Meditation Rocks

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In one of my favorite movies, Hoosiers, the basketball coach was battling heart disease. When the main character Norman enters his new boss’s office, Cletus is sitting in meditation. He said he was “floating”. His doctor had told him he had to manage his blood pressure, and meditation was his choice of medicine. In 1986 I knew nothing of meditation, but the scene stuck with me. Who would think some Indiana coach would be meditating? Wasn’t that just for yogis and girls?

Since then, I’ve become more interested in self-care, met many world-class athletes who use meditation for enhancing performance, and I have experienced the spiritual and physiological benefits of a regular yoga practice. I have, of course, from time to time meditated after a yoga class or practiced yoga nidra when I’m under a lot of stress or suffering from insomnia.

In 2007, I was experiencing high anxiety and relentless insomnia for months while under a stress from a failing marriage. I had never meditated regularly, but I was trying all of the herbal treatments I could find. Regular exercise and my yoga practice alone were not working. I read that meditation might work. I sat in meditation for 15 minutes every night. After only about a week of doing this, my insomnia abated. I slept. There is nothing more powerful than sleeping after a long stretch of sleepless nights. I continued the practice until I got out of the worst of the stress and then I forgot about it. Necessity is certainly the best motivator.

I started meditating in April with the Calm App. Several friends mentioned it to me in a short period of time as a panacea for the stress they were feeling. When three people mention something to me in a short amount of time, I take it to be a message from my Higher Power. My rule is I have to try it whether I want to or not. Well, I got hooked immediately. Even the short 10-minute meditations that I used in the beginning started to make a difference to me, and they contained great learning content on how to live mindfully.

I’m three months into this journey, and I feel like a different person. Well, I take that back. I still feel like the same person, but I feel like a lovable, grounded, well-rested, and valuable person. That is a very different experience than my previously insecure, frazzled, exhausted and somewhat confused experience of life. I know there is lots of science to back up the power of meditation, but what motivates me is how different I feel. I am now meditating 30 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes in the evening most days of the week. It’s the best investment of time I’ve made in awhile.

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I recently found a podcast made by my former college classmate Robin Roberts called Everybody’s Got Something. The first one I listened to was a chat with two of her colleagues from Good Morning America who talked about their life struggles and what they learned from them. Dan Harris was an anxious, adrenalin-seeking recreational drug using journalist who had an embarrassing panic attach on the air. He started meditating, and it literally changed his life and career. In addition to his journalism career, he is now a crusader for meditation. He has his own podcast and website called 10% Happier which has a short course on meditation, meditations for all kinds of situations and teachings from master teachers of meditation.

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Yesterday, on the 10% Happier podcast, Dan interviewed a Democratic congressman (Tom Ryan, podcast #87) who holds meditation sessions in D.C. that are attended by bi-partisan staffers regularly. In fact, in his opinion, meditation is a pretty conservative activity. It is a “help yourself” solution, no cost and wildly effective in changing your life.

If you are struggling with stress or insomnia or would otherwise just like to strengthen your brain “muscle”, you should open your mind a little and try meditation. Meditation is the new black, and, if just 25% of the population started meditating and seeing results that bring out the best in themselves, just think of how we could change the world. Athletes have known for a long time that meditation helps their performance. Their job is to perform, so they aren’t going to waste time on BS.

Cletus modeled meditation for us back in 1986 – long before I even knew what it was. His doctor knew that meditation lowered blood pressure and reduced stress. He probably got better sleep as a result. I suspect Norm could have benefited from meditation with his flashy temper and anger issue. Those things make for good drama but they don’t make for a good life. Like Dan Harris says, it won’t solve all of your problems, but it may make you 10% happier.

 

 

Channeling My Inner Icelander: Longings

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I spent another day yesterday riding the sugar roller coaster. “Just stop eating it,” you say. “It’s bad for me,” I say. “It’s poison,” say the books that proclaim sugar as the downfall of our health as a country. “It’s an addiction,” say the psychologists and substance abuse counselors. “It keeps you company when you are lonely,” says the addict on my shoulder. “It hugs you when you are scared,” says the devil. “And it’s just so, so sweet,” says my addicted, pleasure-seeking brain. Sugar’s energy sucks the life out of me. Its initial calming effect leads to an unrelenting anxiety. No matter what, I always end up laying awake at night in the middle of a blood sugar crash cursing myself for my dependence.

Today, I vow, will be different. For some people, I assume sugar is not what it is to me. But, for many, I can see that they struggle with the need to eat it for stress relief and comfort. I can see it because it literally shows up on us in anxiety, inflammation and weight gain. As stress levels rise during this time, you can literally see people “puffing up”. I feel helpless in my own spiral. But I know that it is not hopeless. I have been here before.

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Yesterday I read an article in the Atlantic about the stunning success Iceland has had in breaking the cycle of drug and alcohol abuse in its teenage population. When the country became alarmed at the addictive spiral of its youth, the country decided to get to the root of the problem instead of trying to manage symptoms. You can read the article here, but the goal was to teach teenagers to handle stress in proactive ways by working with their bodies’ natural body chemistry. As humans, our body chemistry helps us relieve stress if we “lean in” instead of “numbing out”. Some of get stress relief by increasing our energy and soaking in our endorphins. Others need to slow down to quell anxiety. There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach. Meditation works as well as dancing all night long. It just depends on who you are.

