Can’t Be Healthy Til We Relax

Stress kills. We see it in magazines, all over the Internet, on TV and in our own lives. It is intimately linked to obesity and thus to heart disease, diabetes, cancer and depression. It’s a major player in every decision we make about our healthcare and in the dollars we pay to our providers. Our doctors tell us to slow down, meditate, get enough sleep, spend quality time nurturing ourselves. They may give us pills to reduce our anxiety, or we may self-medicate with tobacco, alcohol or other mood-altering chemicals.

The problem is that it’s not working. We’re losing the battle against stress and our collective health shows it. Obesity, the most predictable outcome of high anxiety in a world where empty calories are cheap and exercise is rare, is skyrocketing. Our pundits wring their manicured hands in dismay at the costs of taking care of our health, but carefully avoid addressing the real problem, which is this: the way we live is so stressful that we are no longer capable of making healthy, self-nurturing choices.

Stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing. A certain amount of it is good for us, motivates us, keeps us moving forward. And it’s easier to cope with stressful things that are positive for us (marriage, promotion, new baby) than negative. But there comes a point where the stressors come too quickly, or they’re too contradictory, or they threaten us too deeply, for us to be able to handle them. That is when it becomes a health problem. In order to be healthy, we must know how to handle the flood of stimuli that are our world. Our life and death depend on it.

High anxiety throws human beings straight into the fight-or-flight (and, for women, the intensive comforting) response, flooding the system with adrenalin and other chemicals in preparation for intense physical activity. This is all very well if the situation can be resolved by fighting or running away or making sure no one is hurt, but most of our stressors are not that kind. We are plagued by vague (and not-so-vague) fears, confusion, exhaustion and frustration. No running away from those, they are a part of us.

So what do we do, hard-wired as we are to kick some ass or make a run for it when life becomes overwhelming? Nothing. In our living rooms or cubicles or cars there’s no room to run, so we just sit there and panic while our bodies absorb this chemical assault over and over again. Small wonder we make poor decisions, with the hormonal rollercoaster in full swing inside our heads.

This is our new normal and it shows no signs of slowing, this is the way of life in the heyday of the Information Age. We must adapt the way we live so that our bodies and our minds can get off that rollercoaster and function as they were designed to. To do that, stop worrying for a moment and think about what happens in your head when you’re stressed or anxious.

Our stressors tempt us to see the world in black-and-white, in terms of “either/or.” From a place of fear, it can feel impossible to step back and remember that we don’t have the whole story, that the choices we make in panic are merely shorthand, no substitute for careful consideration. To restore equanimity to ourselves and then to our world, we need to look at the world through truly open eyes and be willing to reach conclusions like “I don’t know, let’s learn more about that.” To do this, we need to take that step back, become observers of the crazy world around us instead of its pawns.

Eastern religions make much of the practice of meditation to attain this end, and it has become a mainstream tool in managing anxiety. Meditation invites us to observe our thoughts and emotions without engaging them or allowing them to direct us. As our skills mature, we are able to retain this quality of detachment while we are not meditating, and to free ourselves from being pummeled by our emotions when they are triggered by stressors beyond our control.

Ah, control. If we could understand fully what we can and can’t control, how relaxed we might all be! Discerning when we need to engage and when we can stay detached may be the most profound gift I could wish for all of us. To stay healthy, we must develop some degree of this discernment, so that we can see and understand what is happening around us and remain free enough of its drama and confusion to make sound decisions.

Interested in getting a better handle on your stress to clear your thinking? Try these; if they work for you, teach them to your children, your students, your colleagues. You are giving them the tools to take ownership of their health, and to spare themselves the indignity of lifestyle-driven disease.  This is politics, this is healthcare reform, and it begins with each of us.

Breathe. Long, slow, even breaths counteract the chemical flood of anxiety and refocus your energy on your breath rhythm instead of what’s bothering you. Feel yourself getting ramped up? Take 10 long breaths and see if your outlook changes. If it doesn’t, try another 10.

Move. Exercising while stressed gives your body an outlet and a substitute for the fight-or-flight it’s pre-programmed for. Not only will the movement do you all kinds of physical good, the release of endorphins (especially noticeable after half an hour of sustained exercise) will act as a natural anti-depressant and help equalize your mood.

Think. (Or “Write”). Step back from your situation and try to make sense of it as if it were happening to someone else. Writing down your impressions may be helpful in getting additional distance. Formulating your thoughts in a coherent way will help you see gaps in your thinking, or information that you still need.

Self-Assess.  Are you hungry or thirsty? Tired? Physically uncomfortable? Have compassion on yourself and address those issues before they get any worse. No one can tackle their problems effectively unless their brains are fed, rested and undistracted.

