Tag Archives: anxiety

Transcend or Ground?

A lot of people think of “transcendence” when it comes to meditation practice. I used to think of that as well, and it’s the reason I never succeeded in my many early tries to adopt this as a habit of mine.

In both my yoga and my meditation practices, what I realize now is that I need to return to the body, to “ground” myself in the present moment, again and again. I seldom really find that I stop thinking, only that I now notice when my mind has drifted from the task of noticing breath or body sensations.

I am sure there are some enlightened gurus out there who can transcend the body and mind and commune with the oneness or something. But let’s be real, most of us (and I think this applies especially to women) are pretty out-of-touch with what our bodies want and need. Our culture and society tell us either we are inadequate or that bodies are dirty and “carnal” entities. In fact, I have come to understand my body as a beautiful and exquisite instrument.

Body awareness image

It is Western and mostly Judeo-Christian thinking that separates our spiritual “center” from our bodies. Ironically, we use the body as a symbol in some Christian rituals, like communion. The body and the blood of Christ are taken as a symbol of union with the savior. Turned another way, perhaps that is a way of “grounding” in the body as a ritual of unity and integration with the Almighty.

Sadly, when we think of the body as dirty and “base” it can lead to neglect and disgust for this beautiful instrument in which we were born. Certainly it is imperfect, and there are things we may wish to change. But to honor the body we have, at this very moment, is to offer thanks for our being. This is the body we live in, and it does its very best to keep us healthy in the face of numerous challenges.

Perhaps someday when I have done complete work on accepting, rooting and grounding in my body as it is, I will reach some state of spiritual transcendence. But right now, I prefer to come back and ground myself in the body and the breath. That is what anchors me, and helps me make better decisions in my life.

I watch my “puppy mind” with affection, understanding and curiosity, knowing that it likes to run around and play. And then I come back again. I rest in the present moment and cultivate this awareness of the body that was somehow lost along the way as I absorbed the cultural messages around me. That feels like genuine progress for me.

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Go easy on yourself

This time of year can be difficult, especially for anyone dealing with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) that may originate from the lack of light and lack of fresh air.

Symptoms I experience are typically insomnia, sometimes anxiety or changes in my mood or appetite. Many of us have increased cravings for carbohydrates, and we may feel sluggish or have difficulty concentrating.

For many years, I have used exercise, dietary strategies such as a vitamin D supplement in the morning, magnesium at night. I try to get enough vegetables for their anti-oxidant properties and fiber, but in Minnesota nothing is fresh this time of year, so it can be difficult.

Getting enough healthy fats in my diet more recently has been a wonderful benefit to my health overall. I have learned more and more on how balancing our brain chemistry with healthy fats is really important. Right now I am reading “The Chemistry of Calm” by Dr. Henry Emmons, and there is some wonderful advice there on how to overcome anxiety. Dr. Emmons presents the information from both Western and Eastern traditions and I strongly encourage you to check it out if you want more scientific background on drug-free ways to overcome anxiety.

I still struggle with insomnia periodically, usually when the seasons change and/or when I am under more stress. I know how important sleep can be for good healthy, so I try valiantly to get more, and sometimes it still eludes me.

Over the years, I have learned some strategies which help. It is a learning process, and I have to accept that it takes some time to change old habits. I am undoing a pattern that was established (and possibly reinforced) for 25-30 years. I may not unlearn it overnight. But due to the remarkable neuroplasticity of our brain, we are capable of training ourselves out of old patterns.

The biggest factor to remember is to have compassion for ourselves, and not to label ourselves as “anxious” or to consider ourselves flawed in any way. Instead of saying, “I am an anxious person” try instead: “right now I am struggling with anxiety and I am learning how to manage it.” Thus, the condition is temporary and not a part of our identity.

It is important not to identify too strongly with any label, as this may convince us we a permanent, unalterable condition. The truth is that we have far more capacity for change than any of us realize. And this learning how to manage our struggles is where wisdom is born. Nothing is wrong with us. This is the human condition.