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I actually know what works for me. It’s a combination of meditation, exercise, eating right, real connection with others and reading spiritual material. So, when I got up this morning I made my tea without sweeteners and cracked open Ronald Rolheiser’s book Holy Longing. In the introduction, he talks about this longing that we have inside us as humans that is never really satisfied. This desire drives us. It drives us to seek God. It drives us into an anxious state when we are unoccupied. It drives us into all kinds of addictions and modes of escape. We are always in a state of unrequited desire. We have moments of peace. We never have a lifetime of it.

Twelve step groups say addictions of all kinds are an attempt to fill a God-sized hole with something else. We just keep trying and trying to find comfort but it never works. We need more and more to keep that elusive peaceful feeling. We all have different “solutions” to our anxiety. While I pound sugar to get that “high” I like so much, another engages in angry arguments to help them feel smarter than others. A credit card buys all of the things that comfort others. A momentary comfort is experienced in the numbness of substance-abuse. The credit card bills come due, our relationships unravel from the arguing and substance abuse, and my blood sugar crashes from the sugar. We are always left with the remorse and the emotional fallout. Peace – from those things – is elusive.

Writing helps me reframe my thoughts, and I think I’ll approach today differently. With the awareness that I’m feeling a God-sized hole right now for a variety of reasons, I’ll fill it with time with Him and engage in my spiritual practices. I’ll abstain from sugar and let the withdrawal take me. I’ll find a way to connect with others tonight and express my true feelings. I’ll eat something healthy for breakfast and do a yoga nidra… BEFORE reading the news. For today, I’ll pretend I’m an Icelander and deal with the root of the problem.

 

Whatever Happened to Kindness?

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The other morning I got up to do yoga. My yoga space has a small window that looks out into the street. It’s on the third floor, so I get a bird’s eye view of the area. I was standing in Tadasana, and I saw what I first thought was a dog. I realized in horror that it was a deer. It was walking down the sidewalk in my neighborhood headed toward the street. What is happening to our animals? And why doesn’t anybody care?

I feel really sad this morning. It’s the first morning I’ve woken up in tears in a long time. I thought of the deer walking through my neighborhood. Tucked in my bed with my animals, I thought of the animals on our planet. In all of the hiking I’ve done in the last few years, the animals seem to be gone. There are few birds twittering. A sighting of an animal is now a complete rarity. Sure, in Louisiana there was evidence of wild hogs, and I see squirrels here. But where are the animals that I used to see with some regularity?

I texted one of my friends in Memphis yesterday. She admitted that she was worried about herself because she is so depressed and crying all the time over the state of the planet and, in particular, the political scene. She’s even thinking of seeing a counselor to help her deal with it. Another one said her anxiety is at an all-time high, and she doesn’t know what to do about it. All of my closest friends are struggling with fear about the state of the world, and I am, too. My only advice is to grieve the loss of what we think it should be.

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I feel this huge sense of loss that people really don’t care about human rights, the wilderness, animals and – most of all – kindness. Somehow we have lost the desire to be kind. Maybe that desire was never there, and I was just oblivious. That’s the major reason I got off Facebook. I don’t like the disrespect and meanness that is surfacing. I can’t stand to look at it. I never could watch violent movies, and I feel like our society has turned into one. It hurts, and when I say it hurts and saddens me, I get insulted by insensitive people who see kindness and sweetness as a weakness.

I’m further confused that this behavior is somehow getting lumped in with Christianity. Christ is so different than that. He held people accountable, but his overwhelming teaching was about love and kindness to others. And it seems so ironic that this “majority” wants everybody to become Christian, but this need to politicize their agenda turns people off the Christian religion. I just don’t believe that cramming a belief system down people’s throats does anything for attraction.

Words like sadness and kindness and compassion are treated with disdain. Fear and anger have become synonymous with strength and power. Name-calling and bullying are encouraged, and arguing is now a favored form of entertainment. For empaths like me – and there are many of us – words like torture and bans and power and gag orders hit our bodies with the effect of violence. And nobody cares.

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Our political system has become reality television. For 8 years, we watched as one party dug their heels in like 2-year-olds and wouldn’t play even though this country badly needed their assistance to pass policy that would sit with everybody. The scene now looks like a bunch of incompetents who don’t know how to do anything but grab power for themselves. Who is caring for our constitution? As long as we can have our guns, we don’t need the First Amendment anymore. We’ll just shoot the dissenters. If the law doesn’t suit us, we just change it so we can slam our policy in place. Power is the new black. Billionaires are the new public servants. And kindness and respect have been deemed useless.

I don’t know what’s going to become of us as a society. I am very fearful of what is going to become of our animals and fellow creatures that are struggling to survive. I am worried about the carelessness with which we regard our planet. I am totally confused about our culture’s willingness to mock and set aside the poor and the disabled. I am saddened with the way people are discarded or treated with disgust because they have different beliefs and viewpoints. The losses I’m feeling right now are overwhelming.

