Category Archives: Handmade Holidays

Handmade Holidays

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One of the ways to simplify the holidays is by assessing your resources as far as gift giving goes. I am not going to go into the larger debate of the necessity of this custom. It is a long standing tradition dating back to antiquity and it makes me happy. Enough said.

The trick is not to let it stress you out. If you have more money than time, it probably isn’t a good idea to stretch yourself by starting a lot of projects. There are plenty of craft shows and local merchants to support this time of year. I actually plan on listing some things I have for sale locally, here on the blog next week.

That is definitely not the case around here this year. I have next to no budget, but I have time on my hands. I have been Pinterest-ing up a storm, looking for homemade gift ideas that I can make from my herb closet and the  piles of neglected craft supplies around here.

Take for example today’s project. I already had the materials kicking around. So for the price of one of these at the store, I can make six. (Honestly, I had the stainless steel straws, too. I planned on doing this last year.) There are a lot of patterns out there for crocheting cozies and sewing the covers, but I wanted to keep it quick, simple and cheap.  I have a lot of old wool sweaters saved, so I used the sleeves to sew these.

If I were going to give these as gifts, I would tuck them in a basket with a beverage tea blend that would be good cold, although you can use these like insulated mugs for hot beverages, too.  Another fun thing to give with these would be a bitters blend and some sparkling water.

I will post a few of my projects on here over the next few weeks.  But I have a few ideas on the blog in the Handmade Holidays category. also.

Candied Orange Peel

I love orange peels more than I enjoy eating oranges. I use dried orange peels in my tea blends. I even clean with vinegar I’ve infused with orange peels.

Candied orange peels are like a dream come true for me, because I can literally snack on my favorite part of the orange. They replace an after dinner mint as a good digestif, too.

Making this confection doesn’t take as long as you might think.
To begin with you will need to have some sort of simple syrup made up ahead of time to candy orange peels the way I do.   Yesterday I made pine syrup because of Kiva’s post the other day.  In the past, I have used chocolate syrup and vanilla.  Chocolate is probably my favorite, but I have a sentimental attachment to chocolate oranges.

Now you will need some organic oranges.  I started with four today.  Peel the oranges with a vegetable peeler to get strips that are fairly free of the white pith.

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Try to use just the decent size strips. Some will break and peel but don’t worry this pile of pith and bits of peel goes into a chocolate-orange bitters recipe. I tend to run cold, constitutionally, so orange peels are one of my favorite bitters due to their warming qualities.

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Once you have your strips of orange peel you are going to want to blanch them. To do this put them in a saucepan of cold water and bring the water to a boil. Strain this water off and blanch them again. This will mitigate some of the bitterness, although honestly I like bitter so I only blanch mine once.

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You can use the water you strain off for decocting a beverage. I have a pan with some pine, rosemary and astragalus, simmering on the stove.

Once you have your blanched orange peels you are going to want to put them in a saute pan, cover them with simple syrup and cook them until they become a little more translucent.

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This takes some experimentation. If you cook them too long, they start to curl up and are very brittle. You want them to be a little chewy.  The rule of thumb is about three minutes, but it really depends on the size of your strips.   After they have simmered in the syrup, remove them and roll them in sugar, making sure both sides are coated.  Leave them on the rack to dry for a bit, then store in a covered container.

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Avoiding Seasonal Overwhelm

overwhelmTo switch gears a little, I would like to revisit managing stress, anxiety and anger. Over the years, I’ve written various posts about this topic.  If there is one thing that anyone who works in wellness can tell you, it is that chronic stress is one of the biggest challenges modern humans face.

Emotions can run high this time of year, as we approach the upcoming festivities with varying degrees of anticipation or trepidation.  Normal everyday stress is compounded by additional feelings this time of year that can create anger or anxiety for many people. It seems appropriate to do some proactive thinking about how to avoid those holiday meltdowns.

Anger is an emotion we all experience from time-to-time. Like the stress response, anger is also initiated by the amygdala. This structure is designed to trigger immediate physical reactions, long before any information reaches the cortex and good judgment takes hold. This is important to understand because it is why we often have irrational outbursts when we become angry.

When the amygdala is triggered by an upsetting event, neurotransmitters immediately trigger the release of catecholamines, which boost our energy levels but deplete our body of sugars. This is why some people shake when they are angry, or frightened. Soon after a cascade of reactions in the body trigger the release of hormones such as adrenalin and noradrenalin, prep our body for confrontation.

It is very similar to the stress response in that we are supercharged for action. Muscles tighten and tense. Our heart rate and respiration quicken. We might grind our teeth or clench our fists. Chemicals in our body, which cause blood to clot more quickly, kick in. A study done in 2004 showed that people who are habitually angry have a “10 percent greater risk of developing a heart flutter called atrial fibrillation” and are more likely to experience strokes. (1)

Anger affects mental functioning, as well. When we are in this highly charged state, memory becomes impaired. This is why it can be quite difficult to remember the things you say when you are truly angry. This adrenalin can stay with us for days. It can hinder our ability to concentrate and it shortens our fuse. We might notice that we start picking fights over things that would not normally upset us.

