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How to Adopt a Grandparent

by Caroline Baldwin
Adopted grandparents have many skills to teach younger generations.

Adopted grandparents have many skills to teach younger generations.

Adopting a grandparent can provide emotional, spiritual and practical support to an elderly neighbor in your community. It can also provide you and your children with a rewarding new friendship with a wise and experienced role model. According to the Homestead Hope Foundation, it is important for seniors to stay social, as it increases happiness and prolongs life. Look into the options in your area for a chance to give back and enrich your life by investing time with a senior.

Research Local Organizations

Many local and national programs have been designed to match up senior citizens with families or children in countries around the world. Look online to see what programs are available in your area. Some programs offer to match grandparents to children’s school classes. At Adopt A Grandparent in Australia, the “grands” volunteer in the classroom with various projects, enabling them to get to know the children. The kids benefit from the senior’s help, stories and friendly attitudes while the seniors are rewarded by the kids’ enthusiasm and the need to be needed. Other programs are available for you to adopt a grandparent within the community who needs assistance or companionship. This can be on a weekly basis or during holiday events. When looking into organizations, check out who much time is required before you commit to the group.

Apply for Adoption

Fill out the application form with Motivation 4 All.

Motivation 4 All will need your contact information and your availability to volunteer. Most organizations will follow up and then proceed with getting more information for a background check. They will want to ensure that they are putting the seniors in a safe situation. Most organizations will run a criminal report to check that applicants have no record of abuse, theft, fraud or any other misdeeds that could put the seniors in jeopardy. Once the background check has been completed, they will proceed with any other information they will need to gather such as geographical preferences or personality questions for matching purposes.

Matching of Grandparents

The group will match you with a grandparent to the best of their ability after your paperwork has been sufficiently completed. The matches are often made based on common interests and similar backgrounds. Once matched with a grandparent, reach out to him and find out as much as you can about him. Take your grand out for a treat to get to know him. Ask the organization questions about how he came to the group, what was he looking to get out of it and for suggestions as to how you can best help him. If your grandparent is matched through your school, have a small party for the children to welcome her to the class. Have the children put together a book of information sheets with their photos and a description of themselves to present to the grandparent.

Activities with Adoptees

Plan activities with your grandparent that are beneficial for all that are involved. Spend quality time doing things that she finds interesting — antiquing, playing bridge or walking through the botanical gardens. Involve her in normal grandparent activities such as attending your children’s sporting events and school plays. The Care Center suggests dropping off meals for your grandparent along with thoughtful notes and take him to doctor appointments. Include your adopted grandparent in holiday celebrations and any other events to prevent him from being alone during what would usually be considered “family time.”

Choosing Healthy Fats

Good Fats, Bad Fats, and the Power of Omega-3sSalmon with lemon

Not all fat is the same. While bad fats can wreck your diet and increase your risk of certain diseases, good fats protect your brain and heart. In fact, healthy fats—such as omega-3s—are vital to your physical and emotional health. Understanding how to include more healthy fat in your diet can help improve your mood, boost your well-being, and even trim your waistline.

Fats and cholesterol

When it comes to dietary fat, what matters most is the type of fat you eat. Contrary to past dietary advice promoting low-fat diets, newer research shows that healthy fats are necessary and beneficial for health.

  • When food manufacturers reduce fat, they often replace it with carbohydrates from sugar, refined grains, or other starches. Our bodies digest these refined carbohydrates and starches very quickly, affecting blood sugar and insulin levels and possibly resulting in weight gain and disease.
  • Findings from the Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study show that no link between the overall percentage of calories from fat and any important health outcome, including cancer, heart disease, and weight gain.

Focus on “good” fat, not low-fat

Rather than adopting a low-fat diet, it’s more important to focus on eating beneficial “good” fats and avoiding harmful “bad” fats. Fat is an important part of a healthy diet. Choose foods with “good” unsaturated fats, limit foods high in saturated fat, and avoid “bad” trans fat.

  • “Good” unsaturated fats—Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats — lower disease risk. Foods high in good fats include vegetable oils (such as olive, canola, sunflower, soy, and corn), nuts, seeds, and fish.
  • “Bad” fats—Trans fats — increase disease risk, even when eaten in small quantities. Foods containing trans fats are primarily in processed foods made with trans fat from partially hydrogenated oil. Fortunately, trans fats have been eliminated from many of these foods.
  • Saturated fats, while not as harmful as trans fats, by comparison with unsaturated fats negatively impact health and are best consumed in moderation. Foods containing large amounts of saturated fat include red meat, butter, cheese, and ice cream.

When you cut back on foods like red meat and butter, replace them with fish, beans, nuts, and healthy oils instead of refined carbohydrates.

Omega-3 fatty acids

Eat at least Two 3-4 oz servings per week of fish and seafood including at least one serving of oily (dark meat) fish.

  • Why they help the heart. Oily, cold-water fish, such as salmon, herring, sardines, and tuna, contain EPA and DHA. These fats reduce the risk of fatal heart attacks and sudden cardiac death caused by electrical problems in the heart. Eating fish may reduce the risk of stroke as well. Fish also contain vitamin D, specific healthful proteins, selenium, and other nutrients.
  • Practical tip: choosing seafood. With the exception of commercially fried fish sticks and burgers, eating any fish or shellfish is likely to provide heart benefits, compared with eating none. All else being equal, fish and shellfish that contain higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids are likely to provide more benefit. For the average adult, the best advice is to eat a variety of different fish and shellfish, at least two servings each week, with at least one of these being an oily or dark meat fish.
Good sources of omega-3 fatty acids
Food Milligrams (mg) omega-3s per serving (3.5 oz or about 1/2 cup)
Anchovy 2,050
Herring, Atlantic 2,000
Salmon, farmed 1,950
Salmon, wild 1,850
Mackerel, Atlantic 1,200
Sardines, Atlantic 1,000
Bluefish 1,000
Trout 900
Tuna, white, albacore 850
Mussles 800
Bass, striped 750
Oysters, wild 500
Tuna, light 300
Halibut 200
Eggs 50 per egg

Who should consider fish oil capsules?

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that people with documented heart disease get about 1 gram of EPA plus DHA per day, preferably from fatty fish. But for many people, that goal may be tough to reach. You’d have to eat 2 to 3 ounces of wild salmon or 4 ounces of white tuna (canned in water) every single day. Other studies have suggested that a lower amount, about 250 mg of EPA plus DHA per day, may give you most of the benefit.

If you don’t care for fish (or that much fish), or you want to be sure to get your daily omega-3s, you may want to take fish oil capsules, which are widely available over the counter. Although the contents of these supplements aren’t directly regulated by the FDA, several studies have shown that the commonly available brands in reputable stores contain the stated ingredients. Fish oil contains no mercury (mercury binds to protein, not fat), and very low amounts of other contaminants.

One capsule a day usually supplies about 200 to 400 mg of EPA plus DHA, and should be enough for most people. Higher doses – 2 to 4 grams of EPA plus DHA per day – are needed for people who wish to substantially lower their triglycerides. If you’re one of these people, talk to your doctor about taking prescription fish oil, which has been concentrated to contain about 900 mg of EPA plus DHA per capsule.

For some, fish oil capsules can be hard to swallow and may leave a fishy aftertaste after burping. Keeping the capsules in the freezer before taking them can help or try odorless or deodorized capsules. For strict vegetarians, V-Pure capsules contain EPA and DHA extracted from algae, which is where fish get them.

Over all, although several trials have shown benefits of taking fish oil in different populations, remember that most long-term studies have evaluated people who eat fish. So eating fish ought to be your first choice for getting omega-3s, if possible.

Vegetable oils

Eat 5–6 teaspoons per day, including oil found in foods.

  • Why they’re good for the heart. Vegetable oils lower LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, and raise HDL cholesterol. Vegetable oils that contain a type of polyunsaturated fat known as omega-6s (corn, sunflower, safflower, and soybean oils, to be specific) may also reduce insulin resistance and inflammation. Less processed oils, such as extra virgin olive oil, also contain potentially beneficial phytochemicals from the oil seeds.
  • Practical tips: choosing vegetable oils. Although olive oil, which is rich in monounsaturated fats, has received a lot of attention due to its prominent role in the traditional Mediterranean diet, the best scientific evidence supports the heart benefits of other vegetable oils that are rich in polyunsaturated fats, such as soybean or canola oil. However, all these vegetable oils improve blood cholesterol levels. So, choose any of these oils. If you like olive oil, look for extra virgin olive oil, which likely has extra heart benefits beyond regular olive oil.

What about tropical oils, such as coconut or palm oils? The food industry likes to tout the benefits of tropical oils, while dietary guidelines shun these oils. Who is right? These oils have complex effects on blood cholesterol levels—for example, raising “bad” LDL cholesterol but also raising “good” HDL cholesterol, among many other effects. Unfortunately, their effects on other risks for heart disease and, more importantly, on actual heart events (such as heart attacks) are almost wholly unknown. For now, stick to vegetable oils. There’s stronger evidence that these oils are heart healthy. If you do want to eat something once in a while that contains coconut or palm oil, enjoy it as a treat—it’s better than eating something with trans fat, which these tropical oils often replace.

Refined Carbs and Sugar: The Diet Saboteurs

How Choosing Healthier Carbs Can Improve Your Health and WaistlineBowl of apples

They’re the comfort foods we crave when we’re feeling down or stressed: pasta, fries, white bread, cookies, pastries, ice cream, cakes. But these simple or refined carbohydrates cause rapid spikes in blood sugar, fluctuations in mood and energy, and a build-up of fat, especially around your waistline. Cutting back on these diet saboteurs doesn’t mean feeling unsatisfied or never enjoying comfort food again. The key is to choose the right carbs. Complex carbs such as vegetables, whole grains, and naturally sweet fruit digest slower, resulting in stable blood sugar and less fat accumulation. You’ll not only feel healthier and more energetic, you could also shed that stubborn belly fat so many of us struggle with.

Why are refined carbs and sugar so bad for your health?

Refined or simple carbohydrates include sugars and refined grains that have been stripped of all bran, fiber, and nutrients. These include white bread, pizza dough, pasta, pastries, white flour, white rice, and many breakfast cereals. They digest quickly and their high glycemic index causes unhealthy spikes in blood sugar levels.

When you eat refined carbs, your bloodstream is flooded with sugar which triggers a surge of insulin to clear the sugar from your blood. All this insulin can leave you feeling hungry soon after a meal, often craving more sugary carbs. This can cause you to overeat, put on weight, and over time lead to insulin resistance and type-2 diabetes. Diets high in refined carbs and sugar have also been linked to high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, hyperactivity, mood disorders, and even suicide in teenagers.

For many of us, cutting back on sugary treats and overcoming our carb cravings can seem like a daunting task. As well as being present in obvious foods such as sugary snacks, desserts, and candies, sugar is also hidden in much of the processed food we eat—from soda, coffee and fruit drinks to bread, pasta sauce, and frozen dinners. But by focusing on whole foods and complex, unrefined carbs, you can reduce your intake of sugar and refined carbs, keep your blood sugar stable, maintain a healthy weight, and still find ways to satisfy your sweet tooth.

The not-so-sweet link between sugar and belly fat

A lot of belly fat surrounds the abdominal organs and liver and is closely linked to insulin resistance and an increased risk of diabetes. Calories obtained from fructose (found in sugary beverages such as soda, energy and sports drinks, coffee drinks, and processed foods like doughnuts, muffins, cereal, candy, and granola bars) are more likely to add weight around your abdomen. Cutting back on sugary foods can mean a slimmer waistline as well as a lower risk of diabetes.

Good carbs vs. bad carbs

Carbohydrates are one of your body’s main sources of energy. Health organizations such as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommend that 45 to 65 percent of your daily calories should come from carbohydrates. However, the majority of these should be from complex, unrefined carbs rather than refined carbs (including starches such as potatoes and corn).

Unlike simple carbs, complex carbohydrates are digested slowly, causing a gradual rise in blood sugar. They’re usually high in nutrients and fiber, which can help prevent serious disease, aid with weight-loss, and improve your energy levels. In general, “good” carbohydrates have a lower glycemic load and can even help guard against type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular problems in the future.

Good carbs include:

Unrefined whole grains – whole wheat or multigrain bread, brown rice, barley, quinoa, bran cereal, oatmeal

Non-starchy vegetables – spinach, green beans, Brussels sprouts, celery, tomatoes

Legumes – kidney beans, baked beans, peas, lentils

Nuts – peanuts, cashews, walnuts

Fruit – apples, berries, citrus fruit, bananas, pears

What is the glycemic index and glycemic load?

The glycemic index (GI) measures how rapidly a food spikes your blood sugar, while the glycemic load measures the amount of digestible carbohydrate (total carbohydrate minus fiber) the food contains. While both can be useful tools, having to refer to different tables can be unnecessarily complicated. Unless you’re on a specific diet, most people find it easiest to stick to the broad guidelines of what makes a carb “good” or “bad”.

Switching to good carbs

While there are many health benefits to switching from refined to complex carbs, you don’t have to consign yourself to never again eating French fries or a slice of white bread. After all, when you ban certain foods, it’s natural to crave those foods even more. Instead, make refined carbs and sugary foods an occasional indulgence rather than a regular part of your diet. As you reduce your intake of these unhealthy foods, you’ll likely find yourself craving them less and less.

Choosing healthier carbs
Instead of… Try…
White rice Brown or wild rice, riced cauliflower
White potatoes (including fries and mashed potatoes) Cauliflower mash, sweet potato
Regular pasta Whole-wheat pasta, spaghetti squash
White bread Whole-wheat or whole-grain bread
Sugary breakfast cereal High-fiber, low-sugar cereal
Instant oatmeal Steel-cut or rolled oats
Cornflakes Low-sugar bran flakes
Corn Leafy greens
Corn or potato chips Nuts, or raw veggies for dipping

Added sugar is just empty calories

Your body gets all the sugar it needs from that naturally occurring in food—fructose in fruit or lactose in milk, for example. All the sugar added to processed food offers no nutritional value—but just means a lot of empty calories that can sabotage any healthy diet, contribute to weight gain, and increase your risk for serious health problems.

Again, it’s unrealistic to try to eliminate all sugar and empty calories from your diet. The American Heart Association recommends limiting the amount of added sugars you consume to no more than 100 calories per day (about 6 teaspoons or 24 grams of sugar) for women and 150 calories per day (9 teaspoons or 36 grams) for men. If that still sounds like a lot, it’s worth remembering that a 12-ounce soda contains up to 10 teaspoons of added sugar—some shakes and sweetened coffee drinks even more. The average American currently consumes 19.5 teaspoons (82 grams) of added sugar each day, often without realizing it. By becoming more aware of the sugar in your diet, you can cut down to the recommended levels and make a huge difference to the way you look, think, and feel.

How to cut down on sugar

Slowly reduce the sugar in your diet a little at a time to give your taste buds time to adjust and wean yourself off the craving.

Cook more at home. By preparing more of your own food, you can ensure that you and your family eat fresh, wholesome meals without added sugar.

Give recipes a makeover. Many dessert recipes taste just as good with less sugar.

Avoid sugary drinks—even “diet” versions. Artificial sweetener can still trigger sugar cravings that contribute to weight gain. Instead of soda, try adding a splash of fruit juice to sparkling water. Or blend skim milk with a banana or berries for a delicious, healthy smoothie.

Avoid processed or packaged foods. About 75% of packaged food in the U.S. contains added sugar—including canned soups, frozen dinners, and low-fat meals—that can quickly add up to unhealthy amounts.

Be careful when eating out. Most gravy, dressings, and sauces are packed with sugar, so ask for it to be served on the side.

Eat healthier snacks. Cut down on sweet snacks such as candy, chocolate, and cakes. Instead, satisfy your sweet tooth with naturally sweet food such as fruit, peppers, or natural peanut butter.

Create your own frozen treats. Freeze pure fruit juice in an ice-cube tray with plastic spoons as popsicle handles. Or make frozen fruit kabobs using pineapple chunks, bananas, grapes, and berries.

Check labels of all the packaged food you buy. Choose low-sugar products—but be aware that manufacturers often try to hide sugar on labels.

How to spot hidden sugar in your food

Being smart about sweets is only part of the battle of reducing sugar in your diet. Sugar is also hidden in many packaged foods, fast food meals, and grocery store staples such as bread, cereals, canned goods, pasta sauce, margarine, instant mashed potatoes, frozen dinners, low-fat meals, and ketchup. The first step is to spot hidden sugar on food labels, which can take some sleuthing:

Do some detective work

Manufacturers are required to provide the total amount of sugar in a serving but do not have to spell out how much of this sugar has been added and how much is naturally in the food. The trick is deciphering which ingredients are added sugars. Aside from the obvious ones—sugar, honey, molasses—added sugar can appear as agave nectar, cane crystals, corn sweetener, crystalline fructose, dextrose, evaporated cane juice, fructose, high-fructose corn syrup, invert sugar, lactose, maltose, malt syrup, and more.

A wise approach is to avoid products that have any of these added sugars at or near the top of the list of ingredients—or ones that have several different types of sugar scattered throughout the list. If a product is chock-full of sugar, you would expect to see “sugar” listed first, or maybe second. But food makers can fudge the list by adding sweeteners that aren’t technically called sugar. The trick is that each sweetener is listed separately. The contribution of each added sugar may be small enough that it shows up fourth, fifth, or even further down the list. But add them up and you can get a surprising dose of added sugar.

Let’s take as an example a popular oat-based cereal with almonds whose package boasts that it is “great tasting,” “heart healthy” and “whole grain guaranteed.” Here’s the list of ingredients:

Whole-grain oats, whole-grain wheat, brown sugar, almond pieces, sugar, crisp oats,* corn syrup, barley malt extract, potassium citrate, toasted oats,* salt, malt syrup, wheat bits,* honey, and cinnamon. *contain sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, and/or brown sugar molasses.

Combine brown sugar, sugar, corn syrup, barley malt extract, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, brown sugar molasses, and malt syrup, and they add up to a hefty dose of empty calories—more than one-quarter (27%) of this cereal is added sugar, which you might not guess from scanning the ingredient list.

Adapted with permission from Reducing Sugar and Salt, a special health report published by Harvard Health Publications.

Getting High-Quality Protein in Your Diet

Making Protein Choices to Boost Energy and Improve Your HealthSliced chicken breast

Protein provides energy and supports your mood and cognitive function. While it’s in many of the foods that we eat every day, for something so common it’s often a misunderstood part of our diets. Think of protein and you might think of steak sizzling on a grill, an energy bar touting to banish fatigue, or a protein shake promising amazing muscle growth. Yes, these foods are all packed with protein, but when it comes to making the best protein choices to keep your body and mind healthy, quality is just as important as quantity.

What is protein?

Protein is a vital nutrient required for building, maintaining, and repairing tissues, cells, and organs throughout the body. When you eat protein, it is broken down into the 20 amino acids that are the body’s basic building blocks for growth and energy. The amino acid tryptophan influences mood by producing serotonin, which can reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety and improve overall cognitive function.

Most animal sources of protein, such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy, deliver all the amino acids your body needs, while plant-based protein sources such as grains, beans, vegetables, and nuts often lack one or more of the essential amino acids. However, that doesn’t mean you have to eat animal products to get the right amino acids. By eating a variety of plant-based sources of protein each day you can ensure your body gets all the essential amino acids it needs.

