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Behavior: The Great Influencer of Thought and Wellbeing

Submitted by Erica May 22, 2023

Post written by guest blogger Emily Grugan; Postbac IRTA fellow, OITE Summer Program Staff Assistant

At some point in life, everyone experiences psychological distress – whether that be anxiety, depression, a persistent pattern of negative emotion or thought, a period of low drive/motivation, or any on a long list of others. Sometimes, it can be difficult to pull ourselves apart from these negative psychological states. They can cling to us, sticky in a way the more desirable ones never quite seem to be. However, we need not remain bound in servitude to our minds and their concoctions. With the tool of behavior, we can exert great influence over our minds and subsequent state of wellbeing. 

It is sometimes an inclination when experiencing a troubling mental state to try and “think” our way through it, or even to suppress it altogether – pushing it down and ignoring its existence if we can. In other words, we want to resolve our internal problem internally. However, the solution often lies in the world external, in behaviors and habits we can do with our bodies or things we can expose ourselves to. For example, Dr. Andrew Huberman, a professor and scientist at Stanford University and host of The Huberman Lab podcast, outlined in an interview eight fundamental habits which can be utilized to optimize mental health[1]

  1. Sleep
  2. Sunlight exposure
  3. Movement/exercise
  4. Nutrition
  5.  Hydration
  6.  Social connection
  7. Deliberate decompression (yoga, breathing practices, Non-Sleep Deep Rest)
  8. Gratitude

This is a good list, based on sound research…and I’m willing to bet that you’re already aware of most, if not all of it. 

How many times have we heard the advice from friends, doctors, and others, “get good sleep”, “make sure to exercise”, “foster a supportive social network”, etc. However, in the peak of an anxious state, or a period of life particularly plagued by intrusive thought, it can be easy to brush these off. It might seem like such “small” or seemingly unrelated behaviors couldn’t possibly have a large enough impact to make them a worthwhile solution. The psychological issues which plague us can feel so large, so overwhelming at times – how could a gym session or a reasonable bedtime really make that much of a difference? Instead, it seems, it would be far more effective to change our way of thinking first, so that we can then feel more inclined to go to bed/wake up on time, to exercise, to engage with our friends, etc. Unfortunately, we have it backwards. And in having it so, we may be unknowingly holding ourselves in metaphorical mental health quicksand, slowing the progress we’re trying so hard to make. Now, this is not to say that there may not be a thing which you could in fact benefit from thinking through or resolving in an internal manner (through such means as psychoanalytic therapy or personal reflection). Rather, it is to say that you are only bettering your capacity to do so in a clearer, more effective manner by establishing these behavioral habits, and likely hindering your progress by not.

If you find yourself wanting to improve your mental health, you could try implementing a few of the behaviors listed above and see if they make a difference. Or, if you’re already feeling mentally strong and healthy, these can also be great habits to maintain as preventative measures, boosting your resilience in the face of an unknown future. Either way, consistency is key! Just as it is important to take medicine on a regular basis to ensure efficacy, it is also important to implement the above behaviors on daily (sleep, hydration, sunlight, etc.) and weekly (decompression, exercise, etc.) bases. 



Managing our Time to Support Well-being and Success at Work

Submitted by Amanda Dumsch May 1, 2023

People often reach out for support around time management, hoping that with the right system, tracker, trick, or calendar gadget, they will be primed for ultimate productivity and success. Unfortunately, the answer is rarely that simple and it almost never lies in a fancy planner or app. Time management is connected to and impacted by several different factors - our values, our environment, our motivation and energy, and our physical and mental health, to name a few – which is why there is no one-size fits all intervention here. But some helpful concepts that can empower us all to navigate our unique time management hang-ups are:

  1. Understand your motivational pathways:

    Why do you do what you do? It can be helpful to reflect on why you do the work that you do. When we’re connected to our work, it can help us find reason for pushing through the more difficult tasks we put off or don’t enjoy. Consider the ways that mundane tasks that may wear you down or pile high on your to-do list connect to your higher goals and purpose in your role.

    When are you sharpest or at your best? If you have agency in your schedule, consider pairing tasks that are more taxing or difficult in these optimal times.

  2. Routinize the work: Action prompts motivation, not the other way around. If we wait until we “feel” like doing something we likely won’t get done all we need to get done. Or if we do, it may come at high internal costs given all the worry and stress we experience as a result of procrastination leading up to a looming deadline. Motivation comes and goes for everyone; no one has an endless supply of it so it’s unhelpful to count on it. But when we develop routines that consider our workload and needs, and then schedule our time according to task difficulty, we are less vulnerable to decision-fatigue – feeling the weight of making moment-to-moment decision about what to do, when. Some strategies to help initiate action include:

    Habit stacking: schedule the task to immediately follow an existing habit you already do. Example: I will respond to the previous day’s e-mail immediately following my morning coffee.

    If/Then Planning: use time or environmental cues to signal the start of working on a tasks or project. Example: If it’s 12pm and I haven’t taken a break from work yet, then I will go for a walk around the block.

