Self-care for the full catastrophe

What if a person is really clear about what his purpose is, and what his values are, but is blocked from putting them into action? What if unremitting stress is the result of that conflict and loss of control? What can be done?

Those were questions I was faced with yesterday while giving a presentation on stress management at a government agency in Washington. Over the past 16 months, the career employees who work there have had their life’s work come under fire, putting everything they value under assault. It’s practically impossible to do their jobs as they believe they should be done. How do they deal with that frustration day after day? For some, the answer is to walk away, take retirement if they can. For others, the choice is to remain on the job, struggling to promote the work they believe in.

Selfishly, I want these good and dedicated people to stay in their jobs, fighting the good fight for the rest of us. But with what we know about the long-term consequences of chronic stress — higher risk of heart disease, mood disorders, and musculo-skeletal problems; weakened immune systems, premature aging and more — what will the personal cost be for them?

If ever there was a stressor that’s not going away, or not anytime soon, this is it. As I continued my discussion with these employees, I realized that they would need every tool in the stress management arsenal to keep themselves emotionally and physically healthy for the time ahead. The problem was too big for any one of the strategies I had to offer them. And yes, the word “arsenal” seems highly appropriate when talking about this kind of assault on values.

MC900383136So my overall message was that if they want to be around in 4 years or 8 years to start doing good again, they need to practice self-care right now. Here are some of the things we talked about:

  • Support groups — In any kind of stress, social support provides both a buffer and a direct antidote to its negative effects. Studies show, for instance, that mothers of children with disabilities who participate in support groups have fewer cellular signs of premature aging than similar mothers who don’t. We need both the emotional support and the informational support that can come from a group, along with the ability to laugh and cry with people who know exactly what we are dealing with.
  • Becoming more resilient — People who can adapt well to changing circumstances do better in the long run. Certain people are born with this ability and others have to practice it. Some ways to do that are by having good relationships with others, being able to make and carry out plans, having a positive self-view (i.e. monitoring negative self-talk) and developing good communication skills.
  • Gratitude practice — Focus on what’s going right instead of what’s going wrong. I was delighted when one of the group brought up the movie “Pollyanna,” a favorite of my kids when they were young. Pollyanna changed the people around her by always finding something to be glad about, even in the face of adversity.
  • Everyday mindfulness — Slowing down and focusing on just one thing at a time can help with some of the physical effects of stress and bring down heart rate and blood pressure. Listening more to others, giving them the full benefit of your attention, brings benefits such as increases in understanding, empathy and intimacy. And setting aside device-free times and places helps us disconnect from the grind of work and news, allowing space for silence or connection to others.
  • Relaxation breaks — Even 5 minutes of attention to the breath is a respite from the stress of the work day, and brings many more minutes of benefit. True relaxation only requires 4 elements – a quiet environment, a mental focal point, a comfortable seat and setting aside judgment.
  • Joy, fun and play — We forget how good it feels to laugh and play. It’s so important to build something into each day that gives you joy, if even for a few moments. Dancing, shooting hoops, jumping on a trampoline, playing a board game with your kids –carve out some time to do something for no other reason than that it’s fun. Lifestyles

In the introduction to his book, “Full Catastrophe Living,” Jon Kabat-Zinn explains that his title came from the movie, “Zorba the Greek.” Zorba describes his married life as “Wife, house, kids….the full catastrophe!” But as Kabat-Zinn points out, Zorba’s way is to:

“dance in the gale of the full catastrophe, to celebrate life, to laugh with it and at himself, even in the face of personal failure and defeat.”

For those who are living the “full catastrophe,” perhaps my best advice is to follow Zorba’s example, riding the waves and celebrating what you can each day.

 

 

 

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Stress on the job – & why culture matters

High blood pressure, insomnia, heart attacks, anxiety, depression – these are just a few of the real costs of workplace stress. And according to a new book by Jeffrey Pfeffer, outcomes such as these make the workplace the 5th leading cause of death in the United States. In “Dying for a Paycheck,” Pfeffer makes the point that it is underlying management practices that are the culprit, and no amount of spending on wellness programs can make a difference if those don’t change.

