Many Diagnoses Come With Uncertainty

Just like this pandemic year, many diagnoses come with uncertainty. Truthfully, they all do. Getting comfortable with not knowing can help lead to the healthiest path for dealing with the coming months or a disconcerting diagnosis.

The contrasts of this year seem especially sharp as Christmas 2020 approaches. The middle road we often cruise has given way to distinct divisions between comfort and danger. And it feels disconcerting because many of the holiday traditions in which we usually find comfort are not currently safe. The pandemic has brought uncertainty we cannot avoid. Too much has changed too fast.

Under normal conditions, many of us shove uncertainty aside. We believe we know what each day will hold. We focus on that and tune out things we don’t expect or don’t want to deal with. We know that there will be minor mishaps – spills that stain a favorite blouse, flat tires, computer malfunctions, etc. We limit our expectations to those and move forward. That works great until an unavoidable life-altering event presents itself.

Big events often mean big decisions. It’s so much easier to make a decision if the outcome is immediate and known. But that’s not really how it works in most life-altering situations. Every choice is a gamble.

So how can we stay grounded and trust ourselves to make good enough choices?

It’s important to note that good enough choices aren’t always perfect choices. We can move toward health by making informed, if imperfect, choices. When we feel confident in our choices, we lessen the fear and anxiety created by uncertainty.

Fear triggers the urge to fight, flee, freeze, or fawn or hey, if things are really bad, all four! Just recognizing this can lessen the impact of the feelings when they arise. And there are ways to help calm your lower brain so that you can move in and out of fear deliberately and effectively.

Here are a few techniques to try:

Grounding – plant your feet firmly on the floor and press as if you’re getting ready for the starting gun of a race. If you still need to calm down, look around the room (leave your feet planted) and count all of the red you see, then green, then black, etc. You can continue by looking for shapes.

Tapping – Memorize a simple sequence of tapping. When you feel distress coming on, tap the sequence until you feel better.

Feeling your body – gently squeeze your arms noting how the skin feels and how the muscles feel beneath your arms. Continue with your legs or feet. Sometimes resting one hand on your chest just below your throat can feel calming. Feeling your body will help bring you into the present moment instead of getting lost in a panic of “what if”.

Breathing – stand in mountain pose and breathe. What I love about this pose is that you can do it anywhere without inviting the stares that downward dog would bring. If you’re at home, try alternate nostril breathing.

Once you develop successful methods to calm yourself, you will be ready to explore leaning into the feeling of fear. What works best for me is to allow myself to feel scared and to stay in that feeling as long as I can stand it. Having done this many times, I know that there will be a point at which things will shift and I will no longer feel afraid. If I can’t stick with it that long, I let it go for the moment knowing I can move in and out of fear as needed.

I don’t try to figure anything out or make any decisions when I’m leaning into fear. I just feel it and observe how my body responds. I trust that things will seem more clear once I’ve worked through some of the fear. When dealt with directly and immediately (or deliberately over a relatively short period of time), fear doesn’t have a chance to turn into long-term anxiety. It simply dissipates and goes away.

You can’t expect yourself to work through the fear brought by a diagnosis while you’re in the doctor’s office. At that moment, or any time you need to make immediate decisions under duress, I compartmentalize. I understand that many mental health professionals may not support that idea, but it works for me. The key is to create time and space soon after to feel my way through what has happened.

In other words, I compartmentalize temporarily. That gives me the clarity to proceed to another step of feeling confident in my decisions: gathering information. I set my feelings aside to ask the doctor as many questions as I can think of. I also ask the process for submitting questions that may come up once I’ve processed a bit longer.

Once I leave the doctor’s office, I research my options until I reach the point that I feel comfortable working with my doctor to devise a care plan. This sometimes includes getting a second opinion. Having the knowledge of more than one expert makes me feel more confident moving forward. While there is no way to know for sure whether we’ll achieve the outcome I desire, making informed plans builds my confidence and comfort level make uncertainty feel more tolerable.

