Asking For Help: Self-care and consultation with healthcare professionals

Even when we have done all we can to nourish our spiritual, mental, and physical health, we may encounter the challenges of illness and injury.  Some of us have a predisposition to certain health issues and, when this combines with stress and environmental pollutants, our health can be compromised.  Much of my adult life has been focused on learning skills that enable me to meet my healthcare needs myself.  I was very affected by the crazy healthcare that I saw my mom receive, which was compounded by taking more pills to deal with the side effects of the last pills that she had been taking. Both my parents died younger than necessary because of their lifestyle choices. This was probably the most influential reason that, as some have said to me, I am a “self-care hardcore.”

 

Self-care begins with mindfulness

Illnesses and injuries often give subtle warning cues that we tend to ignore or push through. The little pain in our knee that becomes chronic.  The little digestive issues that increase over time to require surgery.  The stress we ignore that begins to take its toll on our immune system, muscle energy, or pain tolerance. Even injuries that occur because of accidents can sometimes be traced to lack of mindfulness, tiredness or being distracted.

 

The mindfulness that we teach in yoga has the potential to make us aware of the cues that warn us of pain and disease.  Stressors that make themselves known to us by pain, digestive discomforts, or an inability to relax the mind are all blinking warning signs that our life is unbalanced - that our body is undergoing abnormal stress and needs to be brought back into homeostasis.  Yoga teaches us to listen to the first and usually smaller clues about unease in our bodies.  This is the time when the problem can be solved with exercise, eating well, relaxation, positive mental processing and striving to be on our life’s path.  Though medication and surgery can’t always be avoided, these forms of treatment – with their side effects and complications –should be considered “Plan B,” if lifestyle changes aren’t enough of a solution. Treatments that spring from lifestyle changes should be regarded as the “first line of defense.”

 

Consulting with our healthcare providers

Asking for help is very individual. We all have our different comfort levels about when we need to get some help. This can be determined by finances. So often, self-care can seem more expensive than going to the doctor, which is covered by the healthcare insurance that we either work for or pay for. Sometimes, for those who are struggling financially, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins are too expensive. Alternative healthcare providers are definitely more expensive than conventional doctors, which is especially unappealing if you are also paying for health care insurance that doesn’t cover them.

 

So when we do go to our healthcare provider, one way to make sure that we are part of the process is to take some time to be informed about how we feel and what we want.

Here is my strategy:

1.     Get medical treatment if I am in acute pain. The allopathic medical community (that is, the community of conventional doctors and pharmacists) is really good at helping in emergency situations!

2.     Do the best that I can with my own lifestyle choices in eating well, digestion, exercise and reducing stress. Then I let go of judgment. Our bodies are vulnerable and not made to last forever. I get help if something doesn’t feel right and what I have been trying is NOT making it better.

3.     Prepare myself for “consultation” with my healthcare provider. This can consist of sitting quietly, so that my intuition and calmness are available to me during an appointment. I will often do research from multiple sources so that I can contribute to the conversation. If the professional that I am talking to is impatient with me, I know that this is not a person that I want to work with.

4.     Ask my healthcare professional why they think that the condition is present in my body.

5.     Ask if the doctor knows of any lifestyle changes that can help my condition. I have found that if they know that I am interested in something other than a quick fix of pharmaceutical medication, they will present alternatives.

6.     Ask about side effects of any procedures or medications that are recommended.

7.     Let myself think about how I want to proceed. If it is a big decision, then maybe I will get a second option or do more research.

 

I know that the most important aspect of healing is belief. Believing that the pill or herb or therapy is going to heal you is a large part of its effectiveness. This so-called “placebo effect” has been documented in countless studies. I also know that feeling empowered to be at least a part of our own healing process, and not a victim in the process of healing, is part of recovery and the road to health. Do you have any other thoughts on working with healthcare professionals? 

 

Cultivating Loving-kindness: Freeing my mind and opening my heart

I can think back to a few significant times as an adult when I felt like I could never love or be vulnerable again. Going through a divorce and experiencing a major career setback are two examples that stand out for me - feeling embarrassed, angry, disoriented and alone eventually gave way to feeling numb and like my heart was a block of cement. Sometimes I didn’t even realize that I was feeling so disconnected until my heart opened up again and I felt the freedom that comes with loving feelings.

