Stress response to Covid-19

Under Stress? Why Not Tend and Befriend?

It’s all too frighteningly familiar: A man walks into a workplace and starts shooting, leaving many people dead and others injured. News reports later reveal that he was angry for being fired from his job or under great personal stress. In one scenario some six years ago, the owner of a sausage factory in California, who had complained about being harassed by the government over health violations at his plant, shot and killed three meat inspectors who showed up to examine the facility. A friend of the assailant commented, “He was a good man, but pressure, pressure—everybody blows up under pressure.”

But does this tendency to blow up with anger and aggression truly lurk in everyone? I’ve always wondered.

Classic responses to stress

At the core of our existence is the need to survive. Meeting this basic need requires a minimum of food, shelter, and safety. Lack in any of these can trigger fear and anxiety, which puts significant stress on our nervous system. From the earliest times, humankind has responded to stress in relatively predictable ways. In the 1920s and ’30s researchers described the two best-known reactions: lashing out or running away, also known as “fight or flight.” When threat is detected, the sympathetic branch of our autonomic nervous system kicks in, producing stress hormones that activate glands and organs to help us defend the body against attack. Glucose is released to give us energy. Blood flows to the muscles and brain; heart rate and blood pressure increase; blood flow for digestion decreases. When the threat subsides, the parasympathetic branch, known as the “rest and digest” system, calms things down.

Freeze response

Freeze response

Another, less well-known, more recently recognized protective response to fear is “freeze”—like a deer’s response to the glare of headlights from an oncoming car. The freeze response most often occurs when neither fight nor flight is a viable option. We don’t fight or run away; we become immobile. The response is a form of “playing dead” in the face of danger, which often manifests as an inability to communicate or take necessary steps for self-preservation and may include feelings of apathy, detachment, and numbing. Freeze may occur when we feel paralyzed by survivor’s guilt or are overwhelmed. Like fight or flight, freeze is not a conscious response but one that occurs deep within our nervous system.

Tend and befriend response

The bulk of research on fight or flight has focused on male subjects. More recently, however, expanded research has identified a very different response in females. Compared to most males, females tend to respond to stress with less intense physical and emotional aggression. Instead, they may first gather and tend their offspring and move close to other females for social support and comfort. This response, dubbed “tend and befriend,” has the effect of calming the nervous system.

As research revealed that women are more likely to respond to stress through tending and befriending than men, scientists wondered whether there is something else at play beyond maternal instinct. The answer appears to be linked to the pituitary hormone oxytocin. Both animal and human studies have demonstrated that oxytocin, also known as the feel-good or love hormone, is released when females engage in nurturing behavior, and that inhibits sympathetic nervous system activity seen in fight-or-flight reactions to stress. Females’ estrogen enhances the effects of oxytocin, while male androgens inhibit its release.

Mothers tending to her children increases oxytocin A study found that at the end of a highly stressful workday, a mother’s response is increased nurturing of her children, which stimulates oxytocin, thereby reducing stress. In addition, women are more likely turn to others for support—e.g., talking on the phone with friends or relatives. By contrast, fathers are more likely to withdraw or have interpersonal conflicts.

Enter COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a long and challenging time for everyone, and it has taken a huge toll on our nervous systems. As we feared for our lives and those of our loved ones, our stress levels naturally heightened. Mandatory lockdowns exacerbated our stress. Those who could hunkered down in their homes, while others literally risked their lives working in “essential services.” Then additional events—most notably, widely publicized deaths of Black people at the hands of white law enforcement officers—exploded into social and political unrest, resulting in more fear and anxiety and more people pitted against each other.

Throughout this pandemic we’ve experienced a loss of connection. Everything is unfamiliar, unpredictable, and often uncontrollable. We’ve had to choose safety over love and belonging. All this has occurred because our nervous system has detected that our essential survival is at stake. During the pandemic, the “fight” response has been most in evidence in health care workers fighting for their patients’ lives. These workers coupled their fight with compassionate tending and befriending.

Reawakening connection

We need to tend and befriend our connectionsOur desire for connection and nurturing at this time has never been greater. What would we have done without delivery services, phones, and computers, Zoom, and Netflix? People have asked me, “Don’t you miss seeing people, besides on the TV?” Sure, but Zoom has been a blessing for me in the work I do and connecting with friends. Whether it’s one-on-one or with groups, talking face-to-face with real live people has saved me. Meditation and Somatic Movement have helped me stay connected to and in harmony with myself. But living alone, I do long to be physically present again with people—and especially to be held by my favorite tango partners and move in sync with the music! Though, sadly, I will miss the ones who succumbed to the virus.

I believe COVID-19 has awakened us to our collective vulnerability. It’s also stimulated the tend-and-befriend response in many people—not only female. Caring for ourselves and those close to us has been number one, yes. But hasn’t it also revealed the truth about our interconnectedness? As we consider ourselves part of a larger “us,” we realize that protecting ourselves also protects others. We are not separate and we really do need one another. We’ve seen this play out across the world with ordinary people joining together to help and protect the most vulnerable in their community–cultivating “tend and befriend.”

Creating space to tend and befriend

The renowned neurologist, psychiatrist, philosopher, author, and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl said: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Within all the limitations that have been imposed upon us during the pandemic, haven’t we learned that we can still find ways to shape our lives, find space for what is important? Creating space for compassion—for ourself and others—can help us choose how to respond to events rather than be driven by fear and anxiety. Creating space helps us get out from under whatever we’re feeling as we move forward with our lives.

Space for compassion to tend and befriendChristine Runyan, a clinical psychologist, professor, and mindfulness teacher at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, cofounded Tend, a clinical consulting practice focused on preserving the mental well-being of health care practitioners. In an interview for the podcast “On Being,” she talked about the power of pause, gratitude, and savoring. She recommends developing reverence for our bodies and our nervous systems, for seeking whatever releases oxytocin in us and creates a sense of wonderment and curiosity.

