The Momentum of Stress

What can we do when the negative momentum we’ve talked ourselves into feels like a train we’re doomed to ride forever?

*Lia is a 6th grader who takes her academics seriously. She will turn in her work for assignments days before they are due, sending emails to her teachers to confirm that she did what was asked of her correctly. Lia has yet to earn less than an A in all her classes. She is personable, astute, and kind.

Unfortunately, there’s an invisible but real force taking over Lia’s life: anxiety. She has trouble sleeping, finds herself breaking down in tears over things that before wouldn’t have bothered her, and describes herself as unable to “stop the worrying” that haunts her throughout the day.

 Lia is not alone. Several of the middle school students I have the gift of working with are manifesting signs of anxiety and depression in the almost ubiquitous cloak we know too well: stress. And while there’s good and bad stress, our perception of those stressors makes a world of difference.

Lia met with me last week after class and talked about her inability to “stop the worrying.” 

Lia referred to herself as someone who “struggles with anxiety.” Her self-diagnosis alone powerfully affects her perceptions. So, the world around her offers up opportunities to worry, thus creating more domino-like effect, stress-inducing scenarios for her. Lia’s belief in her self-diagnosis has created a momentum of anxiety that feeds on itself like a rat snake.

The same domino effect of negative self-talk can manifest in depression. When we are regularly telling ourselves it’s hopeless, things never work out for me, or a slew of other fatalistic misconceptions, the Universe mirrors back to us “proof” that our belief was correct.

So, what can we do when the negative momentum we’ve talked ourselves into feels like a train we’re doomed to ride forever?

Think of a spinning top. What happens when gravity starts to take over? It finally teeters to a stop. When anxiety or depression hit a high point, know that it too will pass. You cannot remain in the high anxiety or low depression forever.

Typically, we wake up with a fresh start, a new day for a new momentum. Baby steps.

Lia asked, “How do I stop my thoughts?”

“Get out ahead of them, before the momentum starts on that train to worry. Do one thing that pleases you today. Write three things you are grateful for each morning you wake up and each night before you go to bed. Listen to music you like.”

Whether a teenager or a grownup, we all experience stress. Yet while stress is unavoidable, building momentum in the direction of peace is in our control. Stress is a continuum, and our self-talk determines whether we take a harrowing ride on an uncontrollable track or experience an adventurous journey.

Lia has altered her label since we spoke last week. She is no longer someone who “struggles with anxiety” but now refers to herself as “conscientious and capable.” And that altered shift in her perception is the foundation for a rewarding momentum.

*Name has been changed to protect the privacy of the person.

Small Talk: Benefit or Risk?

Knowing who you are engaging in small talk with can sometimes make all the difference…

            I recently went for my second vaccine shot. The verbal warnings from well-meaning others streamed through my head like a bad TV montage:

            “Take off from work the next day—you’ll need it.”

            “It felt like an invisible weight was pulling me down.”

            “It’ll hit you about 12 hours later. You’ll see.”

            “I wanted to die.”

            So, it’s no surprise that I approached the nurse (*Jenny) a little nervous.

 My anxiety typically manifests in a desperate need for small talk. There is this comfort, however fleeting, found in small talk for me. And according to a 2018 study by psychologist Mathias Mehl, my instinct to schmooze is understandable: 

“Small talk…is associated with more happiness than one usually experiences when one is alone.”

            I certainly didn’t want to be alone with my mental montage of dire physical warnings. I needed to focus on the sunny room of the vaccination site and the warm smile of Nurse Jenny.

            Too late—I already saw the almost comically long syringe. Too late, I asked Jenny how she was, inquiring about her children as well (a small detail I recalled from our earlier dialogue the few weeks prior) as I turned my head away.

            Too late—Jenny let out a big sigh—a hot air balloon puncturing and plummeting fast:

            “My husband is an awful man—just awful. He’s been cheating on me and now he’s suing me in our divorce. I just can’t—”

            Too late—Jenny’s emotional turmoil was let out on my arm.

  I saw stars.

            “Why does that hurt so much?” I asked.

            “Oh, you poor thing—I’m so sorry. You’re bleeding. I hit a vein.”

            Once the blood was cleaned up, Jenny wrote her name and number on a neon Post It.

            “Call me. We need to get together—go for dinner.”

            Somehow, a Small Talk Attempt to ease my anxiety had caused Jenny to think we were…Friends? Therapist (me) and patient (her)?

