Category Archives: Managing Stress

Uncomfortable With Discomfort?

In the last post I talked about the benefits of intermittent fasting.  adaptThis style of eating has demonstrated success in achieving lasting weight loss and improved blood sugars, blood pressure and blood cholesterol.  It involves reducing caloric intake to 500 calories for women and 600 calories for men for two days a week by eating a small breakfast and dinner.  I have been practicing this lifestyle for 6 months and enjoy this way of eating for more than just the physical benefits.  I have found the sense of control I get from disciplining my mind to get through the brief waves of hunger a challenge for my mind over my body.  The ephemeral waves of discomfort make me the master of my thoughts.

Discomfort

The Merriam-Webster definition of the noun discomfort is simply “an uncomfortable or painful feeling in the body” or “a feeling of being somewhat worried or unhappy”.  Discomfort can mean both physical or mental unease.  How often do we try to run away from things that make us uncomfortable and search for an escape from worry or unease?  My initial automatic response to the wave of hunger is to grab something to eat.  But then my mind takes over and it responds analytically telling myself that this will pass in a few minutes and to go drink some tea or water, which immediately calms the pang.  Sometimes I’ll go for a walk which also arrests the stomach emptiness.

Physical and Mental Unease Can Be Controlled

Sometimes I have a hard time falling back asleep at night.  My mind will fixate on different things depending on the stresses of the day.  I might plan the next day if it’s really busy, or worry about a family member or situation.  I might lay awake for over an hour until my mind takes control of my thoughts and makes the decision to STOP thinking!  During those times I get back to sleep saying the loving kindness meditation that puts my mind at ease:

My I be filled with loving kindness,
May I be well,
May I be peaceful and at ease.
May I be happy.

Discomfort Is Opportunity In Disguise

If we can change our assessment of discomfort and look at it as a positive force that drives change then there is less fear and angst around the feeling.  My intermittent fasting may cause brief moments of physical unease but it is an opportunity for me strengthen my mind and to bring self-discipline into my daily life.  It gives me confidence that in this small aspect of my life I am the master.  I am in charge.  Each successful passing of hunger waves or putting myself back to sleep makes me stronger, more at ease with what life throws my way and more able to let go of the things I can’t control.

Remote Control

TVWe all know the routine.  The alarm sounds, our eyes open but our brain tells us, please just a little more sleep.  It’s too early to get up. You tell yourself you shouldn’t have stayed up so late to catch the end of the show or the game.  Then there is the adrenaline rush as you remember you have to get to work for an early meeting.  You jump into the shower as you start to put on your mental armor for the day.  You only have time to grab a coffee without spending a second of time thinking about what you will eat the rest of the day.  You get through work picking at office temptations, grab a take out meal somewhere and plow through the rest of the day. You come home tired, forage through the cabinets and frig to scrape together a meal and plunk yourself down on the couch to just “veg out”, unwind and munch.  And thus starts the cycle.  Yes, the cycle starts with the evening of TV.  I have just one question to ask.  Do you control the Remote or does the Remote control you?

The TV Glaze Causing a Daze

The average person watches between 4-5 hours of TV a day.  Most of the hours are watched during the evening with 63% of Americans waking up on weekdays not feeling rested.  But what are the ramifications on the body?  There are many.

1.  If you come home and eat dinner around 6 or 7 pm and then watch TV until 11 or midnight, it is natural to feel hunger pangs 4 hours after a meal.  And food choices that time of night are not going to be for a bunch of crunchy broccoli or celery.  No, it’s going to be most likely chips of some sort, crackers, ice cream or a sleeve of cookies.  Before you know it that bag, box or carton is empty and you’ve consumed over 500 calories or more.  And were you even fully aware of the mindless munching?  Do this seven times a week and that amounts to a pound of junk weight.

How many servings are in this small bag - there was a bigger bag of Stacy's chips!

How many servings are in this small 8 oz bag?

