#76 Keep A Stress Diary

Sharing 365 life lessons, tips, or hacks; the things that make life easier, happier, and more productive. I hope you’ll follow along and find them helpful too.

#76

Keep a Stress Diary

I’ve spoken several times about the deleterious effects of stress and offered numerous tools for managing stress yet I’ve yet to comment about recognizing stress and tracking it as a coping mechanism. A stress diary is the perfect way to do this.

Essentially, it is a record of when you feel stress, what was the triggering event, the intensity of the stress response, and how it manifested. Lastly, identify how you attempted to manage it and whether or not it helped. By tracking each of these elements, you may discover a pattern that enables you to shift or make a change that eliminates the stress.

When

Is there a particular time of day, or a week of the month, or a time of year that stress is magnified?.

What

What triggered your stress? Was it a person? A task? A thought? A sound? Go deep here… what about that person? What in particular about that task? Exactly what was the thought? Etc.

Intensity

Rate your stress response on a scale between 1 & 10 – 10 being pure panic. Here again, we’re seeking to identify those stressors that are manageable and those that need attention or adaptation.

Where

Where does stress appear in your body? Do you perspire? Rapid heart rate? Shallow breathing? Back or shoulder pain? Headache? Do you have a nervous twitch? Do you cry, yell, shut down?

Management

What did you do? Here, we’re trying to notice what helps and what doesn’t. Often, when we’re stressed, we’re not paying attention to how we worked it out and yet this is truly helpful information that we can use over. Keep track of the techniques that you used. Did you take a walk? Meditate? Breathe? Journal?

Diary

A stress diary can be formal or not so much. It can be a simple notebook, a bullet journal, or an excel spreadsheet depicting the key elements discussed here.

Keep the diary for 30 days during a typical period of your life and then analyze it for patterns. You’ll be amazed by what you discover when you…

Keep a stress diary.

I love hearing your thoughts and ideas. Please share in the comments below.

#86 Stop Worrying

Sharing 365 life lessons, tips, or hacks; the things that make life easier, happier, and more productive. I hope you’ll follow along and find them helpful too.

#86

Stop Worrying

Ok, I know… this is much easier said than done and yet, it may be one of the most elementary things you can do in order to live a happier, healthier, and more productive life. Worried thoughts create stress; stress produces Cortisol; too much stress hormone wreaks havoc on your body and spirit.

A few years back, a survey from Cornell University illustrated that 40% of the things we worry about actually never even happen! Thirty percent of the things we worry about are from the past and can’t be changed; 12% relate to other people and are therefore – none of our business; 10% relate to illness which, may or may not be real and that leaves 8%. Eight percent of the things we worry about are actually worth the energy spent; EIGHT PERCENT!

Historical precedent

Worry has been vital to the survival of the human species. It is part of our flight or fight response and for that 8% of the time it acts like a warning system for our physical or emotional safety. For that reason, we can’t ignore worry altogether.

Odds

One of the first questions I ask a client when we talk about what they’re worried about are the actual ‘odds’ of it happening. We discuss the possibility versus the probability. If it’s not actually probable… then strive to redirect or let it go. Anything is possible but many times, the things we worry about are literally, not probable.

Control

Based on the survey, 12% of the things we worry about are things that we have absolutely no control over because they are in the hands of another person (a family member getting home safely) and so it is often necessary to ask ourselves who controls the outcome of the thing we’re worried about. If the answer is anyone but ourselves… turn around and walk away from the worry. The key here is to trust that the people actually in control of the situation, have it in hand (like the pilot of an airplane).

Plan

For those things that are actually within our realm of our control, our worry is often mitigated with a plan. IF the thing we are worried about happens, it’s good to know how we’ll handle it. Generally I recommend a plan B as well… planning for contingencies is a good practice.

Mindfulness

Worry is most often about the past or the future and so learning how to stay deeply in the present moment will also mitigate much of the agony we experience when we feel concern. Mindfulness brings our attention to the ‘here and now’ – breaking the cycle of considering things too far from this point in time – in either direction.

