Isn’t It Time to Stop Judging Yourself?

Bad habits aren’t limited to things like nail biting and procrastination. For women, one of the most common and insidious habits is being overly critical or judgmental of themselves. What’s worse, a pattern of self-criticism can become so ingrained, you might not even notice you’re doing it.

“It’s a huge issue for women,” says Alice Domar, who has a doctorate in health psychology and is the author of Be Happy Without Being Perfect. “We criticize ourselves from morning to night, and all that negative self-talk puts you at risk for depression, anxiety and low self-esteem.”

You can learn to silence your inner critic and become more accepting of yourself, however. Start with these strategies:

1. Listen to yourself.
The first step is to recognize when you’re engaging in negative self-talk. Decide to spend a day tuned into your thoughts about yourself and jot down every comment. That night, count how many are negative.

Seeing in ink how many times you call yourself a bad mother or berate your lack of diet willpower helps you realize just how critical you’re being. “It’s a big wake-up call,” says Domar.

2. Be honest.
Now that you’re better tuned in, when you “hear” criticism, ask yourself four questions, says Domar: "Is this thought logical? Is it true? Does this thought contribute to my stress? Where did it come from?" In most cases, your answers will be, "No, it’s not logical or true. Yes, it stresses me out." And the thought originally came from a former boss, a judgmental relative or a mean teacher you had in high school.

By paying attention to and dissecting the criticism in this way, you can better realize that the criticism isn’t valid. And that’s a crucial first step toward stopping it.

3. Avoid the comparison game.
Comparing yourself to others doesn’t do anything but make you feel bad. It’s unfair and damaging to reprimand yourself because you’re not as thin as one friend or as organized as another. “There will always be someone who will exceed you in some part of life,” says Pauline Wallin, who has a doctorate in clinical psychology and has written Taming Your Inner Brat.

Instead, focus on what you do right. Recognize, for example, that you’re a great multitasker or can manage a complex project efficiently -- and ignore that you’re not a pro networker like your colleague. You’ll feel better about yourself, which helps you succeed in the long run.

4.
Look at the big picture.
So what if your house isn’t immaculate? Who cares that you lost your keys? Will beating yourself up change anything in the grand scheme of things?

It’s important not to get caught up in minor details. Instead, think about what’s really important: You may not spend time scrubbing your floors, but you do spend time with your kids, and they are healthy, well-adjusted and love you, for example.

5. Get a second opinion.
“People hold themselves to much higher standards than they do others,” says Domar. So when you start getting beat down, talk to a trusted friend to get a needed reality check.

Another’s voice will help you see things from an outsider’s more accepting perspective. She’ll help you realize all the things you’re doing well in your life and that nobody thinks you’re a bad mother, woman, employee -- whatever! Your criticisms will soon seem as silly and unwarranted as they actually are.

6. Decide to stop being negative.

After a while, you will start to recognize when you’re about to be (or are being) too hard on yourself. When you do, stop yourself -- literally, says Domar. Visualize a stop sign, take slow, deep breaths, then consciously make a choice not to be negative. Remember that you control your thoughts. It can be quite empowering to decide not to let them hurt you.

Try changing the subject in your head by shifting to something positive, such as an upcoming party or vacation. Changing the subject helps short-circuit negative thoughts immediately, says Wallin.

7. Keep a bravo journal.

Getting in the habit of recognizing success can help overtake negativity. So at the end of each day, take stock of what you did well and write it in a journal or share it with your partner. “A lot of us have been brought up to think bragging is bad,” says Domar. “But if you’ve accomplished something, recognize and share the good news.”

Whether you gave a stellar presentation at work or helped your daughter create an A-plus art project, seeing accomplishments in writing or hearing them in your own voice helps you think of yourself more positively every day. This will evict the inner critic, and a kinder commentator will move in -- one who treats you with the respect you’re so good at giving others.

6 Instant Ways to Stress Less and Smile More

You can’t completely eliminate stress from your life, but you can learn to deal with it in a healthy way. And since stress is associated with all sorts of negative health effects like high blood pressure and a weakened immune system, taking a few minutes a day to fight stress keeps you not only happy and smiling, but healthy too.  

“Daily hassles and annoyances can get to anyone, but small changes make a big difference,” explains Judy Saltzberg, who holds a doctorate in clinical psychology and teaches at the University of Pennsylvania’s Masters of Applied Positive Psychology program. Here’s how to keep smiling:

1. Take it outside.
“The first intervention I advise is physical activity,” says Saltzberg. Even if you don’t have time for a full workout, you can still boost your happiness. A study from the University of Essex found that just five minutes of walking, biking or even gardening outdoors can lift your mood and improve self-esteem.