Uncertainty can still weigh heavy. That’s when I like to get outside. Or on days like today, a trip outdoors offers an opportunity to bank good feelings to pull from when I need them. It’s such a gorgeous day! The work view I’ve chosen is from the porch overlooking my back yard.

Multiple birds chirp as they shuffle in and out of the wisteria on the arbor. Crows caw in the distance. Sugar snap peas extend their small white blossoms above the fence into a net trellis. The sun is full on my face and I’m comfortable in a light sweater. At sunset, we’ll be able to see Jupiter and Saturn align into a bright Christmas star. How could anything be bad?

Of course I’m aware of the perils of delivering gifts to my friends. Any other year, we’d be sharing food, wine, and laughter along with our gift bags. This year, we’re navigating quarantine just to get them to each other’s porches.

But while I sit under a brilliant blue sky, I don’t have to think about that. I can simply soak in the sun, the sounds, and the smell of BBQ when the breeze shifts just so. The smell of smoke from that nearby BBQ pit is a peril in itself. Live here long, and you’ll crave barbecue for breakfast.

As we move through stunted holiday celebrations into more months of pandemic uncertainty, some of us will receive unwanted diagnoses with the potential to increase anxiety. Having tools to reduce discomfort can mean better decision making and more peace of mind.

That’s my wish for all of us through the holidays…peace of mind and spirit!

The Devil, as they say, is in The Details

faceAin´t it the truth…the devil is in the details! I have a friend who´s starting a business with a partner. My friend has no funds, but provides the talent & is a draw for clients. The two have formed an LLC, but have no operating or member agreement. When I ask questions like: Who will keep the records for the required (in his state) annual report; do you have to pay franchise tax; are you insured; are you going to file your federal taxes as a corporation or individual; how much compensation will each of you get and how will it be distributed; what duties are expected of you for that compensation; or can you work for other entities simultaneously, I am met with an angry, irritated stare. That would be no big deal except that my questions are in response to his request to help him get the business off the ground well.

His response is not that uncommon. It sounds exciting to talk about having your own business. You´ll be in control, you can decide when you’re going to work and when you´re not, you can create the kind of product you´d want to buy, you can be the boss you´ve always wanted to have, and you can make a lot of money…. And all of that is true.

What´s also true is that it make take a long time to make a lot of money and when you do, it will be subject to self-employment tax of 15% right off the top of your profit or to an employer social security, medicare, and unemployment contribution. Then there´s income tax that has to be paid in quarterly estimates eating into your cash flow. If you are in a service business, you will have to make some tough choices regarding accepting business vs taking time off, how hard to push when you´re collecting unpaid invoices, when to hire, and when to fire. And inevitable market or regulatory changes and/or competition will force you to innovate to remain relevant and continue to profit. While it may sometimes look like it from the outside, coasting never lasts long.

So while it feels really good to say you´re starting your own business, the actuality of being in business may turn out to be less appealing. There is no way to know whether you are well suited to the entrepreneurial world if you choose to ignore the details of running a business. The best way to ensure success, is to be willing to look at both the good and the bad, outline the details of agreements up front, negotiate in specifics, make deliberate choices in which you decide how much you are willing to lose in the short term in order to gain in the long term.

I mention this because it is the same with a workout program, a dietary lifestyle, a friendship, or a relationship – the devil is in the everyday reality of the details.

I love to swim. A couple of years ago, I swam 3 or 4 days per week for about a year-and-a-half. This meant getting up early to beat the other lap swimmers to the pool, jumping in cold water before I was even awake, and dealing with a less than friendly facility staff. For many months it was worth it. Then the pool became so crowded I always had to share a lane. That was enough to take the joy out of it for me. That one little detail made me dislike the effort it took to pack my bag, make the drive, postpone coffee and the newspaper to the extent that I quit swimming as a workout.

