How to overcome anxiety – the two resources that helped keep me sane

How to overcome anxiety – the two resources that helped keep me sane

 

I just wrote a blog post about my experiences with anxiety.

I am also in the middle of writing a guide to managing stress and anxiety. (Cool, right?!) It’s about time one of us paleo bloggers does it. The need is certainly great enough.

Stress – and, in particular, anxiety – are topic that are near and dear to my heart. I have been besieged by both of these problems throughout the course of my young life. They have at a time or two–literally–almost killed me.  So I care very, very, very deeply about helping any of you who may need it overcome these life changing hardships.

It will probably be another few months before I get around to publishing the book, perhaps in the spring. In the meantime, I want to help as much as I can. So today I’m going to share with you my own favorite resources for managing anxiety.

Neither of these resources cured me of my problem. Nonetheless, they made it manageable while I had it. They taught me that I was the one that was truly in control. They helped me let go of my fear. They taught me how to breathe deeply, to stop panicking, and to have faith that I was going to get better some day. (For a bit on how stressed I was, see my posts on drugs and anxiety and  adrenal recovery.)

That faith was perilously tested at times, but I managed to hang onto it. (Because what else are you going to do?)

These are my favorite resources for anxiety:

 

1) The Anxiety and Phobia Handbook, by Edmund J. Bourne, PhD

(Available on Amazon @ here.)

anxiety workbook

Lifesaving.

 

This book was actually recommended to me, when I was a patient of hers, by the brilliant paleo psychiatrist, Dr Emily Deans. It did for me exactly what she intended: it taught me everything I needed to know about managing anxiety. I learned how panic attacks happen, the fact that anxiety would never kill me nor necessarily be bad for my health, and how I could do certain practices (like deep breathing or holding my nose closed) to help sooth my rapidly beating heart.

The book is full of different techniques for managing anxiety. It asks questinos about your fears, and it helps you figure out where your anxiety is coming from and what to do about it. This book has now been published in several different editions and has been purchased by more than a million people. Psychologists everywhere rely heavily on this book. It is, no questions asked, the definitive practical guide to managing anxiety.

It is important to note when dealing with anxiety that there are many different forms. There are generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety, specific phobias, panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and other anxiety-related issues. Personally, I simultaneously experienced both generalized anxiety disorder and panic attacks. Honestly, even though the panic attacks sound like the worse option of the two, they’re not. Generalized anxiety was relentless. At least the panic attacks only happened occasionally. Suffering from both at the same time was like running a marathon that once every couple of miles dropped bricks on my head.

Anyway. Each type of anxiety is discussed in this book. Doing, as the dust jacket says, “helping you develop a full arsenal of skills for quieting worried thoughts and putting yourself back in control.” Cool.

This new edition has been thoroughly updated with the latest anxiety research and medications. Each worksheet in this book helps you learn the skills like challenging negative self-talk and mistaken beliefs, using imagery and real-life desensitization, making lifestyle, nutrition, and exercise changes, acceptance and commitment therapy, and panic-attack skills you need to manage your anxiety.

This kick ass book is, again, available on Amazon here.

 

2) The Calm Clinic

Accessible @ Calmclinic.com.

calm clinic

The best free E-resource

 

The last resource I recommended, the anxiety workbook, is an excellent physical book. It’s a workbook. It takes you step by step through its pages by empowering you with knowledge, tests, and skills.

The Calm Clinic, on the other hand, is a website. You navigate it all your own, click through links on your own needs, and have a more self-directed experience. It provides bountiful audio and video resources as well.

In my experience, the best way to deal with anxiety is to use both of these resources–the Bourne book was well as the clinic — as they offer such different types of media and assistance.

When I found the Calm Clinic, I was bowled over by surprise. I had no idea that no one would get me so well.  More than any resource that I found, this one made me feel like I was being led by the hand by people who had been there and learned the ropes. It was truly remarkable.

Here is an excerpt from the “about” page, for example, discussing the director Ryan’s journey:

Ryan Rivera’s life was on pause for over 7 years after he suffered from what he liked to call the “complete package.” From panic attacks, severe anxiety, agoraphobia, social anxiety, and some of the most unbearable physical symptoms (headaches, neck pain, tension, diarrhea, and heart palpitations), Ryan Rivera found that his life was an intense day to day struggle.

After attempting and failing with dozens of different types of anxiety treatments, including anxiety medications and therapeutic practices, he reached a tipping point where he decided he was going to commit to making his life better and overcoming these emotional problems.

Ryan soon found that he was able to make huge leaps towards eliminating his anxiety and living a fulfilling life. His successes inspired him to provide resources to help others that are also suffering from severe anxiety, and show them that there really is a light at the end of the tunnel.

Calm Clinic was founded on the idea that knowledge is power, and Ryan continues to dedicate himself towards providing information designed to help others permanently overcome their anxiety issues while bringing greater awareness to what it’s like to live with constant anxiety.

In terms of resources, the website is full of both breadth and depth. It provides information on all the different types of anxiety, how to tell if you have it and how severe it is, and what to do about it.

