A Pursuit of Happiness

February is six months that I have been working with a trainer. I had hoped that working out would decrease the pain and increase the ability of my muscles to handle exertion, but it has not done so. I have gained muscle, lost fat, and seen my body reshape itself into a somewhat leaner one. My health and diet seem to be improving.

Because the pain medications I take do not address the underlying cause of my problem and because vitamin deficiencies I have are associated with these medications, I am in a slow, long-term process of testing whether I can reduce and eventually eliminate my pain medications.

Despite all this, I have been feeling blah and apathetic. I have made few attempts at writing in the last few months. I have been wasting a lot of time reading online news that depresses me; I seem to be addicted to certain Internet sites.

I am struggling with my online habits. I need to stop the time wasting and get back to the activities that made me happy last year: writing every or most days. I have been happiest when I have pursued activities that interest me, and I need to get back to that. I want the kind of happiness that is acquired via the pursuit of fulfilling activities. That’s writing. Exercising. Eating well.

And training my brain to be more upbeat and positive. Not working towards goals only keeps me feeling ‘depressed’ where ‘depressed’ is code for ‘bored’ and ‘not doing anything fun or useful to oneself.’ A dear friend posted a link to Shawn Achor, Harvard positive psychology professor and author of several books, including The Happiness Advantage and Before Happiness. First, I watched a 12-minute TED talk called The Happy Secret to Better Work followed by an hour-long talk he gave at Google. The Google talk includes the same content and wording that is included in the longer Google talk. I also bookmarked a few other talks on the subject of positive psychology.

In Shawn’s TED talk, he put up a slide called Creating Lasting Positive Change. Achor suggests that, for a 21 day period, you do the following:

  • Write 3 things for which you are grateful every day. Each day, write about 3 new things (Emmons & McCullough, 2003);
  • Once a day, journal about one good thing that happened to you in the last 24 hours. Our brains get to relive a happy memory twice, enhancing its effect (Slatcher & Pennebaker, 2006);
  • Exercise so that you train your body to know what feeling good feels like (Babyak et al., 2000);
  • Meditate to help your mind dampen down the negative states (Dweck, 2007); and
  • Perform random acts of kindness to share your positivity and goodness with others (Lyubomirsky, 2005). Goodness knows that the world needs it – desperately!

The effect of doing this is that it helps rewire your brain to start looking for the positive. We know how much negative news is out there. In fact, it’s almost like the understanding is that it’s not really news if it isn’t awful. I feel it happening to me when I read my news sites, when I scroll through my Facebook feed. Rants about politics, stories about people performing acts of hatred, mutilation, and murder on one another.

And then what? I’ve just spent hours reading negative material that drains my energy and doesn’t do anything for me because I’m not doing anything. How does something like that enhance me, my relationships, and the rest of the world? The short answer is that it does not. Something must change.

And the only thing that I can really count on to change is myself. I am the one who has to take the next positive steps – to stop reading news for hours, to put my writing first, to defer time wasters to the evening in timed segments so avoid the endless negative news absorption, and to change my outlook.

And begin writing every day again.

I can do this.

You can, too (whether writing or otherwise).

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Deciphering Health

In last Monday’s post, I mentioned the results I received of the latest round of bloodwork in the office of a NYC doctor who specializes in functional medicine. If you want to know whether you’re deficient in vitamins, minerals, and hormones and how to treat them, this is the kind of doc that you want to see.

My bloodwork came back with the following: low thyroid, low morning cortisol (morning sleepiness), low Vitamin D, very low Vitamin C (!!!), low iron, and low magnesium. I got a second prescription for thyroid medication (Armour) that I began this week to supplement a custom T3 slow-release thyroid medication that I began after my first visit in December. I’m taking iron with Vitamin C, magnesium before bedtime, and an herbal supplement for the adrenal glands, which are responsible for cortisol.

This week, I also tried cutting yeast out of my diet because I probably have Candida (symptoms of bloating, sugar cravings, and headaches). I essentially cut out sugar and breads of all kinds, sticking to crispbreads with no yeast, nor vinegars nor spices nor cheese nor anything that might grow bacteria on it. And I have no idea if it’s that or if it’s the Armour, but I have lost between 3-4 lbs. With low thyroid, it can be hard to lose weight. Everyone says that it gets harder to lose weight as you age.

But what if it isn’t your age? What’s if it’s just that you are low on thyroid, and that’s why the weight stays on? Acne and headaches are also indicators of thyroid problems, both of which I have. So, is it yeast or is it thyroid that’s keeping me in constant headache status? I don’t have a minute of a day in which I am not cognizant of some level of headache. I can’t remember the last time I had a headache-free day. I guess I’m just going to have to wait to see if my thyroid levels get back into the optimal range to find out.