This isn´t uncommon. According to Statistic Brain, 67% of people with gym memberships never use them. The question is, do those gym members find a different workout and stick to it or are they lacking a commitment to finding a workout that fits them? That commitment is the critical detail that will affect their health.

Deciding to give up dairy because it makes your face swell may sound easy until you realize how many foods you eat with cheese. Planning to give up sugar may seem like no big deal until you start reading the labels on your favorite cereal, protein bar, chili seasoning, or chicken stock. Limiting carbohydrates may sound easy until you realize that all fruits and vegetables are carbs. Then you have to determine whether you really want to limit all carbs or just specific types of carbs.

Obviously, you can never know everything up front and you can over think anything to the point of paralysis, but in general exploring the details up front leads to more informed decisions. When I make an informed decision I find I can accept any resulting negative consequence, failure, or difficulty with much more ease. Accepting undesirable results as a risk I signed on for, allows me to let them go immediately because I am at peace with my decision. I don´t have to be at peace with the results.

Since we can never control the outcome of anything with certainty, being at peace with our decisions can reduce the stress in our lives. We just have to be willing to stare down that little devil – the details.

http://www.statisticbrain.com/gym-membership-statistics/

Forget the Resolutions and Pick a New Year’s Theme

Most of us make New Year’s Resolutions that we won’t keep for more than a few weeks, so maybe it’s time to forget the Resolutions and pick a New Year’s Theme. If we’re to believe media reports, most resolutions involve improved personal appearance or health like losing weight, working out more, eating healthy, or stopping some bad habit. Other common resolutions seek to improve our lifestyle by saving money for the future or ridding ourselves of clutter.

I’m not sure anyone really takes New Year’s Resolutions seriously. Maybe that’s the reason we fail so often. It does seem like a good idea to approach each new year as a new beginning in which we can improve our lives. In fact, I’m a big fan of setting intentions for pretty much anything. Unlike goals, intentions simply require that I be mindful, aware, and follow a process rather than achieve a certain outcome. It’s much harder to fail that way! But when it comes to creating a big picture path for the year, creating a theme can be much more fun! And adding more fun to our lives is always an improvement!

What are some possible themes and how could I implement them?

curiosityCuriosity would be a good theme for the year. It’s a choice that could lead me to watch documentary movies, spend time learning programming on Codecademy, attend lectures, try an escape room game, join a meetup group, try online dating, or read science fiction. It would also be a chance to step back and get curious rather than angry in any confrontational interaction.

peacePeace is a good theme for any year. For me, it usually begins with being mindful of spending my time with people who exude calm and kindness. It also means making a choice to curb my impatience when communicating with tech support and customer service reps.

comfortComfort sounds like a possibility. If I choose it, I’ll be mindful each day when I get dressed to choose fabrics that feel good on my skin, shoes that do not hurt my feet (no matter how cute they are), and waistbands that allow me to breathe. I’ll sleep on sheets that feel good. I’ll eat food that doesn’t hurt my tummy. I’ll choose furniture that fits me well.

yogaStillness is one of my favorites. Being able to sit still did not come easy to me, but has given me some of the biggest improvements in quality of life. Stillness can include a practice of meditation or yoga or can just be simply turning off the TV, computer, or phone, and spending time with yourself.

boundariesAfter some thought, I think my theme for 2016 will be boundaries. It’s an oldie, but a goody. Good boundaries are essential for healthy relationships and give me a guilt-free space in which to say, “no”. Lots of things remind me to be conscious of my boundaries: fences, curbs, ropes, hula hoops, parking spaces, walls, cubicles, carrels, plates, placemats, elevators, swimming pools, basketball courts, tennis courts, porch rails, squares, circles, and doors. Lucky for me, the reminders are everywhere.

Are you ready to forget the resolutions and find a theme that will help you focus on improvement all year long? If so, join me and share your theme!

https://www.codecademy.com/

http://www.meetup.com/

Reducing Stress to Regain Your Life: Getting Ready

Stressed
Does stress make you feel like this inside?

