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Most people carry that pain around inside them their whole lives, until they kill the pain by other means, or until it kills them. But you, my friends, you found another way: a way to use the pain. To burn it as fuel, for light and warmth. You have learned to break the world that has tried to break you.

–  author lev grossman (via nikyatu)

related: stress: the roots of resilience | turning stress into an asset

 

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breaking the world that tries to break you

11/11/14 3 Comments

A psychologist walked around a room while teaching stress management to an audience. As she raised a glass of water, everyone expected they’d be asked the “half empty or half full” question. Instead, with a smile on her face she inquired, “How heavy is this glass of water?” The answers called out ranged from 8oz to 20 oz. She replied, “The absolute weight doesn’t matter. It depends on how long I hold it. If I hold it for a minute, it’s not a problem. If I hold it for an hour, I’ll have an ache in my arm. If I hold it for a day, my arm will feel numb and paralyzed. In each case, the weight of the glass doesn’t change, but the longer I hold it, the heavier it becomes.” She continued, “The stress and worries in life are like that glass of water. Think about them for a while and nothing happens. Think about them for a big longer and they begin to hurt. And if you think about them all day long, you will feel paralyzed – incapable of doing anything.” Always remember to put the glass down.

nikyatu posted this today on her tumblr.  the story has some nice perspective on why we shouldn’t let problems (big or small) weigh us down so i had to share it with you.

related: in order to survive, gotta learn to live with regrets | “feed you faith…” | facing the waves of life | 8 ways to let go

here’s a fresh way to look at a glass of water (and yourself)

11/11/13 4 Comments

We grow, including the intellectual and the spiritual, without being deeply aware of it. In fact, some periods of our growth are so confusing that we don’t even recognize that growth is what is happening. We may feel hostile or angry or weepy and hysterical, or we may feel depressed. It would never occur to us, unless we stumbled on a book or person who explained it to us, that we were in fact in the process of change, of actually becoming larger, spiritually, than we were before. Whenever we grow, we tend to feel it, as a young seed must feel the weight and inertia of the earth as it seeks to break out of its shell on its way to becoming a plant. Often the feeling is anything but pleasant. But what is most unpleasant is the not knowing what is happening. I remember the waves of anxiety that used to engulf me at different periods in my life, always manifesting itself in physical disorders (sleeplessness, for instance) and how frightened I was because I did not understand how this was possible.

With age and experience, you will be happy to know, growth becomes a conscious, recognized process. Those long periods when something inside ourselves seems to be waiting, holding its breath, unsure about what the next step should be, eventually become the periods we wait for, for it is in those periods that we realize we are being prepared for the next phase of our life and, in all probability, a new level of the personality is about to be revealed.

– pulitzer prize-winning author alice walker from her collection of essays living by the word.

alice-in-her-garden

alice walker on the sometimes confusing process of growth

08/28/13

alabama shakes “hang loose”

just listened to alabama shakes‘s grammy-nominated album boys & girls and i loved it.  brittany howard’s voice pulls you in by dancing over the songs with playful passion.  fellow bandmates zac cockrell, steve johnson & heath fogg follow suit while rocking the bass, drums, and guitar.  here’s their uplifting single “hang loose” (lyrics below).  if you haven’t already, check out the full album for yourself and let me know which song is your favorite:

Don’t worry sweet baby!
Don’t you ever worry ’bout a thing.
Put them worries on the shelf ‘n’ learn to love yourself
Don’t be your own worst enemy.

Hang loose, hang loose
Let the ocean worry ’bout bein’ blue.
Hang loose, hang loose.
Go with the tide and I’ma take care of you.

Come with me sweet darlin’.
I got a seat ya ticket for the plane.
We gonna fly to Waikiki, it’ll just be you ‘n’ me.
And we’ll let the sun melt our cares away.

Hang loose, hang loose.
Let the ocean worry ’bout bein’ blue.
Hang loose, hang loose.
Go with the tide and I’ma take care of you.

Alright, we gon’ be alright.
Alright, you’re gon’ be alright!

Hang loose.
Hang loose!
Hang loose.
Hang loose.

