Running on Empty

September 24, 2012

Serenity Stewart sang in her minivan. Occasionally, she’d step in front of a choir and do the same. But for years she hid her secret gift of song, in which she had been classically trained, just to get by.

With four children to raise on her own, she kept her creative self locked away while she did what she needed to do. Working as an office administrator for a busy health care practice, Serenity ran a tight ship, always looking after others.

But that creative self needed to live. It took Serenity’s nearly dying to breathe life back into it.

In July 2005 she suffered a brain aneurysm that left her bleeding out of her nose and even her eyes. As she lay on the cold ER table, her last view was of the gorgeous doctor with tan, tight arms scrubbing up for surgery.

“God, this can’t be my last vision,” she spoke to the sky. “Look at how beautiful this doctor is. I’ve got some unfinished business to do!” It was this sense of humor that got her through the next months of recovery. For the first time in her life, she started to strip away the layers of “mainstream” as she calls it to really live. In an act of self-discovery, she began to realize that an empty vase has the most potential.

“Every possibility starts with courage,” she told me over the phone. She took a year off and sailed around the world. She discovered her passion for deep sea fishing and even caught a marlin off the coast of San Diego. She literally emptied herself out to start anew.

Serenity now sings jazz reminiscent of the 1940s. Hers is sultry music that speaks of a long-lost era of community and togetherness. At the end of September she will start her P.S. I Love You tour, which will land her in Paris next March (yes, I’ll be going!).

Music helps her and her audience tune into the healing energy that only music can bring. It is a meditation, and a dedication, to life.

Listen to one of her songs today. You will be glad you did!

Social connection is the healing bond that keeps us centered. When we disengage from the world, withdraw from our loved ones or wander down the path of isolation, we aren’t able to cope as well.

According to the new book, Manage Your Stress: Overcoming Stress in the Modern World, love heals. We all know this, but what is surprising is that a lack of social connection is more toxic than smoking fifteen cigarettes a day, obesity or a lack of exercise. That’s pretty significant when you think about it. You could be the physically fittest person on the planet, but without someone to love, and be loved by, you’re in bad shape after all.

A dear friend of mine entered the hospital yesterday for a fairly routine operation, but before he did, he reached out to me to tell me how scared he was. He needed reassurance and I was so glad to give it to him. It helped him manage his stress better and I felt good for being there.

That’s what it’s all about. Being there for each other to manage the ups and downs of life.

So if you are feeling stressed, reach out to someone you love today. It’s the best win-win situation you could create for yourself. And you’ll live longer, and better, for it too.

Get Your Plate in Shape

March 1, 2012

Did you know that March is National Nutrition Month? The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association) is encouraging everyone to include healthy foods from all food groups through this year’s theme: “Get Your Plate in Shape.”

“Vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean proteins and low-fat dairy products contain the nutrients we need to maintain healthy lifestyles,” says registered dietitian and Academy Spokesperson Andrea Giancoli. “Make sure your eating plan includes foods from all the food groups and in appropriate portions. USDA’s MyPlate is a great tool to guide and help us be mindful of the foods that make up our balanced eating plan.”

Giancoli offers the following recommendations to “Get Your Plate in Shape”:

Make half your plate fruits and vegetables.

  • Eat a variety of vegetables, especially dark-green, red and orange varieties, as well as beans and peas.
  • When buying canned vegetables, choose “reduced sodium” or “no salt added” whenever possible. Rinsing whole varieties like beans, corn and peas can also reduce sodium levels.
  • Dried and frozen fruits and those canned in water or their own juice are good options when fresh varieties are not available.
  • Make sure every meal and snack has at least one fruit or vegetable or both.

Make at least half your grains whole.

  • Choose brown rice, barley and oats and other whole grains for your sides and ingredients.
  • Switch to 100-percent whole-grain breads, cereals and crackers.
  • Check the ingredients list on food packages to find foods that are made with whole grains.

Switch to fat-free or low-fat milk.