I don’t want to be on a soapbox this morning. I just want to ease this huge gaping hole of pain. I’m tired of being called names because I want to see a world filled with kindness. I want to live my life in compassion helping others realize their dreams. I want to enjoy nature and make a decent living. I don’t want to be rich. I don’t want to take advantage of other people. I want to leave the world a better place than I found it. I crave safety for everyone. And I’m afraid that dream – just like democracy – is just a fantasy imagined by fools.

 

 

 

The Raw, Frozen Shelf of Sadness

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I had lunch with a friend today. We both admitted we were feeling an undercurrent of sadness. My underlying low energy keeps me on the verge of bursting into tears. But, then I exercise or go for a walk or go to bed, and I’m fine. I think it’s the holidays and the expectations and newness of the landscape here. It could also be eating too much sugar which tends to spiral me into a low as well. I don’t know what it is. But, whatever it is, it’s there, bubbling beneath the surface in a slow, spiky ebb.

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Yesterday, I took a hike at Saugatuck Dunes State Park. Once again, I was surprised at the number of people out hiking in the snow. One of the guys from the Meetup group in Grand Rapids met me, and we headed through the woods ending up on the beach beside Lake Michigan.

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Because of the waves and the surf, Lake Michigan doesn’t freeze in a solid piece of ice. The waves wash over each other, and tiny droplets freeze slowly. The freezing starts in the shallowest spots and builds until there is a very deep and wide ice “shelf” leading out to the lake. It has been warming up for several days, so I was surprised to see so much ice yesterday. The “shelf” which resembles a large iceberg covered in snow ran about 40 yards into the lake for as far as I could see on the lakefront. We even climbed up a large dune and took in a great view on down the shore. It was so beautiful and raw. Unless we had hiked that trail, we would have never gotten that vantage point. Such is the reward of hiking.

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Today, the sun came out, and the temperature rose enough to melt almost all of the snow around my house and down the street. Last night when Ashok went out, she had to wade through snow. This morning at 5:30 AM, she was walking on grass. She looked confused as she’s spent several weeks with no view of the ground. I felt sad that it was melted, but it was nice to feel the sun on my back and wear only a sweater when we took our daily walk. For the first time in awhile, I could wear tennis shoes, and we could walk on the sidewalks clear of snow and ice. It was easier, but it sure wasn’t as pretty.

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This reaction that water has to the Northern winter is so interesting to see. The ice and snow are tangible evidence that the temperature is rising or falling, and the form of it all is dependent on the winds that blow it around. And as quickly as it forms, it can just as quickly dissipate. It provides an ever-evolving landscape in the backdrop of my life.

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I really wanted to walk out on that ice shelf yesterday, but with the warmer temperatures, it was way too risky. You can’t see it in the pictures, but the “cliff” side of the ice on the water was probably 4 – 5 feet thick. I wanted to walk to the edge and look down into the water. Near the shore, the ice, snow, sand and water sculpted these beautiful patterns that were constantly evolving as the temperatures dipped and rose. Frozen boulders of sand and snow lined the bank. Ashok drank from the water in one spot and was surprised when she licked ice in another because she could see the water running freely below.

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My sadness feels a little like that today. It is sort of running gently underneath the surface. I don’t really feel a need to express it, but I don’t want to hold it in either. So, it trickles for a moment – surfacing before it ducks back under my emotional shell. I could pick at it or stick a stick through it, but I think I’ll wait. Maybe the writing will melt the ice, and I can freely touch its cold embrace.

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It helped to talk to Nancy today. There’s really nothing to do about sadness. At this point in our lives it is inescapable at times. Looking back provides context, and looking forward provides hope. But in the present we feel the formations caused by the collision of outside elements with our inner makeup and wounds. Sometimes it’s tastefully drinkable. Other times our emotion trickles gently under the surface with no reason to escape. Some days its rawness can be downright stormy. My heart searches for the beauty in all of it. For in every moment, the only truth is that “this, too, shall pass.” It would be a shame to miss a moment of it.

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Making a Path Through the Snow

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I’ve been enjoying the snow. I even enjoyed shoveling it. After all, it is exercise. Most of my activities don’t require upper body strength, so this is one of the few great ways to get an upper body workout while I’m NOT focusing on working out. My dirty little secret is I really hate working out. Even though I’ve done it all my life, it is a necessary evil unless I find a way to enjoy it. Creating a path through the snow to enable me to get out and about easily is very rewarding in itself. It’s one of those small accomplishments that makes me feel like I’ve done something.

I have felt it a little the last few weeks. A low level of sadness has crept in on occasion as I sit here at home with the knowing that winter has just begun. The act of getting out and being outside which is so good for staving off my depression will only become more difficult. I had this same feeling in July in Louisiana. While I love getting outside and enjoying what nature has to offer, my primary driver in being active is to keep my lifelong dance with depression at bay. I’ve been fairly free of it for over 10 years. I have short bouts and ups and downs but nothing like what I experienced chronically my first 45 years. I don’t want to go back there. It is my biggest motivator.