In fact, one of my favorite resources was an “anxiety test” I took that helped teach me about my own problems, where the first section is dedicated to “finding if your anxiety is in normal ranges.”

stressmeter

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Which you can find here.

And finally – for some examples – here are the links available in the website’s sidebar (I have to remove the links here but you can access them at the site):

Learn about anxiety disorder…

  • Anxiety (GAD)
  • Signs & Symptoms of Anxiety
  • Anxiety Treatment Options
  • What Causes Anxiety?
  • Anxiety Drugs & Medications
  • Different Anxiety Types
  • Panic Disorder
  • Panic Attack Symptoms
  • Panic Causes

Where to start?

  • Anxiety Help Options – Start Here
  • Can’t Take it Anymore? Read This!
  • How to Cope With Anxiety
  • Eliminate Stimulants
  • 5 Destructive Anxiety Habits

Advanced Things to Try

  • Anxiety Relaxation Techniques
  • Anxiety Breathing Techniques
  • Desensitization Techniques
  • How to Manage Your Anxiety
  • Diet Considerations for Anxiety
  • Improve Your Internal Dialogue
  • Visualization Techniques For Anxiety
  • Natural & Herbal Anxiety Remedies

Specific Issues

  • What are Anxiety Attacks?
  • Stress Anxiety
  • What are Panic Attacks?
  • Anxiety & Depression
  • Anxiety & IBS
  • How to Discontinue Anxiety Medication
  • Dealing With Specific Fears & Thoughts
  • Public Speaking Anxiety

Specific Conditions

  • Agoraphobia
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Phobias
  • Social Anxiety or Social Phobia

So go check it out. I promise I’m not making any money on the clinic. None of these authors or editors know I am linking to them. I am simply sharing with you the few starting points I benefited from while dealing with my own anxiety.

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These two resources are mostly psychological in nature. (The Bourne book unfortunately does give standard nutritional advice). There is a whole other aspect to stress and anxiety, however. Your body matters. My own anxiety was caused by a drug I took – spironolactone – which over-spared potassium in my kindeys, caused an electrolyte imbalance that gave me heart palpitations, and upregulated angiotensin II levels, which stimulates the nervous system.

Tthe most common causes of anxiety on a physiological level–broadly speaking–are inflammation, poor gut flora health, and certain nutrient deficiencies. Paleo is excellent for mental health. There are specific ways to eat within a paleo template that might be particularly helpful for some people, but nonetheless eating natural foods is an excellent place to start.

My forthcoming book will talk about physiological components of anxiety. But that’s ages away.

In the meantime take a look at these guides that helped save my sanity. 🙂

 

 

hah.

 

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So, just as a heads up - some links above may be my affiliate links, which means I get a small commission if you click on it and make a purchase. Doing so is no additional cost to you, but helps me tremendously. Your support is SO greatly appreciated, so thank you in advance if you choose to do so. Check out my entire disclosure to know exactly how things work.

Evidence: You need Physical Health in order to be Happy

Evidence: You need Physical Health in order to be Happy

It may not be a double-blind study, but this poll of thousands of Americans conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health has some pretty damning – and alarming – evidence in store for us Americans:

We are stressed out.

Not just a little bit.

But to a frightening degree.

I feel two very strong, antithetical emotions when I look at this data. On one hand, I feel so much sorrow for all of us stuck in vicious stress cycles. I am saddened, and hurt, and I wish desperately I could make it all better. On the other hand, it’s kind of comforting to look at this data, and to know that I am not alone.

50 % of respondents reported a major stressful event in the past year.

More than 25 % reported being significantly stressed within the past month. When we combine these two statistics, we get the very real conclusion that many people are under significant chronic stress.

There are many fascinating graphs over at the NPR website. I recommend you check them out. They’re good for learning. For example, one piece of data I find particularly interesting, and quite funny, even, is this:

By age group, it’s the 20-somethings who are the most stressed out by having too much responsibility.

I guess it takes some time to adjust to, but I’d imagine having a spouse, children, aging parents to take care of, mortgages, and empoloyees… many of the responsibilities that come later on in adulthood, is a fair bit more pressing than what most people have going on in their twenties.

Like making sure to buy groceries over the weekend and showing up for work on Monday.

Not like I can do any hating, since I am a significantly stressed 20-something. I’d like to excuse myself, on the other hand, or at least get a giant tattoo on my forehead about it, because the vast majority of my stress comes from my heart/kidney issues, which give me palpitations, anxiety, and insomnia.

And I know, I know, I can’t judge anyway. Life as an adult is hard, and it hits you like a freight train when you first try to do it.

Regardless, the source of my stress – my health – brings up the most important and relevant factor for the PfW blog. Of all the respondents surveyed, those who suffer from disabilities or health conditions are the most likely to be stressed. As we would expect, those with health conditions score the highest in reporting stress from their own health conditions (80%). But they also report the highest amount of stress from nearly all other sources, too.

                                   Overall Chronic illness Disabled In poor health
Too many responsibilities overall 54% 53% 53% 63%
Problems with finances 53% 58% 64% 69%
Work problems* 53% 60% n/a n/a
Own health problems 38% 51% 65% 80%
Family health problems 37% 46% 50% 58%
Problems with family members 32% 38% 37% 26%
Unhappy with the way you look 28% 38% 33% 46%
Problems with friends 15% 16% 19% n/a
Changes in family situation 10% 11% 11% 10%
Problems with neighbors 7% 5% 7% 4%

(The graphs are prettier at NPR – go look!)