05/29/13

it’s the holiday season and you’re about to fly cross-country to see the family. while people-watching near your gate, you notice a guy explaining the “prestige” of the mile high club to his girlfriend, a freckled kid who you hope won’t be kicking your seat in the next hour, and a elderly woman, who probably smells like your grandmama’s bread pudding, videochatting with her only favorite nephew. a breaking news report on the tv snatches your attention for a bit. as the stern newscaster warns viewers about a suspect on the run, the dangerous person in question is revealed to be you. with probable shock/confusion welling up inside and people now starting to watch you, what would you do?

nivea put some travelers through similar situations to help promote a product. see how the travelers handle their “stress test” in the video above. spotted at mashable.

related: is this the best (or the worst) interview ever?

this would be a great april fools’ joke

04/01/13

in order to survive, gotta learn to live with regrets

11/19/12 7 Comments

pretty sure today’s daily prompt conspired with my monday to get me to write this post:

“Set It to Rights”: Think of a time you let something slide, only for it to eat away at you later. Tell us how you’d fix it today.

so my mom’s uncle.  last man standing with the family name.  he lives in brooklyn, right next to the church he once pastored.  a month or so ago, she heard that he was losing his battle with cancer so she wanted us to visit him before he passed.  sing songs, pray, reminisce.  we decided to go on a tuesday, but then tuesday turned into thursday…thursday into sunday…sunday to someday.  putting it off bothered me but bad weather and busyness just got in the way.

what can i do to fix it today?  well, since he died this morning, the obvious answer would be nothing.

even when you think you did the best you could, hindsight asks if you did everything you could.  if you could’ve made more of an effort to make it happen…if your priorities were always as sound as they felt in the moment…

you mess around with hindsight long enough and you’ll meet his cousin regret.  jay-z talks about him in one of my favorite songs “regrets”:

Beads of sweat, second thoughts on my mind
How can I ease the stress and learn to live with these regrets

This is the number one rule for your set
In order to survive gotta learn to live with regrets
And through our travels we get separated, never forget
In order to survive gotta learn to live with regrets

Jay-Z “Regrets”

there are times where you’ll screw something up or things just won’t go your way.  one common response to that is regret.  when left unchecked, regret can bog you down in a way that’s more stressful than productive.  it’s imperative then that, as the lyrics state, you learn to live with it.

how?  a good place to start is this well-traveled prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can
And the wisdom to know the difference.

accepting the things i cannot change:  regret can fester when we get lost in “possibilities” that in reality, aren’t even possible (now or ever).  in the case with my great-uncle, i can’t do anything to get back those forfeited moments.  i already blew it.  stressing about it flows with the sadness and disappointment, but it doesn’t help really anybody or anything.

courage to change the things i can:  while thinking about what you can’t change, it’s important to also take stock of what you can do something about.  even though it’s too late to truly fix my situation, there are things i can do to fix myself (one offhand would be to constantly make sure that the people & things that i say are priorities get the time and attention they deserve).  doing this takes courage in a sense but also a degree of honesty, responsibility and self-awareness about what needs to be done.

the wisdom to know the difference:  the two actions above must work together in order for you to get over regret.  however, if you happen to mislabel one for the other, you won’t be able to move fully forward.  accepting things that you can change means being comfortable with something less than you’re capable of.  trying to change things you can’t adds unnecessary stress.  neither is good.  to truly progress, you need wisdom to properly discern between the two and then act accordingly.

you might know some of this already and still find yourself regretting things (or doing things that you will regret later).  just remember, knowledge is only good when you apply it and as jay says in the song:

Time waits for no man, can’t turn back the hands
Once it’s too late, gotta learn to live with regrets

stress: the roots of resilience

10/16/12 2 Comments

written by virginia hughes for nature:

On a chilly, January night in 1986, Elizabeth Ebaugh carried a bag of groceries across the quiet car park of a shopping plaza in the suburbs of Washington DC. She got into her car and tossed the bag onto the empty passenger seat. But as she tried to close the door, she found it blocked by a slight, unkempt man with a big knife. He forced her to slide over and took her place behind the wheel.

