Welcome to the last blog in my series on good health. As I’ve mentioned, my path to good health has been a combination of diet, exercise and stress management. I’m ending on the most important subject of all, stress management. Without it, I wouldn’t be able to sustain the other two. Every success begins and ends in the heart and mind.
I was a worrier. My guess is that many of those who read this blog have the same affliction. Here are just a few of the little and maybe not so little worries that used to buzz into my head like a relentless mosquito. Did I turn the coffee pot off? Did I lock the door? Does my butt look fat in these pants? I’m too short. What if she doesn’t love me as much as I love her? What if I didn’t do a good enough job at work? What if no one likes my writing? What if something terrible happens? What if I lose my job? What if this is the only job I’ll ever have? What if, what if, what if…it’s exhausting and feeds on itself, leaving me scattered. At its worst, it left me overweight, lost, anxious and ultimately unhappy even though I had every reason in the world to be happy. Sound familiar? I thought it might.
When I finally realized that it was problem, I looked for ways to fix it. The first thing I did was go back to running. The runner’s high that came from the burst of endorphins always relaxed me. I also gave up refined sugar in my diet. I’d read that people can become addicted to sugar, and it increased a person’s anxiety along with adding pounds to the body. As I’ve said repeatedly, I have no professional training in nutrition or exercise and can only speak for my own experiences. I tell you unequivocally though, that eliminating refined sugar/processed foods and eating a healthy balanced diet, as I’ve described in my blog “Food, glorious food,” did wonders for my body and mind. I thought about recommending a few books on the subject of how diet and exercise can calm an anxious mind, but there are just too many out there to list. Because we all have different nutritional needs and health issues that we’re trying to solve, I highly recommend that readers do some research of their own, including speaking with a nutritionist or physician. My advice though is to be cautious of diets that seem too good to be true, or that you know in your gut can’t possibly be healthy in the long run.
Here is the problem that I ran into eventually. Notwithstanding a healthy diet and plenty of exercise, the weight of the world still got too heavy. I needed to find a way to achieve the relaxing calm that came from exercise even when I wasn’t exercising. I’d pretty much exhausted finding ways to manage stress that I could do on my own. This leads me to my first and most important piece of advice on the topic of stress management. Don’t hesitate to get or ask for help. When I got to a point where I had exhausted all the things I could think of to do to manage stress and was still bumping up against walls of worry, I asked for help. There are a gazillion reasons why we are terrible at asking for help when we most need it. We don’t want to burden others or appear weak. We feel guilty. Whatever the reason, at some point, not being able to ask for help becomes incredibly unhealthy. For me, I put my tail between my legs, shelved my pride and started to see a therapist. It turned out to be one of the best things that I’ve ever done to take care of myself. Sometimes all we need is someone to talk to who is neutral and won’t judge us. I recognize that not everyone can afford to pay for a therapist. As an alternative, don’t be afraid to ask for help from the people in your life who love and care about you. I know it’s difficult to be vulnerable, but sometimes letting yourself be so in the presence of someone who you trust is the strongest and most freeing thing you can do.
Not only did seeing a therapist give me an outlet for talking difficult things going on in my life through, she taught me tools that I can use every day to manage stress. Things like learning how to recalibrate how I think about the world, including why worry accomplishes little more than making me unhealthy. She also made me accountable for my own happiness. In addition to finding a good therapist, I highly recommend the following books, “The Happiness Project” by Gretchen Rubin, and “Emotional Freedom” and “Positive Energy” by Judith Orloff.
One of the most valuable things that I learned from my therapist however, was how to meditate. There is no question that there are lots of activities that I love to do that totally relax me like running, paddling, boxing, picking flowers or berries in my field, or working in the garden. But, what I learned was that meditation could take me to an entirely different level of relaxation. Plus, I can pretty much meditate anytime during the day by giving myself a 5-10 minute break. I can’t just drop whatever I’m doing and go for a run. With running, or any of the other activities that I mentioned above, my brain still has to stay engaged or “in control” to some extent. I have to pay attention to avoid getting injured or hit by a car when running. Boats are something to watch out for when paddling. As for the field and garden, as much as I appreciate snakes and spiders, I don’t want to surprise or be surprised by one. So, I’m always keeping an eye out for them. With mediation however, I don’t have to think about anything. I can simply sit and relax without worry. The trouble is that that is a really hard thing to do. In fact, being disciplined and not frustrated about meditation is way more difficult than exercising when I’m tired, or ignoring a bag of potato chips or piece of cake. In comparison to meditation, those things are easy to accomplish.
Yet, I’ve never felt more at peace, content and sure than when I’m meditating. The thing about meditation is that it isn’t about finding happiness or some perfect emotion. For me, it’s about finding sweet contentment with my life regardless of the good or bad. With it comes a whole lot less worry. I’m able to simply sit, view and accept all that is around me in my life recognizing everything that is beautiful and wonderful in the here and now. It makes all the other stuff like having a good diet and getting plenty of exercise so much easier. In a moment of silliness recently, I asked KC what she liked most about me physically. Her answer was my smile. That made me so happy because if there is one thing I know that I can always give her, it’s my smile. In my contentment and good health, I smile all the time.
In fact, instead of the parade of horribles that my brain used to regularly conjure, this is how I’ve calibrated my thinking. It doesn’t matter what my butt looks in a pair of pants. What matters is whether I’m healthy, content and happy. I have a routine in the morning, so I know that there is only a .00009% chance that I left the coffee pot on. Even if I did, it has a safety mechanism that will cause it to shut off. I do my best at work. That’s all I can do. I don’t make excuses for myself, but I am gentle with me. I’m also gentle with other people. I recognize that most of us are flawed human beings with the best of intentions and good hearts. Being forgiving of others has allowed me the ability to forgive me. I’m also brave enough to stand up for others and what I believe in even if it means facing negative fallout from it. As for my writing, I write from a place of authenticity and always try to improve. That’s what matters. I’ll connect with some readers and accept that with others, I won’t. I don’t hesitate to recognize all the many things in this world that I’m awed by, grateful for and love. I don’t want to waste a second worrying when I can instead spend my time enjoying all that is in this life. I know that KC loves me with all of her heart. All I had to do was pay attention in the here and now to know that. I still have bad days and always will. Happiness and sadness are necessary parts of the human condition. Being content and grateful makes me happy and helps me survive the inevitable sad and difficult times of this life.
As I mentioned, meditation was and still often is a hard thing to do. It takes discipline to make the time, and it’s an exercise that can be completely frustrating at first. Trust me though, the benefits of meditation far out weight the effort to learn and practice it. My strong advice is to find someone who knows how to teach guided meditation and take a class or session. Lots of yoga studios have guided meditation courses. Another book that I highly recommend is “Get Some Head Space” by Andy Puddicombe. His book does an excellent job of explaining how meditation works and its benefits. Even if all you’re interested in is learning more about it, his is the book I recommend. Meditation is a practice that I’m still very much a beginner at, but will continue to learn and grow as a person by making it a part of my every day existence. It has become an essential tool for me in managing stress.
We all have stress. It’s just part of life. It’s also often times why we over eat, are unhappy and can’t find the energy to exercise. If there is any one single piece of advice that I can give about how to find good health, it is this, be responsible for your own good health. Being gentle and kind to yourself is different than making excuses. Be kind to yourself, but don’t make excuses. Now is the time to find your own path to good health. Reach out for help if you have to, and don’t ignore the importance of stress management in getting there. It’s as vital as diet and exercise. Do it for you, and those who love you who want you to be happy and healthy in this life for a long time to come. I wish you all good health and a content heart. Peace.