About half of our life may be happy or joyful (or maybe slightly more). But about half of or life will be negative emotions. This contrast is what makes life so rich and interesting. If we can go easy on ourselves, realize that sadness and feeling down sometimes are a part of life, then we can truly appreciate the joyful moments.

Compassion for ourselves and for other people is really the engine that helps us live a good life. We sometimes have that inner critic that resists compassion, questioning if we deserve it, speculating that we do not. If we come from religious backgrounds where original sin was a big part of the emphasis, this may be harder for us.

It may take some time and practice to cultivate compassion for ourselves. But it is possible. And with this self-compassion comes the ability to have compassion for others as well. In this time of holiday festivities and dark, cold, weather, that can go a very long way.

If you are struggling with SAD, anxiety or depression, please get help from a trained mental health professional, and/or seek support from the people you love. It is not a time to “go it alone” when you are dealing with this stuff. Sometimes families are not as understanding, so try to find someone who can help you get the support you need.

 

Holiday hell

Holidays can be stressful for people, and for some, they can be a sad time if they have had a loss or any painful memories. Family dynamics can be challenging, and many of us love our families but struggle with the amount of expectations for this season.

Facebook and the Hallmark channel give us the idea that people are living finely-polished perfect little lives. But the reality is that those experiences are carefully curated (on FB) and designed to market things to you.

I enjoy certain parts of the holiday, the food, some time to visit with family and having extra time off from work to sleep in (if that is possible, which is hard for a morning person like me). But since cutting way back on sugar and flour, realizing these tend to mess up my sleep and make me feel like crap, it can be hard to turn down treats that are offered.

To be honest, I do not really enjoy the gift-giving that comes with Christmas (in my tradition) anymore. I find it stressful and prefer the Thanksgiving holiday because it is more about gratitude than getting more stuff than you need. I’m old enough now that I typically buy things for myself that I want, so when people ask for “gift lists” I guess I am spoiled enough that I just don’t NEED things.

holiday hell

Here in Minnesota, a combination of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) due to dark winters, and a lack of time outside during the cold, can be especially challenging. I have coped with this difficulty in different ways and I will list 5 of my personal favorite tips here:

  1. Get as much rest as possible.
  2. Use a morning light-box to get some full spectrum light for 10-20 minutes each morning.
  3. Take a vitamin D supplement daily to replace a nutrient nearly all of us in these northern locations need in order to have a healthy immune system and happier mood. (I take 2000 mg per day from October to May, 1000 mg June to September, per my nurse practitioner’s recommendation. Please check with a doctor if you have any conditions in which Vitamin D would not be favorable).
  4. Manage your expectations – holidays are not all joy and happiness. For a lot of people they are hard work, expensive and involve a lot more gatherings than we introverts really enjoy. We love our families, sure. But it gets to be a little much, so please have some patience with us.
  5. Be kind to yourself. And be kind to others. Everyone is fighting their own personal battles and we do not know what others are facing, since they are not always willing to share and broadcast their pain on social networks.

Here is a link to an article on Medicinet has some more facts and information about Holiday Depression, Anxiety and Stress. Psychology today also has an interesting article with more resources that I found helpful.

Realize that if someone you love is a little down that it does not really help to tell them to “cheer up” or “look on the bright side.” They are probably trying, and letting them know that the holidays can be hard for anyone, that you still want to spend time with them even if they are not full of holiday cheer.

Be kind. Be kind. Be kind. That would be my best advice for dealing with any “holiday hell” you may experience. Have compassion for yourself and others. Realize you and they are doing their best. Have gratitude for clean water, good food and maybe a cozy time to reflect on the year ahead.

Feliz Navidad

 

 

 

See, Hear, Feel

This morning, on All Souls Day, I did a short, guided meditation with Shinzen Young and it is one that I will use again. It is day 270 of my commitment to practice meditation every day, even if for just a few short minutes. I find that even a 5 minute meditation helps give me the equanimity and calm to approach whatever storms exist in any particular day.