The man drove aimlessly along country roads, ranting about his girlfriend’s infidelity and the time he had spent in jail. Ebaugh, a psychotherapist who was 30 years old at the time, used her training to try to calm the man and negotiate her freedom. But after several hours and a few stops, he took her to a motel, watched a pornographic film and raped her. Then he forced her back into the car.

She pleaded with him to let her go, and he said that he would. So when he stopped on a bridge at around 2 a.m. and told her to get out, she thought she was free. Then he motioned for her to jump. “That’s the time where my system, I think, just lost it,” Ebaugh recalls. Succumbing to the terror and exhaustion of the night, she fainted.

Ebaugh awoke in freefall. The man had thrown her, limp and handcuffed, off the bridge four storeys above a river reservoir. When she hit the frigid water, she turned onto her back and started kicking. “At that point, there was no part of me that thought I wasn’t going to make it,” she says.

Few people will experience psychological and physical abuse as terrible as the abuse Ebaugh endured that night. But extreme stress is not unusual. In the United States, an estimated 50–60% of people will experience a traumatic event at some point in their lives, whether through military combat, assault, a serious car accident or a natural disaster. Acute stress triggers an intense physiological response and cements an association in the brain’s circuits between the event and fear. If this association lingers for more than a month, as it does for about 8% of trauma victims, it is considered to be post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The three main criteria for diagnosis are recurring and frightening memories, avoidance of any potential triggers for such memories and a heightened state of arousal.

Ebaugh experienced these symptoms in the months after her attack and was diagnosed with PTSD. But with the help of friends, psychologists and spiritual practices, she recovered. After about five years, she no longer met the criteria for the disorder. She opened her own private practice, married and had a son.

About two-thirds of people diagnosed with PTSD eventually recover. “The vast majority of people actually do OK in the face of horrendous stresses and traumas,” says Robert Ursano, director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland. Ursano and other researchers want to know what underlies people’s mental strength. “How does one understand the resilience of the human spirit?” he asks.

Since the 1970s, scientists have learned that several psychosocial factors — such as strong social networks, recalling and confronting fears and an optimistic outlook — help people to recover. But today, scientists in the field are searching for the biological factors involved. Some have found specific genetic variants in humans and in animals that influence an individual’s odds of developing PTSD. Other groups are investigating how the body and brain change during the recovery process and why psychological interventions do not always work. The hope is that this research might lead to therapies that enhance resilience.

A natural response

Although no one can fully understand what was going on in Ebaugh’s mind during her attack, scientists have some idea of what was happening to her body. As soon as Ebaugh saw her attacker and his knife, her brain’s pituitary gland sent signals to her adrenal glands, atop the kidneys, to start pumping out the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. In turn, her pulse quickened, her blood pressure rose and beads of sweat formed on her skin. Her senses sharpened and her neural circuits formed strong memories, so that if she ever encountered this threat in the future, she would remember the fear and flee.

The repercussions were profound. For the first week after the abduction, “I felt like a newborn baby”, Ebaugh says, “like I had to be held, or at least be in the presence of somebody”. She shivered constantly, was easily startled and felt only fear. She could not go near the grocery store.

Nearly every trauma victim experiences PTSD symptoms to some degree. Many people who are diagnosed with the disorder go on to have severe depression, substance-abuse problems or suicidal thoughts. PTSD can take a horrific toll. Between 2005 and 2009, as a growing number of soldiers faced multiple deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, suicide rates in the US Army and Marines nearly doubled.

Over the past two decades, researchers have used various kinds of imaging techniques to peer inside the brains of trauma victims. These studies report that in people with PTSD, two areas of the brain that are sensitive to stress shrink: the hippocampus, a deep region in the limbic system important for memory, and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a part of the prefrontal cortex that is involved in reasoning and decision-making. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which tracks blood flow in the brain, has revealed that when people who have PTSD are reminded of the trauma, they tend to have an underactive prefrontal cortex and an overactive amygdala, another limbic brain region, which processes fear and emotion (see ‘The signature of stress‘).

