10 ways to boost rest and bust stress

Americans are in a hurry. We rush to work, and rush to get the job done. We then rush home, and rush to get dinner on the table, kids to their activities, homework done, work some more. We rush to get to bed and hope to fall asleep really fast because the morning will be here before you know it, alarms dragging us out of bed to do it all over again.

No wonder we love weekends.

But what are we losing in our fast-paced modern times? Americans are stressed – indeed, almost a quarter of respondents to an American Psychological Associate “Stress in America Survey” reported extreme stress; we are famously unhealthy, with chronic health conditions on the rise: fifty percent of US adults are living with some kind of chronic disease, and 1 in 3 of us is obese. And we aren’t particularly happy: one in ten Americans is living with depression, almost a third of us will experience anxiety in our lifetime, and up to 90% of all doctors visits are related to stress.

When we slow down, we create the space for more happiness and health in our lives. When we rush around from obligation to obligation, where is the joy? …and what is the point?

In order to take back our lives and create a better quality of life, we can make some small choices that will yield big results:

  1. Set a bed time and make it sacred. That bed time should be a little more than eight hours before the alarm will go off the next morning. When we give our bodies a chance to rest and get a good nights’ sleep, we feel different. Research links sleep deprivation with everything from depression to weight gain. Sleeping is one of the most important things we can do for our health, and one of the things we really undervalue in our culture. For the many of us who struggle with insomnia, one of the best treatments is to set and keep regular sleep and wake times.
  2. Decide what you can let go of. If your day is crammed with after-school activities for the kids, which ones are really worth it? A stressed-out kid who is shuttled between gymnastics, dance, and softball isn’t necessarily living the ideal childhood. I remember sitting in the lawn as a kid, watching insects and eating the buds of yellow clover flowers. I can still taste them. I’ll bet my kids don’t know what those flowers taste like; they spent their youth going to practice. It is a shame.
  3. If you are a slave to your housework, think about what you can live without and try to build in efficiencies for the things that matter. A professional organizer can help with that. I remember seeing on the Oprah show years ago a woman who was driving her family crazy because she was such a cleaning freak. After an intervention, she and her family decided not to sweep the floor every night. One less thing to do, one less thing to argue about. In my own home, I decided to trade ecology for the convenience of disposable cleaning wipes; I figured I wasn’t going to solve the waste disposal crisis anyway, and it makes cleaning easier. What are the things you can do to simplify the tasks you have to keep? Which are the tasks you can let go?
  4. Take a walk at lunch time. Even five or ten minutes away from your desk, outside in the real air, is like pushing the re-set button on the day. Take a friend, and don’t talk about work unless it is to laugh about it. In my 20’s, I used to relish lunchtime walks, which were such a reprieve from an unfulfilling job. I thought back then that those walks were moments I’d cherish for the rest of my life. Twenty-five years later, I can say I was right.
  5. Smell the roses. Really. Walk by flowers in bloom and try to catch their fragrance in the air. It reconnects you to the moment and to nature. And makes you happy.
  6. Greet your family when you come home. Make it a ritual. Smile, make eye contact, have a hug. It will connect you to them and allow you to pause and transition to the next thing. And then you will be more mindful about what you are doing.
  7. Bless your food. It is amazing and wonderful that we have such a bounty of colorful, life-giving foods available to us. Taking the moment to honor it before eating slows the pace, increases the mindfulness, enhances the enjoyment. And you’ll eat less, and better.
  8. Take a bath. Let the kids fold their laundry or run the vacuum. Your emails can wait. That endless TV will still be there when you finish. A good soak does a world of wonder to wash away the stress of a busy day.
  9. Take a nap. If you are really tired, take a nap. Just make it a short one or it may disrupt your sleep cycle. Set your alarm for 15 minutes and close your eyes. You will be amazed at how much better you feel.
  10. Don’t buy into the busy-ness. We are caught up in a grand illusion that every little task is uber-important. Imagine you are 90 years old. What would your old, wise self say to the present-day you? My guess is that it would be something like, “Slow down, enjoy your life. It is fleeting.”

