Cultivating Calm

We all could use a little help reminding ourselves to relax.  This seems especially true in our 24/7 world where information overload never seems to cease.  There are strident voices everywhere, all of which seem entrenched in their own particular version of truth.  We receive constant messages designed to make us fearful.  Yet we race around our lives at warp speed without really spending the time necessary to evaluate what is or is not worth our concern.  As a result it’s pretty easy to fall into a state of perpetual worry.  Even if we’re not personally affected by some of the larger dangers in the world, there are plenty of localized concerns.  No need to name them; each of you reading this has a list of your own.  It’s no wonder that so many of us find ourselves in a state of chronic stress.

Maybe your own brand of stress has nothing to do with events in the news, local or otherwise.  Yet almost all of us at some point will find ourselves worried about something.  Stress is actually our body’s natural reaction to perceived threats.  It puts us on alert and releases physical reactions designed to help us address the danger, whatever it is.  There are mechanisms within our bodies that help us recognize and cope with threats to our survival.  In small short-term doses, stress can be a good thing.  Some stress can make us stronger by training our systems mentally and physically to handle discomfort.   But too much of anything can cause overload.  Then instead of adapting, the body gets thrown out of balance and many health problems can result.  In modern times, perceived threats to our survival may be more psychological than physical.  Often, if you examine your worries honestly and objectively, you will probably recognize that they are related to something that happened in the past which can’t be changed, or something that hasn’t happened yet and, in fact, my never happen.

Sometimes we don’t even realize how stressed out we are until something happens that becomes a wake-up call.  For example, a sudden illness or injury may help us to recognize that we may need to pay more attention to how we treat ourselves.  If we’re lucky, there will be a chance to turn things around and find ways to cope.  Even for those of us who do not see ourselves as chronic stress sufferers, there are times in everyone’s life when we just need to take a time-out and release tension.

So what can you do if you find yourself all wound up in a state of anxiety? Maybe you feel like you’re lacking something you need, like time, money or control over your life.  Right now we’re entering into the holiday season which on the surface should be a time of fun and joy, of giving and receiving, festive events with family and friends.  Yet too many of us find the holiday season akin to a mine field, laden with hidden traps ready to grab us when we least expect it.

Not surprisingly, my first suggestion for relieving stress is movement.  Think you haven’t got time?  Everyone has time to get up and walk around, even if it’s only for a minute or two.  If standing too much is stressing you out, then sit in a chair and do some easy stretching.  Shoulder rolls and neck stretches can help to relax.  You can, I’m sure, come up with all kinds of excuses.  But I will contend that unless you are a medical professional in the middle of a life-saving treatment, nothing you are doing is so critical that a few minutes of break time will make a difference in the outcome.  All sorts of events may be sabotaging your usual movement routine.  But no matter where you are or who you’re with there is always time for a break.  Make it a priority.  Remind yourself that not only will you feel better, but the world is not going to fall apart as a result.

Still having trouble finding time for movement?  Try breathing.  Whether or not you realize it, you’re going to breathe anyway.  So why not try focussing on your breath for a few minutes.  Just notice.  Slow it down.  Take your inhales all the way into your belly.  Lengthen your exhales to empty completely.  Try it!  Go into another room if you need to (like the bathroom, for example).  You may be surprised to find that whatever was in your head dissolves while you focus on your breath.  It may return afterwards, but you might also find that you are less tense and better able to handle whatever it is.

Another possible strategy is to let go of expectations. A friend recently said, “Every year I tell myself that whatever gets done is fine and whatever doesn’t is fine, too.  And every year that idea goes out the window as I try too hard to do too much.”  Think about it, though.  That’s pressure that we put on ourselves.  Generally, no one else expects as much from us as we expect of ourselves. It’s fine to make plans but sometimes the best laid plans and strategies can be upended in a moment through no fault of your own.  When that happens, it may not be easy to accept a different outcome.  But when you think about it, what choice do you have?  Reality is what it is, even if we were hoping it would be different.  We can blame ourselves or someone else, but placing blame is unlikely to change the situation.  Sometimes a mistake was made that we can learn from and avoid in the future.  But even that is not always possible.  Better to focus on living with the outcome as it is, whatever it is, and moving on from there.  Sometimes you might even find that outcome leads to something even better that you could not have foreseen or anticipated.  Keep your mind open to whatever happens and you just might be surprised by the results.

