Summer is here – hopefully you have a get-away or two coming up. While I absolutely adore going new places and visiting friends and family, traveling itself can be stressful. Plus, trips tend to disrupt the healthy routines I have in place at home.
Recently I flew to Dallas for a 3-day conference. Between airplanes, changing time zones, hotel beds, a packed schedule, and Texas’s reputation as not-exactly-a-hotbed of organic, plant-based eating, I was a little concerned about how I was going to take care of myself.
Here’s what I took with me to help feel my best while traveling:
- My neti pot and some sea salt. When I arrive at my room, among the first things I do is take a shower and rinse my sinuses to rid myself of the skeevy airplane air.
- Lavender and peppermint essential oils. I anoint points on my wrists and neck to give myself my own bubble of germ-killing air on the plane. A drop of peppermint on my neck and shoulders also helps me stay alert, relaxes muscles, benefits digestion, and treats headaches. A few drops of lavender on my pillow or inner wrist comes in handy for relaxation and sleep.
- My breakfast-in-a-bag: Before I leave, I assemble the following in a ziplock bag: 3 TB rolled oats, 2 TB chia seeds (protein), a sprinkling of shredded coconut (good fat), a handful of raisins or goji berries (antioxidants), ½ tsp. cinnamon (balance blood sugar, enhance digestion), pinch of salt, 1 tsp. hemp seeds or sesame seeds (protein and essential fatty acids, plus they’re intestinal moisteners that prevent constipation), a pinch of ground ginger or cardamom (or both) to kindle digestion. I actually multiplied this recipe by 4, one for each morning of my trip. Use the in-room coffee maker to heat water, and it cooks itself in 10 minutes.
- A spoon and pyrex with which to eat my breakfast. They’re smaller and lighter than my Vitamix!
- Some fresh food: A gallon-sized bag of cut up carrots, celery, and cucumber ensures I’ll have the vegetables my body’s used to getting while I travel. A couple of apples and a small bag of almonds make easy, packable snacks.
- Favorite Chinese herbs: I bring Free and Easy Wanderer to help adapt to the changes in routine, Suan Zao Ren Tang for sleep, and some emergency Gan Mao Ling in case I feel a cold coming on.
- A few tea bags of tulsi tea for its stress-relieving and immune-booting properties
- Good walking shoes so I could make sure to take a 15-minute walk during every break in the action. If you’ve ever spent a weekend in a conference room cave, you know how important it is to get outside and move.
- Workout clothes – and I made sure to hit the workout room early each day.
- My meditation and qi gong practices: no packing required, and yet so essential for me to feel grounded and connected to myself
What helps you stay healthy when you travel?
I say it all the time: Self-care is not self-ish.
It’s a premise that’s easy to grasp and even easier to shrug off if we’re the type of people who tend to just buckle down, work harder to get the job done, and take care of other people regardless of how depleted we are — until our bodies force us to re-examine our choices. If you’re still shrugging off self-care as a nice but non-essential notion, perhaps this story will change your mind:
A young woman I love recently suffered a major loss — one of those unthinkable, heartbreaking events that draws a “before” and “after” line across a life, changing it forever. I won’t go into the details, as it’s not my story to tell. But in her process of sorting out her shock, grief, loss, pain, anger, fear, and whatever else, she noticed something remarkable and surprising: her own tremendous resiliency.
This formerly Type A woman used to internalize a ton of stress. She worried a lot, and had the frequent debilitating migraines, rock-hard neck and shoulders, insomnia, overall sense of unease, and hormone imbalances to prove it. But she wrote to me yesterday:
“I am now not only waking up every day feeling like there’s still beauty in the world, but helping other people cope with change in a healthy way as part of my job. The mere fact that I’m able to not feel completely overwhelmed by my own life changes but can use that to help others find grace in change is incredible.”
Indeed. I am in awe of her strength, her ability to reckon with what came her way, and to bounce back.
How did she build these muscles of resiliency?