Grow through hurt: five steps to forgiveness and how to take them

If you are human, you’ve been there – it comes with the territory. We’ve all been hurt. The bad news is that it hurts. But there is good news—the hurt helps us grow. One way to grow from our hurt is to learn to forgive.

Forgiveness does not mean that what happened was OK, that we are condoning the thing that hurt us, or that we are necessarily reconciling with the person who hurt us. Forgiveness is a positive choice. It is a way for us to move out of our past, take back our power, and become happier people.  I have experienced the benefits myself, and seen them in many clients as well. Once the choice to forgive is made, it becomes a process. The following five steps help us with the process:

  1. Recognize that forgiveness is empowering: When we forgive, we take our power back from the person who hurt us. We give away our power when we allow another person’s past hurtful action to continue to hurt us in the present.

How to do it: Take a few moments to center yourself and then imagine and feel what life will be like for you when you are released from this hurt. Imagination is the seed of creation, so just by daydreaming about it you begin to create a new reality.

  1. Invoke your Higher Self: Healing is never possible without involving the Higher Self, which is who we really are. We are spiritual beings having a human experience, right? To reconnect to who you really are, practice invoking your Higher Self and accelerate the process of healing.

How to do it: Invoke your Higher Self by simply asking, “Higher Self, help me to forgive” and believe that the result is guaranteed. Because it is! The more we ask, the more – and more quickly – we receive.

  1. Cut the cords: Anger and hurt create energy cords that drain and cloud our energy fields. When healing occurs, those cords are cut. They can be cut in a “bottom-up” or “top-down” process – either wait for healing and know the cords are dissolved, or actively cut them through intention and accelerate the healing process.

How to do it: Close your eyes, center yourself, and invoke your Higher Self. Feel light and love in your heart center. Then imagine the person who hurt you; surround both of you in a blue light. Then say, “I return your rightful energy to you, and I retrieve my own rightful energy to myself.” Pay attention to any feeling you experience—it can be slightly dizzying, so breathe and trust that your Higher Self is guiding the process.

  1. Practice mindfulness: In those moments when you are upset by the hurtful past, practice being present. In this moment, where are you? In this moment, what is actually happening? Though the emotions certainly are real the pain you feel is an echo of the past, and the hurtful act is not part of your present reality. Reconnect to the present moment to help release the grip of the past and those related emotions.

How to do it: You can connect to the moment by focusing on something tangible – like your breath or the feeling of your feet on the ground or the pen in your hand. You can create a grounding ritual such as touching your forefinger to your thumb to remind you that you are OK in this moment.

  1. Learn from the experience: It is a truism: Every single thing that happens to us happens for a reason. The corollary to this idea is therefore that we are not victims. Our negative experiences are here to teach us and to help us become more fully who we really are.

How to do it: When you are calm and centered, ask yourself “What was my role in this hurtful situation? What is my lesson? What have I gained from this experience?” The answers are there for you, and embracing them is a huge step in taking back your power.

 

Forgiveness is an empowering choice and one worth making. Having done it, you will feel lighter, clearer, and more like yourself.


Summer rhythm

There is a rhythm to the seasons, as there is to everything in nature. This rhythm parallels the breath. Each day has a rise and fall, and each moon phase, too. Human cultures rise and fall. The earth itself goes through long cycles of “inhalation” and “exhalation” as we move from one epoch to another. Scientists and mystics tell us that the universe follows this pattern as well.