  • Fat-free and low-fat milk have the same amount of calcium and other essential nutrients as whole milk, but less fat and fewer calories.
  • If you are lactose intolerant, try lactose-free milk or a calcium-fortified soy beverage.

Vary your protein choices.

  • Eat a variety of foods each week from the protein food group like seafood, nuts and beans, as well as lean meat, poultry and eggs.
  • Eat more plant-based proteins such as nuts, beans, whole grains and whole soy foods like tofu and edamame.
  • At least twice a week, make fish and seafood the protein on your plate.
  • Keep meat and poultry portions lean and limit to three ounces per meal.

Cut back on sodium and empty calories from solid fats and added sugars.

  • Drink water instead of sugary drinks like regular sodas, fruit-flavored drinks and sweetened teas and coffees. Choose 100-percent fruit juice.
  • Compare sodium in foods and choose those with the least amount listed on the Nutrition Facts Panel.
  • Season foods with spices or herbs instead of salt.
  • Select lean cuts of meat or poultry and fat-free or low-fat dairy products.
  • Use heart-healthy oils like olive, canola and sunflower oil in place of butter or shortening when cooking.

Giancoli offers a slow food recommendation by suggesting we cook more often at home, where you are in control of what is in your food. “And don’t forget that exercise and healthful eating are crucial to maintaining a healthy lifestyle,” Giancoli says. “Choose activities you enjoy like going for a walk with your family, joining a sports team, dancing or playing with your children. If you don’t have a full 30 minutes, carve out 10 minutes three times a day. Every bit adds up and health benefits increase the more active you are.”

As part of National Nutrition Month, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ National Nutrition Month website includes helpful tips, recipes, fun games, promotional tools and nutrition education resources, all designed to spread the message of good nutrition around the “Get Your Plate in Shape” theme.

Why We’re So Fat

January 30, 2012

Fat. Now there’s an ugly word. The truth is one in three Americans is considered obese by the Centers for Disease Control. 17% of all U.S. children are too. It’s an astounding number. How has it come to this?

According to FastCompany, our brains aren’t prepared to handle the all-you-can-eat variety of food intake. Based on the primordial need to stuff our faces while we can, we often do. Our brains, apparently, are designed to prepare for rough winters and starvation. So we gorge ourselves, thinking it’s normal.

It’s not. We just don’t realize when to stop because our brains say it’s somehow okay.

Portion control is a term I learned while working on a campaign for Yum Yum Dishes, a fabulous company that creates ceramic dishes to provide acceptable food portions for weight control. We are not only what we eat; but how we eat it too.

So if you’re tempted to belly up to the next buffet and scarf a bit more than you should, think again. Eat a little less than you normally do and see how it feels. Eat slowly. Enjoy your food. If you do, you might notice that less is actually more. Let’s bring down that national statistic with a little more mindfulness.

Courtesy of FastCoExist.com

Flu season is upon us. As my eyes swell shut and my throat feels like daggers, I am reminded that prevention is the best medicine (along with laughter, but that’s another story). If you want to avoid the flu this season, check out what WomansDay has to say in their October issue. They offer up really practical advice about how to avoid germs in public places, including bathroom stalls (always opt for the stalls on either end of the row. They are used less – statistically speaking). Remember to wipe down those frequently used items like your phone and your remote control. Believe it or not, they house bacteria, just like your kitchen sponge. Believe me. Once you read the article on how to avoid germs, you will never use the same sponge for wiping counters as for cleaning dishes!

Contagion is not just a movie

September 12, 2011

The movie Contagion is all the rage right now (thanks, Gwyneth!). But there is another kind of contagion we need to be thinking about as we enter the flu season.

Family Values @ Work, a national network of state coalitions fighting for paid sick days and paid family leave, created a great seven-minute video that highlights just a few examples of the 44 million Americans who have gone to work sick because they couldn’t afford to stay home.

