Happy-in-the-Holidays

When I was a young mom, trying so hard to make my family’s holidays the happiest they could be, I often inadvertently sacrificed my enjoyment. Like so many working moms, I managed Christmas like it was a work project–complete with checklists for shopping, wrapping, cooking, socializing, and all the tasks that go with trying to live up to the cultural ideas of “the most wonderful time of the year.”  Because I was so over-committed, I often found the happiest moment for me was the gift of sleeping in the day after Christmas. No more lists, no more tasks, no more stress.  I probably would have continued exhausting myself this way for my whole life, if not for that “aha moment” we all have when we realize our lives are out of alignment with the true reason for the season.  Every time I heard those holiday songs and read the cards that promoted beautiful ideas like “hearts all a glow,” “joy of the season,”warmest wishes,” etc. I realized the stress of the holidays was robbing me of the ability to be fully present and happy-in-the-holidays.

Fortunately with age and wellness, comes wisdom. Now that I’ve committed my life to the importance of dialing it down by 20%, it helps me enjoy the season and make myself happier-in-the-holidays. Put into practice, this simply means reducing my time on tasks by 20%. So if I used to give 10 hours to shopping, I now give 8 hours–or less. Its a convenient formula for excellence while living up to the work/life balance challenge that gets especially tested during this time of year.  I encourage you to try it too. (see my blog A New Formula for Excellence, August 2016 for additional details)

Fortunately, I’ve also discovered one more simple strategy for being happier, fully present, and in the moment. Much like the wisdom of Marie Kondo’s “Spark Joy” method for decluttering your life, I now hold all my gifts up to my heart, take a moment to connect with the intention of love behind it, and then slowly and mindfully receive the “vibe of love” the gift represents. This mindfulness practice helps shift the focus from the consuming of presents to being completely present while enjoying the moment. I believe this simple method for being Happier-in-the-Holidays will serve me well for my whole life–and I hope it will be incorporated into your whole life too.

Lastly, as part of my commitment to keep the happiness of the holidays moving forward into the new year, I’m starting the first annual STARS of Wellness Facebook Community Winter Wellness Project.  Join me and the STARS team as we promote 21 Days, 21 Ways and 21 Reasons Why we should “Hug It Out” in the first 3 weeks of January. It could be the easiest new years resolution you’ve ever made.  Follow this winter wellness project now on Facebook.com/starsofwellness and get ready for what could be a whole new experience of the month of January.  (Read my blog, Embrace the Hug, December 2016 to get ready.)

Embrace the Hug

Today is International Hug Day!  It reminds us to express what’s in our hearts by using our arms and hands to give and receive the warmth of a hug.  Hugs are one of the most primal forms of bonding and yet we often forget to use them as a means of  “connecting” or deepening our interpersonal relationships.   But science is changing all of that by teaching us about some of the most fundamental reasons to unleash the super-healing power of a properly shared healing hug.  What’s a proper healing hug?  It eluded me too for most of my life.  Because like most Americans, I learned at a very young age that hugs were given, mostly on special occasions–like when you see a relative or friend at a holiday event, wedding, party or funeral–and usually held for just a brief moment.  Except when shared with a romantic partner, anything more than a second or two was awkward or inappropriate in a creepy or sexually confusing way.

Also, socially I learned early on that hugs were considered a common and basic  way of greeting one another.  And over time they lost their deeper meaning.  We can all admit to exchanging a quick embrace with someone whom we didn’t honestly like or care for, simply because it was what was culturally expected. I would have continued to miss out on the healing properties of a proper hug for my whole life if not for the findings of a group of German researchers published in the Journal of Neurosciene in 2013.  Brilliantly, they discovered that when a hug is held for up to 20 seconds the pituitary gland releases a powerful bonding agent called oxytocin that results in the feeling of a more meaningful connection.  They also found that these longer more sustained hugs which released the “happy hormone” were also linked to reducing blood pressure and heart disease too.  I believe these findings challenge us all to embrace a new attitude towards the healing power of wrapping our arms around one another.  This is important right now as it seems we may be living in a world where digital devices get touched more than the human beings in our lives.  Increasingly, we are becoming a touch-deprived culture, as evidenced by the emerging service of professional huggers who get paid to do this.  Lets change this trend.  Its days like today and National Hugging Day, which is celebrated every year on January 21st, that remind us to connect with human beings in this unique and special way.  As one person poignantly put it, “a hug is a handshake from the heart.”