    Pleasure bundling: complete the task while coupling it with something you really enjoy. Allow yourself to only enjoy the pleasure during this particular task completion and no other time. Example: I will write my paper while drinking my favorite kind of tea.

    Creating accountability: find someone who can follow up with you on plans you have made to help support in following through and problem-solving potential barriers.

  3. Organize your environmentphysically and socially in a way that supports your goals: We are all navigating a world where distractions are abundant so being thoughtful of what may pull you away from particular tasks is important. Do you need to put your phone in a place you can’t readily access? Do you need others doing the work along side you to promote accountability and support? Each of our needs in terms of helpful environments is going to look a bit different, but consider for yourself what ways your current environment promotes or hinders your productivity and time management and what simple shifts you can make to move closer to your goals.

  4. Respond versus React: Often there are times throughout our day when we are faced with a decision to divert from our original plan or schedule. This is okay, sometimes even helpful, but it’s important that when we’re faced with these in-the-moment decisions that we take a moment to PAUSE and deliberately choose a response that considers our needs and goals, both in the short and long-term as opposed to react out of exhaustion or lack of awareness.

  5. Stick to one thing at a time: When we’re multi-tasking we are switching between two or more tasks and in that switching we are losing cognition resources, retention, focus and as a result, our work is taking a hit. In the end, the allure of multi-tasking is just adding to many of our stress loads and lack of completed to-dos. Instead, block time in a way that allows to you engage fully with one task before you move on to another. Scheduling days based on task difficultly, not time helps up more accurately assess how and what we can focus on and attend to.

  6. Be willing to adjust: Scheduling our time well takes on-going assessment and adjustments. As demands and tasks change, so does our energy and time constraints. As we’re figuring what works for each of us, it can be helpful to build in margin in our days. Many of us are prone to over-estimate how much we can get done, which can leave us feeling frustrated at the end of a stressful day, perpetuating a cycle of self-judgment and shame that only negatively impacts our overall productivity and well-being. Try reflecting at the end of a week; ask yourself what worked and what might need to be adjusted for this next week to feel a bit more manageable. With this practice you will keep developing awareness around not only areas of needed change and improvement but of where you are really doing things well – something we certainly don’t take enough time to give ourselves credit for.

Fostering Our Mental Health

Submitted by Amanda Dumsch May 11, 2023

With close attention being paid to mental health, particularly in the workplace, we are all becoming more aware of its importance. This shift in awareness is certainly important, but too often the conversations we are having about this topic are happening through a deficit lens – one that is solely focused on the treatment or avoidance of illness. But fostering our mental health is about more than just relieving distress and disorder; it’s also about understanding and building on our strengths that contribute to psychological wellbeing and a longer, healthier life.

The founder of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, Ph.D., has researched and developed a framework of common factors that can help us shift away from seeing our mental health as an issue we only pay attention to when there is an illness toward seeing it as something we invest in regularly to cultivate meaningful and fulfilling lives. Through his PERMA Theory of Wellbeing, we are given some practical guidance on how we can all foster our psychological health:

P – Pleasant [positive] Emotions: We can increase more comforting and enjoyable feelings about the past, present, and future through practices such as gratitude (appreciation for the people in our lives and experiences we’d had), mindfulness (a nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment, often through our senses), and cognitive restructuring (shifting the way we view and interpret stressors) to increase optimism. Consider listing out the activities and practices that bring a sense of calm and ease to you. How can you start incorporating just one of these you’re your life now?

E – Engagement: When we are taking part in activities that are challenging, of interest, and pull on our strengths and skills, we tend to feel competent, like what we’re doing matters, and that we have a meaningful place in this world. This can be projects or roles we take on at work, in our communities or within our own families. We all have unique sets of strengths that when used purposefully can contribute to something important, big or small. Think about what your strengths are and how you can start or continue to utilize those in your life, particularly around roles or tasks that you find interesting. If you’re struggling to feel engaged, it may be helpful to develop insight around the following questions: Why do you do what you do? Is the work you’re doing contributing to society, even if you don’t get to see those impacts directly? How, in small but meaningful ways, can you change your current work to enhance its connection to your core values and strengths? Can you find inspiration in a role model or mentor who experiences engagement in their role?

R – Relationships: Feeling valued and like we belong are fundamental human needs, and these experiences can only take place in relationships. It’s no surprise then that forming and maintaining meaningful connections in our lives is at the core of fostering positive mental health. How are you investing in the relationships in your life? What makes this difficult for you and what is one thing you can start doing to participate in the relationships you care about?  Keep this simple by considering what you’re already doing and how you can invite some along with you (examples: going a walk together over lunch break or taking a virtual work training or seminar together).

M – Meaning or Mattering: Meaning can be derived from a variety of different places – in your belief systems, spirituality, or in a sense of connection to something bigger than just yourself like a community or particular purpose. This component of psychological health often intersects with and bolsters our engagement, relationships, and ultimately our sense of mattering in this world. As you begin to reflect on meaning-making in your life it can be helpful to consider: What core values drive your decision making and how you make sense of the world around you? How does this intersect with your work or other important roles in your life?