Some shocking stats as cited on Family Values @ Work’s Web site:

  • During the H1N1 outbreak, 7 million Americans caught the flu from their co-workers, due in large part because of the lack of paid sick days.
  • More than 44 million workers do not have paid sick days while only 19 percent of low-wage workers have access to any paid sick days at all.
  • Workers earning low-wages are the least likely to have paid sick days.
  • Many workers with a significant interaction with the public do not have paid sick days. This includes three in four food service workers, three in five personal health care workers and three in four child care workers.
  • 1 in 6 workers have been fired or threatened with being fired for taking time off work to care for a personal or family illness.

Let’s help turn the US workplace into a human place to be. In sickness and in health.

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Intuition, the sweet voice of our internal navigation system.Without it we bumble. With it, we grow humble. Intuition is the guide of consciousness. It’s truly a lovely thing.

Jackie Gilbert, Professor of Management in the Middle Tennessee State University College of Business, offers her wisdom about intuition in her guest blog below. Please visit her site, which is chock full of wisdom and thoroughly researched. Besides, she’s a great writer!

Take it away, Jackie!

~~

A healed mind does not plan. It carries out the plans which it receives through listening to Wisdom that is not its own (A Course in Miracles).

How often have you felt frustrated as a result of either a failure to plan, or an attempt to plan too much at one time? Our sense of timing, intuition, and content of our very plans are all impacted by our state of mind. I love the following quote from A Course in Miracles:“The mind engaged in planning for itself is occupied in setting up control of future happenings. It does not think that it will be provided for unless it makes its own provisions…The mind that plans is thus refusing to allow for change. What is has learned before becomes the basis for its future goals. Its past experience directs its choice of what will happen. And it does not see that here and now is everything it needs to guarantee a future quite unlike the past without a continuity of any old ideas and sick beliefs. Anticipation plays no part at all, for present confidence directs the way” (p. 210).      

Intuition and the resulting sense of what to do can be channeled through our deliberate focus. In his study of lucky people, Wiseman (2003) found that they were more relaxed (less anxious) than their non-lucky counterparts. His findings suggest that creating our own future is more a state of mind than of circumstance. At every juncture we have the opportunity to choose our thought, rather than to be controlled by our cognitive wanderings. Buddhists refer to this quality as “mindfulness,” or full attention on a task, absent the background fast forwarding to something else.

The Dalai Lama describes mindfulness as the recognition that a negative thought has taken root, an “early warning system of sorts,” and the subsequent desire to change course. The byproduct of relaxation is then the ability to harness our thoughts in a way that is beneficial for our purpose, which is (in large part) to nullify negative voices, and to find our inner guidance system, or intuition.

Intuition can also be nurtured through freehand writing in response to pressing questions: e.g.: What should I do next? (Canfield, 2005). The immediate dictation, followed by subsequent directed activity, will facilitate an increasing number of instinctive responses. Journaling permits repressed feelings to surface so that we can take appropriate action, and it promotes catharsis through written self-expression. Hohlbaum (2009) explains journaling as an “unloading” technique, particularly for chronic worriers. When we list every single thing we are worried about, we realize that many of our concerns are inconsequential.

Relaxation broadens our perceptual lens. Achieving inner peace is the precursor to a self-induced state of “flow” in which we can work at peak capacity with minimum effort. Flow has been defined as “…the state of consciousness in which you find joy in the simple execution of a task, often losing yourself completely in it” (Hohlbaum, 2009, p. 21). Similarly, Maltz (1960, p. 264) describes this space as “being in the zone,” and “as entering a time and place and emotional state where [individuals] are totally relaxed, totally confident of the outcome.” Presence, “being in the moment,” and the “holy instant” are when:

  • All senses are firing on five cylinders
  • The world is in high resolution
  • The little things don’t bother you
  • You experience full engagement
  • You feel enthusiasm and excitement for whatever you are doing
  • You react without worry[1]
  • You are single-minded in your determination to concentrate on the task at hand
  • You are in the moment absent the baggage of things past

Remove mental obstacles so you know what’s truly important, and can refocus on your priorities.

