Stress and the Holidays

The holidays can be a really stressful time for a number of reasons. Shorter days with less sunlight, plus colder temperatures, beckon us to spend more time indoors in hibernation mode. Some people (including myself) experience Seasonal Affective Disorder as a result of the reduced exposure to natural light. Farm crops tend to be less abundant, as the land enters into a cycle of restoration and preparation for the spring.

Yet, in the midst of nature’s attempts for us to slow down, our busy lifestyles encourage us to hurry up and rush to the next holiday gathering, school event, or year-end work deadline. When my mother was still around (before her illness), she found the December holiday season to be the busiest time of the year due to school choir concerts, Christmas services at church, and parties (including ones where she was hired to provide music).

When I was in school, on top of all those other activities, I also had to turn in term papers, take final exams, and perform for music juries. I considered myself lucky when I managed not to become sick with a cold or other seasonal illness during this time of the year.

Then there were the expectations that I buy or make gifts for family and friends, as well as send out holiday greeting cards. Between the parties and the shopping, I usually ended up feeling frazzled by the time that I reached New Year’s Eve. Over time, I found that I preferred to spend New Year’s Eve at home, just to have a break from all of the activity. Yes, I’m an introvert.

Amidst all of this stress, it might be difficult to remember to practice self-care and enjoy some quiet time. Or perhaps worse, there can be a frustration when we want to take that time for ourselves but feel like we can’t.

This year, I’m taking a completely different approach. I’ll be spending the holidays in a meditative retreat. Rather than rushing from event to event, I’m going to slow down in a way that my mind and body craves. I’m curious to see what this experience teaches me and what emerges from the process of rebelling against the societal pressure to speed up right when nature is encouraging us to slow down.

Not everyone has the luxury of retreating from the holiday busy-ness, though. In fact, work, school, and family obligations can make this nearly impossible. There are still some basic things we can do to take care of ourselves during the holiday season, while going on with our otherwise busy lives.

Here are some tips to survive and thrive during this season:

  1. Working out or getting some kind of daily movement activity can keep us from putting on holiday pounds.
  2. Eating nutritionally balanced meals can give us energy and keep us functioning at our peak.
  3. Getting adequate sleep can help fight off seasonal colds.
  4. Saying no, rather than agreeing to participate in every single social obligation, can give us a sense of empowerment when it feels like we have no control over what’s happening in our lives.
  5. Choosing not to engage in lengthy political debates with relatives who have different viewpoints can keep us from getting angry or frustrated when we could instead be enjoying time with family.
  6. Practicing yoga can increase our flexibility when our bodies might be otherwise hunched over at a desk working on end-of-year deadlines.
  7. Writing in a gratitude journal can remind us of the many things that we’re thankful for.
  8. Making art or music can nurture our creative passions when we’re feeling stifled.
  9. Setting aside time for loved ones can help us to reconnect when we’re feeling isolated.
  10. Cutting back on gift-giving can reduce financial stress, resist the hyper-consumerism of our culture, and help the environment, too.
  11. Taking 15 minutes a day to meditate can clear our heads and keep us grounded when we’re feeling overwhelmed by a rush of activity. For me personally, this is my most important self-care practice during stressful times.

Even if you can’t do all of these things, perhaps it would be helpful to choose just three of them to focus on during this season. And if nothing else, closing one’s eyes and taking three deep breaths can be a centering practice to bring us back into the present moment when the mind is racing with thoughts about everything that needs to get done.

If all else fails, I remind myself that whatever I’m experiencing will eventually pass, or at least change. A few moments of focused breathing is usually enough to make a difference in my mood, and when I’m at my best, I find that I can actually appreciate the holiday stress.

Vocabulary that fires together wires together

There’s a neurological concept called Hebb’s Law that’s basically summarized as “neurons that fire together wire together.”  This principle explains why it is that, when we hear an old song on the radio, we might immediately be flooded with memories and emotions that remind us of our first loves, best friends from high school, or educational topics that we learned in childhood. All sorts of associations can surface when we encounter something from our past, even if it’s been years since we’ve thought about those past remembrances.

I find that the same is true with languages. I studied French in high school, college, and grad school, and I’ve also picked up a few other languages through friends and travels. I can speak at least a few phrases (if not more) in Spanish, German, Thai, Khmer (the language spoken in Cambodia), Ewe (an indigenous language in Ghana), Czech, Italian, and Japanese.

The thing that amuses me is that sometimes these phrases emerge randomly, out of nowhere and there are certain phrases that I associate with one particular language over the others. In a few instances, there are idiomatic expressions that I automatically think of in foreign languages before they come to me in English.