In the best interest of your own physical and emotional health, take some of these suggestions and learn to…

Stop worrying.

I love hearing your thoughts and ideas. Please share in the comments below.

#354 of 365 Ways to live Easier, Happier, & More Productive

My goal is to share a daily life lesson, tip, or hack. They are the things I want my children to know and the things that I teach to clients. They are the things that make my life easier, happier, and more productive. I hope you’ll follow along and find them helpful too.

#354

Cry it out

On the long running television show Grey’s Anatomy, the lead character Merideth has been known to “dance it out” with friends when full of intense emotion. That’s great strategy but it’s mostly great for fictional television.

Sometimes, in real life, we just have to let the tears fall. We were born knowing how to emote. Babies laugh and cry when they have something to express and somewhere along the line we are told to suck it up, dry up the tears, and pull up the boot straps. We are taught to repress something natural and innate. I am not suggesting that we have a meltdown in the middle of a supermarket but taking the time to cry if we are sad, deeply disappointed, or full of other emotion in an appropriate environment can be a game changer.

Crying has its benefits. In fact, it is postulated that crying activates the parasympathetic nervous system which stimulates a relaxation effect. Crying may solicit attention from others, rallying our support system and generating a sense of belonging. Our bodies naturally release oxytocin and endorphins in emotional tears; chemicals found to relieve physical pain. Those same chemicals are known to promote better moods so the simple act of crying may indeed, lighten our mood.

Most of us who have had ‘a good cry’ with solid sobs would probably attest that even though it was exhausting, we felt better afterward. The energy (emotion is energy) that we feel when we are tempted to cry is best released. If we don’t ‘cry it out’… the energy remains in our system and may be redirected via anger, passive aggression, or a related negative expression. Perhaps worse, is the theory that proposes unexpressed emotions contribute to other major health concerns such as depression, anxiety, and even cancers.

It takes courage and strength to move against the cultural norm; to develop a productive coping mechanism; and to face down feelings. Allowing yourself to cry is an act of bravery. And keep in mind that tears don’t have to be public to be productive so the next time you fill with emotion and get the urge to release it, remember to…

Cry it out.

I love hearing your thoughts and ideas. Please share in the comments below.

New Normal

“Don’t count the days, make the days count.”― Muhammad Ali

It’s been a quiet New Year here. H’s energy hasn’t been up to par since he had radiation in November and so when he isn’t at work – he tries to get in as many naps as possible as that is the body’s way of healing itself. He gets frustrated though with the low energy level and so we went for a walk yesterday to try and get the blood moving again. He made it a couple of blocks before he needed to turn around. Muscles atrophy quickly when you don’t use them. He has some pain as well that isn’t resolved – or explained. For the most part, it’s managed but it also gets frustrating. I guess there isn’t any other way to describe what it is like to live with cancer and while I imagine there are a variety of adjectives we could apply, frustrating seems to be the most comprehensive.

We were told that we would establish a ‘new normal’’ and that seemed realistic enough. This time last year, we all thought H was knocking on death’s door. He was in terrible pain, had lost thirty pounds, and looked ghostly (although I thought he was a handsome ghost). We were reeling from the emotional impact of a recent diagnosis and he was recovering from hip surgery, where they placed a steel rod through his femur to stabilize his pelvis which looked like swiss cheese after radiation killed cancer there. Continue reading

Six Ways to Cope with Crap

“You never really know what’s coming. A small wave, or maybe a big one. All you can really do is hope that when it comes, you can surf over it, instead of drown in its monstrosity.” ― Alysha Speer

We can’t control everything that happens in our life and there are times for all of us that we turn a corner and run full on into crap. For some, we are just getting cleaned off and another pile of dodo drops from the sky like a storm that blows in on a hot summer day without any warning. The kind of crap I am talking about doesn’t distinguish between gender or class, race or religion, age or vocation… it comes slowly and quickly sometimes with notice, other times suddenly and abruptly. At all times, the only part of the crap that we actually can control is how we cope with it. Here are six constructive and helpful ways to manage all that stinky stuff:

ONE: Use the skills you have.