After practicing for a while, check your progress. Are you feeling more relaxed? More importantly, are you taking better care of yourself? Are you thinking more about what you eat? How much rest you get? Ways to move around more? Are you remembering your medicines? Your doctor appointments? Then keep it up. You’ve just figured out the first step in solving the healthcare crisis.



Health Care Reform Begins at Home

Much as I enjoy ranting about the need to empower people politically and socially, the real challenge in addressing our national health care situation doesn’t lie in identifying the problem (it’s not rocket science, after all) but in solving it. While policy wonks and task forces empretzel themselves wrestling with making a better, cheaper, more inclusive system, the rest of us need to start changing the landscape in which that system will function. We need to change the way we think of our bodies and our health, and then to change the way we treat ourselves and each other to reflect the respect we have for these miraculous, self-aware electrochemical flesh-machines that make us real in time and space.

The first step is to understand that doing what is healthy for our bodies–feeding them, exercising them, cleaning them–is an instinct that we share with all living things. Life itself depends upon it. When we choose otherwise we are contradicting an imperative that drives us at the molecular level to continue our existence.

This is where it gets complicated for those of us who think consciousness, free will and a soul are also part of being a person, because satisfying those things does not always align with the overarching biological imperative. We seek truth, beauty and justice as well as food and water. We hold convictions that may matter more to us than our physical health, and we experience emotions that may be powerful enough to blind us to our physiological needs. An added complication is that health of our bodies directly affects the quality and direction of our inner life, in ways which may be too subtle to notice unless we are aware of the signs.

So how do we find balance? How do we detach enough from our internal life of emotions, thoughts and beliefs to give our bodies what they need? How do we nurture our bodies so that they feed our inner life instead of draining it? How do we learn to value ourselves highly enough that we lavish the same time and energy on our own bodies and minds that we do on the people and causes and goals that matter most to us? This is the challenge that faces all of us as we approach the problem of health care in America; before we can find solutions, we must acknowledge the profound challenges and the near-infinite variety of variables involved in motivating human beings to do genuinely positive things for themselves.

Here are some techniques to open that internal dialogue and begin the journey. Take your time with these, let them ripen. A month or so should do it.

Journal the relationship between body and mind. Take a few minutes each day to note how well you took care of your health (diet, exercise, rest) and describe your emotional state. Try not to judge, focus instead on accurate observation. Note any patterns or connections you discover. You’re establishing a baseline from which to explore further.

Look as clearly as you can at your emotional health. On the whole, are you unhappy? Stressed? Overwhelmed? Confused? Exhausted? Any or all of these may be making it harder for you to think about improving your health. What can you do to reduce these issues in your life and increase your available energy? Your mind is where motivation for change is born and is sustained. Knowing its ups and downs, monitoring its comfort and figuring out how to overcome its resistance will be critical elements of the changes you’re getting ready to make.

Get a check-up. Have your doctor look you over, check your blood pressure, blood chemistry and weight. Discuss the medications you take and make sure you understand the necessity for each one. Bring up any questions you have or any new symptoms you have noticed and keep asking until you feel you have been heard and answered. Find out what he or she feels are the most important changes you could make to improve your health.

Educate yourself about optimum health. What does it look like? What do healthy people eat? How do they exercise? How much sleep do they need? Don’t be intimidated by the vast array of contradictory information out there. Focus on the recommendations promoted by national government and medical organizations at first. As you become more fluent in investigating these issues, you will learn to distinguish reputable, research-based information from unfounded and unreliable resources.

Let’s say you’ve completed all of the above. How much time did it take for you to do all this? Was it hard to fit it in between job and family responsibilities? Did you find yourself tempted to postpone it or even stop altogether? Now consider the millions of Americans facing greater obstacles than your own, be they economic, educational, cultural or physiological. What must be done for them? How can we encourage ourselves and each other to invest time and energy in treating our minds and bodies with attention and respect? Before any policy can be effective, before any system can work, we need to start this ball rolling by embracing the necessity of treating ourselves well, and then reach out to our families and communities to help them do the same.

More to come about turning the tide on our own wellness and making it easier for others to do the same.

A Mouthful on Health Care

We have made such a cult of lethargy and inertia in this country that it is killing us. Our children are so fat their organs start to fail and they are diabetic. Our elders are ravaged by heart disease, joint problems and chronic pain. Our young men and women, who ought to be at their peak of health as strong workers and active parents, are becoming larger and slower with every passing year.

Our bodies know this is wrong. As our nutrition declines and our activity dwindles, our neurochemistry responds to these abuses as if to poison, shutting down neurotransmitters that create feelings of contentment and excitement and enjoyment. The correlation between lifestyle disease and mental health has been pointed out again and again, and yet we allow ourselves to hurtle down the path of physical and emotional ruin simply because we can’t bear to deny ourselves the questionable pleasure of the path of least resistance.