I leave you with some words from other wise teachers:

“I go to nature to be soothed and to have my senses put in order.”—John Burroughs, American naturalist

“The muscles used to make a smile actually send a biochemical message to our nervous system that it is safe to relax the flight or freeze response.” —Tara Brach, meditation teacher

“Even wearing a mask, others can see the smile in your eyes.” —Karen Ross, hypnotherapist and life coach

 

Syncing internal clocks

Elixir for a Healthy Life

What if you had something that could boost your immune system and help your body fight off infections like colds and flu? We all have access to an elixir that can do that (and so much more). It can help prevent weight gain and lower stress hormones and anxiety, thereby contributing to a healthy heart. It can help maintain proper brain function, including memory retention. It can boost mood. It helps us be alert, improves concentration, and increases productivity. It helps us make wise choices and avoid mishaps. It may even improve relationships. Life may be fuller and richer thanks to this elixir.

ElixirThe remarkable thing about it is that it is absolutely free! We know it well and should utilize it daily (rather, nightly). It’s sleep, or course.

Elixir of Sleep

Like most other species, we require sleep to restore and rejuvenate body and mind. In most cases, all we need to do is climb into bed and allow ourselves to relax into quality, restful sleep—consistently.

The widely accepted rules of “sleep hygiene” say we should follow the same nightly schedule—including on weekends—and sleep seven to eight hours every night. There’s no such thing as a sleep bank to compensate for lost sleep. But, sadly, it’s estimated that 60% of Americans do not get sufficient quality sleep.

Falling asleep for many people is a challenge. Waking up with the inability to go back to sleep is common as well, as is chronic insomnia. Our elixir is effective when “used” properly—by learning to honor the cycles of nature.

Physiological psychologist David Dinges, who is the chief of the Division of Sleep and Chronobiology at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, has said, “I think sleep is one of the sweetest things you can get—like a great meal or seeing a good friend.”

Syncing with nature’s rhythms

Master clock like a conductorEvery plant, animal, and human exhibits biological processes through the course of the day known as circadian rhythms. Like programs running in the background, these rhythms are designed to carry out essential functions and processes. The different body systems are all synchronized with a master clock in the brain that acts like the conductor of an orchestra with all the players fine-tuning their local timing. This master clock is particularly influenced by cues from the environment, especially light, tied to day and night and our sleep-wake cycle. Like plants lifting their leaves in daylight and lowering them in the dark, almost every aspect of our daily life as well as every bodily organ, system, and cell is regulated by our internal circadian clocks. Our daytime and evening activities have a huge effect on our circadian rhythms.

While we all feel that drive to sleep, millions of us are lured by our phones, tablets, and computers when we should be preparing for bed, which then interferes with our ability to get to sleep. Stress from jobs, relationships, and the news—including the current pandemic—creates fear, worry, and anxiety that can make it difficult to relax enough to go to sleep or to sleep soundly. Shift workers and people who regularly travel across time zones may find it especially challenging to get quality sleep. The body likes regularity in everything—waking, eating, exercise—and especially sleep. Even the time changes every spring and fall may throw us off a bit.

Syncing internal clocks

According to Satchin Panda, PhD, author of The Circadian Code: Lose Weight, Supercharge Your Energy and Transform Your Health from Morning to Midnight: “…a sleep deprived brain is more dangerous than a brain under the influence of alcohol.” Yet driving after a sleepless night is not illegal. Much like the effect of jet lag from crossing time zones, many people experience social jet lag after weekends. Having a full-time weekday job, we often stay up late, party, and sleep late on weekends. On Mondays we may feel awful.

Getting a good night’s sleep regularly is the best health insurance, writes Mathew Walker, PhD, author of Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams. Getting fewer than seven hours of sleep, he points out, can make us more susceptible to the common cold. With five hours or less there’s a 70% greater chance of developing pneumonia. And without sufficient sleep for five days before getting a flu shot, there’s a 50% reduction in normal antibody response, thus rendering it less effective. Think about this before getting a COVID-19 vaccine.

Impact of light

We humans are predominantly visual creatures. The eye sends light signals to the brain telling us when it’s morning and night. Melatonin, a hormone produced by the pineal gland, remains inactive during daylight. But, around 9 p.m., when it’s dark, it switches on and floods the brain, where it remains for the next 12 hours. Its functions include lowering alertness and reducing body temperature, telling the body it’s time to fall asleep.

Daylight shuts this hormone down, and the body then shifts into readiness to meet the day. A predominance of blue light is present in daylight. Exposure to enough sunlight daily (even on cloudy days) can help us fall asleep at night. During evening hours, too many of us expose ourselves to the blue light emitted from the screens of our electronic devices, including TV, as well as energy-efficient LED lightbulbs, which has the effect of fooling the brain into thinking that it’s still daytime, causing it to hold back the release of melatonin.

Preparation for sleep

While there are many factors contributing to sleep problems, you can sync your internal clock by monitoring your light exposure, the timing of meals, and what you take to bed with you. Using dimmer, warmer lighting in the evening, changing to nighttime light settings on electronic devices, and using blue light–filtering glasses for watching TV and using cell phones and tablets and PCs can help. Eating only within an eight-hour period and no more than a few hours before bedtime can help the digestive system complete its functions before sleep. Also, remember that caffeine makes the heart beat faster. Coffee’s stimulatory effects last up to five hours, but it can take up to 10 hours before the caffeine fully leaves your system. While a nightcap might sedate you into going to sleep, alcohol interferes with REM dream sleep, an important part of the restorative sleep cycle.

A calm and relaxed body and mind are essential to drift off into quality restorative sleep. Our internal clock relies on a steady diet of healthy habits and mindful routines. Evening is a time to wind down, and the bedroom is meant for sleeping and intimacy, not for work, checking emails, or watching TV.

Have you ever had your head hit the pillow and found yourself worrying about a problem or a long to-do list? Or perhaps you finished reading a novel or watching a movie and found yourself ruminating over the story—and your thoughts won’t stop. Rather than lie there, it may be better to just get up and put your thoughts on paper or write down a plan for the next day. Then you might sit and do some slow gentle breathing or listen to a meditation recording or calming music. As the narrator in John Steinbeck’s novel Sweet Thursday reflects: “It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.”