Remember that you’ve made it through every rough day you’ve ever had before. Chances are, the thing you are going through now is not the first load of crap you’ve encountered. Remind yourself of the coping skills you’ve used in the past. Generally speaking, crap causes stress – stress can be mediated by utilizing traditional and somewhat basic coping tools. Meditation, exercise, therapy, social support, writing and the like are fantastic resources that help us deal with stressors both big and small. Use them! Use several of them at once if necessary and use them often.

TWO: Eat right and sleep right.

Both of these are relative ‘no-brainers’ and we all know them intellectually but the first thing that people under stress tell me is that it is preventing them from eating and sleeping. Then we face the bigger problem of how magnified the basic stressor becomes when we haven’t slept and/or we aren’t providing our bodies with the nourishment that makes our brains work. Furthermore, it seems as if the basic stress point births more stressors that in and of themselves, become big and problematic when we allow ourselves to become run down physically.

This isn’t the time to worry about dieting… while I’m not suggesting that we all develop the habit of ‘stress eating’… keeping fruit, nuts, and juices available so that we have something healthy and quick to grab at any time, makes sense. When I know someone is going through a rough time, I take them a big bowl of whole fruits – I know… buzzkill.

Sleeping is difficult when our brains don’t ‘turn off’. You can help by making sure you create an environment conducive to sleeping. Many of us have really bad habits that don’t support healthy sleeping conditions. NO television in the bedroom! NO sleeping on the couch in front of the TV. NO caffeine (including chocolate ice cream and other hidden sources of stimulants – including alcohol). Yes, a single glass of wine can relax you but two may induce less ‘restful’ sleep. More than just a little alcohol of any kind will certainly help you ‘fall’ asleep but your slumber will be restless. Learn progressive relaxation (search in YouTube) and do it as you fall asleep. Use a fan or a white noise machine to help drone out the sound of your thoughts. Technology allows us access to so many helpful tools regarding sleep these days. Lastly, don’t forget to support melatonin production in your body as well.

THREE:  Self-care.

As simple as this sounds, it is the one thing I find goes unnoticed most often. Seemingly, the last thing we think about when we are experiencing a load of crap in life is taking time out for ourselves. I guess it isn’t second nature to stop in the middle of chaos and ‘fuel up’ but let’s think about this… how far does your car go without gas?? Would you let a leak in your roof go indefinitely or would you take time to fix it so it doesn’t get worse?? When I recommend to people that they take some time for themselves, they often tell me they don’t have time but we both know that is an excuse. Learn to look at your life with the intent of carving out small slices that belong to ONLY you. This is the opposite of selfish – the objection most everyone tries to lay out – if you run out of steam, you will be worthless to help anyone! Take five minutes an hour under extreme duress and 30 min. a day otherwise to devote to making sure that YOU are bringing your ‘stress level’ down to its base line. If not, your body will think that it needs an elevated amount of Cortisol in your system to function and a new base will be established – that won’t feel good either!

FOUR: Accept Help

Are you good at asking for or accepting help? I always recommend accepting any type of help that is offered even if you think you may not need it. Someone willing to come mow your lawn will probably be willing to run the kids around instead if you find that more helpful. If someone asks how they can help – don’t say “I’m fine” – ask them “what are you offering?” or “Sure, what did you have in mind?” or better yet, “That would be great! Would you please….”.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to ‘do it all myself’ and it eventually backfires. Asking for help is a sign of STRENGTH – because it unzips your vulnerability. When we ask for or accept help we are making a statement that we can’t do it all ourselves and that is OK!! We are social creatures, not designed to be isolated and alone, or draining every personal resource we have. As a single mom, I had a village – almost literally – neighbors, scout leaders, friends, coaches, and the occasional family member that I depended on because I was only one person and even though I tried – God knows – I couldn’t do it – not successfully. When I made the decision to actually respond affirmatively to people who volunteered their help – my life was instantly better. Those who hadn’t meant it learned a lesson and we probably didn’t remain friends. Those who did, learned that I am a loyal friend who gives back when it is possible.

