Insomnia: More than Misery

Worried about losing sleep? You should be. Once dismissed as a situational malady that would eventually correct itself, chronic sleep deprivation is now seen as a major health risk.

 

Did you know that as few as two sleepless nights can compromise your functioning at the level that chemical intoxication can? Irritability, emotional reactivity, poor response time, compromised balance and coordination are obvious symptoms. Car accidents, relationship problems, and poor work performance often follow.

 

Over time, your immune system may be compromised. You’re more prone to infections and illnesses. As the problem progresses, your risk is increased for major health problems like heart disease and diabetes.

 

Insomnia can be caused by a number of problems. Life stressors, anxiety, depression, and other health problems are often at the root. One particularly dicey feature of insomnia is that it is often both cause and effect of mental or physical illness. (Try going without sleep for a few days and not feeling depressed or ill!)

 

Physicians sometimes miss the significance of insomnia during a routine exam. Patients themselves sometimes downplay the problem. Doctors may be pressed for time, or unfamiliar with the symptoms and risks. So what can you do?

If you haven’t explored lifestyle approaches, here are some to try: Set a regular bedtime and stick to it, even on weekends. Create a soothing bedtime ritual. Warm baths, warm milk, and a high protein, complex carbohydrate snack often help to induce sleep. (Avoid alcohol; while it can help induce sleep, the drop in blood sugar as alcohol metabolizes can cause late night awakening or restless nights).   Keep your bedroom cool and as dark as possible, and avoid screen time one hour before retiring; computers, phones, pads, and other electronics send a wakeup call to the brain.

 

Make sure you get plenty of exercise, sunshine, and fresh air during the day. Exercise and sunshine help to regulate circadian rhythms in the brain, and to create the good-tired feeling with the best friend of sleep.

 

A number of therapeutic approaches can help. Hypnosis, guided imagery, massage therapy, and acupuncture are useful. Talk-therapy to sort out your stressors or problems may be a key. And many safe medications are available. Trust your physician to help you make a decision if you decide to go that route.

 

Good sleep is a necessity, not a luxury. Like good food, it provides fuel to be your healthiest, best self.  It’s a gift that you give to yourself.asleep copy

On Sharing A Common History

Bygones become blessings given the passage of time.  I see it reflected in the eyes of old friends and colleagues, and think:  How little I knew you back then.  How beautiful you were…and are.  And what a wonder to be growing older in community with you.

 

Sometimes the voices of loved ones whisper in dreams at night.  Sometimes, like yesterday, they show up in the day-world.  Like a mosaic made of beautiful shards, the broken places constellate a welcoming light,  a quiet celebration of homecoming.  IMG_2559And I, on an ordinary weekday, am alive enough to be present to it .

Pure grace

Praying with Our Feet

A simple walk.  Well…a long simple walk.  A group of companions gathered together today to “pray with our feet,” to begin Holy Week by walking four miles in commemoration of immigrants.  We remembered the disenfranchised who come to this country in search of opportunity, who seek work honorably, to educate their children, to live in a land of safety and justice where human dignity and freedom are valued.

Christians and Muslims and Jews, people of different languages and cultures, walked quietly, side by side.  It was a pilgrimage of the heart without political intent.  It was a way of remembering those who walk everywhere they go, who are poor, who live without benefit of driver’s licenses, who live in fear of being arrested and deported.  People who work hard under temporary visas, seeking help through every possible legal channel for the privilege of what I myself take for granted–citizenship in a country that provides me with the right to vote, earn a living, educate my children, and make my voice heard without fear of reprisal,  An imperfect country, yes, but a land of plenty where offering solace and support, hospitality and protection have traditionally been central to our identity in the world.  A land of laws and not personalities.

Racism, exclusivism and xenophobia are not new.  What’s new is that, in this era of political correctness, alienation of the Other is becoming the social norm.  People cheer when political leaders speak with disdain–with hatred and blame–of those who are different and who dare to seek citizenship in this country.

It’s foolish.  It’s arrogant.  It’s wasteful.  How much talent, hard work, cultural richness and diversity do we openly scorn and reject?  What is the cost to the soul of our country?

It’s perhaps a cliche to say that we’re all immigrants here–but cliches are often based in truth.  We’re immigrants.  We’re pilgrims.  We’re visitors here.   I so easily forget those truths.

Remembering fills me with both despair and hope.  I’m only one person, as the saying goes.  What can I possibly do?

Holy Week pilgrimageBut today, I took a simple walk.  Today, I prayed with my feet.

 

The Buddhist and the Drunk

The Buddhist and the Drunk

panhandler-1057145-640x832I recently read a story about a young schoolteacher who was racing through a parking lot after a quick trip to the grocery store. Approached by a homeless woman, the young man started to  rush away.  Instead, he paused and turned to the woman. Remembering not to give money to panhandlers, he offered to buy her food from the deli.

She visibly salivated at the array of selections, and chose a fat ham and cheese sandwich. She hesitated. Could she have another? The man agreed. Then she paused, her eyes brimming with tears of shame, and she asked: Could she have a beer?

The man was a recovering alcoholic. He knew all too well of the woman’s cravings.   He also knew about codependency, the rule about not feeding into the woman’s addiction. But he said, “I felt that if I could relieve her pain–even for ten minutes–it would be an act of kindness.” He bought her the beer and the sandwiches.

As they parted in the parking lot, she hung her head and uttered a soft thank-you. His parting response was simple:  ” We have to look after one another.”

The man was a Buddhist as well as an alcoholic. But in that instance, he chose simple kindness over his own rule of life. He simply responded to suffering.