Mindfulness practices for sleep

The Dalai Lama said: “Sleep is the best meditation.” Indeed, the restorative deepMeditation NREM cycle of sleep is much like meditation. A research study with middle aged and older adults revealed that practicing mindfulness meditation for just two hours per week for six weeks improved sleep quality and reduced insomnia, depression, and fatigue. You can create your own mindfulness practice for sleep by calming the mind with breathing. Incorporate a short prayer, or phrases such as “breathing in calm, breathing out tension.” Humming or sounding OM or gazing at a candle flame can help you focus on the present moment. Don’t worry when the mind wanders—as it will. Just gently bring it back. Better still, start earlier with some gentle yoga or somatic movements to release tensions and relax the body.

I recently taught a sleep course at a local community college—online—from 9 to 10 p.m. once a week for six weeks. After sharing various restful sleep preparation techniques, I guided them through somatic movements and a deep iRest Yoga Nidra meditation in the comfort of their own bed. A student shared, “I fell asleep easily and when I woke up with a hot flash, the techniques helped me fall asleep again.”  iRest is an ideal enhancement to our sleep elixir for easing into REM dream sleep and deep NREM sleep—both important for restoring body and mind.

So, is 2021 the year for you to create your own practices to enhance the properties of your own elixir—sleep?

Embrace your scars

Embrace Your Scars and Imperfections

“Let everything happen to you, beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.”

— Rainer Maria Rilke

gounded beingI was in the midst of writing this article when the COVID-19 virus epidemic was declared a pandemic. Our Illinois’ governor mandated a “stay-at-home” order for all non-essential service employees. Much of my work halted, and like everyone, I was trying to adjust to the effects of isolation and uncertainty. I reluctantly cancelled my June Greek Island yoga retreat. And, I wondered when, or if, I’d get to dance Tango again! But my spiritual teachings and practices helped calm me with an inner knowing. No matter what happens on the surface of our lives, there is an unshakeable ground of being that is eternally present.

As the saying goes, we must “look for the silver lining.” We can choose to shine light on the positives that arise during, and because of, this pandemic. We can also embrace the residual scars that reveal the underlying strength, beauty and wisdom that emerges as healing inevitably pervades.


Gold and silver

I was so disappointed when a treasured statue of embracing dancers broke into many pieces last year.  I thought maybe I could glue it together, or better yet find a new one like it on the Internet. When my search proved fruitless, I consulted an expert on how to repair this item. His fee was far too expensive, but he told me on how I might do it myself. Because it was made of a soft soapstone, he cautioned that fragments could easily chip off. I gingerly glued the first two pieces together and waited many days before continuing with the next piece. When I finally got it all together, I was delighted to see it whole again—even though its imperfections were noticeable because of missing fragments.

Several weeks later, still admiring my accomplishment, I remembered referencing the Japanese art of Kintsugi in one of my articles many years ago, entitled, “Living the Wabi-Sabi Way.” When a piece of pottery has broken, the areas of breakage are mended with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. Highlighting the cracks and repairs simply represents an event in the life of the object, and thus becomes a symbol of its fragility, strength and beauty.

embrace your scars Aha, I will paint the seams and imperfections with gold paint! As I did so, ideas began to flow on writing about Kintsugi as metaphor for life. Embracing our flaws, scars and imperfections offers us the opportunity to acknowledge our true strength, beauty and wisdom that comprise our essential wholeness.


Wounded, broken

Inevitably, circumstances shift and change and sometimes life seems to fall apart. Stuff happens, often catching us off guard. A relationship goes sour, a job is lost or put on furlough, finances take a hit—or we find ourselves in the middle of a pandemic!  While we are not made of ceramic, our emotions and thoughts can become rigid and corruptible (corrupt comes from the Latin word corruptus, meaning broken in pieces).

When the future becomes uncertain, we can fall into self-pity and victimization leaving us feeling utterly alone and broken. However, what has been broken or lost has the potential to be repaired or recovered. With appropriate resources a relationship may be repaired, a new job found, physical and economic health restored—maybe even better than before. If a void still remains, this creates space for new possibilities and opportunities…a chance to create life anew.

Suffering is a natural part of the human experience; experience that is essentially impermanent. We won’t live in this flawed and imperfect body forever—the surgence of COVID-19 has made this very clear. We don’t need to hide our wounds and scars or pretend nothing happened—any more than we need to ruminate over the past. Every scar has a story behind it, reminding us of a challenge overcome, a battle survived or even a funny moment in our lives. The key is to learn and grow from the experience, knowing that the hurt is over and to not let emotional scars linger as the story.

Emerging strength

Phoenix Often, we need to seemingly lose everything before we can rise from the ashes like the resiliency of the Phoenix. George Mumford, an aspiring basketball player at the University of Massachusetts, had injuries that forced him give up the game he loved. Pain medications led to heroin as emptiness left him spiraling downward. Finally, after turning to mindfulness meditation and getting clean, he was called to help Coach Phil Jackson and the Chicago Bulls, a team in crisis after the departure of Michael Jordan. Mumford has since coached a roster of champion clients from Olympians to corporate individuals.

Moving through challenging times makes us stronger. It’s a strength that emerges from within—our connection with our truest self, our core of being. Just as a physical wound heals from the inside out, there is an inner strength within each of us that arises to help us heal. The stronger we become with each circumstance, the greater ease we bring to each new challenge. We can heal collectively as well.

As I write this, I hear of all kinds of people throughout the world who are volunteering in various creative capacities to help us move through this pandemic.

Nelson Mandela recalled a time when he was reading a newspaper while flying with other passengers in a 20-seat aircraft. Suddenly one of the propellers began to sputter and stop. A sense of unease filled the cabin with concern that the other engine would keep running so the plane could safely land. Mandela continued to read his paper as though everything would be fine. Later, passengers remarked on how much his calmness helped them. What Mandela embodied and demonstrated is something we have within us—an unshakeable calmness and ease of being that cannot be broken or shattered and is always present.

