Per aspera ad astra (Through hardships to the stars)

You can’t believe you got a flat tire on the way to your final interview for that killer job you are dying for. You can’t believe your ex just charged something on your joint account without telling you. You can’t believe the contractor just delayed the repairs on your house one more week. Hardships are going to come day in and day out, some worse than others. How you face them is critical to your well-being.

I remember the worst year of my life. I’ve been reflecting on it a lot since my dog and I were displaced by Hurricane Matthew seven months ago. The year was 1997 and I lived in Windsor, California. My son was 18 months old and my daughter was 4. I owned a restaurant that I was changing from a Sizzler franchise to a stand-alone restaurant called Coyote’s. I was attending the University of San Francisco (USF) at night for my Master’s in Human Resource and Organization Development. I owned a 3000-square foot house with an enormous mortgage. I asked my then-husband of thirteen years to help me carry the groceries from the car. He said, “No,” as he lay on the couch. It was there and then I decided I was leaving him. Needless to say, it was a tumultuous year. But I made it through.

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So why reflect on that you ask? Because I was so much better after surviving that year. I found out how strong I was and that I can survive anything. Here are my reflections on how to survive hardships and arrive safely in the stars:

 

  • Support.  Luckily, my parents lived a half block down the street so I had built-in childcare and a lot of financial support as I navigated the divorce. I also had a cohort of students at USF. A cohort is a group of people around the same age with similar interests. Our cohort was comprised of students in the same class for the entire coursework for our Master’s degrees. I can guarantee you, I would have dropped out of school if it wasn’t for that cohort and their support as I separated from my husband. My team at the restaurant were completely supportive as well. When you hit rough patches in your life, find some solid support.

 

  • Exercise.  I belonged to a gym at the time. I didn’t drop my membership, even though it was a financial hardship. I still needed to show up for class and exercise. It cleared my head. It helped me focus on something else besides the overwhelming situation that was my life at the time. Getting back into your body and out of your head is so important. I did not meditate back in 1997, but I do now and anything that gets me into my body and out of my head is so important. Be sure and exercise.

 

  • Faith. Practically everyone around me told me to sell my house. I mean everyone. But deep down inside I knew I could figure out how to hold onto it. I had faith in myself. I knew I was a strong, smart, hardworking woman and I could somehow swing that mortgage and make it through. I ended up renting out rooms in the house to some really great roommates whose rent helped me afford the house. I didn’t end up selling that house for another five years as it remained a constant home for my young children. I even sold it for a profit. Keep the faith. Believe in yourself.

 

  • Feel.  It’s so easy during difficult times to stuff your feelings. It’s easy to drink or medicate to dull the sensations. It’s so important to feel the sensations and feel your feelings. I know I grieved and cried a lot during the separation but I didn’t know to label the feelings. Now I do. So this is what “betrayal” feels like (pain in my stomach and heat on my neck). So this is what “abandonment” feels like (tears streaming down my face and a knot in my shoulders). As the famous unattributed quote says, “Sometimes you have to go through things and not around them.” Feel your way through.

 

  • Forgive.  It turned out that there were many sins my ex had committed that I was not aware of during our marriage. Initially, I was angry and hurt and most of all – resentful. It took me many years to forgive him. It wasn’t easy. But holding onto that resentment was causing me more harm than good. Searching for more ways of how he hurt me was only reopening the wounds and scarring them all over again. Finally forgiving him set me free. We are all trying to do the best we can. So was he. So was I. This is the most difficult part of getting past hardship. Remember to forgive.

 

  • Stand up.  I had many blows during that awful year including back taxes and other financial setbacks. Every time I had a blow, I got back up. I didn’t crawl into bed (or a bottle). I got back up to face the next day. My tenacity for getting back up helped me survive. Knowing that I had two small kids depending on me was a huge motivation as well. They are still my motivation to this day. Stand back up because there is someone out there who needs you.

 

In retrospect, that year taught me a lot about my own resilience and how much I adored and still adore my children. The resultant stars from that hardship are my own self-reliance and two beautiful, hardworking children who love and count on me. It doesn’t get much better than that. What are your stars?

