By Susan Tretakis – Coral Springs, Florida – If writing about healthy food and good nutrition in November wasn’t difficult enough, writing about taking some time for care for just yourself in the month of December walks a scary line between sanity and insanity.
December heralds a month where everyone I know is running in too many directions at once. We are busy making lists, checking them twice, thinking and overthinking the things we need to be doing, ought to be doing, and if you’re like me, waking at 2AM to remember what we forgot to do.
When did the “happiest time of the year” become so fraught with anxiety and stress? When did we begin saying to ourselves, “if I can just get through this week” instead of welcoming each day with its own sense of festivity?
How does one “thrive”, and not just “live” in these days of unsettling news, increased expenses and shortened days? For the best of jugglers, December is a tough time to keep all of the balls in the air. It’s a tough time to be resilient, let alone to have the power to thrive.
Resilience has been defined as the ability to bounce back from a tough situation. It’s a simple definition, but few would argue that what defines a “tough situation” varies; it can range from a fender bender in a parking lot, an unexpected bill, a disturbing medical diagnosis, to the sudden and inexplicable loss of a loved one. All are “tough” situations but call for different solutions.
I always knew the dictionary definition of resilience. When I was younger and experiencing the usual teenage disappointments and stormed through the house wearing my moody, “why me?” attitude, my mother used to say to me, “fall down seven times, get up eight.” It wasn’t until 60 years later that I discovered this is actually a Japanese proverb – and what my mother was telling me that if I truly wanted something, giving up was not an option.
MY TCM practitioner has shown me over and over again that optimism, the belief that everything is going to turn out okay, is in its own way, a comfort. Through him, I learned the true meaning of Gratitude. For me, Gratitude crosses so many boundaries it’s difficult to put into words. While I always believed I was grateful for my experiences and for what I have, it was not until this year that I realized gratitude had to be expanded for the things I did NOT experience NOR have. This year, I was grateful for a part time job that made it possible to pay off unexpected bills. I am grateful for post-surgical-complications and illnesses I did NOT have to experience.
Sometimes, just acknowledging the simple things in ones’ life is enough to bring some light into what may be a dark mood. Sometimes, it is acknowledging the simple things that give you clarity.
Last week, while speaking with a long-time friend about a change I wished to make in my life, she said to me, “You’re a smart woman. I have every confidence that you can do this.” Personal confidence is the belief that you can handle the difficult and the hard – even if you are in the middle of them. I am grateful that I have such a support system – it is part of my “resiliency package” because I tend to get muddled with overthinking and self-doubts. It’s a comfort – and yet another thing for which I am grateful – that I have people in my life who both encourage and protect me.
This year has taught me a great deal about flexibility. While nearly six months – pre and post-surgery – working on the flexibility of my muscles and my new knees, I also learned the benefit of being flexible in my thinking. My professional training taught me to think in absolutes; now, in my life, I found that being able to see things in varying shades of gray helped me to be able to change my perspective. Issues are no longer cut and dried, either/or, black or white. Just as my body became more flexible, so did my reactions to what life would hand me.
Last year, I posted an article on the value of meditation in ones’ life. Many people wrote me and asked how I could use the words “December” and “meditation” in the same sentence. I dare to take that risk again because his year has brought me further into meditation than ever before. Research shows that practicing as little as 20-40 minutes of guided meditation daily can produce scientific measurable effects on the brain’s physiology. Harvard University recently published a study detailing how MRI imaging can monitor changes in levels of depression, anxiety, stress and worry. Researchers confirmed what TCM practitioners have known for thousands of years: mindful meditation can create both visible and invisible changes.
Meditation is part of the foundation of Traditional Chinese Medicine. If you accept – as I do – that all of the branches of TCM work together to balance my Qi, then it is easy to see how meditation does this both in the moment when you are meditating and over time when you practice regularly. For me, knowing I can put aside whatever the day has brought me when I meditate at night, allows me to sleep better. In the morning, I use a guided meditation to begin my day on a positive note. I began to think of my practice as a self-hug; all may not have gone well, some things could be better, I could have done some things differently but in spite of all of this “human-ess”, I was here for me.
It was simply a relief to deliberately set aside everything and just focus on the here and now. There are thousands of different meditation practices available on Youtube and various websites. There is no right or wrong way to meditate – only the way that works for you. I know that finding what worked for me took some experimentation, but I am glad I took the time do so. Meditation, either guided or self-designed, is such a part of my daily routine I can’t imagine not doing it – even in December!