Beauty and wisdom revealed

Embrace your scarsJapanese aesthetics value marks of wear from use of an object, and find beauty in what has been broken. In Kintsugi art, when a piece is missing from a ceramic bowl, a fragment from another broken object is fashioned to fill the void. We do this with broken bodies. When a leg is lost a new one can be attached to replace it. Rather than hiding the prosthetic, some people allow it to be freely visible as though wearing it as a badge of honor. Isn’t this an authentic display of inner strength and beauty?

It’s often said that when we bring something into the light, we see it more clearly. This is true of the flaws, blemishes and imperfections of our bodies as well as our lives. Regrets, lost opportunities and hurts, when left to harbor inside, can fester and cause more suffering. However, if we shine a light on them gilding them with our reflections on what we have learned, we begin to put ourselves back together.  We can then accept our true uniqueness—imperfections, deficiencies, challenges, warts and all.

The wisdom of Kintsugi also teaches that acceptance of change is inevitable.  There is a part of us that holds our authentic beauty, that is not broken, accepts everything and forgives our perceived brokenness.  When we can truly forgive ourselves, our inner beauty radiates. Thus, forgiveness brings us back to wholeness.

Life’s golden journey

vein of goldThe healing of our brokenness is sealed with a vein of gold that shines out from the core of our authentic beingness. We only need to regularly open our hearts, rest back and steep in this ground of being with whatever inner practice works for us—meditation, nature, connecting with a loved one. Our life journey then becomes a reflection of that golden vein which nourishes not only us, but interconnects with others throughout the world, the earth itself and the Divine Universe. The COVID Pandemic has brought us to our knees.

Meditation

Cultivating Somatic Awareness

“Every stress leaves an indelible scar, and the organism pays for its survival after a stressful situation by becoming a little older.”Hans Selye, MD, pioneer in understanding stress

We humans spend a lifetime in our bodies, yet all too often we assume that body and mind are separate—the mind controlling what we do, the body dutifully obeying its commands. The eminent neuroscientist Candace Pert, PhD, author of Molecules of Emotion, wrote, “Mind doesn’t dominate body, it becomes body—body and mind are one.” The perceived separateness of mind and body has contributed to an epidemic of stress, chronic pain, and sleeplessness in our culture. Cultivating somatic awareness of the integration of our body and mind may help us achieve a greater sense of well-being. It may even extend our lives.

Stress, the nervous system, and the body

StressAs newborns, unlike most animals, we are not able to consciously control our bodies. But as we gradually learn how to move within our bodies and engage our senses, our body awareness expands. This awareness may be arrested, however, as we develop habits and succumb to the stressors of daily living—like when we sit for hours on end in front of a computer or allow our stressful lives to put us in a persistently anxious state. Residues of habitual patterns are held in the body as muscle tension. Regularly experiencing emotions like anger and fear can also cause persistent muscle tension; both can result in various forms of chronic distress.

Our nervous systems evolved to enable us to cope with short-term, life-threatening stressors. The so-called fight-or-flight response is a physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived harmful threat to our survival. This is a healthy response as long as the fight is followed by rest and rejuvenation. The pressures of contemporary living can be almost 24/7. Many of us never have a chance to release tension and to really relax. Over time, such unrelieved stress can take an extreme psychological and physical toll in such forms as anxiety and chronic pain.

Body keeps score

Psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, MD, author of The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, describes “the extreme disconnection from the body that so many people with histories of trauma and neglect experience.” Dr. van der Kolk’s pioneering work on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has shown that the most critical aspect of healing is learning to fully embrace one’s emotional, psychological, and physical self. Having an inner sense of self alerts us to potential disharmonies and enables the body to reharmonize itself.

Nervous system Our bodies are truly amazing in their structure and function. Information received from our bodies and the environment through our five senses is transmitted to our brain through the nervous system. Habitual stresses and traumas can produce muscle contractions in specific areas of the body. Over time these contractions become so unconscious and imbedded that we lose the capacity to sense or control them. The result is stiffness, soreness, and restricted range of movement. Thomas Hanna, PhD, philosophy professor, founder of the field of somatics, and author of Somatics: Reawakening the Mind’s Control of Movement, Flexibility, and Health, coined the term sensory-motor amnesia for this phenomenon.

The nervous system regulates every function of our body. The autonomic nervous system acts largely unconsciously, or involuntarily, regulating bodily functions such as the heart rate, digestion, and respiration. The somatic nervous system, also known as the voluntary nervous system, contains both nerves that send information to the brain and nerves that send information from the brain to the body and includes motor neurons responsible for voluntary movements like walking or lifting. Pain, whether physical or emotional, is an essential part of life designed to help us avoid harmful or dangerous stimuli or circumstances. The sensation of pain (or even numbness) acts as a messenger, the nervous system’s way of telling us something is wrong. We can ignore its message and suffer, or we can learn from it and take action.

Our bodies should continue to improve

 Re-awakening

When our senses and feelings become muffled by sensory motor amnesia, we no longer feel fully alive. Our bodies become more rigid, achy, or numb as the range of muscle movement is diminished because we’ve forgotten how to move those muscles. When we believe our mind is separate and takes charge of the body, we may accept that our physical and emotional pain is due to “my limitations” or “getting old.” Such acceptance enhances our feeling of separateness and can cause us to lose our sense of what it means to be human. Consequently, we are unable to realize our full potential.

Reawaken the nervous systemAccording to Dr. Hanna, however, the brain is a highly adaptive organ. We can retrain our nervous system, awakening the areas of the brain that have forgotten how to regulate both physical and emotional patterns in the body. Somatic awareness helps us acknowledge the presence of our whole self within our environment, rather than viewing our body as something separate from ourselves. We become acutely aware of our feelings, sensations, movements, and intentions at any given moment. Such self-awareness enables us to address trauma and anxiety and thus promote healing.