The Aftermath from the Storm: Living in Limbo

I wrote about our experience with Hurricane Matthew last week and the flooding of our home.  As I write this, it’s been two weeks since the lake surrounded our house.  My world looking from the outside in “appears” to be normal.  We have lights on.  The trash and debris is slowly disappearing from our front lawn.  We drive back and forth to work.  The water is potable so no more gallon-size containers of water.  I’m at my computer writing and saving via Wifi.  I made our usual Saturday breakfast: eggs and bacon on our stove with gas.  I can recharge my cell phone, watch TV and take a hot shower.  Everything is as it should be.  But it’s not.

limbo

My husband and I have been riding the tumultuous waves of limbo land.  The apex of this was when we found out that we had to move out.  Two of our neighbors had moving trucks the day after the storm; carpet mounded on their front lawn and in debris bins.  I thought to myself, Well, that won’t be us, we can soldier through.  But after the contractor gutted the sodden insulation and ducts from under our house, I realized we couldn’t stay in our house anymore.  There is no HVAC.  There can’t be HVAC until all the sodden floors are taken out.  The sodden floors can’t be taken out until someone, hopefully the insurance company or FEMA, sends us a check.  Gulp.  It was fine to live in a house without HVAC as long as it was sunny with a high of 80 degrees.  It’s another story when the temperature dips into the 40’s.  So, there it is.  We have to move out.

 

So here is how I’ve been coping with the anxiety of living in limbo:

 

  • Meditation.  There were about 5 days post-Matthew that I wasn’t able to meditate.  I have an app on my phone that needs Wifi and, without Wifi and/or power, I was unable to meditate.  Meditation centers me.  I feel more resilient.  Sudden changes in plans; a zig instead of a zag; accepting disappointment and basic uncertainty are just easier to handle when I am practicing my regular meditation.  After a decade-long meditation practice, I experience a huge shift internally when it’s not in my daily routine.  I quickly get scattered and distracted.  It’s as if the anxiety sucks me in. Being present and mindful for even 10 minutes a day makes a huge difference.  Break out of limbo-land through meditation.

 

  • Break it into pieces.  Part of the issue with being in limbo is that it’s all so overwhelming.  So if you don’t know if the project is going to get the go-ahead; if you don’t know if you should buy groceries for the week, or pack up the entire house…or maybe just the bathroom?  Just break it up into manageable, informed pieces that you can deal with.  Otherwise, it’s all so overwhelming.  I’ve been frozen into inaction before because I didn’t know where to start.  I’m in the middle of setting up a training for two weeks from now.  I was struggling with getting started.  Then I broke up the whole project into units and scheduled 90-minute sections for each unit.  Finally, I have forward progress.  So just call the insurance company.  The next day, just call the bank.  The next day, go on the FEMA website.  Breaking it up makes it not as overwhelming and you finally get momentum and forward progress.

 

  • Take time off.  I know what you are thinking: But Cath, you need to get to work on that house.  Pack up the bathroom closet at least.  Nope.  I serendipitously had a massage appointment the Wednesday after the storm.  I went to the appointment.  I think it saved my sanity.  I needed an escape, and rather than constantly focusing on the house, I really needed to focus on myself.  Yesterday, my husband and I golfed in a charity golf tournament.  We needed a break from the grind of sodden cabinets and mud-coated tools.  It was great to spend time connecting and not caring a whit about the score (or the house).  We needed a break from the House Center Vortex of Anxiety.  When you are living in limbo, take some time off to escape and bring some joy into your life.  The mess, the challenge or project will still be there–you’ll be able to deal with it intelligently.

 

  • Exercise.  I had given up my morning walk.  It was partially due to debris on the road but also because I thought, You don’t have time to take a walk!  The trouble was that by day end, I was exhausted.  I spent all day worrying about a laundry list of items, like when is the HVAC guy coming or where is the plumber and will I be able to be home when he gets there.  More and more limbo creators.  But taking a walk really reduced my stress and helped me center my head.  It was also reassuring to see that other homes in the area were in similar stages of rehabilitation.  Just getting back into my body and out of my head was restorative.  Try and get some exercise to keep the limbo at bay.

 

  • Acceptance.  I’m learning to accept the good and the bad.  I am not in control of whether the power comes back on.  I am not in control of whether the cable starts working.  I am not in control of whether the insurance check shows up today or not.  So just accept it.  I cannot tell you how many times I have said, This too shall pass.  There will be HVAC someday, just not today.  There will be an insurance check someday, just not today.  There is a debris bin where there wasn’t one yesterday.  It’s all good.  It’s all as it should be.  I remember a friend of mine said on Facebook that we were having a house cleanse.  That’s a great way to reframe it.  We are just in the middle of cleansing our house.  Just accepting what is happening.  It’s as it should be.

