Coming Back

At some point we all find ourselves in a place that forces us to change our perspectives and view life through a new lens.  Sometimes this transformation is sudden, as in the case of an accident, illness or loss of something or someone important to us.  In other examples the change is more gradual, such as the process of aging or accepting chronic conditions that may never completely disappear.  We find ourselves faced with “the new normal”.  Despite the fact that everything in life is always changing, most of us are wary or even downright afraid of what is unknown.  This causes us to cling to the familiar even if we are not completely happy with it.  We’ve all heard the expression, “the devil you know . . .” which is often used as a rationale for avoiding change.

We each have different ways of handling change.  Some of us resist the reality of change by resorting to denial.  We might think, “This isn’t really happening.  I will just keep on moving through life in the same way that I always have.” Others get angry and look for someone or something external to blame, as in “if it wasn’t for _____  (fill in the blank) everything would still be the same as it used to be.”  That may or may not be true, but unfortunately, it doesn’t change the reality of the situation.  Others despair, focusing on the loss rather than anything positive that remains and sometimes find themselves dissolving into depression.  Some consider themselves victims and wonder “why me?” Still others will accept the new normal and try to make the best of it.

It has long been a question among social scientists as to why some people can move through changes with relative equanimity, while others resist sometimes to the point of sacrificing their own health and well-being.  Most agree that the quality that sets the victims apart from the survivors is resilience.  The American Psychological Association defines resilience as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress.  .  . It means “bouncing back” from difficult experiences.”  Furthermore, “Resilience is not a trait that people either have or do not have. It involves behaviors, thoughts and actions that can be learned and developed in anyone.” So this is not some innate quality that is part of our DNA, it is something that we can all develop.  It just takes practice.

No one escapes hardship in life.  We may think there are people who have it all together.  But deeper inspection often reveals hidden truths. Many years ago when I was dealing with a  particular set of changes in my life I met a woman who captured my admiration.  I thought, “If I could only be like her all my problems would be solved.”  Later I learned that beneath the appearance of perfection there was a deeply troubled sole who had a host of characteristics I was so grateful I didn’t have.  It was a simple but major lesson for me – nobody’s perfect.   Whatever someone else has that you think you want often accompanies many things that you’re better off without.

Getting back to resilience, I used to teach a class to prospective entrepreneurs about how to build a viable business.  It turns out resilience is also a key to successful entrepreneurship.  One might think that having lots of money is an important factor.  And, yes, having sufficient resources to survive good and bad times is necessary, especially during the start-up phase which often lasts several years.  Also important is a complete understanding of market conditions.  But being able make it through tough times and respond to changes as they become evident without clinging to some ideal image of the way things “should” be is right up there at the top of the list.  Followers of this blog might recognize this characteristic as something we cultivate in yoga and Pilates – namely, flexibility – being able to go with the flow without breaking.

So what does all this have to do with coming back?   That title could refer to many things, but, as you might have guessed, I am referring in particular to coming back from illness, injury or other forms of loss.  By loss I mean those related to changes in our ability to do the same things we’ve always done in the way we used to do them.  It also might mean loss of the illusion that we will ever be able to be like that other person who looks a certain way or who can do certain things that are unavailable to us in this moment.  In particular, each physical set-back I have reminds me of my limitations.  Regardless of how I feel or how I view myself, I am not the same person physically that I was 20 years ago.  This is not bad or good.  It just is what it is.  Knowing that, I can choose to lament the fact that I will probably never again run a marathon, or I can find joy in the fact that I can still hike in our beautiful outdoors on legs that not only work but are mostly pain-free.  So certain human frailties may be revealed, but also amazing strength.  I’ve had set-backs, but I’m still here and still moving.  How incredible is that!  Some days may be slower than others but that’s OK.  It is wonderfully liberating not to have to live up to anyone else’s standards.  Also I can still practice yoga and Pilates, both of which have contributed greatly to my physical capacity.  These are all disciplines that can be modified to meet my needs.  Some days I can do poses that are difficult on other days.  There is no rule that says I have to power through the difficult moves when they are not working for me.  I can modify or even skip them altogether and try again tomorrow.