Health bonus: Aside from melting away stress, you’ll melt calories too!

2. Find time for tea.
Sipping a few cups of tea may make you more resilient to stress, according to research from the University College of London. Study participants who drank four cups of black tea a day had less of the stress hormone cortisol in their body after completing a challenging task than did those who didn’t drink tea.

Health bonus: Tea’s antioxidants may ward off some cancers, improve heart health and decrease risk of stroke.

3. Pop a piece of gum.
Under pressure? Chewing gum could help, say experts at Swinburne University in Melbourne, Australia. Researchers found that people who chewed while multitasking reported feeling less anxious and less stressed than their gum-free peers. They also felt more alert and performed twice as well on stressful tasks.

Health bonus: Chewing sugarless gum after meals will not only reduce stress, but it can also help fight bacteria that cause cavities.

4. Indulge in dark chocolate.
Dessert probably puts a smile on your face already, but now there’s proof of chocolate’s joy-boosting benefits. German researchers found that people who ate 1.5 ounces of dark chocolate a day for two weeks had significantly lower levels of anxiety- and stress-related hormones in their system.

Health bonus: Dark chocolate may also contribute to lower blood pressure and reduce your risk of stroke or heart attack by 39 percent, suggests a study in the European Heart Journal.

5. Stop and smell the flowers.
Sniff your way to serenity and fight off sickness by keeping a bouquet of roses on your desk, wearing citrus-scented lotion or getting a whiff of cinnamon. Stress can wreak havoc on your immune system, but Japanese scientists found that when people inhaled a scent compound common in flowers, herbs and spices, their systems kept functioning normally in spite of the stress.

Health bonus: Smelling lavender before bed can help you sleep better, according to a study in Complementary Therapies in Nursing and Midwifery.

6. Flip your perspective.
Focusing on the positive in a stressful situation can help keep you smiling, says Saltzberg. Instead of stewing on a bumper-to-bumper traffic jam, for example, think of it as an opportunity to call an old friend. “Tuning into your thinking and challenging doomsday thoughts can put a situation in perspective,” says Saltzberg. And that defuses the tension.

Health bonus: A glass-half-full approach has been linked to faster recovery from injury and illness, according to research in the Journal of Personality.

After a few weeks of practicing these techniques, you’ll not only feel happier, but you can rest easy knowing you’re healthier too -- which is one less thing for you to stress about!

Find New Friends Fast

When you’re younger, friends are everything. As you get older and people change and family responsibilities and jobs require more time and attention, it’s not unusual to lose touch with friends. And if you move to a new city, distance makes it even harder.

“In midlife, women’s lives are particularly full,” explains Irene Levine, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry at New York University and author of Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friend. “But having supportive friendships is important -- it reduces stress, blood pressure and the risk of depression.” Besides, friends make life more fun.

So check out these strategies for how to seek and develop meaningful friendships. They require only a little extra effort and repay you with a priceless gift.

1. Work your current commitments.
Conventional advice may suggest you sign up for an art class or book club to meet new people. But you’re probably overscheduled as it is! So instead, become more engaged in the groups you already have. For example, instead of watching soccer games with 30 other parents, become a board member of the league. Or lead a subcommittee for the PTA.

“You’ll connect more regularly and intimately with the same people,” says Levine. And doing so allows friendships to develop naturally, even though you aren’t shouldering much more of a time commitment.

2. Elevate an acquaintance to a friend.
When you find someone you click with, take baby steps toward making her a bosom buddy. “Share your real self slowly and wait for her to reciprocate,” says Levine. Meet for coffee and start by talking about your background or your interests (e.g., cooking or scrapbooking). Peeling back layers may be uncomfortable for shy types, but you need to expose yourself to see if there’s good mutual chemistry, she says.

On the other hand, should you feel totally at ease, resist the temptation to spill your life story right away. If your new pal is overwhelmed, she might back off unnecessarily.

3. Integrate yourself into a group.
If you’re on the periphery of an established social circle, breaking in can be daunting. Solution: Develop a closer relationship with one person first. Once the friendship sprouts, your pal is likely to involve you more with the group.

One warning: Don’t get too clingy with your go-to gal. At gatherings, chat with others so you don’t alienate her. And be patient. It takes time, but eventually you’ll be chummy with more members and become part of the inner circle yourself.

4. Spend time outside mommy-dom.
Being a mother is probably the most important part of your life, but it’s not the only part. “Mommy friends are our mentors and consultants, but it’s nice to have girlfriends with whom you can talk about more than kids,” says Levine.