            Mathias Mehl’s findings regarding our tendency to find happiness through small talk may be true, but if that small talk signals another to lay down on the metaphorical Freudian couch, perhaps we need to refrain from trivial banter with people holding sharp objects…

 Source: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/out-the-ooze/202001/why-small-talk-is-big-deal

A Dish for the Soul: Empathy

Dr. Pearcey, a Cognitive Psychologist at the Institute for Spirituality and Health, offers humanity a powerful tool for cultivating empathy.

The world feels more divisive than ever. Whether it’s how to handle COVID-19, the environment, the economy and everything in between, there’s a great deal of polarizing opinions. Yet there’s a fine but distinctive line between having an opinion and holding a grudge against someone for possessing an opposing, alternate viewpoint.

Our newly instated President Biden is palpably aware of the charged air. He asks us to put aside our differences, “uniting to fight the foes we face.” (Source: Vox).

We—a small but powerful pronoun. We are all together; humanity is interconnected in this mysterious life. We affect each other on levels great and small.

The charged air, the divisiveness and polarized opinions with metaphorical haunches raised (and sometimes literal, as we witnessed on January 6th at the Capitol), is fear-based reaction. Underneath the anger and violence is fear and pain. The lashing out is a manifestation of untended to psychological wounds.

Enter Dr. Jeremiah Pearcey, a Cognitive Psychologist at the Institute for Spirituality and Health (www.spiritualityandhealth.org) who offers “education and guidance…helping people reduce stress.” The other week, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., Dr. Pearcey offered a mindfulness meditation to explore the historical moments leading up to the Civil Rights Movement, cultivating a greater understanding and compassion for others and ourselves. The title of the Zoom event: “A Day of Embrace and Peace.”

The idea of embracing the historical moments leading up to King’s famous “I Have a Dream Speech,” of finding peace in the face of tension seems like an unlikely pairing. Yet the wise Dr. Pearcey’s guided meditation is just what the world needs now.

After several cleansing breaths and a reminder to get comfortable, attendees of the conference, myself included, were guided by Dr. Pearcey’s soothing voice to journey with him. We were asked to imagine ourselves in 1619 as Africans suddenly separated from our families, not understanding the language of our captors, chained together on a boat. Our journey continued to a plantation in 1800, where any courage to leave our “owners” was often extinguished by the site of other African Americans strung up on trees—a visual reminder of the dire risk for our freedom. We were even brought to the recent past, our last breaths labored, as George Floyd’s was, letting our capture know, with the little we had left of life, “I can’t breathe.”

Dr. Pearcey’s meditative guidance offered us a powerful tool for cultivating empathy and one that we can use in our daily lives. The prefix EM literally means in and PATHY means feeling. Under Dr. Pearcey’s steady and compassionate guidance, we were able to experience empathy for our ancestors and the victims of systemic racism today.

Did anxiety surface during the meditation? Anger? Hopelessness? Yes, to it all. Yet the mediation allowed a safe space to observe without judgement, to feel without attaching ourselves to the unpleasant emotions.

It is okay to feel uncomfortable in this life. When we practice self-compassion, we are more apt to feel compassion for others. Unity is a by-product of acknowledging our differences and cultivating empathy. When one of us suffers, we are all suffering; when we acknowledge our discomfort, our anxiety, our anger, or our hurt from a place of compassion, true healing can begin—for ourselves and, by extension, the world around us.

Thank You, Langston Hughes

The talented Langston Hughes reminds us of the choice we all have in his moving story, “Thank You, Ma’am”

Our world is fraught with anxiety, filled with the uncertainty of COVID-19 as our death toll continues to mount. The almost full calendar year of pandemic life has rendered many of us depressed. Factor in the economic stress and growing political tension, it is no surprise that many of us are also quick-tempered. After all, when we are experiencing pain it’s normal to react. 

How we react to pain makes all the difference.

As an English teacher to middle school students, I bear the gift and responsibility of educating minds through literature. Students “buy in” when they can connect a text to both the world around and in them. With the escalating violence at the US Capitol, I felt a need to choose a story that could palpably demonstrate an invaluable commodity: kindness.

 It’s easy to be kind when we are in a good place, when our needs are met and we want for little or nothing; kindness becomes, for many of us, a challenge when we are in pain.

The social activist and prolific Harlem Renaissance writer, Langston Hughes offered my students (and humanity) a short but profound and palpably moving example of kindness in the face of pain with his story, “Thank You, Ma’am.”