The health benefits of protein

Protein gives you the energy to get up and go—and keep going. While too much protein can be harmful to people with kidney disease, diabetes, and some other conditions, eating the right amount of high-quality protein:

  • Keeps your immune system functioning properly, maintains heart health and your respiratory system, and speeds recovery after exercise
  • Is vital to the growth and development of children and for maintaining health in your senior years
  • Can help reduce your risk for diabetes and cardiovascular disease
  • Can help you think clearly and may improve recall
  • Can improve your mood and boost your resistance to stress, anxiety, and depression
  • May help you maintain a healthy weight by curbing appetite, making you feel full longer, and fueling you with extra energy for exercising.

As well as being imperative to feeling healthy and energetic, protein is also important to the way you look. Eating high-quality protein can help:

  • Maintain healthy skin, nails, and hair
  • Build muscle
  • Maintain lean body mass while dieting

While most people eating a Western diet get sufficient quantity of protein each day, many of us are not getting the quality of protein we need.

High-quality vs. low-quality protein

Distinguishing between industrially raised meat and organic, grass-fed meat is only part of separating low- and high-quality sources of protein.

  • While some processed or lunch meats, for example, can be a good source of protein, many are loaded with salt, which can cause high blood pressure and lead to other health problems.
  • Processed meats have also been linked with an increased risk of cancer, likely due to the substances used in the processing of the meat.

The key to ensuring you eat sufficient high-quality protein is to include different types in your diet, rather than relying on just red or processed meat.

How much high-quality protein do you need?

Adults should eat at least 0.8g of protein per kilogram (2.2lb) of body weight per day. That means a 180lb man should eat at least 65 grams of high-quality protein per day. A higher intake may help to lower your risk for obesity, osteoporosis, type 2 diabetes, and stroke.

  • Nursing women need about 20 grams more of high-quality protein a day than they did before pregnancy to support milk production.
  • Older adults should aim for 1 to 1.5 grams of protein for each kilogram of weight (think 0.5g of protein per lb. of body weight if that’s easier).
  • Try to divide your protein intake equally among meals.

Source: Environmental Nutrition

Good sources of high-quality protein

Fish. Most seafood is high in protein and low in saturated fat. Fish such as salmon, trout, sardines, anchovies, sablefish (black cod), and herring are also high in omega-3 fatty acids. Experts recommend eating seafood at least twice a week.

Poultry. Removing the skin from chicken and turkey can substantially reduce the saturated fat. In the U.S., non-organic poultry may also contain antibiotics and been raised on GMO feed grown with pesticides, so opt for organic and free-range if possible.

Dairy products. Products such as skim milk, cheese, and yoghurt offer lots of healthy protein. Beware of added sugar in low-fat yoghurts and flavored milk, though, and skip processed cheese that often contains non-dairy ingredients.

Beans. Beans and peas are packed full of both protein and fiber. Add them to salads, soups and stews to boost your protein intake.

Nuts and seeds. As well as being rich sources of protein, nuts and seeds are also high in fiber and “good” fats. Add to salads or keep handy for snacks.

Tofu and soy products. Non-GMO tofu and soy are excellent red meat alternatives, high in protein and low in fat. Try a “meatless Monday,” plant-based protein sources are often less expensive than meat so it can be as good for your wallet as it is for your health.

Good sources of protein
Nutrition values are approximate only; significant variations occur according to brand, cut of meat, cooking method, etc.
Food Grams of protein
Canned tuna – 3 ounces 20
Salmon – 3 ounces

19

Turkey breast – 3 ounces

26

Chicken breast – 3 ounces

27

Skirt steak – 3 ounces

25

Ground beef (70% lean) – 3 ounces

22

Kidney beans – 1/3 cup

4

Black beans – 1/3 cup

5

Non-fat milk – 1/2 cup

4

Soy milk – 1/2 cup

4

Eggs – 1 large

6

Mozzarella cheese – 3 ounces

19

Cheddar – 3 ounces

19

Low-fat cottage cheese – 1/2 cup

12

Peanut butter – 2 tbsp.

7

Almonds – 1/4 cup (24 nuts)

8

Walnuts – 1/4 cup (14 halves)

3

Veggie burger – 1 patty

23

Tofu – 1/2 cup

11

Yogurt, plain – 1 cup

9

Whey protein powder – 1/3 cup

19

Source: USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference

Tips to increase your protein intake

To include more high-quality protein in your diet, try replacing processed carbs with high-quality protein. It can reduce your risk for heart disease and stroke, and you’ll also feel full longer, which can help you maintain a healthy weight.

  • Reduce the amount of processed carbohydrates you consume—from foods such as pastries, cakes, pizza, cookies and chips—and replace them with fish, beans, nuts, seeds, peas, chicken, dairy, and soy and tofu products.
  • Snack on nuts and seeds instead of chips, replace a baked dessert with Greek yogurt, or swap out slices of pizza for a grilled chicken breast and a side of beans.

Not a seafood fan? Make fish more palatable

If you’re not a fan of seafood, but want to include more in your diet, there are ways to make fish more palatable.

  • Always buy fresh fish. Some say tilapia, cod, or salmon have the least “fishy” taste.
  • Disguise the taste by adding a flavorful sauce.
  • Marinate fish with Creole or Cajun seasoning.
  • Add shell fish or white fish, such as cod or tilapia, to a curry.
  • Combine grilled fish with fresh salsa or your favorite chutney
  • Mix canned salmon or tuna with low-fat mayonnaise and chopped onion for a tasty sandwich filling.

To avoid problems when increasing protein intake

  • Choose unsalted nuts and seeds, to reduce your daily sodium intake.
  • When shopping for canned beans, choose the low sodium versions.
  • Adding more protein to your diet can increase urine output, so drink plenty of water to stay hydrated.
  • Increasing protein can also cause calcium loss so make sure to get plenty of calcium (1,000 to 1,200 mg per day).

Protein powders, shakes, and bars

In most cases, consuming the right balance of whole foods each day will provide you with all the nutrients you need, negating the need for protein supplements. However, you may benefit from supplementing your diet if you’re:

  • A teenager who is growing and exercising a lot
  • An adult switching to a vegan diet—eliminating meat, chicken, fish, and even dairy and eggs from your diet
  • An older adult with a small appetite who finds it difficult to eat your protein requirements in whole foods
  • Starting or increasing a regular workout program, trying to add muscle, recovering from a sports injury, or find you feel weak while exercising or lifting weights

Using protein supplements

Protein supplements come in various forms including powders you mix with milk or water, pre-mixed, ready-to-drink shakes, or in bars. The most common types of protein used are whey, casein, and soy. Whey and casein are milk-based proteins, while soy is the better choice for vegans or anyone with a dairy allergy.

Safety concerns. Protein supplements may not be safe for older people with renal disease or people who have recently undergone surgery on the digestive system. Some ingredients may even interact with prescription medication, so check with your doctor or pharmacist before using.

Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated and make sure you’re getting enough calcium in your diet.

Look out for extra ingredients. Many protein bars are packed with carbs and added sugar.

Organic Foods: What You Need to Know

The Benefits and Basics of Organic Food and How to Keep It Affordable

Man shopping organic

Organic food has become very popular. But navigating the maze of organic food labels, benefits, and claims can be confusing. Is organic food really better for your mental and physical health? Do GMOs and pesticides cause cancer and other diseases? What do all the labels mean? This guide can help you make better choices about shopping organic, including what to focus on and how to make eating organic more affordable.

What does “organic” mean?

The term “organic” refers to the way agricultural products are grown and processed. While the regulations vary from country to country, in the U.S., organic crops must be grown without the use of synthetic pesticides, bioengineered genes (GMOs), petroleum-based fertilizers, and sewage sludge-based fertilizers.

Organic livestock raised for meat, eggs, and dairy products must have access to the outdoors and be given organic feed. They may not be given antibiotics, growth hormones, or any animal by-products.

Organic vs. Non-Organic
Organic produce: Conventionally-grown produce:
Grown with natural fertilizers (manure, compost). Grown with synthetic or chemical fertilizers.
Weeds are controlled naturally (crop rotation, hand weeding, mulching, and tilling). Weeds are controlled with chemical herbicides.
Pests are controlled using natural methods (birds, insects, traps) and naturally-derived pesticides. Pests are controlled with synthetic pesticides
Organic meat, dairy, eggs: Conventionally-raised meat, dairy, eggs
Livestock are given all organic, hormone- and GMO-free feed. Livestock are given growth hormones for faster growth, as well as non-organic, GMO feed.
Disease is prevented with natural methods such as clean housing, rotational grazing, and healthy diet. Antibiotics and medications are used to prevent livestock disease.
Livestock must have access to the outdoors. Livestock may or may not have access to the outdoors.

The benefits of organic food

How your food is grown or raised can have a major impact on your mental and emotional health as well as the environment. Organic foods often have more beneficial nutrients, such as antioxidants, than their conventionally-grown counterparts and people with allergies to foods, chemicals, or preservatives often find their symptoms lessen or go away when they eat only organic foods.

Organic produce contains fewer pesticides. Chemicals such as fungicides, herbicides, and insecticides are widely used in conventional agriculture and residues remain on (and in) the food we eat.

Organic food is often fresher because it doesn’t contain preservatives that make it last longer. Organic produce is often (but not always, so watch where it is from) produced on smaller farms near where it is sold.

Organic farming is better for the environment. Organic farming practices reduce pollution, conserve water, reduce soil erosion, increase soil fertility, and use less energy. Farming without pesticides is also better for nearby birds and animals as well as people who live close to farms.

Organically raised animals are NOT given antibiotics, growth hormones, or fed animal byproducts. Feeding livestock animal byproducts increases the risk of mad cow disease (BSE) and the use of antibiotics can create antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. Organically-raised animals are given more space to move around and access to the outdoors, which help to keep them healthy.

Organic meat and milk are richer in certain nutrients. Results of a 2016 European study show that levels of certain nutrients, including omega-3 fatty acids, were up to 50 percent higher in organic meat and milk than in conventionally raised versions.

Organic food is GMO-free. Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) or genetically engineered (GE) foods are plants whose DNA has been altered in ways that cannot occur in nature or in traditional crossbreeding, most commonly in order to be resistant to pesticides or produce an insecticide.

Organic food vs. locally-grown food

Unlike organic standards, there is no specific definition for “local food”. It could be grown in your local community, your state, your region, or your country. During large portions of the year it is usually possible to find food grown close to home at places such as a farmer’s market.

The benefitis of locally grown food

Financial: Money stays within the local economy. More money goes directly to the farmer, instead of to things like marketing and distribution.

Transportation: In the U.S., for example, the average distance a meal travels from the farm to the dinner plate is over 1,500 miles. Produce must be picked while still unripe and then gassed to “ripen” it after transport. Or the food is highly processed in factories using preservatives, irradiation, and other means to keep it stable for transport.

Freshness: Local food is harvested when ripe and thus fresher and full of flavor.

Small local farmers often use organic methods but sometimes cannot afford to become certified organic. Visit a farmer’s market and talk with the farmers to find out what methods they use.

Understanding GMOs

The ongoing debate about the effects of GMOs on health and the environment is a controversial one. In most cases, GMOs are engineered to make food crops resistant to herbicides and/or to produce an insecticide. For example, much of the sweet corn consumed in the U.S. is genetically engineered to be resistant to the herbicide Roundup and to produce its own insecticide, Bt Toxin.

GMOs are also commonly found in U.S. crops such as soybeans, alfalfa, squash, zucchini, papaya, and canola, and are present in many breakfast cereals and much of the processed food that we eat. If the ingredients on a package include corn syrup or soy lecithin, chances are it contains GMOs.

GMOs and pesticides

The use of toxic herbicides like Roundup (glyphosate) has increased 15 times since GMOs were introduced. While the World Health Organization announced that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic to humans,” there is still some controversy over the level of health risks posed by the use of pesticides.

Are GMOs safe?

While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the biotech companies that engineer GMOs insist they are safe, many food safety advocates point out that no long term studies have ever been conducted to confirm the safety of GMO use, while some animal studies have indicated that consuming GMOs may cause internal organ damage, slowed brain growth, and thickening of the digestive tract.

GMOs have been linked to increased food allergens and gastro-intestinal problems in humans. While many people think that altering the DNA of a plant or animal can increase the risk of cancer, the research has so far proven inconclusive.

Does organic mean pesticide-free?

As mentioned above, one of the primary benefits of eating organic is lower levels of pesticides. However, despite popular belief, organic farms do use pesticides. The difference is that they only use naturally-derived pesticides, rather than the synthetic pesticides used on conventional commercial farms. Natural pesticides are believed to be less toxic, however, some have been found to have health risks. That said, your exposure to harmful pesticides will be lower when eating organic.

What are the possible risks of pesticides?

Most of us have an accumulated build-up of pesticide exposure in our bodies due to numerous years of exposure. This chemical “body burden” as it is medically known could lead to health issues such as headaches, birth defects, and added strain on weakened immune systems.

Some studies have indicated that the use of pesticides even at low doses can increase the risk of certain cancers, such as leukemia, lymphoma, brain tumors, breast cancer and prostate cancer.

Children and fetuses are most vulnerable to pesticide exposure because their immune systems, bodies, and brains are still developing. Exposure at an early age may cause developmental delays, behavioral disorders, autism, immune system harm, and motor dysfunction.

Pregnant women are more vulnerable due to the added stress pesticides put on their already taxed organs. Plus, pesticides can be passed from mother to child in the womb, as well as through breast milk.

The widespread use of pesticides has also led to the emergence of “super weeds” and “super bugs,” which can only be killed with extremely toxic poisons like 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (a major ingredient in Agent Orange).

Does washing and peeling produce get rid of pesticides?

Rinsing reduces but does not eliminate pesticides. Peeling sometimes helps, but valuable nutrients often go down the drain with the skin. The best approach: eat a varied diet, wash and scrub all produce thoroughly, and buy organic when possible.

The best bang for your buck when shopping organic

Organic food is often more expensive than conventionally-grown food. But if you set some priorities, it may be possible to purchase organic food and stay within your food budget.

Know your produce pesticide levels

Some types of conventionally-grown produce are much higher in pesticides than others, and should be avoided. Others are low enough that buying non-organic is relatively safe. The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization that analyzes the results of government pesticide testing in the U.S., offers a annually-updated list that can help guide your choices.

Fruits and vegetables where the organic label matters most

According to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization that analyzes the results of government pesticide testing in the U.S., the following fruits and vegetables have the highest pesticide levels so are best to buy organic:

  • Apples
  • Sweet Bell Peppers
  • Cucumbers
  • Celery
  • Potatoes
  • Grapes
  • Cherry Tomatoes
  • Kale/Collard Greens
  • Summer Squash
  • Nectarines (imported)
  • Peaches
  • Spinach
  • Strawberries
  • Hot Peppers

Fruits and vegetables you don’t need to buy organic

Known as the “Clean 15”, these conventionally-grown fruits and vegetables are generally low in pesticides.

  • Asparagus
  • Avocado
  • Mushrooms
  • Cabbage
  • Sweet Corn
  • Eggplant
  • Kiwi
  • Mango
  • Onion
  • Papaya
  • Pineapple
  • Sweet Peas (frozen)
  • Sweet Potatoes
  • Grapefruit
  • Cantaloupe

Buy organic meat, eggs, and dairy if you can afford to

While prominent organizations such as the American Heart Association maintain that eating saturated fat from any source increases the risk of heart disease, other nutrition experts maintain that eating organic grass-fed meat and organic dairy products doesn’t carry the same risks. It’s not the saturated fat that’s the problem, they say, but the unnatural diet of an industrially-raised animal that includes corn, hormones, and medication.

What’s in American meat?

According to Animal Feed, conventionally raised animals in U.S. can be given:

  • Dairy cows – antibiotics, pig and chicken byproducts, growth hormones, pesticides, sewage sludge
  • Beef cows – antibiotics, pig and chicken byproducts, steroids, hormones, pesticides, sewage sludge
  • Pigs – antibiotics, animal byproducts, pesticides, sewage sludge, arsenic-based drugs
  • Broiler chickens – antibiotics, animal byproducts, pesticides, sewage sludge, arsenic-based drugs
  • Egg laying hens – antibiotics, animal byproducts, pesticides, sewage sludge, arsenic-based drugs

Other ways to keep the cost of organic food within your budget

Shop at farmers’ markets. Many cities, as well as small towns, host a weekly farmers’ market, where local farmers sell their produce at an open-air street market, often at a discount to grocery stores.

Join a food co-op. A natural foods co-op, or cooperative grocery store typically offers lower prices to members, who pay an annual fee to belong

Join a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm, in which individuals and families join up to purchase “shares” of produce in bulk, directly from a local farm. Local and organic!

Organic food buying tips

Buy in season – Fruits and vegetables are cheapest and freshest when they are in season. Find out when produce is delivered to your market so you’re buying the freshest food possible.

Shop around – Compare the price of organic items at the grocery store, the farmers’ market and other venues (even the freezer aisle).

Remember that organic doesn’t always equal healthy –Making junk food sound healthy is a common marketing ploy in the food industry but organic baked goods, desserts, and snacks are usually still very high in sugar, salt, fat, or calories. It pays to read food labels carefully.

Why is organic food often more expensive?

Organic food is more labor intensive since the farmers do not use pesticides, chemical fertilizers, or drugs. Organic certification is expensive and organic feed for animals can cost twice as much. Organic farms tend to be smaller than conventional farms, which means fixed costs and overhead must be distributed across smaller produce volumes without government subsidies.

Healthy Food for Kids

Easy Tips to Help Your Children and Teens Eat Healthier

Happy girl eating

Peer pressure and TV commercials for junk food can make getting your kids to eat well an uphill struggle. Factor in your own hectic schedule and it’s no wonder so many kids’ diets are built around convenience and takeout food. But switching to a healthy diet can have a profound effect on children’s health, helping to stabilize their energy, sharpen their minds, and even out their moods. And it can be simpler and less time-consuming than you image. With these tips, you can instill healthy eating habits without turning mealtimes into a battle zone and give your kids the best opportunity to grow into healthy, confident adults.

How does healthy food benefit kids?

Healthy eating can help children maintain a healthy weight, avoid certain health problems, stabilize their energy, and sharpen their minds. A healthy diet can also have a profound effect on a child’s sense of mental and emotional wellbeing, helping to prevent conditions such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and ADHD. Eating well can support a child’s healthy growth and development into adulthood and may even play a role in lowering the risk of suicide in young people. If your child has already been diagnosed with a mental health problem, a healthy diet can help your child to manage the symptoms and regain control of their health.

It’s important to remember that your kids aren’t born with a craving for French fries and pizza and an aversion to broccoli and carrots. This conditioning happens over time as kids are exposed to more and more unhealthy food choices. However, it is possible to reprogram your children’s food cravings so that they crave healthier foods instead. The sooner you introduce wholesome, nutritious choices into your kids’ diets, the easier they’ll be able to develop a healthy relationship with food that can last them a lifetime.

Encourage healthy eating habits

Whether they’re toddlers or in their teens, children develop a natural preference for the foods they enjoy the most. To encourage healthy eating habits, the challenge is to make nutritious choices appealing.

Focus on overall diet rather than specific foods. Kids should be eating more whole, minimally processed food—food that is as close to its natural form as possible—and less packaged and processed food.

Be a role model. The childhood impulse to imitate is strong so don’t ask your child to eat vegetables while you gorge on potato chips.

Disguise the taste of healthier foods. Add vegetables to a beef stew, for example, or mash carrots up with mashed potato, or add a sweet dip to slices of apple.

Cook more meals at home. Restaurant and takeout meals have more added sugar and unhealthy fat so cooking at home can have a huge impact on your kids’ health. If you make large batches, cooking just a few times can be enough to feed your family for the whole week.

