Friday, May 7, 2021

Gardens and Stress Reduction

With warmer weather comes the sprouting of gardens and what better place to find relaxation than an environment with blooming flowers and greenery.

The gentle color of the green plants is soft on the eyes and many gardens contain running water, fountains and other natural sounds such as birds, crickets, and insects--all of which draw the body into a natural environment full of relaxing elements directed at the senses.

Spending time walking slowly in a garden is also quite relaxing to the muscles and tendons.  Breathing in the fresh aroma of the plants and flowers relaxes the breathing and lungs, and can serve as a form of aroma therapy, which is known to trigger various areas of the brain and body-memory.

Some people enjoy spending time in a garden as the gardener, where they can plant, trim, put their hands in the soil, and create visual art with color and scenery.  Others might prefer to just enjoy the work of gardeners and show their appreciation by admiring the abundance of growth and arrangement.  Either way, most everyone can find something about a garden they like.

A powerful garden can be meditative and many individuals prefer sitting, contemplating or journaling while resting in a garden loaded with visual effects, smells and colors that draw on the senses.  Sometimes a well places statue within a garden can serve as a resting place for the eyes when practicing mindfulness meditation.

Many cities have centralized public parks with garden areas, and some have more advanced botanic gardens that can be visited for a fee.  Whichever garden you choose to spend your relaxation time in, be sure to carve out enough of your schedule to not feel rushed.  Take your time to walk the paths and take in the visuals in a leisurely and gentle pace.

"I can spend two hours grubbing about in my garden, dazed with pleasure and intent, and it feels like five minutes."         ~Alice Walker

Photo from Japanese Garden, Portland Oregon.  2021

Monday, April 19, 2021

Stress Management: Coping with the PTSD of COVID

Prior to a recent snow storm here in the Denver area people visited their local grocery store to get some extra items just in case the storm prevented safe travel for a day or two.  What was unusual, however, was that instead of picking up the typical pre-snow items, a large number of residences wiped out large sections of many grocery stores and even bought up all items in some meat departments.  It was very reminiscent of when the pandemic began in early 2020 and store shelves and inventories were emptied out (i.e., we all recall the lacking toilet paper stocks!).

It turned out that the storm was a good, heavy, Spring snow storm in the Rockies, but nothing most Coloradoans aren't used to handling well.  And though it came with high accumulations in inches, it was also melting rapidly and on its way out within a day or two.  At the same time, what many residents did "not" handle well was something they had no idea was lingering just under the surface of their fifteen-month long physical and psychological endurance of the COVID pandemic.  And that is something called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, along with the hypervigilance that accompanies it.

Hypervigilance is one of several symptoms of PTSD.  The American Psychological Association defines it as:  A state of abnormally heightened alertness, particularly to threatening or potentially dangerous stimuli.  So, after the initial cleaning-out of store shelves in 2020, and a year or more of pandemic-reported loss of life, jobs, and businesses, as well as the dangers requiring social distancing, mask wearing and hand washing, all it took was the report of a pretty heavy duty Spring storm coming to the area, and many people panicked. 

There is plenty of reason to believe that people all over the world have been traumatized by this pandemic in one way or another.  And trauma is not too dramatic of a word to use when it comes to the daily exposure to threat that the world has seen in regard to the COVID-19 pandemic.  If you have not been frightened by the deadly potential of the virus itself, you've definitely been impacted by the various threats and results of multiple outcomes that have come from its presence.

So, we are all going to be a little hypervigilant and cautious for a while.  Our mask-wearing might continue for some time, and a guarded stance is not going to be all that uncommon when it comes to our PTSD and heightened anxiety.

What this means is that ongoing stress management is in order.  It's more important now than ever to have a regular relaxation system and schedule built into your daily life.  Be that meditation, journaling, soaking in a hot bath, gentle music, aromatherapy, a daily walk in the park, yoga or tai chi, or whatever it is that helps you maintain and monitor your stress response and stress symptom levels.  We are all going to be a bit hypervigilant for a while when it comes to risk of viruses and illness, but countering it with relaxation methods can prevent running on high idle with chronic anxiety that takes a toll on the body and mind.

