Tag Archives: health

Intention vs. Attention

I was reflecting this weekend on the topic areas I have written about for the past few months on this blog versus the original intention I had at the beginning.

Sunrise from my window

Sunrise from my window this morning as I wrote – gorgeous!

One intention was to comment on politics and privilege from my unique perspective as a bi-cultural Latina woman. I still do that now and then. But more often, I have shared about topics like mindfulness and taking care of my health. So I wanted to consider why the blog morphed as I committed to more of a daily routine of writing. Here’s what I came up with. I would love to know what you think.

  1. It is best to write about what we know. Since I know myself better than I know anyone, writing about my own experience, and my own journey seems to be a good way to start. It limbers up my writing practice, and allows me to reflect on what I have learned from a personal perspective.
  2. “Research is me-search.” I am a clinical researcher by training, but the topics I find most interesting are my own little n=1 experiments in health. For those of you not familiar with this terminology, “n” is the number of subjects/patients you include in an experimental sample. When I experiment with a new wellness practice, I am the sole participant so n=1. There is no control group, so it is not a “valid” sample in the methodology we typically use. But of course, there are subjective measures we can use to validate our own experience. I rely on those rather than on statistical work to conclude whether I will continue particular wellness practices I try.
  3. Taking care of ourselves well is a radical act. I believe we do not live in a culture that does not properly value taking care of ourselves, and women struggle with this most. We give lip service to taking care of ourselves, but we also cut corners on sleep and fill our lives with unnecessary obligations and distractions. We must step away from the “busy-ness culture” that is supposed to signify our importance in the world. This helps us have space to truly thrive. But so few truly commit to this path.
  4. Until we care for ourselves, we will not have long-term resources to help others. I began finding in my personal life about 2 years ago that I was putting my work and family ahead of taking care of myself. It was taking its toll on my health. I did not like the results. I did not like constantly feeling tired and strung out. But I felt desperate to make a contribution “to the world” because I saw political and economic systems I did not feel were serving people. A decade before that I had been very involved in political campaigns. But that had burned me out, and required much personal sacrifice that I simply could make at this stage in my life.
  5. We are in this for the long haul. Any type of societal change is slow-moving, and requires sustained effort. What is done in one day has fairly little impact. But what is accomplished over time, with many small efforts (and many people) daily is what creates a movement. If more of us were to look inward, take care of ourselves and our needs, and thrive personally, we would likely have more time and energy to care for others. This includes our families, our communities, and our society as a whole. Not that we can stop caring for others as we care for ourselves, but just that we cannot care for others at the expense of our long-term health. This will serve nobody.

So these are my initial thoughts on why my blog has morphed from its original intention. I may come back to writing more about politics and other topics about which I am passionate. Right now, I write about what I most want to learn and master. That is where my attention is most focused, and writing about these topics clarifies my thinking.

Thanks for reading. Hope you have a wonderful week!

Sunrise 2 from window

Sunrise a few minutes after the other photo – I just LOVE the colors of morning!

Advertisements

Desires

Were you taught from a young age that desires are dangerous?

I think many of us who grew up in a Judeo-Christian background probably absorbed this lesson early in life. Those of us who have struggled with food issues or with other addictions may stop trusting our desires, since they seem to lead down a path that is destructive.

Last summer I started working my way through a book by Danielle LaPorte’s book called The Desire Map: A Guide to Creating Goals with Soul. She sets out a process to examine 5 major areas of life, Livelihood & Lifestyle, Body & Wellness, Creativity & Learning, Relationships & Society, and Essence & Spirituality.

Since I opted to put the process away in August in order to focus on planning details for my wedding in September, I thought January would be a good time to return to it, and complete the process since I have some big goals this year. Reading back through my responses from the summer, not a lot has changed.

But one thing that stood out to me was my response to the prompt “Pleasure feels:” At risk of being a bit vulnerable here, I wrote down the words: amazing, forbidden, dangerous, excessive, tempting, all-encompassing, elusive, desirable, moving, shared, exciting and peaceful.

I recalled the time I had read Martha Beck’s book, The Joy Diet: 10 Daily Practices for a Happier Life. Menu item number 3 was Desire. She explains that our true desires and yearnings are what lead us to our soul’s purpose. Martha Beck is a genius, by the way. If you are ever facing major career shifts or changes in your life, pick up one of her books (the other I really loved was Finding Your North Star but I will read anything with Martha’s name on the cover).