A government-sponsored study was released this week that shows “people in the United States are sicker and more likely to die earlier than peers in high-income countries”.(1) The study was conducted by the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine. It analyzed US health conditions against Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Britain.  The study found that in spite of the fact that the US spends more per capita on health care than any other nation studied, the US life expectancy for men ranked last of the 17 countries and the life expectancy for women ranked lower than 16 of the 17, and our health numbers have been declining for 30 years.

One interesting note: these numbers held true even for the wealthy, insured, and those with “healthy” behaviors. Even groups we would expect to live longest are dying sooner than their peers in the other countries that the study compared. How can this be? Perhaps even more important, how have we ignored the facts for 30 years?  And most importantly, can we afford to continue to avoid asking what each of us can do as individuals to change these statistics?

Before you start to yell at the screen that you’re doing all you can do, (don’t worry, I’m a screen screamer too) just stop for a minute and breath.  I know you’re probably doing all you feel you can possibly do, and not just in the area of health, but in every area. That, in a nutshell, is the problem. The majority of us live in what feels like a pressure cooker.

We call this feeling stress and we know it contributes to disease, but we behave as though we have no choice but to be stressed. That is NOT a fact. It’s just how we feel because we don’t know how to get from stressed to not stressed and still meet our obligations.

In order to develop behaviors that reduce stress, we must first identify the sources that contribute to the pressure we feel.  Here are some possible contributors:

Over-obligating our time

Trying to please everyone

Pursuit of possessions

Rushing

Saying yes when we want to say no

Comparing ourselves with others

Doing what we believe is expected by others, or what we “should” do

Working too much

Sleeping too little

Eating food high in calories and low in nutrition

Feeling disconnected

Trying to avoid failure

Feeling as though you’re different from everyone else

Protecting our children from consequences

Avoiding the difficult conversation

Not being open to receiving

Weak boundaries

Getting lost in shame

Not seeing success in progress

Not seeing opportunity in a moment that feels like failure

Measuring success as attainment of one specific goal

Measuring success as financial gain

Giving up our power in an attempt to be liked

Feeling angry with others over the bargains we make

Not living in alignment with our professed values

Waiting for someone else to make us happy

Avoiding admitting the ugly, dirty, difficult truths we believe about ourselves

A lack of compassion

Trying to control everything around us

Failing to recognize that we have a choice

Focusing on the outcome rather than the process

Spending too much time on outward appearance

A lack of spiritual connection

Filling every moment with activity

Holding out for perfection

Denying our fear rather than feeling it

Substituting the general consensus for our personal truth

Not giving ourselves credit

Not giving others credit

Getting stuck in the problem

Focusing on what we don’t have rather than feeling grateful for what we do have

Hiding our vulnerability

Not telling each other the truth, especially when it requires the difficult conversation

Pursuing happiness rather than receiving joy

Shutting out the joy of everyday beauty rather than sinking into it

Feeling guilty for savoring, relishing, lingering, embracing

As you read this list, you may recognize behaviors that you feel are just normal, or that cause you to shrug and say, “I know that may be an issue, but there’s nothing I can do about it.”  This response lets you know where to begin reexamining. Any area in which you feel you have no choice, or can’t get past seeing as a catch-22, is an area that is contributing to your stress level.

In order to reduce the pressure and begin to improve the quality of each day, it is important to create time and space for the possibility of change. You may be familiar with the concept of “developing a practice”.  This is an often touted and important technique for improvement in which you replace old patterns by deliberately implementing certain behaviors in your life that positively support you.

Often neglected when recommending a new practice is the concept of readiness. Before you can successfully sustain a positive practice and affect real change, you must first be ready.  Readiness requires more than a desire for change, more than a conscious effort to change, and more than a strategic plan.  Because our spiritual and emotional being defies logic, you cannot force underlying change by using your will. You can make behavior modifications that are inherently positive and still find yourself bedeviled a repeating pattern that looks different on the surface, but holds you back in the same way you were held back by previous behaviors. You can work really hard to make change, but it may seem like your subconscious is constantly kicking you in the behind.