FIVE: Breathe & Count

At the very least learn how to breathe and count to five. In those few seconds where I take a deep breath and slowly exhale to the count of five, I collect myself and create intention (most of the time anyway). I respond better in conversations that are stressful, to people who are hyper or ultra emotional, and when there is significant chaos or confusion. The time it takes me to breathe and count allows my brain to run through a variety of scenarios where it can choose the best response, or the most logical in that time at least. Sometimes I count to ten if there is room for the extra pause.

SIX: Practice Gratitude

Everywhere you look these days we see reminders to practice gratitude and yet I find that the habits are not yet developed in many people… no worries, start again to make appreciation a part of everything you do. No matter how dense or smelly your pile of crap is – find something in it to appreciate it. I realize that sometimes, this is done in retrospect for the crap as a whole but in your day… there are at least three things that you can be grateful for. Today, I had enough to eat, I hugged three people who love me, and saw a beautiful sunset. If I take some time to really acknowledge those three things, I feel better about my day – at least a little. If you do a gratitude just before bedtime, you’ll have something fresh on your mind that is positive – helping you to sleep more soundly.

 

If you liked what you read just now, please share it with friends and family either by email or through social media and know that I am grateful for your effort.

Only Darkness

“Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.”
― Mary Oliver

I was a widow.  Prior to this moment I was mostly untouched by death; the very old grandmother of a childhood friend and my own grandfather that I had barely known.  One day we were talking about more babies, going to school, buying a house, and our next vacation – two weeks later I was picking out a coffin and planning funeral music. It was the most surreal experience of my life. Please people…. Pick out your own coffin!! Make your own funeral arrangements!! Do NOT let your loved ones have to do it…

How does one coffin shop?? A funeral director ushers you into a room full of them and explains the benefits of one from another. This one is particle board covered in velvet – it’s the least expensive. This one is Brazilian Cherry and lined with satin. This one has 7 layers of steel with a lead core to survive a nuclear explosion. This one has a time capsule for DNA so the body will never have to be exhumed. Are you f***ing kidding me? I want my husband back!

I left my body. I was aware of sounds and people. I was aware of where I was but I became someone else. It was as if I was back in high school, on stage, playing a part. Rocky wasn’t the velvet type… maybe Cherry… it was warm looking. I wanted him to be warm.  I saw something with a flannel interior and chose that one.

Do you have a favorite reading? Do you want someone to sing? What kind of music? When? Where? How? Who? Holy shit… shut up people. Leave me alone! My soul was screaming but my voice was deciding. He loved Journey and Little River Band – play those songs. Yes, On Eagles Wings – that’s nice… Sure, she can sing it. I floated above it all remembering our wedding night when some fool packed the car air vents with flour so that we were blasted as soon as the car was started and looked like two old people checking into the hotel. It was apparently, not… a vision of our future. I was remembering our first kiss… it was some kiss! I was remembering the sight of him holding our son for the first time… such love. So many dreams, not enough memories.

My sister-in-laws took me shopping for something to wear. I wasn’t so concerned about being stylish or fashionably chic, nor did I care about how well my purchase would fit. My primary concern was finding something that I ‘felt’ beautiful in, not for me – for Rocky. I wanted to be beautiful. I was searching for something that felt calm and comfortable yet highlighted my best features, perhaps the color of my hair. It couldn’t say happy but I was adamant that it did not shout sad. It could not be black, navy, or brown. It shouldn’t be too short or too long; the fabric not too thick or too thin. I was not sure if it should be one piece or two, and I was undecided about the sleeve. We were in hunting mode, searching for just the right thing. Eventually, I settled on a light peach linen suit and an ivory blouse with satin buttons and a round collar. It was feminine, soft, and quite respectful. It worked with my strawberry blonde hair and most importantly, it didn’t scream funeral.