Here are some great ideas for building stress management right into your daily schedule:

  • Start or end your day with a scheduled meditation
  • Fit a walk into your lunch hour
  • Stop a couple of times in the day to journal about what's bothering you
  • Add 5 or 10 min of gentle stretching to your morning wake time
  • Take a warm evening bath to help you prepare for sleep
  • Listen to gentle relaxing music during your work commute 
  • Use a diffuser to add aromatherapy to your day
  • Spend some time with your pets

It's easy to go about our daily lives now without awareness of our heightened state of hypervigilance which stemmed from the pandemic.  Because of this, it's important to make sure you are taking good care of yourself and fitting in as many relaxation exercises and techniques as you can.

Thanks to G Yancy for the great photo (cropped), https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Anxiety: How the Speed of Adaptation Matters

When I was in my late teens and early twenties I shared an apartment with two other friends.  One of which I gave a spare key to my car just in case I ever locked myself out of it.  One day the two roommates decided to play a prank on me and when I got off work one evening and got in my car, little did I know they'd been inside of it while I was working.  As I turned the key in the ignition, every possible electronic device in the car came on (it was the early 1980's... so the car was probably a late 1970's model).  The windshield wipers sprung to life and began flapping, the signal lights clicked on with their tapping, and the radio had been turned on and cranked up to a loud pitch.  So, as you can imagine it shocked and jolted me and I fumbled around in a daze trying to shut things off before finding a giggle inside me about the whole thing.  "Good one!" I thought.  "Those little rascals."

When I arrived home my two roommates had been eagerly awaiting my arrival and were giddy with delight to see my expression as I came through the door.  "You two!" I said, laughing.  "You scared the crap out of me!"  It was a fun and harmless prank, but a good example of sensory adaptation.  In the car, my senses had not had time to adapt to the sudden onslaught of action, activity and noise that sprang to life when I turned the key in the ignition.  So I was jolted into a little bit of shock and alarm.

In this year of COVID we had a slower form of adaptation as we gradually adjusted to things that had to change, such as less driving, less exposure to work environments, less customers, less trips to the store, less noise, less touch, less talk, etc.  And though it was a gradual change, we could say that the adaptation we made regarding COVID was actually much faster than the speed that normal human adaptation typically takes.  

And now that the vaccine is rolling out bit by bit, we are slowly attempting to adapt once again to what will be a seemingly gradual increase in stimuli.  Yet, in reality, it's actually another rapid change when compared to normal human adaptation as seen in evolution.  In the same way I found myself fumbling and flustered to shut down the various forms of stimuli in my car so long ago, we may soon find ourselves struggling to adjust to a return to higher levels of stimulation that we have had no time to adjust to, and though it will be much more gradual than that which I experienced from my two life-traveling-partners so long ago, we most likely will feel an increased level of frustration as things begin to pick back up and push us once again to adjust to levels of stimuli we are no longer used to.

If you think about it, you will recognize this feeling of frustration because you most likely experienced it when COVID first began.  Many of us were forced to adapt a little each day and a little more each week, until we were annoyed that we could no longer adhere to what our daily routine and schedule had been just days and weeks before.  But now that we've spent a year creating an entirely new routine and schedule, it is about to be interrupted to make room for change once again.

What this is already looking like is that some folks are having an increase in anxiety as they slowly become aware that they could be asked to come out of the shells they went into during COVID.  I am hearing more and more people afraid of returning to the rat race, of being asked to return to the offices they once worked in, or of jumping back into the daily traffic they have not had to fight for a year now just to get to and from work.  Many are already wondering how they will make an eventual return to the world of social contact they have not had to experienced for the last twelve months.

With anxiety our body either gears up to fight or run, and in some people right now anxiety levels are rising as would be expected in the normal fight or flight response.  In our modern world the "fight" usually means asserting ourselves or having some form of confrontation.  And the things that are leading to an increased awareness that assertiveness or confrontation might be in order are that many workers are realizing they might need to have a talk with their bosses about the possibility of a permanent change in the location and schedule of how they work from now on.  COVID has opened up a lot of possibilities and working from home has brought to light an awareness that a new hybrid of worker location may be in order even when there is no pandemic.  