2.  Now, after consuming this hefty serving of salty crispy, sweet crunchy or creamy sweet delight you head to bed and lie down….  Imagine what that does to your esophageal sphincter.  The contents in your stomach knock on the upper doorway of your stomach, not the doorway nature intended, and some of those acidic contents ooze into your lower esophagus, perhaps even getting as close to your trachea and cause inflammation where there should be none.

There are 8 servings here.  If you ate the whole bag that would amount to 1040 calories!

There are 8 servings here. If you ate the whole bag that would amount to 1040 calories!

Over time this can lead to Barrett’s esophagus, a complication of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), that is a precursor to esophageal cancer.  And if the contents are climbing to your airway, the acidity can exacerbate asthma symptoms.

3.  The National Sleep Foundation states that artificial light from the TV stimulates alertness by keeping the body from making the sleep promoting hormone, melatonin, interrupting ones natural sleep cycle.  People who stay up late wake up exhausted and feel tired during the day because they’ve interrupted their circadian rhythm and have not had the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep that 99% of people need to maintain concentration during the day.  So not only are they tired but they are less productive.

Why Not Remove The Remote Control For Some of the Week Nights?

Think about shifting this cycle.  Why not come home, sit down for 5 minutes and just breathe some deep cleansing breaths and center your thoughts.  Go out to your kitchen with the purpose of really fueling your body with what it truly needs for peak performance:  some lean meat or fish, a hefty portion of veggies (how about some broccoli now?), and a nutrient filled starch with some real purpose.  One that has natural fiber, perhaps some potassium, and other nutrients, like a sweet potato, some whole wheat pasta or some quinoa.  Keep the TV off, find some delightful, soulful music, perhaps some Aretha Franklin or Buddy Guy, light some candles and experience your dinner.  If you live alone then have a friend come over and join you.  Have some nice conversation, connect with the people at your table.  Then after you’ve cleaned up dinner go out to your den and either play a game, read a book, perhaps do a hobby like knitting or a puzzle and truly relax.  Enjoy a cup of herbal tea to avoid that desire for something more.  When it’s nine or ten, and if you notice you want that little “something, something” GO TO BED!  Yes, retire to your bedroom, and hopefully there is not a TV in there, and read in bed or lie there and focus on your breath.  Perhaps repeat the loving kindness meditation:

May I be filled with loving kindness,
May I be well
May I be peaceful and at ease,  
May I be happy

And then notice how you feel when that alarm goes off in the morning and how much more productive you will be during the day.  It is worth making the remote control remote, at least some days during the week.

 

Notice The Butterflies In Life

There is a very poignant scene in the science fiction adventure film, Hunger Games, where lead actress Katniss Everdeen takes a moment to notice a butterfly next to her in the forest while trying to hide from her killers. She is part of a televised annual event in the post-apocaliptic future nation of Panem competing in the mandatory annual games where twenty 12 to 18 year olds are selected, trained and then forced to kill until there is only one victor left.  Katniss is sitting behind a tree after being chased by several kids who have ganged up to go after her.  She pauses quiebutterflytly while catching her breath and notices a beautiful blue butterfly sitting on a leaf next to her.  She takes a moment to have it nest on her fingers and brings it closer to her in awe of its beauty.  A few seconds later the butterfly flies away and she gets back to her harrowing reality.

Although this story is fictitious, it makes me wonder how many people when faced with adversity could take a few minutes out of the moment of stress to notice the beauty and calm admidst the storm.  How often do we focus with great angst on all the things we have to do in the future  and forget to notice the beauty at the moment?  What was Katniss’ frame of mind at that moment?  Was she resigned to her death and decided to look around her one more time?  Or perhaps was she not thinking at all about the peril she was in and truly just witnessing the beautiful butterfly?  It makes me think back to times in my past when there was too much to be done, not enough time and I longed for the days to be over. What if I had been more cognizant and grateful for the things that were going well at that same time?

