Category Archives: Lifestyle

My Shiny Old Tea Kettle

Chances are if you’ve been around my blog for any length of time,  you’ve seen this tea kettle.   It is the first thing my husband and I bought together for our kitchen.  I suppose we’ve had it for fourteen years, or so now.   We use it every day.

It had started to get a little dingy over the last few years. It  wasn’t whistling properly any longer and it was taking forever to heat water. One day, back in early November, I noticed that my tea tasted funny that morning and I really inspected the tea kettle.   I realized that a lot of gunk had built up on the bottom while I was ignoring it.   I thought about throwing it away and getting myself one of those fancy electric tea kettles.   I actually had it sitting in the Goodwill pile and had a fancy new kettle in my Amazon cart.

But you know,  I thought about watching it spit and sputter in a vain attempt to whistle and  I felt some compassion for it.  Odd isn’t it,  to feel compassion for something that is failing you?   Having been a broken thing once in my life, I get it.

I looked at it closely and I was pretty sure I could make it work again.   More importantly, I really love my  tea kettle. It has been there for me every groggy morning for a very long time now;  I have  pretty much built my morning routine around the amount of time it takes to whistle.  It has helped me nurse sick little children and make ice tea for special visitors.

The kettle definitely needed some work.  I took a little screwdriver to it and fixed the whistle.  I cleaned it and got some fine steel wool and polished until it was shiny, again.  Every week since then, I’ve been boiling white vinegar in it- cleaning out the gunk that had built up the bottom.

Today, as I was making my morning brew,  I realized that the little kettle is looking pretty shiny and new.   It’s been heating water a lot faster and it tastes better, too.  That’s not to say that there isn’t still some gunk to clean out,  but I love that I was able to make it work again, when others would have given up on it.

Some of my friends accuse me of being afraid of change, or putting too much effort into reclaiming things that are old and broken. I find it ironic, sometimes, that these are the same people who value me for my loyalty.  I am not without common sense, though.  If it quits working again, I will have to replace it.

Today, though,  I am just happy to watch my shiny old  tea kettle whistle.

 

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.

Engaging in Meaningful Behaviors

There are so many aspects of learning to relax and cope with stress in life that I was really struggling with where to start.   I decided that the best place to start was in learning to engage in meaningful behaviors which create positive emotions.   The positive emotions that you create in your mind will help to stimulate the parasympathetic division of your nervous system and have health producing results.

To begin with you should take a moment to assess your current coping mechanisms or stress responses and brainstorm positive actions with which you could replace the negative ones.  You might want to take a moment to fill out this Self Identity Questionnaire.

It helps you to assess where you are in life,  your beliefs,  your goals and how you want to be perceived by others.   Next, fill out this worksheet on Coping with Stress

Incorporate positive  actions which are in keeping with your identity and goals as alternatives to your current coping mechanisms or unhealthy behaviors.  Try to make them specific and realistic.   Here are a few  examples from mine:

Replace morning coffee with nourishing infusion.

Rather than listening to the news, consequently getting angry about the current state of the world,  spend time in the morning reading positive reading material or writing a letter to a friend.

Instead of raising my voice with the children, belt out a silly song to get their attention.   This tends to get their attention and results in giggles;  rather than tears and frustration.

Stop  staying up and playing on the computer at night,  go to bed and cuddle with Steve.

When I find myself laying awake at night with a racing mind, use guiding imagery to help me sleep.

When this was done, I decided to make the following poster for my fridge to remind me of my desired actions and things that I can do which make me happy.

StressRelieversThat is a lot of work for one blog post.   If you have followed me this far, you should be feeling as though you have generated some positive alternatives for current behaviors which are adding to your stress load.  It takes a lot of practice to incorporate these new more meaningful behaviors.  You can work on one at a time until it becomes a habit,  but I think it is helpful to have planned which new strategy you  are going to employ in each situation.     Don’t be too hard on yourself if something doesn’t work the first few times and be open to changing something up if it isn’t feeling good to you.