The problem is not our inability to change. We have not been magically cursed to repeat destructive patterns over and over. The problem is similar to that of trying to solve a complex math problem without following the correct order of operations. In math, we get an unexpected and undesired result.  In life, we often find ourselves stuck. So how do we create readiness? What does that process look like?

Readying is a process of letting go. No more squaring your shoulders in defiance. No more fighting what is or things you can’t control. No more hanging onto anything in the past you’ve allowed to define you. Ultimately, it’s like turning over to float on your back after swimming really hard against the current.  Readying positions you to rest, regroup, and reallocate your resources. Also like floating on your back, it places your heart in a position of openness and allows you to be supported and cradled by the softness of the elements around you that moments before felt like your mortal enemy.

Letting go makes the emotional space for new behaviors to take root. When you let go of pain, you make room for joy. When you let go of your story, you create the possibility of writing a new one. When you let go of your parents’ expectations, you can focus on participating in events that feed and nourish rather than drain you. When you let go of comparison, you create room for compassion. When you let go of anger, pain, grief, and loss, you make room for peace, contentment, beauty, and wholeness.

Imagine that clearing your internal space looks like someone came into a cluttered room (perhaps one from your childhood or a recurring dream), removed all the old mementos, clothes that no longer fit, used bandages, broken furniture, and flaking paint, then gave you back a perfectly clean room with primed walls and an unlimited budget to decorate in any way you’d like at any pace that feels good. Even better than that, imagine that no matter how you decorate the room, anyone who sees it at any point will see the beauty that you’re expressing with your choices. Just like the space in this imaginary room, when our internal clutter is gone we begin with a clean open space from which to showcase our true internal beauty.

Once you are ready, you will be able to implement practices to support you as you develop stronger boundaries, release your fears, and use your courage to live in a way that reduces stress and improves your health. There is no certain point in the readying process that can be designated as more “ready” than any other point. This journey is unique for all of us. You will know when you have created enough space to let in more joy. You will allow yourself to face your demons as you become strong enough to face them. You will increasingly be able to embrace your fear and learn to accept it as a positive part of the full range of emotion. The specifics of the journey are not important.  A commitment to the journey is critical.

Why is commitment important? Commitment is critical because letting go, again like floating on your back and facing the sun, comes with the necessity of allowing light into our darkest corners. It will sometimes feel burning hot and so unbearable that we’ll momentarily revert back to our old habits. At these moments, commitment will save us from drowning and permanently reverting to old behaviors.

Why is the process important? Because what we’re doing is not working. Pressuring ourselves into “healthy” behaviors still registers as additional stress in our bodies. Taking the edge off by never sitting still, working too much, shopping, eating too much, using alcohol, pharmaceuticals, or illegal drugs is not making us healthier or giving us richer, fuller, more connected lives.

We are doing the best we know how, trying as hard as we can, and desperately hoping for relief while our quality of life, health, and life expectancy decreases. With commitment and courage, we can change our path. We can become more healthy, connected, and whole. We can encourage each other, support each other, and value the contribution we make by sharing our true selves with the world.

The journey will take courage. It will look messy. We will feel exposed. It will take time. It will not be easy.  But it will give us back our lives, our personal power, and our health. The power for change lies within us all. It is time to ready ourselves.

 

 

(1)Armour, Stephanie of Bloomberg News. “Americans Sicker, Die Earlier than Global Peers.” Arkansas Democrat Gazette [Little Rock, Arkansas] 10 Jan. 2013, A National News sec.: 6a. Print.

 

If you have suffered trauma and have a problem sitting still, you may want to pick up a copy of “Waking The Tiger” by Dr. Peter Levine.

For assistance with releasing the fears that hold you back, try the tools in “Fearless Living” or “Change Your Life in 30 Days: A Journey to Finding Your True Self” by Rhonda Britten.