Scientific research on meditation has expanded in this past year, and I am glad to see that the research now ties meditation to stronger mindfulness – to be in the moment at the moment. Regular mediation has helped me increase my ability to focus and ignore distractions. The science documents the brain’s ability to so; I can only speak from my experience: mindfulness helps me be more resilient when under stress.
In one landmark study, researchers at Emory University gave volunteers an eight-week course of mindfulness training, then showed them upsetting photos to see how they responded. Documentation showed significant lowering of activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain that triggers the freeze- fight-or-flight response. Most importantly, you don’t have to be a long-term meditator to reap benefits from meditation.
During my early rehab at home, I was introduced to Tai Chi by my Reiki teacher. For those of you who do not know, Reiki is an alternate form of healing. It is an adaptation of the Japanese culture to the principles of energy transformation and power in the human body. Reiki involves visualization and breath control. It is Reiki, combined with meditation that I credit for most of my emotional rehabilitation, both in the hospital and at home. Studies show that Tai Chi has been found to lower blood pressure and the slow movements involved allow the body to develop a strong sense physical balance. Tai Chi enhances one’s ability to sense the position of the body in space. It is one of the reasons why both Western and Eastern health providers recommend it for their aging patients. Tai Chi helps trains the sense of balance – which is a function of sensory neurons in the inner ear as well as stretch receptors in the muscles and ligaments.
Other than aging – a topic with which I currently hold an uneasy truce – I had to face the very unfortunate fact that my balance and posture had been negatively impacted by years of now unnecessary physical modifications. Tai Chi helped me center myself as I literally, learned the correct way to walk. Tai Chi helped me transition from tentatively taking a step toe first, to understand the necessary alignment of hip, to knee, to ankle, to heel and push off at the toe. Again, just as with meditation, the internet and Youtube are invaluable sources for Tai Chi classes and videos. Many hospital rehabilitation centers offer community classes for nominal fees.
In fact, it was the hospital bulletin board where I am doing my outpatient rehab that brought me to another aspect of TCM: my first Qigong class. Advertised as a class twice a week, the description appealed to my inner acupuncture-groupie: “Qigong can be described as a mind-body-spirit practice that will improve one’s mental and physical health by integrating posture, movement, breathing techniques and self-massage. Qigong opens the flow of energy in meridians used in acupuncture and Chinese medicine.”
I signed up immediately – and with my physical therapist’s blessing – managed to schedule my PT sessions on alternate days. The Qigong teacher explained that the very physical, but very slow and gentle movements help warm the tendons, ligaments and muscles. I noticed some physical changes immediately – the post-operative swelling was lessening in both my knees and ankles. When I told this to the teacher, he explained that Qigong cleanses vital organs and connective tissue while it promotes circulation of body fluids. In literature given out at the class, it was no surprise to read that there are thousands of studies showing how Qigong effectively treats those helping to heal from life challenges; challenges ranging from high blood pressure and chronic illness to emotional frustration and mental stress.
Recently, on a PBS television show, Dr. Mark Hyman spoke about how nearly 95% of all illness is caused or worsened by stress. He made mention to the increased stress levels of everyone during these last months of the year – even touching on the stress of this season being the cause for so much illness in January and February. He encouraged the audience to “actively relax”. One sentence he said stayed with me – so much so I texted it to myself: “To engage the powerful forces of the mind on the body, you must DO something – you can’t just sit there watching television. Try meditation or learning something new. Make time to be a human being, not a human doing.”
Truly, it amazed me at how similar these words were to everything I have heard or read about Traditional Chinese Medicine since I began my journey in 2016. Dr. Hyman was speaking of THRIVING, not simply living.
I finish my Qigong class the end of December, as I do my outpatient physical therapy. While I may sign up for additional classes, I know that I am entering 2020 with fully operational knees and a renewed will to thrive. I owe this renewed will to my acupuncturist and to the many others who have taught me and enhanced my TCM journey, most especially during these past four months.
And that list includes you, the reader of this post, taking time from what I am sure is a busy December!
Wishing each of you a New Year in which you THRIVE in all aspects of your life.
- Dr. Landon Agoado, Care Wellness Center