People who experience trauma but do not develop PTSD, on the other hand, show more activity in the prefrontal cortex. In August, Kerry Ressler, a neuroscientist at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, and his colleagues showed that these resilient individuals have stronger physical connections between the ACC and the hippocampus. This suggests that resilience depends partly on communication between the reasoning circuitry in the cortex and the emotional circuitry of the limbic system. “It’s as if [resilient people] can have a very healthy response to negative stimuli,” says Dennis Charney, a psychiatrist at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, who has conducted several brain-imaging studies of rape victims, soldiers and other trauma survivors.

Environmental protection

After her abduction, Ebaugh began seeing a psychotherapist and several alternative-medicine practitioners. But more than anything else, she attributes her resilience to being surrounded by caring people — beginning within minutes of her escape.

After Ebaugh crawled up the rocky riverbank, a truck driver picked her up, took her to a nearby convenience store and bought her a cup of hot tea. Police, when they arrived, were sympathetic and patient. The doctor at the hospital, she says, treated her like a daughter. A close friend took her in for a time. And her family offered reassurance and emotional support. “For the first month, I almost had to tell people to stop coming because I was so surrounded by friends and community,” she says.

Studies of many kinds of trauma have shown that social support is a strong buffer against PTSD and other psychological problems. James Coan, a psychologist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, has done a series of experiments in which women lie in an fMRI scanner and see ‘threat cues’ on a screen. They are told that between 4 and 10 seconds later, they may receive a small electric shock on the ankle. The cue triggers sensory arousal and activates brain regions associated with fear and anxiety, but when the women hold the hands of their husbands or friends, these responses diminish.

Social interactions are complex and involve many brain circuits and chemicals; no one knows exactly why they provide relief. Being touched by someone is thought to stimulate the release of natural opioids, such as endorphins, in the brain. The ACC is packed with opioid receptors, suggesting that touch could influence its response to stress.

Other clues come from the hormone oxytocin, which courses through the brain during social interaction and has been shown to boost trust and reduce anxiety. In one imaging study, participants viewed frightening images after receiving nasal sprays of either oxytocin or a placebo. Those who sniffed oxytocin showed reduced activation in the amygdala and weaker connections between the amygdala and the brainstem, which control some stress responses, such as heart rate. The oxytocin surge that comes from being around other people could, like endorphins, help to reduce the stress response.

Past social interactions may also affect how a person responds to trauma. Chronic neglect and abuse unquestionably lead to a host of psychological problems and a greater risk of PTSD. Ressler, however, points to a factor that is well recognized but poorly understood: ‘stress inoculation’. Researchers have found that rodents and monkeys, at least, are more resilient later in life if they experience isolated stress events, such as a shock or a brief separation from their mothers, early in infancy.

Ebaugh says that early stress — and the confidence she gained in conquering it — helped her to recover from her traumatic abduction. She was born with a condition that made her feet turn inwards. At age ten, she underwent surgery to rebuild her knees followed by a year of intensive rehabilitation. “It wasn’t foreign to me to be hurt and have to walk the walk of being strong again,” she says. “It’s like a muscle, I think, that gets built up.”

Resilient by nature

Although most people, like Ebaugh, recover from trauma, some never do. Some scientists are seeking explanations for such differences in the epigenome, the chemical modifications that help to switch genes on and off (see page 171). Others are looking in the genes themselves. Take, for example, FKBP5, a gene involved in hormonal feedback loops in the brain that drive the stress response. In 2008, Ressler and his colleagues showed that in low-income, inner-city residents who had been physically or sexually abused as children, certain variants in FKBP5 predisposed them to developing PTSD symptoms in adulthood. Other variants offered protection.

The most talked-about biological marker of resilience is neuropeptide Y (NPY), a hormone released in the brain during stress. Unlike the stress hormones that put the body on high alert in response to trauma, NPY acts at receptors in several parts of the brain — including the amygdala, prefrontal cortex, hippocampus and brainstem — to help shut off the alarm. “In resiliency, these brake systems are turning out to be the most relevant,” says Renu Sah, a neuroscientist at the University of Cincinnati in Ohio.