Unwittingly, gradually, and using the same self-care tools she used to treat the migraines that first brought her into my clinic for acupuncture. In addition to getting acupuncture and taking herbs, she was willing to change how she showed up in the world. She downshifted. She stopped treating her body like a machine. She dared to do less than she was capable of. She cultivated a relationship with her breath and her body through breathing qi gong and yoga. She took the time to seek out things like acupuncture and massage to remind her nervous system what’s possible. She got over her yang addiction. None of this was easy, as our society tends to reward overwork and over-service, and to really do it differently is tough on the ego. But the debilitating migraines provided compelling motivation.
“The idea of self care and slowing down and finding the quiet was never a part of my world before I met you. I have so much gratitude for the time I got to work with you and the routines and structure for caring for myself that you helped me to build.”
The bodymind practices and self-care routines that she put in place years ago now serve as the foundation of her resilience. And as she continues to employ them, she is role-modeling this self-care for her daughter, as well as for the people she works with, and for me. She is being the change, Gandhi-style. Kinda the exact opposite of selfish.
Here are my 3 tips for becoming resilient:
- Start with taking 30 minutes a day to yourself, away from any input from screens, other people, work, etc. Write, go for a walk, stretch, take a bath, get out of your head.
- Develop a relationship with your breath (if you haven’t already grabbed my free breathing meditation, get it now)
- Learn a bodymind practice like qi gong, meditation or yoga (my learn-from-anywhere qi gong class can get you started)
Like going to the gym, building up resilience takes consistent time and effort. But over time, you will be stronger than you ever thought possible.
One of the saddest things I hear in my practice is, “I must be getting old.” I hear this from patients as young as 29, and I know the feeling: nothing makes me feel like I’m 85 quite like back pain that I’ve had since I was a teenager.
Maybe you don’t have the energy you’d like. You feel stiff. Maybe your back hurts (or your hips, knees, neck, or shoulders). The world feels like it’s moving too fast. But it’s not true that you have to fall apart before you die (If you have pain in one shoulder, why not the other? – it’s the same age!). You also don’t have to live on ibuprofen and caffeine, or outsource your wellness to your doctor, acupuncturist, massage therapist, or chiropractor. It’s possible to feel younger, even as the days go by.
Little things add up. Ever notice how you get an immediate surge of energy when you get an unexpected visit or email from a dear friend you haven’t seen in years? Notice how a couple days of eating processed food while visiting family makes you feel bloated and toxic? Or how about how not getting up from your desk for 15 hours when you’re under deadline can lead you to conclude that your shoulders are now cemented to your back? These all add up. It’s the things we do every day that most determine how old we feel.
6 things I wish everyone did every day to feel great:
- Get 7-9 hours of sleep a night
- Move your body in a way that feels good
- A body-mind practice to calm your nervous system and reconnect to yourself
- Drink water (half your body weight in ounces)
- Eat whole foods (mostly plants)
- Connect with love
I excel at hiding pain. It’s pretty easy as an active, fit, thirty-something who tries to rock a positive outlook on life – I don’t fit the profile of a person in chronic pain. But for nearly 20 years, I suffered intensely with intermittent, undiagnosed abdominal pain. It would come to visit for five days at a time, making its presence known as a tight fist under my rib cage, at times breathtakingly intense. But most of the time, it was merely a persistent, exquisite distraction – a wincing seven on a scale of one to ten, making it impossible to be fully present with other people, or even to think.
Every time I saw a doctor, I’d be sent for an ultrasound, and every time, I was told that “everything’s fine.” That was as far as any physician was willing to go. I was left with no diagnosis, no treatment, and no advice as to what to do.
Over the years, I tried cutting out all sorts of different foods and tried every treatment modality I could think of. Making the rounds to different health care providers became an expensive and not-at-all-fun hobby. So I quit trying to figure it out.
Meanwhile, here’s how I made my suffering worse:
I would try to ignore it and carry on as normally as possible — an exhausting and at times impossible strategy.
I isolated myself. I would retreat behind a closed door, not wanting to burden anyone else with my pain. Plus, it didn’t fit the image of strength I was trying to project. So I cut myself off from love, empathy, and caring just when I needed it most.
I felt victimized, wondered “why me?” and felt desperate to learn whatever lesson I needed to in order to make it stop.