The far left column is “overall.” The far right is “in poor health.” Taking a look at the above graph, then, we see that, overwhemlingly, those in poor health rank far above the average in just about every category of stress.

It’s not just our health conditions themselves that directly stress us out…

but our health conditions that make everything else stressful, too.

Now, you might ask: is there not a problem in the inference I am making between correlation and causation? Am I drawing a cause and effect relationship where there isn’t one? Perhaps it is a coincidence that people in poor health are more stressed by all stressors than other people. Perhaps people who have stressful situations also develop poor health! Perhaps people who don’t have their shit together just don’t have their shit together, in all categories.

Perhaps, I’d say. Perhaps that is possible.

One piece of data that might support the hypothesis that “just not having your shit together” is the fact that people who earn under $20,000/year also report much greater stress than those who earn more. Without much income, it’s much more likely you’ll eat an unhealthy diet, develop health conditions, and struggle to get the medical and nutritional support you need. It’s also much easier to lose your grip on everything without money. Financial stress bears on the ability to do just about everything in society today.

Nonetheless what these stats and questions all invariably demonstrate is that stress and poor health go hand in hand. If you’re stressed, you might get sick. If you’re sick, you’re almost definitely going to get stressed out by it.

And, if you’re sick, there’s a good chance other aspects of your life will become more challenging, too. Sometimes it’s harder to work. Sometimes it’s harder to maintain healthy interpersonal relationships. Sometimes it’s plain old harder to deal, such that even small stressors end up feeling like monumental weights. Poor health very quickly leads to “not having your shit together” syndrome.

And boy, oh boy, do I ever know what that feels like.

The evidence is in for health and happiness, and damning.

Is there a takeaway message? I don’t know.  What I do know is that I have done significant work to help people with health conditions feel better, which can help reduce stress.

My book PCOS Unlocked can help you take charge of a very stressful chronic hormonal condition known as polycystic ovarian syndrome.

Weight Loss Unlocked can help you to healthfully decrease fat if it is necessary for you.

And my bestseller Sexy By Nature can help you put it all together, understand your body and how it functions, how to love it and treat it well.

The best I know that I can personally do with it is have forgiveness for the anxiety I feel, and to move forward working on my health issues with patience, knowing that easier times in many regards are likely ahead.

(Statistically, they’ve just got to be.)

I think.

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So, just as a heads up - some links above may be my affiliate links, which means I get a small commission if you click on it and make a purchase. Doing so is no additional cost to you, but helps me tremendously. Your support is SO greatly appreciated, so thank you in advance if you choose to do so. Check out my entire disclosure to know exactly how things work.

How Probiotics Helped Reduce my Sugar Cravings

How Probiotics Helped Reduce my Sugar Cravings

I recently became a bit obsessed with gut flora research via a long story:

I began getting migraines again this winter after eating a lower-potassium diet to help with my electrolyte problem. Low potassium is associated with migraines. It didn’t help that I was visiting my father, who likes to cook with MSG. To help with the migraines, I took Aspirin, which is an NSAID. It worked, so I began taking Aspirin for my regular headaches, and that helped, too. However: NSAID’s are notoriously bad for your gut flora. My skin began breaking out a little bit. This could have been caused by anything (I thought: weight loss, fiber in my diet, increased progesterone, poor sleep, dirty towels… skin is complicated!), but I thought “maybe it’s the NSAIDs depleting my gut flora.”

I went to Whole Foods post haste and got kombucha on tap.

(My favorite brand available both in stores and online is THIS one)

I’m drinking a couple of jars a week.

My skin looks great – I’m not sure if its from the kombucha.

Something I did most definitely notice, however, is that my cravings for food, and particularly sweet food, have somewhat dramatically decreased. After just my first few gulps, I felt a difference. These days  I walk around during the day, not even thinking about food, and I stop eating meals without needing willpower, and I wonder: is this how ‘normal’ people feel?

So I asked myself if there was a connection. Could my increased freedom from cravings be a result of kombucha’s notorius bifidobacterium?

Turns out, it most certainly can.

——–

How it works: your gut flora

Gut flora–which are the bacteria that live in your gut and that number in the trillions–are responsible for a whole host of functions in the body. They play a role in digestive comfort, in being constipated or having diarrhea, in immune system health, in depression and anxiety, in insulin resistance, in obesity, and in inflammation. Because these critters are so significant for these issues, they are significant for just about every noncommunicable disease you can imagine.

Probiotics.org knows what's what.

Gut flora are incredibly important–perhaps the most important aspect of your body–for fighting off disease.

Why are gut bugs so important? Because your gut is the barrier between you and the outside world. Good gut flora help you process nutrients and protect yourself from toxins. When good gut flora populations decrease (as mine may have with my aspirin use), and/or when bad gut flora infiltrate the gut and outnumber the good guys, health problems ensue.