Prior to desire, she focuses on stillness and truth. If you cannot get truthful with yourself, then you cannot reveal your true desires. I still struggle with this, but I am learning. Many of us have spent years repressing our desires, so we sometimes do not even know how to recognize or voice them. We are out of practice in detecting them.

We think: maybe that desire for chocolate cake is bad and wrong. In fact, the chocolate cake is most probably a “mask” for a true desire, which is to take loving care of ourselves, and indulge in some pleasure.

In August of 2016 I decided that my “desire” for a glass of wine as soon as I got home each night was something I wanted to change. It really was less of a desire and more of a habit, and since our brains like to stay efficient, habits can be hard to change. But the first thing I noticed when I took first a 10-day hiatus was that my anxieties and doubts came up. Yup. Alcohol serves a purpose. It dulls out those feelings.

What I realized is that I was using wine to space out situations I did not want to confront. I also used it as “social lubricant” for work dinners I attended, and other events where I knew I would interact with groups larger than my comfort level (about 4). I realized that I was buffering my discomfort in these situations, and that it was unnecessary.

But I had to come up with a story for why I would decline the wine. It turned out to be this, and it is totally true: alcohol messes with my sleep. Since sleep is precious to me, it just is not worth it. That turned out to be a justification that my coworkers could accept, and regardless of whether they were accepting about it, I was committed.

Since then I have found that I get more sound sleep, I have less cravings for sugar, and I am able to experience “unclouded” feelings. Sometimes that sucks! I have to admit it, our buffers dull difficult emotions. But now that I know I can handle difficult emotions, that they are temporary vibrations in my body, I do not reach for wine. In 2017, I had a drink on probably 5 occasions, usually for a special event and planned ahead of time. I am not an alcoholic and I do not count days of sobriety.

But I have the confidence that this choice, far from dampening my desires, has done more to clarify what I desire long-term than anything else. So it is worth it, and I am grateful I realized how much better my life is without it. The clarity that has come from realizing I have a desire for more creativity and self-expression has led to much more satisfaction with the kinds of work I choose to do. It is right and it is good to take pleasure in that, not a sin.

Cheers, amigos! Toasting you with my glass of La Croix sparkling water. I hope you fulfill your desires for 2018.

 

 

Daily rituals

Today I will return to work after the holiday break. I also have an appointment this afternoon for post-op check-up following my appendectomy surgery a few weeks ago. Though I usually wake up around 5:30, this morning I was awake at 4, so I opted to roll out of bed at 4:30 to start my coffee pot.

It is again a chilly morning at zero degrees F with a windchill of -15F.  I plan to go to the gym in a bit for some exercise. I am not yet “cleared” to get back to yoga so I will go again for a walk on the treadmill.

This past weekend I went a little stir-crazy after no exercise for a few weeks, so I just had to work up a small sweat by walking on the ‘mill a couple of days. Typically I do yoga 3-4 times a week, and I like to run at least a couple of times a week. I have not run since my last trip to Mexico early in December, when I managed a few short treadmill workouts.

I exercise for my mental health as much as my physical health. As someone with an attention issue, it is a highly recommended natural intervention for this condition. It also helps prevent depression and anxiety, which I have contended with in the past. It has been at least 7 years since I had a true “episode” of depression as categorized by the DSM-5. It was minor, fortunately, and responded well to a few sessions of counseling, and addition of healthy fats and protein to my diet.

A few years ago, when I was racing many half marathons per year (and even one marathon) I felt such a sense of relief from previous depressive symptoms. I think this was for many reasons but here are the top ones:

1) Exercise is good for the brain and this is documented in the research.

2) The running community and the friends I met were so positive, supportive and uplifting (this is actually how I met my husband).

3) A regular routine and training goals for races kept me in touch with friends, getting outside in the fresh air and sunshine regularly. Nature is such a beautiful balm for all that ails us.

2018-calendar.jpgAs I consider goals for 2018, I know that there are some daily rituals I will keep, that serve me well and contribute to my health and well-being. Getting good sleep (and patience as I gain mastery over insomnia) is a non-negotiable one. I will aim for 8 hours regularly, because I feel better with adequate rest. It helps maintain my weight, gives me more consistent focus during the day, and adds better decision-making. If you have one thing you do for the next year to commit to your health and you get routinely less than 7 hours a night – try to get 30-60 minutes more sleep each night. Your body and brain will thank you. Trust me.