I resented the pain for getting in the way of my ability to be fully present for daily life, as well as the highlights: yoga teacher training, my honeymoon, a trip to Italy, visits to my family back East.
I shamed myself for not knowing what to do, for not doing enough to figure it out. I raked myself over the coals for any dietary sins: “If only you hadn’t had that cup of coffee this morning or that piece of chocolate last night, you might not be in this mess.”
I let the pain undermine my confidence as a clinician. After all, if I can’t figure myself out, what kind of a healer could I possibly be?
When I finally got decent health insurance (and a few expensive tests not previously suggested), I found out that my gall bladder didn’t work. Like, at all. (It scored an impressive zero on the HIDA scan.) I had it removed last year and have been free of this pain ever since.
I don’t miss the pain. But I am grateful for the following lessons:
1) Pain is an invitation to learn about yourself. You honor it by listening. Stay curious and keep investigating. Trust your own experience, and find health care practitioners who will trust you as well. Just because conventional medicine doesn’t have an answer doesn’t mean there isn’t one. Try different modalities, as well as different practitioners within those modalities — everyone looks through a different lens depending on his/her background and training, and everyone has their biases and blind spots. Advocate for yourself. It could save you decades of suffering.
2) You’re not alone. Pain sucks. So does feeling like you’re missing out on fully participating in life. But trust me on this: you’re so not the only one. As a clinician, I hear people describing various ailments and feeling lonely and victimized because everyone else can eat whatever they want, stay up as late as they want, overwork as much as they want, and feel fine. But here’s the secret truth: they don’t. Most people suffer unpleasant consequences for such behaviors – they just don’t talk about it. In the US, more people suffer from chronic pain than cancer, heart disease, and diabetes combined.
3) Allow the experience. Pretending it isn’t there is trying to argue with reality. It’s exhausting, isolating, and increases suffering many times over. I’m not suggesting you embrace it, love, it, or build a shrine to it; just be willing to acknowledge its existence. Give it a nod. As your resistance softens, you may even feel a bit more ease.
4) Stop blaming yourself. It’s hard enough to deal with pain without slathering on a layer of guilt. You can be doing everything “right” and still be in pain. It doesn’t mean you’re flawed; it means you’re human. It’s an inescapable part of the human experience – one that every person on the planet will experience from time to time.
5) Practice self-compassion. When someone else is in pain, what are the first feelings that come up? Empathy? A desire to help? You are just as worthy of that; give it to yourself, then do what you need to do to take care of yourself.
6) Own it. Admitting to a good friend or a partner “this sucks. I wish I could be connecting with you right now, but I can’t focus through this blinding pain,” and having them say “wow, yeah, that does suck. I get it. It’s okay.” Letting people in on what’s going on can take the pressure off of needing to feel “normal.” And it’s so much more honest and intimate than “I’m fine.”
When we are willing to acknowledge our experience of pain, we give others permission to do the same. In doing so, we poke holes in the cultural illusion that “everything’s fine,” reducing that social pressure to pretend that nothing is ever wrong or difficult. Pain then becomes a less lonely experience and induces far less guilt and shame, which makes it easier to bear. In showing up with our whole selves, even the vulnerable parts that we’d prefer were different, we allow for deeper intimacy with those around us and help create a more compassionate culture.
Last week I treated a woman who was exhibiting an all-too-common combo of stress and tiredness. And she was wondering “Am I doing enough?” Let’s see: full -time job? Check. Full-time husband? Check. Elderly parents and in-laws in need of care? Double check. Volunteer responsibilities? Checkety check. What got her questioning whether or not she’s doing enough was a phone call from her son, who wanted to know if she could help take care of the kids for the weekend. She said no, but was troubled by the thought of not doing enough to help. “I’d love to help,” she said, as the tears welled up, “but I’m just so exhausted. And I just feel so guilty for not doing more. ”
I could relate. It’s tough to feel like there’s not enough of you to go around – and easy to feel like you’re doing something wrong in saying no to someone you love.
I asked her if she had been getting enough sleep. Only on the weekends. Is she exercising 3-5 times a week like she’d like to? Not really. More like once or twice. Is she cooking healthy meals for herself regularly – a key part of our treatment strategy? Not so much. Is she making time for her spiritual practice? Yes, but she feels like she’s phoning it in. How about relaxing or connecting with friends? Ha.