How it works: gut flora and cravings theory #1

One theory for how gut flora influence your gut – and there seems to be reasonable evidence for this – is that your gut flora condition you to continue to feed their own specific populations. Carrot-loving gut bugs beget carrot-loving gut bugs, for example (if a fair bit oversimplified.)

So gut flora from particular foods may make you continue to crave those particular foods. This is great if you eat a lot of natural, healthy foods. This is less good news if you eat a lot of processed foods. The more processed foods you eat, the more bad bacteria will reproduce. They will hijack your cravings, and you’ll crave even more of the same old bad food.

If you are a processed food / sugar junkie, it may be hard to switch your diet, but being sure to include good, natural, healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, animal products and fermented may help you crave those more and more.  Read my book, Sexy By Nature or Weight Loss Unlocked for my advice on the healthiest diet.

How it works: gut flora and cravings theory #2

The second theory, which is not exclusive but complementary to the first, is that good gut bacteria like bifidobacterium (these are the famous good guys) cause the body to produce satiation hormones.

Glucuagon-like-peptide-1 is one such satiation hormone. It increases in the “colonal mucus” (sexy, right?) of rats fed oligofructose, a laboratory carbohydrate that resembles the carbohydrates found in many fruits and vegetables.  PYY and ghrelin, two other satiation hormones, may also increase in response to oligofructose. Rats that consume oligofructose spontaneously eat less, cease creating fat cells, increase insulin sensitivity, and improved glucose tolerance.

As for humans…we already know that probiotics help with obesity. This happens via biochemical modulation of fat metabolism. Yet it also appears to probably happen via increased satiation and spontaneously reduced food intake.

The more bifidobacteria and other good gut flora you have, the more satiation hormones they will create in response to a meal.

A good probiotic supplement can help with this if you aren’t always able to include raw fermented foods.  This is my favorite supplement.  And here is my favorite book on fermented foods, if you’re interested in giving it a try!

Moral of the story

There are a lot of different physical and psychological components of food cravings.

For one – you need to eat food. I talk way too much to women who want to reduce food cravings but are eating 1200 calories a day. So be sure you eat when you are hungry all of the time, probably at least 1800 calories a day (though this varies widely), before you address any other issues.

Second, emotional issues should be dealt with. Is food your mother? Your addiction? Your stress-relief? Your boredom? Your celebration? Or  do you eat because you spend so much willpower trying not to eat that you end up overeating in the end? Psychological issues with food are also supremely important.

Third, you may consider physiological approaches. Sometimes the issue cannot be resolved psychologically because there’s an underlying problem. Amino acid therapy — boosting serotonin and dopamine levels by consuming precursors 5HTP and tyrosine — can help regulate appetite if your serotonin and dopamine levels are low.

Gut bugs can also help, as we’ve seen. (They can also boost your serotonin levels! Two birds with one stone!)

Consume fermented foods like kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchi, natto, or grass-fed yogurt or kefir. If those are not available to you, consider a probiotic supplement that contains at least bifidobacterium, as well as other varieties.

You can also try a probiotic supplement. I prefer whole foods since they provide they provide a high degree of variability of bacterial species. Nonetheless probiotics have been shown to improve weight loss and support mental health in studies, so if you go this route (like this option or this one) you can also benefit.

You can also support your gut flora population not only by eating the bugs themselves – which is what you do with the fermented foods – but by consuming their preferred foods. Gut flora love to eat fibrous fruits and veggies, particularly those which contain inulin. These are greens, summer squash, onions, garlic, leeks… and jerusalem artichokes are also a particularly good source. This article demonstrates just how effective this strategy is.

Kombucha (linked to my favorite brand on Amazon)  is really helping me. I can’t say if it will help you. Really, I cannot. We all have different bodies and we all have our own unique cures. But I love how much more stable my blood sugar feels and my meals are. I no longer feel so much like I must eat a sweet with every meal. I love my gut bugs very, very much. For this reason, as well as for so many others.

soft.net

soft.net

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So, just as a heads up - some links above may be my affiliate links, which means I get a small commission if you click on it and make a purchase. Doing so is no additional cost to you, but helps me tremendously. Your support is SO greatly appreciated, so thank you in advance if you choose to do so. Check out my entire disclosure to know exactly how things work.

The Little Adrenal Gland that Almost Could: Or, How Stefani Lost and is Regaining her Sanity

The Little Adrenal Gland that Almost Could: Or, How Stefani Lost and is Regaining her Sanity

Last week I published a post in which I went into some detail on my current struggle with my health. I was shocked (though in retrospect I am certain I should not have been) to learn how many women empathize.

Today I want to go into a little bit more detail about what (by my best guess) is wrong with me and why. Hopefully this’ll help us start a conversation about recovering from stress, as well as raise some awareness about how prevalent stress-related health complications are.

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The match at the bottom of the haystack: January 2011

To be clear: my “haystack” is very dry. Very, very dry. It has been for as long as I can remember. I have always been anxious. I have always been a poor sleeper – there is not one time in my life I can look back on and say ‘ah, yes, those were the glory days.’  I have always been a basketcase — if a tightly controlled and happy one — that’s just the fabric out of which me and my life are made. My haystack has always been dry and full of friction, ready to ignite.