Get kids involved in shopping for groceries and preparing meals. You can teach them about different foods and how to read food labels.

Make healthy snacks available. Keep plenty of fruit, vegetables, and healthy beverages (water, milk, pure fruit juice) on hand so kids avoid unhealthy snacks like soda, chips, and cookies.

Limit portion sizes. Don’t insist your child cleans the plate, and never use food as a reward or bribe.

Healthy food for kids starts with breakfast

Kids who enjoy breakfast every day have better memories, more stable moods and energy, and score higher on tests. Eating a breakfast high in quality protein—from enriched cereal, yoghurt, milk, cheese, eggs, meat, or fish—can even help teenagers lose weight.

  • Breakfast needn’t be time consuming. Boil some eggs at the beginning of the week and offer them to your kids each morning along with a low-sugar, high-protein cereal, and an apple to go.
  • Make breakfast burritos filled with scrambled eggs, cheese, chicken, or beef on a Sunday and freeze them.
  • An egg sandwich, a pot of Greek yoghurt or cottage cheese, and peanut butter on wholegrain toast can all be eaten on the way to school.

Make mealtimes about more than just healthy food

Making time to sit down as a family to eat a home-cooked meal not only sets a great example for kids about the importance of healthy food, it can bring a family together—even moody teenagers love to eat tasty, home-cooked meals!

Regular family meals provide comfort. Knowing the whole family will sit down to eat dinner (or breakfast) together at approximately the same time every day can be very comforting for kids and enhance appetite.

Family meals offer opportunity to catch up on your kids’ daily lives. Gathering the family around a table for a meal is an ideal opportunity to talk and listen to your kids without the distraction of TV, phones, or computers.

Social interaction is vital for your child. The simple act of talking to a parent over the dinner table about how they feel can play a big role in relieving stress and boosting your child’s mood and self-esteem. And it gives you chance to identify problems in your child’s life and deal with them early.

Mealtimes enable you to “teach by example.” Eating together lets your kids see you eating healthy food while keeping your portions in check and limiting junk food.  Refrain from obsessive calorie counting or commenting on your own weight, though, so that your kids don’t adopt negative associations with food.

Mealtimes let you monitor your kids’ eating habits. This can be important for older kids and teens who spend a lot of time eating at school or friends’ houses. If your teen’s choices are less than ideal, the best way to make changes is to emphasize short-term consequences of a poor diet, such as physical appearance or athletic ability. These are more important to teens than long-term health. For example, “Calcium will help you grow taller.” “Iron will help you do better on tests.”

Limit sugar and refined carbs in your child’s diet

Simple or refined carbohydrates are sugars and refined grains that have been stripped of all bran, fiber, and nutrients—such as white bread, pizza dough, pasta, pastries, white flour, white rice, and many breakfast cereals. They cause dangerous spikes in blood sugar and fluctuations in mood and energy. Complex carbs, on the other hand, are usually high in nutrients and fiber and are digested slowly, providing longer-lasting energy. They include whole wheat or multigrain bread, high-fiber cereals, brown rice, beans, nuts, fruit, and non-starchy vegetables.

A child’s body gets all the sugar it needs from that naturally occurring in food. Added sugar just means a lot of empty calories that contribute to hyperactivity, mood disorders, and increase the risk for obesity, type 2 diabetes, and even suicidal behaviors in teenagers.

How to cut down on sugar

The American Heart Association recommends that sugar intake for children is limited to 3 teaspoons (12 grams) a day. A 12-ounce soda contains up to 10 teaspoons or 40g of added sugar, shakes and sweetened coffee drinks even more. Large amounts of added sugar can also be hidden in foods such as bread, canned soups and vegetables, frozen dinners, and fast food. In fact, about 75% of packaged food in the U.S. contains added sugar.

Don’t ban sweets entirely. Having a no sweets rule is an invitation for cravings and overindulging when given the chance.

Give recipes a makeover. Many recipes taste just as good with less sugar.

Avoid sugary drinks. Instead, try adding a splash of fruit juice to sparkling water or blending whole milk with a banana or berries for a delicious smoothie.

Create your own popsicles and frozen treats. Freeze 100% fruit juice in an ice-cube tray with plastic spoons as popsicle handles. Or make frozen fruit kabobs using pineapple chunks, bananas, grapes, and berries.

Avoid foods that impair your child’s mood

  • A diet high in processed foods, such as fried food, sweet desserts, sugary snacks, refined flour and cereals can increase the risk for anxiety and depression in kids.
  • Kids who drink four or more cups of soda or sweetened fruit drinks a day—including diet versions—have a higher risk for depression.
  • Caffeine from soda, energy drinks, or coffee drinks can trigger anxiety in kids and aggravate feelings of depression.

Find healthier junk food alternatives

Fast food is typically high in sugar, unhealthy fat, and calories and low in nutrients. Still, junk food is tempting for kids, so instead of eliminating it entirely, try to cut back on the times your kids eat fast food and, on the times that they do, make the healthiest choices possible.

Kid-friendly junk food alternatives
Instead of… Try…
French fries “Baked fries” grilled in the oven and salted lightly
Ice cream Yogurt; sorbet; fresh fruit smoothies
Fried chicken Baked or grilled chicken
Doughnuts or pastries Bagels; English muffins; home baked goods with less sugar
Chocolate-chip cookies Graham crackers, fig bars, vanilla wafers, fruit and caramel dip
Potato chips Baked vegetable chips or, for older children, nuts

Eating out with kids

Skip the fries. Instead, take along a bag of mini carrots, grapes, or other fruits and vegetables.

Watch portion size. Stick to the children’s menu or go for the smallest size. Order pizza by the slice—it will satisfy your child’s craving without tempting overindulgence.

Order the kid’s meal with substitutions. Children often love the kid’s meal more for the toys than the food. Ask to substitute healthier choices for the soda and fries.

Opt for chicken and vegetables in a sit-down restaurant, rather than a big plate of macaroni and cheese.

Be wise about sides. Sides that can quickly send calories soaring include fries, chips, rice, noodles, onion rings, and biscuits. Better bets are grilled vegetables, side salads, baked potato, corn on the cob, or apple slices.

Be smart about fat

Kids need healthy fats—and plenty of them—in their diet. Healthy fat helps kids fill up (and stay full), concentrate better, and improves their mood.

Healthy fats

Monounsaturated fats, from olive oil, avocados, nuts (like almonds, hazelnuts, and pecans), and seeds (such as pumpkin, sesame).

Polyunsaturated fats, including Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fatty fish, such as salmon, herring, mackerel, anchovies, and sardines, or in flaxseed and walnuts.

Unhealthy fats

Trans fats, are found in vegetable shortenings, some margarines, crackers, candies, cookies, snack foods, fried foods, baked goods, and other processed foods made with “partially hydrogenated” vegetable oils (even if they claim to be trans-fat-free). No amount of trans fat is safe.

Encourage picky eaters to enjoy a wider variety of foods

Picky eaters are going through a normal developmental stage. Just as it takes numerous repetitions for advertising to convince an adult consumer to buy, it takes most children 8-10 presentations of a new food before they will openly accept it.

Instead of simply insisting your child eat a new food:

  • Offer a new food only when your child is hungry; limit snacks throughout the day.
  • Present only one new food at a time.
  • Make it fun: cut the food into unusual shapes or create a food collage (broccoli florets for trees, cauliflower for clouds, yellow squash for a sun).
  • Serve new foods with favorite foods to increase acceptance. Add vegetables to their favorite soup, for example.
  • Have your child help prepare meals—they’ll be more willing to eat something they helped to make.
  • Limit beverages and snacks, to avoid filling up between mealtimes.

Make fruit and vegetables more appealing

Whether picky eaters or not, kids don’t always want what’s healthy for them—especially fruit and vegetables. But there are ways to make them more enticing.

The first step is to limit access to unhealthy sweets and salty snacks. It’s much easier to convince your child that an apple with peanut butter is a treat if there are no cookies available. Here are some more tips for adding more fruits and veggies to your child’s diet:

Let your kids pick the produce. It can be fun for kids to see all the different kinds of fruits and veggies available, and to pick our new ones or old favorites to try.

Sneak vegetables into other foods. Add grated or shredded veggies to stews and sauces to make them blend in. Make cauliflower “mac” and cheese. Or bake some zucchini bread or carrot muffins.

Keep lots of fresh fruit and veggie snacks on hand. Make sure they’re already washed, cut up, and ready to go. Add yogurt, nut butter, or hummus for extra protein.

GMOS and pesticides: Keeping your kids safe

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are mainly engineered to make food crops resistant to pesticides. Since children’s brains and bodies are still developing, they are more sensitive to these toxins. Eating organic produce has been shown to reduce pesticide levels in kids, but tends to be more expensive. So how can you keep your kids safe if you’re on a budget?

  • Feed your kids plenty of fruits and vegetables, whether they’re organic or conventionally grown—the benefits far outweigh the risks.
  • When possible, go organic for fruits and vegetables that you don’t peel before eating, such as berries, lettuce, tomatoes and apples. Choose conventional produce for thick-skinned fruit and veggies like oranges, bananas, and avocados.
  • Explore local farmers’ markets for less expensive organic produce.
  • Scrub conventionally grown produce with a brush. Washing won’t remove pesticides taken up by the roots and stem, but will remove pesticide residue.
  • When buying meat, choose organic, grass-fed whenever possible–cheaper cuts of organic meat may be safer than prime cuts of industrially raised meat.

Don’t ignore weight problems

Children who are substantially overweight are at greater risk for cardiovascular disease, bone and joint problems, sleep apnea, poor self-esteem, and long-term health problems in adulthood.

Addressing weight problems in children requires a coordinated plan of physical activity and healthy nutrition.

The goal is to slow or halt weight gain (unless directed by your child’s doctor), thereby allowing your child to grow into their ideal weight.

Don’t fall into the low-fat trap. Because fat is so dense in calories, a little can go a long way in making kids feel full and keeping them feeling fuller for longer.

Eating a breakfast high in quality protein—from enriched cereal, yoghurt, milk, cheese, eggs, meat, or fish—can help overweight teenagers eat fewer calories throughout the rest of the day.

Encourage exercise

The benefits of lifelong exercise are abundant and regular exercise can even help motivate your kids to make healthy food choices.

  • Play with your kids. Throw around a football; go cycling, skating, or swimming; take family walks and hikes.
  • Help your kids find activities they enjoy by showing them different possibilities.

Caregiver Stress and Burnout

Tips for Regaining Your Energy, Optimism, and Hope

Caregiver hands

The demands of caregiving can be overwhelming, especially if you feel you have little control over the situation or you’re in over your head. If the stress of caregiving is left unchecked, it can take a toll on your health, relationships, and state of mind—eventually leading to burnout.

When you’re burned out, it’s tough to do anything, let alone look after someone else. That’s why taking care of yourself isn’t a luxury—it’s a necessity. Read on for tips on how to rein in the stress in your life and regain balance, joy, and hope.

What do you need to know?

Caring for a loved one can be very rewarding, but it also involves many stressors. Caregiver stress can be particularly damaging, since it is typically a chronic, long-term challenge. You may face years or even decades of caregiving responsibilities. It can be particularly disheartening when there’s no hope that your family member will get better.

If you don’t get the physical and emotional support your need, the stress of caregiving leaves you vulnerable to a wide range of problems, including depression, anxiety, and burnout. And when you get to that point, both you and the person you’re caring for suffer. That’s why managing the stress levels in your life is just as important as making sure your family member gets to his doctor’s appointment or takes her medication on time.

Signs and symptoms of caregiver stress and burnout

Learning to recognize the signs of caregiver stress and burnout is the first step to dealing with the problem.

Common signs and symptoms of caregiver stress

  • Anxiety, depression, irritability
  • Feeling tired and run down
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Overreacting to minor nuisances
  • New or worsening health problems
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Feeling increasingly resentful
  • Drinking, smoking, or eating more
  • Neglecting responsibilities
  • Cutting back on leisure activities

Common signs and symptoms of caregiver burnout

  • You have much less energy than you once had
  • It seems like you catch every cold or flu that’s going around
  • You’re constantly exhausted, even after sleeping or taking a break
  • You neglect your own needs, either because you’re too busy or you don’t care anymore
  • Your life revolves around caregiving, but it gives you little satisfaction
  • You have trouble relaxing, even when help is available
  • You’re increasingly impatient and irritable with the person you’re caring for
  • You feel helpless and hopeless

Once you burn out, caregiving is no longer a healthy option for either you or the person you’re caring for. So it’s important to watch for the warning signs of caregiver burnout and take action right away when you recognize the problem.

Don’t let caregiving take over your whole life. It’s easier to accept a difficult situation when there are other areas of your life that are rewarding. Invest in things that give you meaning and purpose—whether it’s your family, church, a favorite hobby, or your career. Read on for some additional tips to lighten the load:

Find ways to feel empowered

Feeling powerless is the number one contributor to burnout and depression. And it’s an easy trap to fall into as a caregiver, especially if you feel stuck in a role you didn’t expect or helpless to change things for the better. But no matter the situation, you aren’t powerless. This is especially true when it comes to your state of mind. You can’t always get the extra time, money, or physical assistance you’d like, but you can always get more happiness and hope.

Embrace your caregiving choice. Acknowledge that, despite any resentments or burdens you feel, you have made a conscious choice to provide care. Focus on the positive reasons behind that choice. Perhaps you provide care to repay your parent for the care they gave you growing up. Or maybe it’s because or your values or the example you want to set for your children. These deep, meaningful motivations can help sustain you through difficult times.

Focus on the things you can control. You can’t wish your mother’s cancer away or force your brother to help out more. Rather than stressing out over things you can’t control, focus on the way you choose to react to problems.

Celebrate the small victories. If you start to feel discouraged, remind yourself that all your efforts matter. You don’t have to cure your loved one’s illness to make a difference. Don’t underestimate the importance of making your loved one feel more safe, comfortable, and loved!

Get the appreciation you need

Feeling appreciated can go a long way toward not only accepting a stressful situation, but enjoying life more. Studies show that caregivers who feel appreciated experience greater physical and emotional health. Caregiving actually makes them happier and healthier, despite its demands. But what can you do if the person you’re caring for is no longer able to feel or show their appreciation for your time and efforts?

Imagine how your loved one would respond if he or she was healthy. If he or she wasn’t preoccupied with illness or pain (or disabled by dementia), how would your loved one feel about the love and care you’re giving? Remind yourself that the person would express gratitude if he or she was able.

Applaud your own efforts. If you’re not getting external validation, find ways to acknowledge and reward yourself. Remind yourself of the good you’re doing. If you need something more concrete, try making a list of all the ways your caregiving is making a positive difference. Refer back to it when you start to feel low.

Talk to a supportive family member or friend. Positive reinforcement doesn’t have to come from the person you’re caring for. When you’re feeling unappreciated, turn to friends and family who will listen to you and acknowledge your efforts.

Ask for help

Taking on all of the responsibilities of caregiving without regular breaks or assistance is a surefire recipe for burnout. Don’t try to do it all alone. Look into respite care. Or enlist friends and family who live near you to run errands, bring a hot meal, or “baby-sit” the care receiver so you can take a well-deserved break.

Tips for getting the caregiving help you need

Speak up. Don’t expect friends and family members to automatically know what you need or how you’re feeling. Be up front about what’s going on with you and the person you’re caring for. If you have concerns or thoughts about how to improve the situation, express them—even if you’re unsure how they’ll be received. Get a dialogue going.

Spread the responsibility. Try to get as many family members involved as possible. Even someone who lives far away can help. You may also want to divide up caregiving tasks. One person can take care of medical responsibilities, another with finances and bills, and another with groceries and errands, for example.

Set up a regular check-in. Ask a family member, friend, or volunteer from your church or senior center to call you on a set basis (every day, weekly, or how ever often you think you need it). This person can help you spread status updates and coordinate with other family members.

Say “yes” when someone offers assistance. Don’t be shy about accepting help. Let them feel good about supporting you. It’s smart to have a list ready of small tasks that others could easily take care of, such as picking up groceries or driving your loved one to an appointment.

Be willing to relinquish some control. Delegating is one thing. Trying to control every aspect of care is another. People will be less likely to help if you micromanage, give orders, or insist on doing things your way.

Give yourself a break

As a busy caregiver, leisure time may seem like an impossible luxury. But you owe it to yourself—as well as to the person you’re caring for—to carve it into your schedule. Give yourself permission to rest and to do things that you enjoy on a daily basis. You will be a better caregiver for it.

There’s a difference between being busy and being productive. If you’re not regularly taking time-off to de-stress and recharge your batteries, you’ll end up getting less done in the long run. After a break, you should feel more energetic and focused, so you’ll quickly make up for your relaxation time.

Maintain your personal relationships. Don’t let your friendships get lost in the shuffle of caregiving. These relationships will help sustain you and keep you positive. If it’s difficult to leave the house, invite friends over to visit with you over coffee, tea, or dinner.

Prioritize activities that bring you enjoyment. Make regular time for things that bring you happiness, whether it’s reading, working in the garden, tinkering in your workshop, knitting, playing with the dogs, or watching the game.

Find ways to pamper yourself. Small luxuries can go a long way in relieving stress and boosting your spirits. Light candles and take a long bath. Ask your hubby for a back rub. Get a manicure. Buy fresh flowers for the house. Or whatever makes you feel special.

Make yourself laugh. Laughter is an excellent antidote to stress—and a little goes a long way. Read a funny book, watch a comedy, or call a friend who makes you laugh. And whenever you can, try to find the humor in everyday situations.

Get out of the house. Seek out friends, family, and respite care providers to step in with caregiving so you can have some time away from the home.

Take care of your health

Think of your body like a car. With the right fuel and proper maintenance, it will run reliably and well. Neglect its upkeep and it will start to give you trouble. Don’t add to the stress of your caregiving situation with avoidable health woes.

Keep on top of your doctor visits. It’s easy to forget about your own health when you’re busy with a loved one’s care. Don’t skip check-ups or medical appointments. You need to be healthy in order to take good care of your family member.

Exercise. When you’re stressed and tired, the last thing you feel like doing is exercising. But you’ll feel better afterwards. Exercise is a powerful stress reliever and mood enhancer. Aim for a minimum of 30 minutes on most days. When you exercise regularly, you’ll also find it boosts your energy level and helps you fight fatigue.

Meditate. A daily relaxation or meditation practice can help you relieve stress and boost feelings of joy and well-being. Try yoga, deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or mindfulness meditation. Even a few minutes in the middle of an overwhelming day can help you feel more centered.

Eat well. Nourish your body with fresh fruit, vegetables, whole grains, beans, lean protein, and healthy fats such as nuts and olive oil. Unlike sugar and caffeine—which provide a quick pick-me-up and an even quicker crash—these foods will fuel you with steady energy.

Don’t skimp on sleep. Cutting back on time in bed is counterproductive—at least if your goal is to get more done. Most people need more sleep than they think they do (8 hours is the norm). When you get less, your mood, energy, productivity, and ability to handle stress will suffer.

Join a support group

A caregiver support group is a great way to share your troubles and find people who are going through the same experiences that you are living each day. If you can’t leave the house, many Internet groups are also available.

In most support groups, you’ll talk about your problems and listen to others talk; you’ll not only get help, but you’ll also be able to help others. Most important, you’ll find out that you’re not alone. You’ll feel better knowing that other people are in the same situation, and their knowledge can be invaluable, especially if they’re caring for someone with the same illness as you are.