About a year and a half ago I read Dan Harris’ autobiographical book, 10% Happier: How I Tamed The Voice In My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works. I had overheard a conversation of a colleague who was explaining to another how this book had changed his life, and the subtitle was intriguing enough for me to fire up my Amazon account and click to order. (This is a habit of mine, I must confess, they make it so darn EASY, and the one-click ordering, don’t get me started…).

Dan Harris has since started an App and a podcast to go with his original idea released in the book. I am not advocating for that. In fact, I had already started using the Insight Timer to track my meditation, and I found it annoying that the 10% Happier app has some free features, but is mostly a paid subscription type service. In any case, the tagline really appealed to me: meditation for fidgety skeptics. That is me to a tee, he sure has his audience down.

One of the podcasts (episode #64) is a guided meditation from Shinzen Young, and now that I have experienced this type of meditation, I will do more research. For now, what I observed is the fact that, by paying attention to our visual, auditory and sensory/somatic observations during meditation, and accepting these as part of nature, I release the self-criticism that often arises for me. There is no need to criticize our minds for wandering, as they inevitably do, while meditating, or just while going through our daily lives. This is what minds do, and the practice of mindfulness as taught by Jon Kabat-Zinn, is just the exercise of bringing the mind back after it has wandered. Just by noticing what the mind does, we are practicing mindfulness meditation. It is that awareness, that “watcher” self that is able to bring us back.

It is a radical act of love and self-acceptance to See, Hear, Feel and then lightly “name” these sensations during meditation practice. My other favorite practice up until now has been the loving kindness meditation that I believe really helps me have compassion for all living beings. But now that I have learned this new practice, I plan to incorporate it more frequently to see what arises for me.

We are approaching the anniversary of a very difficult day for me, the election of 2016. It was a time of excitement (prior to the election) and then a very big shock for me, and I realize for many. Meditation has been a resource that has helped me focus less on the differences between people in either camp (or neither camp) and more on what binds us together, our shared humanity. It has rescued me from what I perceived as a cruel joke of the universe, a t.v. reality star becoming president(!) Everything that happens in this life is temporary, an event in time, and it all fades and passes. Knowing that can help us cope when we are feeling miserable and stuck. That holds enormous comfort for me.

Sunset - Oct 25

 

 

Yoga vs. sleep

Today I decided that getting an extra 30-45 minutes of sleep would outweigh my desire to attend a 5:45 a.m. yoga class that I typically enjoy. It is a lovely opportunity to meditate, get fully in tune with my body and my mind, and sweat out my worries. I approach the day with more a more even-tempered and loving perspective and it seems like I am kinder in the world, and therefore it is kinder to me.

But in my last year and a half of focusing more intensity on my my overall WellBeing, a large component of that has been working on getting adequate sleep every day. I used to struggle mightily with insomnia, and I tended to neglect sleep and rest in favor of early morning runs or other physical activity. When I started studying the clinical research on these issues and encountered books like Eat Move Sleep: How Small Choices Lead to Big Changes by Tom Rath, I realized that sleep was non-negotiable for me. Another recent book by Arianna Huffington called The Sleep Revolution compiles both the history and the current research on the value and benefits of sleep.

Sleep

Clearly I am not the only one evangelizing on this topic. But I want to share my personal experience, both as someone who was a “sleep skeptic” and someone who still occasionally struggles with insomnia. One of the first benefits I noticed when I began tracking and measuring my sleep a little more closely was that I could see a correlation between the quality of my days, and my quantity/quality of sleep. As a clinical researcher, data always help me commit to habit changes that are beneficial. If I do not see the evidence that it helps, I just question its validity.

So I conducted an n=1 experiment. For those unfamiliar with clinical research “n” is the number of subjects you include in a study. Many people would be skeptical of a trial in which n=1. But I say: if that “1” is you, it is highly significant. Not to say that you can “design” a trial that is truly rigorous, because it cannot be a Randomized Controlled Trial as exists in the scientific literature. So there are confounding factors. For example, as I got more sleep, I began craving less sugar and carbs. Since sugar tends to disrupt our sleep (especially if consumed right before bed) it led to a virtuous cycle of both sleeping better and consuming less sugar.