January of 2011 was when the match was struck and everything “Stefani’s Health” sprinted to hell in a hurry.

Why?  What happened? For one, I began taking T3 for my hypothyroidism, which upregulated my metabolism and therefore my heart rate. Worse, however, I began taking spironolactone, a usually fairly harmless drug (save for the rare occasion in which it can make you drop dead of hyperkalemia) often proscribed to women with hormonal acne.

I was so desperate to overcome my acne that I took drugs.

Almost immediately, I began having panic attacks.

Almost immediately, my previous insomnia problem which had always meant trouble falling asleep at night became an insomnia nightmare in which I was up until 4, 5, 6, sometimes 7am (and having to wake at 8 for class) anxious, sobbing, terrified, and with my heart racing.

I knew that spironolactone was supposed to reduce my testosterone levels, and I also knew it was a potassium-sparing diurectic. Neither of those things are known to cause anxiety in any statistically rigorous way. But hormones are hormones, and balance is important.  More importantly, being a potassium-sparing diuretic means that other electrolytes – sodium, calcium, and magnesium – the electrolyte you need in order to feel calm – are flushed out of your system.

I quit the thyroid hormone, and that helped. It took me another month or two to work past my terror of going off the acne med (which, by the way, actually made my acne worse and my skin improved when I got off it… so… suck on that, Pfizer). When I did, it got better. I was no longer extremely clammy. Panicked. Palpitating. Wired. Incapable of falling asleep.

Not as extremely, anyway.

It never went away. In fact, in fairly short order, it got a lot worse.

Having been on this drug, I think I lost a significant portion of my already weak magnesium stores, which hurled me into the most painful and terrifying season of my life. I never slept. I didn’t know why. My heart always raced. My brain was out of control. Anxiety flooded every moment of my life, such that even tiny decisions like what color shirt to wear made my palms sweat and my heart race. I sought therapists.  I sought psychiatric help in the form of the brilliant Dr Emily Deans (I never took anxiety meds, however, since I had anxiety about what they would do to me. Alas, the brilliant irony of mental health prescriptions.) I sought anything that might help – even acupuncture (which did). I contemplated giving up on living for the first time.

At the end of August it dawned on me that electrolytes might be an issue. You can actually die from an extreme electrolyte imbalance, so I checked myself into the ER. They ushered me in because my heartbeat was so fast. But they found nothing wrong with me.

And so – since then. It has been a full 24 months since I began taking spironolactone, and 18 months since I stopped. 15 months since I realized electrolytes were a part of my issue. 9 months since I realized that I needed to supplement with magnesium on a daily basis (my favorite one here). 9 months still in which I struggled to sleep, struggled to be calm, and struggled to have the sense of self I had before January 2011. 2 months since the most stressful period of my life.

Of course magnesium is not the only issue.

Adrenal fatigue: Do I believe in it?

No, and yes.

No, I do not  believe in adrenal fatigue in the sense that your body gets too tired of making cortisol to keep doing so. That’s a bit far-fetched to me — cortisol is the hormone responsible for wakefulness, so of course it is a natural compound present throughout every moment of our lives.

What I do believe happens is that our bodies can become cortisol resistant, just as they can be insulin and leptin resistant.

Do I have it?

You bet your bottom dollar that I do. In the wake of those drugs, on top of an already stressful life, plus the stress of poor sleep and anxiety for two years plus the extraordinary culmination of four hours of sleep for two straight months –

Yes. My heart races at the drop of a hat, let alone at any kind of moderate stressor. Fights with my partners, important interviews, hell, even the idea of waking up early in the morning, all prevent me from being able to sleep throughout the entire night and give me anxiety. I used to be able to still fall asleep at some point during the night. Now, if there’s an issue, my body won’t calm down at all, and I might squeeze in 90 minutes somewhere between 8 and 10am.

Even if there’s not an issue, my eyes snap open with my heart thumping loudly in my chest exactly four hours after falling asleep nearly every night.

We’ll see how fun March is for me – a national book release. Hooray.

So what am I doing about it?

The absolute best thing I possibly can.

The reason I wanted to write this post was to share with you, again, the depths of my struggle with my physiological response to certain stressors.

I also wanted to emphasize how important it is to do everything you can for yourself.

Coming out of my period of stress, I knew that I needed a radical change. That lifestyle could not continue. I did not want it to. It was killing me, and I wasn’t having too much fun.

So I saved as much money as I could and I moved into a safe, quiet space away from my normal, hustle-and-bustle life.  I do not make appointments before 2pm unless its Abel James Bascom and he’s dragging me out of bed for a crack-of-dawn podcast (more on which in a week or so). I go to sleep whenever my body allows it. I eat when I am hungry and I stop when I am full. I do not exercise unless I really feel like it (and it took me six weeks of serious rest before I felt like doing sprint workouts again.) I am “sugar detoxing” (using this plan) –  by which I mean simply that I am attempting to reduce my addiction to and craving for sweet foods. I dance as often as I want to because that makes me happier than anything in the world.

I say no to obligations that might impede my healing.