Local vs. Online Support Groups for Caregivers
Local support groups: Online support groups:
People live near each other and meet in a given place each week or month. People are from all over the world and have similar interests or problems.
You get face-to-face contact and a chance to make new friends who live near you. You meet online, through email lists, websites, message boards, or social media.
The meetings get you out of the house, get you moving provide a social outlet, and reduce feelings of isolation. You can get support without leaving your house, which is good for people with limited mobility or transportation problems.
Meetings are at a set time. You will need to attend them regularly to get the full benefit of the group. You can access the group whenever it’s convenient for you or when you need help most.
Since the people in the support group are from your area, they’ll be more familiar with local resources and issues. If your problem is very unusual—a rare disease, for example—there may not be enough people for a local group, but there will always be enough people online.

To find a community support group, check the yellow pages, ask your doctor or hospital, or call a local organization that deals with the health problem you would like to address in a support group. To find an Internet support group, visit the website of an organization dedicated to the problem.

Healthy Eating

Cooking with daughtersHealthy eating is about recognizing the role that food plays in supporting or undermining your emotional and physical health. It’s also about exploring your relationship to food.

When it comes to making healthy food choices, what works best for one person may not always be the best choice for another—especially at a time when what constitutes healthy eating is being hotly disputed. The articles below explore food choice and the role these foods play in supporting your health and well-being.

 

Addictions and Recovery

Man DrinkingWhen you’re stuck in the cycle of addiction, recovery can seem out of reach. But no matter how powerless you feel, change is possible with the right treatment and support.

It takes courage and strength to face up to any type of addiction, whether it’s alcohol, drugs, nicotine, gambling, the internet, or self-injury. Recovery is a process, and there’s bound to be some bumps in the road. Don’t give up, even if you’ve tried and failed before.

PTSD and Trauma

Worried young man

Trauma can take a huge emotional toll, whether it stems from a personal tragedy, a natural disaster, or violence.

There is no right or wrong way to feel after traumatic events. But there are many strategies that can help you work through feelings of pain, fear, and grief and regain your emotional equilibrium. Whether the traumatic event happened years ago or yesterday, you can heal and move on

Helping Children Cope with Traumatic Stress

Tips for Helping a Child or Teen Recover from Trauma

Traumatized girlThe intense, confusing, and frightening emotions that follow a traumatic event or natural disaster can be even more pronounced in children—whether they directly experienced the traumatic event or were repeatedly exposed to horrific media images after the fact. While children and adolescents are more vulnerable to being traumatized than adults, with the right support and reassurance they are also able to recover faster. Using these coping tips, you can help your child regain emotional balance, restore his or her trust in the world, and move on from the traumatic event.

What are the effects of traumatic stress on children?

Unexpectedly losing a loved one or being involved in a natural disaster, motor vehicle accident, plane crash, or terrorist attack can be overwhelmingly stressful for children. A traumatic event can undermine their sense of security, leaving them feeling helpless and vulnerable, especially if the event stemmed from an act of violence, such as a mass shooting or terrorist attack. Even kids or teens not directly affected by a disaster can become traumatized when repeatedly exposed to horrific images of the event on the news or social media.

Effect of Traumatic Stress on Children and Teens
Children age 5 and under may:
  • Show signs of fear
  • Cling to parent or caregiver
  • Cry, scream, or whimper
  • Move aimlessly or become immobile
  • Return to behaviors common to being younger, such as thumbsucking or bedwetting
Children age 6 to 11 may:
  • Lose interest in friends, family, and fun activities
  • Have nightmares or other sleep problems
  • Become irritable, disruptive, or angry
  • Struggle with school and homework
  • Complain of physical problems
  • Develop unfounded fears
  • Feel depressed, emotionally numb, or guilt over what happened
Adolescents age 12 to 17 may:
  • Have flashbacks to the event, nightmares, or other sleep problems
  • Avoid reminders of the event
  • Abuse drugs, alcohol, or tobacco
  • Be disruptive, disrespectful, or destructive
  • Have physical complaints
  • Feel isolated, guilty, or depressed
  • Lose interest in hobbies and interests
  • Have suicidal thoughts
Source: National Institute of Mental Health

Whatever the age of your child, it’s important to offer extra reassurance and support following a traumatic event. A child’s reaction to a disaster or traumatic event can be greatly influenced by their parents’ response, so it’s important to educate yourself about traumatic stress. The more you know about the symptoms, effects, and treatment options, the better equipped you’ll be to help your child recover. With your love and support, the unsettling thoughts and feelings of traumatic stress can start to fade and your child’s life can return to normal in the days or weeks following the event.

Traumatic stress recovery tip 1: Minimize media exposure

Children who’ve experienced a traumatic event can often find relentless media coverage to be further traumatizing. Excessive exposure to images of a disturbing event—such as repeatedly viewing video clips on social media or news sites—can even create traumatic stress in children or teens who were not directly affected by the event.

Limit your child’s media exposure to the traumatic event. Don’t let your child watch the news or check social media just before bed, and make use of parental controls on the TV, computer, and tablet to prevent your child from repeatedly viewing disturbing footage.

As much as you can, watch news reports of the traumatic event with your child. You can reassure your child as you’re watching and help place information in context.

Avoid exposing your child to graphic images and videos. It’s often less traumatizing for a child or teen to read the newspaper rather than watch television coverage or view video clips of the event.

Tip 2: Engage your child

You can’t force your child to recover from traumatic stress, but you can play a major role in the healing process by simply spending time together and talking face to face,free from TV, games, and other distractions. Do your best to create an environment where your kids feel safe to communicate what they’re feeling and to ask questions.

Provide your child with ongoing opportunities to talk about what they went through or what they’re seeing in the media. Encourage them to ask questions and express their concerns but don’t force them to talk.

Acknowledge and validate your child’s concerns. The traumatic event may bring up unrelated fears and issues in your child. Comfort for your child comes from feeling understood and accepted by you, so acknowledge their fears even if they don’t seem relevant to you.

Reassure your child. The event was not their fault, you love them, and it’s OK for them to feel upset, angry, or scared.

Don’t pressure your child into talking. It can be very difficult for some kids to talk about a traumatic experience. A young child may find it easier to draw a picture illustrating their feelings rather than talk about them. You can then talk with your child about what they’ve drawn.

Be honest. While you should tailor the information you share according to your child’s age, it’s important to be honest. Don’t say nothing’s wrong if something is wrong.

Do “normal” things with your child, things that have nothing to do with the traumatic event. Encourage your child to seek out friends and pursue games, sports, and hobbies that they enjoyed before the traumatic event. Go on family outings to the park or beach, enjoy a games night, or watch a funny or uplifting movie together.

Tip 3: Encourage physical activity

Physical activity can burn off adrenaline, release mood-enhancing endorphins, and help your child to sleep better at night.

  • Find a sport that your child enjoys. Activities such as basketball, soccer, running, martial arts, or swimming that require moving both the arms and legs can help rouse your child’s nervous system from that “stuck” feeling that often follows a traumatic experience.
  • Offer to participate in sports, games, or physical activities with your child. If they seem resistant to get off the couch, play some of their favorite music and dance together. Once children get moving, they start to feel more energetic.
  • Encourage your child to go outside to play with friends or a pet and blow off steam.
  • Schedule a family outing to a hiking trail, swimming pool, or park.
  • Take younger children to a playground, activity center, or arrange play dates.

Tip 4: Feed your child a healthy diet

The food your child eats can have a profound impact on his or her mood and ability to cope with traumatic stress. Processed and convenience food, refined carbohydrates, and sugary drinks and snacks can create mood swings and worsen symptoms of traumatic stress. Conversely, eating plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, high-quality protein, and healthy fats, especially omega-3 fatty acids, can help your child better cope with the ups and downs that follow disturbing experience.

Focus on overall diet rather than specific foods. Kids should be eating whole, minimally processed food—food that is as close to its natural form as possible.

Limit fried food, sweet desserts, sugary snacks and cereals, and refined flour. These can all exacerbate symptoms of traumatic stress in kids.

Be a role model. The childhood impulse to imitate is strong so don’t ask your child to eat vegetables while you gorge on soda and French fries.

Cook more meals at home. Restaurant and takeout meals have more added sugar and unhealthy fat so cooking at home can have a huge impact on your kids’ health. If you make large batches, cooking just a few times can be enough to feed your family for the whole week.

Make mealtimes about more than just food. Gathering the family around a table for a meal is an ideal opportunity to talk and listen to your child without the distraction of TV, phones, or computers.

Tip 5: Rebuild trust and safety

Trauma can alter the way a child sees the world, making it suddenly seem a much more dangerous and frightening place. Your child may find it more difficult to trust both their environment and other people. You can help by rebuilding your child’s sense of safety and security.

Create routines. Establishing a predictable structure and schedule to your child’s or teen’s life can help to make the world seem more stable again. Try to maintain regular times for meals, homework, and family activities.

Minimize stress at home. Try to make sure your child has space and time for rest, play, and fun.

Manage your own stress. The more calm, relaxed, and focused you are, the better you’ll be able to help your child.

Speak of the future and make plans. This can help counteract the common feeling among traumatized children that the future is scary, bleak, and unpredictable.

Keep your promises. You can help to rebuild your child’s trust by being trustworthy. Be consistent and follow through on the things you say you’re going to do.

If you don’t know the answer to a question, don’t be afraid to admit it. Don’t jeopardize your child’s trust in you by making something up.

Remember that children often personalize situations. They may worry about their own safety even if the traumatic event occurred far away. Reassure your child and help place the situation in context.

When to seek treatment for your child’s traumatic stress

Usually, your child’s feelings of anxiety, numbness, confusion, guilt, and despair following a traumatic event will start to fade within a relatively short time. However, if the traumatic stress reaction is so intense and persistent that it’s getting in the way of your child’s ability to function at school or home, he or she may need help from a mental health professional—preferably a trauma specialist.

Traumatic stress warning signs

  • It’s been six weeks, and your child is not feeling any better
  • Your child is having trouble functioning at school
  • Your child is experiencing terrifying memories, nightmares, or flashbacks
  • The symptoms of traumatic stress appear as physical complaints such as headaches, stomach pains, or sleep disturbances
  • Your child is having an increasingly difficult time relating to friends and family
  • Your child or teen is experiencing suicidal thoughts
  • Your child is avoiding more and more things that remind them of the traumatic event

Recovering from Rape and Sexual Trauma

Tips for Regaining Your Sense of Safety and Trust

Distraught womanThe trauma of being raped or sexually assaulted can be shattering, leaving you feeling scared, ashamed, and alone or plagued by nightmares, flashbacks, and other unpleasant memories. But no matter how bad you feel right now, it’s important to remember that you weren’t to blame for what happened and you can regain your sense of safety and trust. Recovering from sexual trauma takes time, and the healing process can be painful. But with the right strategies and support, you can move past the trauma, rebuild your sense of control and self-worth, and even come out the other side feeling stronger and more resilient.

The aftermath of rape and sexual trauma

Sexual violence is shockingly common in our society. According to the CDC, nearly 1 in 5 women in the U.S. are raped or sexually assaulted at some point in their lives, often by someone they know and trust.

The impact of sexual violence goes far beyond any physical injuries. When you’ve been raped, the world doesn’t feel like a safe place anymore. You no longer trust others. You don’t even trust yourself. You may question your judgment, your self-worth, and even your sanity. You may blame yourself for what happened or believe you’re “dirty” or “damaged goods.” Relationships feel dangerous, intimacy impossible. And on top of that, you may—like many rape survivors—struggle with PTSD, anxiety, and depression.

It’s important to remember that what you’re experiencing is a normal reaction to trauma. Your feelings of helplessness, shame, defectiveness, and self-blame are symptoms, not reality. Dispelling the toxic victim-blaming myths about sexual violence can help you start healing.

Myths and facts about rape and sexual assault
Myth: You can spot a rapist by the way he looks or acts.

Fact: There’s no surefire way to identify a rapist. Many appear completely normal, friendly, charming, and non-threatening.

Myth: If you didn’t fight back, you must not have thought it was that bad.

Fact: During a sexual assault, it’s extremely common to freeze. Your brain and body shuts down in shock, making it difficult to move, speak, or think.

Myth: Women who are raped “ask for it” by the way they dress or act.

Fact: Rape is a crime of opportunity. Studies show that rapists choose victims based on their vulnerability, not on how sexy they appear or how flirtatious they are.

Myth: Date rape is often a misunderstanding.

Fact: Date rapists often defend themselves by claiming the assault was a drunken mistake or miscommunication. But research shows that the vast majority of date rapists are repeat offenders. These men target vulnerable women and often ply them with alcohol in order to rape them.

Myth: It’s not rape if you’ve had sex with the person before.

Fact: Just because you’ve previously consented to sex with someone doesn’t give them perpetual rights to your body. If your spouse, boyfriend, or lover forces sex against your will, it’s rape.

Healing after rape step 1: Reframe what happened to you

It can be extraordinarily difficult to admit that you were raped or sexually assaulted. There’s a stigma attached. It can make you feel dirty and weak. You may also be afraid of how others will react. Will they judge you? Look at you differently? It seems easier to downplay what happened or keep it a secret. But when you stay silent, you deny yourself help and reinforce your victimhood.

Reach out to someone you trust

It’s common to think that if you don’t talk about your rape, it didn’t really happen. But you can’t heal when you’re avoiding the truth. And hiding only adds to feelings of shame. As scary as it is to open up, it’s what will set you free. However, it’s important to be selective about who you tell, especially at first. Your best bet is someone who will be supportive, empathetic, and calm. If you don’t have someone you trust, talk to a therapist or call a rape crisis hotline (see Resources section below for links).

Challenge your sense of helplessness and isolation

Trauma leaves you feeling powerless and vulnerable. It’s important to remind yourself that you have strengths and coping skills that can get you through tough times. One of the best ways to reclaim your sense of power is by helping others: volunteer your time, give blood, reach out to a friend in need, or donate to your favorite charity.

You may also want to consider joining a support group for other rape or sexual abuse survivors. Support groups can help you feel less isolated and alone. They also provide invaluable information on how to cope with symptoms and work towards recovery. If you can’t find a support group in your area, look for an online group.

Assign responsibility where it belongs: on the rapist

Even if you intellectually understand that you’re not to blame for the rape, you may still struggle with feelings of guilt and shame. But as you acknowledge the truth of what happened, it will be easier to fully accept that you are not responsible. You did not bring the assault on yourself and you have nothing to be ashamed about.

If you’re feeling guilty or ashamed because…

  • You didn’t stop the assault from happening: After the fact, it’s easy to second guess what you did or didn’t do. But when you’re in the midst of an assault, your brain and body are in shock. You can’t think clearly. Many people say they feel “frozen.” Don’t judge yourself for this natural reaction to trauma. You did the best you could under extreme circumstances. If you could have stopped the assault, you would have.
  • You trusted someone you “shouldn’t” have. One of the most difficult things to deal with following an assault by someone you know is the violation of trust. It’s natural to start questioning yourself and wondering if you missed warning signs. Just remember that your attacker is the only one to blame. Don’t beat yourself up for assuming that your attacker was a decent human being. Your attacker is the one who should feel guilty and ashamed, not you.
  • You were drunk or dressed a certain way… You may be wondering if you are somehow to blame because of the way you were dressed or because you were drunk and not cautious enough. But it’s important to remember that regardless of the circumstances, the only one who is responsible for the assault is the perpetrator. You did not ask for it or deserve what happened to you.

Step 2: Prepare for flashbacks and upsetting memories

When we go through something stressful, our body temporarily goes into “fight-or-flight” mode. When the threat has passed, our body calms down. But traumatic experiences such as rape can cause our nervous systems to become stuck in a state of high alert. We’re hyper sensitive to the smallest of stimuli. This is the case for many rape survivors. Flashbacks, nightmares, and intrusive memories are extremely common, especially in the first few months following the assault. For those who go on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), they can last much longer.

To prevent the stress of flashbacks and upsetting memories:

Try to anticipate and prepare for triggers. Common triggers include anniversary dates; people or places associated with the rape; and certain sights, sounds, or smells. If you are aware of what triggers may cause an upsetting reaction, you’ll be in a better position to understand what’s happening and take steps to calm down.

Pay attention to your body’s danger signals. Your body and emotions give you clues when you’re starting to feel stressed and unsafe. These clues include feeling tense, holding your breath, racing thoughts, shortness of breath, hot flashes, dizziness, and nausea.

Take immediate steps to self-soothe. When you notice any of the above symptoms, it’s important to quickly act to calm yourself down before they spiral out of control. One of the quickest and most effective ways to calm anxiety and panic is to slow down your breathing.

Soothe panic with this simple breathing exercise

  • Sit or stand comfortably with your back straight. Put one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach.
  • Take a slow breath in through your nose, counting to four. The hand on your stomach should rise. The hand on your chest should move very little.
  • Hold your breath for a count of seven.
  • Exhale through your mouth to a count of eight, pushing out as much air as you can while contracting your abdominal muscles. The hand on your stomach should move in as you exhale, but your other hand should move very little.
  • Inhale again, repeating the cycle until you feel relaxed and centered.

Tips for dealing with flashbacks

It’s not always possible to prevent flashbacks. But if you find yourself losing touch with the present and feeling like the assault is happening all over again, there are things you can do.

Accept and reassure yourself that this is a flashback, not reality. The traumatic event is over and you survived. Here’s a simple script that can help: “I am feeling [panicked, frightened, overwhelmed, etc.] because I am remembering [traumatic event], but as I look around I can see that [traumatic event] isn’t happening right now and I’m not actually in danger.”

Ground yourself in the present. Grounding techniques help you direct your attention away from the flashback and back to your present environment. Some examples include tapping or touching your arms or describing your actual environment and what you see when look around (for example, name the place where you are, the current date, and 3 things you see when you look around).

Step 3: Reconnect to your body and feelings

Since your nervous system is in a hypersensitive state following a rape or assault, you may start doing things to numb yourself or avoid any associations with the trauma. But you can’t selectively numb. When you shut down the unpleasant sensations, you also shut down your self-awareness and capacity for joy. You end up disconnected both emotionally and physically—existing, but not fully living.

Signs that you’re avoiding and numbing in unhelpful ways:

  • Feeling physically shut down. You don’t feel bodily sensations like you used to (you might even have trouble differentiating between pleasure and pain).
  • Feeling separate from your body or surroundings (you may feel like you’re watching yourself or the situation you’re in, rather than participating in it).
  • Having trouble concentrating and remembering things.
  • Using stimulants, risky activities, or physical pain to feel alive and counteract the empty feeling inside of you.
  • Compulsively using drugs or alcohol.
  • Escaping through fantasies, daydreams, or excessive TV, video games, etc.
  • Feeling detached from the world, the people in your life, and the activities you used to enjoy.

To recover after rape, you need to reconnect to your body and feelings

It’s frightening to get back in touch with your body and feelings following a sexual trauma. In many ways, rape makes your body the enemy, something that’s been violated and contaminated—something you may hate or want to ignore. It’s also scary to face the intense feelings associated with the assault. But while the process of reconnecting may feel threatening, it’s not actually dangerous. Feelings, while powerful, are not reality. They won’t hurt you or drive you insane. The true danger to your physical and mental health comes from avoiding them. Once you’re back in touch with your body and feelings, you will feel more safe, confident, and powerful.

Here are some techniques that can help you reconnect with your body and the way you feel:

Rhythmic movement. Rhythm can be very healing. It helps us relax and regain a sense of control over our bodies. Anything that combines rhythm and movement will work: dancing, drumming, marching. You can even incorporate it into your walking or running routine by concentrating on the back and forth movements of your arms and legs.

Mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness meditation can be practiced anywhere, even while you are walking or eating. Simply focus on what you’re feeling in the present movement—including any bodily sensations and emotions. The goal is to observe without judgement.

Yoga, Tai Chi, and Qigong. These activities combine body awareness with relaxing, focused movement and can help relieve symptoms of PTSD and trauma.

Massage. After rape, you may feel uncomfortable with human touch. But touching and being touched is an important way we give and receive affection and comfort. You can begin to reopen yourself to human contact through massage therapy.

A powerful program for reconnecting to your feelings and physical sensations

HelpGuide offers a free, online program that can help you recover after rape. Our Emotional Intelligence Toolkit teaches you how to reconnect to uncomfortable or frightening emotions without becoming overwhelmed. It also teaches you techniques for quickly calming yourself down when things start to get too intense. The toolkit can be used in conjunction with therapy, or on its own. Over time, it can make a huge difference in your ability to manage stress, balance your moods and emotions, and take back control of your life.

Step 4: Stay connected and nurture yourself

Healing from sexual trauma is a gradual, ongoing process. It doesn’t happen overnight, nor do the memories of the trauma ever disappear completely. This can make life seem difficult at times. But there are many things you can do to cope with residual symptoms and reduce your anxiety and fear.

Stay connected to family and friends

It’s common to feel isolated and disconnected from others following a sexual assault. You may be tempted to withdraw from social activities and your loved ones. But it’s important to stay connected to life and the people who care about you. Support from other people is vital to your recovery. But remember that support doesn’t mean you always have to talk or dwell on what happened. Having fun and laughing with people who care about you can be equally healing.

Participate in social activities, even if you don’t feel like it. Do “normal” things with other people, things that have nothing to do with the sexual trauma.

Reconnect with old friends. If you’ve retreated from relationships that were once important to you, make the effort to reconnect.

Make new friends. If you live alone or far from family and friends, try to reach out and make new friends. Take a class or join a club to meet people with similar interests, connect to an alumni association, or reach out to neighbors or work collegues.

Support healing by nurturing yourself

Take time to rest and restore your body’s balance. That means taking a break when you’re tired and avoiding the temptation to lose yourself by throwing yourself into activities. Avoid doing anything compulsively, including working. If you’re having trouble relaxing and letting down your guard, you may benefit from relaxation techniques such as meditation and yoga.

Be smart about media consumption. Avoid watching anything that could trigger bad memories or flashbacks. This includes obvious things such as news reports about sexual violence and sexually explicit TV shows and movies. But you may also want to temporarily avoid anything that’s overly stimulating, including social media.

Take care of yourself physically. It’s always important to eat right, exercise regularly, and get plenty of sleep—doubly so when you’re healing from trauma. Exercise in particular can soothe your traumatized nervous system, relieve stress, and help you feel more powerful and in control of your body.

Avoid alcohol and drugs. Avoid the temptation to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs. Substance use worsens many symptoms of trauma, including emotional numbing, social isolation, anger, and depression. It also interferes with treatment and can add to problems at home and in your relationships.

Coping with Emotional and Psychological Trauma

Dealing with Recent or Childhood Trauma So You Can Move On

Traumatized boyIf you’ve experienced an extremely stressful or disturbing event that’s left you feeling helpless and emotionally out of control, you may have been traumatized. Psychological trauma can leave you struggling with upsetting emotions, memories, and anxiety that won’t go away. It can also leave you feeling numb, disconnected, and unable to trust other people. When bad things happen, it can take a while to get over the pain and feel safe again. But with these self-help strategies and support, you can speed your recovery. Whether the trauma happened years ago or yesterday, you can make healing changes and move on with your life.

What is emotional and psychological trauma?

Emotional and psychological trauma is the result of extraordinarily stressful events that shatter your sense of security, making you feel helpless in a dangerous world. Traumatic experiences often involve a threat to life or safety, but any situation that leaves you feeling overwhelmed and isolated can be traumatic, even if it doesn’t involve physical harm. It’s not the objective facts that determine whether an event is traumatic, but your subjective emotional experience of the event. The more frightened and helpless you feel, the more likely you are to be traumatized.

Emotional and psychological trauma can be caused by:
One-time events, such as an accident, injury, natural disaster, or violent attack
Ongoing, relentless stress, such as living in a crime-ridden neighborhood or battling a life-threatening illness
Commonly overlooked causes, such as surgery (especially in the first 3 years of life), the sudden death of someone close, the breakup of a significant relationship, or a humiliating or deeply disappointing experience

An event can lead to trauma if:

  • It happened unexpectedly.
  • You were unprepared for it.
  • You felt powerless to prevent it.
  • It happened repeatedly.
  • Someone was intentionally cruel.
  • It happened in childhood

Risk factors

While traumatic events can happen to anyone, there are risk factors that make some of us more likely to experience psychological trauma following a disturbing event. You’re more likely to be traumatized if you’re already under a heavy stress load, have recently suffered a series of losses, or have been traumatized before—especially if the earlier trauma occurred in childhood.

Childhood trauma increases the risk of future trauma

Experiencing trauma in childhood can have a severe and long-lasting effect. When childhood trauma is not resolved, a sense of fear and helplessness carries over into adulthood, setting the stage for further trauma.

Childhood trauma can result from anything that disrupts a child’s sense of safety, including:

  • An unstable or unsafe environment
  • Separation from a parent
  • Serious illness
  • Intrusive medical procedures

Symptoms

We all react in different ways to trauma, experiencing a wide range of physical and emotional reactions. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to think, feel, or respond, so don’t judge your own reactions or those of other people. Your responses are NORMAL reactions to ABNORMAL events.

Emotional & psychological symptoms:

  • Shock, denial, or disbelief
  • Confusion, difficulty concentrating
  • Anger, irritability, mood swings
  • Anxiety and fear
  • Guilt, shame, self-blame
  • Withdrawing from others
  • Feeling sad or hopeless
  • Feeling disconnected or numb

Physical symptoms:

  • Insomnia or nightmares
  • Fatigue
  • Being startled easily
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Racing heartbeat
  • Edginess and agitation
  • Aches and pains
  • Muscle tension

Trauma symptoms typically last from a few days to a few months, gradually fading as you process the unsettling event. But even when you’re feeling better, you may be troubled from time to time by painful memories or emotions—especially in response to triggers such as an anniversary of the event or something that reminds you of the trauma.

Grieving is normal following trauma

Whether or not a traumatic event involves death, survivors must cope with the loss, at least temporarily, of their sense of safety. The natural reaction to this loss is grief. Like people who have lost a loved one, trauma survivors go through a grieving process. You’ll find this easier to cope with if you turn to others for support and take care of yourself.

Trauma recovery tip 1: Get moving

Trauma disrupts your body’s natural equilibrium, freezing you in a state of hyperarousal and fear. In essence, your nervous system gets “stuck.” As well as burning off adrenaline and releasing endorphins, exercise and movement can actually help your nervous system become “unstuck.”

Try to exercise for 30 minutes or more on most days—or if it’s easier, three 10-minute spurts of exercise per day are just as good. Exercise that is rhythmic and engages both your arms and legs—such as walking, running, swimming, basketball, or even dancing—works best. Instead of focusing on your thoughts or distracting yourself while you exercise, really focus on your body and how it feels as you move. Notice the sensation of your feet hitting the ground, for example, or the rhythm of your breathing, or the feeling of wind on your skin. Rock climbing, boxing, weight training, or martial arts can make this easier—after all, you need to focus on your body movements during these activities in order to avoid injury.

Tip 2: Don’t isolate

Following a trauma, you may want to withdraw from others, but isolation only makes things worse. Connecting to others face to face will help you heal, so make an effort to maintain your relationships and avoid spending too much time alone.

You don’t have to talk about the trauma. Connecting with others doesn’t have to mean talking about the trauma. In fact, for some people, that can just make things worse. Comfort comes from feeling engaged and accepted by others.

Ask for support. While you don’t have to talk about the trauma itself, it is important you have someone to share your feelings with face to face, someone who will listen attentively without judging you. Turn to a trusted family member, friend, counselor, or clergyman.

Participate in social activities, even if you don’t feel like it. Do “normal” things with other people, things that have nothing to do with the traumatic experience.

Reconnect with old friends. If you’ve retreated from relationships that were once important to you, make the effort to reconnect.

Join a support group for trauma survivors. Being with others who are facing the same problems can help reduce your sense of isolation and hearing how others cope can help inspire you in your own recovery.

Volunteer. As well as helping others, volunteering can be a great way to challenge the sense of helplessness that often accompanies trauma. Remind yourself of your strengths and reclaim your sense of power by helping others.

Make new friends. If you live alone or far from family and friends, it’s important to reach out and make new friends. Take a class or join a club to meet people with similar interests, connect to an alumni association, or reach out to neighbors or work colleagues.

If connecting to others is difficult…

Many people who have experienced trauma feel disconnected, withdrawn and find it difficult to connect with other people. If that describes you, there are some things you can do before you next sit down with a friend:

Exercise or move. Jump up and down, swing your arms and legs, or just flail around. Your head will feel clearer and you’ll find it easier to connect.

Vocal toning. As strange as it sounds, vocal toning is a great way to open up to social engagement. Sit straight and simply make “mmmm” sounds. Change the pitch and volume until you experience a pleasant vibration in your face.

Tip 3: Self-regulate your nervous system

No matter how agitated, anxious, or out of control you feel, it’s important to know that you can change your arousal system and calm yourself. Not only will it help relieve your anxiety but it will also engender a greater sense of control.

Mindful breathing.  If you are feeling disoriented, confused, or upset, a quick way to calm yourself is through mindful breathing. Simply take 60 breaths, focusing your attention on each out breath.

Sensory input. Does a specific sight, smell or taste quickly make you feel calm? Or maybe petting an animal or listening to music works to quickly soothe you? Everyone responds to sensory input a little differently, so experiment to find what works best for you. See Quick Stress Relief.

Staying grounded. To feel in the present and more grounded, sit on a chair. Feel your feet on the ground and your back against the chair. Look around you and pick six objects that have red or blue in them. Notice how your breathing gets deeper and calmer.

Allow yourself to feel what you feel when you feel it. Acknowledge your feelings about the trauma as they arise and accept them. HelpGuide’s emotional intelligence toolkit can help.

Tip 4: Take care of your health

It’s true: having a healthy body can increase your ability to cope with the stress of trauma.

Get plenty of sleep. After a traumatic experience, worry or fear may disturb your sleep patterns. But a lack of quality sleep can exacerbate your trauma symptoms and make it harder to maintain your emotional balance. Go to sleep and get up at the same time each day and aim for 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night.

Avoid alcohol and drugs. Their use can worsen your trauma symptoms and increase feelings of depression, anxiety, and isolation.

Eat a well-balanced diet. Eating small, well-balanced meals throughout the day will help you keep your energy up and minimize mood swings. Avoid sugary and fried foods and eat plenty of omega-3 fats—such as salmon, walnuts, soybeans, and flaxseeds—to give your mood a boost.

Reduce stress. Try relaxation techniques such as meditation, yoga, or deep breathing exercises. Schedule time for activities that bring you joy such as favorite hobbies.

When to seek professional help

Recovering from trauma takes time, and everyone heals at their own pace. But if months have passed and your symptoms aren’t letting up, you may need professional help from a trauma expert.

Seek help for trauma if you’re:

  • Having trouble functioning at home or work
  • Suffering from severe fear, anxiety, or depression
  • Unable to form close, satisfying relationships
  • Experiencing terrifying memories, nightmares, or flashbacks
  • Avoiding more and more things that remind you of the trauma
  • Emotionally numb and disconnected from others
  • Using alcohol or drugs to feel better

Finding a trauma specialist

Working through trauma can be scary, painful, and potentially re-traumatizing, so this healing work is best done with the help of an experienced trauma specialist. Finding the right therapist may take some time. It’s very important that the therapist you choose has experience treating trauma. But the quality of the relationship with your therapist is equally important. Choose a trauma specialist you feel comfortable with. If you don’t feel safe, respected, or understood, find another therapist.

Ask yourself:

  • Did you feel comfortable discussing your problems with the therapist?
  • Did you feel like the therapist understood what you were talking about?
  • Were your concerns taken seriously or were they minimized or dismissed?
  • Were you treated with compassion and respect?
  • Do you believe that you could grow to trust the therapist?

Treatment for trauma

In order to heal from physchological and emotional trauma, you’ll need to resolve the unpleasant feelings and memories you’ve long avoided, discharge pent-up “fight-or-flight” energy, learn to regulate strong emotions, and rebuild your ability to trust other people.

The following therapies are commonly used in the treatment of trauma:

Therapy approaches
Somatic experiencing focuses on bodily sensations, rather than thoughts and memories about the traumatic event. By concentrating on what’s happening in your body, you can release pent-up trauma-related energy through shaking, crying, and other forms of physical release.
Cognitive-behavioral theapy helps you process and evaluate your thoughts and feelings about a trauma.
EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) incorporates elements of cognitive-behavioral therapy with eye movements or other forms of rhythmic, left-right stimulation that can “unfreeze” traumatic memories.

Helping a loved one deal with trauma

When a loved one has suffered trauma, your support can be a crucial factor in their recovery.

Be patient and understanding. Healing from trauma takes time. Be patient with the pace of recovery and remember that everyone’s response to trauma is different.  Don’t judge your loved one’s reaction against your own response or anyone else’s.

Offer practical support to help your loved one get back into a normal routine. That may mean help with collecting groceries or housework, for example, or simply being available to talk or listen.

Don’t pressure your loved one into talking but be available if they want to talk. Some trauma survivors find it difficult to talk about what happened. Don’t force your loved one to open up but let them know you are there to listen if they want to talk, or available to just hang out if they don’t.

Help your loved one to socialize and relax. Encourage them to participate in physical exercise, seek out friends, and pursue hobbies and other activities that bring them pleasure. Take a fitness class together or set a regular lunch date with friends.

Don’t take the trauma symptoms personally. Your loved one may become angry, irritable, withdrawn, or emotionally distant. Remember that this is a result of the trauma and may not have anything to do with you or your relationship.

Helping a child recover from trauma

It’s important to communicate openly with children following trauma. Let them know that it’s normal to feel scared or upset. Your children may also look to you for cues on how they should respond to trauma so let them see you dealing with symptoms in a positive way.

How children react to emotional and psychological trauma

Some common reactions to trauma and ways to help your child deal with them:

  • Regression. Many children need to return to an earlier stage when they felt safer. Younger children may wet the bed or want a bottle; older children may fear being alone. It’s important to be understanding, patient and comforting if your child responds this way.
  • Thinking the event is their fault. Children younger than 8 tend to think that if something goes wrong, it must be their fault. Be sure your child understands that he or she did not cause the event.
  • Sleep disorders. Some children have difficulty falling to sleep; others wake frequently or have troubling dreams. Give your child a stuffed animal, soft blanket, or flashlight to take to bed. Try spending extra time together in the evening, doing quiet activities or reading. Be patient. It may take a while before your child can sleep through the night again.
  • Feeling helpless. Being active in a campaign to prevent an event from happening again, writing thank you letters to people who have helped, and caring for others can bring a sense of hope and control to everyone in the family.

Source: Sidran Institute

Traumatic Stress

Recovering from the Stress of Experiencing or Being Overexposed to Media Coverage of Traumatic Events

Firefighter handsThe emotional toll from a traumatic event can cause intense, confusing, and frightening emotions. And these emotions aren’t limited to the people who experienced the event. Round-the-clock news coverage means that we’re all bombarded with horrific images from natural disasters, violent crimes, and terrorist attacks almost the instant they occur anywhere in the world. Repeated exposure can trigger traumatic stress and leave you feeling hopeless and helpless. Whether you were directly involved in the traumatic event or exposed to it after the fact, there are steps you can take to recover your emotional equilibrium and regain control of your life.

What is traumatic stress?

Traumatic stress is a normal reaction to a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, motor vehicle accident, plane crash, shooting, or terrorist attack. Such events are extraordinarily stressful—not just for survivors, but also witnesses and even those repeatedly exposed to the horrific images of the traumatic event circulated on social media and news sources.

In fact, while it’s highly unlikely any of us will ever be the direct victims of a terrorist attack, for example, we’re all regularly bombarded by disturbing images from around the world of those innocent people who have been. Viewing these images over and over can overwhelm your nervous system and create traumatic stress. Your sense of security shatters, leaving you feeling helpless and vulnerable in a dangerous world, especially if the event was manmade, such as a shooting or act of terrorism.

Usually, the unsettling thoughts and feelings of traumatic stress fade as life starts to return to normal over the days or weeks following the event. You can assist the process by keeping the following in mind:

People react in different ways to traumatic events. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to respond. Don’t tell yourself (or anyone else) what you should be thinking, feeling, or doing.

Avoid obsessively reliving the traumatic event. Repetitious thinking or viewing horrific images over and over can overwhelm your nervous system, making it harder to think clearly.

Ignoring your feelings will slow recovery. It may seem better in the moment to avoid experiencing your emotions, but they exist whether you’re paying attention to them or not. Even intense feelings will pass if you simply allow yourself to feel what you feel.

Traumatic stress signs and symptoms

Whether or not you were directly impacted by the traumatic event, it’s normal to feel anxious, scared, and uncertain about what the future may hold. Your nervous system has become overwhelmed by stress, triggering a wide range of intense emotions and physical reactions. These reactions to traumatic stress often come and go in waves. There may be times when you feel jumpy and anxious, and other times when you feel disconnected and numb.

Normal emotional responses to traumatic events

Shock and disbelief – you may have a hard time accepting the reality of what happened

Fear – that the same thing will happen again, or that you’ll lose control or break down

Sadness – particularly if people you know died

Helplessness – the sudden, unpredictable nature of terrorist attacks, accidents, or natural disasters may leave you feeling vulnerable and helpless

Guilt – that you survived when others died, or that you could have done more to help

Anger – you may be angry at God or others you feel are responsible

Shame – especially over feelings or fears you can’t control

Relief – you may feel relieved that the worst is over, and even hopeful that your life will return to normal

Normal physical responses to traumatic events

It’s important to know what the physical symptoms of traumatic stress look like, so they don’t scare you. They will go away if you don’t fight them:

  • Trembling or shaking
  • Pounding heart
  • Rapid breathing
  • Lump in throat; feeling choked up
  • Stomach tightening or churning
  • Feeling dizzy or faint
  • Cold sweats
  • Racing thoughts

While these are all normal responses to a traumatic event, if the symptoms don’t ease up and your nervous system remains “stuck,” unable to move on from the event for a prolonged period of time, you may be experiencing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). See: PTSD Symptoms, Self-Help and Treatment.

Traumatic stress recovery tip 1: Minimize media exposure

While some survivors or witnesses to a traumatic event can regain a sense of control by watching media coverage of the event or by observing the recovery effort, others find the reminders can be further traumatizing. Excessive exposure to images of a disturbing event —such as repeatedly viewing video clips on social media or news sites—can even create traumatic stress in people not directly affected by the event.

Limit your media exposure to the traumatic event. Don’t watch the news or check social media just before bed, and refrain from repeatedly viewing disturbing footage.

Try to avoid distressing images and video clips. If you want to stay up-to-date on events, read the newspaper rather than watching television or viewing video clips of the event.

If coverage makes you feel overwhelmed, take a complete break from the news. Avoid TV and online news and stop checking social media for a few days or weeks, until your traumatic stress symptoms ease up and you’re able to move on.