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It’s dark when I go to work, and it’s dark when I come home. Yesterday was so cold I didn’t walk Ashok at all. I felt trapped by the cold like I felt trapped by the heat in the summer in Louisiana. And I know that it won’t really be over until March or April. I have a ways to go. Thankfully, the single-digit temperatures are rising, and we’ll be above freezing for several days later in the week. I’m already acclimating, and 35 sounds – and feels – almost warm. 40 degrees is a heat wave in comparison to yesterday. I know that Seasonal Affective Disorder is real, and I know that it can kickstart something I don’t want.

I joined a Virtual Boot Camp with my friend Jessica “the Bitch” Sprenkel about 6 weeks ago. Exercise is key for me in staying clear of the heaviness of depression. I wanted to stay home last night. It was bitterly cold. My body urged me to stay in and just relax. But my mind reminded me that if I missed Monday’s workout, I’d be behind for the holidays. And I knew that if I started letting the cold get to me in December, I’ll be behind the 8-ball by spring. I pulled myself together and did what I needed to do. And I feel so much better this morning.

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Another piece of my mental health puzzle is being social and connected. I am an extrovert, and I need interactions with people in order to keep my energy bubbling. I’m in between now. My besties in Louisiana – while only a phone call away – are not available for coffee or lunch or a walk in the snow. And I don’t have besties here yet. I have some great possibilities, but I’m working on building community. I got on Meetup.com this week and signed up for a Christmas party with one group in Grand Rapids, and a Christmas Eve hike with another outdoors group. Meetup is awesome because it’s an open invitation to meet people. It was critical for me to meet like-minded women in Louisiana, and it will be for me here.

I watched this Ted Talk last night about getting control of your free time.

I loved her ideas about thinking about how you want your upcoming year to look in advance. That seems very motivating to me. I used a similar process when I thought about moving here. What do I want my life to look like up here this time? The last time I was here I was so focused on finding a man that I lost sight of the experience. Now that I am comfortable with being single and know my interests, I can focus on experiencing this area in a different way. That’s why I signed up for ice skating lessons. I want to LIVE here. I don’t want to “make it” through winter.

My exercise, spiritual practice, ice skating, dressing comfortably for this weather, hiking and making meaningful connections are my “paths” to live through the winter. I could trudge through the ice at my door, but I’d rather exert a little extra energy – and maybe even build my adaptation muscles – by clearing the way for success and happiness. By this time in my life I know the formula.  Nothing is 100% guaranteed, but I’m in much better shape to make a difference at work, build meaningful relationships and remain healthy if I take care of myself.

What are the things that you need to do – the paths to good health and happiness – for you? Do you find it hard to do them? How do you motivate yourself?

Fill Your Fillings, Gurl!

 

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One of my friends in Memphis used to say “fill your fillings, gurl!”. I always giggled but usually I was so sad when she said it that it was hard to laugh too hard. Every time I get down in the dumps I hear her sweet voice reminding me to “fill my fillings” … and I do.

I grew up with the notion that I needed to put on my big girl panties and deal with whatever life dished out. That was fine when life was dishing out a C when I wanted an A or my boyfriend of the month went out with my best friend. It was an effective way to cope and get on with life. But, just like every other coping mechanism we pick up when we are a kid, when the problems get bigger and rapid-fire, those coping habits fail. At some point we realize we are overwhelmed, sick, suicidal, crazy or addicted to something…. or all of the aforementioned. At some point the coping mechanism becomes the problem that triggers the fall of the dominoes.

I had several ineffective coping mechanisms. I wanted to be perfect – or to be seen as perfect – to avoid criticism. I got angry when things didn’t go my way until so much didn’t go my way that I was angry all the time. I ate sugar and drank alcohol to cope with fear and sadness. I spent money when I felt alone. At some point, there are consequences to all of these behaviors that begin to overshadow the consequences of just “filling my fillings”.  I didn’t know that, of course. It’s not like I said, “I am afraid to express my anger, so I’m going to eat this whole bag of Dove candies.” It took a couple of therapists, a few workshops, a twelve-step group and many friends before I unraveled the truth that stuffing my feelings was making me sick.

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There’s a lot of research pointing out that repressing your feelings will give you heart disease and some cancers. I’m not a medical expert, so I’m not going to focus on the medical conditions that can be caused by repressing feelings. I’d rather tell you my experience. I do “fill my fillings” today. So, I have the experience to say what life is like before feeling my feelings and after feeling my feelings. I’m somewhat of an expert on my own emotions.

Right after my first divorce, I was visiting my friend Lorna in Knoxville. I struggled with depression, and so did she. On top of the depression, I was experiencing grief from the loss of an 11-year marriage. I now know that I was also repressing almost every bit of anger and sadness that I had ever felt because it made other people uncomfortable for me to be sad or angry. As a side note, my repressed anger that eventually turned into rage was my core issue in both of my marriages. Had I dealt with this sooner, I may have had more marital success.