As hard as it is, I know that what I need more than anything is to be slow. To stop trying. To not be perfect. To be calm. To weigh 130 pounds. To only spend time with people who energize and love me and make me feel safe.

This isn’t to say that I am incapable of life.

To the contrary. I am eminently capable. I have a lot of willpower. But willpower is what usually gets us into these messes in the first place. We push and push and push and push until there’s no muscle left to do the pushing anymore.

So we back up, and we repair, and we begin inching forward again.

This is the story of my tipped over physiology. Today I am healing. This morning I woke after seven hours of sleep with my heart beating peacefully, like it did so many years ago I can barely remember, and I looked at the sun streaming through my window with a smile. This morning I felt like I had enough energy to get up and work right away, and to exercise, and to forego naps. This morning I did not have insatiable sugar cravings. I am certain it is a long and winding road ahead. Today is one of the better days. But at least I am walking it, and gently.

Looking for more on the relationship between stress and health? I wrote even more about it in my bestselling book, Sexy By Nature.

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So, just as a heads up - some links above may be my affiliate links, which means I get a small commission if you click on it and make a purchase. Doing so is no additional cost to you, but helps me tremendously. Your support is SO greatly appreciated, so thank you in advance if you choose to do so. Check out my entire disclosure to know exactly how things work.

Why Dying Sucks for Us (But Shouldn’t)

Why Dying Sucks for Us (But Shouldn’t)

 

It’s funny. Sometimes I think I spend most of my time on this blog trying to drum up ways  to legitimize inappropriate topics for it rather than actually writing. Fear of rejection? World of Warcraft? The nature of human community? Why not? I can manufacture a paleo reason to talk about anything.

Today’s topic, I do think, however, has serious paleo resonances. I do a lot of talking about the paleo diet (and did even more in my book, here), and I even talk about the paleo lifestyle, which includes things like play and ample sleep on this blog. And we like to talk about differences between how we live today and how, presumably, many of our ancestors did. How did they think, live, eat, sleep?  Beyond that, even, we get to ask: how did they relate? Love? Act? Is that important for us now?

Sometimes I think what’s most important is not figuring out what ancestors did, but rather different things that we do in different cultures today, and comparing them. This enlightens us to how incredibly conditioned we have all been.

For example, we know well that beauty norms come largely from culture. Whether we like big noses or small noses or men in high heels versus women in high heels is all a matter of perspective. We can dig deeper than that, however.

What about our basic fears, our basic hopes, our basic loves?

Here’s one example I’ll delve into at another point in time: consider the notion that we do not have capitalism because humans are inherently selfish, but rather that we are selfish because we have capitalism, the idea being that we have to become defensive and self-aggrandizing in order to be safe and hold our own. Culture over time can make us fearful and think of ourselves as more selfish than we are, and it sits so deeply in our psyches that it’s nearly impossible to find.

Which in a roundabout way brings me to today’s topic: why are we such a mess about  death in American society?

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I began having panic attacks about dying when I was five years old.  I laid in bed at night, shaking with a racing heart, terrified of the abyss. I imagined winking out of existence and sobbed in abject horror. This was largely, I believe, because I was not raised in a religious or openly spiritual household that talked about that kind of thing.  This notion, however, presumes that there is something terrifying at all that needs to be reconciled with a spiritual viewpoint. Why was I terrified of dying before I even read my first novel?

By the time I was in first grade, I had been exposed to two things.  I was exposed to media in which death is portrayed as the one thing to fear and avoid at all costs, and I was exposed to our culture response to it. In TV and in movies especially we portray death as the ultimate horrible end. People and story plots go to the most incredible length’s to preserve lives — this simplistic and dramatic trope is, in fact, the dominant plot thread in most of Western story-telling. This indicates a more broad abhorrence of and distance from death in our culture as a whole, but in the media, and as a child, I was bombarded with it and all its terrifying might without context.  Worse is the aftermath. We dress in black. We weep. We sob. We storm. We conduct solemn funeral processions that last days.  100 years ago, I might wear a black dress for a whole year if my betrothed happened to past.

I was exposed to a barrage of negative images around death as a child. And I am of course similarly exposed today: the act. The event. The response. All of it terrified me for most of my life. What is this horrible thing, this non-existing thing, this thing that everyone talks about in hushed voices only and that is far away from me, far away from my life, and this horrible, gaping, looming threat? Because the worst part of it all, to me, is that we continue to portray and treat death as the most abhorrent curse without ever sharing our experiences or thoughts or doubts around it.

The roots of the Western fear of death run deep, deep, deep, deep. Fortunately for me (!?), one of my specialties in my work as an (aspiring) philosopher is existential despair and dread and nihilism in general. So I have learned a fair bit about it and have come to grips with so much of it that I feel quite at peace with all of it now. There’s too much to go into in any great detail here, though our estrangement from nature, our (waning?) investment in supernatural deities, and our Christian/Judaic/Islamic heritage play no small role.

This, however, is not how it has to be done.