What is wrong with us? Why do we crave, at times to the point of suicide, to spare ourselves any exertion, any change or progress? Why, as a culture, are we hellbent on reaching utter passivity rather than actualization? How do we ignore our own increasing pain and unhappiness in order to continue living mindlessly, drifting and psychically comatose? It’s isn’t leisure, a welcome interlude away from work. It isn’t abundance, whose hallmark is variety. It’s purgatory–narrow, dull and eternally predictable. Boring.

I believe one of the most basic motivators of human behavior is fear. We cringe away instinctively from things with the potential to harm us. This isn’t always a bad thing; healthy fear keeps us safe and prevents complacency.

But in this world we live in, unhealthy fear is breeding everywhere. In the media, tales of disaster–bloody or psychological or both–are available at all hours of the day and night, the true ones often more horrifying than the fictional. We are reminded daily both in our public and private lives that our families are unstable, our livelihoods at risk, our safety nets full of holes. These fears make it very difficult to maintain perspective, and especially to make sound decisions. With all one’s energy directed towards keeping a white-knuckled grip on reality, how can one be expected to feel confident in oneself, to start out in new directions, to change and adapt to gain desired ends? When every negative is presented and thus perceived as a threat, how can we distinguish false threats from true?

The answer is that we can’t. Confused and afraid, we cling to what is comforting and non-risky…bland, sweet foods, pastimes that require only sitting and being entertained, opinions and even dreams that require little introspection and even less curiosity. Because we are conditioned to fear what we don’t know, we take pains to ensure that we don’t explore new ground or question the old. When circumstances align to hurt us, we retreat further into our cocoons of denial and repeat the old self-damaging behavior at breakneck speed and intensity until we regain our comfort zone.

This is the opposite of being human. We are born with ambition–to move, to change, to learn, to understand. We are born to see challenges and to overcome them rather than be overcome ourselves. We are made to look beyond today into the options of the future, and to embrace those options and our role in bringing them to fruition. Yet we don’t do this, and I believe this is the underlying cause of the public health crises in our country.

We are, by and large, a nation of cowerers, as eager to re-affirm our commitment to the status quo as if we could count on it to protect us during the next recession, the next drought, the next banking scandal. And the cowering in our public life reflects an inner cowering that drives, in my opinion, the epidemic of lifestyle-related illness and disability. Instead of blaming doctors and schools and parents and TV, let’s figure out how to encourage people to be unafraid, to trust in themselves, to see the need for change and to act on it.

Then, and only then, will the tide of public health turn. When people are unfrightened enough to step outside their comfort zones, to listen to their own minds and their own bodies instead of blindly subscribing to any voice louder than their own, then they will be free to make the decision to take care of themselves and their children instead of waiting for the other shoe to drop. When people feel empowered socially and politically to reach their full potential, they will take ownership of their health the same way they take ownership of their votes, their education and their work ethic.

So how do we bring this about? By marginalizing those who seek to control others by fear. By teaching our children and our adults to think for themselves, to question and to evaluate critically what they hear and see and believe. Arm our citizens with solid education, and an environment of free speech. Require them to spend time with persons of different races, gender, socioeconomic class and religion. Encourage them to ask questions. Give every American a working knowledge of anatomy, physiology, nutrition, sleep hygiene and lifetime fitness skills. And the raise the minimum wage so that a person can make ends meet on 40-hour weeks and have time to exercise, cook healthful meals, rest and spend time with family and engaged in his or own interests.

Want to make people healthier in this county? Treat them as your comrades, your fellow-marchers in the challenge of approaching old age and extinction with grace and courage. Don’t frighten them or threaten them or bully them. Make sure they have affordable, local sources of nutritious food, safe neighborhoods to walk or bicycle in, work policies that allow regular doctor visits and health coverage that protects them from losing their life and their livelihood over a single illness and actively promotes health literacy and preventive care, including complementary medicine where appropriate.

The health care crisis is the effect of decades of playing upon the fears of the disempowered by the oligarchy of those trying to consolidate power into their own hands. Reverse that consolidation and you will have a population taking charge not only of their health, but of their families, their livelihoods, their schools, their legislatures and their economy large and small. We are paying a staggeringly high price in lost productivity, wasted health services and increased costs simply because we refuse to allow people the personal power necessary to motivate them to own the care of their own bodies. This is a sign that immediate change is needed, not in the health care system alone, but in the entire apparatus of political power distribution and information dissemination. Change these to reflect unilateral concern for the welfare of those most likely to be ignored or even harmed, and these very souls will be the ones who first make the changes necessary to enjoy both physical and emotional health and to making vibrant, creative lives in society at large.



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