card is a buffer between us and reality. It allows us to make purchases without having to calculate, strictly, whether or not we can afford them. It removes the pressure of forced-choice from our spending habits… instead of having to decide whether I can afford a night out with friends or a new pair of shoes, I simply put both on the card, thinking I’ll sort all that budgeting stuff tomorrow. Besides, I need the new shoes for the night out with friends. Hello?

The problem is, I don’t always sort it out tomorrow. In fact, I don’t always figure it out at the end of the week or even the month. I just keep trucking along, spending as usual, having basically forgotten the shoes and the night out when the next spending opportunity comes around. And the next thing I know, there’s a credit card bill that is bigger than I can pay in a month or two; and once the interest starts compounding on those babies, I could be in this spiral for years.

The issue is, I think, that credit cards separate our behaviors from the consequences. That big fat credit card bill I get at the end of the month might make me feel overwhelmed, frustrated, confused and even depressed; but rarely does it make me think, “I should’ve skipped the shoes and had water at dinner.” Because of the time lapse between the decision and the consequences, the consequences no longer have much meaning; and it becomes harder to shape our own behavior.

Think about it this way: you wouldn’t let your dog pee all over the carpet throughout the month, and then rub his nose all over the house on the 15th of the next month. No, anyone who’s ever owned a dog knows that you basically have to catch them in the act for them to associate the punishment with the crime. [Dogs, by the way, have an attention span of about 1.3 seconds, so if you’re punishing Rex for something he did an hour ago, he just thinks you’re crazy and temperamental.]

Humans aren’t much better. Without frequent, timely and appropriate checks on our behavior, it’s hard for us to change. That’s why it’s not helpful to dredge up the thing that happened 3 years ago in the argument with your spouse, or to let your frustrations with your child build until you explode like a parenting volcano when the proverbial straw breaks your back. These things might feel gratifying in the moment, just like making a huge credit card payment when your balance is high, but they don’t shape behavior.

It’s a shame that it takes such tough times to force us to look at our spending habits and to be more disciplined. I’m sure most of us who helped contribute to the lower consumer spending numbers were none too happy to do so. That said, maybe we can learn from these hard times by improving our habits and paying attention to the consequences of our choices. That will leave us wiser, more careful and ready for the good times when they return.

Anxiety, Depression & Dollars

With the current recession, depression and anxiety are on the rise, along with calls to therapists and helplines, according to goodtherapy.org. This is not really surprising news, and many of my colleagues in private practice are noticing that more clients have financial struggles that are impacting their current therapy. Some people who need weekly treatment are cutting back to twice a month; while others are quitting therapy entirely.

It’s hard to know how to resolve the tension between increased need for therapeutic support and the average person’s decreased ability to pay for services. There are some agencies that provide free or low-fee services for therapy, particularly for those in need.

But even households with higher income levels and stable jobs are suffering from increased stress during this economic downturn. And in such times, it can be difficult to justify extra spending to take care of mental health needs. I can’t stress enough, however, how important it is to take care of anxiety and depression when they arise, particularly when the symptoms begin to impact normal activities.  Whether you seek support from friends, family, clergy, support groups, or a therapist — seek support. Don’t ignore your instincts when it comes to your mental health, or that of your family.

Help! The Economy is Stressing Me Out!

For the past few weeks, it seems there has been a constant flow of bad and scary economic news flowing over the airwaves. With 24-hour news channels and instant access to information via the internet, it’s hard to get away from the persistant flow of information… and regardless of how much or how little the recent news affects us individually, there is definitely a collective effect on all of us — in the form of financial stress.

If you find that all the reports of imepending economic demise are weighing you down, here are some strategies I recommend:

As the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy would recommend, “Don’t Panic!” It’s understandable that all this scary information might bring on the impulse to sell our stocks, take our money out of the bank, and run away to live a hermit’s life in the mountains. But that’s not possible (the mountains would be WAY crowded if everyone did that), and usually panicking only adds to our personal stress and the collective economic problems.

Take a deep breath, and go get the information you need. Talk to your financial advisor or banker if you already have an established relationship. If not, talk to people you know and get recommendations for an adviser you can trust. Make sure that any decisions you make are informed by research and good advice, not fueled by intense emotions.

Decide when enough is enough. Sometimes the desire to stay informed runs right up against our capacity to handle the stress that comes with all that information. If you feel overwhelmed while watching the news or reading financial reports, take a break. Go do something else, listen to some music, call a friend, or do something you enjoy. The issues will all still be here when you get back, and you’ll have more energy to create reasonable responses when you have taken time to de-stress.

Remind yourself that tthere is only so much you can control. There are only so many things each of us can do individually to help either the economy in general or our own particular financial situation. If you’ve looked at your budget and made long-term decisions about your investments, you’ve done what you can. Put the financial issues aside and focus on something else for a while. The problems don’t rest solely on your shoulders, and the rest of your life needs attention, too.

Focus on your life. There are not many of us who would say that money and financial security are our main purpose in life; but for so many of us, those thing unintentionally become the focus. This is even more true when times are uncertain, because we think that somehow if we put more mental energy into our financial situation, it will get better faster. That’s not always true – and in the process of doing so, we sometimes neglect the things that really are most important to us: friends, family, hobbies, spirituality, community and self-care. These things are the reason we work as hard as we do; and they’re the things that help us get through hard times intact.

Think positive. I don’t mean being foolishly optimistic, of course. But a sunnier outlook will reduce your stress, improve your health, and open up more space in your mind for creative solutions to enter. If you’re focused on everything that is negative and scary, you close yourself off to many positive alternatives. Positive affirmations are a great way of calling positive thoughts into your mind, even when at first you don’t fully believe them!

Exercise and eat healthy. These are always good suggestions, but they’re especially important when under mental stress… Stress can wear down your immune system and your ability to cope with problems; exercise and healthy eating can balance out those negative effects. Exercise reduces the physiological symptoms of anxiety and depression (particularly if you can get outdoors in the sunlight), and it is a healthy way to work off some of the nervous energy your body is storing.

This too shall pass. Keep in mind that as a country we have weathered far more difficult times than what we are currently experiening; and you as a person have also come through hard times yourself. Remember a difficult experience you have had in the past, and think about what helped you get through it. Try to use those same skills and support systems to weather this storm, and remember that there are countless better days to come.

For more information about how you and your family can handle stressful economic times, please visit: http://www.flourishconsulting.com/publications.html

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