Every day in my work (supporting wellness programs!) I meet people who suffer from high blood pressure, or who tell me about the stress of their jobs. These are not generally the people in top management; these are the people on the middle and bottom rungs of the organization. Where does that stress come from? Often it’s about a lack of control – when employees are subject to many demands, but can’t exercise control over them, research shows they are at increased risk for heart attack and hypertension. The American Institute for Stress published statistics about other sources of workplace stress from a 2006 survey of EAP providers:

  • Workload 46%
  • People issues 28%
  • Juggling work and personal lives 20%
  • Lack of job security 6%

Pompei (60)Stress reduction programs and personal choices such as meditation, exercise or disconnecting from email can only alleviate symptoms. The root cause of much workplace stress — corporate culture — is not something that any one individual can change. People are willing to work hard, and even to work long hours, if they see the work as meaningful. In a MIT Sloan Management Review article, Catherine Bailey and Adrian Madden write that meaningfulness is more important to employees than salary, advancement, or even working conditions. Meaning is something that people often discover for themselves. Good leaders can’t make it happen, but research shows that poor leadership can almost certainly destroy it. What makes people feel that the work is meaningless?

  • The work isn’t aligned with their personal values
  • They feel that they’re being taken for granted
  • They perceive unfairness in the workplace
  • They are asked to do pointless or risky work
  • They don’t have supportive relationships at work

In 2010, Tony Hsieh, the founder of Zappo’s, wrote a book called “Delivering Happiness,” which became a bestseller. His message was that corporate culture can not only support a company’s success, but may even be a prerequisite for it. Since then, Delivering Happiness has morphed into its own business as a coaching and consulting organization. Their research shows that there are three main elements that lead to employee happiness and greater engagement:

  • Connectedness
  • A sense of progress
  • A sense of control

Think about how much time you spend at work every day – eight, ten, twelve hours? Why would we want to spend that much time each day not feeling connection and empathy for others? We need to have friends at work – people to bond with, people who have our backs. In fact, DH research shows that “having a best friend at work increases engagement seven-fold.”Close-up of human hands clasped together in unity against white backdrop

Seeing progress in the work is also important. Personal progress needs to be measured and affirmed more often and in different ways than just an annual review. In addition, having a sense of the role each of us plays in the growth of a project or of the organization also leads to greater commitment and engagement. People want to feel that they are making a contribution.

Control may be the most important of the three elements. When people sense that there is transparency in the organization, that their ideas are respected, and that they are empowered to make decisions, it builds trust and motivation. Trust is incredibly important in itself because without it, no one will speak up about problems or safety issues; fear, disconnection and hostility often increase.

Changing the corporate culture begins with the emotional intelligence of its leaders. Can they embed and support policies within the organization that lead to connection, progress and control? Can they see the organization as a community in support of a mission – a community where people spend at least a third of their lives?

My suspicion is that most of us don’t work for organizations that are excelling at delivering happiness. I have no fear that my job in workplace wellness will be ending any time soon. Long ago, Aristotle wrote that, “Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work.” At the very least, maybe that is something to strive for.

 

 

 

Writing is hard. So why do I do it?

Why write? Who do we write for and what does it achieve? Is it the “antidote for loneliness” as Steven Berkoff says, or the “art of discovering what you believe,” as Gustave Flaubert expressed?

I started dwelling on this question a few days ago when a friend mentioned that my blog posts had changed since the 2016 election. She noted that they had become less frequent and perhaps darker, less joyful. I was somewhat surprised because while I notice changes in my writing at turning points in my life, I don’t ever know if others are aware of them. But if, as Meg Rosoff says, “Your writing voice is the deepest possible reflection of who you are,” then it’s natural for such momentous events to hold a mirror to our strongest beliefs and give voice to our most closely held feelings.

Man writingSo why do we write? We write to tell stories, to set the record straight, to express emotions, to clarify our thinking, to discover a path forward, and simply to be heard. Sometimes we just vent, other times we are thoughtful; sometimes we write knowing no one will read it, on other days, we seek as many readers as possible. Usually we have no idea what the effect of writing will be on ourselves or others. Consider Anne Frank, who wrote a diary just for herself, but now millions of people have read it. Writing to “Kitty” probably gave her great solace during her time in hiding, but I’m sure she had no idea how many it would touch.

Writing is a way of rehearsing future action, trying out different ways of thinking and being. Sometimes you start with a vague idea and see where it takes you, learning as you go, making sense of where you are. Studies have shown that people who worry a lot can free up some of that cognitive space by engaging in expressive writing, better enabling themselves to deal with stressful situations. Creating a narrative around emotions has also been shown to protect the heart from stress during divorce. At its best, writing helps us grow.California-June (8)

Why write? Because it is both a discovery and an antidote. Writing shines a bright light on the inner self. We can use it to face fears, to recognize love and hope, to confront hate and anger. Writing provides a pause from all our sensory inputs and gives form to the 50,000 jumbled thoughts we have every day.  Yes, sometimes that illumination takes us to dark places, but it can just as easily show us the way back out.