Change may be constant, but sometimes it can’t be forced.  When you can’t change a situation, you can always change your attitude.  Here is a link to another article on “How to Build Resilience”.  The suggestion is given to “Reframe Your Interpretation”.  This is another way of saying find a different point of view.  Remember the old song that advised “accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative”?  You could almost use that for a mantra.  No matter how bad things seem, there is always something positive that is still available if you look for it. Even if it’s something really small, it’s worth focusing on until something better becomes visible. This isn’t necessarily easy and it won’t change reality, but it might help you get through it.  You may be losing something precious, but I would venture a guess that meaningful things in your life still exist.  Just like physical activity, this requires practice.  It may take many reminders throughout the day, but as neuroscientists are increasingly learning, we can create new pathways in our brains at any age.

So even if you think you have always been a certain way and can’t possibly change, train yourself to think as my favorite astrologer/philosopher Caroline Casey advises and add the words “until now!”.  You can change.  You just need to practice.  Accept what is and focus on what you can do right now. If it gets better, great!  If not, it’s still worthy of celebration.

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Focus on De-Stressing

Everyone seems to be stressed out these days.  Of course, there are many valid reasons for this.  Each of us experiences potential sources of stress every day.  Perhaps it’s the weather or traffic that’s making us tense.  Or maybe it’s a health concern, either one’s own or that of someone close to us.  We might feel overloaded at work or be faced with looming deadlines that seem impossible to meet.  There might be people in our lives that are difficult to deal with.  Loving your job, or those difficult people, doesn’t make you immune to the stress they might cause you. Sometimes just facing the reality that there are situations or changes occurring that are beyond our control is enough to make life stressful.  And if all of that is not enough, there is the climate, the planet, politics, war, intolerance, fear, etc. etc.  Yikes! It’s a wonder that we all aren’t curled up and babbling in a fetal position.

Some stress is beneficial.  In discussing stress management, the Mayo Clinic reminds us that the “brain comes hard-wired with an alarm system for your protection. When your brain perceives a threat, it signals your body to release a burst of hormones to fuel your capacity for a response.”  Once the threat is gone, though, we’re supposed to return to a “normal relaxed state”.  However, our 24/7 lives don’t always permit this. We can be our own worst enemies, not allowing ourselves downtime when we most need it.  Sometimes we don’t even realize how much stress has gripped us.  It becomes increasingly difficult to know when or even how to dial it down.  When stress becomes chronic it can have serious negative effects on one’s health.  According to a recent Harvard Health newsletter chronic stress “contributes to everything from high blood pressure and heart disease to anxiety, digestive disorders, and slow wound healing.”

The good new is that “managing stress helps control many chronic conditions or reduce your risk for developing them.”  And here’s even more good news:  exercise in general, and mind-body practices like yoga and Pilates in particular, are among the top recommendations for reducing stress.  Among the reasons for this is that both of these disciplines encourage coordinating breath with movement.  Breathing techniques have long been known to encourage a relaxation response which can actually produce “changes in genes that influence health”. This can encourage reductions in blood pressure, blood sugar levels, digestion problems and even inflammation which has been shown to be associated with numerous health conditions.

Yoga and Pilates also encourage tuning into your body to learn how it behaves.  We spend so much time listening to the endless noise in our heads that we can forget that we even have a body.  Worse yet, our bodies can themselves become a source of frustration when they don’t look or feel the way we would like them to.  This also creates stress.  Discovering how your body works as it moves is actually fascinating if you let yourself look at it that way.  You will also begin to recognize when you are holding tension in your muscles.  The first step toward relaxing both mind and body is recognizing tension.  Many of us don’t even realize how tense we are until we start to feel what it’s like to let that tension go.  Holding tension in the body makes stressful situations that much more difficult to deal with.  Learning to release tension takes practice.  Regularly practicing mind-body disciplines like yoga and Pilates is a good place to start.

There are many different ways to manage stress. No single intervention can be the total answer for everyone.  Each of us needs to find what works for them.  And different situations may required different responses. All of this takes practice.  But instead of finding this discouraging, it might help to see it as an interesting challenge.  The benefit of any practice is that it allows you to keep trying.  If one attempt doesn’t seem to work you can try again or try something else.  Remember the goal:  better mental and physical health.  Keeping that in mind can make even the most difficult practice worthwhile.