I talked with a friend after my last medical visit. She wanted to know if the doctor knew why all this was happening. Would you believe that question didn’t enter my head to ask the doctor? You go into a doctor, you think you’ve asked everything you’ve wanted, and then your friend asks what’s the problem. Brain fog! I have been saying that I’ve had fibromyalgia for years because that’s what the docs I saw decided it was. Apparently, brain fog is also a sign of thyroid issues, as is lack of concentration. One specialist I saw pooh-poohed the idea that I needed bloodwork to test for Lyme or for anything, really. After what I’ve experienced, all I can say is:

Don’t listen to them!

If you don’t feel well and you’re not getting better, you need a doc and a panel of bloodwork to find out.

After moving to NY, the doc I chose did a whole lot of bloodwork. But since she’s a primary care and not a functional medicine doc, she did not get me on supplements. A year goes by when I tell her that I want someone to treat the whole me because I reject her idea of going to a psychiatrist just to manage the adjustment of Cymbalta.

I started taking Cymbalta because it was reported to help patients with fibromyalgia sleep better at night, one of the signature problems in fibromyalgia. I wanted off the Cymbalta because of the expense and because it’s not helping the problem itself. I am tired of spending $200 a month on pain and sleep medications. If I have to spend that much, I might as well spend it on supplements that are addressing deficiencies.

My primary care referred me, and so this is how I end up with this functional medicine doc who does blood work and puts me on appropriate meds and supplements. Then my friend asks me what is causing all this. So now I wait, but this is fine with me. I started a file wherein I am keeping track of the questions I have for this doc at my next visit in April. Two weeks before going, I’ll get another round of bloodwork to see if the meds and supplementation are having any affect on my deficiencies. In the meantime, I decide to start reading.

Trying to educate yourself on health issues by reading online is likely to leave you confused and with a headache. From what I gather, gut issues (Candida, for example) can cause an inability to absorb nutrients. Lack of nutrients affects your body’s ability to create hormones (ie. thyroid). Stress, lack of sleep, etc. can disrupt the HPA (hypothalamus, pituitary, adrenals) axis, which leads to a disruption in the hormones that these organs produce which, in turn, causes a disruption in the ability to absorb nutrients.

I have been exercising regularly, I meditate daily, and I have relatively low levels of stress (although driving on the roads can send it soaring occasionally). I definitely need help with the sleep thing, still, but I am going to give supplements the time to do their thing. Even though the gut – vitamins absorption – hormones – sleep cycle seems like an unending loop, fermented foods can help restore good bacteria in the gut. Things like birth control pills, long-term antibiotic use, and lack of fermented foods in the diet can contribute to poor gut. From what I have read, a restored gut can also mean reducing or lose food allergies because it’s now back to being strong enough to handle what you eat. It’s been suggested that certain food allergies, like to gluten and dairy, might actually be an issue with the microflora in your gut.

Fermented foods are things like sauerkraut, kefir, kombucha, and kimchi. I bought milk kefir this week, but I want to get the kefir grains so I can make it on my own and reduce my expenses. You can also make kefir with water or coconut milk. I want to try my hand at making sauerkraut, although I will have to wait much longer for that to cure. I have friends who have made kombucha, and I’m going to try that, too. I want to become more confident in the kitchen, broaden my diet, and throw in some good bacteria. Sounds yummy, doesn’t it?

I hope to the highest of high heavens that I can be restored to something approximating good health. I am coming to the conclusion that, although rour regular primary care doctor may be good to visit when you are sick with a bacterial infection, you need to go somewhere else, if you care about achieving optimal health.

7 Steps to Awaken Your Lazy Mind

Your mind is lazy. Very. Lazy.

When things are predictable or set, your mind doesn’t have to expend as much energy in figuring out what to do. Mental habits allow your mind to take a break, like a night guard snoozing in a chair instead of being alert and scanning the cameras for intruders. After a while, you stop noticing all the pieces that go into your mental habit, and you are left reacting to events in a repetitive way.

If that works for you most of the time without significant distress, a mental habit can save you time and effort that you can expend elsewhere. If the opposite is true, then it might be time to investigate how your thought process was constructed so that you can break it down again.

I have been stuck thousands of times. The method below has worked for me, and I hope it will help you, too.

Step 1: Identify the thought

Pick one thought process or reaction that you want to change. If there are many thoughts jumbled together, do your best to identify the first one. If you’re not sure whether one thought precedes another, that’s OK. You might not be conscious of it right now, but it will show up as you dig deeper.

STEP 2: Relax and let go

Mental habits can be challenging to break when they stir emotions within us that we find overwhelming. Trying to push your mind to find out what is really going on can make matters worse and add to your stress. Don’t go there. Instead, we relax and let go so that we can put ourselves into an observing role instead of participating in the mental drama.