 

12 days of holiday meditation

Many of us have the same guilty little secret: we look forward to holidays with just as much dread as with joyful anticipation. Yes, we love the parties, the decorations, the food, the family — but it’s such an overload that it’s not uncommon to wake up each morning with just a little bit of anxiety.

What’s on the to-do list today? What problems are unresolved? How many more hours do I have? What’s expected of me? Will everyone get along? Can I accept things as they are?

Wait a second! Where’s the joy?

To stay calm and to help me keep my eye on the goal — a happy holiday — I’ve been starting each morning with 5-10 minutes of meditation this week. I’m four days into it, and maybe, just maybe, I’m starting to feel just a little more centered.seesaw_balance

Day one: My guided Yogaglo meditation with Giselle Mari focused on relaxing the struggle and embracing the resistance I feel. Negative emotions are a valid part of my experience. I visualized being rooted to something bigger than myself, but staying “buoyant on the breath.”

Day two: While the coffee was brewing, I sat for 10 minutes and listened to the sounds coming from outdoors and within my home. I set an intention to stay present with the day and accept what it brought me.

Day three: Another morning meditation on Yogaglo, this time with Tiffany Cruikshank. This one was about noticing the sensations in my body. A great way for me to send some attention and breath to the achy places where I hold tension.

Day three bonus: An evening yoga class full of shoulder and heart openers. Heart-opening is not just a metaphor. Think about how your chest tenses up when you’re worried about someone you love; these postures help release that stress and make us more receptive and free to give and receive love.

Day four: Ten minutes with a Sally Kempton practice that had some similarities to day one. I worked with the idea of the “upward shift” of energy from the deeply rooted part of myself up through the heart and head. “Watching” the breath move up and down in a shower of energy helped me practice staying firmly rooted while still allowing my love and energy to flow up and out for myself and others.

What will the next 8 mornings bring? Perhaps sitting with the ideas of loving kindness, trust or grace. Maybe considering how attachment to certain ideas or outcomes sets us up for disappointment. I just want to take one more step each day toward the place in the center where life feels balanced and harmonious.

I’ve been reading Baron Baptiste’s book, “perfectly imperfect,” in which he talks about the emotional energy attached to the words “yes” and “no”. Yes offers possibility while no bears the weight of resistance. Holidays carry the risk that while we’re saying “yes” on the outside, our inner voice is saying “no.” But that resistant energy can affect our actions no matter what words we say, which is why it’s so important to be a “yes” to the experience at hand. As Baptiste writes, “The energetic vibration of yes carries the emotional energy of enthusiasm, which translates into action…yes allows for a sense of timelessness and the joy of being fully in my experience.”

I wish myself and all of you joy and peace this holiday season. Can you be a “yes” for that?

Where does stress show up in your body?

Sometimes people are skeptical when I say that stress always manifests itself somewhere in the body. They don’t recognize their symptoms – the muscle aches, stomach aches, headaches, or autoimmune conditions – as being related to stress in their lives. But even when we can’t draw a perfectly straight line from one to the other, they are connected. Stress shows up and it hurts.

For me, the left side of my neck and sometimes my left shoulder are where I hold tension. I might think that the chronic neck pain was something “more serious” if it didn’t almost totally disappear when I go on vacation. What a cliché! All I have to do is go somewhere, anywhere, other than home and voila! No neck pain. The fact is that pain and tension caused by stress is serious, not least because when it becomes chronic, it can start to be a stressor in and of itself.

Where do you hold on to emotions? Marlynn Wei, writing on the Psychology Today web site, explains how our bodies hold emotional memories, outlining research that shows how specific emotions are experienced in certain parts of the body. Yoga, for instance, teaches that negative emotions are often held in the hip area; something I’ve experienced by feeling very emotional after an intense hip opening yoga practice. It is as if something has been unleashed that was held in for a long time.

My therapist used to ask where in the body I was feeling something when I talked about a particularly difficult emotional experience. At first, I struggled to figure out where I felt it. I wanted to say, “nowhere”. But over time, I became aware that I was feeling it in my body, usually my chest, which, the research shows, is where anxiety and fear often show up.

When we hold this tension in certain parts of the body, and it becomes our “normal,” it can be hard to develop a new pattern of being. Humans, unfortunately, don’t come with a reset button – we have to work a little harder for it. As one yoga teacher put it, you have to “give the tissues permission to let go.” A possible way to do that is to move the energy to a different part of the body.