“As we grow older, our bodies–and our lives–should continue to improve, right up until the very end.” -Thomas Hanna, founder of Clinical Somatic Education

Different approaches

Classic approaches that may help reawaken body awareness include yoga, t’ai chi, Yoga Nidra meditation, massage, and breathwork. Specific methods developed over the past century include the Alexander Technique, the Feldenkrais Method, and Hanna Somatic Education. These practices are similar in that they teach gentle movements to identify and reverse harmful habits and learn to move more freely. Somatic therapies are also being used in psychotherapy for people who suffer from sexual dysfunction, digestive disorders, and other physical/emotional ailments.

Participants in a National Institutes of Health study on body awareness reported that cultivating somatic awareness helped them become aware of the differences between thinking about a sensation and directly experiencing the sensation. This awareness has helped them gain a more accepting attitude toward the changing sensations in the body. With less judgment and analysis of situations, they had more openness to various possibilities and solutions. One person noted: “The more comfortable I become in my body and not into my head, the more comfortable I find people are with me.

My own journey
iRest meditation

iRest meditation

Cultivating somatic awareness has been a lifelong journey for me, having been drawn to many unique ways of being in my body, including practicing yoga, dancing, and engaging in various forms of movement practices. When I was first introduced to iRest® Yoga Nidra meditation, I immediately fell in love with it because of its emphasis on body awareness, and I knew I wanted to help awaken this awareness in others. Yet, I still struggled with my own patterns of muscle tension, especially when sitting at the computer or driving long distances. I recently enrolled in a somatic movement education training program that teaches simple movements to help relax muscles. I’ve already experienced a positive change in my body, and I am excited to have another tool to teach others that can enable them to experience integration of mind and body and live healthier and perhaps longer lives.

In addition to Dr. Hanna’s book on Somatics, I highly recommend : The Pain Relief Secret: How to Retrain Your Nervous System, Heal Your Body, and Overcome Chronic Pain, by Sarah Warren.

 

Loving kindness

Taking Pause

“It’s not so much knowing when to speak, but when to pause.”—Jack Benny, American comedian who died in 1974

What is a pause? Generally, it’s an interlude or gap between two things. Some pauses are long and others brief. Some may seem pregnant with meaning, especially when someone pauses while speaking. If you’re taking a class or attending a speech or presentation and the teacher or speaker stops talking, you probably become intensely aware of the sudden empty space waiting to be filled. Your mind may try to fill in the space with what you assume is coming next, or you may also relish the uncertainty—remaining open to something unanticipated. During that notable pause, you may feel a special connection with the speaker, as well as with everyone else in the room. Had your mind wandered prior to the pause, you may suddenly find yourself very much in the present moment.

In written works, periods, commas, dashes, and colons force the reader to pause and better grasp what he or she is reading. Pauses can help you transition from one activity to another, and even shift your mood. And, pauses can help you experience moments of deep presence—nothing lacking and everything just as it is. As the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh has said: “If you abandon the present moment you cannot live the moments of your daily life deeply.”

Beneath the surface

icebergHuman beings present themselves to the world much like the tip of an iceberg floating in the ocean. Beneath the surface of the myriad of distractions and busyness of life there is an enormous depth of being. Pauses can help you drop the facade and access this depth so you can listen to your own inner voice and connect with your true views and desires and even your intrinsic value system.

Author Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room of One’s Own: “…it is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top.” Our body, brain, and spirit need periods of idleness, of non-doing. That’s how ancient hunters and gatherers lived. When they weren’t acquiring food for sustenance, they played, groomed, rested, and gazed at the heavens contemplating their existence in nature and the universe.

One can take pause in prayer, meditation, or simply a deep breath. Longer pauses might be spent in nature, on vacation, or on a sabbatical—from work or even a relationship. When a relationship grows sour, or an impasse ensues following an argument, it can be helpful for each partner to take a time out for inner inquiry and reflection. This creates space to examine beliefs and feelings related to the situation.

In his beloved classic The Prophet Kahil Gibran says this about marriage: “let there be spaces in your togetherness…” A healthy relationship needs spaces for separateness—space to grow individually as well as together. Knowing when to pause, as Jack Benny said, is at the heart of every person’s life. Gibran ends with: “And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.” Like trees, we all need space in order to thrive.

walking pathWhen feeling stuck or blocked in trying to solve a problem or finish a project, shifting one’s attention to something else—taking a walk or breathing deeply—interrupts the brain circuits. You may recall times when you fail to remember a person’s name; the harder you try, the more it eludes you. But when you back away for a moment, it quickly pops into mind. I often take breaks when writing to move my body; I tend to have my most creative insights while walking or even driving. Not surprisingly yoga and meditation foster physical and spiritual opening up.

Practice pausing by noticing your feelings, thoughts, and actions in the moment. Don’t analyze, criticize, or try to fix anything. Simply ask questions like “What do I believe right now?” “Are these beliefs really true?” “How would my life change if I letgo of this belief?” Notice how such pauses foster shifts in your thinking and feeling when you are experiencing a challenge, impasse, or even fatigue.

Selah

Selah is a Hebrew word that is used extensively in the Bible, particularly in the Psalms, which is often interpreted as “stop and listen.” A national organization, Selah Freedom, is dedicated to ending sex trafficking and bring freedom to the exploited. They interpret Selah as to pause, rest, reflect. Psychologist Rollo May wrote, “Human freedom involves our capacity to pause, to choose the one response to throw our weight.”

Selah Freedom has a residential program for victims of trafficking that provides needed therapy and life coaching to help the young women overcome the damage of past trauma and find new life paths. The program offers personalized educational plans, job placement, trauma therapy (including equine therapy), education in life skills, medical and legal assistance, and holistic restorative care.

meditationI have the honor of facilitating iRest Yoga Nidra meditation programs at Selah Freedom’s Chicago residential facility. During iRest, the women, mostly in their late teens and twenties, set aside their dark past and whatever has gone on in their day. They lie down on blankets and pillows and slip into deep relaxation and even dreamless sleep as I guide them in mindfulness practices aimed at helping them feel safe. The practice teaches them to welcome emotions and self-limiting beliefs, which ultimately lose their potency. This clears the way to uncover their wholeness and worthiness.