My other daily habits are: meditating (I’m on day 333), journaling in a hand-written journal in addition to this blog, and doing some yoga or walking/running. I also typically end my workday with taking 15 minutes to plan the next day or two, review what is on my schedule and prepare myself mentally for what is head.

I enjoy my coffee in the morning, so even though it is half caf these days, that one is not going to change. I avoid caffeine in the afternoon since it does tend to mess with my sleep when I am not careful.

Calvin on lap

Calvin napping as I write my blog

Sitting with a cat on my lap and reading at home is another wonderful ritual that makes me feel especially happy in winter. Having time with my husband to chat and catch up on the day is another ritual that keeps me connected. On the weekends I typically make breakfast for us, since he leaves so early for work on weekdays. I enjoy that also.

As I consider whether I should add anything, I believe I want to continue the work on the de-cluttering project I began last Spring. This has gone in fits and starts for me, usually when I get too annoyed by not being able to find things that I go all “KonMari” for a few days, in a frenzy. But this time I will follow through to the end, and really put things away at the end of every day, as she recommends once the big de-clutter is over.

The month of January for me is typically one of reflection and consideration of where my life is and where I want it to go. I know a lot of people use December for that, but really I find it too stressful between holiday hoopla and social obligations. There is no hurry to begin something new for me. When I commit, I like to go all the way. So I allow myself a few weeks to plan and dream while I get my daily routines back into place, and get my head back into work.

I have a new planner with monthly and weekly pages instead of a daily list. I am experimenting with that, making my daily rituals more routinized and still working with a to-do list but working to schedule that time in my electronic calendar instead of keeping the endless list. We will see how that goes. Really I am trying to take away, not add to all the obligations I create for myself.

What are your favorite daily routines, that keep you grounded and sane? I love hearing about what works well for others.

Time enough at last

Do you remember that episode of the Twilight Zone called “Time Enough At Last”? I own the Twilight Zone complete collection on DVD, and this is an episode worth watching if you have ever wished for “time enough” to do what you want.

Henry Bemis wants one thing in life: more time to read. I have so much empathy for Henry. There are times when I really long for more solitude and reading time. Henry works at a bank but sneaks down to the vault during his lunch hours to read.

But not only does he do that, he tries to read while he is doing his job, which means he does not do that job so well. He clearly feels “put upon” by the world, his job and his wife, since nobody seems to understand his thirst for books and reading time. But I have deep empathy for his suffering.

Prior to my appendectomy, I was really wishing for some reading time and contemplation. I wanted some time off from work when I could just read, relax and enjoy some time to myself. I looked forward to the holiday break coming up – my workplace shuts down between Christmas and the New Year. I was feeling rather “put upon” at work myself, and I just wanted an escape. I have had on my mind a sabbatical, and while I think this is not so practical in my current job, I viscerally ached for this kind of break.

I would not have chosen to go to the hospital to have emergency appendectomy surgery in order to get out of work. I have been fortunate to recover very quickly, but now find myself with a head cold. Okay, my body demands more time to rest, just as I’m trying to get a few chores done before the holidays.

One day while reading down in the vault Henry Bemis is knocked unconscious by a shock wave. He awakens to discover that the world has been devastated by a nuclear war. At first he is in shock, walking through all the devastation around him, and he decides to commit suicide. But then he sees the ruins of a library, his paradise!

He gleefully piles up the books, thinking he has a supply to keep him busy for years to come, with all the time he needs. But as he settles to read his glasses slip off his nose and smash on the ground, trapping him in a blurry world forever. “That’s not fair! That’s not fair at all! There was time now. There was all the time I wanted! That’s not fair!” (I found a 3-minute video on YouTube if you want to see that scene. It still breaks my heart).

Poor Henry. Life is not fair. Bad things happen. And yet this is the way of life. We get sick, our plans go awry, and we have to adjust. We must get extra rest. We must slow down and respect our body’s limits. We must acknowledge that we do not control everything, and stop resisting and arguing with reality.

Oh boy, Henry. You and I have a long way to go.

 

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.

 

Simply Be

One of my favorite guided meditations from the Insight Timer app is a very short 2-minute meditation called “Simply Be” by Scott Langston.

Sunset - Oct 25

It asks us to take a moment to stop doing, and to simply be. Take a moment to stop thinking and simply be. Be with our breath. Be with our body.