Recently, I was in a situation where I had to engage in a conversation with someone who doesn’t speak a word of English. While I spend most of my time thinking in English…and I’m aware of how my brain operates when it comes to other languages…I was still amazed at how quickly my “foreign” vocabulary came back to me.

Words that hadn’t crossed through my conscious mind in years suddenly popped into my head, and some words that I’d never even encountered managed to come out of my mouth. I was able to get through a technically complex conversation much better than I had anticipated, which really shouldn’t have surprised me, given that I’ve done this numerous times over the years.

This got me to thinking about how languages work in our heads. It’s similar to how my fingers remember how to play scales, arpeggios, and chord progressions on my flute or the piano, even when I haven’t really practiced these instruments in months. My fingers seem to go into autopilot and play things without me consciously thinking about what to do.

Just like language (which some people would argue includes the “language of music”), our brains have the capacity to come up with all sorts of associations without us making the conscious effort to cultivate those connections. This can include memories from childhood that have long since disappeared into the crevices of ancient memory.

While many of these associations can be beneficial, sometimes our mind’s ability to “connect the dots” can cause internal conflict or pain. Anyone who has ever heard a song that reminds them of a painful breakup or romantic rejection can relate to this.

We don’t always notice when our minds are making these connections, though. An example that I often use for illustration is the way my own brain responds when it hears loud, sudden noises. As an infant, I had a traumatic experience when a 4th of July performance of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture (complete with booming canons to replicate battlefield explosions–check out the link for a recording) occurred on the same day that I fell onto the pavement and injured myself. As a result, for most of my life, I would be startled whenever I encountered an abruptly loud sound, even though my training as a musician had encouraged me to embrace those sounds. Just the sound of a balloon popping was enough to make me jump.

One of the things that we teach in Neurosculpting® is that we have the capability to rewire our brains. Meditation can help us to do this because, through that practice, we’re able to calm the fight-or-flight center before attempting to rewrite the narratives that hold us back.

So if there’s a particular belief or old story that is getting in the way of our ability to move forward, we can start to uncouple the associations that have been built up in our brains, including those unconscious connections. Hebb’s Law can be a beneficial thing, in the case of language recollection and communication.

But when we’re trapped under the weight of traumatic memories (such as my early childhood trauma due to the loud noise that I encountered at a 4th of July festival), it’s possible to rewire our brains so that the neurons that were previously firing together will no longer wire together.

Meanwhile, I’ll try to keep my language neurons firing and wiring in such a way that my French vocabulary sticks together, somewhat compartmentalized from my Spanish vocabulary. The alternative (which has happened on occasion) is that I start out in one language and then transition into another language. Given the strange looks that I’ve received when that happens, I try to keep the blending of languages to a minimum.

Perspective

Yesterday I went on a hike on one of my favorite trails. I hadn’t been on it much lately, as I had been enjoying the discovery of other trails before winter sets in. But right now, I’m simply trying to ensure that I get in some daily movement as part of a self-care regimen during a personally difficult time.

I’m guessing that I’ve hiked this particular trail at least 50 times—if not twice that number—since I moved to Colorado. I love the convenience of it being within the city limits, free of charge, and the fact that the trail has enough of an incline that it actually feels like a workout. Plus, the scenery is stunning.

It’s actually a system of trails, so I’m able to vary my route each time that I go up there. This is part of why I can hike there several times a week and still feel like it’s a different experience each time.

Because I hadn’t been up there in a few weeks, I was able to marvel at how the trail had changed since my last visit. At this time of year, pine needles are scattered on the ground, and the occasional deciduous trees are mostly barren. Loose gravel is more common now that the first snowfall has occurred, which reminds me to pay attention to where my feet land.

Even when I trek up there multiple times during a given week, I still find that my relationship to the environment shifts based on circumstances. Some days, I’m in a rush and just want to get in a quick bit of exercise. Other times, I linger as I take in the breathtaking scenery, perhaps even climbing up on the slick reddish rocks that abruptly jut out of the foothills. If I have more flexibility in my day, I might even sit on one of those rocks and meditate for a while.

As I was hiking today, I contemplated how my hikes are kind of like my meditations, even when I’m not sitting still with my eyes closed. I have a number of visualization tools that I draw on in meditation, such as a grounding cord, but I don’t use all of them every single day.

If I’m in a rush, I might simply sit for a few minutes and run through a number of tools from the Everyday Warrior series that I’ve taken multiple times at the Neurosculpting® Institute, or I might focus on a single one. When I have more time, I’ll sit for quite a while to see what emerges.