What Relaxation Does for You

 

Your body is an amazing device.  It wants to create balance–known as homeostasis in biology nerd circles– in your life.    The two divisions of your autonomic nervous system serve to maintain this balance.    In the same way that the sympathetic nervous systems actions can be described as “fight-and-flight”,   the parasympathetic nervous system actions can be termed “rest-and-digest”.    Thus relaxation helps your body to restore itself.

When your parasympathetic nervous system is triggered, your blood begins to travel to the periphery and blood sugar levels normalize.  Your blood pressure drops and your breathing rate slows.     Your digestion system also comes back online.   Salivation increases and the activity of your stomach, pancreas and intestines increase.  The gallbladder is stimulated to release bile.  Consequently, your digestion improves.  If you think about this anthropologically it makes complete sense,  the sympathetic division prepares you for the hunt while the parasympathetic division prepares you for the feast.

People who complain of digestive disorders may be experiencing stress overload.   For some people stress may also lead to a decrease in appetite.    This would explain why some people lose weight due to stress.   That isn’t always the case due .  People under chronic stress  are not  digesting foods properly.  Also, cortisol slows the metabolism and low bile production results in improperly  metabolized  fats.  There is also the emotional aspects of turning to “comfort food” to consider.   Few people consider veggies and salads among those foods that support them emotionally.   So honestly, the weight issue can go out-of-balance in either direction due to stress.

The neurotransmitter effector of the parasympathetic division is acetylcholine.    In addition,  acetylcholine helps stimulate the hippocampus to make memories which would explain why  difficulty with memory and learning can also be a symptom of  stress.   Sometimes this works to your advantage in helping you forget traumatic event such as an injury or childbirth but again long-term stress is a different creature entirely.  When stress-related memory difficulties persist, they can lead to performance issues at work or school.

Common Misconceptions about Relaxation

“I get plenty of relaxation ,  I am sitting at a desk or  watching television for hours every day.”

Sympathetic stress reactions can occur due to physical, mental or emotional stress; however the reaction always results in an adrenaline surge which creates excess physical energy.  If you haven’t managed to  release whatever sort of pent of energy is coursing around in your body, it often comes out when you least expect it.    Thus  irrational, sometimes violent,  outbursts are considered a symptom of stress.  Anxiety and panic attacks may arise due to pent up stress, as well.

“I relax when I sleep.”

You might think that you are relaxing when you are sleeping,  but that is often not the case.   If pent up energy doesn’t come out during the day,  it often comes out at night.    This occurs frequently to me.   I am troubled by insomnia despite being utterly exhausted, mentally.   I toss and turn fitfully and am frequently awakened; sometimes by dreams that have triggered panic attacks.

“A few drinks every evening helps me to relax.

It is possible that  a glass of red wine or two will help counteract stress, however then one gets into the dangerous position of using alcohol as a coping mechanism.  For those who don’t have addictive personalities,  this isn’t necessarily a problem.   But it can be the path to alcoholism and create more problems than it solves.

“Sex helps me to relieve stress.”

This isn’t really a misconception, having sex is a great way to work off stress.  I just wanted to see if you were really paying attention.   Sex as a stress release only becomes a problem if it leads to self-esteem issues , due to compromising your morals,  or if you are having unsafe sex.  My professor pointed out that  people who have difficulty achieving orgasm may be suffering from  stress related symptoms, because it is   parasympathetic nervous system which causes orgasmic contractions.    If this is an issue for you,  you should work to find ways to resolve the problem because  having sex without climaxing can also leave you with pent-up energy which expresses itself through other outlets.   There is a reason for  the term “sexual frustration.”

So you can see that it is very important to your health and well-being to achieve balance between the two divisions of your autonomous nervous system.     I will begin to address methods of reducing stress and relieving the symptoms of stress tomorrow.