Interest in NPY and resilience took off in 2000, partly because of a study of healthy US Army soldiers who participated in a survival course designed to simulate the conditions endured by prisoners of war, such as food and sleep deprivation, isolation and intense interrogations. NPY levels went up in the soldiers’ blood within hours of the interrogations. Special Forces soldiers who had trained to be resilient had significantly higher NPY levels than typical soldiers.

Researchers are now conducting animal experiments to study how NPY works. In one experiment, a team at the Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis restrained a rat in a tight-fitting plastic pouch for 30 minutes, then released it into a box with another rat. The restraint made the rat so anxious that it avoided interacting with the other animal for 90 minutes. But when rats were injected with NPY before the treatment, they interacted with cage-mates as if nothing had happened.

The work could lead to treatments. Charney’s group at Mount Sinai is carrying out a phase II clinical trial of an NPY nasal spray for individuals with PTSD. Others are investigating small molecules that can cross the blood–brain barrier and block certain receptors that control NPY release.

Conflict resolution

The US military is leading the hunt for additional biological markers of resilience. Since 2008 — driven in part by soaring suicide rates among soldiers — the US Army has collaborated with the National Institute of Mental Health and several academic institutions on a US$65-million project called Army STARRS (the Study to Assess Risk and Resilience in Servicemembers). The project has many parts, including a retrospective look at de-identified medical and administrative records for 1.6 million soldiers, in search of early warnings of suicide, PTSD and other mental-health problems. STARRS scientists are also collecting data — such as blood samples, medical histories and cognitive testing results — on tens of thousands of current soldiers. The researchers expect to publish their first findings early next year.

The military also funds research into animal models of resilience. Most rodents will quickly learn to associate painful foot shocks with a certain cue, such as a tone or a specific cage. After they have learned the association, the rodents freeze on experiencing the cue, even without the shock. Several years ago, Abraham Palmer, a geneticist now at the University of Chicago in Illinois, made a line of resilient mice by selectively breeding mice that froze for abnormally short periods of time. After about four generations, he had mice that froze for about half the time of typical animals. The effect was not due to a difference in pain sensitivity or general learning ability. This month, Luke Johnson, a neuroscientist at the Uniformed Services University, will present data at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in New Orleans, Louisiana, showing that these mice have uncommonly low activity in the amygdala and hippocampus, consistent with human studies of PTSD resilience. They also have low levels of corticosterone, a stress hormone, in their urine.

“They have a quieter system, even at rest,” says Johnson. “It suggests that there are underlying biological traits that are associated with the capacity of the animal for fear memory.” In future experiments, Johnson plans to use the mice to study NPY and potential new therapies.

Ebaugh, who now specializes in therapy for trauma victims, agrees that drug-based treatments could aid in recovery. But some people may find relief elsewhere. Religious practices — especially those that emphasize altruism, community and having a purpose in life — have been found to help trauma victims to overcome PTSD. Ebaugh says that yoga, meditation, natural remedies and acupuncture worked for her.

Today, she buys groceries at the plaza where she was abducted, and she drives over the bridge she was thrown from as though it were any other road. She says that she has forgiven the man who abducted her. When she reflects on what he did, it’s not with anger, sadness or fear. “It doesn’t feel like it affects my life at all at this point, at least not in a negative way,” she says. “In a positive way, it’s been a huge teacher.”

related: why stress makes it tough to break a habit (and what you can do about it)

why stress makes it tough to break a habit (and what you can do about it)

08/02/12 2 Comments

written by kelly mcgonigal, ph.d. for psychology today:

Have you ever noticed that when you’re under stress, it’s so much harder to resist temptation? Or make any kind of change in your daily routine, like starting an exercise program or kicking a late-night TV habit?

That’s because stress primes the brain to take automatic action. Any impulse will be harder to control, whether it’s craving Krispy Kremes, or procrastinating on a project.

Neuroscientists sometimes say that we have one brain, but two minds: a mind that makes conscious choices, based on self-reflection and awareness, and a mind that makes automatic responses based on instinct and habit.