Consider the funerary practices of the Maori culture in New Zealand:

At one point while living in Taiwan I became close friends with a Maori woman. She expressed to me that she was puzzled over our fear of death. She thought (and I do now, too), that a great deal of it has to do with our cultural practices. For the Maori, when a family member is nearing death, everyone related is called to their home, and they throw a day, or two-day, or week, or however-long-they-choose party for the ailing member. They have festivities and the children gallivant and play out in the fields and everyone does what they can to be present with their precious loved one in the time remaining, full of laughter and lightness. And then they bid her farewell, surrounding her on her deathbed as she dies. If she does not pass, everyone goes home and comes back to Ethel’s Goodbye Partay 2.0 the next time she looks like she might be ready.

Being closer to death, this Maori woman I knew thought that it was less of a big deal, for one. She was familiar with it. She wasn’t raised to fear it, to cloth herself in black, to be private about her feelings, and to stand in awestruck terror in front of corpses. She was, instead, encouraged to be close to death, to be present with it, and to be familiar with its processes. Psychologists know well that a large portion of our fear comes from the unknown and from things about which we perceive we have no control.

Looking at this Maori culture demonstrates that we don’t have to be as afraid of dying as we have been conditioned to be. Many other cultures around the world shed similar light on the topic. Hell, Buddhists don’t think there’s a “self” that exists to die anyway, so what’s the big fuss about?  Of course holding that belief and practicing is easier said than done, but that is the goal of much of the tradition.  Non-attachment is the name of the game.

One more example is something – one of my favorite belief systems – called the Religion of Nature. One of its primary tenants is that we are inherently natural beings, part of a great cycle of good and evil and death and rebirth. It’s all inevitable. It’s all a part of the process. What have we to so intensely fear? Death is as much a part of life as anything else. In fact, one thing you may want to consider is a biological fact popularized (somewhat) and interpreted by famed biologist Ursula Goodenough:

Life used to exist solely in unicellular form.  This form was, more or less, immortal. It did not have to die as it regenerated itself and reproduced. But in order to utilize more cells and grow into larger organisms, life needed to burn more energy. More energy meant more oxygen. More oxygen meant burning more strongly, more brightly. It meant that life became a flame that had, necessarily, to be extinguished. Death, it turns out, is the biological price of life. Without it, no advanced lifeforms would exist. With out death, so the evolutionary story goes, none of us would be alive.

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All of which is to say that there are tons of things in our culture that make death more terrifying than it needs to be. The process of death as we portray it, and the way in which we mourn it, and the incredible, terrifying distance we give it from our everyday lives (not to mention our increased ability to avoid it with medicine…leading to an even greater attachment to immortality) is a bit absurd, and it’s everywhere. It demonstrates an underlying terror in our psyche, but we cannot chip away at that terror unless we start recognizing all of it’s sources.

And the reason I bring this all up, and on a paleo blog, to boot, is three-fold.

1) Anxiety is a huge problem for the modern world.  A large portion of our anxieties, I think, lie in our unresolved feelings regarding both the deaths of those around us as well as our own looming mortality.

2) Looking at the variety of cultures around the world and at the variety of ideas out there like the religion of nature demonstrates just how culturally conditioned we are in our basic fears and hopes and loves and dreams. We do not have to be any particular way. We do not have to feel a certain way. There are biological imperatives, sure. Of course we do not want to die. Of course we want to be loved. But we have choice and agency and the ability to feel any number of different things. The only thing to do with that choice is to act on it.

3) If paleo is about natural stuff, and if my writing on this blog is about being natural women, then we might have the leeway here to consider what true naturalness means.

If you are attached to immortality, if you believe in God or gods or any number of things, or you don’t, whatever, that is awesome. I give giant thumbs up to all metaphysical views.

But we should, individually and together as a community of beings, to be able to, no matter what our belief systems, consider ourselves a part of the natural world, and love ourselves for all of that.  When we wrap ourselves up in fear of death, and when we distance ourselves from it and erect barriers in our lives to avoid confronting it, we distance ourselves from perhaps the most essential part of being human. And of course we cannot ever learn how to love that part of ourselves.

We cannot–or at least I now refuse to–hate or fear or resent our bodies for degenerating.  We cannot live in terror. We cannot fight constantly against a natural process and expect that we will maintain positive mental health.  I refuse to be upset that I live so precariously on the edge of life. I am what I am–no more, and no less.  I am a body.  I am a woman. I am a speck of universe-dust come alive. More importantly, perhaps is the fact that death runs on its own clock. And as it does, I can only breathe. I can only peacefully accept my place in the overturning processes of the cosmos. I accept and embrace my fragility as it is, and do my best to live a life that floats among the chaos.

The universe is rife with uncertainty, though we can still be certain of our power and serenity as natural beings in a natural world. None of us can beat death. But we can dance against and around it, and live courageously into a future that is unknown.

 

 

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Where does your energy go?

Where does your energy go?

 

I had a conversation in early May of this year that sticks with me.  I think of it often, like it’s stuck to the insides of my skull and I could not scrape it off even if I wanted to.

A friend of mine and I sat on a hill of grass overlooking Boston as the sun set.   I wondered aloud to him — “You know that feeling of bliss, of being so in love with the world, and so passionately delighted to be alive?”

“Yeah,” he responded, a bit of wist in his voice.

