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
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
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
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.