So stress levels are increasing in two areas:  For one, it will be important to pace yourself in regard to a returned exposure to the world.  If you have been isolating inside, it might be a good idea to try some short practice trips into the world that feel safe and exercise all the COVID-19 protocols, but that also help you begin your gradual adjustment to more exposure to the world than you have had over the last year.  And two, if you have discovered some nice changes that this year of COVID has made in your life, it's going to be important to assert yourself and let your voice be heard so you can make any health and stress adjustments you think would be beneficial to your work-life schedule.  Most likely you are not going to be alone as many people have really enjoyed working from home and have found they prefer schedules that allow them all the time they need to get their work done while keeping a closer contact to home and family.

Whatever area will be calling for your adaptation, be sure to take it slow.  My example at the opening of this blog entry is a funny extreme of the shock factor when gradual adaptation has not been given the time it needs to do its magic.  COVID has pushed us to change much faster than evolution might normally push us, and the constant prolonged change is also taxing on the human nervous system.  Be sure to take things at a pace that works for you and see where you can make some necessary changes stick, while letting others go.

Thanks to RANT - 73 - Digital Art for the photo, https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/ 

Monday, February 15, 2021

Human Adaptation and Resilience: The Ability to Bounce Back from the Stress of COVID

Did you know that the average height of a female 100 years ago was 5 feet 2 inches, and a male was 5 feet 7 inches.  Today it is 5 feet 4 inches for women, and 5 feet 10 inches for men.  Doesn't seem like much, but in just 100 years, we are taller than we once were because evolution seems to believe that we need that for our survival.  This ability of the human being to adapt is what makes our species so capable of survival and to be resilent to the constantly changing factors that make up life on this planet.

Look what happened this last year between January and December 2020.  Due to the COVID situation, our species adapted repeatedly to the changing conditions required by the presence of the virus.  We had to change the way we work, the way we buy food, the way we go to the vet, the dentist, the doctor.  We had to change the way we stand in a line in public, and in the way we just walked up and down an aisle at any given store.  And in order to survive the virus itself, we had to decipher what the rules and laws would be that make our species strive toward survival in the safest way.  In this case, we were also torn between different definitions of survival.  One form of survival was to avoid the virus completely, but another was to have a job, money, and means to keep a roof over one's head, food on the table, bills paid, all of which are also what helps us survive by providing heat, air, internet, transportation, and so much more.  These differing definitions left us at times torn between staying home or venturing out to get food and go to work.  All of these survival "needs" are things we strive for every day, even if it just seems like it's our basic day to day activities and not necessarily hunting wild game or fighting predators, as it might have been in ancient times.

What this means is that we are under a lot of daily stress to take care of ourselves and make it from one day to the next.  Our survival needs (and COVID) have pushed our daily limits, and what we were once used to is now expanded from what it was just a year ago.  I'm sure many of us had no idea that just learning to stay home was going to one day be a survival behavior we would need to "endure", and that each of the things we've had to adjust to since the beginning of 2020 would increased our stress.  So thank goodness for the incredible human ability toward adaptation and resilience.  We are getting the job done despite the increased stress, but this means there has also been an increased need to cope with all of that stress as well.

The good news is that our brains have also evolved and we have used those brains to create an abundance of ways to cope with our stress.  Though some of those means are unhealthy adaptation methods, many others are very healthy and finding one that you resonate with is going to be key in bouncing back from what has been a very long year of endurance with the COVID virus.

Though this list of relaxation techniques is not exhaustive, it does provide some ideas for you to try as you (like many of us) continue your journey of resilience and adaptation to this magnificent changing world:

  • Get a massage
  • Meditate
  • Listen to soothing music
  • Learn Tai Chi, Qigong, Yoga
  • Soak in a warm bath or hot tub
  • Sit down to a cup of green tea
  • Spend time with your favorite pet
  • Learn a meditative form of chanting
  • Forest Bathing
  • Practice slow diaphragmatic breathing
  • Aromatherapy
  • Biofeedback
  • Art (viewing or creating)
  • Hiking

Thanks to peasap for the great photo (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Awareness: Looking Anxiety in the Face

In the practice of meditation one of the main "goals"--if we can call it a goal--is to learn to maintain an increasing sense of awareness.  The little secret is that awareness (reality) is always there.  We just aren't always aware that we are aware of it.  Instead, we are distracted by things like anxiety, fear, anger, and many other things, such as thoughts that float around obstructing our view of awareness.  It is said that in meditation you eventually become aware of reality rather than it being something you are striving for.  In other words, the more you meditate and perfect your awareness of reality, the more it appears to you.