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I couldn’t hold it in any longer, and I blurted out to Lorna that I was just so incredibly sad and depressed that I felt like I couldn’t function very well. I expected the usual, “oh, you’ll get through it” or “you have nothing to be sad about, you have a wonderful life before you.” Instead, she said, “Come here….”. I walked over to her, and she motioned for me to sit beside her on the sofa, and she put her arms around me in a big hug.  I cried the tears of a million years of sadness. My tears had never felt so welcome, and they poured out all over her like a summer rainstorm. I will never forget how I felt in that moment. I was accepted and loved and supported in my pain. The feeling was so profound I feel it right now – 25 years later.

It would be a long time before I experienced that kind of acceptance again about expressing my emotions. I saw a therapist in Michigan because I was still stuck in my lifelong cloak of depression. I broke down one day and told him that I just couldn’t take being depressed anymore. The weight of it was killing me, and life was so hard when I had to literally drag myself through it everyday. I was so sick of fighting the disorder that grabbed me when I was a teenager and seemed determined to suck the life out of me. He told me to quit fighting it. Huh? “Quit fighting it,” he said. “When you are depressed, just accept that you are depressed. Everybody gets down. It’s normal. And do 20 minutes of exercise every day.” I realized that when I fought it I was beating myself up for not being able to pull myself out of it or for being so weak that I had it or one of a hundred different failures. All of these self-perceived failures brought on a dark cloud of shame. Acceptance let me release it.

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It would take years and lots of talking and tears before I finally got to the end of my depression. I learned that when I stuff my feelings, they don’t go anywhere. They sit inside me and require feeding in order to keep them from eating me alive. So, I have to feed them food … or alcohol … or new clothes … or any one of a hundred things that abate the hunger for a moment. I was never content. Meditating was miserable, and sleeping was impossible. As soon as my mind got quiet, my anger or fear pulsed up and increased my anxiety. If I tried to do something fun, my sadness would sit on my shoulders like a huge boulder weighing me down. I had no energy; I was constantly irritable; I got colds all the time because my immune system was on overwhelm. I was never content…. and I really wanted to be.

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Today, I feel my feelings when I’m sad. I have a handful of friends that know that sadness is really, really okay, and they will hold me through my tears. That same handful of friends will play the role of the object of my anger so I can safely get it out and express myself without losing a job or embarrassing myself. I know how to journal and figure out what boundaries I need to set if someone is making me angry or hurting me. Meditation and yoga allow me to be quiet so I can feel what is bubbling up – even when it’s really small.

The difference in then and now is huge. I have days of sadness instead of one long lifetime of chronic depression. My sadness used to be a huge boulder that I carried around. Now, it is a boulder but a manageable one. I can put it down or make it dissolve slowly with tears. I rarely have rage. I do get angry, but my anger is an indicator that I either need to readjust my thinking about something, or I need to set a boundary. I haven’t had a cold in years. If I can stay clean of caffeine and sugar, I sleep like a baby with no sleep meds or supplements. I have energy for my ever-evolving passions. My lows are less intense, but my joys are exponentially more enjoyable.

When people started telling me to feel my feelings, I didn’t understand what they meant. I thought I was feeling them all the time. I was in pain all the time. I had to get the gunk cleaned out by allowing myself to fall apart before I could do the regular housecleaning on my feelings. It was a long, slow process, but I’m so glad I did it. I found this article today that might help you if you want to start “filling your fillings,” but you don’t really know what that means.

A Technique for Feeling Painful Feelings

In a way, I’m asking you to feel bad for awhile. And, if you need me to, I’m happy to support you in doing so. Contrary to popular belief, feeling your feelings will make you healthier, stronger, happier and more content. Give it a try…. fill your fillings, gurl! Your tears and anger are welcome here!

 

Learning from Dr. Joan: Changing the Brain

mainImageI had the great opportunity today to participate in a workshop with Joan Borysenko. I bought her book Minding the Body, Mending the Mind many years ago, but never completed reading it. I was at The Red Shoes in December, and they had a display out advertising this workshop. One of my New Year’s resolutions was to participate in some workshops at The Red Shoes, so I signed up for her workshop and decided to re-read the book in preparation.

Joan is a Cell Biologist who graduated from Harvard but she became very interested in behavioral medicine later in life. For many years, she had a mind-body clinic where she helped people learn how to improve their health with mind/body practices like yoga, meditation and behavior change. What I like about her is that her recommendations are backed up by science, but she is focused on spiritual practices. She spoke for two-hours last night, and today she facilitated a 5 hour workshop. I got so much out of it. When I read the book in January, I immediately implemented some of her suggestions, and it really was part of the reason that I’m not having the anxiety issues that I experienced the second part of last year. The power of meditation on the brain is really remarkable.

There’s no way I can tell you everything she said, but her talk last night on being resilient was very powerful. Her discussion echoed the material in her book but gave me a simple checklist to follow when times are hard. She said that realists do better in times of struggle than optimists or pessimists. She gave us some tips on optimizing realism:

  • Change the story you tell yourself about the situation. Find some way to find meaning. For instance, what did you learn from this?
  • Connect with loved ones and community.
  • Exercise.
  • Be curious and open.
  • Know that every moment something new is emerging.
  • Love what is.
  • Use humor.
  • Practice gratitude for anything you can.