Tip 2: Accept your feelings

Traumatic stress can cause you to experience all kinds of difficult and surprising emotions, including shock, anger, and guilt. These emotions are normal reactions to the loss of safety and security (as well as life, limb, and property) that comes in the wake of a disaster. Accepting these feelings and allowing yourself to feel what you feel, is necessary for healing.

Dealing with the painful emotions of traumatic stress

  • Give yourself time to heal and to mourn any losses you’ve experienced.
  • Don’t try to force the healing process.
  • Be patient with the pace of recovery.
  • Be prepared for difficult and volatile emotions.
  • Allow yourself to feel whatever you’re feeling without judgment or guilt.
  • Learn to reconnect to uncomfortable emotions without becoming overwhelmed.

Tip 3: Challenge your sense of helplessness

Overcoming traumatic stress is all about taking action. Positive action can help you overcome feelings of fear, helplessness, and hopelessness—and even small acts can make a big difference.

  • Volunteer for a cause that’s important to you. As well as helping you to connect to others, volunteering can challenge the sense of helplessness that contributes to trauma.
  • If formal volunteering sounds like too much of a commitment, remember that simply being helpful and friendly to others can deliver stress-reducing pleasure and challenge your sense of helplessness. Help a neighbor carry in their groceries, hold a door open for a stranger, share a smile with the people you meet during the day.
  • Connect with others affected by the traumatic event or participate in memorials, events, and other public rituals. Feeling connected to others and remembering the lives lost or broken in the event can help overcome the sense of hopelessness that often follows a tragedy.

Boost your ability to take action for traumatic stress

If you’re having trouble following through on positive intentions, HelpGuide’s free emotional intelligence toolkit can help.

  • Learn how to quickly reduce stress.
  • Manage troublesome thoughts and feelings.
  • Motivate yourself to take the steps that can relieve traumatic stress.
  • Improve your relationships and overall health and happiness.

Tip 4: Get moving

It may be the last thing you feel like doing when you’re experiencing traumatic stress, but exercising can burn off adrenaline and release feel-good endorphins to boost your mood. Physical activity performed mindfully can also rouse your nervous system from that “stuck” feeling and help you move on from the traumatic event.

  • Exercise that is rhythmic and engages both your arms and legs—such as walking, running, swimming, basketball, or dancing—are good choices.
  • To add a mindful element, focus on your body and how it feels as you move. Notice the sensation of your feet hitting the ground, for example, or the rhythm of your breathing, or the feeling of wind on your skin.
  • Rock climbing, boxing, weight training, or martial arts can make it easier to focus on your body movements—simply because if you don’t, you could get injured.
  • If you’re struggling to find the energy or motivation to exercise, start by playing your favorite music and moving around or dancing. Once you get moving, you’ll start to feel more energetic.
  • Aim to exercise for 30 minutes or more each day—or if it’s easier, three 10-minute spurts of exercise are just as good.

Tip 5: Reach out to others

You may be tempted to withdraw from friends and social activities following a traumatic event, but connecting face to face with other people is vital to recovery. The simple act of talking face to face with another human can trigger hormones that relieve traumatic stress. Even just a brief exchange of kind words or a friendly look from another human being can help calm your nervous system.

  • Reaching out to others doesn’t necessarily mean talking about the traumatic event. Comfort comes from feeling connected and involved with others you trust.
  • Do “normal” things with friends and loved ones, things that have nothing to do with the event that triggered your traumatic stress.
  • If you live alone or your social network is limited, it’s never too late to reach out to others and make new friends.
  • Take advantage of support groups, church gatherings, and community organizations. Join a sports team or hobby club to meet people with similar interests.

Tip 6: Make stress reduction a priority

While a certain amount of stress is normal, and can even be helpful, as you face the challenges that come in the aftermath of a disaster or tragic event, too much stress will get in the way of recovery.

Relieve stress in the moment

Mindful breathing. To quickly calm yourself in any situation, simply take 60 breaths, focusing your attention on each out breath.

Sensory input. Does listening to an uplifting song make you feel calm? Or smelling ground coffee? Or maybe petting an animal works quickly to make you feel centered? Everyone responds to sensory input a little differently, so experiment to find what works best for you. See Quick Stress Relief.

Feel grounded in times of traumatic stress

Sit on a chair, feel your feet on the ground, and your back supported by the chair; look around you and pick six objects that have red or blue in them. This should allow you to feel in the present, more grounded and in your body. Notice how your breath gets deeper and calmer. Alternately, you may want to go outdoors and find a peaceful place to sit on the grass, and feel supported by the ground.

Source: Emotional First Aid, Gina Ross, MFCC, and Peter Levine, Ph.D.

Make time to relax

Practice relaxation techniques such as meditation, yoga, or Tai Chi.

Schedule time for activities that bring you joy—a favorite hobby or pastime, a chat with a cherished friend.

Use your downtime to relax. Read a book, take a bath, or enjoy an uplifting or funny movie.

Get plenty of sleep. Lack of sleep places considerable stress on your mind and body and makes it more difficult to maintain your emotional balance. Aim for somewhere between 7 to 9 hours of refreshing sleep each night.

Reestablish a routine—structure is comforting

There is comfort in the familiar. After a traumatic event, getting back to your normal routine as much as possible will help you minimize stress.

  • Even if your work or school routine is disrupted, structure your day with regular times for eating, sleeping, exercising, and spending time with friends.
  • Do things that keep your mind occupied (read, watch a movie, cook, play with your kids), so you’re not dedicating all your attention to the traumatic event.

Tip 7: Eat a healthy diet

The food you eat can improve or worsen your mood and affect your ability to cope with traumatic stress. Eating a diet full of processed and convenience food, refined carbohydrates, and sugary snacks can worsen symptoms of traumatic stress. Conversely, eating a diet rich in fresh fruit and vegetables, high-quality protein, and healthy fats, especially omega-3 fatty acids, can help you better cope with the ups and downs that follow a tragic event.

By experimenting with new ways of eating that boosts mental health, you can find an eating plan that not only helps to relieve traumatic stress, but also boosts your energy and improves your outlook.

When to seek treatment for traumatic stress

Usually, feelings of anxiety, numbness, confusion, guilt, and despair following a disaster or traumatic event will start to fade within a relatively short time. However, if your traumatic stress reaction is so intense and persistent that it’s getting in the way of your ability to function, you may need help from a mental health professional—preferably a trauma specialist.

Traumatic stress red flags

  • It’s been six weeks, and you’re not feeling any better
  • You’ve having trouble functioning at home and work
  • You’re experiencing terrifying memories, nightmares, or flashbacks
  • You’re having an increasingly difficult time connecting and relating to others
  • You’re experiencing suicidal thoughts or feelings
  • You’re avoiding more and more things that remind you of the disaster or traumatic event

If your child has traumatic stress…

The intense, confusing, and frightening emotions that follow a traumatic event can be even more pronounced in children—whether they directly experienced the event or were repeatedly exposed to disturbing media coverage. But you can help your child cope with traumatic stress and move on from the event. Read: Helping Children Cope with Traumatic Stress

Helping Someone with PTSD

Helping a Friend or Loved One Deal with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Man being supportedWhen someone you care about suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), it can leave you feeling overwhelmed. The changes in your loved one can be worrying or even frightening. You may feel angry about what’s happening to your family and relationship, or hurt by your loved one’s distance and moodiness. But it’s important to know is that you’re not helpless. Your support can make all the difference in your partner, friend, or family member’s recovery. With your help, your loved one can overcome PTSD and move on with his or her life.

How does PTSD affect relationships?

PTSD can take a heavy toll on relationships. It can be hard to understand your loved one’s behavior—why they are less affectionate and more volatile. You may feel like you’re walking on eggshells or living with a stranger. You may have to take on a bigger share of household tasks, deal with the frustration of a loved one who won’t open up, or even deal with anger or disturbing behavior. The symptoms of PTSD can also lead to job loss, substance abuse, and other problems that affect the whole family.

It’s hard not to take the symptoms of PTSD personally, but it’s important to remember that a person with PTSD may not always have control over their behavior. Your loved one’s nervous system is “stuck” in a state of constant alert, making them continually feel vulnerable and unsafe. This can lead to anger, irritability, depression, mistrust, and other PTSD symptoms that your loved one can’t simply choose to turn off. With the right support from friends and family, though, your loved one’s nervous system can become “unstuck” and he or she can finally move on from the traumatic event.

Helping someone with PTSD tip 1: Provide social support

It’s common for people with PTSD to withdraw from friends and family. While it’s important to respect your loved one’s boundaries, your comfort and support can help the person with PTSD overcome feelings of helplessness, grief, and despair. In fact, trauma experts believe that face-to-face support from others is the most important factor in PTSD recovery.

How to support your loved one

Knowing how to best demonstrate your love and support for someone with PTSD isn’t always easy. You can’t force your loved one to get better, but you can play a major role in the healing process by simply spending time together.

Don’t pressure your loved one into talking. It can be very difficult for people with PTSD to talk about their traumatic experiences. For some, it can even make things worse. Instead, let them know you’re willing to listen when they want to talk, or just hang out when they don’t. Comfort for someone with PTSD comes from feeling engaged and accepted by you, not necessarily from talking.

Do “normal” things with your loved one, things that have nothing to do with PTSD or the traumatic experience. Encourage your loved one to participate in rhythmic exercise, seek out friends, and pursue hobbies that bring pleasure. Take a fitness class together, go dancing, or set a regular lunch date with friends and family.

Let your loved one take the lead, rather than telling him or her what to do. Everyone with PTSD is different but most people instinctively know what makes them feel calm and safe. Take cues from your loved one as to how you can best provide support and companionship.

Manage your own stress. The more calm, relaxed, and focused you are, the better you’ll be able to help your loved one.

Be patient. Recovery is a process that takes time and often involves setbacks. The important thing is to stay positive and maintain support for your loved one.

Educate yourself about PTSD. The more you know about the symptoms, effects, and treatment options, the better equipped you’ll be to help your loved one, understand what he or she is going through, and keep things in perspective.

Accept (and expect) mixed feelings. As you go through the emotional wringer, be prepared for a complicated mix of feelings—some of which you’ll never want to admit. Just remember, having negative feelings toward your family member doesn’t mean you don’t love them.

Tip 2: Be a good listener

While you shouldn’t push a person with PTSD to talk, if they do choose to share, try to listen without expectations or judgments. Make it clear that you’re interested and that you care, but don’t worry about giving advice. It’s the act of listening attentively that is helpful to your loved one, not what you say. A person with PTSD may need to talk about the traumatic event over and over again. This is part of the healing process, so avoid the temptation to tell your loved one to stop rehashing the past and move on.

Some of the things your loved one tells you might be very hard to listen to, but it’s important to respect their feelings and reactions. If you come across as disapproving or judgmental, they are unlikely to open up to you again.

Communication pitfalls to avoid

Don’t…

  • Give easy answers or blithely tell your loved one everything is going to be okay
  • Stop your loved one from talking about their feelings or fears
  • Offer unsolicited advice or tell your loved one what they “should” do
  • Blame all of your relationship or family problems on your loved one’s PTSD
  • Invalidate, minimize, or deny your loved one’s traumatic experience
  • Give ultimatums or make threats or demands
  • Make your loved one feel weak because they aren’t coping as well as others
  • Tell your loved one they were lucky it wasn’t worse
  • Take over with your own personal experiences or feelings

Tip 3: Rebuild trust and safety

Trauma alters the way a person sees the world, making it seem like a perpetually dangerous and frightening place. It also damages people’s ability to trust others and themselves. Anything you can do to rebuild your loved one’s sense of security will contribute to recovery.

Express your commitment to the relationship. Let the person know you’re here for the long haul so he or she feels loved and supported.

Create routines. Structure and predictable schedules can restore a sense of stability and security to people with PTSD, both adults and children. Creating routines could mean getting your loved one to help with groceries or housework, for example, maintaining regular times for meals, or simply “being there” for the person.

Minimize stress at home. Try to make sure your loved one has space and time for rest and relaxation.

Speak of the future and make plans. This can help counteract the common feeling among people with PTSD that their future is limited.

Keep your promises. Help rebuild trust by being trustworthy. Be consistent and follow through on the things you say you’re going to do.

Emphasize your loved one’s strengths. Tell your loved one you believe he or she is capable of recovery and point out all your loved one’s positive qualities and successes.

Encourage your loved one to join a support group. Getting involved with others who have gone through similar traumatic experiences can help some people with PTSD feel less damaged and alone.

Tip 4: Anticipate and manage triggers

A trigger is anything—a person, place, thing, or situation—that reminds your loved one of the trauma and sets off a PTSD symptom, such as a flashback.

Sometimes, triggers are obvious. For example, a military veteran might be triggered by seeing his combat buddies or by the loud noises that sound like gunfire. Others may take some time to identify and understand, such as hearing a song that was playing when the traumatic event happened, for example, so now that song or even others in the same musical genre are triggers. Similarly, triggers don’t have to be external. Internal feelings and sensations can also trigger PTSD symptoms.

Common external PTSD triggers

  • Sights, sounds, or smells associated with the trauma
  • People, locations, or things that recall the trauma
  • Significant dates or times, such as anniversaries or a specific time of day
  • Nature (certain types of weather, seasons, etc.)
  • Conversations or media coverage about trauma or negative news events
  • Situations that feel confining (stuck in traffic, at the doctor’s office, in a crowd)
  • Relationship, family, school, work, or money pressures or arguments
  • Funerals, hospitals, or medical treatment

Common internal PTSD triggers

  • Physical discomfort, such as hunger, thirst, fatigue, sickness, and sexual frustration
  • Any bodily sensation that recalls the trauma, including pain, old wounds and scars, or a similar injury
  • Strong emotions, especially feeling helpless, out of control, or trapped
  • Feelings toward family members, including mixed feelings of love, vulnerability, and resentment

Talking to your loved one about triggers

Ask your loved one about things he or she did in the past in response to a trigger that seemed to help (as well as those that didn’t). Then you can come up with a joint game plan for how you will respond in future.

Ask what your loved one would like you to do during a nightmare, flashback, or panic attack. Having a plan in place will make the situation less scary for both of you. You’ll also be in a much better position to help your loved one calm down.

How to help in the middle of a flashback or panic attack

During a flashback, people often feel a sense of disassociation, as if they’re detached from their own body. Anything you can do to “ground” them will help.

  • Tell them they’re having a flashback and that even though it feels real, it’s not actually happening again
  • Help remind them of their surroundings (for example, ask them to look around the room and describe out loud what they see)
  • Encourage them to take deep, slow breaths (hyperventilating will increase feelings of panic)
  • Avoid sudden movements or anything that might startle them
  • Ask before you touch them. Touching or putting your arms around the person might make him or her feel trapped, which can lead to greater agitation and even violence

Tip 5: Deal with volatility and anger

PTSD can lead to difficulties managing emotions and impulses. In your loved one, this may manifest as extreme irritability, moodiness, or explosions of rage.

Understanding anger in PTSD

People suffering from PTSD live in a constant state of physical and emotional stress. Since they usually have trouble sleeping, it means they’re constantly exhausted, on edge, and physically strung out—increasing the likelihood that they’ll overreact to day-to-day stressors.

For many people with PTSD, anger can also be a cover for other feelings such as grief, helplessness, or guilt. Anger makes them feel powerful, instead of weak and vulnerable. For others, they try to suppress their anger until it erupts when you least expect it.

Watch for signs that your loved one is angry such as clenching jaw or fists, talking louder, or getting agitated. Take steps to defuse the situation as soon as you see the initial warning signs.

Try to remain calm. During an emotional outburst, do your best to stay calm. This will communicate to your loved one that you are “safe” and prevent the situation from escalating.

Give the person space. Avoid crowding or grabbing the person. This can make a traumatized person feel threatened.

Ask how you can help. For example: “What can I do to help you right now?” You can also suggest a time out or change of scenery.

Put safety first. If the person gets more upset despite your attempts to calm him or her down, leave the house or lock yourself in a room. Call 911 if you fear that your loved one may hurt himself or others.

Learning how to control anger

Anger is a normal, healthy emotion, but when chronic, explosive anger spirals out of control, it can have serious consequences on a person’s relationships, health, and state of mind. Your loved one can get anger under control by exploring the root issues and learning healthier ways to express their feelings. See: Anger Management

Tip 6: Take care of yourself

Letting your family member’s PTSD dominate your life while ignoring your own needs is a surefire recipe for burnout. In order to have the strength to be there for your loved one over the long haul, you have to nurture and care for yourself.

Take care of your physical needs: get enough sleep, exercise regularly, eat properly, and look after any medical issues.

Cultivate your own support system. Lean on other family members, trusted friends, your own therapist or support group, or your faith community. Talking about your feelings and what you’re going through can be very cathartic.

Make time for your own life. Don’t give up friends, hobbies, or activities that make you happy. It’s important to have things in your life that you look forward to.

Spread the responsibility. Ask other family members and friends for assistance so you can take a break. You may also want to seek out respite services in your community.

Set boundaries. Be realistic about what you’re capable of giving. Know your limits, communicate them to your family member and others involved, and stick to them.

Trauma can be “contagious”

Caring for someone with PTSD can lead to the potential for secondary traumatization. You can develop your own symptoms from listening to trauma stories or being exposed to disturbing symptoms like flashbacks. The more depleted and overwhelmed you feel, the greater the risk that you may become traumatized.

Support for people taking care of veterans

If the person you’re caring for is a U.S. military veteran, financial and caregiving support may be available. Visit VA Caregiver Support to explore your options, or call Coaching into Care at (888) 823-7458. For military veterans in other countries, see the Resources section below for helplines.

PTSD in Military Veterans: Symptoms, Treatment, and Self-Help

Helping Yourself on the Road to Recovery for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Soldier with therapistFor all too many veterans, returning from military service means coping with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). You may be having a hard time readjusting to life out of the military. Or you may constantly be feeling on edge, emotionally numb and disconnected, or close to panicking or exploding. But no matter how long the V.A. wait times, or how isolated or emotionally cut off from others you feel, it’s important to know that you’re not alone and there are plenty of things you can do to start feeling better. These steps can help you learn to deal with nightmares and flashbacks, cope with feelings of depression, anxiety or guilt, and regain your sense of control.

What causes PTSD in veterans?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), sometimes known as shell shock or combat stress, occurs after you experience severe trauma or a life-threatening event. It’s normal for your mind and body to be in shock after such an event, but this normal response becomes PTSD when your nervous system gets “stuck.”

Your nervous system has two automatic or reflexive ways of responding to stressful events:

Mobilization, or fight-or-flight, occurs when you need to defend yourself or survive the danger of a combat situation. Your heart pounds faster, your blood pressure rises, and your muscles tighten, increasing your strength and reaction speed. Once the danger has passed, your nervous system calms your body, lowering your heart rate and blood pressure, and winding back down to its normal balance.

Immobilization occurs when you’ve experienced too much stress in a situation and even though the danger has passed, you find yourself “stuck.” Your nervous system is unable to return to its normal state of balance and you’re unable to move on from the event. This is PTSD.

Recovering from PTSD involves transitioning out of the mental and emotional war zone you’re still living in and helping your nervous system become “unstuck.”

