Freedom – Finding it Within!

When I was a child I grew up in Elmhurst, IL. Think small town at the time, not more than 10,000 when I grew up, so not a city but not as small as Mayberry! I was a Girl Scout and on the 4th of July I walked the town parade, and supper that night was a neighborhood get together with Rice Krispies chicken, potato salad, and fireworks at Glen Ellyn Park, a  park that was close by. I felt free at the time, and each year the feelings from those 4th celebrations fill my heart with peace and joy and my face is wreathed with smiles.

fireworks
Today, as I think about the 4th of July on Monday, I am thinking about it and considering – how do I hold myself back from freedom, peace, and joy in my daily life? Why is it that we so often experience joy at celebrations, but not so often throughout our day? And how can I release myself for more freedom?
First, as I think about it, I realize that we get bogged down in life by responsibilities. On a holiday we are better able to release ourselves from those and let ourselves be more present to the joys. We may get busy prepping, but then when we relax and sit back and watch the fireworks, sit by the pool with friends or family, or bite into the hotdog or watermelon. All of these activities touch our senses and create memories. Given this, is there a way to bring this into our day-to-day life? Well, what about taking the time to slow down and enjoy a piece of watermelon? Savor a moment of a beautiful moon on your walk in the evening? Or, flip through some photos of family from your youth rather than playing a game of Candy Crush? Perhaps those moments would bring a sensory memory of a time when it was less hectic, and we can use the sensory memory to slow down our heart beat, release the tension in our shoulders, or let a smile replace the furrowed brow tightening our faces. Taking time to relax, despite the responsibilities, is a potential first step.

pool
Second, I realize that on a daily basis I am running from meeting to meeting, email to text, or phone call to answering a physical call from someone. The pace is slower generally on the 4th of July, thus allowing all of us to relax. Today we know that stress is a physiological and neurological response – as well as an emotional response. If we are consistently stressed, our body begins treating all stress as fight/flight/freeze and we change the way our adrenals function – sometimes burning them out. The amygdala begins to discharge fear reactions in our neurochemistry and we trigger an adrenal response we don’t actually need. So if we want to prevent that, and enjoy life more despite it being a work day, we have to put some things in place. Some ideas are to watch your scheduling – try to keep your workday within a reasonable number of hours (see the January-March newsletter at http://www.thewholenessinstitute.com/newsletters.html for more on this); reduce your perfectionism – it can be ok to live with places that are in the “good enough” category; notice and love what you have. All of these can actually slow our pace and brains down – in a good way – and allow us to experience less stress.
Third, plan fun time! That’s really a big one on the 4th of July. We plan to barbeque, or go to the lake, or hit the pool with friends. And we enjoy our time together. When is the last time you planned an enjoyable time with your spouse or a friend in the middle of the week? Maybe that would help to break your week up and put some enjoyment into it rather than “waiting for the weekend” to come, or a holiday to come. Answer the call from the pool during these summer evenings!
Fourth and last, take some time to really enjoy the people and animals around you. Breathing in love, touch, and companionship can do much to relax us and help us stay in touch with the joy and love around us. For women, we actually increase the hormone oxytocin, a hormone that helps us to relax and release love. We first experience it when being with our mothers, and throughout life when we are sharing our love and feelings with another. Virginia Satir once said, “We need 4 hugs a day for survival. We need 8 hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth.” Wow – not many of us get that many, particularly when we live alone. So we need to improvise – pet or hug your dog; reach out to your friend with a hug; give a warm handshake to an acquaintance – right hand to hand, left hand on top; or get a massage. Skin to skin contact actually is healing so we can heal our stress by not being so afraid of appropriate touch.
So, what are you going to be doing this 4th of July? And perhaps even more important to your mental health and brain, what are you doing on the 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th ….? Let your freedom from stress ring!