Turns out though, there are some important things to consider before exchanging these heartfelt, heart changing embraces.  And they are:

  • Ask people first, since not everyone is comfortable with touch that’s so personal.
  • Hold the embrace gently, but firmly, in a heart-to-heart manner for 20 seconds.
  • Make sure you hug only with people you’re comfortable physically connecting with.
  • Because they can be easily misinterpreted, always be impeccable with your hugs.
  • Try to be quiet when hugging. The body/mind can get distracted by verbal chatter.
  • Be mindful of how around the 15th second, there’s often a deep and peaceful sigh that’s beautifully shared between both huggers.
  • Solidify your bonds.  Give 20 second hugs daily to your spouse, kids, family, close friends –or anyone whose relational bond matters the most to you.

The wellness benefits of  “healing hugs” are many as they naturally pick up your mood, melt away stress, express basic equanimity with natural giving and receiving, and they require being physically present in each others lives,  (you can’t elicit the same healing effect from an email, text or phone call).  But most of all we should give more 20 second healing hugs simply because they feel good!  So embrace the hug and hopefully you’ll welcome the healing benefit of a warm embrace into your life and in so doing, effortlessly spread the benefits on to others as well.  Beyond a formal hugging day, like today, I hope you’ll continue to share the physical, mental, social and spiritual benefits of healing hugs with others–and that you’ll do so for your whole life!

 

 

Winterize Your Brain & Body

Winter is Coming!  If you’re like me, and nearly 50% of the population who still carries the hibernation gene, the customary dip in serotonin triggered by the brain’s rise in melatonin, makes you dread this time of year.  Waking up in the dark, repeatedly pressing the snooze button, driving to and from work in monochromatic gray (my state has an average of 4 cloudy days per week), piercing cold winds, bulky winter coats, and mounting cabin fever–are just some of the many factors contributing to the cold sting of winter’s harsh reality.  For many years, fleeing the state every February, like a sun-starved junky in need of a solar fix, was my only option for coping.  Like most people who live in the northern states, I learned to accept this as my winter reality for my whole life knowing that happier days always arrived with the spring.  But suffer no more!  Fortunately, many advances in brain-based wellness have given us a better understanding of Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.) and scientifically proven ways to better manage this unique mind/body challenge.

Are you S.A.D. susceptible?  Does the decrease in daylight cause predictable changes in your energy, moods, and social behaviors?  Think back over the years and ask yourself if you recognize the following personal changes that show up only in the winter:

  • Increased length of sleep (45 minutes to 2.5 hours longer, depending on severity)
  • Decreased interest in social activities (especially after the holidays)
  • Drop in mood and overall feeling of wellbeing (“winter blues” in milder cases)
  • Irritability (fueled by that cooped up, lethargic “cabin fever” feeling)
  • Uncontrollable Appetite (resulting in binge eating on bad carbs only in the winter)
  • Weight gain (due to eating too many “pleasure-making” sweet or starchy carbs)
  • Energy dips (that paradoxically steal your motivation to do wellness practices)
  • Rise in compulsions and addictions (remember alcohol is ultimately a depressant)

If you struggle with the majority of these symptoms, hope has arrived and early intervention is key.  According to Dr. Norman Rosenthal, author of the book Winter Blues, “Over 80% of people with low energy or fatigue may expect to benefit from light therapy within 2-4 days.” So try adopting the following steps to help winterize your brain and body:

    1. Start using light boxes early in the season as a kind of natural energizing antidepressant.(the standard is at least 5,000 Lux daily–every morning)
    2. Cardiovascular exercise, minimally 30 minutes 3x’s/week boosts 3 out of 4 brain chemicals, making it the activity a day that could keep the psychiatrist away.
    3. Eat more neuro-nourishing foods and spices that can help bolster serotonin without the guilt of binging on sweet or salty junk food. Consuming more yogurt, avocados, chicken, whole grains, dark chocolate, basil, nutmeg, peppermint, turmeric, etc. can help. (view more options in my app– Blue STAR Bright available on iTunes and Google Play)
    4. Practice self-kindness without judgments.  Its not your fault your brain responds to winter this way.  Instead of feeling ashamed, do your best to understand what your whole self–body, mind, and spirit–needs to rise above your genetics and environment.

And if you suffer with the more debilitating version of S.A.D., which often severely interferes with functionality at work and home, consider seeing a mental health professional. Supportive therapy with the possibility of short term supplementation or in severe cases, medication, can lessen your suffering and help you feel happier.

I’ve also found that by attitudinally reframing what used to be a dreadful time of year as an opportunity to master responsible self-care can make a big difference too.  What a great time winter provides us to explore what makes our spirits soar.  I’m dedicating this winter to deepening my study of Ashtanga yoga, one of my new and favorite happy-making wellness practices. You too can rise above the cold sting of the darkest time of year by winterizing your brain and body, and doing it for your whole life.