Symptoms of PTSD in veterans

While you can develop symptoms of PTSD in the hours or days following a traumatic event, sometimes symptoms don’t surface for months or even years after you return from deployment. While PTSD develops differently from veteran to veteran, there are four symptom clusters:

  1. Recurrent, intrusive reminders of the traumatic event, including distressing thoughts, nightmares, and flashbacks where you feel like the event is happening again. Experiencing extreme emotional and physical reactions to reminders of the trauma such as panic attacks, uncontrollable shaking, and heart palpitations.
  2. Extreme avoidance of things that remind you of the traumatic event, including people, places, thoughts, or situations you associate with the bad memories. Withdrawing from friends and family and losing interest in everyday activities.
  3. Negative changes in your thoughts and mood, such as exaggerated negative beliefs about yourself or the world and persistent feelings of fear, guilt, or shame. Diminished ability to experience positive emotions.
  4. Being on guard all the time, jumpy, and emotionally reactive, as indicated by irritability, anger, reckless behavior, difficulty sleeping, trouble concentrating, and hypervigilance.

Suicide prevention in veterans with PTSD

It’s common for veterans with PTSD to experience suicidal thoughts. Feeling suicidal is not a character defect, and it doesn’t mean that you are crazy, weak, or flawed.

If you are thinking about taking your own life, seek help immediately. Please read Suicide Help, talk to someone you trust, or call a suicide helpline:

  • In the U.S., call 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
  • In the UK, call 08457 90 90 90.
  • In Australia, call 13 11 14.
  • Or visit IASP to find a helpline in your country.

PTSD in veterans recovery step 1: Get moving

As well as helping to burn off adrenaline, exercise can release endorphins and improve your mood. By really focusing on your body and how it feels as you exercise, you can even help your nervous system become “unstuck.”

  • Exercise that is rhythmic and engages both your arms and legs—such as running, swimming, basketball, or even dancing—works well if, instead of continuing to focus on your thoughts as you move, you focus on how your body feels.
  • Notice the sensation of your feet hitting the ground, for example, or the rhythm of your breathing, or the feeling of wind on your skin.
  • Rock climbing, boxing, weight training, or martial arts can make it easier to focus on your body movements—after all, if you don’t, you could get injured.
  • Try to exercise for 30 minutes or more each day—or if it’s easier, three 10-minute spurts of exercise are just as good.

The benefits of the great outdoors

Pursuing outdoor activities in nature like hiking, camping, mountain biking, rock climbing, whitewater rafting, and skiing can help challenge your sense of vulnerability and help you transition back into civilian life.

  • Seek out local organizations that offer outdoor recreation opportunities.
  • In the U.S., check out Sierra Club Military Outdoors which offers opportunities to get out into nature and get moving.

Step 2: Self-regulate your nervous system

PTSD can leave you feeling vulnerable and helpless. But you have more control over your nervous system than you may realize. When you feel agitated, anxious, or out of control, these tips can help you change your arousal system and calm yourself.

Mindful breathing. To quickly calm yourself in any situation, simply take 60 breaths, focusing your attention on each out breath.

Sensory input. Just as loud noises, certain smells, or the feel of sand in your clothes can instantly transport you back to the combat zone, so too can sensory input quickly calm you. Everyone responds a little differently, so experiment to find what works best for you. Think back to your time on deployment: what brought you comfort at the end of the day? Perhaps it was looking at photos of your family? Or listening to a favorite song, or smelling a certain brand of soap? Or maybe petting an animal quickly makes you feel calm?

Reconnect emotionally. By reconnecting to uncomfortable emotions without becoming overwhelmed, you can make a huge difference in your ability to manage stress, balance your moods, and take back control of your life. See our Emotional Intelligence Toolkit.

Step 3: Connect with others

Connecting with others face to face doesn’t have to mean a lot of talking. For any veteran with PTSD, it’s important to find someone who will listen without judging when you want to talk, or just hang out with you when you don’t. That person may be your significant other, a family member, one of your buddies from the service, or a civilian friend. Or try:

Volunteering your time or reaching out to someone in need. This is a great way to both connect to others and reclaim your sense of power.

Joining a PTSD support group. Connecting with other veterans facing similar problems can help you feel less isolated and provide useful tips on how to cope with symptoms and work towards recovery.

Connecting with civilians

You may feel like the civilians in your life can’t understand you since they haven’t been in the service or seen the things you have. But people don’t have to have gone through the exact same experiences to be able to offer support. What matters is that the person you’re turning to cares about you, is a good listener, and a source of comfort.

  • If you’re not ready to open up about what happened, that’s perfectly okay.
  • Instead of going into a blow-by-blow account of events, you can just talk about how you feel.
  • You can tell the other person what they can do to help, whether it’s just sitting with you, listening, or doing something practical.
  • Remember: people who care about you welcome the opportunity to help; being supportive is not a burden for them.

If connecting is difficult

No matter how close you are to someone, PTSD can mean that you still don’t feel any better after talking. If that describes you, there are ways to help the process along.

Exercise or move. Before chatting with a friend, either exercise or move around. Jump up and down, swing your arms and legs, or just flail around. Your head will feel clearer and you’ll find it easier to connect.

Vocal toning. As strange as it sounds, vocal toning is a great way to open up to social engagement. Sit straight and simply make “mmmm” sounds. Change the pitch and volume until you experience a pleasant vibration in your face.

Step 4: Take care of your body

Without the rush of still being in a combat zone, you may feel strange or even dead inside and find it difficult to relax. Many veterans are drawn to things that offer a familiar adrenaline rush, whether it’s caffeine, drugs, violent video games, driving recklessly, or daredevil sports. However, the symptoms of PTSD can be hard on your body and mind so it’s important to put a priority on sleep, healthy food, and calming activities.

Healthy habits

Take time to relax with relaxation techniques such as massage, meditation, or yoga.

Avoid alcohol and drugs (including nicotine).  It can be tempting to turn to drugs and alcohol to numb painful feelings and memories and get to sleep. But substance abuse (and cigarettes) can make the symptoms of PTSD worse.

Find safe ways to blow off steam. Pound on a punching bag, pummel a pillow, sing along to loud music, or find a secluded place to scream at the top of your lungs.

Support your body with a healthy diet.  Omega-3s play a vital role in emotional health so incorporate foods such as fatty fish, flaxseed, and walnuts into your diet. Limit processed and fried food, sugars, and refined carbs which can exacerbate mood swings and energy fluctuations.

Get plenty of sleep. Sleep deprivation exacerbates anger, irritability, and moodiness. Aim for 7 to 9 hours of quality sleep each night.

Step 5: Deal with flashbacks, nightmares, and intrusive thoughts

Flashbacks usually involve visual and auditory memories of combat. It feels as if it’s happening all over again so it’s vital to reassure yourself that the experience is not occurring in the present.

State to yourself (out loud or in your head) the reality that while you feel as if the trauma is currently happening, you can look around and recognize that you’re safe.

Use a simple script when you awaken from a nightmare or start to experience a flashback: “I feel [panicked, overwhelmed, etc.] because I’m remembering [traumatic event], but as I look around I can see that the event isn’t happening right now and I’m not in danger.”

Describe what you see when look around (name the place where you are, the current date, and three things you see when you look around).

Try tapping your arms to bring you back to the present.

Tips for grounding yourself during a flashback

Movement – Move around vigorously (run in place, jump up and down, etc.); rub your hands together; shake your head

Touch – Splash cold water on your face; grip a piece of ice; touch or grab on to a safe object; pinch yourself; play with worry beads or a stress ball

Sight – Blink rapidly and firmly; look around and take inventory of what you see

Sound – Turn on loud music; clap your hands or stomp your feet; talk to yourself (tell yourself you’re safe, you’ll be okay)

Smell – Smell something that links you to the present (coffee, mouthwash, your wife’s perfume) or a scent that has good memories

Taste – Suck on a strong mint or chew a piece of gum; bite into something tart or spicy; drink a glass of cold water or juice

Step 6: Work through survivor’s guilt

Feelings of guilt are very common among veterans with PTSD. You may have seen people injured or killed, often your friends and comrades.

  • You may ask yourself questions such as: Why did I survive when others didn’t?
  • You may end up blaming yourself for what happened and believing that your actions (or inability to act) led to someone else’s death.
  • You may feel that you’re the one who should have died. This is survivor’s guilt.

Healing from survivor’s guilt

Healing doesn’t mean that you’ll forget what happened or those who died. And it doesn’t mean you’ll have no regrets. What it does mean is that you’ll look at your role more realistically:

  • Is the amount of responsibility you’re assuming reasonable?
  • Could you really have prevented or stopped what happened?
  • Are you judging your decisions based on full information about the event, or just your emotions?
  • Did you do your best at the time, under challenging circumstances?
  • Do you truly believe that if you had died, someone else would have survived?

Honestly assessing your responsibility and role can free you to move on and grieve your losses. Instead of punishing yourself, you can redirect your energy into honoring those you lost and finding ways to keep their memory alive.

Step 7: Seek professional treatment

Professional treatment for PTSD can help you deal with the trauma you’ve experienced and may involve:

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or counselling. This involves gradually “exposing” you to reminders of the event and replacing distorted thoughts with a more balanced picture.

Medication, such as antidepressants. While medication may help you feel less sad or worried, it doesn’t treat the causes of PTSD.

EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing). This incorporates elements of CBT with eye movements or other rhythmic, left-right stimulation to help you become “unstuck.”

Helping a veteran with PTSD

When a loved one returns from military service with PTSD, it can take a heavy toll on your relationship and family life. You may have to take on a bigger share of household tasks, deal with the frustration of a loved one who won’t open up, or even deal with anger or other disturbing behavior.

Don’t take the symptoms of PTSD personally. If your loved one seems distant, irritable, angry, or closed off, remember that this may not have anything to do with you or your relationship.

Don’t pressure your loved one into talking. Many veterans with PTSD find it difficult to talk about their experiences. Never try to force your loved one to open up but let him know that you’re there if he wants to talk. It’s your understanding that provides comfort, not anything you say.

Be patient and understanding. Getting better takes time so be patient with the pace of recovery. Offer support but don’t try to direct your loved one.

Try to anticipate and prepare for PTSD triggers such as certain sounds, sights, or smells. If you are aware of what causes an upsetting reaction, you’ll be in a better position to help your loved one calm down.

Take care of yourself. Letting your loved one’s PTSD dominate your life while ignoring your own needs is a surefire recipe for burnout. Make time for yourself and learn to manage stress. The more calm, relaxed, and focused you are, the better you’ll be able to help your loved one.

PTSD Symptoms, Self-Help, and Treatment

Overcoming Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Moving on with Your Life

Man with PTSDWhen you experience a threatening or traumatic event, your nervous system responds by triggering the fight, flight, or freeze response. After the danger passes, your body usually returns to normal. But if the upset doesn’t fade and you feel stuck with painful memories and a constant sense of vulnerability, you may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As upsetting and disabling as PTSD can be, it’s important to realize that you’re not helpless. There are plenty of things you can do to alleviate your PTSD symptoms, reduce anxiety and fear, and take back control of your life.

What is PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can develop following any event that makes you fear for your safety. Most people associate PTSD with rape or battle-scarred soldiers—and military combat is the most common cause in men—but any event, or series of events, that overwhelms you with feelings of hopelessness and helplessness and leaves you emotionally shattered can trigger PTSD, especially if the event feels unpredictable and uncontrollable.

PTSD can affect people who personally experience the threatening event, those who witness the event, or those who pick up the pieces afterwards, such as emergency workers. PTSD can also result from surgery performed on children too young to fully understand what’s happening to them.

Traumatic events that can cause PTSD include:

  • War
  • Natural disasters
  • Car or plane crashes
  • Terrorist attacks
  • Sudden death of a loved one
  • Rape
  • Kidnapping
  • Assault
  • Sexual or physical abuse
  • Childhood neglect

 

Common PTSD symptoms

PTSD develops differently from person to person because everyone’s nervous system and tolerance for stress is a little different. While you’re most likely to develop symptoms of PTSD in the hours or days following a traumatic event, it can sometimes take weeks, months, or even years before they appear. There are three main types of symptoms:

Re-experiencing the traumatic event. You may experience upsetting memories, flashbacks, and nightmares, as well as feelings of distress or intense physical reactions when reminded of the event (sweating, pounding heart, nausea, for example).

Avoiding reminders of the trauma. You may try to avoid activities, places or thoughts that remind you of the trauma or be unable to remember important aspects of the event. You may feel detached from others and emotionally numb, or lose interest in activities and life in general, sensing only a limited future for yourself.

Increased anxiety and emotional arousal. You may experience trouble sleeping, irritability or outbursts of anger, have difficulty concentrating, be jumpy and easily startled, and feel hyper vigilant (on constant “red alert”).

Other common symptoms

  • Guilt, shame, or self-blame
  • Feelings of mistrust and betrayal
  • Depression or hopelessness, including suicidal thoughts and feelings
  • Substance abuse
  • Physical aches and pains

Symptoms of PTSD in children

In children—especially very young children—the symptoms of PTSD can be different from adults and may include:

PTSD symptoms in children
Fear of being separated from parent
Losing previously-acquired skills (such as toilet training)
Sleep problems and nightmares
Somber, compulsive play in which themes or aspects of the trauma are repeated
New phobias and anxieties that seem unrelated to the trauma (such as a fear of monsters)
Acting out the trauma through play, stories, or drawings
Aches and pains with no apparent cause
Irritability and aggression

 

How PTSD affects your nervous system

When your sense of safety is shattered by a traumatic event, it’s normal to have bad dreams, feel fearful, and find it difficult to stop thinking about what happened. For most people, these symptoms gradually lift over time. But this normal response to trauma becomes PTSD when the symptoms don’t ease up and your nervous system gets “stuck.”

Your nervous system has two automatic or reflexive ways of responding to stressful events:

Mobilization, or fight-or-flight, occurs when you need to defend yourself or escape the danger of a traumatic event. Your heart pounds faster, your blood pressure rises, and your muscles tighten, increasing your strength and reaction speed. Once the danger has passed, your nervous system calms your body, lowering your heart rate and blood pressure, and winding back down to its normal balance.

Immobilization occurs when you’ve experienced an overwhelming amount of stress in a situation and, while the immediate danger has passed, you find yourself “stuck.” Your nervous system is unable to return to its normal state of balance and you’re unable to move on from the event. This is PTSD.

 

Self-help tip 1: Get moving

When you’re suffering from PTSD, exercise can do more than just release endorphins and improve your mood and outlook. By really focusing on your body and how it feels as you move, exercise can actually help your nervous system become “unstuck” and begin to move out of the immobilization stress response. Try:

Rhythmic exercise that engages both your arms and legs, such as walking, running, swimming, or dancing. Instead of focusing on your thoughts, focus on how your body feels. Notice the sensation of your feet hitting the ground, for example, or the rhythm of your breathing, or the feeling of the wind on your skin.

Rock climbing, boxing, weight training, or martial arts.  These activities can make it easier to focus on your body movements—after all, if you don’t, you could get hurt.

Exercising for 30 minutes or more  each day—or if it’s easier, three 10-minute spurts of exercise. The more you move, the better you’ll start to feel.

Spend time in nature

Pursuing outdoor activities like hiking, camping, mountain biking, rock climbing, whitewater rafting, and skiing helps veterans cope with PTSD symptoms and transition back into civilian life. Anyone with PTSD can benefit from the relaxation, seclusion, and peace that come with being out in nature. Seek out local organizations that offer outdoor recreation or teambuilding opportunities.

 

Tip 2: Self-regulate your nervous system

PTSD can leave you feeling vulnerable and powerless over your symptoms. But by learning that you can change your arousal system and calm yourself when you start to feel overwhelmed, you can directly challenge this sense of helplessness and start to feel in control again.

Mindful breathing is a quick way to calm yourself. Simply take 60 breaths, focusing your attention on each out breath.

Sensory input. Just as specific sights, noises, or smells can instantly transport you back to the traumatic event, so too can sensory input quickly calm you down. The key is to find the sensory input that works for you. Does listening to an uplifting song make you feel calm? Or smelling ground coffee or a certain brand of cologne? Or maybe petting an animal works quickly to make you feel at ease? Everyone responds to sensory input a little differently, so experiment to find what works best for you.

Reconnect emotionally

Reconnecting to uncomfortable emotions without becoming overwhelmed can make a huge difference in your ability to manage stress, balance your moods, and take back control of your life. See our Emotional Intelligence Toolkit.

 

Tip 3: Connect with others

Once the fight or flight reflex has been triggered, face-to-face connection with a person who makes you feel safe and valued is the quickest, most effective way of bringing your nervous system back into balance. You don’t have to talk about the trauma if you don’t want to but the caring support and companionship of others is vital to your recovery. Reach out to someone you can connect with for an uninterrupted period of time, someone who will listen when you want to talk without judging, criticizing, or continually being distracted. That person may be your significant other, a family member, a friend, or professional therapist. Or you could try:

Volunteering your time or reaching out to a friend in need. This is not only a great way to connect to others, but can also help you reclaim your sense of control.

Joining a PTSD support group. This can help you feel less isolated and alone and also provide invaluable information on how to cope with symptoms and work towards recovery.

If connecting with others is difficult

No matter how close you are to someone, or how helpful they try to be, the symptoms of PTSD that leave your nervous system feeling “stuck” can also make it difficult to connect to others. If you still don’t feel any better after talking to others, there are ways to help the process along.

Exercise or move. Before chatting with a friend, either exercise or move around. Jump up and down, swing your arms and legs, or just flail around. Your head will feel clearer and you’ll find it easier to connect.

Vocal toning. As strange as it sounds, vocal toning is a great way to open up your nervous system to social engagement—even if you can’t sing or consider yourself tone-deaf. Sit up straight and with your lips together and teeth slightly apart, simply make “mmmm” sounds. Change the pitch and volume until you experience a pleasant vibration in your face. Practice for a few minutes and notice if the vibration spreads to your heart and stomach.

 

Tip 4: Make healthy lifestyle changes

The symptoms of PTSD can be hard on your body so it’s important to take care of yourself and develop some healthy lifestyle habits.

Take time to relax. Relaxation techniques such as meditation, deep breathing, massage, or yoga can activate the body’s relaxation response and ease symptoms of PTSD.

Avoid alcohol and drugs. When you’re struggling with difficult emotions and traumatic memories, you may be tempted to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs. But substance use worsens many symptoms of PTSD, interferes with treatment, and can add to problems in your relationships.

Eat a healthy diet. Start your day right with breakfast, and keep your energy up and your mind clear with balanced, nutritious meals throughout the day. Omega-3s play a vital role in emotional health so incorporate foods such as fatty fish, flaxseed, and walnuts into your diet. Limit processed food, fried food, refined starches, and sugars, which can exacerbate mood swings and cause fluctuations in your energy.

Get enough sleep. Sleep deprivation can trigger anger, irritability, and moodiness. Aim for somewhere between 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night. Develop a relaxing bedtime ritual (listen to calming music, watch a funny show, or read something light) and make your bedroom as quiet, dark, and soothing as possible.

 

Helping a loved one with PTSD

When a loved one has PTSD, it takes a heavy toll on your relationship and family life. You may have to take on a bigger share of household tasks, deal with the frustration of a loved one who won’t open up, or even deal with anger or disturbing behavior. Your loved one’s PTSD symptoms can also result in job loss, substance abuse, and other stressful problems.

Don’t pressure your loved one into talking. It is often very difficult for people with PTSD to talk about their trauma. For some, it can even make things worse. Never try to force your loved one to open up. Comfort often comes from your companionship and acceptance, rather than from talking.

Let your loved one take the lead, rather than telling him or her what to do. Take cues from your loved one as to how you can best provide support and companionship—that may involve talking about the traumatic event over and over again, or it may involve simply hanging out together.

Manage your own stress. The more calm, relaxed, and focused you are, the better you’ll be able to help your loved one with PTSD.