The story involves a young teen who attempts to steal a woman’s purse on the street at night. Instead of reporting the boy to the police, the woman brings him home and gives him a warm meal. Her kindness alters the boy’s behavior, his perception and—although we can only infer—the trajectory of his life.

I want my students to know that each of them has the power to make a choice every moment; I want each of us to remember that, despite how painful life can get at times, we always have a choice to be kind. This is not a call to be a doormat. Langston Hughes’ character, Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones is portrayed as a strong, no nonsense woman. She is that rare mixture of confident and compassionate, perceptive yet matter of fact.

So, as you go through your morning, your day, your week, your life, regardless of wherever life may take you, channel your inner Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones. A simple gesture of kindness can change someone’s life in ways you may never know—including your own.

The Unspoken Struggle

There is a silent but desperate pain in many teens and tweens in our 21st century world

As a writing teacher, I have the bittersweet gift and responsibility that comes with reading the many hidden thoughts of tweens and teens. An English teacher is often informally consigned to the role of therapist, a safe repository of one’s typically dormant insights. While a significant number of students’ essays contain innocuous content, there are sometimes those red flags that require I share my concern with the school psychologist. Unfortunately, I’m seeing an uptick in red flags.

Since the pandemic, we know there’s been a rise in mental health concern. According to MedScape (www.medscape.com), depression symptoms have “jumped threefold, overdose deaths…increased in 40 states, and 25% of young adults have suicidal ideation.”

It is no surprise then that our adolescents are demonstrating an increase in anxiety and depression as well. This past week, I’d assigned my students the following prompt:

“Write about a time when you have felt or experienced a struggle in your life. Did it resolve? If so, how? If not, why?”

Regardless of ability (i.e. ELL learners, GT students and everything in between), my students were eager to write about their struggles. They were also hungry to be heard. Shortly after posting the assignment, a barrage of emails appeared with the following inquiries:

“This really helps. Can we do more of these prompts?”

“I normally hate writing, but I like this assignment. Can I do more than one?”

“I have a pretty big struggle. Would it be okay if I shared it with our class?”

There’s a sense of safety in writing, in getting our thoughts out onto the page. Writing also creates an immediate sense of being heard—even if it’s just for an audience of one—YOU!

Several of my “red flag” essays end with a request to not share their anxious thoughts and/or depression with anyone. They write of observed or experienced domestic abuse, estranged parents, gender uncertainty, cancer, the loss of a loved one, and bullying. The overarching emotion that binds them is a sense that they are alone and unworthy.

I want to hug each of these students. Instead, I tell them the truth: they are courageous for sharing their stories and they matter. 

Supermarket Sweep Life

There’s an unspoken “Supermarket Sweep” mentality pervading our lives.

            There’s a popular American game show, now in its 10th season, called Supermarket Sweep. The premise involves contestants racing against a timer to acquire “high-dollar goods within their allotted time. The team with the most…[number] of valuable items in their cart wins the $100,000 prize.” (source The Today Show). The appeal of the show is understandable: the rush of adrenaline to get as many items—hopefully more highly-valued than others—into one’s cart in a finite and small window of time (typically 1 minute and 30 seconds).

            The fast-paced game show hosted by the talented and humorous Leslie Jones is, no doubt, entertaining. We may watch, experiencing a hit of dopamine as the contestants race against the clock; we may experience pleasure, living vicariously through the frenzied contestants as they practically leave skid marks, stomping haphazardly through the many grocery aisles.

            Yet somehow, our lives tend to feel like we are no different than those Supermarket Sweep contestants. As a secondary English teacher, I see it with my students: the race to get an assignment in, the rush to read through an essay prompt without taking the time to consider the prompt itself. As a mother, I’ve witnessed the Supermarket Sweep mind spinning—no different than the contestants’ carts speeding down aisle after aisle. The mental guessing game of What If thinking, is its own conveyer belt of recycled worry.

            Adults are far from immune to the Supermarket Sweep mindset. Whether it’s the rush to get food on the table or the desperation to install a pool (and everything in between), when we put ourselves on this self-imposed time limit to get things accomplished, we run the risk of a few things:

  1. A lack of self-awareness
  2. Greater physical stress on the body
  3. An affinity for anxiety and/or depression

Without knowing it, I spent a good deal of my young adulthood with the Supermarket Sweep mentality as a steady companion. My cart was regularly filled with items that I didn’t necessarily want but falsely believed I needed to make me feel like a “winner”: the right college, a boyfriend, friends—the key was to have these “things” so that I could feel good. Say yes now was my unexamined mentality. It didn’t matter how I felt about what went into my spiritual cart; all that mattered was that I had put something in there.

