No one is "perfect." Yet many people struggle to be, which can trigger a cascade of anxieties.
Perfectionism may be a strong suit or a stumbling block, depending on how it's channeled, as clinical psychologist Jeff Szymanski explains. Dr. Szymanski is an associate instructor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and executive director of the International OCD Foundation.
"The core of all perfectionism is the intention to do something well," says Dr. Szymanski. "If you can keep your eye on intention and desired outcome, adjusting your strategy when needed, you're fine.... But when you can't tolerate making a mistake, when your strategy is to make no mistakes, that's when perfectionism starts veering off in the wrong direction." In its most severe form, perfectionism can leave you unable to complete any task for fear of making a mistake.
Get your copy of Coping with Anxiety and Stress Disorders
Everyone worries or gets scared sometimes. But if you feel extremely worried or afraid much of the time, or if you repeatedly feel panicky, you may have an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders are among the most common mental illnesses, affecting roughly 40 million American adults each year. This report discusses the latest and most effective treatment approaches, including cognitive behavioral therapies, psychotherapy, and medications. A special section delves into alternative treatments for anxiety, such as relaxation techniques, mindfulness meditation, and biofeedback.
To help you prioritize the projects and activities that mean the most to you and keep your personal strategy in line, Dr. Szymanski has shared the following exercise:
What do you find valuable in life? What would you want 50 years of your life to represent? If that seems overwhelming, think about where you want to put your energies for the next five years.
Think about your current goals and projects, and assign them priorities. Use the letters "ABCF" to help you decide where you want to excel (A), be above average (B), or be average (C), and what you can let go of (F). For example:
A (100% effort): This is reserved for what's most important to you. For example, if your career is most valuable, your goals might be to impress the boss, make sure clients are happy, put out good products at work.
B (above average, maybe 80% effort): Perhaps you like playing golf or tennis or want to learn a new language. You enjoy these activities, but have no plans to go pro.
C (average effort): Perhaps having a clean home is important, too. But how often does your home need to be cleaned? People aren't coming to see it every day. Could you just clean up on the weekends? Or focus on a few rooms that get the most traffic?
F (no effort): Time-consumers that don't advance your values or bring you pleasure — for example, lining up all your hangers or folding all your clothes in a specific way. Do you have any tasks that, upon reflection, don't really matter — you've just done them one way for so long that you're on autopilot? These deserve to be pruned.
To learn more about anxiety, including the difference between what's normal and should be considered serious, as well as ways to treat anxiety, buy Coping with Anxiety and Stress Disorders, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School.
Mental and social engagement can help keep your brain sharp and lower the chances of cognitive decline, in part because challenging our brains may help forge new connections between brain cells. The key to taking advantage of the brain's malleability is to find activities that you truly enjoy and to commit to life-long learning.
Treating anxiety without medication
If you suffer from anxiety, the constant, nagging feelings of worry can be troubling and hard to control. These feelings are usually intense and out of proportion to the actual troubles and dangers in your everyday life. They can make it hard to function at home, at work, or in social situations.
Anxiety can be treated with medication, but several mind-body approaches may also be effective.
Hypnosis is sometimes used along with cognitive behavioral therapy to treat anxiety. It can help people focus their attention, rethink problems, relax, and respond to helpful suggestions. Hypnosis relies mainly on your ability to concentrate and on the trust you have in the therapist. If you are interested in hypnosis, discuss it first with your psychiatrist or psychologist. She or he can help you find a qualified practitioner.
Biofeedback measures specific body functions, such as heartbeat or breathing, and feeds this information back to you in the form of sounds or lights. This can help you become aware of your body's responses and learn to control them using relaxation and cognitive techniques. You can practice different relaxation techniques while attached to biofeedback equipment and get immediate sensory input about which techniques produce the desired results, such as slowing the heart rate or relaxing tense muscles. The hope is that this extra feedback helps people find — and refine — techniques that can calm the body and reduce anxiety.
Other relaxation techniques that may ease anxiety include deep (diaphragmatic) breathing, visualization, and body scanning.
To practice this technique, begin by finding a comfortable, quiet place to sit or lie down. Start by observing your breath. First, take a normal breath. Now try taking a slow, deep breath. The air coming in through your nose should feel as though it moves downward into your lower belly. Let your abdomen expand fully. Now breathe out through your mouth (or your nose, if that feels more natural). Alternate normal and deep breaths several times. Pay attention to how you feel when you inhale and exhale normally and when you breathe deeply. Shallow breathing often feels tense and constricted, while deep breathing produces relaxation.
Continue this for several minutes. Put one hand on your abdomen, just below your belly button. Feel your hand rise about an inch each time you inhale and fall about an inch each time you exhale. Your chest will rise slightly, too, in concert with your abdomen. Remember to relax your belly so that each inhalation expands it fully.
Try to practice this breathing technique for 15 to 20 minutes every day. You might also try shorter bouts lasting a few minutes when anxiety begins to build, to see if this feels calming.
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