Make some time where you can be alone and listen to yourself. Some call it your intuition, gut, or your feelings. I find that they tend to “live” in my stomach. If I want to know how I’m feeling, I might also listen to feelings that in heart, throat, or head.

To get centered, sit comfortably, close your eyes, and take a few deep breaths. If you need more time to relax, try to focus on your breath as it goes in and out, or in the rise and fall of your chest as you breathe. When I have great difficulty in getting a break from my obsessed mind, I find using one of two mantras help for me.

The first mantra I use is  Live in the body, not in the mind. As I slowly repeat this mantra, I focus on relaxing my belly and then any other place where I seem to be holding myself in. Don’t zip around your body. To be calm is to relax is to be slow and deliberate. I find that this mantra helps turn the freight train of thoughts in my brain and feel calmer.

The second mantra I use is Good thoughts, bad thoughts. They all fall down into the sea of thoughts. I can’t take credit for this mantra, however. I learned it from Maddy Klyne, one of the teachers at the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center during one of their weekly Tuesday night beginners’ drop-in class. With this mantra, I try to let any other thoughts that pop up pass away, or I tell myself Thinking, thinking and then letting go of the thought.

By relaxing our inner mental chaos, we are more likely to be relaxed in our body and to see the thoughts and feelings that arise within.

step 3: observe Your Thought process

When you are ready, think of the habit or situation that you want to address. For me, it’s easiest to start thinking about the feeling that troubles me the most. I try to let my mind float with thoughts over what I felt and what happened, interchangeably. If you get stuck, you can ask yourself questions that may elicit information from your brain that may otherwise be hidden from you. Work your way backwards by asking yourself What caused this feeling? Work your way forward by asking And then what happened?  Hopefully, you will not only see what you’ve been thinking and feeling, but you’ll discover new information that was not in the forefront of your consciousness like some of the other details that you mind became obsessed with.

STEP 4: Write it all down

Open your eyes. Get out your favorite writing implement and paper, and write.

The act of writing slows your thought processes down because you have to deliberately write each word down. As a result, your mind sees the progression of your thoughts more clearly. Using computer software is not as useful because our minds and our fingers are quick, maybe too quick to really notice what’s going on in our minds.

Take your time. Write it in whatever way suits you. Make a list. Use index cards. You can write in a linear way with arrows between steps and feelings. If you do this, remember to leave a lot of space between steps so that you can add things in as you become aware of them. You might be surprised at how effective just this one method is.

step 5: Let it stew

You’ve chosen your thought. You relaxed and let go. You wrote it all down.

Next our minds need time to absorb new information. In some cases, seeing the thought pattern in its entirety is enough to help you understand why you do the things you’ve done, why you have felt the way you did, and to break the pattern.

Most likely, your mind needs time to absorb and integrate the new information.

Step 6: Make A new choice

When the old thought or situation comes up again (and come up again it will), you will recognize it when it occurs. Then, you can choose what you want to do in the moment. It will be all up to you in a way that did not exist before you took the time to investigate your mental habit.

Now that you’ve been able to break your mental habit, your lazy mind becomes your active mind. New actions mean a new course for your life ahead. Even if nothing changes outwardly, inwardly you will be born again.

step 7: Remember to be happy

You cannot have two thoughts or feelings at the same time. Sometimes it may feel like it. What really happens is that we cycle so quickly through a number of thoughts and feelings that it seems like they are occupying the same mental, physical, emotional, and psychological space.

When you are stricken with the same old negative emotion or thought, choose to focus instead on what it feels like to be happy. Happiness comes from within. So often we let ourselves feel that what the other did is what caused the feelings that arise in us. But that’s misleading. No one lives inside us but us. No one can feel what we feel but us. No one can make us feel but us.

Therefore, we can, at least briefly, turn our attention to something more positive. Stop and smell a rose. Remember how your first kiss felt. How wearing an outfit made you feel confident and strong.

If focusing on the positive isn’t your thing, then spend time on a hobby, help a child with homework, go volunteering, or exercise. The point is to let your mind be busy with something else, anything else, but the thought that gets you nowhere.

Meditation as Still Life

I have been meditating on and off since May 2010. My physiatrist who treats me for fibromyalgia suggested that I meditate twice a day for 30 minutes, once in the morning after waking and once in the evening before dinner. I had been resisting the idea, and then I thought, Why not? What have  I got to lose?

Unlike my morning meditation in bed, I sit in a rocking chair that used to belong to my mother-in-law Sofie: ornate dark wood with silver-blue satin cushions on the seat and the back. After sitting, I drape a fleece blanket over my lap, turn on my phone’s timer, let my hands lie in my lap, close my eyes, and begin.

Many thoughts fly through my head: what I am going to write about, things I was doing during the day, what I am going to eat for dinner. To go deep into meditation, I bring my attention to my breathe. I feel air tickle the hairs in my hose and the rise and fall of my stomach. A rumble from my intestines shakes through to the surface of my belly. Thoughts come to the front again.