When the mind emanates peace employees’ work proceeds effortlessly of its own accord, and they experience the negotissimum otium, or complete leisure that is intense activity (Russell, 1991).

Carr-Ruffino (2001), in her book Creative intelligence model: Building innovative skills provides a table of emotions. The more positive emotions are associated with serendipitous occurrences, with insight, and with a “can do” attitude. Conversely, negative emotions lead to learned helplessness, to despair, and to a lack of creativity.

 Map of Emotions

Expansive emotions engender a non-combative way of expressing feedback which creates feed forward, or dialogue between two parties where communication is a tool of empowerment. Similarly, Robbins (1980) mentions that “enabling states,” or conditions in which we experience peak resourcefulness, consist of confidence, inner strength, joy, and ecstasy. Positive states are created by the mental images that we conjure forth in our minds.

Our mental schema can in fact be so programmed for success that our subsequent behaviors have no choice but to follow suit. In Towards a New World View, DiCarlo (1996, p. 149) explains the effect of love on the human spirit: “When a person allows love into their field, the field becomes very soft, very flowing, resilient. The whole field blows up like a sort of balloon. It becomes very energized and energy flows out of the field in a very healthy way.” Canfield, Hansen, and Hewitt (2000) describe the most resourceful state as “conscious and awake,” or a state of self-reliance, consisting of high self-esteem and inner validation. We can conjure forth positive emotional states by our deliberate actions. To be more positive, today engage in the following:

  1. Focus on what’s working in your life. What things are going well at this particular instant, and what actions can you take to create more of the same? Success begets more success, and a desire to work harder to produce results of the same caliber. Keep feeding your productivity engine with positive thoughts.
  2. Give gratitude. Being thankful for the many gifts that you have removes the focus from what you may think is lacking. According to Sarah Ban Breathnach (author of Simple Abundance) “all you have is all you need.” In this regard, service to someone less fortunate produces a contrast effect that forces you to focus on your blessings. See also The Minimalist’s Guide to Inner Peace
  3. Realize that our thoughts are of our own choosing, and consciously work to eliminate the unwanted. When you sense your mind wandering in a negative direction, choose to refocus. Remember that happiness is in fact a choice.

[1] The first six bullet points are from Morgenstern (2009).

References 

Canfield, J. (2005). The success principles: How to get from where you are to where you want to be. New York: Collins.

Canfield, J., Hansen, M. V., & Hewitt, L. (2000). The power of focus: What the world’s greatest achievers know about the secret of financial freedom and success. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications Inc.

Carr-Ruffino, N. (2010). Leading Innovation (p. 127). Boston, MA: Pearson Learning Solutions.

DiCarlo, R. (1996). Towards a new worldview: Conversations at the leading edge (p. 149). Erie, PA: Epic Publishing.

Hohlbaum, C. L. (2009). The power of slow: 101 ways to save time in our 24/7 world. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Maltz, M. (1960). Psychocybernetics: A new way to get more living out of life. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Morgenstern, J. (2009). Shed your stuff, change your life: A four step guide to getting unstuck. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Robbins, A. (1986). Unlimited power. New York; Fawcett Columbine.

Russell, J. B. (1991). A history of heaven: The singing silence. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

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Terri Corcora has lived well outside her comfort zone for twelve years. Every day she has been called to stretch in ways she had not planned or ever imagined.

Within a month of her wedding, her husband started developing a neurodegenerative illness which over the years has impaired him greatly both physically and mentally. Within a few years, he could do nothing for himself. She has endured tremendous grief at the loss of her husband’s once-brilliant brain, and has undergone tremendous trials in caring for all his needs and every aspect of their lives with little help.

Her faith in God (and His grace) is what she has clung to all these years. But more than that, she has taken her grief and put it into action by becoming an active volunteer with the spousal caregivers organization, “Well Spouse (TM) Association“.