Each of these “minds” are supported by different neural circuits — different systems of the brain in command of your thoughts, emotions, and actions. Stress selectively inhibits the circuitry of self-awareness and self-control, and activates the circuitry of habit and impulse. Neuroscientists describe it like flicking a switch: stress hormones turn off the reflection mode and turn on the reflex mode.

The result: When we’re under stress at work or at home, we find ourselves feeling stuck and out of control.

Stress even impairs your brain’s ability to predict the consequences of a choice. So when you’re reaching for that doughnut or shoving aside your project, you think it’s going to make you feel better. Your brain selectively suppresses predictions about feeling remorse afterward. It also suppresses knowledge about the health consequences of eating doughnuts, or the professional costs of procrastinating. It’s not until later that you find yourself wondering, what happened? Why on earth did I give in again?

A new study by psychologists at Ruhr University in Germany shows just how powerful stress hormones are at pushing people toward habit. The researchers recruited 40 men and 40 women for a test of how stress influences food choices.

First, the researchers gave participants either a placebo or propranolol, a drug that blocks the effects of stress hormones. Then they randomly assigned the participants to either a stress induction (holding their hands in ice-cold water for 3 minutes, which is very painful and reliably triggers a physiological stress response) or a control procedure (holding their hands in comfortably warm water for 3 minutes).

So you have some participants stressed out, and some not; and you have some participants “protected” from the neurological effects of stress, and some not.

Next, the participants performed an “instrumental learning” food choice task, the details of which are incredibly complex (you can read them all here). But the gist of the task was this: the participants were trained in a computer game that rewarded them with different foods for pressing one button vs. another. Everyone had a preference for one food, and over time they “learned” to press a specific button to get their desired food. In other words, they built a habitual response.

After the participants learned this new habit, the researchers forced them to consume so much of it that they became sick of it.

Then they gave them the opportunity to choose again between two food rewards. The researchers knew which food the participants wanted now — the participants themselves stated that they had switched their original preferences.

The question was: Would stressed-out participants be a slave to habit, and press the button associated with the learned habit, to get the food they were now sick of? Would they find themselves — like so many of do under stress — eating something they didn’t really want, but somehow couldn’t resist?

Yep. The participants who were stressed and received a placebo were more likely to act on habit, and press the button to get their now less-desired food. But the participants who were stressed and received the propranolol behaved like non-stressed participants. They broke their habit and made a new choice consistent with their new preferences.

I love this study not because of the bad news (stress impairs good decisions), but the good news: changing your stress physiology can help you make smart choices. And it really is good news you can use. You don’t need a drug to block stress hormones; there are much simpler ways to reduce stress hormones and calm a stress response. Things like a few minutes of focused breathing, snuggling with your dog (or favorite human!), or even a funny video on YouTube.

If stress has you feeling stuck in old habits, start stockpiling strategies for quick stress relief. You don’t necessarily need to fix all the problems in your life to start making progress in your life. If you can shift your body’s physiology out of emergency mode, you can help your brain remember what it is you really want — and what you need to do to get it.

how gen-y and millennials can avoid the pitfalls of burnout

04/09/12 2 Comments

by noch noch for forbes.com:

What’s happened to Generation Y? With the opportunities and affluence around us, we seem to be more depressed than ever. There is a sense of void and emptiness within us despite our achievements. What can we do to prevent ourselves from falling into an emotional rut?

I was diagnosed with major depression in 2009, at the age of 28 years old. Today I’m recovering but still struggle. However, I have become more open about my challenge and actively seek ways to recover. Writing has become my therapy suggested by my doctors, and I also started blogging about my plight and reflections. I was caught by surprise. I had not expected people to actually read and resonate with my thoughts.

When I first received readers’ emails identifying with depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses, I was slightly shocked. I had not known how widespread the issue was around the world. Perhaps I hadn’t read much about it prior to my own fall, and maybe because most people do not necessarily chat about this over coffee. In fact, I think many of us still hide it from others, wary of how we’d be judged.

I was even more surprised when my friends, or people I went to school with, wrote to me and told me that they have been diagnosed with the same for a few years already. However, they were more reluctant to publicly admit their struggles. I would not have imagined these people whom I had known for so long to suffer from depression. But likewise, no one could believe I was taking anti-depressants and woke up everyday just wanting to die. After all, we all struggled hard to maintain the cool, calm, collected image.