I bring my attention to the sounds I hear. I am breathing slowly. The sound of far away traffic seems to be approaching in growing, pulsating ways. Traffic sounds morph into the high-rotation fan sounds. Suddenly, I am aware of a plane flying overhead, the engines waxing and waning as it moves lower and farther away towards JFK International airport.

GwennyCakes, my tuxedo girl cat, trills as she enters the bedroom. Norman chirps a few times and then climbs onto my fleecy lap to lean against the crook of my left arm and clean his feet, his belly, his legs. I smell the faint odor of wet cat hair. My left arm goes slightly numb as Norman leans back to get good perspective on the next lick again and again. The refrigerator hums from the kitchen, two rooms away.

I think about writing meditation as still life. My brain gets excited about the idea and wants to run with it. I open my eyes for a few moments and then let them drift back down again. I mentally relax my forehead, my shoulders, and my legs. I let my jaw drop gently. I adjust my neck in an attempt to find the sweet spot of no strain and no effort. I sit for 30 minutes until my Chambered alarm goes off. I move to grab my phone on the bureau next to me and turn off my alarm.

 

I am a Kitty Sandwich

Each morning, I wake to an alarm to take my medication. I lay back in bed to meditate because it is more comfortable for my back. The fibromyalgia can make it painful for me to sit in one position for 30 minutes without a lot of back pain. The problem is that I am in danger of falling back asleep.

The warmth of my down comforter, still intense from a long night’s sleep, dreamily welcomes me back inside. Two of my kitties waste no time in sealing me back into position and add to the heat I feel, which spreads nicely through my mid-section. The grey cat is Hunter, and Gwenny is on the other side. On this day, Gwenny decides to give me more room and sleep on Mark’s side of the bed. Normie doesn’t usually join us at all. He’s there, but he’s turned his back to us. Normie is only there because I threw one of his favorite towels on the bed.

This kitty sandwich can be found any day of the week in my bedroom by 8:15am. You can try and order one yourself, but your order will have been placed too late.

Butterfly Wings: My 2008 NaNoWriMo Story Revisited

For those of you who do not know, NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month, which occurs every November. The goal is to write a 50,000 word story in 30 days. No editing, just from the creative part of your brain, without editing or backspacing or anything (Not that I was actually able to not do any of that). It is easier than it sounds.

When you spend time writing a story, you find it hard to forget about it. Even if you try via a life dedicated to procrastination, some things just will not leave your mind. Writing a story is one of those things.

I started off writing about some feelings and ended up writing a romance novel about a Boston librarian who is trying to get her dating life in order after a nasty divorce, but her parents and ex-husband have other plans. Hilarity ensues. I’m not sure how good that premise is, but that’s what I wrote. It started pouring out of my brain, and I just ran with it.

Writing a story makes you want to do something with it instead of simply looking at file sized 317kb dated November 30, 2008 and remembering that you wrote something. You don’t want it to sit there like an animal that has been left on the side of the road to die. You want to rescue it, apply first aid, and get to the doctor’s office right away.

For starters, I printed out my first draft last night. This is what 3/4″ of single-sided, double-spaced, left-justified story typed in Times New Roman 12pt. looks like printed out in all its raw glory:

Image

First, I will reread the story from beginning to end without lifting a critical pen. More than four years is quite a long time to let a story sit in your computer basement. I will remake my acquaintance with Butterfly Wings (the working title), before I start marring her beautiful white dress with my editor’s blue ink.

After I get to know her better, I will go through my draft again and draw an outline so I can get an idea of the flow and understand where gaps and boring prose may be lurking before I turn on the editing side of my brain and have at it.

As I am beginning a technical writing business, editing my story will help give me more structure to actually being the writer I want to be. Even if all I do is self-publish and sell 20 copies of this story to my friends, I will have accomplished something concrete with my words, which is another way of saying I will get an acknowledgement for the words I speak. This is all I have ever wanted.

Once soon after I wrote Butterfly Wings, I tried to follow the ideas at the end of NO PLOT? NO PROBLEM! by Chris Baty, the founder of NaNoWriMo. Except for school work, I have never been able to look back at what I have written in stories or poems and analyze them without considerable anxiety. When I sat down to do the steps in Baty’s book, I only went so far and then I had to abandon my editing. The fear overwhelmed me, and I ran away, per usual.

As I have said before, 2014 is about embracing what I have learned through meditation and therapy: breathing when fear arises, waiting until it passes, and then moving forward anyway. The old amygdala is trying to save me from pain, but it also has been saving me from joy. Time to learn to deal with one so I can experience the other, too. A life driven by fear-avoidance is a poor one. I know that only far too well.