I dressed up and showed up at the funeral home on the night of the private viewing. It was for family only. I did not go into the room where he was on display. I was unwilling to see my husband as a dead man (ultimately a mistake). I was told that the funeral director did a fantastic job with makeup, etc…

That’s nice ~ with a southern slur**

I was still detached. Existing on another plane where I was safe and not alone and loved.  In reality, I was surrounded by so. many. people. Rocky’s large family had all flown in. My dad and step-mom drove in along with a few other relatives. His co-workers, mom’s friends and neighbors whom we had started to know. I don’t know where Francis was… I seem to remember making a decision to keep him away from the ceremonial affairs because I didn’t want him to be negatively impacted by all the emotions, but I can’t remember who had him. I logically know many of these people loved – and still love – me. It’s just that, well – they weren’t HIM.

I got through it. We all did. Indeed – there were lots of funny stories and laughter that goes with them. There were tears – lots.

I couldn’t go back to the house where we had been a family; it was too much for my spirit. His brothers went through things so that I didn’t have to. Someone moved our stuff into storage. I kept a pair of 501 Jeans (because his butt…well, it was so HOT in them!) and I kept his Navy whites. I don’t really remember making all of those decisions and I’m sure some of them were made on my behalf, out of compassion and concern. I’m not sure any were made out of understanding; even my own. How does one understand the death of a 23 year old whose whole life was yet to be lived – or the wishes of his widow – or the lonely cries from his child? How?

I know I was not the only one struggling with these impossible questions but I was so deeply immersed in my personal loss that I was unable to really consider the experience from the perspective of his parents or siblings. It took me years if not decades to be willing to look in that direction. At some point, everyone left. Everyone went back to their own lives and I was left to face each sunrise and each sunset in a way that was unfamiliar to me; unwanted.

A friend took me to her parent’s beach house for a week. We took the kids too.  Then a week later, I went back to work because there was nothing else to do. I didn’t know how to be a widow. I was so very pissed at the world. This was NOT supposed to be my life. I thought God and I had agreed that me – as a single parent – was off the table. Rocky and I had mapped out our lives…. there was going to be three children, a house, and a career by 30. It was planned. It was imagined. If that wasn’t going to happen – what was? What was in store for me?  For our son? What did the universe want from us?

Each morning when I opened my mind – there was only darkness.

**That’s nice ~ with a southern slur** – My mother told a story about a proper southern woman who believed it completely unladylike and immoral to curse. And so, from time to time you could hear her say “That’s nice” with a gentle smile and a slight nod of her head. When asked if she ‘really’ thought it was nice?? she replied “Why no darlin’ – that’s how us Southern women say “FUCK YOU”.

Photo credit: Infomastern via Foter.com / CC BY-SA

Sand Castles

In my sophomore year of high school my mom and step-dad had to relocate to the metro DC area so that mom could obtain some specialized medical care for an at-risk pregnancy. She spent three months on bed rest before my (half) twin sisters were born. In an effort not to have us change schools AGAIN – we, my brother and I (sister Allysen was living with dad in California) went to stay with our grandmother until the school year was finished. It entailed come unique transportation arrangements since she did not live in the district we attended. They made arrangements for me to be picked up at an intersection of a state highway that a teacher drove for her commute. It was rural Pennsylvania and the term intersection is loose. There were a couple of roads there actually, the state Highway, a county road leading into a town of a few hundred, and a dirt road that was predominately farm access. It was the dirt road that I travelled to meet this teacher.

Occasionally, my grandmother was unable to pick me up in the afternoons and I was relegated to walking the 3.5 miles home. No, really…. It’s true. And no….. it wasn’t uphill both ways and yes…. I had shoes. I actually loved those walks when the weather was good. I recall singing Karen Carpenter songs and making up poems. One of them won a poetry contest at school. I still remember it.

