Emotional turbulence

What a difference a couple of weeks can make. When I last wrote about the stress of COVID-19, it was becoming a source of anxiety, but it felt remote, still at a distance for most of us. We were still going to work, shaking hands and enjoying restaurants and movies. Now it has completely upended the lives of virtually every American. I can hear birds chirping outside my window in the springlike weather, but theirs is the only sound of cheerfulness I hear.

Underlying all the busyness of reorganizing the home office, figuring out how to use Zoom meetings, and shopping for bleach is a current of fear and uncertainty. We know it’s only a matter of time before we, or someone we love, is diagnosed with the virus. We have no idea how long we will be confined to this circumscribed existence. We’re unsure how far out to cancel our plans. Even as I type this, I can feel the knot tightening in my stomach.Take me away

Today I was flipping through Thich Nhat Hanh‘s book, “Fear.” He writes that, “If you are truly present and know how to take care of the present moment as best you can, you are doing your best for the future already,” and won’t lose “yourself to anxiety and uncertainty.” What can any of us do right now except do our best one day at a time, trying to protect and be present for the people who need us?

In an email today, Michael O’Donnell (CEO of the Art & Science of Health Promotion Institute) wrote that, “We need to enhance our social embrace while we increase our physical distance” from others. Yes, we may be physically confined to our homes, but reaching out socially and emotionally is more important than ever. My daughter and I have been writing longer emails to each other and spending more time talking on the phone than usual. My husband is calling his siblings more often. I’m trying to spend more time on the phone with my elderly mother as well, because she’s even more isolated than the rest of us. None of it feels like quite enough, but I’m taking care of the present moment as best I can.

Living by yourself at this time can be lonely, but living with others is challenging too. With some of us laid off and others working from home, it can feel like no one has quite the amount of space they are used to. Good communication and some ground rules about privacy, workspace, and household obligations can help, as can patience and a sense of humor. While the first few days together were pretty stressful, I’m beginning to sense a new rhythm to life in my home as we all settle in to our revamped routines.

Here are some other things I’m doing to manage fear, loneliness & boredom:

  • Practicing belly breathing – placing hands on the belly and taking slow, deep breaths while focusing on the rise and fall of the abdomen.
  • Using online classes for yoga. Yogaglo will give you a 14-day free trial.
  • Guided meditation using phone apps like Mindfulness Coach, Headspace or Calm.
  • Reading! If you haven’t already, sign up for digital downloads from the library.
  • Limiting news viewing to certain times of the day.
  • Checking in with friends and relatives regularly. Funny emojis bring a smile.
  • DIY projects – organizing photos, doing something crafty, finally tackling home repairs.
  • Playing board games or putting together puzzles. The old-fashioned games with real pieces, like Monopoly, dominoes or chess pieces are great. The tactile stimulation helps with your nervous energy.
  • Taking regular walks outside – there are so few people out that it is easy to keep your distance in most places. Nature is known to be a wonderful antidote to stress.

If nothing else good comes out of this pandemic, perhaps it’s a way to remind all of us what is most important in life and what is unnecessary. Until we get there, let’s care for each other and remember to be compassionate to ourselves and others.

Take care.

 

 

Welcome to our new stressor: Coronavirus

In America, and globally, levels of stress, worry and anger have been on an upward trend for several years. As if that’s not enough of a concern, we now have the outbreak of Coronavirus arriving in the midst of these already-high levels of stress and anxiety. Given the situation, it would not be alarmist to ask yourself if you have the mental and emotional resources to cope with yet another stressor. 3FD2D89B-6B21-44CE-8A37-648FCD91557E

We can’t isolate Coronavirus from the other stressors in our lives. Its impacts – especially to the economy – may intersect with, and exacerbate, other existing stressors such as worries about job security, the election, health issues, and our children’s futures. When we don’t know exactly what will happen or how bad it will be, what can we do to calm our worries?

For any kind of stressor, there are usually two main ways of handling it – either through a problem-focused approach or an emotion-focused approach. The problem-focused approach asks, “What actions can I take to either eliminate or change this stressor?” The emotion-focused approach doesn’t change the stressor, but may change how you think about it, how often you think about it or how you interact with it.