Spring – Time to be Revived

Spring!!!  My two favorite seasons are fall and spring – so I was thrilled to realize spring was so close and we would be soon enjoying the final celebration of Easter (for those who are Christian).  There are always a lot of articles written about spring and Easter and how both bring new life and hope after a time of darkness.  For those of us in the valley we did have shorter days, but very little cooler weather and lots of warm days once we hit the 70’s on February 6 and it’s never cooled down again according to AccuWeather.com.  So, we are moving into spring with hope for longer days and closer to average temperatures here!  If I consider this in my approach to my life it would be for days full of more of what I hope and want to do with people I love; and average work/life balance.
Recently I was struck again when I was reading about people interviewing for jobs.  The fact that many in Gen X will ask about how employees are able to manage work/life balance is notable.  According to Workplacetrends.com employers are trying to respond to this newer demand with more flexible hours and settings.  Still, 20% of employees are still reporting that they are working an average of 20 hours a week at home in addition to their regular hours at work.  Technology appears to be driving this as employees are no longer working “regular hours” but are expected to be available by phone and/or email even on weekends and evenings.  I hear this often when I see people.  While it varies, I’ve seen it limit severely a client’s ability to do anything due to excessive demands placed on her to the point she became ill from working 7am to 10pm most days with weekends requiring 4-6 hours of her time answering her boss’s emails.  I’ve also heard of individuals who are not required to work at all on off hours, although very few when in a professional position.  Most of us may cry for work/life balance, but are now working longer hours and finding our serenity and balance compromised.  Gen X and Gen Y both tend to use the flexibility offered through many companies, i.e.:  days to work at home, 4 day work weeks, vacation time, etc. better than others.  So if you’re not doing that, begin there.  Then after using these employment flexibility tools, what to do?
Plan Activities for Yourself:  Seems like an old idea, right?  Well it’s amazing how many times I hear that people are not planning an activity that they enjoy very often, if at all.  If you have a family, be sure as a family that both a fun activity is planned that you all enjoy (movie night) as well as couple time (walk and coffee, dinner, go out dancing).  Also create planned time for yourself (take a bath and pamper yourself, take a yoga class alone or with a friend, paint some pottery, take a walk with the dog).  Having those activities on your calendar (yes, enter them on your calendar – don’t just keep them in your head) will help you begin to see there are other parts of your life and you’ll maintain awareness.
Make Time for Spirituality:  Whether it’s a church service or daily journaling or prayer or walking the labyrinth once a week, find what fits for you.  I’m always amazed when I talk with one young woman who is finishing college and taking 15 units including her final project, doing 2 internships which each require a full day’s work, volunteering for a group, maintaining an active social life, completing her job search, and yet she also finds the time to journal and pray each night.  At her age (22) she has developed habits that would do all of us quite well regardless of our age.  Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do”.  So to be balanced, and include a dimension other than work and household chores, we must begin including those activities on a regular basis.
Limit Electronics:  This is the toughest for so many people – myself included.  It is the electronics that have brought the end of the 8 or even 10 hour work day.  And also brought much in the way of ease of reading, access to information, and kept us in closer contact with loved ones.  But much is in how we manage them – or they will not manage our lives, but take them over.  I found it interesting that when I did a quick search for limiting electronics all that popped up were sources related to children.  So, we know we need to or we are looking for ways to limit children at times – a good practice, for sure.  I found an excellent article in which the author wrote her goals for limiting her own time, and I loved it because all of the guidelines were also expanding her life!  Melissa Monahan wrote on Global Business Hub at Boston.com ideas like planning half-hour periods during which she will not even look at electronics, taking time during her travel weekly to read a book and not look at her email and phone, and phone a friend rather than text three times a week, etc. (see http://www.boston.com/business/blogs/global-business-hub/2013/09/screen_time_rul.html – it’s worth the read!)  While you may have work related concerns, it’s important to also take time away – even those of us on 24-hour call for crises take breaks and it’s incredibly important to your health and that of your relationships to do so.
If you do some of the above, you’ll actually find you’re bringing some life balance back.  Winter is a time of hibernating and slowing down.  Spring is a time for new adventures and growth.  As Harriet Ann Jacobs said:  “The beautiful spring came; and when Nature resumes her loveliness, the human soul is apt to revive also.”    So go outside and soak in the sensory experiences of walks, bike rides, working in the garden, or having a picnic at a park.   And go within and with family and broaden your experiences each week.  It’s time to bloom!

Reflecting on summer and life-long relationships

While walking on the beach of the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego I had the opportunity to collect and marvel over many beautiful shells. Each shell was unique in color, shape, texture, scent. One in particular reminded me of a part of Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh: “It (the shell) was handed to me by a friend. One does not often come across such a perfect double-sunrise shell. Both halves of this delicate bivalve were exactly matched. Each side, like the wing of a butterfly, was marked with the same patterns; translucent white, except for three rose rays that fanned out from the golden hinge binding the two together… I wonder how the fragile perfection survived the breakers on the beach. Isn’t the same true of our closest relationships, and in particular those with our partners?

When we are in an intimate relationship, be it a friendship or love relationship, that relationship is subject to the crash of the sea waves, the intensity of a summer sun, the weathering of rough winds. And yet, it is not unusual for us to spend less time, effort, and concern in protecting this relationship than we spend taking care of our homes.

In relationships with close friends and lovers we work together, play together, cry together. The seas, however, can crush upon us. Disagreements, dashed plans, separations, disappointments, differing life paths cause the shells of our friendships to be changed as the water and weather change the shells we collect on the sand. The intensity of summer sun also burns us individually and in relationships over the years. The hours working together strain, the illnesses worry, the changes in each bring fear for the survival of the relationship. And, the winds of life whip us. These are times we choose to be present and close for the other as confidante, gentle helper, encourager.

While summer storms do threaten to break our shells Lindbergh reminds us: “it (change) moves us to another phase of growth which one should not dread, but welcome.” This fall, pick up the shells of your relationships and brush them off. Wash the sand off the delicate patterns engraved over the years. Celebrate their beauty and commit again to keep the shell. As Heller quotes 53 year old Roberto in Little Lessons of Love: “love endures because you want it to, not by accident”. That’s the most important thing to remember.