Her book is where I got the idea that I needed to start enjoying what was put in front of me. That was a real turning point in my feeling more optimistic. I started making a real effort to connect with others who were trying to turn things around, too. She explained that these practices actually change the pre-frontal cortex of the brain. All of us have default attitudes that are triggered when something bad happens. Some of us blame ourselves and go down a rabbit-hole that says nothing will ever change. Others naturally focus on handling the problem before them and reframing it as an opportunity. She says our default is part of our biology and our history and is set in our brain. It’s very difficult to change your default, but her research says certain things can slowly change the brain and eventually your default attitude. She said at 70 she is still working on changing her default attitude. The practices that change your mind are:

The meditation practice and the reframing I did in January very quickly got me out of the worst of my anxiety. I wished I’d read her book sooner to keep from going through all of that, but it takes what it takes, right? All I know is that I’m very thankful for the wisdom of Dr. Joan. With her help, and the help of my acupuncturist, my community and my Higher Power, I am feeling like a different person these days. That being said, I’m already dreading summer. I don’t know how I’m going to reframe that, but I’m working on it. At least I’ve got a few months yet. Maybe a little meditation will help me feel cooler. Who knows?

Emotional First Aid

My friend and fellow blogger, Tara Mae, shared this Ted Talk on her blog the other day.

Dr. Winch makes the point that we value the health of the body much more than we value the health of the mind. I see it when friends run to a medical doctor for every little tiny illness or wound but when they have wounds from grief, abuse or just stress from everyday life, they wait until they are in dire straits before they ask for help. In fact, they often ignore that those conditions even exist. The fact is that some of the most dangerous and deadly illnesses we have are those of the mind. Suicide – a symptom of depression, other mental illnesses or addiction – has surpassed traffic fatalities as the leading cause of death in this country. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 88,000 people die each year from alcohol-related causes. Winch says that loneliness is as dangerous to health as cigarette smoking. Why do we try to treat alcohol abuse, loneliness and depression as conditions that we can just ‘get over’ by refocusing our mind?

Winch points out that we often tell someone who is in emotional pain to ‘just shake it off. It’s all in your mind.” He asks if we would ever tell someone with a broken leg to ‘just walk it off. It’s all in your leg.” For some reason, we place more of a priority on healing the body than healing the mind. The other day I spoke with a friend of mine about some issues I was processing. I was sad, and I cried. Right before we hung up, he said, “Smile. There are people who have a lot worse problems than you.” I felt like he had slapped me in the face. I wasn’t asking for anything, I was merely talking about my feelings. Can you imagine if we would tell someone with a broken leg to “smile. There are people with a lot more health problems than you.”? It may be true, but just because other people have worse bodily injuries, we don’t tell them not to get treatment or have empathy for their situation.

Over the years my circle of friends has grown to include more people who understand the trauma associated with emotional wounds than those who don’t. We talk about triggers and feelings without shame and without needing to fix each other or make them feel better. It was a learning process for me, because I didn’t know what to say when someone was wounded or triggered. I wanted them to feel better, too. But I knew I could no longer offer platitudes designed to minimize or distract them from emotional pain. I wanted to offer healing in whatever way I could. So, I found a phrase that helps me convey what I know I need when I am triggered or hurting. I urge my friends to ‘be gentle with yourself.’ This is the direct opposite of sucking it up and getting over it. It is the same advice I’d offer to someone physically sick. Be gentle with yourself .. get some rest .. take care of yourself… don’t push yourself too much right now.

I love Winch’s example of the woman who got rejected on the date and the response her “best friend” gave her. We are our best friends, and I know I often beat myself up rather than offer myself gentleness and compassion. The day my friend told me to smile and remember that my problems were minimal in comparison with other’s issues, I felt like he was saying that I was selfish and self-centered on top of the emotional pain I was already feeling. I was already beating myself up for some bad decisions and not handling things well. I forget that when I have been hurt emotionally, I can’t process information well. I’m like a runner who has a hurt knee. The injury impacts everything, and trying to run on it will not help even if I take painkillers and don’t feel it. Overcompensating for the injury will just lead to other issues. So, any incoming information when I’m in emotional pain does not get filtered as it would be if I was feeling my best. On my best days, I could accept that they don’t know what to say, so that’s all that’s in their tookit. It’s on them. But, when I’m already beating myself up and limping emotionally, I take it as a failure of my own. I don’t want to do that to other people.

I had a rough day today. It wasn’t the whole day, but at one point I felt like I was emotionally limping. I became edgy, and I start beating myself up for the situation I was in. Initially, my mind starting going over the big mistake I thought I’d made in coming here. I started outlining my failures and what I should have done. I told myself that I was stupid, and I was never going to get out of this situation. Then, I remembered this video and my reaction to Winch’s message. “Be gentle with yourself, Sharon,” I told myself quietly. “You are not in a good place right now emotionally, and beating yourself up further won’t help.” I felt better immediately. I practiced emotional first aid. Thank you, Dr. Winch.