So the absolute basic things she needs to be doing for her are barely happening. Should she be doing more? I’m going to go with “no.” How about slathering a thick layer guilt on top of that? No, and no.
Am I suggesting that everyone needs to get 100% of our own needs met 100% of the time before we can help other people? Of course not (otherwise no kid would ever make it to adulthood!). Part of love is service. It feels good to help out, and what that does for your spirit can often make up for deficiency of physical energy. But (for me, at least) those delicious feelings dry up under the harshness of overextending out of obligation. Then it’s not only unsustainable, it’s also likely to backfire, as the cry of unmet needs get externalized as resentment.
I would love to cure ebola. I would love to give away a billion dollars to help get this disease under control. But much as I’d love to write a check for a billion, I simply don’t have it to give away. I do have $50, which I can and will donate to the cause. It’s sustainable, in a way that taking out a payday loan in order to do my part in the global effort would not be.
Here’s the paradox: when we dedicate time to taking care of ourselves, we have more energy reserves to give to others. I know I’m a better practitioner (and friend, and wife, step-mom, course creator, and whatever else I am) when I’ve had enough sleep, when I’ve meditated and when I am moving from a place of presence than when I’m running myself into the ground.
I know this, yet I still feel guilty when I’m taking care of myself, if I know it will disappoint someone else (including my Work Self – she’s demanding!). There are two gauges to check. First, the fuel gauge: how’s my energy? Am I tired? The second is my intention. A quick check question I use is “what is my motivation?” If the answer involves a “should” or “ought to,” I let the answer be no: otherwise it’s a social expectation overriding inner wisdom. So how do you know whether you’re doing enough? If you’ve got a good amount of fuel (energy), and if you can say yes with love in your heart, go ahead and take the detour to help someone out. But if you barely have enough gas to make it to your destination, it’s probably not wise to take the detour. No one is served when you sputter to a halt.
Photo by ReubenGBrewer (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Recently one of my patients -a beautiful, strong, and conscious, woman- told me that her qi gong practice has taught her to examine the difference between health and fitness in her life. She went on to explain how some of the things she had been doing to “stay fit” were actually compromising her health. Too much running and biking were causing back pain, knee pain, and fatigue. But in moderation, these same exercises helped her feel great. Listening to her body’s wisdom, she was able to keep herself feeling pain-free and energetic through doing less of what her mind was telling her she needed in order to be fit. Some days that meant a gentle walk rather than a vigorous run.
I could relate. My own internal “should” voice can be very strong. And loud. At times shrill. And I have definite ideas about what I need to be doing in order to be healthy, which don’t always line up with what my body needs. Is it better to force myself to get up and meditate, or get an extra hour of sleep? Green smoothies can be wonderfully healthy, but is my digestive qi up to the challenge of digesting them in the cold, damp, winter? Maybe oatmeal would be a better choice. My intellectual mind doesn’t always know the answers, but my bodymind does. That information is always there when I bother to tune in and ask, rather than let my mind run the show.
Qigong is a practice of turning into the bodymind. But the benefits of the practice are not confined to the half hour of going through the qigong routine: there’s a spillover effect. Tuning into what’s going on inside moment by moment, day by day, we allow the what the Taoists call “right action” to arise by itself, which is the secret to living in harmony with nature, and with one’s own heart. And that’s where the joy lives. Interestingly enough, the 2011 study by Massachusetts General Hospital showed increased grey matter density in brain in areas associated with self-awareness, introspection, compassion, empathy, memory and learning, decision-making (plus decreased size of the region associated with stress) when participants practiced meditation for 30-minutes a day for 8 weeks.
Could you benefit from a practice of tuning in? A new qigong session begins January 4, and another on Feb. 1. I invite you to sign up.
I said this to a patient today, and her mouth literally dropped open: so radical, apparently, was the concept that we slow down BEFORE our bodies force us to, out of sheer exhaustion.