A Dahn yoga teacher once told my husband that his chi (or energy) was too much in his head, and needed to be moved down, more to his gut. Many of us live too much in our heads, and not enough in our hearts and physical bodies. The whole idea of “chi”, or “chakras” in the yoga tradition, is to keep energy flowing through the body, rather than having it be stuck in one place. Sometimes when my neck hurts, I feel like my head is too heavy to carry around, or that even a scarf around my neck is too much weight. How can I move that energy to a different part of the body? How can I stop carrying the weight of the world on my neck and shoulders?

Sydney_69

A good first step is the Body Scan (instructions here). By mindfully bringing awareness to each part of the body, we realize where discomfort exists and we can then bring some extra love to that area. Because muscle tension can lead to decreased blood flow, and therefore less oxygen, focus on “breathing in” to that area. Visualize blood flowing to the sore muscle, bringing restorative oxygen. Then on the out breath, let go of it. This is what Jon Kabat-Zinn refers to as bringing “wise attention” to our symptoms.

Progressive muscle relaxation also teaches how to recognize tension in the body by deliberately tensing and then relaxing each muscle group, one at a time. Another thing it teaches is that one part of the body can be energetic and strong while the rest of the body stays relaxed and soft. So, for example, I can hold a strong yoga warrior pose in the legs, while allowing my shoulders and head to relax in a languid reverse warrior. That brings ease to my effort, as Soren Gordhamer would say.

Yoga has proven helpful to me. With my subscription to YogaGlo, I can try all sorts of classes, from 5 minutes to 90, that focus on just one part of the body. Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of short practices for the neck and shoulders. The most valuable thing I’ve learned is how connected one part of the body is to another. One 10 minute class didn’t even involve the neck directly; instead, I worked on the curvature of my spine and practiced walking around the room with my shoulders back and my chin up like a model!

Of course, ultimately we have to address the underlying triggers for the stress. When I feel tense and I do a quick mental review of what could be wrong, often there isn’t anything specific. So I remind myself to ask, “What’s right?” instead.  It helps me focus on letting go of the background fears, and just being in the present, unguarded. As Thich Nhat Hanh says,

When you let go mentally, you relax physically, because the body and the mind are two aspects of one reality….Through stopping, whether in walking or sitting meditation, you are in control of the situation…you regain sovereignty over yourself.

 

 

 

Use the breath during times of change

The fall equinox is always a time of change, whether it’s as simple as putting on warmer clothes or as challenging as starting a new school or a different job. This year many people have had even greater hurdles in September, as they have been hit with hurricanes, floods, fires and devastating earthquakes. Although there are plenty of stories about people bouncing back, rebuilding and starting anew, the reality often is that people struggle a great deal, and for a long time. This can have a ripple effect on overall well-being.

Whether we’re dealing with a change we’ve chosen or a change that has been thrust upon us, we usually do best by utilizing both problem-focused, actionable strategies, as well as emotion-focused methods for reducing anxiety. One of the most accessible ways to calm anxiety is with the breath. Recently I did an online yoga practice called “Metamorphosis” with teacher Claire Missingham. As we relaxed into the practice, she said,  “Let your breath begin to soothe you.” Even though I use breathing techniques a lot when I am stressed or anxious, I had never framed it as self-soothing. But I realized that, of course, that’s really exactly what it is. So what follows are some of my favorite breathing practices (I’ve tried to give credit where it’s due).

“Don’t forget to breathe”

In the 1985 movie, “Follow That Bird“, Grover gives Big Bird a piece of advice as he is leaving Sesame Street. “Don’t forget to breathe,” he says, “in and out.” Sometimes when anxiety strikes, the first that happens is that the breath gets shallow, or we even hold our breath. So the best way to start any breath practice is just to notice your natural breathing, in and out.

“Letting Yourself be Breathed”

Do this while lying on your back:

1. Close your eyes, letting your arms rest alongside your body and focus your attention on the breath without trying to influence it.
2. Imagine that with each inhalation, the universe is blowing breath into you and with each exhalation, withdrawing it. Imagine yourself passively receiving the breath. As the universe breathes into you, let yourself feel the breath penetrating every part of your body, even your fingers and toes.
3. Try to hold this imagination for ten cycles of exhalation and inhalation.