It’s All Lavender… I Just Wish There Was More of It

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I’m up at 3 this morning. It wasn’t the first time I woke up either. It’s been like this all week. I’ve been in an emotional funk due to a lot of things. I hate these times. I hate it when things are unsettled. I crave normalcy. I want routine. Anxiety wants my world to make sense, relationships to be sweet and comfortable and the future to be bright. But it’s not always like that. Sometimes there is drama. And, I’m grateful that it’s just sometimes now. Life used to be drama ….  all the time.

When I have periods of high anxiety, they are always coupled with or followed by depression. That’s just the way my body reacts. I use lavender to help me cope. That sweet-smelling flower infused into an essential oil has become my tonic to help me let go. I turned over two bottles of it this morning, but they were both empty. I felt like the alcoholic who is desperately searching for that drop in a bottle that somehow she missed. Damn… no relief. So, I decided to get up and drink my tea and get the day started. I need to workout. The funk I’ve been in since Tuesday has diverted my energy as fuel for my anxiety, so I haven’t been to the gym at all. It’s at times like these that I have no problems staying away from coffee. It is poison, and I know it. So, I have my chai tea at 3:15 in the morning and will head to the gym to try to take the edge off when they open at 4:30 AM.

I went to a healing service yesterday at a local church. I love those. They generally anoint attendants with oil and serve communion. They are gentle services that are generally small. God did meet me there, and I felt comforted and at peace for an hour or so.

I started to get irritated when I looked at the clock this morning and it was so early, and I was wide awake. But, I just told myself that this is normal when I’m in a period of high anxiety like this. It will pass. I know it will. The only way out is through. It’s in times like this that I have to turn up the self care. I talked to Jessica the other night, and I need to really put up the walls right now so that I only interact with those people who really care for me and let me be myself. My people-pleasing stuff is something I have to totally ratchet down because it causes me more anxiety than anything else. My perfectionism is another one I have to really watch. I want to be perfect, and there are people who want me to do it perfectly, and they trigger my anxiety. Walls … walls … walls… but just for now. In normal times, I can handle it. But this isn’t a normal time. This is a time for embracing and resting in God’s love, the love of those select friends that treasure me and for lavender…. blessed lavender.

My friend Michael texted me yesterday with some trivia about the United States. What is the Southernmost state …. the northernmost …. the westernmost … and the easternmost? There was a surprise in the end, and it made me laugh. I love him. He knows when to push and when to just be a buddy who texts me trivia. How did I get so lucky to have the friends I have in my life? There were tons of years when I didn’t have that. They were available, but I didn’t know how to cultivate those friendships and tap into their sweetness. I LOVE my relationships. We are really there for each other… or at least they are there for me. They tell me I’m there for them. I hope so. Jess called me during a total meltdown the other night, and she is such a good listener. She lets me go there … down into the sadness and pain … and helps me to just move through it. My new friend Jo Ann texts me to make me laugh and just let me know she is there. An old friend Autumn sent me a birthday card late, and it couldn’t have had better timing. Her words …. appreciating who I am and what I bring to her life … were like salve on an open wound. The late timing was not late at all. It was perfection. How comforting it is to be in the embrace of friends … they are like the purplest lavender in the world. I have private FB rooms set up with my closest friends, and we chat on and off throughout the day. When things are going well, we don’t talk much except to share a joke or a quote or two, but when sadness comes, we talk frequently. I cringe when people say they hate Facebook. It can be the most comforting place in the world if you know how to use it.

One day at a time … don’t force solutions … feel my feelings… stay away from coffee … exercise … avoid sugar … inhale lavender … be grateful for the loving people in my life and stay connected with them … connect with my Higher Power … go to meetings … this too shall pass. It’s all lavender …..

Girl Talk: The Beautiful Sunny Face of Depression

In December of last year, one of my best friends committed suicide. I cringe even as I type these words because I can’t believe it’s true. She used to cross my mind from time to time, and I’d always think of her, alive and well, doing her PR work and playing with her dog and husband over in Knoxville. Now, when she crosses my mind, she’s …..well…..gone. It’s a gaping hole in my life even though we weren’t always close or always connected, which is why I didn’t know she was struggling with another bout of depression last fall.

According to http://www.suicide.org/depression-and-suicide.html, untreated depression is the number one cause of suicide. Today, suicide is a more frequent killer than automobile accidents. It is at epidemic proportions. Statistics show that men are 4 times as likely to commit suicide as women. And, I’ve seen accounts that 70% of women experience depression at least once in their lifetime. I experienced chronic depression from the time I was about 16 until I was about 42. And, if you see pictures of me back then, you would not have known. I was smiling, bubbly and overflowing with laughter. That was the outside. The inside of me was detached, hopeless, afraid and dark.