Pausing: make it a habit

You may not have a staff of coaches and therapists focused on helping you achieve your life goals, but you can do much of this work on your own by finding your own way to pause.

Pausing provides space to discover your deepest desires. When you do this regularly and intentionally, those desires become a motivating force, like an inner compass reminding you to stay on your path and sort out what’s right for you and what’s not…not this, not that, YES this!

Lily padsGetting in the habit of taking regular pauses can help you recharge and become more connected to life. What you do for yourself, you do for others. What you do for others, you do for yourself.

Your most healing pauses may be simply resting and being. You might start by taking a deep breath, expanding the whole rib cage and belly, then resting and letting go. Use this simple acronym as a reminder: TAP RIBTake a Pause, Rest in Being.

I would like to leave you with a few words from a poem by William Stafford titled “You Reading This, Be Ready”:…carry into evening all that you want from this day. The interval you spent reading or hearing this, keep it for life.”

I hope you regularly take pause to note what you wish to carry forward in this day and in your life.

Connection in the Midst

Feeling Connection in the Midst of…

When we are confronted with difficult circumstances, such as enduring a hurricane, witnessing acts of terrorism, having relationship conflicts, or facing serious health concerns, it is common to react with anger, hurt, or feeling separate, isolated, or victimized. Or maybe we shut down and become numb. But we live in an interconnected world and we are wired to be connected—with the environment, other people, and various aspects of ourselves. Connectedness can also be with something larger than we are—a calling, the universe, God, or another higher power. It essentially is connectedness to a deep peace within.

connection in natureAnd we are not separate from nature. The sun, the air we breathe, plants, and animals all provide humans life-giving nourishment. As Alan Watts so eloquently put it: Each one of us, not only human beings but every leaf, every weed, exists in the way it does, only because everything else around it does. The individual and the universe are inseparable.” What’s most available to us at any moment is our connection to life and others through our senses—seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, touching.

Bodily connection

Most of us take our body for granted and are disconnected from it. We stretch it, strain it, and often abuse it. We don’t get enough sleep. We consume food and substances that compromise our health and well-being. The body is a web of interconnections and is continually seeking balance and wholeness via signals to and from the brain. But we often don’t pay attention to messages it may be sending in the form of pain or exhaustion. Our bodies can also speak to us through our feelings, emotions, and thoughts. We forget, or maybe never learned, that our bodies are constantly speaking to us. This is why we have been endowed with our senses and ability to perceive.

Social connection

We are making connections with others every moment of our lives—with every person we meet, every colleague we work with, every stranger who opens a door for us or sits down next to us on the subway. Let’s not forget the connections we have with all the people who plant, tend, transport, and sell us our food. Yet, we tend to be unaware of this multitude of connections.

social connectionResearch has shown that social connections strengthen our immune system, lower rates of anxiety and depression, heighten self-esteem, and increase empathy toward others. When we hear of a major disaster or tragedy and the suffering of many, most of us feel empathy and compassion. In fact, according to Brené Brown, best-selling author of The Power of Vulnerability: Teachings on Authenticity, Connection, & Courage, “empathy fuels connection.”

How often do we make judgments about other people because they appear different from us? It might be their race, religion, nationality, politics, or maybe just how they are dressed. So much in our society tells us to distrust others. In his book, The Power of Kindness: The Unexpected Benefits of Living a Compassionate Life, Piero Ferrucci writes of two worldviews. One is pessimistic and the other is optimistic. We can distance ourselves by suspicion, or we can draw nearer to people knowing we are linked to one another. Kindness brings us closer to people.

Empathy connection

My friend Ann was taking her daily walk when she saw a man she’d never seen before walking several dogs and headed towards her. She noted that he was quite overweight and was wearing torn, disheveled-looking clothes. Not the kind of person she would want to connect with, she thought. She became aware of fear and anxiety rising within her. But then something shifted inside her, compelling her to make a connection. Ann said hello and commented about one of dogs, which was quite small, saying how cute it was. Tom, who introduced himself, responded that he’d only had him three days and had found him on the Internet. He was a rescue dog from Houston made homeless by Hurricane Harvey. He said he and his wife decided they had room for him in their home—and in their hearts. Ann found her own heart melting and opening wide.

Peace connection

I recently found the following simple yet poignant definition of peace from an anonymous source on the Internet: Peace: It does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart.” Even though this calmness can be buried beneath the ruble of accumulated life experiences, it is there and it is free and accessible to us all.

Not long ago I helped lead a six-day iRest Yoga Nidra meditation teacher training. Participants came from all over the country and as far away as Hong Kong. Short for Integrative Restoration, iRest is highly experiential practice that helps one achieve, or restore, groundedness and deep calm. Regular practice helps one live a connected life as this place of peace becomes naturally integrated into one’s daily life. A participant in the training I assisted in last year, a psychiatrist, told me that iRest helped her feel more present in her body and less stuck in her thoughts.

iRest is a simple guided meditation practice of mindfulness and deep relaxation. It helps us systematically and somatically move through the boundaries of feeling separate from others, from life, and from ourselves. It invites us to embrace our best qualities, which are already present, though obscured by conditioning.

Jacqui facilitating iRest

Jacqui facilitating iRest

iRest offers a toolbox of practices that teaches how to notice whatever sensations, feelings, or thoughts arise as the body-mind’s way of sharing messages. A physical sensation such as pain may be calling for us to inquire into its source and, in some cases, seek medical assistance. Thoughts, feelings, and emotions are also explored in a way that allows us to learn from their messages. Thus we become more aware and conscious of whatever may be arising in any given moment. Rather than allowing a negative reaction to form, we can feel back into our inner resource of peace and well-being and choose a more favorable response.

Other body-mind practices such as yoga, tai chi, and types of meditation are ways to access and deepen our connectedness. The same is true with activities that foster a connection with nature.

Peace within the midst

A core teaching of Viktor Frankl (1905–1997), Austrian psychiatrist, neurologist, holocaust survivor, and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, was that our power to choose our response is the source of our growth and freedom. He also said, “If you don’t go within, you simply go without.” In other words, we lose our sense of connectedness.