So when reaching out to another mom, suggest a movie or art exhibit -- anything that doesn’t involve kids. And steer conversation away from little ones. Exploring other parts of your personality helps a relationship transform from a one-dimensional interaction to a full-fledged friendship. Plus, you’ll feel more like the well-rounded woman you are, beyond your role as mom.

5. Be open to friendship.
“It sounds sappy, but most friendships begin with a smile and openness,” says Levine. That means engaging in small talk where appropriate -- your office elevator, the community pool, courtside at your kids’ games. “If you act friendly and show people you’re interested in them, you’ll get a few ‘nibbles,’” she adds.

But finding your friend may be a hit-and-miss process. For example, you chat up a neighbor and she invites you to a party that turns out to be a pressure-filled sales pitch for her jewelry business. Don’t give up! Stay cheerful and talk with the other guests. Who knows, your future BFF may be there feeling duped too.

6. Nurture new connections.
Once you’ve made a friend, make her a priority by scheduling time together. If it feels forced or you’re just too busy, get your haircut at the same time and grab coffee afterwards. Syncing must-do’s guarantees a little one-on-one without overburdening your schedule. Also remember that you needn’t always connect face-to-face. Try other ways to stay in touch, such as Facebook, texting and quick calls, says Levine.

If you ever feel guilty about missed family time, know that investing in friendships pays off -- for everyone. “Friends help us relax and keep life in perspective,” says Levine. Those “selfish” moments recharge your soul so you can be a better mom, spouse, daughter and sister.

How to Snack the Healthy Way

Here’s the good news: Snacking isn’t inherently unhealthy, and you don’t have to quit snacking altogether. In fact, if you snack on the right foods low in fat and follow a few simple guidelines, munching between meals not only helps you stay on your diet, but it may help you maintain or even lose weight too. 

The problem, of course, is that for many people, a snack means, well, “snack foods” -- chips, cookies, cakes, candy and other processed, high-calorie, high in fat goodies. Snacking also becomes a weighty problem if you mindlessly eat all day long, says Debi Silber, a registered dietician with a master’s degree in nutrition, author of The Lifestyle Fitness Program: A Six-Part Plan So Every Mom Can Look, Feel and Live Her Best.

Check out these tricks to stop snacking on all the wrong stuff and start making smarter, healthier choices.

1. Sit down with a plate.
It’s common to graze when you prepare meals or even walk through the kitchen. From now on, promise yourself that you’ll put every morsel on a plate and sit down before eating it. By making this simple commitment, “you’ll become more aware of snacking and end up eating less,” says Silber.

2. Make snacking unsavory.
When a craving strikes, temporarily trick your taste buds by brushing and flossing your teeth. Nothing tastes good when your mouth is fresh and minty. Likewise, scented body lotion may turn you off of the idea of eating for the time being.

3. Never skip meals.

According to a survey by the International Deli-Dairy-Bakery Association, more Americans have a snack than eat breakfast or lunch. But skipping meals is a mistake: It makes you ravenous, especially for high-fat, high-sugar snacks. “Never let yourself get too hungry,” warns Silber. “It leads to overeating every time.”

4. Choose substantial and low fat snacks.

Having a snack can stop you from getting too hungry and overindulging at mealtimes. But it only works if your snack is satisfying enough that you aren’t craving another in an hour, says Silber. The secret: Pairing foods that contain fiber-rich carbs with high-protein picks. The duo keeps blood sugar levels steady and you feeling full. Try a pear with low-fat cheese, an apple with peanut butter, yogurt with low-fat granola or whole-wheat pita bread with hummus. Whatever you eat, aim to get about 100 to 250 calories.

5. Buy healthy, portable foods.
Processed, fattening snacks are often conveniently packaged, making them an easy go-to when you get hungry. But if you stock your fridge (or purse) with similarly convenient good-for-you snacks, you’re more likely to munch healthy. Think about grab-and-go fruits, veggies and other fare while you’re shopping. Instead of buying pineapple that needs to be peeled, cored and cut, for example, stock up on bananas. Or, in lieu of carrots you must clean, peel, cut and bag, pay a little extra for baby carrots. Other options: almonds, grapes, apples, high-fiber granola bars, and individually wrapped low-fat string cheese.

6. Get more sleep.
Sweets and refined carbs give you a quick boost of energy, which means craving these types of foods could be your body’s way of saying it needs more energy. Try hitting the sack a little earlier or finding a way to push back the alarm clock instead of chasing a temporary fix. By getting more z’s, you’ll help quell cravings and feel better, says Silber.

7. Ask yourself what you really need.
When a snack attack strikes, your inner voice is communicating a need, but it might not be the need to eat, says Silber. Sometimes you just need a break. If you can, stop working, and check Facebook or take a walk. If you need to de-stress, take a shower or call a friend. You may find that what you’re really craving is comfort, not comfort food. 