 

My husband and I are slowly getting out of the fog of limbo-land.  We are starting to get better sleep, getting into a routine and focusing on what we can do instead of what we can’t.  You can do it as well.  Be positive and all will fall into place–as it should be.

6 Reasons Why You Need Music in Your Life

My Rotary Club toured a local elementary Charter School a few weeks ago and there was a wall near the music room that had the question, “Why do you need music?” There were about 100 or so responses that had each child’s name, grade and individual response. It was really interesting but one particular response jumped out to me. Gavin in Grade 3 said, “It makes your mind explode”. Quite profound for an 8 year old. Explode is a powerful word and it resonates for me. It’s kind of like the old tag line for Coke: “Things go better with Coke”. Things go better with music; life goes better with music.

6 Reasons Why You Need Music in Your Life
For me different songs take me to a particular moment in time in my life. Songs in the Key of Life by Stevie Wonder transports me to the front porch 210 College Avenue in Ithaca, NY. My friend Mark and I sitting on a sofa on that porch watching folks walk by during the spring of my sophomore year. Who let the dogs out reminds me of my son at age 5 dancing to the music in the middle of Windsor Water Works transfixed by the beat. Mac the Knife with Bobby Darin is definitely my Junior year of college and my co-workers from Noyes Lodge making shark bites with our hands. I hear that song and I am there. As I was hitting the last .1 mile of my half marathon and Katy Perry’s Firework came on my iPod to carry me through. Transported totally.

Well there are a lot of scientific reasons why music is so good for you and here they are:
1. Brain Function. Music activates cross function between the left and right brain. According to the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, “Rhythm and pitch discrimination are processed mainly in the left hemisphere whereas timbre and melody are found chiefly in the right…. listening to music would prime the activation of those areas of the brain which are concerned with spatial reasoning.” So if you want your left and right brains to connect, listen to some Mozart.

2. Better Grades. Another quote from that music room wall was “It helps you learn – try saying your ABC’s without singing the song”. I have to admit, when I used to have to actually file in a file cabinet (so old school), I used to sing the abc’s especially around l,m,n,o,p. But the American Music Conference has cited research that shows studying and creating music may help improve your capacity to learn other subjects and get better grades overall. Nothing wrong with that. Even to learn another language.

3. Universal. In an article by askmen.com, “Ask any American backpacker what subject comes up when they are at a conversation standstill with an Argentinean that doesn’t speak English – invariably Led Zepplin, Metallica, Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones and Pearl Jam will be discussed.” I remember my tour of Colombia in my middle twenties. Everyone asked about Madonna and Michael Jackson. Everyone. It is the universal language.

4. Exercise. I never would have survived training for a marathon without my iPhone and my trusty ear buds. When you are running 15 miles for some 3 plus hours, the greatest motivation is the beat beat beat. According to Active.com, “Research suggests that music really can boost athletic performance. Liverpool John Moores University in England looked at the effects of music of different tempos on stationary cycling performance. The subjects’ average power output over the full 25 minutes was found to be 3.5 percent greater when the music tempo was increased. Their power dropped by 9.8 percent when the music was slowed down.” Music powers exercise.

5. Pain relief. According to the Journal of Advanced Nursing, music can reduce chronic pain by up to 21%. “The results from a clinical trial revealed that people who listened to music for an hour each day for a week had improved physical and psychological symptoms compared to those who were deprived of music.” Listening to music might just be the best medicine.

6. Emotional benefits. As I am writing this, I have iTunes playing my “Create” music list which has nothing but instrumental songs on it. Anything from classical to Zoe Keating to Ottmar Liebert. Well any time I hear Ottmar Leibert and his spanish classical guitar it transports me back to being 8 months pregnant with my daughter in Albuquerque, NM. I used to turn on Ottmar when I was cleaning the house or reading. I was pretty sure that Natalie would come out with a Classical Guitar in hand after all those hours of listening to Ottmar. It was relaxing and calming. I remember in the actual delivery room, we had tapes of Ottmar playing. I’m not saying it was easy but it was soothing.

This has really opened up a can of worms of memories for me. One more I have to mention is my dad playing Simon and Garfunkel and Joan Baez LP’s when I was a kid on the HUGE hifi in the living room of our house in Wilmington DE. “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme”. Music becomes ‘that bridge’ between so many different things in life. It’s really amazing when you think of it. Music has even been found to help prison inmates relax and be less aggressive. It can be life changing for all of us. What song is a big memory for you?