When it comes to anxiety, we have to work at recognizing that it is like an object in the sky that catches our attention and begins to distract us from seeing things as they really are.  We can think of reality as the sky and when we look up into that sky, sometimes there are things that are "in" that sky that catch our attention, and we see these things just the way we might see clouds in the sky, and if you are like me, you can look at clouds and begin to get a little distracted by them.  That one looks like a dragon and maybe that one looks like the unfolding of a tornado, and maybe another looks like it could be heavy with rain.  Pretty soon... all you can see is the clouds (anxiety) and not reality (the sky) itself.

So with anxiety (as with many other of life's unnecessary distractions) we need to see these things for what they really are, and this should be done with as little to no judgment as is possible.  In other words, if you so happen to actually "notice" that you are anxious, try to notice without all the judgment that can follow, such as "what is wrong with me?", or "I should be better at this and not be so anxious." 

The way we get better and better at being aware is through meditative practice, and that can be done no matter if we are in seated meditation, walking meditation, moving meditation, or any activity at all  really.  For instance, try this little exercise: As you read these words that are a part of this paragraph, try to notice each and every time you see the letter "e".  Just read along, and then each time you see the letter "e", just notice it briefly.  So here you are, reading this paragraph, and suddenly the entire paragraph becomes something much more prominent before you.  Every word is now a central focus as you pay particular attention to catching each and every "e".  And we can do the same thing in everyday life if we just add in practices that help us learn to stay more present.

In her life's work, Charlotte Joko Beck worked to help people notice these things in their everyday life which were escaping notice due to distraction.  She wrote a book, Everyday Zen, in which she simplifies the entire Zen meditation process by clarifying that though it's not easy to accomplish, the main idea behind meditation and present-moment practices, is to become "present" in "every moment".

Before we end, take the time to meditate on the wonderful photo image presented with this blog entry.  It was created by Jeremy Gromoski and if you just come into the present long enough, you will notice something very interesting about what you see.  Some things can look very real, when they are not.  Just like our anxiety can.  But when we look anxiety directly in the face, most often we will find that it's an illusion created by our brain to convince us that some situation is life-threateningly dangerous, when it is not.

It's very important that we practice seeing things as they a really are.  The sky is always there, and yes, the clouds float in and out.  They shape-shift.  Appear and disappear.  But reality is always there, waiting for us to notice it.

Thanks to Jeremy Gromoski for his excellent photo image, Illusion.                                                           https://www.flickr.com/photos/darkshadow54104/                                                                                    https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Striving for Peace: A way to reduce Stress and Tension

The New Year is coming.  2021!  And there is a lot of potential for peace in it.  The reason is because it's not hear yet and so we can set our intention on making it a peaceful year.  It's all in knowing what we want to accomplish.  

Setting an intention has a slightly different flavor to it than setting a goal or a resolution.  An intention indicates that something is the aim, and all efforts that follow will keep that aim in mind.

If we have a certain intention, then "most" of the activity and energy we apply in that direction is for the purpose of that intention, and therefore, we try to avoid activity and energy that is not going to serve that intention.  So having an intention to make 2021 a peaceful year should be full of activity that strives for peace.  You won't do it perfectly and yes, you will slip up.  But the idea is to move in that direction for the most part.

There is an area of study called "Peace studies", or sometimes called "Peace and Conflict studies."   The Institute for International Peace Studies at Notre Dame defines "peace" as "not just the absence of war", but also as "the presence of the conditions of a just and sustainable peace, including access to food and clean water, education for women and children, and security from physical harm."  In other words, there is "negative" peace, which is the absence of direct violence; and there is "positive" peace, which is the presence of justice.

So we have to look at the direction of our intention when we say we are striving for peace.  I'm sure many of us have heard ourselves and others claim we want peace, but then our actions and behavior don't necessarily seem intended toward something that looks like peace in the end.  To strive toward negative peace, we have to discontinue our own forms of violence, and to strive toward positive peace, we have to strive toward justice of many kinds.

