This past year was one of the hardest ones in my life. Illnesses, hospitals, losing a loved one, living in multiple places, constant long-distance commuting, I faced one of the biggest mommy fears, my beloved was in deep mourning and to top it all, I was a new mom. I was under chronic stress. I am not resentful, on the contrary, I am grateful. Now that I am on the other side, I see how much I have learned about myself, about the world and people around me and about health.
While you are going through a challenging time, everything else in life takes a back seat, especially ourselves. I felt depleted, tired and down but it was still a surprise to be diagnosed with Adrenal Fatigue. This meant that my Adrenal reserve numbers were equal to that of an eighty-year-old woman; let me remind you that I am a young mom who is close to half a century away from being eighty. The good news was that at best, adrenal fatigue can be reversed with lifestyle changes and supplementation and at worst, if it is left untreated and undiagnosed it can lead to organ failure. This was a true wake up call, stress can be a killer. My trusted MD said that I had to begin to view stressful situations as the enemy if I wanted to bounce back to health. I had no choice but to re-evaluate my life.
My adrenal diagnosis happened before this past holiday season and, as you may well know, this particular time of year can bring up stress, triggers and moments of crazy emotions, like no other time. I knew that being relaxed was going to be a challenge so I began arming myself with knowledge by researching scientific studies and the physiology of the adrenal glands. I dove deeper into my understanding of the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems, fight-or-flight, inflammation, and cortisol.
Bottom line: whether you are going through a challenging time or not, in today’s world, fight-or-flight is a daily occurrence for the majority of the population. Mind you that fight-or-flight is a physical and chemical response equal to the one that you would experience if you would have to save yourself from a lion in pursuit. Chronic physical and emotional stress is never good for the body, it can cause disease, inflammation, and it speeds up the aging process of the skin and organs.
Putting my newfound knowledge to action, I took my health challenge head-on, and after a few tries and fails I ended up creating a small and easy relaxation mission guide to follow. Here are my top four practices.
Say no to drama and gossip. It’s easy to get caught up in these activities, especially when we desperately want to feel accepted, but the negativity will eventually catch up to our health which is a poor tradeoff for being “liked.” Also, learn to say no to events, requests, and demands that don’t align with your wellbeing. I am working on boundaries. It’s uncomfortable, but I am determined. I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts and synchronistically Oprah Winfrey was talking about the power of saying No. Here is some of what she said, “There is always this innate fear that if I say “no,” I’m going to somehow be discarded or dismissed or unloved. That started early for me, and it’s probably the reason why I was abused. There was a vulnerability and a lack of knowingness about my own boundaries and my own personhood that other people could see. But if a person turns against you because you say “no” to them, you recognize that that wasn’t real love anyway. True love, true friendship, true support comes from people who want you to tell your own truth. They don’t want things given to them that don’t come from a pure place. Ultimately, you have to let go of some of the toxicity in your life that was preventing you from being your most true self in the first place, even with family members.”
Nurture your body
As a Holistic Nutrition Counselor, I know that nurturing the body with good food is a must for health and I also know that being obsessive about it can have the opposite effect. For too long, I have made myself crazy about what and how to eat, and yes it is important, it will always be important in my life, but I need to relax. This year, I am finding a balance between feeding my body nutritious foods while also relaxing a little around some of my favorite foods (bread anyone?). This past month, I was in my hometown in Italy, my goodness I ate, and I loved every bite. I let go and I really enjoyed my favorite childhood foods without overindulging or overthinking about it. My body thanked me in many evident ways. Carrying anxiety, guilt, and worry about food adds stress, and will ruin your meal. Be mindful without obsessing. Enjoy each bite and say goodbye to the guilt.
Move and calm the body
Getting your heart rate up is important and it’s almost as much, if not more important to relax our bodies. After speaking to many local and online professionals, doing my own research, and taking a look at my personal habits I learned that we hear a lot about under exercising but we rarely hear about the opposite side of the spectrum of (and I had never even thought of this) over-exercising. I always thought, the more we push to exert ourselves the better. But for those of us that have or continue to push to “just do it” daily, it’s a good time to pause and listen to what our body needs versus solely focusing on how we want it to look or how we want to be perceived. For us ladies especially, we have four distinct physical and chemical shifts within each month, and in each part of our cycle we have different physical and emotional needs. It is crucial to our overall and reproductive health to embrace our natural states and respect our body’s needs. This is not to discourage us from exercising, on the contrary, it’s an invitation to being mindful and to invite balance. This is something that is different for each person and it is dependent upon each life’s situations so you’ll have to experiment and feel it out. Whichever the choice, it’s important to dedicate a certain number of days to relaxation-in-motion such as gentle and restorative yoga, Tai Chi or a Thai massage.
As a yoga and health professional, I will usually alternate between more intense and relaxed practices depending on where I am in my monthly cycle. During this time of healing in my life, however, I have favored more relaxing practices and workouts over intense ones. In just thirty days of conscious relaxation, I am feeling leaner, stronger, and re-energized, and I have a good feeling about my follow up with the MD! If you are feeling extra burned out or feel that you are in a time of chronic stress, listen to your body and slow it down. Add relaxation movements daily and leave the hard and sweaty workouts, steep hikes, long runs, and even long walks (longer than 30 continuous minutes) to when you feel replenished. Contrary to popular belief, by emphasizing relaxation for a few weeks or a few months, you won’t regress. On the contrary, your body will thank you in surprising ways once the inflammation begins to subside and when your adrenal glands replenish (hello glowy skin!).
Shut “it” down and be grateful
“It is the sympathetic nervous system that is affected the most by anxiety, tension, fatigue and depression, and experts have proven that meditation alone can dramatically reduce the many negative effects brought about by these emotions. By activating the parasympathetic nervous system, meditation healthfully slows down heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure, sweating, and soothing all other sympathetic nervous system fight or flight functions. According to the world-famous author of Minding the Body, Mending the Mind, Dr. Borysenko, meditation teaches us just how important it is to regularly activate the body’s natural “relaxation response” – training our minds through meditation so that stress responses simply can’t take over, perpetually maintaining our mental/emotional health and general well-being.” (EOCI)
Add daily Meditation to your toolbox. Simply put, meditation consists of you closing the eyes, sitting and breathing for a few to thirty minutes (or more if you have the time). The goal is to calm and quiet our monkey minds. If quieting the mind is challenging, bring your attention to all that brings you joy – moments, people, places and things that help you to let go of whatever is weighing you down. Ultimately, gratitude, meditation, and prayer, when practiced consistently, are the most important secrets to an amazing life and to good health.
Do what lights you up! If you have no time then make the time. Phone your best girl without interruptions, buy cozy socks or something that you have been eyeing, watch your favorite movie, get a fun color mani/pedi, you name it. Your only rule is to do what feels good to you without self-judgment. When you feel replenished you are able to love and be present for everyone around you. I love the oxygen mask metaphor; you must place the mask on you first in order to help the people around you. Or, as I say at the end of my yoga classes, “thank yourself for making the time to care for yourself because when you do so, you are creating a ripple effect of well being and everyone around you will benefit from your presence.”
I have learned that it doesn’t matter what is happening, self-care must be viewed as self-preservation. Every day is a good day to practice a healthy balance between strength and relaxation as well as between letting go and boundaries. Invite pleasure, be mindful and relax a little more into this happy new year.