6 Strategies to Kick Stress to the Curb

This is the time of year when most companies are in the middle of figuring out if they are as profitable as they thought. As efficient. If all the effort in 2014 was worth it on the bottom line. Annual reviews are being drafted, bonuses figured out. The worker bee hamster wheel is in full throttle. Will we have red or black ink on the bottom of that Profit and Loss statement? Kind of stressful and overwhelming.Kick Stress to the Curb

It’s so important to be able to take a break. Touch the pause button. Tough to do in a deadline driven society. There are so many business cultures where the guy who stays the latest or works every weekend is the hero. Burning the midnight oil is a sign of fortitude and admired by the guys in the boardroom. All you have to do is read a book like “The 4-Hour Workweek” by Tim Ferriss and you realize that in the long run (or even the short run) being stressed out and overwhelmed is not the end all and be all of life. We all need to make sure we are grabbing a little balance and honestly – Maybe a lot of balance.

Here are some strategies to right the boat and eliminate some of the stress in your life:

1. Exercise. Ugh no. I hate exercise. It’s snowing out. It’s too hot. It’s dark. I’m too tired. It’s raining. I have said all these things. I have come home at the end of a hard day of work and thought “just sit on the couch and watch the news”. But I force myself to go grab my sneakers, dress appropriately (i.e. rain gear, reflector vest or gloves) and head outside. I might dread the first 5 minutes it takes to get myself together but once outside, I am able to flick the switch. I’m not saying I don’t think about the day or start thinking about tomorrow but I’m out in the elements. I’m moving. I have a new perspective. My heart is beating, my brain is being restored and my stress levels melt away. I don’t care what it is. Get moving!

2. Music. Find some calming music. This is not the time to break out some AC/DC or Iron Maiden. According to P. Murali Doraiswamy, M.D, there are two criteria for music to be calming, “Tunes slower than your heart rate, and ones that are classical music, appear to be the most effective at soothing stress.” Grab some Mozart or Windham Hill or Snatam Kuar and chill out. You can even take a walk with your ear buds in and kill two birds with one stone. There is a time and place for upbeat music just not when you want to de-stress. Take five minutes at work and pop those earbuds in and chill out. It uses a different part of your brain. You’ll come back to do better thinking. Find your music.

3. Reading. This is not the time to pick up the newspaper which can be stress inducing. Find a book that will bring you pleasure and escape, an adventure for your mind. I read “Gone with the Wind”. No small feat. But completely engrossing. According to the University of Minnesota, “a 2009 study at the University of Sussex found that reading can reduce stress by up to 68%. It works better and faster than other relaxation methods.” Personally, I think it’s due to putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and seeing from their perspective for a bit. Poor Scarlet and all her trials and tribulations. Suddenly I’m not worried about whether that client calls back. Pick up a book.

4. Meditation. Try just 5 minutes of meditation. I remember getting all wrapped up in doing it “right”. Let go of that. There are not meditation police that are going to come over and correct you. There are recordings, apps and books on the topic. Pick one up and give it a spin. Start slow and work your way up. Don’t go head off to a week long retreat at a Buddhist Temple if you are just getting started. Praying or Yoga can provide the same benefit. Pick what you are most comfortable with and get started. According to the Mayo Clinic, “When you meditate, you clear away the information overload that builds up every day and contributes to your stress. And these benefits don’t end when your meditation session ends. Meditation can help carry you more calmly through your day.” It’s like taking a de-stressor pill in the morning and it time releases throughout the day. Find your breath.

5. Control. It turns out that stress is dictated by our sense of control. So find things that are within your control. Strum a guitar, knit a sweater, paint a water color or write a blog. As Eric Barker wrote for Time Magazine, “Anything that increases your perception of control over a situation — whether it actually increases your control or not — can substantially decrease your stress level.” Bearing that in mind, reflect on what you are in control of. The time you get up, making lunch, your response to an upset customer. Realizing that you are in control of much more than you might normally think reduces your sense of feeling overwhelmed. Be in control.

6. Boundaries. Set clear boundaries. I leave my cell phone in the kitchen (far away from my bedroom) to charge all night. I don’t answer work emails on the weekend. I try to limit screen time (i.e. television, internet surfing, Netflix, etc.) to two hours a day. We eat dinner at the table with the television off. I try to do creative work early in the day and, as my willpower and concentration evaporates, I will work on more repetitive tasks like paying bills, social networking and returning emails in the afternoon. The world is constantly bombarding you for attention, set up some boundaries.