I have struggled with attention deficit throughout my life, and it is managed somewhat with medicine and somewhat with regular exercise, which is why I posed the “either or” in the title of this post. I knew that getting vigorous exercise helps my brain with the focus issues, and there is plenty of clinical research to support this notion. But what I did not realize, was that the trade-off of sleep in favor of exercise, may have been causing inflammation in my body and brain. Try Googling those search terms and you will find a host of studies on how brain inflammation is connected to virtually all types of mental illness, such as depression and anxiety as well as more serious conditions like autism, dementia and schizophrenia.

My Dad always used to tell me to get my sleep, that I would risk heart attacks and other serious consequences by not sleeping. This was because in the early days of my adolescent (and throughout my adolescence and adult life) I was always an “early bird” and enjoyed mornings. But I would often stay up late reading a book or studying or doing other things that I enjoyed. Dad knew, without consulting the research, that I could be doing some damage by becoming sleep deprived. I also think this led to unhealthy eating patterns (high in carbohydrates, and lacking healthy fat) which I noticed especially during college and continuing into adulthood as well.

Bodies which do not have enough rest crave energy and restoration. While they cannot get this through food, they often turn to this “cheap substitute.” But when we feed ourselves the right nourishment in the form of adequate rest, our systems tend to reset. So while I love my yoga, and generally practice at least 3-4 times a week to feel my best, I have decided never to trade sleep for yoga. If my body is tired, and needs more rest, I will grant it the rest it needs before going to yoga. Developing this level of trust with my own body, and giving it what it truly needs to be healthy has allowed my body and brain to be more productive and more fulfilled.

Ironically, even though I spend more time sleeping these days (averaging 7-8 hours/night) I actually find time for yoga more easily. My priorities have aligned to make sure that I get regular yoga practice into my schedule, and I honor that commitment to myself. Also: yoga after work seems to lead to better sleep quality that night. Another virtuous circle.

So, dear reader, I suggest that the next time you are tempted to skip the workout because you are tired, maybe skip the workout and get another 60-90 minutes of sleep. If you really want to get that workout in, go to bed an hour earlier the night before. Set an alarm in the evening which reminds you when it is time to wind down for the night. Do this regularly and you will not regret it.

Namaste. Sleep well.

 

The good old days

If you have not listened to the Hidden Brain podcast, this one will really get you thinking. The episode that aired on October 16th on “nostalgia” really got me thinking. The concept of nostalgia was originally treated as a mental/emotional disorder, people who are stuck in the past and cannot move forward. 300 years ago it was a brain disease of demonic cause. Marketers started using the concept in order to help sell things early in the century, because evoking emotions is an effective “hook” for people.

There is this feeling of sadness and loss, but also a sense of sweetness or fondness for something that used to be a certain way. Of course, our memories tend to be edited by our minds. The harder things fade into the background but the redemptive portions of the memories are what survive into the future. Nostalgia involves some re-writing of the past, in a way that tells us a story we can make sense of, that helps define who we want to be. There is always a shaping of our own narratives, a selection that allows us to make sense of our lives.

Donald Trump capitalized on some sense of nostalgia during the “Make America Great” campaign. For some of us who were horrified at that idea, we think of the “good old days” when powerful men could demand sex with their employees without ramifications, or when black people could be denied a seat on a bus. The good old days for some of us were not exactly good. We are grateful that social movements and history have moved us forward.

good old days

The nostalgic urge is something that the Donald has manipulated and used very effectively is something we need to understand. It is a psychological phenomenon that is very key to how the election was one. Clay Rutledge, a psychologist interviewed on Hidden Brain, explains that nostalgia serves a function. It actually applies to people who are experiencing a certain amount of distress, and that it may help people restore some type of psychological well-being.

To me, this is a topic that bears understanding, because it obviously had a tremendous impact on the election, and has impact on people’s purchasing decisions, and the ability to manipulate our “collective historical nostalgia.” While recollections of our past are inevitably edited, and do not have all the details of the negative parts of that. History is often “whitewashed.” Nostalgia does actually have a function toward orienting us toward the future, and it mobilizes people. If nostalgia is as widespread as it seems, there may be a function that is protective for individuals and communities. I know I will look to learn more about this, and will share some thoughts in a future post.