We have a choice in every moment.  Jenni Ogden, PhD, in an article in Psychology Today, writes about a woman who had an amputation in her 20’s from a car accident and was plagued with debilitating phantom pain in her leg that caused her to lose her job, her marriage and her mental well being.  She went to a pain clinic where she was trained using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to reappraise her brain’s interpretation of her pain and reprogram her thoughts.  She learned that instead of telling herself “I can’t bear these painful cramps any longer” to reappraise her pain to more positive and beneficial thoughts: “My cramps are bearable; I can get rid of this pain because it is in my brain, not in my missing leg; I can reprogram my brain.” She had a choice in each moment to see a situation as debilitating or as bearable.

Although Katniss was fighting for her actual life, there are moments when many of us may feel we are fighting through the responsibilities of life.  Do we go through these days with despair, worry, and a sense of being overwhelmed or do we decide to notice the moments of peace, calm and beauty?  In every moment there is a choice to notice the butterfly.

Being Present, Living In The Now

Living in the now is very difficult when we are constantly distracted by email, text messages, phone calls, meetings and deadlines.  But truly, we can only impact this moment and decide how we will spend it.  What happened in the past, no matter how horrible it was, how ashamed or hurt you may feel, is gone.  There is nothing you can do to change it.  You could try to vindicate yourself, inflict pain back or be angry but that only brings the discomfort from the past into the present, this very moment you can control.  Similarly, you can worry about the future but all the planning and fretting in the world isn’t going to have an impact on that because the future has not happened yet.  We can take steps now to make things happen as we would like, but after that, life will unfold and not always as exactly planned.

Sounds absolutely profound, huh?  But really, how much time are your thoughts on the past, perhaps justifying your actions today, or on the future, preparing for an event or time that has not happened yet.  How much time are you spending on living now?  Now is the only moment you can impact. How about experiencing an activity while really being present, in this moment. Experience this event as if for the first time. Restrain from being judgmental.

Being Present While You Eat An Apple

appleTake the act of eating an apple. Do you eat it quickly, starting the second bite before you finished the first?  How about really experiencing the act of eating an apple?  Be fully present while you take each bite.  Make this an event and try to take 10 minutes to eat it.  Chew each bite 12 times.  Notice the redness, firmness and shine of the apple.  Hear the crunch as you bite into it.  Does it spray you as you bite it?  Does the bite break away from the apple as soon as your teeth break into the skin or do your teeth have to come together to tear the flesh away?  Are you feeling the coolness of the flesh in your mouth?  Do you notice how the taste of the apple changes with each chew?  Notice the whiteness of the flesh of the apple.  Is it really white or does it have some yellow to it?  Is your mind wondering on other thoughts?  Come back to eating your apple and notice if you ate your apple any differently when your mind wondered off.  It’s ok to have your mind wonder off, but bring your thoughts back to eating the apple.

Are you feeling the sweetness or tartness in your mouth?  Are you feeling the coolness of the flesh as it goes down your throat?  Notice how the shape of the apple changes after each bite.  As you come to the end of eating the apple, notice the apple core.  Notice its shape.  When you are done, notice how your mouth feels.  Notice how your stomach feels.  Did your hunger level change?  Are you satisfied?  What are your thoughts around this activity?  Did your mind wonder most of the time or were you able to stay  focused on the apple?  Are you able to come back to your day more relaxed and with greater clarity?

Stop The Spinning In Your Life – Being Present

Our lives can be like a gyroscope, spinning around, shape blurred, moving aimlessly around the floor.  But take a finger to stop the spinning and the shape becomes apparent and the movement stops.  We all need to stop the spinning in our lives in order to gain clarity.  Just the act of eating can be an experience in the now that stops the spinning so that we can gain clarity.  Now go take an apple to lunch and make eating it an activity, engaging with the “now-ness” of eating it.  You might gain some insight and answers to a difficult situation just by not thinking about it and living now while also keeping the doctors away!

How Our Brain Reacts to Stress

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What is stress?  We all know what it feels like when we have stress- our hearts race, our senses are heightened, and our hands feel cold and clammy. But what goes on in our brain when we feel stressed?