You would never have known that my friend suffered from bouts of depression. When I walked up to her Memorial Service, there was a big screen TV flashing photos of her 1000 watt smile. For a moment, I expected to see her running up to me and screaming with joy as she often did and doubling over with laughter. She looked like a happy person, and at her core she was. For those of us with chronic depression, it comes and goes for no obvious reason for most if not all of our life. I took my first anti-depressant in my 30s. About 5-6 weeks after I started taking it, I was driving home from work, and I realized that a heavy weight had been lifted from my shoulders and my heart. I felt light-hearted for the first time in my adult life. It was, quite simply…… a miracle. My friend and I were good friends for a lot of reasons, but we shared quietly about our common foe, depression. It was a frequent topic of conversation. How do you deal with it? Are you ever suicidal? Would you really do it? Call me if you need to talk. We knew how serious it was.

When I had bouts of depression, and I said something to friends about it that didn’t really “get” depression, they would tell me to adjust my view. Think positive thoughts, they’d say. Snap out of it – your life is fabulous! I tried it. I tried affirmations. I tried adjusting my view. I tried laughing when I didn’t feel like it. When the demon depression set in, nothing really worked. And, even while on a regimen of antidepressants, it still ebbed and flowed, stealing my life for months and years.

I know for me, my depression was anxiety-related. I didn’t figure this out until my early 40s. Anxiety was why I self-medicated with alcohol, sugar and coffee – things that actually increased anxiety. I thought they relieved my depressive symptoms. I was caught up in this vicious cycle of trying to cure a chemical imbalance in my brain with chemicals that put my brain further in tilt. I had heard of anxiety, but I didn’t think I had it. I thought anxiety was fear, and I wasn’t really all that fearful. I had done very courageous, risky things in my life. Anxiety is about perfectionism, needing to be seen in a certain way, obsessing over things I can’t control and a variety of other fairly normal behaviors in a chaotic world. I can’t remember the name of the book I read in my early 40s, but I remember when I read that chapter on anxiety, a light bulb went off. I HAVE ANXIETY. And, my anxiety sends my brain chemicals into hormonal overdrive which exhausts my system to cause my depression.

That’s a simplistic description for sure, but it’s how I think of my anxiety-related depression. I can tell you that when I eliminate coffee, sugar, alcohol, stop obsessing over things I can’t control, quit trying to be perfect and live one day at a time, my depression goes away. I haven’t had a bad bout with that demon in 10 years, and I’m glad to see it gone. I occasionally have ups and downs emotionally, usually related to wrong foods or not taking care of myself, but nothing major. And, sometimes I’m just sad. Sadness is different from depression. That’s an emotion not an illness.

I don’t know if my friend had anxiety-related depression. We never discussed that since I moved away long before I found out the key for me. But, I know she suffered from anxiety as defined by that chapter I read. I know that at times it would get overwhelming for her. I know that she contacted me a couple of years ago to ask if I was really doing as well as it appeared on Facebook. We discussed some of the successful things I was doing to deal with my depression and the fact that it had abated. If I had told you that she suffered from depression, you would not have believed it. She was full of laughter, smiles and was very successful in her life on all fronts. She was beautiful and had a sense of style that exuded confidence and class. She was a successful and well-known public relations person that dealt with the media all the time. Even our other close friends had no idea she suffered with depression. Those of us who suffer with it hide it well.

The reason I wanted to write about my friend today and that hidden killer depression is that I know that one of the women in your circle of friends is probably suffering from it right now. She’s probably smiling and laughing along with the rest of you but when she drives away, she sighs in relief because putting on that show was really difficult. She may have said she’s down, and you’ve thought that it was just a bad day or a bad case of PMS. And, she may feel alone even if she’s surrounded by people who love her. My friend was surrounded by a loving family and friends, but the weight of her illness got to be too much, and she checked out. I have to respect that her decision was the right one for her, but … oh … it was not the right one for me. I am angry about her choice, but I also perfectly understand. Because depression’s filters are isolating, burdensome and hopeless.  Tomorrow can just seem to be too much to bear.

Jennifer, a mutual friend of my girlfriend, is struggling to come to terms with the choice our friend made. She posted an article today on Facebook which gives some of the recent statistics on suicide. It is one of the best articles I’ve read on the phenomena of suicide in our country today, and it is worth reading. Click here to access it. Suicide is an epidemic in this country, and our beliefs about who is likely to become a victim of suicide are probably old and outdated. The information contained in this article is relevant and sobering. White educated single women of my age group have a very high risk of completing suicide. My friend was married, but she fit the rest of those characteristics. I called her a few weeks before her fiftieth birthday, just a year before she committed suicide. I told her that I wanted to visit her for her birthday weekend because fifty was a big one. “Oh no,” she told me. “I just want it to go by and not do anything.” I insisted we go out, and we did. We had a blast. We went out to dinner, went shopping and toured our old haunts in Knoxville. We bought hats at a clothing store and came home and had her husband take pictures of us. We laughed literally until we cried. We hugged goodbye and made plans to meet up in Nashville sometime and not let so much time pass between visits. I had no idea that the next time I would see her would be in a picture at her Memorial Service. I have my favorite picture from that night on my desk at work.  We are smiling. We are close together like we always were, affectionate and at ease with each other. We had on those hats that we bought, and we were playing like little girls. It’s the way I want to remember her. I just wish I’d known when I walked away that I would not see her again. I would have run back to take one more look at that beautiful smile.