There are, of course, many articles and even books full of ideas for reducing stress, but here is my final suggestion.  When faced with disappointment or anxiety, making a gratitude list is something that always works.  No matter what is going wrong, there are bound to be things that are going right.  Did that new recipe not work out so well?  Take heart – most likely no one will go hungry because of it.  Were you unable to help out at that charitable event this year?  There are people in need all year long.  Be thankful that you can be generous in a different way another time.  Did you have enough to eat today and a warm place to sleep?  Even the fact that daylight arrived when expected today and you were there to witness it is reason to be grateful.  If you really spend some time with that list, you will come up with many more things to celebrate.  When I’m tempted to regret something from the past or feel insecure about the future, it always helps me to remember that right now – in this moment – I have everything I need.  And if this moment is uncomfortable, it will pass.

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Rest – The Other Fitness Requirement

The majority of these blog posts are focussed on the benefits of movement and the many problems associated with lack thereof.  This weekend as the powers that be attempt (futilely, I might add)  to control the universe by getting us all to adjust our clocks, it has occurred to me that sleep and rest are often overlooked aspects of fitness that can be just as important as exercise.  Recently I listened to an interview with Dr. Kirk Parsley, former Navy SEAL and current sleep guru, about how chronic sleep deprivation is leading Americans to all kinds of illness.  Dr. Parsley speaks about the pervasive myths in our culture that sleep is for the weak.  He emphasizes what he calls the “four pillars of health: Sleep, Nutrition, Exercise, Stress control”.  If any one of the four is ignored or minimized our health will suffer.  Despite this, we continue to celebrate people who claim to sleep 4 hours per night and still achieve what appears to be success.

In fact, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) considers insufficient sleep to be a public health problem.   In addition to nodding off while driving, “persons experiencing sleep insufficiency are also more likely to suffer from chronic diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, depression, and obesity, as well as from cancer, increased mortality, and reduced quality of life and productivity.”  Yikes!  For those of us – myself included – who take pains to eat right and exercise regularly, it can be a huge wake-up call to realize that short-changing sleep might be just as detrimental to health as eating lots of donuts.

A related connection that comes to mind is the additional need for simple rest.  Those of us who exercise regularly may not realize that muscle gains are made during rest periods, not work periods.  That’s why strength trainers advise their practitioners to work different muscles each day instead of doing the same routine daily.   We are also told to limit particularly stressful workouts to once or twice per week.  Some stress is good as it trains the body to handle the load.  But muscles need time to adapt to the changes.  Many of us make the mistake of overtaxing our muscles without allowing them sufficient time to recover.  Even when advised to start slowly and increase gradually, we think this advice doesn’t apply to us.  I’m the first to admit to being guilty on that count.  It has taken many years and lots of mistakes to learn that it isn’t worth pushing the envelope too strongly.   Injury or illness is a high price to pay.  Still it takes practice and constant reminders to keep that message up front.

Some time ago I read the book “My Stroke of Insight” by Jill Bolte Taylor.  Dr. Taylor is a brain research scientist who suffered a stroke.  Due to her knowledge of how the brain works, she was able to retain a memory of what was transpiring as she experienced the stroke.  The book is about what she learned during that time and her subsequent recovery.  There are many lessons learned from this book, but among them was her emphasis on how important sleep was to her recovery.  Throughout the book she emphasizes the healing powers of sleep.  During my health challenges over the past few years I’ve recalled her words and agree that sleep and rest are as important to healing as any medication.

It’s not easy to keep that thought up front, though.  I’m also well aware that many people have all kinds of trouble sleeping well.  A huge pharmaceutical industry has arisen to address the problem.  There are all sorts of reasons for this, but the bottom line is that getting more sleep is not as simple as it sounds.  Our 24/7 culture is no help either.  Recently I heard the term “time-bullied” referring to how most of us feel like the there is never enough time to do all the things we feel the need to do.  But we sacrifice sleep at our peril.  Like the other 3 “pillars of health”, we need to find a balance, a way to give each of the pillars its due.  Maybe it means a bit more moderation in all things.  Hmmm. . . Where have we heard that concept before?  Simple advice yet so hard to achieve.

Still anyone who has experienced any kind of health challenge knows that life is short.  No matter how well we try to care for ourselves, its length is uncertain.  The tendency to want to maximize our time on earth can be overwhelming.  But there are benefits to being the best we can be for as long as we can manage that.  Quality of life is just as important as length, if not moreso. This weekend we were given an extra hour.  Of course, it will be taken away from us in the Spring, but we can deal with that when we get there.  For now, I hope you all used that extra hour to get a little more sleep.  I know I did.  And I still feel like I need a nap.  So I think I’ll stop here and take one!