It can be difficult to distinguish between the stress response and the anger response. A significant difference is that instead of increasing alertness and awareness of our surroundings, anger may cause us to focus our attention on that which has made us angry-whether a person or a situation. Therefore, if you find your brain fixating on one person or situation, it is likely that generalized stress is not the culprit.

It is even more difficult to distinguish between anger and fear. Fear has a very similar physiological profile as anger. Some people even become aggressive in the face of fear which leads to anger being considered a possible symptom of anxiety. One way to differentiate fear from anger is by paying attention to the electrical conductivity of your body. People who are angry tend become hot and flushed, while people who are afraid are more likely to feel cold and look pale.

Thankfully, we don’t have to engage in too much deep introspection to be able to begin to address the physiological effects of these states of being. There are practices that we can incorporate into our daily life which reduce stress and feelings of anxiety or anger.  There is still time to incorporate some of them into your daily regimen, before the holiday overwhelm strikes.

Abdominal Breathing
Most Americans breathe improperly from the chest, which can limit the amount of oxygen we take in and may trigger the sympathetic nervous system. Breathing deeply from your abdomen is important to your health because it promotes optimal oxygen exchange. This in turn promotes relaxation and releases tension in the body. The diaphragm also serves a secondary role in helping to promote lymphatic circulation. It is a good to try to break yourself of the habit of breaking from your chest. If you find that difficult, even 15-20 minutes of daily focused abdominal breathing has benefits. It is especially useful to use this practice to calm down in a moment of overwhelm.

Relax
Remember to take time to relax.  There is so much truly lovely holiday music out there. Pipe calming soothing sounds throughout your day.  Take long candlelit baths.  Have a hot herbal footsoak.   Do Sudoku.   Whatever you find relaxing, take time to do it.

Exercise
Daily exercise helps to alleviate stress and work off nervous energy. Walking is especially good for this if you can take the time to walk away from a situation in which you are angry. There are additional benefits to walking in nature. In recent years a great deal of study has been devoted to the effects of green spaces on human well-being, leading one group of researchers to coin the term “Vitamin G” in reference to time spent in green places. Spending time in nature, gardening or forest bathing, has shown to mitigate the effects of stress. Japanese researchers studying the traditional practice of forest bathing or Shinrin-yoku concluded “forest environments promote lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rate, and lower blood pressure, greater parasympathetic nerve activity, and lower sympathetic nerve activity.” (2) Swiss researchers found that gardening leads to decreases in cortisol which “promote neuroendocrine and affective restoration from stress.” (3)

Traditional Meditation
Traditional Meditation involves cultivating stillness in the body and concentrating the mind on one thought. This website has some good tips for beginners. I admit that I personally do not resonate with traditional mediation practices, as I tend to have difficulties being still. I do find guided meditation useful at bedtime.

Moving Meditation
When I was taking a class on anxiety with Sarah Van Hoy a couple of years ago, class discussion turned to the fact that meditation can occur while moving. Yoga can be a very meditative practice. Tai Chi, Aikido and Qigong are all examples of ancient martial arts, which involve breath work, intention and flowing movements. There are also guided meditations specifically designed for use while walking.

Drumming as Meditation
The repetitive nature of the drum beat leads to a synchronous pattern of neural firing in the auditory pathway, which is perceived in the brain. Scientific studies have verified the physiological and psychological effects of this perception. In one study, researchers measured alpha waves by means of EEG to study response to tempo and mode of music concluded, “tempo was found to modulate the emotional ratings with faster tempi being more associated with emotions of anger and happiness as opposed to slow tempi, which induced stronger feelings of sadness and serenity.”  (4)  Another recent study successfully used alpha wave fluctuations to measure mood states. (5) Alpha waves are a brain wave which range from 8-12 c.p.s and are indicative of a state of “relaxed wakefulness” and are typical of the type of brain waves present during meditation. (6)

References
1) New York Times, “National Briefing: Science and Health: The Lethal Effects of Anger,” New York Times, March 2, 2004. http://www.nytimes.com/2004/03/02/us/national-briefing-science-and-health-the-lethal-effects-of-anger.html
2) Groenewegen, et al., “Vitamin G: effects of green space on health, well-being and social safety” BMC Public Health, 6 (2006): 10.1186/1471-2458-6-149.
3) Agnes Van Den Berg, “Gardening Promotes Neuroendocrine and Affective Restoration from Stress,” Journal of Health Psychology 16(2011): 3.
4) K. Trochidis, and E. Bigand,  “Investigation of the effect of mode and tempo on emotional responses to music using EEG power asymmetry.” Journal of Psychophysiology, 27(2013): 146.
5)  Chen, X., Takahashi, I., et al.  “Psychological responses to sound stimuli evaluated by alpha wave fluctuations.” Journal of Psychophysiology, 27(2013):129.
6)  R McClellan. The Healing Forces of Music: History Theory and Practice. (Lincoln: Excel. 2000), 910.