I can also think of less significant events that take my loving feelings away for a few hours or a few days, like disagreements with loved ones, someone not talking nicely to me, money difficulties, and being too tired.

Until I had my own children, I thought that the experience of love was a feeling of longing. Through them, I discovered that true love is not a yearning, but a gift freely given and freely received. But as to my relationships with other adults, those took longer to heal from the challenges of conflict and divorce. It was a long time before I trusted another adult with my heart. Lucky for me, he hung in there as my block of cement crumbled away and he tenderly helped me re-assemble the shattered pieces it had become.

I don’t ever again want to go through long periods of time where I don’t feel loving. I know that my journey in this lifetime will hold heart challenges. Therefore, it is paramount that I set time aside to keep my heart space bank account filled with loving thoughts. I know that, in good times and in challenging times, practicing loving-kindness keeps my esoteric heart healthy.

There is a wonderful insight meditation that has been passed down through the ages called Metta. It can be practiced like a mantra, a repeated word or phrase done during contemplation. Although the wording of the phrases usually starts May I or May we, the phrases can be designed for a specific situation. I use and teach the phrases given by Sally Kempton. During a quiet sitting time, you can incorporate these visualizations and statements into your practice. They can be simply repeated over and over, or done in the format outlined below. Caution: do not use this set if you have had recent trauma.

1. Visualize yourself and say these meditations:

· May I feel forgiveness

· May I feel happiness

· May I feel loved

· May all my sufferings be healed

· May I feel at peace

2. Visualize someone you cherish or miss, and say these meditations:

· May we all feel forgiveness

· May we all feel happiness

· May we all feel loved

· May all our sufferings be healed

· May we feel at peace

3. Visualize someone with whom you are in conflict, and say the meditations from 2

4. Visualize a group of people that you feel supported by and say the meditations from 2.

This meditation practice, which I learned while I was training to teach yoga in the jail, is very effective therapeutically for anyone who feels blocked. Often, as we would prepare for it at the end of a yoga class, the women would do legs up the wall and talk for a bit about life, non-violence, truthfulness, self-care. Then we would do our Metta practice. I would see the tears roll down the sides of their beautiful faces. Afterward, the inmates would talk about which part of the practice made them cry. For some, these were tears of the struggle for self-forgiveness; for others, they were tears of sadness for the children or family that they loved so much and missed; for others, they were tears of anger about the abuse that they had suffered.

This meditation is not just for women who are incarcerated. It is for all of us - to break away the shields around our heart, to remind us that this life is a journey of love. Although this is just one practice that I use, it is very powerful. What are some of the practices that you use to create more love?

Being Me at 57: Reflections on Exercise and Getting Older

I have been in the exercise business my whole life. I guess I must have an aptitude for it. I have a degree in dance because sitting still in class and studying was an issue. When my kids were young, I got up before dawn to practice yoga so that I could be a calm parent. It meant living with a lot of muscle and joint pain that started in my late teens. It meant that I often used my exercise to deal with my emotions: which is good - until it is over done - and then, like any addiction, it has its downside - like more injuries that might not heal. I became over critical of my body even when others told me that I looked good.

And…It also meant adjusting my food so that I can be physical, letting go of drugs and alcohol so that it was easier to get up in the morning. Because I supported my family by teaching physical arts and exercise, I was very aware of my fitness levels even during times when I would have like to slack off. Of course this had it’s upsides!

Now at 57, I am not as physical as I used to be but I take care of how and when I work out more than ever. I spend more time at my computer than I do teaching these days. I have to figure out where exercise fits into my schedule. I don’t keep muscle tone like I used to, I have lost my tolerance for pain, and like everything else in my life, I have an accumulation of experiences that I don’t need to repeat again! My choices for health are more clear-cut. Helping my clients to find a path to valuing exercise is often more challenging than the exercises that I teach them.

For some people, exercise has not been presented in a way that is accessible to them, and negative experiences in their past may have led them to believe that no exercise could be enjoyable.  Working past a dislike of exercise can be very challenging, and may require thinking “outside the box.”  For some, even those whose lives will be shortened by diabetes or heart disease, exercise is so distasteful that they resist it, even if they know that it will improve their health. Some might find that exercising alone at home with a DVD works better for them, while some will enjoy the companionship of a class situation. I have been teaching a kick-ass chair yoga class with group of 60-90 year olds for the past 8 years and they swear by it! I push them in balance and strengthening. We get into every joint to bring it through full range of motion. Some clients have made a change from no exercise to walking around the block or five minutes of stretching in their bed.  For clients who haven’t been exercising at all, these changes can be big first steps. Working up to a 20-minute a day fast paced walk can change someone’s trajectory of aging!