As the autumn leaves turn to red

Lay your sleepy soul upon the bed

Close your eyes and go to sleep

Listen to the Willows weep

Nestle down all snug and warm

If you chill reach out your arm

Let me hold you extra tight

Before we kiss and say goodnight.

I’ve never forgotten the words to that poem and no, I don’t recall any special significance from it. I was probably missing my mother. I’ve had people say that it reminds them of death….. In future years if ever an English professor somewhere decides that there is some amazing underpinning of sorrow here and decides what it must mean, please know it is beyond my conscious understanding.

The other memory that stands out from one of those long walks is the profound understanding that I was “too young to feel this old”. I was fifteen and had assumed primary responsibility for my 6 year old brother. In all of the moves, the one consistent element is that he and I were together. Our sister often chose to live with the opposite parent and it was only a year or two out of our entire childhood that we all shared the same home. Along the way people would say “take care of your brother” or “you are such a big girl” and “it’s nice to count on you”. I became that girl – the one whom everyone depended upon. The idea that I may fail or let someone down became unacceptable to me. I began to thrive on people’s reliance on me. I became Miss Responsible while I lost my childhood.  That day I realized I was “too young” I didn’t know why or how it had happened exactly that I “felt too old” – I just knew I did and I didn’t believe that my thoughts about it would be taken seriously or accepted. I knew I needed to be dependable.

Perhaps on some crazy deep plane I was somehow in touch with the idea that my youth was escaping, my innocence waning, my adolescence disappearing and that is the source of the poem. Perhaps there was some subliminal pain that was unable to rise to the surface except metaphorically in that collection of rhyming words. Is that where art comes from? Should I have paid closer attention? Should someone have noticed? Nope, adults in my life were on auto pilot, coping with their own stuff – looking across the valley and choosing not to see the garbage there.

By the age of 15 I had learned and deeply engrained into my psyche the need to please – to be dependable and responsible – to take care of others. I had demonstrated so greatly that I could meet the needs of other people that *I think* people assumed I knew how to meet my own. I’m not sure I was aware that I had personal needs. How does a young person become aware of their needs if someone isn’t guiding them and teaching them about emotional and physical needs and about healthy methods of self care?

Some might argue (in fact, I often have a mental debate/war ensuing in my own mind) that learning dependability and responsibility are admirable attributes and actually, they are. However, there are UNHEALTHY behaviors that arise when we forget to set limits, to listen to our own needs, and fail to use our voice in fear that someone will feel disappointment. We learn to keep secrets where truth would meet displeasure. We develop perfectionist personas and fears of failure. We become slaves to positive response and most importantly, we fail to learn how to COPE with the idea that it is impossible to please all people – all the time.

That was me by the age of 18. I had become a complete and total people pleaser without skills to manage negative responses in a healthy manner and so it began, like a drippy sand castle…. one situation after another, the fears of disappointment and the inability to handle failure. Mental messages that slowly accumulated into a distorted perception of self.  There was my ‘inside’ self and the identity that I portrayed to the world. I had allowed a constant state of disconnect to exist in my mind between the person I felt like on the inside and the person I allowed the world to see. When people looked at me, they saw a confident, strong, smart, motivated, determined, and fearless young woman.  That was my outside – the part that people were proud of; teachers, parents, friends, siblings, employers, neighbors. I was a ‘good girl’. And, while those qualities are definitely there, the 12 year old girl who missed her mom and wanted to ride bikes and play hide and seek ‘til dark also existed and she was at war with me. She wanted to come out and be taken care of. She needed love and compassion. She wanted to cry in the lap of someone who didn’t judge. She needed to learn how to disappoint without risking total approval.

Merging my inside and my outside happened, but not until a storm blew in and washed wave after wave over the well fortified castle.