With Coronavirus, there aren’t many problem-focused steps to take. Why? Because the spread of the virus really isn’t in any individual’s ability to control. The actions we can take are simply those we’ve read about in the press for the past couple of weeks:

  • Wash your hands, frequently and well. See how here.
  • Don’t cough or sneeze on other people.
  • Keep clear of people who seem sick.
  • Don’t go to work if you are sick.

With such a limited ability to act, the only way to keep our worries under control is to look at the emotion-focused strategies we have available. These kinds of strategies help us refrain from catastrophizing, they distract us, they help us reframe our thinking about the virus. Luckily, there are a lot of these kinds of tools available:

  • Tune out the noise on social media. Get your information straight from the CDC here.
  • Reframe the story – instead of focusing on the numbers of cases, think about the billions of people who are well.
  • Express your worries – either to friends or family; or by writing them down  in a journal.
  • Distract yourself – watch a movie, play a game, start a project.
  • Relax with meditation, prayer, or simple breathing practices.
  • Get outside in nature.
  • If necessary, say “STOP” when you find yourself obsessively focusing on the negative.

The difference between the problem-focused and the emotion-focused strategies reminds me in some ways of the concept of effort vs ease in yoga. Effort (or sthira) is about steadiness and strength, while ease (sukha) is about feeling light and balanced. It’s about when to step on the gas (take action) and when to ease off the pedal (find relaxation). We need both of these for managing stress so that we can regain a steady state where we have that sense of balance.

While we may not feel completely easeful until the danger has passed, we can do a lot to calm anxiety by using the tools we have. We may not be in control of this virus, but we are most definitely in control of how we react to it. As Henry Ward Beecher wrote, “Every tomorrow has two handles. We can take hold of it with the handle of anxiety or the handle of faith.”

 

 

 

 

 

Are your books talking about you?

Do your bookshelves contain a story about you as well as the stories within their covers? What could a stranger walking into your home learn about you from the titles she saw there? I asked myself these questions when I came across this banner in front of the Latvian embassy:

Latvian embassy (1)

Apparently it’s a thing for Latvians to make gentle fun of themselves for being so introverted. But it totally makes sense that a nation of introverts would also be a nation of writers and readers. Introverts, after all, like to have plenty of alone time and prefer to think things through before speaking them out loud. And what better way is there to spend solitary time than with a book or pen?

When I review my bookshelves, I see someone who has some favorite authors (Amy Tan, Chris Bohjalian, Ann Patchett) and nerdy interests (“The Gene,” “Longitude”), but also a healthy supply of the classics, plenty of biographies, and a sizeable collection on stress, spirituality and wellness. There are books for every mood – whether it’s a desire to escape, a curiosity about the world, or a quest for answers about life. Sometimes I deliberately search for a specific book, other times I read whatever is available. But no matter what, I read.

Here’s what I’ve recently been enjoying:

Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak. This is a beautifully-written novel about love and loss by the author of “The Book Thief.”  It’s the story of five brothers living near Sydney, Australia who have to deal with the death of their mother and the abandonment of their father. The story goes back and forth in time so that we get a full picture of each character and what drives them. I was slow to be drawn in, but by half-way through, I couldn’t stop reading. I only wish they wouldn’t categorize this book as “young adult” in my local bookstore, because so many fewer people will find it.

The Extraordinary Life of Rebecca West by Lorna Gibb. I’ve been a fan of Rebecca West’s ever since reading her magnum opus, “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon,” many years ago, before visiting Yugoslavia for the first time. While this biography is not particularly well-written, it is fascinating all the same for its in-depth look at this formidable 20th century British woman. West was ahead of her time, breaking ground as a writer, journalist and literary critic. She was well-known for her coverage of the Nuremberg trials and for her long relationship with H.G. Wells.

November Road by Lou Berney. What if it was the mob who killed JFK? That’s the premise of this novel about a low-level fixer for a New Orleans mobster who has to flee when he realizes he knows too much. When he meets a woman and her children on the road, he uses them as a convenient cover until he realizes that he actually cares for and wants to protect them. Don’t try to guess the ending of this one.