I encourage you to consider the items you may be placing in your spiritual cart. Choose them carefully and consider the possibility of removing items that no longer serve you. Your life matters and while we each have an expiration date on this planet, we are not in a race or competition with Time. Care about what goes into your spiritual cart; the only appraiser of value for your cart’s items is you.

Serving Ourselves a Dare

The fear paradox: the greater we avoid something, the more likely it is to consume us.

Remember when you were a kid or teen and you dared your friends to do something scary? Sometimes it was something that in hindsight wasn’t so scary like going up to a police officer and asking him for the time; other times it was scary but—once again with that good ole’ hindsight—foolish and borderline dangerous, like eating something questionable like glue or a bug?

Regardless of what kind of dare you were given or gave, the intent was always the same: to get a thrill, a rise, a rush of adrenaline through our youthful veins. Even just giving someone a dare was enough to make our blood pump faster.

If you are reading this, chances are you fall into the adult demographic and your days are filled with lots of R’s (responsibilities). Time is limited while to-do lists are infinite; you are rarely in the now and more often than not, planning what needs to be accomplished or completed next.

One of my colleagues recently said, “I’m going to be like an ostrich and keep my head in the sand.” She was referring to our new virtual reality of teaching through so many new online platforms. A friend of mine shared with me this evening that she accepted a new position because “it’s safe.” As we get older—and with the uncertain backdrop of the ubiquitous pandemic—it’s understandable and downright tempting to want to cling to what is safe, to dig our head into the figurative sand until the unknown passes.

But what would happen if we, as author and professor, Brene Brown suggests in her eponymous book, DARING GREATLY, we became that young kid again (who still resides inside of us)? What if we chose to shake the sand off of our heads and see whatever is going on without judgement? What if we decided to not cling to safety so steadfast and instead, allowed ourselves to feel a little rush of fear as we considered other alternatives to earning money?

When we were children, we dared each other; as adults, we need to serve ourselves a dare: something that will reignite our soul and breathe fresh life into our lives.

Consider the pandemic, the growing violence in our world, the political tension—let’s not forget the killer hornets and potential meteor headed our way (the day before the US Election). Do we really have the control that we are so hungry for? Uncertainty is abound, and here’s the rub: the more we cling to things/people/circumstances for peace of mind, the less peace of mind we will experience. 

So what can we do? How can we serve ourselves a dish of happiness in such an uncertain world? We can find opportunities to dare ourselves—even if it’s over something that might seem small. 

My dare is often involving facing my fears. Fears embraced lose their power over us. And there’s nothing that feels more alive than meeting your fear head-on—talk about an adrenaline rush!

The great thing about being an adult is you don’t need to wait for someone to dare you. But since I’m still that kid inside who never grew up, I’ll take this moment to dare you, right now! Serve yourself a daring dish and watch your life change—dare I say, for the better!

“Serving Yourself a Pause”

What is Your Hunger Telling You?

School starts this week—for me, a middle school English teacher. The kids arrive virtually next month, so this is the time we educators start to ensure all of our academic ducks are in a row.

There is an uneasiness that often comes with the unknown, and virtual teaching in the midst of our pandemic is no exception. How will I effectively reach my new students? How will I effectively engage and connect with these young minds I have the gift and responsibility of educating?

Last week’s post focused on the magic-like pleasure experienced when embracing your passion. The example I shared was my love of writing and acting—a venture I reveled in manifesting and sharing with you on my YouTube channel.

Sometimes, we can get so caught up in a creative endeavor, we lose sight of the bigger picture. Last week, I was so hungry to combine my passion for writing and acting that I lost sight of the bigger picture: the optic and auditory effects of my comedic characters on the audience. 

My characters were meant to connect us, to create belly laughs and to promote my book. In my hunger to tickle your funny bone, I inadvertently eclipsed the gravitas of my book. So, I’ve taken the comedic characters down from my YouTube channel (I did keep my dear Sylvia Richmond. They may resurface as they were or in future comedic bits on a separate channel—apart from my book. I’m not sure where I want to go with them—and that’s okay. Like all of us, I’m learning as I go in this surreal experience called life.