“Didn’t you used to feel that way all of the time?  I used to feel that way all of the time.   It was my default.  Now — I’m lucky if I can muster that feeling up for a few brief moments every month.  What happened?”

“I’m not sure,” he replied.

Then, at the same time, we both said, “It’s because we’re adults.”

The difference between childhood and adulthood is mostly responsibility, in my opinion.  It’s about having to take care of things.  It’s about having things be at stake in your decision making.  And it’s not not just anything at stake in your decision making, but important things.  Your health, the health of your significant other, parents, and children, your career, and your ability to keep putting food on the table are just a few examples.  Your ability to pay for insurance and to have a roof over your head.   Looked at from this angle, being an adult is about bearing stress.  It’s about juggling all of these things and taking care of so many people.  Stress is worry — it takes your brain’s resources and directs them towards managing your responsibilities.

The thing is, however — that this worry is the precise thing that separates us from the youthful joy of being alive.  

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So it’s not the responsibility that robs us of freedom and joy per se.  But it’s the mental energy that comes along with it.

Think about the times in which you happily engage others, really enjoy yourself, and spread love.  Think about the times in which it is easy to be open, to be loving, and to be joyful.  Are they not the times in which you are the most unburdened and free?  In which you are unafraid, and do not bear the weight of fear and stress?

Alternatively, think about times of your life in which you have had many things to worry about.  Do you not feel curled into your own self?  Do you not feel as though it is more difficult to positively engage the people around you?   Ever have an impending deadline and snarl at every person who approaches your workstation?  God forbid they disrupt your ability to get the damn thing done on time.

To be honest, all of this is okay, I think.  It makes perfect sense.   I see it as a matter of energy.   Each of us only has a given amount of energy.   This energy can be directed anywhere — toward sadness, anger, play, delight, or diligent work.   But it cannot go everywhere.  And it is limited.  And your biological priority is taking care of yourself and your responsibilities first and foremost (or your offspring and family, but that’s just as draining.)

So when you are worried, anxious, stressed, or have any kind of mentally-demanding challenge floating arond in your brain, you direct your energy inward.   You do everything you can with all of the resources at your disposal to manage your responsibility.  You might overshoot and give it more energy than it needs, but you are still doing your best and you need to be understood and forgiven for that.  On the flipside, when you are not anxious, stressed, or have inner-problems toward which you need to direct energy, then you are liberated to give your energy to other things.  To happy things.  To external things.  You are free to play, free to laugh, and free to love.

The reason I bring this all up is because I think it is one of the most important factors for overall wellness.

We talk about stress a lot in the health world.  But what do we mean by this, and what is its real effect?  What are the different kinds of stress?   How should we handle it?

Understanding stress in this way helps me navigate it better and reduce it.  I know that my body directs all of its energy toward my responsibilities because it is doing its best to keep me alive.   But does it have to?  Can I not allocate time for certain worries, and firmly tell my brain to cool it at other times, and let the gratitude and joy of liberated living flow into that vacuated space?

Understanding stress in this way makes me forgive myself for being stressed in the first place, too. It’s okay — I understand now that my body and my brain are doing their best to help me.  I understand that they demand my energy because they think they need it in order for me to be safe.  Sometimes I don’t need them to do this, and I can tell them to relax and take a break for a while.  On the other hand, sometimes I really do need to give 100 percent of my energy to the problem I am dealing with.  When this is the case, I let myself do it.

I understand that I actually need to devote all of my energy to stressful events sometimes.  This is important.  In some sense, it’s an acceptance of my basic humanity and fragility where I let my need to take care of things override my desire to feel or ability to act outside of this stressful zone.  I let my stress run its course through me without resistance.  I give myself to the demands my situation has put upon me, and I let my brain do the mental work it wants to do.  When I can accept and live through times of crisis in this way, then even the fact that my brain has demanded 100 percent of my mental energy does not make me feel as wretched at it normally does, because I know that this is the best and most efficient way to weather the storm.  My stress and I in this case work together rather than against each other.

This works for me in a million different realms, particularly when it is a professional or social situation that demands thought and care.   This is especially important for me as someone who’s job it is, literally, to think.  Though it works in myriads of other ways, too, particularly in how I relate to myself and manage my relationship with myself.

Many of us worry about our health.  Or we worry about how loved we are.  Or how beautiful we are.  Or something.  But how much energy do we need to give that?  What does your brain need in order to efficiently achieve a level of safety and love?  Do you let your stress have the time that it needs?  Do you let yourself think and research health issues the appropriate amount of time?    You can do it too much, and you can do it too little.  What is right for you?  What is the best way to work with your stress and the mental energy it is demanding, rather than against it?

All decent food for thought, in my opinion.  What do you think?  Do you experience a limited amount of energy that can either go inward or outward?  What helps you feel positive and share your positivity rather than being curled inside of yourself?

What helps you feel the grand joy and excitement of being alive?

What are your strategies for keeping stress from getting in the way?

 

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So, just as a heads up - some links above may be my affiliate links, which means I get a small commission if you click on it and make a purchase. Doing so is no additional cost to you, but helps me tremendously. Your support is SO greatly appreciated, so thank you in advance if you choose to do so. Check out my entire disclosure to know exactly how things work.