The cycle of crops and farming are an apt metaphor for the yearly seasonal cycles. And while most of us in modern times are removed from farming, we understand the basic principles. The spring is a time of growth. We are filled with new ideas and projects; it is a busy and energetic time of preparation, as we are planting seeds. In the summer, these ideas take root and begin to grow and mature. While spring is a heady, airy time filled with aspiration, the energy of summer is – of course! – heat. Hard work and manifestation are the keynotes of summertime as we move our ideas from thought to reality. As summer progresses, work lets up a bit; in late summer, we leave the ideas alone, allowing them to mature in time for autumn’s harvest. In winter, the seeds store their energy so that they can begin anew in the spring.

None of us can achieve our calling without putting in hard work. In this summer season, I have been rededicating myself to growth, and asking some questions to keep myself on track. “What ideas are you allowing to take root? Which of the ideas from the spring are you feeding, watering, and nurturing into maturity? Which ideas need to be weeded out to allow for the healthy growth of the ones you really want?”

I am in the “summer” of my life and am ready to harness the energy of this summer season to bring my goals to fruition. What goals are you nurturing? How have you used the summer energy to keep yourself on track? Please leave comments -- I would love to hear about your journey!


Musings on psychological disorders and the DSM

When I was doing my counseling internship in 2007, a pharmaceutical saleswoman presented at a staff educational luncheon. She told us that teenagers we had been seeing for depression actually had bipolar disorder. She suggested that we should diagnose them with bipolar and send them to our psychiatrist so he could prescribe the right medicine – the one she was selling.

A few years later when I was teaching at the local community college I asked my students to write personal reflections for class. Often, girls wrote about their struggle with bipolar disorder. “I know that there is a chemical imbalance in my brain, and this is something I will always have. I have made peace with it….” I can’t count how many times I read similar sentences. But – is it really true? And more importantly, is it helpful?

The medical model represents (and even creates) our cultural paradigm regarding mental health. The standard is to diagnose disorder based on a series of symptoms. In the psychology “bible”, the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistics Manual published by the American Psychological Association), there is a detailed description of each disorder and a sort of checklist of symptoms. It pretty much goes like this: If your client has four of the following 7 symptoms, and 3 of the following 5, they have this disorder.

For a lot of people, getting a diagnosis is a relief: “Now I know what it’s called. Now I know that there are other people like me”. And importantly, for parents of school-age kids, “now I can ask for accommodations at school”.

On the other hand, getting a diagnosis can seem like a life sentence. “There is something wrong with me. It has a name and probably a drug to take to keep it under control. I may have this for the rest of my life”.

The DSM and the medical model represent just one way to frame mental health and disorder. Other approaches focus more on wholeness than disorder, and on growth than on static conditions. Other cultures have different ideas about what is healthy and what is disordered.

It is important for us to remember that this time and culture in which we are living is just a snapshot in human history. In Washington’s day, it was standard medical care to put leeches on an ailing person. In the future, today’s standards of care will surely be seen as backward and often barbaric.

To the degree that a diagnosis is helpful – go for it, embrace and believe it!! But if it feels limiting, like a life sentence – remember that you are living at a time when we are led by the medical model and the DSM. It is one way, but not the only way, to frame mental health.


Five affirmations to help get you through difficult times

All of us have to go through tough times at some point in our lives--it's part of being human. When the going gets tough, it's helpful and even important to remember that this too shall pass. Until that happens, here are some affirmations to help you keep the faith:

  1. I will fully accept that which is for the highest good of all. And then trust that what is happening is really for the highest good. In every situation, there really exists that which is for the highest good of all. The universe has the ability to “make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear”, as the old saying goes. In time, just about every experience we meet has an upside. When we can transcend the limits of this lifetime, that silver lining exists in every single Bar none. Find it.
  2. I trust that everything is in divine order. This bears repeating and so makes a good affirmation! Everything is in divine order. Sometimes we can’t see that from our limited perspective and because of our desires and attachments to particular outcomes. But our personalities aren’t in control. Surrendering to the divine order of things helps ease the pain when our desires don’t align with what is happening.
  3. I vow to learn my lessons well. Every difficult situation comes to us in order to teach us something important. And as we have heard and even experienced, when we don’t learn the lesson, the lesson gets harder. With this in mind, consider your role in the difficulty and try to find out what your lesson is. Once you’ve learned it, the lesson will be over.
  4. I strive for detachment in all things. Attachment leads to suffering, as the Buddha taught us well. When we are able to detach, suffering ends. It is a practice, which means it won’t be perfect. But practice now.
  5. I surrender to the guidance of my Higher Self. Your Higher Self is that part of you that connects you to the divine. When you are centered in your heart, peaceful and loving, you are connected to your Higher Self and you radiate that peace and love to everyone and everything around you. It is possible to remain heart-centered even when going through challenging times. Doing so makes those times much easier to bear.