“I get through each day only by the grace of God – the faith I found and have hung onto over these years. I have truly been amazed at how I have grown and been able to build a new life as a caregiver and active volunteer for the Well SpouseTM Association.”

Terri’s endurance is both admirable and impactful. Instead of wallowing in her sense of loss, she has sought support, and lent it as well, to help others.

When we are other-facing, we enrich not only our own lives, but those of others as well. If you know someone in a caregiving situation, help them seek the help they need. Then, everybody wins.

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Like the comedian Jim in the last post, Manhattan Life Coach Julie Melillo moved to the big city with only a suitcase, knowing no one.

Having moved from her home state of Arizona, she had always wanted
to move somewhere else, but was terrified. Her big stretch involved answering the question — how on earth do you just pick up and move? Then one day, she decided to just do it. Though she, like Jim, knew no one in New York City, and had no apartment there, she sold all her worldly possessions, including her car and bought a plane ticket to the Big Apple. The only thing she brought with her was one small carry-on. At the time she only owned one pair of shoes.

Ladies, are you listening? It is possible!

For three weeks, she stayed in hostels for with bunk beds that hosted up to 10 strangers. It was what you could call a humbling experience. Finally, she
found her first apartment in the East Village.

It was very challenging to not know anyone there and walk the streets at night in the rain and have no idea which way was north. But overcoming those challenges — meeting lots of friends, expanding her business, finding her way around, helped her realize she can overcome any challenge she sets my mind to.

“You don’t go into an experience knowing everything,” she admits. “You learn it as you go. That gives you confidence.”

Now she lives on Wall St. with my husband whom she met in Manhattan. She uses what she learned in her ‘daily stretch’ to coach CEOs, financial traders, entrepreneurs and actors to help them cope with the intensity of their challenges and build their foundation of strength.

“I realized that anyone can become anything they’d like to,” Julie concludes. “Regardless of how terrifying or impossible it may initially seem. Anything is
possible.”
And that’s the truth, ya’ll.

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“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” ~ Lewis B. Smedes

Why is forgiveness such a loaded topic? Because many believe that somehow the victim has to be the bigger person, raise himself up to a higher standard than the perpetrator and make amends to reach the Kingdom of Heaven.

Hogwash.

Forgiveness is a process that can sometimes take years. And it is the key to personal liberation.

Betrayal, violence, neglect and abuse are the themes of Helen Whitney’s book Forgiveness: A Time to Love & A Time to Hate, which grew out of her upcoming film on forgiveness, which will be broadcast on April 17 and April 24 on PBS.

Forgiveness is a vastly misunderstood theme that deserves our renewed attention. As the world’s uprisings, both natural and man-made, have recently shown us, there is no better time than now to understand the healing powers of forgiveness.

Forgiveness does not mean you have to reconcile with the perpetrator or condone their behavior. I am certain there are many who find Gaddafi unworthy of their forgiveness, for instance. But, as Dr. Jane Greer, New York-based psychologist and author of How Could You Do This to Me? Learning to Trust After Betrayal, so aptly stated in a phone interview, “Forgiveness is the resolution of your rage.” There is a time for wrath and a time for warmth. It is about coming to terms with what has happened in our lives, acknowledging our anger, releasing it to feel the depths of our despair, only to realize it has its limits, too.

Then, once felt, the gaping, lingering wounds of our years can seal.

We have all experienced some level of betrayal in our lives. We think we cannot bear the searing rod iron-hot pain so we develop coping mechanisms such as self-abuse, angry relationships and continued drama cycles. In many of the personal stories Ms. Whitney conveys, people held onto their pain for years. In the book, she illustrates the story about a fugitive responsible for the death of a policeman in the face of anti-Vietnam protests who didn’t fully accept responsibility for her acts until well after she had handed herself in to the authorities two decades later. It wasn’t until she released her anger toward the U.S. government from the 1960s that she could apologize to the family whom she had caused so much pain.