I have to say that having an empty nest has really helped my stress levels. No running out to school to drop off a book report or finding out about a last minute wrestling meet some two hours away. It might also be that I realize now that I am in control of my response to something that might be perceived as stressful. Take back control.

7 Keys to Building New Habits and Taming Your Lizard Brain

Breaking habits is tough work.  Whether you want to quit smoking, stop procrastinating or get off the couch, it’s tough row to hoe.   Your amygdala is frequently referred to as your lizard brain and it’s standing in your way.  It’s the oldest part of your brain and where your fear lives.  When you get on a bike for the first time in ten, er, twenty years, your amygdala kicks in and remembers how to ride the bike.  It also brings along all the emotions that go with it.   I remember when I broke my arm at age 13 while riding my bike down Majestic Court with my friend Wendy.  It’s all there – one pedal at a time, balancing, the asphalt, the road rash, the trip to the ER, and the cast on my arm – one big sloppy sack of memory.  And my amygdala is happy to bring it up every time I think about riding a bike.

So every time you try to start a new habit like riding a bike, eating less, or working on projects first thing in the morning, your lizard brain wakes up and tries to put the kabosh on the new habit.  When you wake up the lizard brain, it sends out the fear signals.  Ride a bike? Don’t you remember going to the ER that time? Skip the Krispy Kremes at the breakfast meeting? But I always get a glazed cream filled donut at the finance meeting.  We are on auto pilot and our lizard is leading us down the path.

The good news is there are ways to unplug your auto pilot, tame your lizard and get on the road to renewal:

1. Meditate. Studies have shown that just 5 minutes of meditation a day can increase neuroplasticity and blood flow to your prefrontal cortex in just 8 weeks. This creates greater connections in the brain and improves brain function, especially your prefrontal cortex (where your best work is done!).   The best part is that it decreases the size your amygdala which lowers your stress level.  When your stress is lower, you make better decisions; like skipping the donut and riding the bike instead.

2. Lucky 7.  That is the sweet spot on sleep.  No more, no less.  For optimum cognitive function, you need 7 hours of sleep.  More than 8, and your brain function declines.  Less than 6 and a half and it declines as well.  For better concentration and control of your decision making, it’s best to get seven hours of sleep.  Have you ever had to have a conversation with a teenager after an all nighter?  Nuf said.  Get your lucky 7.

3. HRV.  You want to increase your Heart Rate Variability.  In the book, “The Willpower Instinct” by Dr. Kelly McGonigal, studies have shown that those with a higher HRV can handle anxiety and stress more easily.  They bounce back and get back on track easier.  It’s difficult to change your HRV but quitting smoking, eating a plant based diet, meditation and regular exercise are four proven ways to increase it.  Slow your breathing down to 4 to 6 breaths per minute.  If you can exhale slowly before facing a stressful situation, you will be more resilient.  Angry customer?  Slow your breathing.  Need to resist that cream filled donut?  Slow your breathing.  Take back control.

4. AlcoholEvery time I started smoking again, I was in a bar.  Hmmm.  I wonder why?  Maybe it’s because alcohol was involved.  Alcohol lowers your inhibitions and, of course, lowers your self control.  So if you are working on a new set of habits and want to bolster your self control, put down the martini glass.

5. Exercise.  It just takes 15 minutes a day.  It can take any form you like: window shopping, gardening, walking, p90x, or yoga.  As Dr. McGonigal says all that’s required is that you are able to “answer no to the following two questions: 1. Are you sitting, standing still, or lying down? 2. Are you eating junk food while you do it?”.  Easy.

6. Plan.  Think and plan your habits.  Put your sneakers by the foot of your bed.  Don’t power up your PC until you’ve planned your day.  Schedule your meals for the day in advance.  When you’ve planned it out ahead of time, the new habit becomes a default. I guess I have to run this morning because my sneakers are waiting for me.

7. NoAll willpower starts and ends with No.  You will need to push away from the table, turn down the dessert, shut down your devices, and walk away from facebook.  Start with steps 1 through 6 and your prefrontal cortex will be there to support you when the going gets tough.

It’s also a good idea to take one small step at a time.  Start with the meditating and then build from there.  It takes time and patience to take control of your lizard.  Be the Lizard Tamer.

How have you tamed your lizard?