My exercise routine now is very different than it was when I was younger. I do my cardio in the late afternoon or evening at home or at a fitness center. I find that it helps get rid of the stress I accumulated during the day. I also do an upper body routine a couple of times a week that elevates my heart while building muscle tone around my shoulder girdle. I do core and leg exercises before I go to bed to help me sleep. I do yoga stretches a few times a week and I try to get out dancing a couple of times a month. 

So at 57, I work harder and smarter at staying fit. I know that at any age or physical condition, we feel better by adding elevated activity into our lives. I have to remember that being busy or not having enough money is no excuse. Being sick, tired and deconditioned will take up a lot more of my time and finances. What are the ways that you motivate yourself to exercise or include elevated activity into your life? Is it time for something new?

 

Healing My Mind from Depression: What I have packed in my emotional first aid kit

It has become very clear to me that I know what is going on in my mind when I recognize sensations in my body. When my stomach grips, I know that I am nervous about something.  When my jaw grips, I am usually feeling anger.  When my physical energy feels hyped up and I talk excessively or can’t relax, I feel out of control.  When my body feels like lead and I can’t find any words, I feel depressed.  When my chest feels tight and I can’t breathe deeply, I feel anxious. 

 

Physical sensations like these have the power to draw us away from feeling in balance or at peace.  We can’t access the present moment; the sensations in our body are too distracting.  We become drawn to regrets about the past or fear of the future.  Just as our minor aches and pains may offer clues that we are developing a physical illness or an over-use injury, so our tight muscles and lapses in energy may signal the presence of a challenge to our mental health. 

 

Some of us have predispositions, in the form of hormonal imbalances or wiring in our brains, that make it more difficult for us to feel at ease with our thoughts.  We may seek relief from negative feelings through substance abuse, eating disorders or other behaviors that make us feel balanced for a time but are destructive in the long run.  These negative behaviors do not have their roots in love or self-care.  Often there are long-term consequences to these destructive behaviors, not only for us but also for others.  It would change the dynamics of our society if the skills of mindfulness that draw us over and over again, throughout the day, to recognizing our body’s search for homeostasis were taught at a young age. 

 

If we have a predisposition to mental health issues or just occasionally feel anxiety or depression, taking care of ourselves holistically can ease the flow of our day to day living, even when we are taking prescription medication. I have proven this to myself over and over again. I can 90% of the time trace depression or anxiety to how I took care of myself the day before: #1 on the list is dehydration. It always tops the charts. The #2 culprit comes from my list of “usual suspects”: lack of sleep, brain fatigue from too much work, poor food choices, too much screen time, lack of vigorous exercise or being around toxic negative people for too long.

 

Aside from these day-to-day self-care challenges, I can also get caught up in “default” negative thinking patterns from my past. When I feel unworthy or unloveable, I know that I need to reach out to friends who encourage me to find myself again. Or, sometimes, I turn to affirmations, guided meditations, or an inspiring book to change my unproductive thinking process.

 

Getting my mind back in a good place can be challenging. I find inspiration in the work of these neuroscientists:

 

 

·      Dr. Dan Siegel, a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, concluded that ten minutes of focused breathing improves the functioning of the prefrontal cortex.  He reached this conclusion with no prior knowledge of yoga or meditation.  He states that the prefrontal cortex is responsible for our ability to feel compassion and empathy.  It also helps us to feel “tuned-in” to our feelings and to the feelings of others.[i]

·      Dr. Adrian Raine, a Professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a Neurocriminologist, has shown that negative emotions, violence, and neglect affect the wiring of the brain.  In his book The Anatomy of Violence, he notes that meditation can permanently heal the brain in a way that reduces violent tendencies.[ii]

·      Dr. Willoughby Britton, a Neuroscientist and Professor at Brown University, has shown in her research that the focus and non-judgment that we learn from meditation helps us to become happier.[iii]

·      Dr. Sara Lazar, a Neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, has done research that shows meditating 40 minutes a day increases the grey matter in the hippocampus.  The hippocampus has less grey matter in people who are depressed or have PTS.[iv]

 