“Apology is necessary to begin the journey of forgiveness within a relationship,” claims Dr. Greer. But what happens if you do not receive that apology? In many cases, the victims in Ms. Whitney’s book did not. She interviewed people from Rwanda and Nazi Germany who experienced so much sorrow. Millions of people died at the hand of a few. It is only now that people can speak of the abomination they experienced.

Without apology relationships cannot thrive. And so how does one go about forgiving someone who does not wish to be forgiven? The relationship ends, if there ever was one. That is where self-healing comes into play.

“[F]orgiveness in no way means you have to reconcile with someone who badly treated you,” states Dr. Frederic Luskin, head of The Forgiveness Project at Stanford University and author of Forgive For Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness. “If you were the recipient of childhood abuse or are in a harsh relationship you can forgive the offender and as part of that choice make the decision to end or limit contact. Forgiveness is primarily for creating your peace of mind. It is to create healing in your life and return you to a state where you can live capable again of love and trust.”

Roxanne Renée, author of Laughing Again: A Survivor’s Guide to Healing Depression, says that “[t]he one who hurt me does not suffer the destructive, internal physiological effects of my sustained anger; I do. When I practice forgiveness, I engage my “rest and digest” (parasympathetic) nervous system, triggering myriad calming and healing physiological changes in my body. When I forgive, I am the one who is set free. “

In fact, forgiveness begins and ends with us.

Our misconception of forgiveness lies in our belief that we someone should ‘forgive and forget’. The truth is we will never forget, although we may suppress memories that bubble to the surface, oftentimes decades later. The pain is expressed either way. Sometimes it comes in the form of an illness. What the mind ignores, the body absorbs.

Forgiveness is not about reconciliation. We may never wish to see the perpetrator again. Dr. Luskin says there is nothing wrong with that.

“Another misconception about forgiveness is that it depends on whether or not the abuser or lying person apologizes, wants you back or changes his/her ways,” says Dr. Luskin. He cautions about making someone else’s behavior the determinant for your healing and happiness. “[Y]ou can forgive you ex spouse for their insulting speech and even for abandoning you and your children… but forgiveness in no way means you do not take the ex to court to make sure your children get their support payments to which they are entitled. Forgiveness and justice are not the same. Forgiveness and reconciliation are not the same. Forgiveness and condoning are not the same.“

At this point in my research, I was quite relieved to learn the distinction between forgiveness and what our religious traditions have us believe is forgiveness. Ms. Whitney’s book features the 2006 Amish schoolhouse shootings in which the parents of the children killed by the local milkman turned gunman promptly forgave him, even though he was dead. They reached out to his widow and found comfort in their God that says you will enter His Kingdom if you forgive. Ms. Whitney raises the question of whether suppressing one’s natural feelings without allowing for a certain level of unforgiveness is healthy.

There’s got to be grieving at your own pace.

But perhaps Ms. Renée is right when she says “As we vividly remember the hurtful encounter again and again (practicing un-forgiveness by holding on to our hurt and anger), we trigger the same fight or flight response that we initially experienced. When we stay angry, we keep our sympathetic nervous system constantly engaged. In this state, we are trapped in a place of unrelenting stress. Because humans were not designed to live this way, the ultimate result over time is quite harmful — systemic inflammation leading to a host of chronic, degenerative conditions.”

Many studies have been conducted about the health benefits of forgiveness, including lowered blood pressure, slower heart rates and decreased cortisol levels. Dr. Philip Carlson, author of Love Written in Stone, pointed me to one such study in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine that claimed study participants who learned to forgive experienced significant increases in blood flow within the areas of the heart where it had been previously impaired due to damaged tissue resulting from a heart attack.

Whether we choose to forgive or not needn’t be a loaded question. It is our choice whether we wish to carry the burden of a heavy heart or to nurture it with forgiveness.

Forgiveness heals. Unforgiveness destroys. When we forgive, it is much like love. We are all entranced by its power and through it, we are set free.

~~

Listen to my podcast with Dr. Frederic Luskin to learn more about what forgiveness can do for you.

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