Secrets to Sneaking in More Sleep

These days, more and more people are sleeping fewer and fewer hours. But we don’t need to tell you that. Keeping up with your kids, household and the rest of your life has likely made you a living, breathing -- and exhausted -- example of today’s sleep-deprived woman.

But a sleep deficit can be a lot more problematic than just making you feel tired. It can also negatively impact your health. Studies have shown that people who don’t get enough quality sleep are more likely to be overweight, because the body may create less leptin, a hormone that regulates appetite. Sleep deprivation can also increase levels of C-reactive protein, a substance that puts you at a greater risk for inflammation that leads to heart disease. What’s more, shaving off hours from your rest can leave you feeling extra stressed and make your skin duller and more tired-looking. (Skin goes to work shedding dead cells and repairing itself while you snooze.)

To avoid the pitfalls, most adults need seven or eight hours, says Phyllis Zee, M.D., director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. Not hitting the magic number? Here are some innovative ways to squeeze in an extra 30 to 60 minutes of sleep each day.

1. Ban the snooze button
Even if it doesn’t feel like it, you’re actually more awake the first time your eyes open than after a string of 10 snooze naps. “Continuing to fall back asleep after each alarm buzz makes you feel groggier in the end,” says Dr. Zee. So either set your alarm for the time you must wake up or get up on the first buzz and save those snooze minutes for an early-afternoon nap.

2. Become a champion multitasker
You’ve already mastered the art of doing two things at once (sometimes more!), so these ideas should be a breeze. Count the extra minutes you save throughout the day and go to bed that much earlier.

  • Drive and talk Get a hands-free device for your cell phone and catch up with your friends on your way home from work instead of after dinner. 
  • Email anywhere Don’t have a BlackBerry or iPhone? Think about getting one. You may cluck at those people constantly glued to their mini-screens, but the occasional check-in while waiting for soccer practice to end, for example, lets you stay on top of your inbox and Facebook account. Doing this means less time getting bleary-eyed at the computer and more time getting shut-eye.
  • Have a working lunch Instead of going out with co-workers, pack a lunch once or twice a week and pay bills or tackle your online to-do list during the noon hour.
  • Plot a course Think about all your errands and ask yourself if there’s a way to spend less time behind the wheel. For example, can you use the grocery store’s pharmacy instead of the one a mile away? Is your current dry cleaner really better than the one next to your son’s school? Make all your stops as convenient and as close as possible.

3. Limit caffeine after 4 p.m.
You need that cup of coffee or tea in the morning, but think twice before making a Starbucks run or downing a Diet Coke in the afternoon. Depending on how much caffeine is in that venti latte, it could take 24 hours for it to flush out of your system. That means you could still feel the perky effects of your pick-me-up at, say, 10 p.m., and instead of winding down, you’d be gearing up to start the next item on your to-do list.

4. Nap the right way
Four to 7 p.m. is the nap danger zone -- when you feel most sleepy but also when you should most avoid dozing off. Why? Snoozing in the late afternoon or early evening can keep you awake later at night, says Dr. Zee. If you can, nap only between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. and limit actual sleep time to 15 minutes, she suggests. That’s all you really need to feel invigorated, she says. Nap any longer, and you could feel groggy.

5. Make the most of your evenings
Try to prepare for the next day’s activities on the night before. You’ll be able to sleep in a bit longer and rest easier knowing things are in order and ready to go.

  • Prep while you cook Make tomorrow’s lunches while waiting for the pasta to boil or the casserole to bake, or while cleaning up leftovers. Food and condiments are already out, saving you a few minutes in the end.
  • Ditch the blow-dryer Shower and shampoo hair at night and let it dry while you sleep. Better yet, only wash it every few days. A spritz or sprinkle of dry shampoo soaks up oil and revives your style.
  • Set it and forget it Pick out everything you need for tomorrow’s outfit the night before, including shoes and accessories. Double-check that all your essentials -- wallet, keys, letters for the post office -- are in your handbag and place it by the door. Also, keep your daily skin care and makeup products out and ready so you don’t waste time rifling through a bag full of stuff you never use.

6. Establish a bedtime
What time must you wake up to get the kids to school on time and yourself to the office? Now work backward seven or eight hours to figure out when you must hit the hay to get a full night’s sleep. About an hour or two before, take a warm shower or bath, then put on socks to keep your feet warm. Warming up and then keeping your feet toasty allows your core body temperature to fall slightly, helping you relax and fall asleep easier, says Dr. Zee. The scheduled downtime also prevents you from losing track of time while reading, watching the evening news or surfing Facebook.

Photo: Corbis Images