We all have the capacity to feel grounded in peace. We can learn to live that way in the midst of whatever circumstance we encounter. When we experience this profound peace in the midst of turmoil, our connection is infinite.

comfort zone

Your Comfort Zone: Time to Let it Go?

Comfort, ease, and safety are core elements that contribute to our overall sense of well-being. We are wired to seek comfort, and familiarity feeds this neutral state of being. Our habits help us move efficiently through our daily activities and feel mentally secure. Getting too firmly set in our comfort zone, however, doesn’t necessarily free us from worry or depression. Rather, it can cause us to function on autopilot. As a result, we miss opportunities to grow and create and experience authentic joy.

Stress and risk

Our comfort zone can be defined as the space where our activities and behaviors minimize stress and risk. Sometimes, though, we’re not truly comfortable in our comfort zone; yet the thought of stepping outside it can cause anxiety and stress and even panic. Since stress is considered the cause of many illnesses, it makes sense to want to minimize it.

Child risk-takerChildren, in their innocence and fearlessness, are natural risk-takers. They know nothing about a “comfort zone.” They experience life with a sense wonder and curiosity. A leaf, an animal, the sky, a shadow—all can delight them. Beyond childhood, however, most of us succumb to conditioning that pushes us to seek a safe and familiar path.

Feelings of stress and fatigue are often caused by the constant discourse buzzing inside our minds. If you stop to listen, you’ll notice how that discourse is generally uninspiring rumination. When allowed free rein, such ruminating thoughts can become an internal tyrant telling us how flawed and incapable we are. Over time, we become psychologically conditioned to fear failure, though that’s what we expect of ourselves. We find ourselves stuck in a treadmill-like existence until a crisis occurs, forcing us to act or make a change.

Fear and growth

On the other hand, instinctive rather than conditioned fear can save our lives. It’s in our DNA to recognize a threat and self-protect, as did our ancestors. We are designed to move naturally between threat, action, and comfort. The space just outside our comfort zone is called “optimal anxiety,” where stress levels are slightly elevated—a healthy state. Venturing into this space motivates us to act. We build the flexibility and resilience not only to meet adversity but to take advantage of opportunity—as long as we to return to a state of comfort with relative ease.

Taking risks can be very frightening. While we tend to like things that are easy, even a path with a seemingly low resistance can be strewn with unknowns. Experiencing trauma such as death of a loved one, job or financial loss, or abuse can cause us to retreat into our default comfort zone and remain there. Yet, isn’t this life we’ve been given meant to be lived in a way that enables us to bring our best self into it? Allowing our best self to flourish requires courage.

Our lives are all about learning and growing. The more we learn to flex between comfort and action, the easier and less stressful life becomes.

Two courageous women

I’d like to share examples of two women I know who are in the midst of moving beyond their comfort zones. These women have taken risks to bring greater meaning and purpose to their lives.

Maria was recovering from the recent loss of one of her two war veteran sons to suicide. After several months of attending the iRest meditation program I teach, she shared how she was able to integrate the practices into her life. She now sleeps well and is able to fulfill her responsibilities as a speech pathologist for autistic children. An organization I’m affiliated with wants to videotape testimonials about services that have helped veterans and their families. When asked if she would participate, Maria said, “So you’re asking me to go beyond my comfort zone?” After a long pause she said that if it would help just one veteran she would do it.

Undertow bookDiane Madden Ferguson is a survivor of sexual trauma that occurred during her five-year tour in the Navy. When she got out, she married a man she knew from high school. During their 38 years of marriage, she raised two children, got a master’s degree, and had a successful career in law enforcement. After retirement, her life fell apart. She had never told anyone, not even her husband, about the sexual abuse. Two years ago she finally had the courage to step out of her comfort zone. Her healing journey began with therapy and culminated with the publication of her memoir, Undertow: A US Navy Veteran’s Journey Through Military Sexual Trauma, in 2016.

Fear and love as allies

fear and loveI am the least likely person to venture beyond my comfort zone, having been a shy, introverted child. Yet, as I reflect back, I’m amazed at how many times I have gone far outside my comfort zone… and how many ventures (many of which did not pan out) and adventures have enriched my life.

Long ago a co-worker challenged me:, “Why don’t you travel?” I proceeded to make a hobby of traveling to far-off lands—usually alone. A friend said, “Let’s take a belly dance class.” I later became a principal dancer performing with a dance company for more than 20 years. Later a colleague said, “I have space in my office. Come start your own business.” And I did. Another colleague suggested joining a Toastmasters club to overcome my fear of public speaking. Now teaching, coaching, and speaking are second nature to me. Fear has been my companion along much of the way. But it always arose with a message compelling me to take the leap and experience the rewards—even when the chance of failure was great.

As I have learned to move beyond my comfort zone, I have found that fear always brings along its unlikely companions—love and joy. Somehow I knew that if I did that thing of which I was fearful, I would ultimately do what I love and enjoy what I do. I was inspired to embrace life and bounce back even when things didn’t work out. The words of two famous writers truly capture this message for me. In You Learn by Living: Eleven Keys for a More Fulfilling Life, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote: “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing which you think you cannot do.” And the poet Rumi wrote: “Let the beauty of what you love be what you do.”

Taking the next stepThe next step

It’s never too late to recapture some of the innocence and fearlessness of your inner child and become comfortable outside your comfort zone. Rather than waiting for others or circumstances to push you into action, start by making small changes in your routines, traveling different routes, or trying new things. Notice when autopilot thinking is occurring, and relax with deep breaths to quiet your mind. Shift your attention to something you love or something that challenges you.

In order to grow and be transformed, you musk risk failure. But your life will be richer and more rewarding when you allow love and joy to be your allies, right along with fear.

Relieve stress

Relieve Stress: Three Simple Ways

Relieve Stress, Build Resilience, Find Inner Peace

Do you have trouble sleeping, suffer aches and pains, overindulge in food or alcohol? These are just some of the common symptoms of stress, the number 1 health risk in the U.S. What is the cause of your stress? Is it the news, deadlines or financial issues, challenging relationships? It may surprise you that none of these create your stress. The real cause is how you respond to them.