Try to prepare for PTSD triggers. Common triggers include anniversary dates; people or places associated with the trauma; and certain sights, sounds, or smells. If you are aware of the triggers that may cause an upsetting reaction, you’ll be in a better position to help your loved one calm down.

Don’t take the symptoms of PTSD personally. If your loved one seems distant, irritable, angry, or closed off, remember that this may not have anything to do with you or your relationship.

Educate yourself about PTSD. The more you know about the symptoms, effects, and treatment, the better equipped you’ll be to help your loved one, understand what he or she is going through, and keep things in perspective.

Take care of yourself. Letting your family member’s PTSD dominate your life while ignoring your own needs is a surefire recipe for burnout. You need to take care of yourself in order to take care of your loved one.

 

Professional treatment for PTSD

Treatment for PTSD can relieve symptoms by helping you deal with the trauma you’ve experienced. A doctor or therapist will encourage you to recall and process the emotions you felt during the original event in order to reduce the powerful hold the memory has on your life.

You’ll also:

  • Explore your thoughts and feelings about the trauma
  • Work through feelings of guilt and mistrust
  • Learn how to cope with intrusive memories
  • Address problems PTSD has caused in your life and relationships

Types of treatment for PTSD

Trauma-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy involves gradually “exposing” yourself to feelings and situations that remind you of the trauma, and replacing distorted and irrational thoughts about the trauma with a more balanced picture.

Family therapy can help your loved ones understand what you’re going through and help the family work through relationship problems.

Medication is sometimes prescribed to people with PTSD to relieve secondary symptoms of depression or anxiety, although they do not treat the causes of PTSD.

EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) incorporates elements of cognitive-behavioral therapy with eye movements or other forms of rhythmic, left-right stimulation, such as hand taps or sounds. These techniques work by “unfreezing” the brain’s information processing system, which is interrupted in times of extreme stress.

 

Finding a therapist for PTSD treatment

When looking for a therapist, seek out mental health professionals who specialize in the treatment of trauma and PTSD. You can ask your doctor or other trauma survivors for a referral, call a local mental health clinic, psychiatric hospital, or counseling center, or see the Resources and References section below.

Beyond credentials and experience, it’s important to find a PTSD therapist who makes you feel comfortable and safe. Trust your gut; if a therapist doesn’t feel right, look for someone else. For therapy to work, you need to feel comfortable and understood.

Deep breathing

Deep breathing

With its focus on full, cleansing breaths, deep breathing is a simple yet powerful relaxation technique. It’s easy to learn, can be practiced almost anywhere, and provides a quick way to get your stress levels in check. Deep breathing is the cornerstone of many other relaxation practices, too, and can be combined with other relaxing elements such as aromatherapy and music. All you really need is a few minutes and a place to stretch out.

How to practice deep breathing

The key to deep breathing is to breathe deeply from the abdomen, getting as much fresh air as possible in your lungs. When you take deep breaths from the abdomen, rather than shallow breaths from your upper chest, you inhale more oxygen. The more oxygen you get, the less tense, short of breath, and anxious you feel.

  • Sit comfortably with your back straight. Put one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach.
  • Breathe in through your nose. The hand on your stomach should rise. The hand on your chest should move very little.
  • Exhale through your mouth, pushing out as much air as you can while contracting your abdominal muscles. The hand on your stomach should move in as you exhale, but your other hand should move very little.
  • Continue to breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Try to inhale enough so that your lower abdomen rises and falls. Count slowly as you exhale.

If you find it difficult breathing from your abdomen while sitting up, try lying on the floor. Put a small book on your stomach, and try to breathe so that the book rises as you inhale and falls as you exhale. Breathing techniques can be practiced almost anywhere and can be combined with other relaxation exercises, such as aromatherapy and music. All you really need is a few minutes and a place to stretch out.

Progressive muscle relaxation

Progressive muscle relaxation is a two-step process in which you systematically tense and relax different muscle groups in the body. With regular practice, progressive muscle relaxation gives you an intimate familiarity with what tension—as well as complete relaxation—feels like in different parts of the body. This awareness helps you spot and counteract the first signs of the muscular tension that accompanies stress. And as your body relaxes, so will your mind.

You can combine deep breathing with progressive muscle relaxation for an additional level of stress relief.

Practicing progressive muscle relaxation

Most progressive muscle relaxation practitioners start at the feet and work their way up to the face.

  1. Loosen your clothing, take off your shoes, and get comfortable.
  2. Take a few minutes to relax, breathing in and out in slow, deep breaths.
  3. When you’re relaxed and ready to start, shift your attention to your right foot. Take a moment to focus on the way it feels.
  4. Slowly tense the muscles in your right foot, squeezing as tightly as you can. Hold for a count of 10.
  5. Relax your right foot. Focus on the tension flowing away and the way your foot feels as it becomes limp and loose.
  6. Stay in this relaxed state for a moment, breathing deeply and slowly.
  7. When you’re ready, shift your attention to your left foot. Follow the same sequence of muscle tension and release.
  8. Move slowly up through your body, contracting and relaxing the muscle groups as you go.
  9. It may take some practice at first, but try not to tense muscles other than those intended.

Before practicing progressive muscle relaxation, consult with your doctor if you have a history of muscle spasms, back problems, or other serious injuries that may be aggravated by tensing muscles.

Progressive muscle relaxation sequence

  1. Right foot, then left foot
  2. Right calf, then left calf
  3. Right thigh, then left thigh
  4. Hips and buttocks
  5. Stomach
  6. Chest
  7. Back
  8. Right arm and hand, then left arm and hand
  9. Neck and shoulders
  10. Face

Cutting and Self-Harm

How to Feel Better without Hurting Yourself

Sad girl contemplating cutting and self harmSelf-harm can be a way of coping with problems. It may help you express feelings you can’t put into words, distract you from your life, or release emotional pain. Afterwards, you probably feel better—at least for a little while. But then the painful feelings return, and you feel the urge to hurt yourself again. If you want to stop cutting or self-harming but don’t know how, remember this: you deserve to feel better, and you can get there without hurting yourself.

What do you need to know about cutting and self-harm?

Self-harm is a way of expressing and dealing with deep distress and emotional pain. As counterintuitive as it may sound to those on the outside, hurting yourself can make you feel better. In fact, you may feel like you have no choice. Injuring yourself is the only way you know how to cope with feelings like sadness, self-loathing, emptiness, guilt, and rage.

The problem is that the relief that comes from self-harming doesn’t last very long. It’s like slapping on a Band-Aid when what you really need are stitches. It may temporarily stop the bleeding, but it doesn’t fix the underlying injury. It also creates its own problems.

If you’re like most people who self-injure, you probably try to keep what you’re doing secret. Maybe you feel ashamed or maybe you just think that no one would understand. But hiding who you are and what you feel is a heavy burden. Ultimately, the secrecy and guilt affects your relationships with your friends and family members and the way you feel about yourself. It can make you feel even more lonely, worthless, and trapped.

Myths and facts about cutting and self-harm
Because cutting and other means of self-harm tend to be taboo subjects, the people around you—and possibly even you—may harbor serious misunderstandings about your motivations and state of mind. Don’t let these myths get in the way of getting help or helping someone you care about.
Myth: People who cut and self-injure are trying to get attention.

Fact: The painful truth is that people who self-harm generally harm themselves in secret. They aren’t trying to manipulate others or draw attention to themselves. In fact, shame and fear can make it very difficult to come forward and ask for help.

Myth: People who self-injure are crazy and/or dangerous.

Fact: It is true that many people who self-harm suffer from anxiety, depression, or a previous trauma—just like millions of others in the general population, but that doesn’t make them crazy or dangerous. Self-injury is how they cope. Sticking a label like “crazy” or “dangerous” on a person isn’t accurate or helpful.

Myth: People who self-injure want to die.

Fact: People who self-injure usually do not want to die. When they self-harm, they are not trying to kill themselves—they are trying to cope with their problems and pain. In fact, self-injury may be a way of helping themselves go on living. However, in the long-term, people who self-injure have a much higher risk of suicide, which is why it’s so important to seek help.

Myth: If the wounds aren’t bad, it’s not that serious.

Fact: The severity of a person’s wounds has very little to do with how much he or she may be suffering. Don’t assume that because the wounds or injuries are minor, there’s nothing to worry about.

Recognize the symptoms and warning signs

Self-harm includes anything you do to intentionally injure yourself. Some of the more common ways include:

  1. cutting or severely scratching your skin
  2. burning or scalding yourself
  3. hitting yourself or banging your head
  4. punching things or throwing your body against walls and hard objects
  5. sticking objects into your skin
  6. intentionally preventing wounds from healing
  7. swallowing poisonous substances or inappropriate objects

Self-harm can also include less obvious ways of hurting yourself or putting yourself in danger, such as driving recklessly, binge drinking, taking too many drugs, and having unsafe sex.

Warning signs that a family member or friend is cutting or self-harming

Because clothing can hide physical injuries, and inner turmoil can be covered up by a seemingly calm disposition, self-injury can be hard to detect. However, there are red flags you can look for (but remember—you don’t have to be sure that you know what’s going on in order to reach out to someone you’re worried about):

Unexplained wounds or scars from cuts, bruises, or burns, usually on the wrists, arms, thighs, or chest.

Blood stains on clothing, towels, or bedding; blood-soaked tissues.

Sharp objects or cutting instruments, such as razors, knives, needles, glass shards, or bottle caps, in the person’s belongings.

Frequent “accidents.” Someone who self-harms may claim to be clumsy or have many mishaps, in order to explain away injuries.

Covering up. A person who self-injures may insist on wearing long sleeves or long pants, even in hot weather.

Needing to be alone for long periods of time, especially in the bedroom or bathroom.

Isolation and irritability.

How does cutting and self-harm help?

In your own words

It expresses emotional pain or feelings that I’m unable to put into words. It puts a punctuation mark on what I’m feeling on the inside!”

It’s a way to have control over my body because I can’t control anything else in my life.”

“I usually feel like I have a black hole in the pit of my stomach, at least if I feel pain it’s better than feeling nothing.

I feel relieved and less anxious after I cut. The emotional pain slowly slips away into the physical pain.”

It’s important to acknowledge that self-harm helps you—otherwise you wouldn’t do it. Some of the ways cutting and self-harming can help include:

  • Expressing feelings you can’t put into words or releasing the pain and tension you feel inside
  • Helping you feel in control, relieving guilt, or punishing yourself
  • Distracting you from overwhelming emotions or difficult life circumstances
  • Making you feel alive, or simply feel something, instead of feeling numb

Once you better understand why you self-harm, you can learn ways to stop self-harming, and find resources that can support you through this struggle.

If self-harm helps, why stop?

Although self-harm and cutting can give you temporary relief, it comes at a cost. In the long term, it causes far more problems than it solves.

The relief is short lived, and is quickly followed by other feelings like shame and guilt. Meanwhile, it keeps you from learning more effective strategies for feeling better.

Keeping the secret of self-harm is difficult and lonely. And it can have a detrimental effect on your relationships with friends and family members.

You can hurt yourself badly, even if you don’t mean to. It’s easy to misjudge the depth of a cut or end up with an infected wound.

You’re at risk for bigger problems down the line. If you don’t learn other ways to deal with emotional pain, you increase your risk of  major depression, drug and alcohol addiction, and suicide.

Self-harm can become addictive. It may start off as an impulse or something you do to feel more in control, but soon it feels like the cutting or self-harming is controlling you. It often turns into a compulsive behavior that seems impossible to stop.

The bottom line: self-harm and cutting don’t help you with the issues that made you want to hurt yourself in the first place. There are many other ways that the underlying issues that drive your self-harm can be managed or overcome.

Confide in someone

If you’re ready to get help for cutting or self-harm, the first step is to confide in another person. It can be scary to talk about the very thing you have worked so hard to hide, but it can also be a huge relief to finally let go of your secret and share what you’re going through.

Deciding whom you can trust with such personal information can be difficult. Choose someone who isn’t going to gossip or try to take control of your recovery. Ask yourself who in your life makes you feel accepted and supported. It could be a friend, teacher, religious leader, counselor, or relative. But you don’t necessarily have to choose someone you are close to.

Eventually, you’ll want to open up to your inner circle of friends and family members, but sometimes it’s easier to start by talking to an adult who you respect—such as a teacher, religious leader, or counselor—who has a little more distance from the situation and won’t find it as difficult to be objective.

Tips for talking about self-harm

Focus on your feelings. Instead of sharing detailed accounts of your self-harm behavior focus on the feelings or situations that lead to it. This can help the person you’re confiding in better understand where you’re coming from. It also helps to let the person know why you’re telling them. Do you want help or advice from them? Do you simply want another person to know so you can let go of the secret?

Communicate in whatever way you feel most comfortable. If you’re too nervous to talk in person, consider starting off the conversation with an email or letter (although it’s important to eventually follow-up with a face-to-face conversation). Don’t feel pressured into sharing things you’re not ready to talk about. You don’t have to show the person your injuries or answer any questions you don’t feel comfortable answering.

Give the person time to process what you tell them. As difficult as it is for you to open up, it may also be difficult for the person you tell—especially if it’s a close friend or family member. Sometimes, you may not like the way the person reacts. Try to remember that reactions such as shock, anger, and fear come out of concern for you. It may help to print out this article for the people you choose to tell. The better they understand self-harm, the better able they’ll be to support you.

Talking about self-harm can be very stressful and bring up a lot of emotions. Don’t be discouraged if the situation feels worse for a short time right after sharing your secret. It’s uncomfortable to confront and change long-standing habits. But once you get past these initial challenges, you’ll start to feel better.

Need help for self-harm?

If you’re not sure where to turn, call the S.A.F.E. Alternatives information line in the U.S. at (800) 366-8288 for referrals and support for cutting and self-harm. For helplines in other countries, see Resources and References below.

In the middle of a crisis?

If you’re feeling suicidal and need help right now, read Suicide Help or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in the U.S. at (800) 273-8255. For a suicide helpline outside the U.S., visit Befrienders Worldwide.

Figure out why you cut or self-harm

Understanding why you cut or self-harm is a vital first step toward your recovery. If you can figure out what function your self-injury serves, you can learn other ways to get those needs met—which in turn can reduce your desire to hurt yourself.

Identify your self-harm triggers

Remember, self-harm is most often a way of dealing with emotional pain. What feelings make you want to cut or hurt yourself? Sadness? Anger? Shame? Loneliness? Guilt? Emptiness?

Once you learn to recognize the feelings that trigger your need to self-injure, you can start developing healthier alternatives.

Get in touch with your feelings

If you’re having a hard time pinpointing the feelings that trigger your urge to cut, you may need to work on your emotional awareness. Emotional awareness means knowing what you are feeling and why. It’s the ability to identify and express what you are feeling from moment to moment and to understand the connection between your feelings and your actions. Feelings are important pieces of information that our bodies give to us, but they do not have to result in actions like cutting or other self-harming.

The idea of paying attention to your feelings—rather than numbing them or releasing them through self-harm—may sound frightening to you. You may be afraid that you’ll get overwhelmed or be stuck with the pain. But the truth is that emotions quickly come and go if you let them. If you don’t try to fight, judge, or beat yourself up over the feeling, you’ll find that it soon fades, replaced by another emotion. It’s only when you obsess over the feeling that it persists.

Find new coping techniques

Self-harm is your way of dealing with feelings and difficult situations. So if you’re going to stop, you need to have alternative ways of coping in place so you can respond differently when you start to feel like cutting or hurting yourself.

If you self-harm to express pain and intense emotions

Paint, draw, or scribble on a big piece of paper with red ink or paint

Start a journal in which to express your feelings

Compose a poem or song to say what you feel

Write down any negative feelings and then rip the paper up

Listen to music that expresses what you’re feeling

To calm and soothe yourself

Take a bath or hot shower

Pet or cuddle with a dog or cat

Wrap yourself in a warm blanket

Massage your neck, hands, and feet

Listen to calming music

Because you feel disconnected and numb

Call a friend (you don’t have to talk about self-harm)

Take a cold shower

Hold an ice cube in the crook of your arm or leg

Chew something with a very strong taste, like chili peppers, peppermint, or a grapefruit peel

Go online to a self-help website, chat room, or message board

To release tension or vent anger

Exercise vigorously—run, dance, jump rope, or hit a punching bag

Punch a cushion or mattress or scream into your pillow

Squeeze a stress ball or squish Play-Doh or clay

Rip something up (sheets of paper, a magazine)

Make some noise (play an instrument, bang on pots and pans)

Substitutes for the cutting sensation

Use a red felt tip pen to mark where you might usually cut

Rub ice across your skin where you might usually cut

Put rubber bands on wrists, arms, or legs, and snap them instead of cutting or hitting

Source: The Mental Health Foundation, UK

Professional treatment for cutting and self-harm

You may also need the help and support of a trained professional as you work to overcome the self-harm habit, so consider talking to a therapist. A therapist can help you develop new coping techniques and strategies to stop self-harming, while also helping you get to the root of why you cut or hurt yourself.

Remember, self-harm doesn’t occur in a vacuum. It exists in real life. It’s an outward expression of inner pain—pain that often has its roots in early life. There is often a connection between self-harm and childhood trauma.

Self-harm may be your way of coping with feelings related to past abuse, flashbacks, negative feelings about your body, or other traumatic memories. This may be the case even if you’re not consciously aware of the connection.

Finding the right therapist

Finding the right therapist may take some time. It’s very important that the therapist you choose has experience treating both trauma and self-injury. But the quality of the relationship with your therapist is equally important. Trust your instincts. If you don’t feel safe, respected, or understood, find another therapist.

There should be a sense of trust and warmth between you and your therapist. This therapist should be someone who accepts self-harm without condoning it, and who is willing to help you work toward stopping it at your own pace. You should feel at ease with him or her, even while talking through your most personal issues.

Helping a friend or family member who self-harms

Perhaps you’ve noticed suspicious injuries on someone close to you, or that person has admitted to you that he or she is cutting. Whatever the case may be, you may be feeling unsure of yourself. What should you say? How can you help?

Deal with your own feelings. You may feel shocked, confused, or even disgusted by self-harming behaviors—and guilty about admitting these feelings. Acknowledging your feelings is an important first step toward helping your loved one.

Learn about the problem. The best way to overcome any discomfort or distaste you feel about self-harm is by learning about it. Understanding why your friend or family member is self-injuring can help you see the world from his or her eyes.

Don’t judge. Avoid judgmental comments and criticism—they’ll only make things worse. The first two tips will go a long way in helping you with this. Remember, the self-harming person already feels ashamed and alone.

Offer support, not ultimatums. It’s only natural to want to help, but threats, punishments, and ultimatums are counterproductive. Express your concern and let the person know that you’re available whenever he or she wants to talk or needs support.

Encourage communication. Encourage your loved one to express whatever he or she is feeling, even if it’s something you might be uncomfortable with. If the person hasn’t told you about the self-harm, bring up the subject in a caring, non-confrontational way: “I’ve noticed injuries on your body, and I want to understand what you’re going through.”

If the self-harmer is a family member, prepare yourself to address difficulties in the family. This is not about blame, but rather about learning ways of dealing with problems and communicating better that can help the whole family

Anxiety

Depressed Man at Window

There are different forms of anxiety—and successful ways of overcoming the problem.

Anxiety isn’t always a bad thing. In fact, it can motivate you and help you stay focused under pressure. But when worries, fears, or panic attacks start to get in the way of your life, you may be suffering from an anxiety disorder. But peace of mind may not be as far away as you think. There are many things you can do to get your anxiety in check and regain control of your life.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)