The Brain’s Response to Stress

The brain works through a reward system and a reward circuitry.  If the light is green, the brain tells the foot to step on the gas.  This is a predictable action.  The reward for the brain is repetition – that whenever the light turns green, the foot will always go on the gas pedal. Our brain is able to constantly learn new information this way, first with heightened awareness and then with recall through memory traces.  But when we are stressed our brain resorts to our old habits in order to react quickly to remove or modify the stress.    When we are stressed, the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine are released.   These hormones work through specific neuronal pathways in the brain to either alter the stress or to ameliorate its effects.  Serotonin acts on the nucleus accumbens which causes it to release dopamine.  Dopamine stimulates our reward and habit system.  This means that we are more likely to resort to old habits. When we are not stressed our prefrontal cortex, the executive functioning part of our brain, overrides a lot of our behaviors.  This self regulatory part of our brain doesn’t really kick in until young adulthood.  If someone before that age has learned to cope with stress through unhealthy actions like overeating, pornography, promiscuous sex, alcohol, drugs or gambling, it will be the initial preference for the brain’s stress lifeline.  This does not mean someone is doomed to never break away from the unhealthy habit, but it will take work and commitment and might be easier with a counselor or health coach.

But what if we learned how to better manage our lives so that we could decrease exposure to stress or change our perception of stress? Like the Three Little Pigs, is your life built out of hay, sticks or brick?  What are you doing to make yourself more equipped to handle the stress in your life?

Fortify Your Foundation

What tends to make us feel stressed is when we feel out of control.  This can be due to having too much to do or it can be from our perception of what needs to be done.  In the first situation ask yourself if you are saying “yes” to more things than you have time to get done.  Are you using your time efficiently, avoiding a task until the last minute because you don’t like doing the task?  Could you break down the task into smaller pieces and do a little each day?  Are you saving the more difficult tasks for the end of the day when you are more tired or are you getting them done early when you have more energy?  Are you doing everything yourself or are there things you could delegate if you let go?  Are you doing things in an inefficient way that is taking more time than necessary?  Do you have unrealistic expectations of what you have to get done?  Are you expecting perfection?

Sometimes we feel stressed and it’s really due to how we perceive the situation.  Distorted perceptions can happen when we don’t get enough sleep.  The average adult needs at least seven hours of uninterrupted sleep a night.  Do you keep a regular schedule for going to bed?  Do you allow yourself enough time to wind down before bed?  Do you keep a consistent meal time schedule?  We know eating off schedule can cause disconnection with hunger cues and lead to overeating at night.  When things don’t go well do you tend to catastrophize, make the problem bigger than it is and let it expand into other parts of your day because you’ve let it grow out of proportion in your mind?

Take Control of Your Life

The brain will actually change the stress response and not release serotonin when we think we have control over the stressful situation.  There are many things you can do to give you a sense of control.  Yoga, tai chi, qigong can help you gain a sense of control through body postures, breathing and focus. When these practices are done regularly the sense of control and focus transcends into other areas of one’s life.  Mindfulness, a daily practice where you pause and take in your environment through your senses and become focused on the present moment can also help give you a sense of control of your life..which is really becoming aware of senses and feelings in the present moment.  Meditation, which is really just focused breathing, can be done through guided imagery or simply by sitting still and upright, focusing on one’s breath, and slowing the breathing down to a rhythmical pace.  Counting the exhale to ten can help keep thoughts from “sticking” and allow the mind to stay clear.  It is through the absence of thought during meditation that solutions to problems are reached and perceptions are changed.

We might not be able to always change the stress in our life but we can certainly mitigate it through time management, getting difficult tasks done early in the day, asking for help, getting a good nights sleep on schedule and eating three balanced meals.  Doing this in conjunction with yoga, tai chi or qigong, mindfulness and meditation one becomes better at forming balanced assessments of situations which will help us handle stress better and be happier for it.