For help coping with SAD or any other mental health challenge, visit our website at http://www.starsofwellness.com to set up a consultation or appointment.  Also, like us on Facebook for inspirational, positive postings.

A Reason To Cry

This week professional baseball player Dee Gordan put to rest the age old myth that “there’s no crying in baseball.” In tribute to his teammate and best friend Florida Marlin’s pitcher, Jose Fernandez, who died suddenly and tragically last week in a boating accident, Dee hit the homerun of his life.  While rounding the bases, streams of tears that reflected the depth of his grief and love flowed down his face.  And in this beautiful moment of heartfelt bereavement all of our outmoded culturally conditioned messages about grown men crying got challenged–and hopefully–put to rest.

Crying is tricky for most adults in our culture.  “Don’t cry or I’ll give you a reason to cry” were the messages socially communicated to emoting children by well intended parents trying to raise strong sons (and sometimes daughters too, as in my family).  Before scientists in the fields of psychology and medicine began to challenge this unnatural and unhealthy practice, crying was always considered a sign of weakness in our culture.  “Cry baby,” “sissy,” “faggot” and “queer” were often the socially humiliating assaults hurled by  kids at kids who expressed their pain, hurt, or sad feelings with tears.

Like so many raised before 1990, I would have accepted this misguided culturally conditioned response for my whole life until the field of psychoneuroimmunology birthed in the 80’s began to change all of that.  Now we know there are so many good reasons to cry when we’re sad, hurt, or bereaved:

*When we cry tears of sadness we release a stress chemical known as an encephalin which when externalized results in that sweet sigh of relief after a good cry.

*Acknowledging our sadness helps the emotional brain  release the tension of this important feeling and then with the help of the hippocampus, files the lessons learned from our pain in the wisdom bank of our gray matter.

*Suppressed emotions are the gateway to depression which is why getting in touch with the sadness associated with buried emotional wounds (i.e. trauma, abuse, loss, negative life events, etc.) in therapy is so cathartic and healing.

*There are molecules of emotions called neuropeptides that communicate with the organs of our bodies that actually help heal the mind/body connection when we cry, grieve and express our authentic emotions.

*When we bottle our emotions, we remain in the high stress mode of the fight-or-flight response.  In addition to many negative cardiovascular changes, this also halts the immune system.  Its this lack of replicating white blood cells that puts us at greater risk of illness when stressed, sad, or bereaved.

So if crying makes us weak, science now confirms that it is in our weakness that we find strength.  Hopefully, like me, you’ll find this is a reason to cry for your whole life.

 

Sounds Good To Me

Back in my youth, before sunscreen was necessary and high bacteria levels could close a  beach, my friends would often start a summer weekend with the enjoyable idea of going to the beach.  Eager to engage in the mood enhancing high of a day spent tanning, swimming, throwing a Frisbee, blaring the latest pop music, and lathering up in tanning oils that smelled like Pina Coladas, I’d always answer them with an enthusiastic, “sounds good to me.”  My youthful, yet limited, concept of the beach as a place of fun, socializing,  and leisure would have stayed with me my whole life, until the neuroscience of wellness (and the preventive measures of skin cancer) changed all that.

Last weekend, after a summer of staycations due to my husbands brave and determined recovery from spinal cord surgery, he surprisingly asked me to join him in a much needed day at the beach before the official end of summer.  “Sounds good to me” was my delighted response as we packed up and headed to a noise-protected beach across the border in Canada.

Maybe its the renewed joy in the simple pleasures of life that often accompany an existential crisis like the one we experienced this summer–reminding us of what matters most in life. Or the surprise request from a man whose legs currently move slower and with strains never known before.  All I know is that after setting our chairs up in the white sandy beach, lathering up with the necessary 50 proof sunscreen, and leaving all our cares behind, I immediately noticed the power of this special place.  The sweet and steady sounds of the rhythmic waves rushing in and rolling out–mesmerizing us into a state of peaceful bliss–was suddenly met by the collective and synchronized release of two very big sighs.  Our heart rates dropped, adrenal glands shut down, minds wandered into beautiful states of consciousness, as all of a sudden the health struggles of the summer were carried away by the steady stream of the undulating waves. This is when it occurred to me that this was more than a beach, this was a powerful place for healing the mind, the body, and the spirit.

The power of nature to soothe the mind and spark wholistic healing has been termed Brainwave Entrainment by the field of  Auditory Neuroscience in Music and Medicine (audiomedicine.org). Emerging research on how brainwaves can adjust and synchronize to the acoustic frequency and rhythm of a regularly repeating pattern of intermittent sounds can be found in the benefits of listening to a silky smooth voice, soothing music, and pleasant environmental noises.  These are the types of sounds that have the power to psycho-biologically enhance our overall feeling of well-being.