The Friendship Diet is a book that focuses on the deep connection between our edible and emotional nutrition regarding our personal relationships. This includes our relationship—first and foremost—with ourselves. Today I write to you, aware that my emotional hunger is telling me to serve myself a heaping plate of pause, of rest, of time. My students deserve a teacher who is focused and hungry to educate and inspire her students. 

Whatever is happening in your life right now, if you are feeling overwhelmed and like the figurative walls are closing in on you, it’s more than okay—no, it’s vital that you serve yourself a pause dish. When we serve ourselves a pause dish, we are better serving others.

“Satisfying Soul Food”

 
We are all on a journey in this life. Regardless of our circumstances, I believe the core of that journey is one of self-love. 

Last week, I had the true pleasure of sitting down to talk with two beautiful people on the Law of Attraction Today podcast (LOA Today): Walt Thiessen and Cindie Chavez. Walt is the founder of the inspiring podcast and Cindie is his insightful co-host.

In our pandemic world where we are encouraged to social distance, a sense of isolation and hopelessness can easily manifest in us. The LOA Today podcast can provide a spiritual antidote when we find ourselves chewing on worry.

There’s a famous quote by the late author and speaker, Leo Buscaglia: “Love is always bestowed as a gift-freely, willingly and without expectation. We don’t love to be loved; we love to love.” Walt and Cindie, LOA Today’s co-hosts are beautiful examples of this quote in action. They exude warmth and compassion, both for others and themselves. To be in their presence is a gift.

We are all on a journey in this life. Regardless of our circumstances, I believe the core of that journey is one of self-love. When we embrace the gift of who we are, we become a gift to others.

The LOA Today podcast focuses on the principle of like attracting like. We attract what we are, what we think about, what we believe. Our hunger in this external world of uncertainty is greatly based upon our tendency to resist going inward for answers. The LOA Today podcast is a benevolent, inquisitive space to tune into and by extension, fill our spiritual bellies. Listeners are encouraged to question, gain perspectives not considered before and explore their inner terrain, sans expectation or fear.

I will close this blog piece with a hearty thank you to Walt Thiessen and Cindie Chavez for both having me as a guest on their show and for sharing their authentic selves with the world. Here’s a link to the show last Wednesday, July 15th:

Know Your Hunger

When we tune into what our bodies need, we are more likely to ensure that those needs are met.

The Friendship Diet launched on July 7th, and with it, all of the emotions that come with giving birth to something you worked so hard to see manifest: excitement and elation, yes—but also anxiety and uncertainty. 

Launching a book is so much like giving birth: there is so much anticipation but also so much out of one’s control. And while surrendering in both cases sounds great in theory, the reality (at least in my case–regarding both experiences) makes the mere idea of surrendering laughable at best.

So, I ignored my racing heart and got on Facebook live to announce the launch during a pandemic. I abandoned the idea of eating as it felt much more important to spread the word about The Friendship Diet; I focused on marketing and marketing and marketing my book, pushing aside the growing tap dance of pain throbbing on the top of my head.

(Don’t think the irony of The Friendship Diet launch wasn’t lost on me. My book is all about growing aware of the connection between our edible and emotional nutrition and there I was, ignoring the very beliefs my book espouses!)

The Universe continues to speak to us; it’s up to us to listen. Once my head felt like a stampede of horses was freely galloping across the top of my head, I finally bid my stubbornness adieu and grew still.

I grabbed my journal, closed my eyes and surrendered.

A question emerged beneath the darkness of my eyelids: 

“What do you need?”

I surrendered deeper.

“What do you need?”

My eyes opened and I wrote an answer in my journal, the pen forming words as if on its own.

“Exercise. More water.”

I closed my journal and went to bed.

For the first time in cyber-eons, I woke up and didn’t look at my phone or check my emails. Instead, I drank several glasses of water. I had a light breakfast. I drank more water. I exercised.

No surprise, my body thanked me with a headache-free morning.

Since this morning, I have needed (as most of do) to return to the double-edged sword of the smartphone. Each time the invisible tap dancers start to emerge on the top of my head, I grab another glass of water and do some stretches. Small actions but they make such a world of difference, keeping the galloping equines in their figurative stable.

Our bodies are always speaking to us, letting us know what they need. When we hit the pause button, we are in a better place to receive our inner knowing.