Bringing peace to your daily life includes bringing peace to your community, including your home, neighborhood, town and city.  So as you approach 2021, try to set your intention on less violence in all of its many forms, while also moving toward actions that support justice, which means acting in accordance with "moral rightness based on ethics"--and that includes fairness.

If you want to be a part of a peaceful 2021 it's going to mean taking a look at yourself and your own daily thoughts and behavior.  If you find yourself thinking you are not a part of the problem, sit with that for a moment and try to dig a little deeper.  Look until you see a human place where you can change for the better and be a part of the solution. 

Thanks to John Attebury for the great photo (quote added), https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Post Election Anxiety and The Way Out of Hell


In the movie Gandhi there is a scene in which a Hindu man approaches Gandhi and tells him, "I'm in hell".  The man was tortured by guilt for killing a Muslim boy out of revenge after Muslims killed his own son.  He was also upset that Gandhi was fasting for political reasons and feared he would die from lack of food and that his death would amplify his already heavy burden of guilt.  Gandhi tells the man that he "knows the way out of hell," and that the solution for his guilt was to find a young Muslim boy whose parents had also been killed, and raise him as his own.  But the catch was, he had to raise him as Muslim, not as a Hindu.  In other words, it was the man himself that needed to change in order for any escape from hell to happen.  He'd be required to expand his own awareness, education, and knowledge of his enemy in order to escape his heavy burden of hell.

In Hollywood it's never clear if scenes like this are based on reality or dramatized for effect, but it was known that Gandhi felt that the Hindus and Muslims were all part of the same thread and belonged to the land of India.  And though he saw them all as one, they had become deeply divided and saw one another as enemies.  Yet, his solution for this man (at least in the movie anyway), was for him to travel into the world of those he called his enemy and get to know them at the level of love, where he would learn to know them and their beliefs, and see that they are from the same human cloth as he was.

This concept of ending conflict and animosity by getting to know your enemy--even growing to love your enemy--as yourself, is not new.  Gurus and spiritual leaders throughout history have taught the importance of seeing that there is no separation between us in the large scheme of things.  To see those you disagree with as fellow human beings prevents you from dehumanizing them, and history has shown that the dehumanization of our enemies moves us to begin justifying abuse, violence and destruction against them.  Does this mean you always have to agree with others?  No.  What it means is that you must learn to live with (and even grow to love) those you disagree with.  

Here in America, where the presidential election was only a week ago, the talk of finding our way to unity has already begun, just as it did after the 2016 election.  Many in America are fatigued of the polarization and bickering between those who disagree on a broad assortment of issues, and the 50% that voted one way are discouraged by the 50% who voted the other.  But what is the metaphorical equivalent of raising your enemy's child as your own?  How do we find our "way out of hell" here in America, where half the country thinks one way, and the other half seem to always disagree?

One way to reduce our anxiety about the dilemma we Americans find ourselves in is to begin to take a closer look and ask what each one of us can do to become a part of the solution of unity that everyone seems to want.  Do we have to agree on all the issues?  No.  But a change can come within each one of us in which we step a little closer to trying to get to know those we've come to call our enemy.  Being able to agree to disagree is the radical notion that people with different views can live in peace together and don't have to insist that it's one way or the other.  Wiggle room can reveal a middle ground for compromise or polite and peaceful debate.

In his lifetime Gandhi took up the art of the charkha, which is a spinning wheel used to make thread.  It became a symbolic representation during his time in India of independence and self-reliance, as well as self-governance.  I also like to think of it as a symbolic reminder that we are all from the same thread.  We are all weaved together on this precious planet as one human race and it is imperative that we learn to get along in peace, despite our differing beliefs.

So, think about this path out of hell when you are celebrating your seasonal holidays through November and December of 2020, and as you approach the new year, consider making a resolution to step toward (instead of away) from those you consider your enemy.  Start getting to know who these other human beings are and work to see yourself in them, as you allow them to see themselves in you.  And as you travel this path out of hell, you will eventually begin to see that you, and those you disagree with, are really spun from the same cloth.