Happy Saturday, friends! May you stay firmly rooted in the present, even as you look back fondly, and keep your sights on the future.

 

Decision fatigue

This entry will pick up on a theme I covered in a recent post about “driven to distraction” which got an unusually high number of views and likes, so I suspect there are many out there who can relate. These themes are related and intertwine because we live in a world that is ever more connected, and our expectations have gone up in terms of having access to what we want, instantly and without delay.

I am in the market for a new laptop, and I find myself with an abundance of options. This may seem like a really good thing. But I find the process of choosing to be rather paralyzing. I have always loved my Macs and was leaning toward the MacBook Air with its 13 inch screen and less than 3 pound weight. Then I realized there are many options for several hundreds of dollars less, some that can do even more things! The Lenovo Flex 5 is what I am leaning toward today, given an employee discount I can get from work, and the fact that has 2-in-1 capabilities to act as a tablet as well. My iPad died a few years ago, and while I liked the convenience and compact design, I prefer a real keyboard when I am doing a lot of writing.

I told my husband that I am NOT the kind of person who want to do days of research on this process. I just want to have a machine that is adequate for my needs, compact and light for travel, durable because I am rough on my technology, and not too expensive. It comes down to the fact that I am willing to settle for a “good enough” option rather than researching every possible choice. In fact, constraining down to 2 brands is my way of taking away at least SOME decision fatigue, but the options within those brands are so numerous as well. I guess this reflects the economic principle of “satisficing” versus maximizing, a concept I learned about a few years ago from an book written by Barry Schwartz, a professor from Swarthmore College where I am an alumna.

In The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, Schwartz explains how too much of a good thing has proved detrimental to our psychological and social well-being. People who feel they must maximize and make the “best” choice, and who do exhaustive research before making a decision sometimes feel analysis paralysis when it comes to making a decision. For sure, as a “questioner” I can relate. Maximizers tend to have greater regret when it comes to past decisions, and they can ruminate on whether a better choice could have been made. In general, I am a satisficer because I like to limit the decision fatigue of not making a choice and spinning in analysis paralysis.

Brooke Castillo speaks about constraint as a way of giving us better focus and better results. She has a great podcast episode about how constraint helps us to reduce “overwhelm” in our lives and lets us be more productive. We eliminate decision fatigue when we do not allow ourselves every possible choice. This is why the minimalist lifestyle appeals so much to me, as a person who suffers from the distraction that comes from too many things to which my brain wants to attend.

Most people know about President Obama’s deliberate constraint to wear only blue or gray suits. He has enough really important decisions to make every day that having to choose clothing should not tax his mental energy, of which we all have a limited amount each day. It is one reason why it may be easier to make difficult decisions in the morning, when our brain energy is fresh and has not been depleted. I know one reason I like to work from home is that I have fewer agonies over having to pick out “grown up” clothes to wear to the office.

I recently discovered a blog I like called A Small Wardrobe and she has some great insight on this minimalist approach. The Functioning Minimalist podcast (and website) is another source of insight on this principle. Notice though! I just gave you two more choices to make if you want to explore this principle… Ha! You thought I was going to simplify your life in this post. Gotcha! 🙂

In all seriousness though, the principle here is that we all have so many choices. And yet, we must find ways in which to constrain those choices to live a happier, less burdened life. I have learned to be more satisfied by choices I have made in the past by telling myself that nothing can be re-done now. Those choices were the perfect ones for me, in the moment, and with the knowledge I had at the time. So what if I use that for this decision I am making now? I will give myself a certain amount time to make the decision, and then will move forward, knowing that this choice is a lot less momentous than, say, picking my next career move… (you know that will be a future post, right?).

For now, let me leave you with an image I made with pastels some time back, a representation of what my brain feels like sometimes when there is a lot of “static” of indecision. Happy Friday! May you, my dear readers, free yourselves from too many decisions, and enjoy to the fullest all of the ones you make.

Decision fatigue

This is how my brain feels when I am trying to make too many decisions.