The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson. This might qualify as “summer reading” if I believed in such a thing, although it would be misleading to characterize this book as “light.” It is a sweet romance about a young woman who comes to teach school in a small English town right before the onset of the first World War. But it doesn’t shy away from the horrors of that war, and it also addresses topics such as sexism, classism and homosexuality in a typically genteel British way.

Louisa May Alcott once said that “Good books, like good friends, are few and chosen; the more select, the more enjoyable.” I suspect that Alcott was an introvert, as am I, but I don’t see the need to be as selective about books as I am about friends. Ranging wide and choosing eclectically can, after all, lead to so many surprising discoveries. I was puzzled a while back when a neighbor asked me what kinds of books I collect (he liked certain types of history). Why would I “collect” just one genre or topic when the whole world is out there?

What do my bookshelves say about me? That I prefer a feast to a single course, a saga to a short story, a journey rather than a day trip. And speaking of trips, if you’re planning one, be sure to grab a book on your way out the door.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Let others break barriers, what I need are boundaries

After a particularly stressful few days, I realized for about the umpteenth time that I don’t set enough boundaries. I let work intrude on personal time, I let worries intrude on sleep, I say “yes” to too much, I pay too much attention to the barrage of email, and I let my to-do list pull me out of being present.

Yet when I do a search on the word “boundaries”, what concerns most people is pushing past them, breaking through the barriers that hold them back, and living to full potential. To them, boundaries are something to overcome. Am I the only one who feels the need to erect a few more limits around my self?

Boundaries are often physical, but they can also be mental, emotional or spiritual. They provide a sense of order to our lives. Kids try to push boundaries as a way of testing not only their parents, but their own ability to exist outside of them. Often, they are all too glad to retreat back inside the parental limits after one of those test runs. It’s safer there.

A 2011 study showed that people select aesthetic boundaries more often when they feel out of control. At those times, they choose “highly-bounded” objects such as framed pictures and fenced yards as opposed to open spaces or objects. On the other hand, people who have strong spiritual beliefs, and the sense of order that those often provide, don’t seem to need as many physical boundaries as people who do not have that kind of grounding.

Technology has blurred the lines between work, play, home, school, leisure and learning. We mostly perceived it as helpful, allowing us more flexibility about when and where we earn a living, but it can also lead to a feeling of being out of control, especially to those who have more difficulty managing the work/family boundary. A 2016 study showed that integrating our various domains may lessen the impact of moving between home and work; people eventually develop ways to transition more smoothly if the boundaries are more fluid. But I don’t know if that works so well for someone like me with high distractibility and an overly-developed sense of responsibility. I don’t feel like I’m good at either compartmentalizing or integrating. Sometimes I feel like I’m just running back and forth.7-Co. Wicklow-Glendalough (24)

Tom Friedman, in his book, “Thank You For Being Late,” writes about walls, in his case an actual border wall like we hear so much about. Friedman says we need to have a big, strong wall so that we feel secure, but the wall needs to have a really big door in it. The idea isn’t to keep people out as much as it is to know who we are inviting in. This is the way that I feel about my mental and emotional boundaries right now. I need a wall with a big door so that I feel more in control.

My “52 Lists” book has an exercise for week 10 which asks you to list the things you should ignore. Here’s my list:

  • The people who are second-guessing me
  • My phone/email
  • The news (sometimes)
  • My monkey mind
  • The things I can’t control

Last week when I was in a yoga class, I set an intention to hit “pause” more often. Not just by taking a break, but actually pausing more before speaking or reacting. The pause button gives me the opportunity to respond rather than react; it helps me recognize what I’m actually feeling in the moment. It gives me a moment to ask, what is the best use of my time right now? What is the best use of my energy? Can I mindfully deal with the situation at hand, or do I need to shut the big door for a while?

Soren Gordhamer writes that, “Because how we leave one moment is how we enter the next, it helps to expand instead of squeeze during times of transition.” Mindfully expanding during the transition time is like hitting the pause button, doing less in order to do more.

 

 

 

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?

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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