These are some of the things in my “emotional first aid kit” What are some of yours? Please let me know if any of these ideas resonated with you. Comments Here


[i] Dr. Dan Siegel - Home. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://drdansiegel.com/

[ii] Department of Criminology. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://crim.sas.upenn.edu/people/faculty/adrian-raine

[iii] Department of Criminology. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://crim.sas.upenn.edu/people/faculty/adrian-raine

[iv] Sara Lazar, Ph.D. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.nmr.mgh.harvard.edu/~lazar/

Eating Well: You are what you digest

When I look back over my life, my challenges in my relationship with food have taken up many hours.  I grew up in a meat-potatoes-and-lotsa-butter kind of family where vegetables, other than potatoes, took up a very small part of the dinner plate.  As teens, my sisters and I were constantly yo-yoing on diets and obsessing in our quest to be thin.  I was an active bulimic from ages 15 to 25.  In those years, much of my brain space was taken up with thinking about the shape of my body and wanting to get a “fix” from overeating and vomiting, at least when I wasn’t smoking or popping “something,” or drinking.  When I was finally able to abstain from these behaviors, abstinence took the form of eating three meals a day.  I strove to spend my brain time on nutrition, aesthetic presentation of food and feeling great after I ate.  This emphasis on nutritious food and learning about Ayurveda and the importance of digestion has changed my relationship with food from one that was negative for my head and body to one that is creative, curious and beneficial for my health. Eating well - eating mostly unprocessed foods, adding in digestive herbs and teas and noticing how these make me feel - is one of my cornerstones of living well.

Eating well is about more than just the food that we put into our bodies.  It’s not just about selecting foods that are nutritious.  It’s also about creating digestive juices and absorbing nutrients.  One of the biggest benefits of my studies of Ayurveda is that I now understand the importance of digestion.  Central to Ayurveda is the concept that our vitality begins with a healthy digestive process - or that our demise begins in the intestines.  This makes a lot of sense to me. 

Mindful Eating and Digestion

Another vital component of healthy eating is mindfulness. We can be entrenched in unhealthy eating patterns – and a way for us to unwind this negative behavior is to become more aware of what we eat and how it makes us feel. All of us have experienced the phenomenon of the “disappearing food” – “Suddenly the whole box was gone!” – and it often happens when we eat while focusing on other things. Whether we eat while watching TV or completing a vital email, multitasking may stand in the way of positive change.

In order for our nutrition choices and mindfulness to be of the greatest benefit to us, we need to care for our digestion.  In Ayurveda, the term for our digestive energy is agi– the fire to turn what we eat into nutrients for our cells.  Ama is the congestion that comes from undigested food; it zaps our energy and vitality.  Sometimes we might need to cut out certain foods altogether; sometimes we might need to eat smaller quantities with more vegetables.  Adding herbs and spices that are known to aid in digestion might also be part of the answer.

Digestive herbs and spices

Caution:  Some herbs shouldn’t be mixed with pharmaceutical drugs.  If you are on medications, make sure to check whether there are any contraindications with herbs.  Make sure that you start slowly with these herbs in your diet, unless they have been prescribed by your Ayurvedic practitioner, allopathic doctor or naturopathic physician. 

One way we can get out of our digestive ruts is to add spices into our cooking, or to drink herbal teas.  I think that this is one of the greatest practical everyday gifts that we get from studying Ayurveda. Many of my friends and clients from ethnic backgrounds already have knowledge of many spices that have been lost in standard American cooking. In keeping with the spirit of mindfulness, we - and our clients - need to be mindful of how we feel after we add these herbs and spices into our diet.  Quantity can make a difference.  For instance, too much ginger, instead of relieving nausea, can exacerbate it.  I am careful to take some of the warming herbs early in the day because if I eat them later in the day, I find that they make me too hot at night.  Someone who is regularly cold at night, though, might feel better if they had some ginger tea before they went to bed.  “Cold wet” foods like dairy (yogurt, cheese, milk, ice cream) and tofu feel better in me if I add some warming spices like ginger or cardamom. 

So on these last warm days of summer, I am enjoying raw salads, cold lemonade and refreshing iced peppermint tea, and cooling fruit desserts. As the crisp fall days approach, my diet will change to ginger tea to warm me up in the morning, cooked root vegetables and squashes, chai tea in warm almond milk for an afternoon pick-me-up, and desserts like gingerbread and pumpkin pie. I love it all!