How to face our fears--and find they're not so scary after all

Fear. So chaotic, and so much a part of life--at times. Fear causes a state of inner chaos, part of the lower "ego" self and its wandering, racing, jumpy thoughts. We let those thoughts take us for a wild ride, going down rabbit holes, through wormholes, into black holes. It isn’t pretty and it isn’t helpful.

When we are pushed and pulled by untamed thinking, it’s as if we are letting the car drive the person. But there is hope! We can take the wheel and get back into the driver’s seat by taking hold of our thoughts.

One strategy to do this is to be still with those thoughts. Follow the scary ones down to their logical conclusions, and keep asking “and then what”? The answers are not as horrible as they seem to be when we are running away from them, or letting them run away with us.

We lean into the thoughts, facing them bravely. We shine the light of clear reason on them, and find there is really no monster under the bed after all. We move into those thoughts, and nurture them, and love them, and laugh with them.

And we heal ourselves.


What could be happier than this beautiful azalea?

The physiology of the brain

Meditation has many benefits, and the practice actually changes our physiology. Researchers have conducted studies to find the chemical changes that occur inside our brains when we meditate. Here is what they’ve found:

Meditation reduces cortisol and adrenaline. Adrenaline is the “fight-or-flight” hormone which increases heart rate and blood pressure. Cortisol is the primary stress hormone which increases blood sugar, suppresses immune function and digestion, and acts on brain regions connected with mood, fear, and motivation. Chronic stress has been linked to depression, anxiety, heart disease, weight gain, digestive problems, insomnia, and problems with learning, concentration, and memory.

Meditation increases DHEA. This chemical is known as the “anti-aging” hormone; its levels begin to drop at about age 30, and this decline is related to a host of conditions including weight gain, cancer, and heart disease. Because of its link to ageing, people are experimenting with DHEA supplementation. But meditation alone boosts DHEA levels. Feeling younger already?

Meditation releases dopamine: Dopamine is linked to our ability to focus and acts on the pleasure and reward centers of the brain. Because of its involvement in pleasure and reward, dopamine is implicated in addiction. ADHD is believed to involve decreased dopamine levels. Healthy dopamine levels seem to help us feel rewarded, experience pleasure, and to focus.

Meditation boosts serotonin: Serotonin helps us feel calm and happy. Serotonin deficits are linked to depression, anxiety and insomnia; in fact, the SSRI antidepressant drugs such as Prozac are designed to boost serotonin levels. Serotonin is such a big part of good moods that it is sometimes called the “happiness hormone”.

Meditation boosts oxytocin: Known as the “love hormone” or the “monogamy hormone”, oxytocin makes us feel calm when we are with loved ones, especially when hugging or cuddling. It is released by mothers during childbirth and causes the production of milk in mammals. It is also released during orgasm and is thought to explain why we tend to feel close to partners after we have had sex. It has an inverse relationship to stress and stress hormones. And the more oxytocin we have, the more we are likely to trust others.

And the good news is that you don’t have to be a Zen master to receive these benefits. If you are interested in beginning a meditation practice, the most important thing to remember is probably that it is a practice. Be patient with yourself as you begin to try a new skill and remember all the benefits your brain will receive!