(Recommended for once a day. Adapted from Andrew Weil)

universe

4 – 7 – 8 Breathing

This is particularly good for relaxing before you go to sleep at night:

1. Close your eyes, relax your jaw, and rest the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth just above your top teeth.

2. Take one or two deep breaths to start.

3. Now begin counting as you breathe: Inhale to the count of 4, hold the breath for a count of 7, then exhale slowly for a count of 8.

4. Repeat this 4-7-8 sequence three or four times.

(Recommended for once a day. Adapted from Andrew Weil, 8 Weeks to Optimal Health)

Alternate Nostril Breathing

Balances the nervous system. Hillary Clinton says she used this technique after the election.

1. Sit comfortably with eyes open or closed.
2. Use the thumb and forefinger to alternate closing off one nostril at a time.
3. Beginning with an exhalation, use the thumb to close off one nostril. Keep it closed off as you take your next inhalation.
4. Then release the thumb and press the opposite nostril closed with your forefinger as you exhale. Inhale through the same nostril, then switch the finger and thumb again.
5. Continue alternating from one nostril to another in exhale-inhale cycles for as long as it feels comfortable.

(Adapted from Olpin & Hesson)

Anti-Stress Breathing

Sit comfortably as you would for meditation:

1. If you would like to use a “mudra”, touch the tips of your pinkie fingers and thumbs together, while keeping the other fingers on each hand together but not touching the opposite hand.
2. Close your eyes or focus on the tip of your nose.
3. Inhale deeply through the mouth, and then exhale through the nose. Then inhale through the nose and exhale through the mouth.
4. Continue with this alternating pattern for several minutes.

just breathe

 

If only this were a Mel Brooks movie

Each new day of the 2016 presidential election campaign makes me feel more as if I’m in some sort of psychocomedy like the movie “High Anxiety“, only instead of a hospital for the “very, very nervous” we have an entire nation on the edge of its seat, unsettled, uncertain, unhappy and yes, very nervous.

Plato said that “a good decision is based on knowledge,” but he also said that “human behavior flows from three main sources: desire, emotion and knowedge.” And when it comes to elections, emotion might have the upper hand. Psychologist Steven Sosny, writing in Psychology Today, says that we suffer from election stress partly because the “toddler brain” hijacks the “adult brain.” Adult thinking is rational and calm, while toddlers make impatient and sometimes greedy choices based on emotions.

A lot of people are already locked in to their candidate. Often such certainty is emotional, says Sosny, not intellectual. That’s why it’s becoming virtually impossible to have a conversation with someone who disagrees with you politically. In fact, just today in The Washington Post, there was an article about how geographically and socially polarized we are politically. People who would have discussed the elections with friends and co-workers in prior years are staying strictly away from such conversations this year.

A study of the 2012 presidential election found that voters don’t always want to feel responsible for the outcomes of elections, especially independent and undecided voters. The harder it was for a person to decide on a candidate, the more likely they were to ascribe the outcome of the election to fate.  In addition, stress hormone levels might even impact voter turnout. Research published in 2014 found that people who have higher baseline levels of the stress hormone cortisol are less likely to participate in voting, while those with lower baseline levels are more likely to vote. In other words, people who have a lower tolerance for stress don’t want to engage in what is an inherently stressful process.door-number

The stress continues into the voting booth. Israeli researchers found that cortisol levels just prior to casting a vote were twice as high as people’s baseline levels and even higher in people whose candidate was predicted to lose. This year, with the rollercoaster we’ve been on, it’s hard to say when we last experienced baseline stress levels. No wonder I’m hearing more and more people say, “I just wish it were over!”

Following a 2004 election in Taiwan, about 10% of the population was diagnosed with depression and anxiety, labeled “post-election stress syndrome.” And in this country, we usually see advice after election day on how to deal with these “blues”. This year, however, our high anxiety and election coverage fatigue might call for some pre-election stress relief. So what might help?

  • Going on a complete media “fast” for a few days.
  • Getting your news from print sources rather than TV or radio, which tend to be more hyped.
  • Focusing on your own life. The truth is that the election outcome won’t affect your day-to-day routine at all, at least not right away. So take comfort in that and use your emotional resources there.
  • Doing a loving kindness “just like me” meditation. The hardest thing for those of us who feel passionate about a candidate is recognizing that those on the “other side” want the same things we want, deep down. Focusing on the ways that they are “just like me” can help.

If the election really were a Mel Brooks movie, it would end with all the bad guys getting their comeuppance and all the good guys living happily ever after. In real life and politics, it’s not that simple. But at least we know that we can do it all over again in 4 more years.