Although I use these tools regularly, I still find that the experience with a given tool varies over time. It’s not the same exact experience every day, just as my mood, energy level, and daily routine can fluctuate.

Back to the hiking trail … I stood in one spot and took several photos today with my phone. It’s interesting how a single frame can vary based on where I put the focus.

In the first picture, the sky is fairly accurately portrayed as a deep blue, but the rocks look too dark. The second picture is more representative of the reddish rock coloration, but the sky is way too overexposed.

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This third image is a closer depiction of the actual landscape as seen through my eyes, but still not exact. I find it fascinating how, even when we’re standing still and looking straight ahead, our perspective can change based on the filter through which we’re gazing.

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The same is true with a sitting meditation practice. Each experience is different, and that’s part of what makes the process so powerful. I love that my relationship to my meditation practice changes over time. Just as the changing seasons impact my external environment, my inner world has its own shifts and transitions. I’m grateful for those shifts, even in the midst of life’s challenges.

Self-Care for Activists, Community Leaders, and Volunteers

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I’ve been involved in community-building work for most of my adult life, but it took me a while to realize the importance of developing a consistent self-care practice. Those of us who work with non-profits, activist groups, and community organizations can have a tendency to place more value on others than on ourselves.

I feel very strongly in the worth of every single human being, even on my most frustrating days. Yet, why is it so difficult at times to treat myself with the same care and compassion with which I treat others? Perhaps a part of the problem is due to the societal expectations that we should place ourselves last.

I’m not going to argue that we should prioritize our own selves in such a way that we cause harm or neglect to others, but I do believe that we could collectively do a better job with self-care in these arenas. I internalized this during the years of my mother’s terminal illness, when she lived with me and I served as her main caregiver. I realized that I could not possibly care for her unless I also took care of my own well-being, as even a common cold had the potential to put her safety at risk.

At that time, I justified that my self-care routine was necessary because someone I loved was dependent on my ability to care for her. In hindsight, I wish that I had been able to see my own inherent self-worth as part of the scenario, but back then, I felt that my health was important mainly in relation to how it contributed to the well-being of others. 

I have since accepted that my self-worth is not dependent on my accomplishments or my ability to help others. Along with this acceptance, I now focus on self-compassion in the ways that I care for myself.

Some of the obvious ways that I care for myself include eating nourishing food, exercising regularly, and getting adequate sleep when possible. Another component of my self-care routine involves a regular meditation practice. I have found that meditation helps to reduce my stress, which enhances my overall health, and I’m less reactive in how I relate with others. 

I want to be clear that, when discussing the benefits of meditation, it’s important to be careful not to use it in a way that shames others. There are some health issues that cannot simply be “cured” with meditation (or other practices such as yoga), and a meditation teacher is not a replacement for a physician. That being said, there are many instances where meditation can reduce the impacts of stress-related health problems, including heart disease.

It’s for this reason that I’ll be teaching a meditation session as part of a Community Care Day program that we’re launching at Flatirons Political Art in north Boulder. The modality that I teach is called Neurosculpting®, which founder Lisa Wimberger  describes as: “a method to enhance self-directed neuroplasticity through the union of neuroscience and meditation practices for the purpose of down-regulating chronic CNS [central nervous system] arousal states.”

The meditation component of the Community Care Day will involve one or two guided meditations, plus time to discuss how the brain neurologically wires to stress as well as higher-order cognitive thinking. We’ll also talk about ways in which a meditation practice can be supported through other aspects of our daily lives.

In addition to self-care, I’m increasingly aware of the need to cultivate community support. In a panel discussion at the recent Front Range Bioneers conference, every single speaker emphasized the importance of relationships for the development of sustainable communities. Because we live in shared spaces, we must nurture relationships with the friends and family who live around (and with) us.

The Community Care Day will provide a space for us to celebrate each other by caring for ourselves and each other. We’ll begin in the late morning with Qigong, led by Jessica Van Antwerp. Then we’ll share in a potluck lunch before moving into the meditation session. The day will end with a co-creative activity there in the art studio.

Please join us even if you’re unable to be present the entire day. We’re gathering at 11am, and we’ll be finished by 4pm. We are asking that everyone bring a potluck dish or $10 to contribute to the food, but we won’t turn anyone away due to an inability to contribute financially.

If we’re going to bring about the changes we’d like to see in this world, we need to design communities that nurture ourselves and each other. I believe that self-care practices are important because each of us matters on this planet. The added benefit is that caring for oneself allows for us to do more for others. And most specifically, stress-reduction in activist, non-profit, and community-engagement environments is crucial to staying grounded for long-term sustainability in the midst of high-stakes advocacy.