This is winter — nature is hibernating, and so too should we be. I find that the same schedule that felt fine to me a few months ago now feels draining. I need more sleep, I’m craving time alone. I want to curl up and read with my cat. And I have been hearing a similar refrain from almost every person who has passed through my office in the past few weeks. Hence this blog post: you are not alone if you feel exhausted. Especially if instead of doing less, you are packing more into your schedule to prepare for the holidays.
So here’s my radical proposition: what would it be like to feel rested and peaceful for the next two weeks? Conjure that up internally. Now, what could you do to get there? Is it going to bed an hour earlier? Lowering your expectations of how your house has to look? Taking a half an hour to walk outside to give yourself a break from the houseful of people you love? How could you stop the yang (activity) madness and be truly rejuvenated by yin (rest)?
I’d love to hear your intentions.
I’d edit this post, but it’s past my bedtime.
Wishing you and your loved ones the happiest and most peaceful of holidays.
A colleague showed up at my office yesterday and asked “what are you doing tonight at 7:30?” For the first time in weeks, the answer was “I don’t have any plans, actually.” She smiled, presented me with a free ticket to the Aviv String Quartet’s performance that her husband wasn’t able to use, and left.
As I sat in the concert hall, listening, the music worked its magic. It felt as though the sound waves were massaging my brain into a dreamy, peaceful, yet creative and inspiring state. I came out of it feeling deeply rejuvenated, like an especially deep meditation or trip to “acu-land.” While feeling deeply grateful that I was there having this experience, I was reminded of this passage from the Tao Te Ching:
We join spokes together in a wheel,
but it is the center hole
that makes the wagon move.
We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.
We hammer wood for a house,
but it is the inner space
that makes it livable.
We work with being,
but non-being is what we use.
–Tao Te Ching interpreted by Stephen Mitchell
If there’s no space, nothing happens. We need yin to engender yang.
It’s so easy for me to see space as simply something that needs to be filled up. This keeps me very busy (usually with things I love!) but doesn’t allow for a whole lot of spontaneity. What would happen if I left a little more space ?
In the Pacific Northwest, where I live and practice Chinese Medicine, the cessation of the long rainy season (late June this year) marks the dramatic start of summer, and people take off running. More than a few patients report that there is so much they want experience this summer that they pack their schedules full: entertaining a string of out-of-town guests, tending enormous gardens, going on epic hikes and bike rides, lots of parties and cookouts. And yet, with all the doing of these activities which should add up to satisfaction from getting the most out of life, many people confess to feeling depleted. They are exhausted as they attempt to keep up with the demands of the season. Feelings of depression often accompany such fatigue — feelings which can be confusing because adding more “fun stuff” to their schedule is not actually increasing their joy—it’s depleting it! What is happening here is that people are getting caught up in the yang of the season, expending too much of their own yang qi, and burning up their yin in the process.
Summer is the most yang of the seasons. It is associated with the element of Fire, the emotion of joy. As we resonate with the season, the urge to do more, to get up earlier and stay up later, and to be more social is natural. But too much of that throws us off balance. Even in the summer, it’s not daytime all the time — we still have to cycle through nighttime. And living in a culture that already emphasizes yang over yin — doing over being — no matter what the season, it doesn’t take much to tip the balance.
To help you make the most of this active, vibrant season while still feeling exuberant yourself, I offer four tips:
- Begin the day with gratitude. What do you appreciate about your life right now, without doing a thing?
- Schedule in unstructured time. Yes, I’m encouraging you somewhat ironically to plan to be spontaneous. Doing what feels right in the moment is one of the virtues of the Fire element.
- Take time to be alone. Some people need this more than others, but even the most natural extroverts need time to connect with themselves in order to connect authentically with others.
- Balance your active, productive, busy yang schedule by adding yin items to your “to do” list. Anything restful, quiet, and peaceful qualifies. I suggest actually writing in the yin elements of your schedule. Putting a check mark next to “sit outside and appreciate the flowers” helps to satisfy the need to accomplish something while ensuring that what you’re accomplishing actually leads to feelings of joy, rather than burnout.
May you enjoy the season to the fullest!
Grab my free ebook: 5 Biohacks to Relieve Stress and start letting it go. You’ll also get other self-care tips and inspiration, just a few times a month.