More Gen-Yers than ever suffer from depression, anxiety, or some form of mood disorder. Of the 120 million depressed in the world, the World Health Organization estimates that the highest percentage belong to Gen Y, and in China, 50 % of those who suffer from depression are in the age bracket of 20-35 and have had a university education. More than half of the respondents in Canada and the US reported to have felt depressed because of work in the past year, which is a much higher proportion than respondents in generations older than us.

We Gen Yers are fast paced, energetic, demand flexibility, and look for more than just a job. “Happiness” is now not sufficient; we want “betterness,” as termed by one of Harvard Business Review’s thinkers, Umair Haque – fulfillment, satisfaction, and the opportunity to chase our dreams. We demand flexibility and immediacy, and get annoyed when responses take more than 2 seconds to arrive. Instant gratification is paramount. We do not follow a set path of finding a well-paid job after university and stay there till retirement. Instead, we want to chase our dreams, especially as we are more geographically and occupationally mobile.

Yet, we are overwhelmed.

We were taught to expect a lot and that we had choices to do whatever we wanted. So we went about doing it. We expect a lot from ourselves too, and become disappointed when we finally realize that we are not omnipotent, and that we are stressed out. It is this discrepancy between our expectations and the reality that trouble us. We have titles, status and money, but we feel void and empty inside.

We lack purpose.

We have drive and motivation to succeed, and yet, we don’t know what or why we need to succeed. It seems that everything society bestows upon us becomes robotic and meaningless. Our passion for life works against us. We place challenges on ourselves that we don’t even know how to tackle. We want many things, and to accomplish too much in too little time. We are plagued a deadly virus, “Affluenza,” as coined by Oliver James that is responsible for the surge in depression and anxiety.

Nonetheless, we can avoid the pitfalls of burn-out, depression, stress, anxiety and the likes easily.

1. Know our thresholds

Know when to stop stretching ourselves. Improving ourselves is one thing, spreading ourselves too thin is quite another. Unfortunately there is no blanket solution for we have different limits at different times in our lives. What is important is to remember, that we are human and we will get weary. So sometimes, it’s okay to stop sprinting for achievements and take a break by the side of the track.

2. Prepare for melancholy

Prepare ourselves to face the challenges in mood. Everyone would get stressed once in a while but it’s how we manage the stress that makes the difference. When we are upset or feeling down, find the coping skills that match our personality. We need to be comfortable with our low moods, and for some it might be spending time alone to read a book, and for others, they need attention from friends. Whatever it is, be prepared.

Every now and then, take some time to spend only with ourselves. We could talk to ourselves, write, or go shopping on our own. Removing ourselves from demands of life and work – and people – will help us focus on our own well-being, be it exercise, diet, or just some time to spend on our hobbies, through which we find more satisfaction and fulfillment.

4. Determine our purpose

There needs to be an overarching purpose in our lives, as my shrink tells me. Is it to help others? Or to create and innovate? Is it to lead, or to be a team player? We need to find something that is the umbrella goal and vision for our lives. It’s not easy to find, and it took me a long time. Through my writing and therapy, I’ve come to realize that I get this little tingle of excitement in me when someone tells me they resonate with my thoughts and feelings. Slowly, I realized that I get excited when I can influence others. That is my purpose.

5. Increase self-awareness

Bring into our consciousness our thoughts and emotions behind our behaviour, and also our reactions to external stimuli. Self-awareness takes practice. The more we understand ourselves, the easier it is to find purpose in our lives and to control our emotions to avoid slipping into that dreaded darkness. I found Jay Uhdinger’s simplified and interactive version of cognitive behaviour therapy most helpful in setting off for self-awareness.

Phenomenon shows that Gen Y is more susceptible to mental illness, but this does not mean you have to slip into depression or burnt out zone like I did. You can pull the plug before you get there. Achievements and success is not mutually exclusive from happiness and betterness.

Find yourself. And you can stay away from the rut.

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