All I know is that any beach–free of the disruptive sounds of motor boats, drunken parties, and blaring music–holds the healing power to elicit a natural high.  The simple pleasure of being in the rhythm of nature, in timing with the planet, and in oneness with the source of all that is beautiful and uplifting–especially when shared with the ones we love– gives new meaning to the saying, “life’s a beach.”  I now knowingly commit to seizing the entrainment moments that sound good to me for my whole life.  And with this in mind, I hope you seize the moments to experience the healing sounds of nature too–and that you do it for your whole life.

To sign up for more of Dr. Laurie’s My Whole Life blogs and read past postings, go to http://www.starsofwellness.com.

A New Formula for Excellence

Like so many in the human services field, I entered my profession with a deep commitment to helping others.  As an ex-perfectionist, I did it with one standard in mind–to always give 150% to everyone and everything I did.   This singular focus worked well until a life-challenging illness forced me to rethink my time and energy distribution.  If there are only 24 hours in a day, and ideally only 8 hours should be devoted to work, 8 to rest, and 8 to enjoying life, clearly giving 150% to work meant I was short changing two of the most important aspects of my existence.  I probably would have continued expressing my work ethic in this manner for my whole life, until the life-threatening need to regain health and wholeness stopped me in my tracks. 

Reinventing my life meant honoring my deeper needs while questioning the 150% expectation.  I had to reformulate my distribution of time and energy.  Could I still express excellence in my work without compromising my health, enjoyable time with my family  and friends, and the new need for life-sustaining self-care? The solution to my dilemma was found in quantifying my work time and dialing it down by 20%.  This new formula for excellence was perfect in that all I had to do was tally up the amount of time I was giving to work pursuits and reduce it by 20%.  For instance, I used to give 60 minutes to each of my clients.  Dialing it down put me in the range of 48 minutes, which was still within my professions standards.  Recalculating my people-helping time resulted in the ability to complete my paper work by the end of my 8 hour work day, without taking time away from the rest of my life.  The feeling of balance between work, home, and personal life was not only a gift I gave myself, but one that included better quality of time for all the people in my life–including my loved ones.

I find that many people working in human-helping professions, like teaching, nursing, mental health, etc., often give 150% and then feel exhausted at the end of their work day.  To you I offer the 20% less option.  Calculate the amount of time you give to grading papers, reading journal articles, answering emails, talking on the phone, documenting your work, and conversing with the people you service.  If you’re the type who gives 150% to these aspects of your work– at the expense of your self– try dialing it down.  20% less means instead of giving 150%, you now provide 120% (which still puts you over 100% and on the side of excellence).  It starts with a commitment to valuing your health by giving your self permission to apply the new 120% formula for excellence into the time you devote to your work.  The outcome for you, as it has been for me, will include more energy, health, balance, wholeness, and happiness.  And because of these essential wellness benefits, I hope this new formula for excellence will remain with you for your whole life.

Power Naps, Siesta Style

If you’ve ever visited a warm weather country, like Spain, Italy, or Greece during the summer months, you might have noticed that in some locations they shut down the entire city during the hottest part of the day. Traditionally, this practice allowed their workers to take a much needed siesta, or nap, to rejuvenate and return to work during the cooler part of the day. During my visits, I’d be forced to take a  siesta as a way of coping with their oppressive heat.  But upon returning home, I never thought it necessary to continue as the cooler summers associated with living in the northern states never required this kind of adaptation.  Honestly, I thought my geographically influenced way of life would be the case for my whole life.  But this summer, with its record number of heat advisories and scorching temperatures, challenged me to make a practical lifestyle change–siesta style. In addition to helping me better cope with the heat, it turns out a good nap has fantastic health benefits as well:

  • cardiovascular health
  • hormonal maintenance
  • cell repair

However, as I discovered, the type of nap you take can further influence your mental wellness too.  According to Sara Mednick PhD, author of the book Take A Nap! Change Your LifePower naps (defined as lasting 20 minutes or less) have the additional benefits of:

  • enhanced mood
  • increased productivity
  • lowering stress hormones
  • improved memory
  • aiding learning

It turns out there are some important factors to consider before attempting a power nap. Failure to follow these recommendations can result in waking up feeling groggy and foggy instead of alert and refreshed. So for maximum benefit, consider these important 8 steps:

  1. Attitude–taking a nap does not make you lazy, it makes you smart.
  2. Timing–napping in the morning or just after lunch is best for avoiding grogginess.
  3. Avoid–stimulants such as caffeine, sugar, and high fats that mess with your nap.
  4. Diet–eat a high calcium & protein food (like yogurt) 1-2 hours before to aid sleep.
  5. Environment–prepare the room to be free of disturbances and disruptive noise.
  6. Lighting–darken the room or cover your eyes to produce melatonin for napping.
  7. Temperature–body temps fall during sleep, so compensate with a blanket or heat.
  8. Duration–in the sleep position, set your alarm or cell phone for 20 minutes or less.  This is the key to waking up feeling rejuvenated–as opposed to feeling groggy. (Be careful, sleeping longer than 20 minutes is associated with slower brain waves that results in waking up in a state of sleep inertia that leads to that groggy and foggy brain feeling.)

Now that I’ve made this simple SIESTA STYLE accommodation to my lifestyle as a way to better adapt to the changes in my environment I can honestly say I like the effect a good POWER NAP has on my  body, mind, and spirit.  Due of this enhanced feeling of well-being, I’m pretty sure I’ll continue this practice of power napping for my whole life.

 

 

 

Integrated Wellness

I’m standing in line paying for my groceries.  The credit card chip has my transaction moving slowly.  The cashier, a young man accustomed to working quickly, complains about the slow pace of these new chips.  Mindful of the opportunity to share a different perspective, I told him about discovering the gift of these new credit cards.  I share with him that they’re not credit cards, they’re breathing cards.  Slower processing time provides a moment, a gift, to slow down, take a deep breath, and relax myself.  He smiled and accepted my invitation to catch his breath too.  And in that moment of sharing a deep sigh, we celebrated our common desire, regardless of our differences, to overcome the stress of life and enjoy the feeling of comfort that comes when we choose wellness.  We also agreed that the busy pace of our lives often results in forgetting the basic need to breathe.  For my whole life, before integrating this discovery into my shopping, I used to process all of my credit card transactions at the often impersonal and fast pace set by a hardworking and conscientious cashier.  But a practical approach to mental wellness beckons us to slow down in the everyday moments of life–including during the processing of a credit card.  I believe that integrating the gift of a deep breath, even better when shared with another, into these everyday encounters is the key to making positive personal and social changes.  Now, like credit on a card, I’m reminded to  bank even greater well-being with a deep breath, and in so doing, make a mindful investment in my whole life.

My Whole Life

People often ask me, “ Dr. Laurie, why do you put such an emphasis on stress in your Stress-Tension-Anxiety Recovery System ( S.T.A.R.S ) of Wellness™….is it really that important…isn’t stress just a normal part of our lives?”

The answer lies in understanding the insidious role stress plays in depleting the quality of our lives—physically, mentally, socially and spiritually.

Like so many Americans, I grew up feeling stressed out, uncomfortable in my skin, and anxious most of the time. I knew no other way to exist. Then at the age of 24, a life-threatening bone tumor stopped me in my tracks and forced me to change my whole perspective. It was tough because for the first 24 years of my life, I knew success in the outer world sense by working hard at everything I did. I was very-conscientious- -living with unrelenting standards— automatically applied to every aspect of my life. What I didn’t realize was that by giving so much to the outer world, I was sacrificing my inner world. In looking back, I’m not surprised that both my mind and body got compromised. I now realize that like so many hardworking adults, the affection for perfection—and the constant exhaustion that goes with it– made me vulnerable to a serious illness.

But everything changed after that hole in my bone awakened me to the virtues of whole person healing and why I needed to face the risks of living in the biochemistry of too much stress. I can honestly say overcoming this was the most challenging experience in my life. But what I learned during my quest to heal changed my whole life.

 

Are you a victim of Stress?

Stress is insidious in our culture—such a constant—that we don’t realize its

  • disrupting our immune systems
  •  negatively altering our brain chemistry
  • leading us to unhealthy comforters.

Stress tempts us to fill the hole in our souls with  a wide variety of convenient , albeit unhealthy comforters. The most common comforters in our culture, junk food and alcohol, are tricky because once their tranquilizing effect wears off, they leave us with even more stress to contend with. 

This vicious cycle feeds the tension, anxiety and worry that further depletes the quality of our lives and even has the potential to threaten our very existence, as it did for me.  Experts in all fields agree that just about every known human disease, is either caused by, or exasperated by the physiology of stress.  Despite this fact:

  • Are you working excessive hours?
  • Are you juggling the unrealistic demands of modern life?
  • Are you engaging in a culture that moves too fast?

Like most of us who accept being victimized by stress, I would have remained this way my whole life, if not for the upside of an illness that opened my eyes to the life-depleting effects of too much stress.