A – Accomplishment: Pursuit of mastery or achievement, even when there is no formal recognition at the end is something we all are drawn toward. However, we can feel pulled down at times by the mundane tasks that tend to pile high on our to-dos or more difficult projects that have no apparent end in sight. When this is the case, considering being more intentional about scheduling in or making time for mastery: How are you engaging in mastery – engagement of activities that you do to completion –  in your day-to-day, even if it’s small and simple?

As we think about practical ways to foster positive mental health for ourselves, it’s important to note that issues of discrimination and bias in the workplace or in our communities cut through the very core of all of this. These concerns directly impact our abilities to activate positive emotions, engage in meaningful work where our strengths may not be valued, feel safe in relationships, and have opportunities for mastery in our day-to-day. If this is something you’re facing, reach out for support at [email protected]. You do not have to navigate this alone.


Emotional Intelligence

Submitted by Amanda Dumsch May 15, 2023

Emotional intelligence is our ability to identify and regulate our emotions, communicate in effective ways, have empathy for others, and work through conflict in constructive ways. You may notice that you have strengths in certain areas of emotional intelligence and room for improvement in others.  We are not born with a fixed emotional intelligence; we are able to improve these skills throughout our lives. With enhanced emotional intelligence our relationships can be healthier, our success greater in school and at work, and we become more equipped to motivate ourselves to attain our personal and professional goals.

Key components of emotional intelligence include: self-awareness; self-management/regulation; social awareness and empathy, and relationship management.

Self-Awareness: You can label your emotions and understand how your emotions impact your thoughts and behavior. You can understand what drives your behavior and the effect your behavior has on others.

Self-Management/Regulation: Self-management allows you to react to your emotions in a healthy manner, and recognize which emotions are appropriate to express in specific contexts.

Social Awareness: With social awareness, you pick up on the emotional cues from others, have empathy for others, and feel comfortable with healthy conflict.

Relationship Management: In relationship management you can: maintain a variety of relationships; communicate in healthy ways; set appropriate boundaries; can work well in teams; and successfully manage conflict.

There are several ways to improve our emotional intelligence. Below are examples of daily practices that can significantly enhance our ability to understand ourselves and those around us.

  1. Be aware of your own emotions. Learn to label your emotions and identify triggers and patterns around emotions. Having a nuanced emotional vocabulary can help you label accurately and subsequently manage your emotions in a healthy manner. Make a note of times that trigger more emotional distress and which emotions arise.
  2. Manage emotions. When you notice an especially difficult emotion, pause and ask yourself “What do I need right now?” Have strategies ready; these strategies could include going outside or taking a brief walk, getting support, utilizing self-compassion and kind self-talk, deep breathing and other mindfulness practices, exercise, and/or allowing yourself to sit with the emotion for some time. Once you have identified a trigger, develop an action plan for how you will handle yourself when this emotional trigger is reintroduced; for example, if you know that you experience emotional distress when a specific obstacle arises at work, have a self-care strategy ready for when that happens next.
  3. Take responsibility for your emotions. Don’t blame others for “making you feel” a certain emotion. Take ownership of your emotions and be curious as to what is at the root of that emotion.
  4. Stress management. When we are stressed, we have a difficult time managing our emotions. Regularly practice a healthy routine that includes exercise, healthy diet, adequate sleep, and connecting with a support system. This routine can help mitigate or alleviate stress before it becomes overwhelming.
  5. Work on empathy. Practice giving your full attention and active listening to see if you can deduce how another is feeling. You can try to validate their feelings by saying “it seems like this made you feel____” and listen to see if they agree. Look for body language clues that can also help you understand their emotions.
  6. Communication skills. Communication includes both active listening and healthy expression. When listening to another person, put away any distractions including the distraction of preparing your response before the other person has completed speaking. Practice expressing your emotions in clear and respectful ways. Use “I statements” when communicating your thoughts and feelings; the use of “I feel” is a powerful way to take ownership of your needs without putting the other person on the defense.
  7. Request Feedback. Ask trusted people how you are doing with your own emotional regulation as well as how understanding you are of others’ emotions. When you receive feedback, be open to hearing things that you may need to work on.
  8. Become aware of your biases and preconceived judgements. Some questions to ask yourself to start recognizing individual bias and judgements include:
    Do I exclude people? Who do I include or unconsciously focus on disproportionately?
    When I seek advice, do I listen to some people more than others?
    Am I listening to this person with my full attention without expecting any specific behavior or response?
    Am I being open-minded in this situation?
    Am I practicing empathy right now?

When you notice yourself judging someone, try also to recall their strengths. Be curious and ask yourself how this judgement is affecting how you treat this person. Awareness around our biases can help us better understand how we are relating to others.

  • Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness can help build our self-awareness. When we are open, curious and in the present moment, we can gain clarity around our emotions and the emotional world of others. Mindfulness practices range from breathing exercises, meditation, spending time exploring your 5 senses, to being mindful of your thoughts and emotions.

You can improve emotional intelligence with effort and awareness. The benefits of regularly building these skills will present themselves through improved relationships with others and yourself. Feel free to reach out to OITE Wellness to discuss how you can individually work on further developing emotional intelligence.