We all have the capacity to build resilience to stress and bounce back from adversities in life. It was built into our DNA back when humans confronted or escaped wild beasts, or endured hard weather conditions.  While the “beasts” in our modern world are totally different forms, our thoughts and emotions are just as heightened—except it’s 24/7—never a break.

Relaxation, mindfulness and meditation are powerful and proven ways to help restore your resilience and well-being. These ancient practices are being used today as complimentary to traditional medical, even in the military.

Turning the thinking mind off is one of the first challenges since thoughts can cause emotions to flare. Clarity and wisdom have no way to break through.

Three ways: to help you relax your mind through your body:

  1. Bring attention into an area of the body, maybe your hands or feet.
  2. Take a few deep breaths with long exhalations to help you feel into the present moment.
  3. Recall a real or imagined place where you feel safe, grounded and at ease—and allow yourself to feel these qualities in your body.

In Relieve Stress with iRest® Meditation you’ll learn to integrate practices like these into your life along with many others. iRest, short for Integrative Restoration, is a proven approach to help alleviate the symptoms of anxiety, depression, PTSD, chronic illnesses and so much more. It helps to build inner strength and resilience to better meet life from a place of joy and inner peace. It’s easy to do sitting comfortably or lying down and following the guided meditation. (Check Courses page)

The next step

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

We live in a culture that views success as a process of steadily moving forward, while moving backward implies failure. The title of this article was a phrase used by President Obama in his farewell speech to the nation; he was referring to the historical forward and sometimes backward movement of our country’s progress. Let’s put aside the debate as to whether the U.S. is currently moving forward or backward and consider the phrase as a metaphor for our personal lives. While time marches on linearly, as much as we may wish it to be different, our lives often fail to progress in the same manner, and discouragement may prevail.

Just as tides ebb and flow, there is a continual back-and-forth movement in the ebb and flowtrajectory of our lives. Our best-laid plans can fall short or, for whatever reason, not come to fruition. Taking a step back periodically is a natural and sometimes necessary component of life. It can help us replenish and build the inner strength and courage to meet life circumstances. The key to our growth as human beings is the ability to welcome the backward movements when they come—as they inevitably will—and learn from them, rather than allow discouragement to stifle our spirit and motivation.

As Oswald Chambers, an early 20th-century Scottish Baptist evangelist, wrote, If you are going through a time of discouragement, there is a time of great personal growth ahead.” 

Backward resistance

Backward steps, as well as side steps and twirling, add intricacy and enjoyment to social dancing. But when it comes to our personal lives, going backwards generally doesn’t feel good. We may even try to avoid it at all costs. It may be a cliché, but whatever we resist persists. Resistance in fact may be hazardous to our well-being and ultimately cause much pain and suffering.

resistenceWhen obstacles block our path, a knee-jerk reaction may be frustration, anger, dismay, or outright grief. There are times when the backward movement seems far greater than just one step. Many people are bitter about the outcome of the recent election. But losses are inevitable and come in many forms. We have all faced the loss of a loved one or relationship, a job or opportunity, or an investment in a dream. I’ve personally had my share of such losses. But rather than let our losses put us into a tailspin, I’ve learned that at least initially it is best to surrender to the emotional plunge rather than resist it.

In the midst of a backward movement, old beliefs and fears may surface. The situation may require not only a step backwards but also a side step into uncharted territory where we don’t feel safe. We may become overwhelmed and think “I’m not good (smart, capable, strong) enough.”  We may ask “How did this happen?” “Why me?” “What did I do wrong?” We may feel alone, unloved, unseen, unheard, or unappreciated.

Worst of all, we may succumb to being a victim and just give up. But giving up only stifles the spirit. When we surrender to the “poor me syndrome, which can give rise to addictive behaviors as we seek ways to numb our pain, we tune out from life.

Uncovering courage

heart The Latin word for courage is cor, which literally means “heart.” The original meaning of courage is “to stand by one’s core.” The prefix dis signifies a moving away from or a reversing force. When we continue to feed our discouragement with negative thoughts and emotions, we move away from our core, our heartfelt values, and aliveness.

When fear and other negative emotions take over, we “disour courage. Power is taken away from what truly wants to emerge—our inner wisdom and strength. While our physical body constantly seeks the homeostasis of health and harmony, our emotions and thoughts can be examined and soothed to enable them to reestablish harmony. We can benefit deeply when we step back and just be present with what is. When we take this opportunity and set judgment aside, we create space to be open and understand what is getting in the way of our emotional harmony.

Mark Nepo, author of Facing the Lion, Being the Lion: Finding Inner Courage, teaches us how to face the lion, our inner core of courage, and then stand by it, live through it, and encourage others to do the same. We admire those people who summon up the courage to help in life-threatening situations, stand up to an abusive partner, or bounce back from a major life setback. Those people, Nepo says, have an inner courage. “By inner courage,” he writes, “I mean the ground of quiet braveries from which the more visible braveries sprout.”

We all have this inner courage that can help us meet the disappointments in our life without overreacting to them. When we connect with our inner core, we are better able to meet our life circumstances in a grounded way. We stay open so that we can be engaged with life.

self compassionHeart of courage

The human spirit has an amazing resiliency; we truly want to be happy.  Yet, it’s easy to get stuck in the muck of our setbacks.

One clear way to access our inner core is through love and compassion—not just through our feelings for others but through self-compassion. Many of the people I work with find it a tall order to be kind to themselves, especially those who are struggling to recover from trauma. But by accessing our inner core of courage and learning to stand by it and live from it, we honor our values and can be true to ourselves.

Having learned to step back and both face and listen to my core of courage has enhanced my ability to encourage others to do the same. You too can find your heart of courage and once again take big steps forward.

Are You Riding the Sea Change?

Does the news of the day get you down—global violence, economic and social unrest, and environmental disasters? Do you fear what the future will hold for you and your loved ones? Do you long for things to be better, yet feel helpless? There may just be another landscape with hope for a better world.

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