As I take a couple of days off from work to fully recover from surgery, I realize I can practice this now and then. My temptation is to fill my time with books, so much reading that I normally do not have as much time to enjoy. But another part of me looks forward to some silence and some reflection.

During the holidays, a lot of people feel compelled to decorate, shop, attend parties and to do a lot of other things. Though I would prefer to be more mobile right now, the great gift of recovery from surgery is that I feel no pressure to do anything. I simply need to hydrate, rest and laugh at the antics of my cats or the humor of my husband. I’ve told him not to be too funny – it still hurts a bit to laugh!

Hope you enjoy your Monday, friends. Take some time to question whether you “have” to do what you are doing today, or whether you “choose” to do it. Thinking about these activities differently may bring you greater peace.

 

Take me to Regions Hospital

When I arrived home from my trip on Thursday night I started having abdominal pain and nausea. I attributed it to something I may have eaten in Mexico, and did not think much of it until the next morning when I still felt crappy. Hubby texted me in the morning to tell me I should see a doctor. I had canceled my calls and meetings for the day, and just collapsed on the couch to rest. By noon I was thinking: this is not good.

Regions Hospital

I have a fairly high pain tolerance but not wanting to get up off the couch because of the pain and because I still felt nauseated was a warning sign. I texted hubby and asked if he could drive me to the doctor. He left work immediately and drive me to Regions Hospital in St. Paul. From the moment I walked into the emergency room (around 2:15 in the afternoon) until I checked out an hour ago, the care was excellent.

Every nurse, physician, surgeon, PCA, CT tech and all other staff who attended to us were friendly, professional and kind. They explained everything they were doing, the tests, what they indicated, and how long things would take. Once a diagnosis of appendicitis was confirmed, they explained the procedure to me, and asked if I had questions.

Later, when I was scheduled for surgery that same night, other residents, and health care professionals (HCPs in my world of clinical research) asked me to explain what I understood would happen in my own words. As someone who reviews informed consent documents as part of my work as a clinical researcher, I really appreciated how much they checked my understanding at various points in the process.

I was prepped for surgery starting around 8:15 and then taken in around 9 p.m. My husband tells me the surgeon came out a little before 10 p.m. to let him know the status of the surgery. Fortunately it was a laparoscopic appendectomy with only three small incisions (about an inch long each). The appendix was intact, so the procedure was standard and without complications.

regions waiting room

I woke up around 11 p.m. and the people around me told me everything went well. They planned to keep me overnight for observation, so my husband said goodbye and let me know he would return in the morning. A couple of times during the night a nurse checked my vitals and blood pressure, but for the most part I was able to rest and sleep. I woke up around 7:30 a.m. as the hospital staff were switching shifts, and my care team introduced themselves.

I was able to order coffee, which I had not wanted the day before (another sign something was off for sure – I love my coffee first thing). Around 9:30 I had some breakfast which I was able to order from the patient menu (like room service!).  Having fasted for ~40 hours, I was happy to feel hungry again, a sign of healing.

I am so grateful to have high quality healthcare and good health insurance coverage so I did not worry about that during the process. Also, the entire health care team was amazing, without exception. There must have been 15-20 people who interacted with us over the course of the ~21 hour period we were at the hospital. If you are in the St. Paul, Minnesota area, and you have a choice of hospitals I recommend Regions without exception.

The woman in the bed next to me while I was in recovery did not speak English, but the nurses and doctors accessed their on-call translation service, which was a little box like a phone where the translator could speak and listen to the patient in Spanish. Later, when her family arrived, someone in the family helped to translate, but I really liked knowing that service was available to remove any barriers to excellent care.

Now I shall stay home and take it very easy over the next few days. My hubby is already off to the grocery store and pharmacy to pick up a few things. He is a good man. I am glad I finally listened to him when he said ” you can’t mess with this shit” and drove me directly to a hospital. While I was waiting for surgery, I let my sister know the situation. She is an RN, and she explained to my parents what was going on.

My father almost died from a burst appendix about 45 years ago. While my case was less severe, it was an excellent reminder that good health and access to excellent care are so important, and such blessings. I realize the privilege of having good care comes from an employer that pays for ~80% of the cost of premiums, and a philosophy that employees deserve good benefits.

I will write more on my views of health care policy in the future. For now, I will put the laptop away, get out some books, sit and drink so tea with my kitties and give thanks. The healing journey continues.