I wonder what I would have done. Would I have stopped in the first place? Taken time from the rush of my day in order to walk back into the store?   Spent time with a woman who was unkempt–and probably dirty and smelly?

And what would I have done with her asking for the beer?  Sensed her suffering and her fear of my judgment? Bought the beer?  Or would maybe I would have referred her to a rehab program or to an AA group.

Each would have been a “correct” response. I hope that I would have acted in empathy. And I hope that I would have blessed her with the words, “We have to look after one another.”  Simple acts of kindness–choosing compassion–looking after one another–is radical love.

Acts of kindness.  Choosing compassion.  Looking after one another.  In the end, it’s our only hope.

Ethics, Integrity, and Holding the World…

the-earth-2-1414817-1279x852Our ethical standards inhabit a place where morality, law, expedience, values, and a shared group code of conduct come together. My colleagues this week will be meeting in that place to be educated, challenged, and enlightened.

We’re Social Workers. People helpers. Change agents with a noble calling. As I anticipate the meeting, I picture a group gathered round a table.

It’s not an easy conversation. Each voice speaks loudly of its own convictions. Who can argue that morality is a key to helping others? Or that a nation of laws provides an escape from the insufferable morality which is fueled by self-righteousness? Or that “Do SOMETHING, even if it’s wrong” can provides welcome (if counterfeit) relief from the numbing drone of debate?

The talk is unrelentless, but it’s also a key to our awakening. Because somewhere after we tire of the noise, we realize that deep within us lies a gift. It’s the gift of listening. And it’s where our integrity lives.

Integrity is the quiet welcoming place where the cacophony of voices can be stilled. It’s the place where our self-contradictions, conflicting values, and ambivalent loyalties can be known. It’s the place where anxiety and judgment can be relinquished in favor of relaxed curiosity. And relaxed curiosity may be the embodiment of ethics, in thought, action, and speech.

When we’re curious, we can’t be anxious or defensive. We’re open to new information. We’re not fettered by delusions that our being good means that somebody else must be bad.

Ethical questions call us to live in the presence of our own integrity. Our conflicting selves are transformed (“integrated”) into a robust, life-giving whole.

We listen. We learn. And we come to know that ethical living means consciously knowing that– together– we hold the very world in our hands.

Medication: It’s Only Part of the Treatment

Testing. Psychiatrists. Hospitals. Medicine. If you have a relative with a mental illness, you probably know the drill.

Medication has revolutionized psychiatric care. Eighty years ago, the standard treatment was limited to restraints, electroshock therapy, and seclusion. The treatment seemed as cruel as the disease when psychiatry was in its infancy.

The advent of neuroleptic (anti-psychotic) medication made a world of difference, not only in treatment, but in attitudes. If mental illness is a medical disease, after all, it must not be (as was once believed) a moral weakness in the patient or the family.

I’m thankful for that contribution. In my 40 years of practice, I’ve seen a refinement in psychotropic drugs that has revolutionalized our culture. Who knew, for example, that depression was an illness instead of a defect in attitude, until millions of people felt their attitude and energy profoundly improved by Prozac?

But the “medicalization” of mental health treatment has had its darker side. We need to remind ourselves that mental patients don’t just need to be chemically treated.

Mental patients need what all of us need. They need socialization and artistic expression. They need loving arms and warm encouragement. They need intellectual stimulation and contact with nature. They need to paint, to garden, to sing, to take care of pets, to walk in the sunshine.

Mental patients often aren’t able to verbalize what they need. They aren’t able to say, “I need a challenge,” or “I need a hug,” or “I need a walk,” or “I need to spend an hour with my hands in the dirt and my face in the sun.” And often, they aren’t able to say “Thank you.”

As relatives and friends of those who suffer with mental illness, we are challenged to do double duty. We are challenged to say “Thank you,” when we see our loved ones performing a small kindness. We are challenged to say, “Great job!” when we see caregivers or family members being thoughtful, in subtle or dramatic ways. We are challenged, most of all not to judge.

Facing mental illness is a steep enough challenge. It’s easy to say of family members and caregivers, “Why aren’t they more concerned?” It’s easy to say of those afflicted with mental illness, “Why doesn’t she just try harder?” It’s easy to fall into the trap of feeling that medication should be enough—and to forget the difference that each of us can make by being warm and present to one another.

People of all races, religions, sex, and age are susceptible to mental illness. Periods of paralyzing anxiety, depression, distorted thinking, or PTSD have been rightfully called diseases of the brain.

They’re also diseases of the soul. Let’s remember that small kindnesses—and fresh air and sunshine—are as crucial as medical treatment.

Reflections on Energy Healing

“I just don’t have any energy.”  It’s the complaint that doctors and therapists hear the most. We think about energy as a thing to be spent or saved, like money in the bank. And most of us feel overdrawn.

Other cultures think about it differently. Known as Universal Life Force, the Aura, Prana, Chi, or the Subtle Body, energy is seen in Eastern and indigenous cultures as the pure essence of who we are. The physical body doesn’t simply use, produce, or even serve as the “vessel” of energy. The body is the outward and physical manifestation of the energy field created by very soul itself.

All of this may sound a little cosmic to our Western ears. Our dualistic worldview divides reality into neatly defined categories—body/mind, good/evil, religious/secular. The mysticism of the Jewish-Christian heritage gets overlooked in favor of a more pragmatic, concretely focused belief system. We forget that prayer is the most common form of energy healing. We embrace the fantasy that one kind of healing always precludes another.

But energy healing is finding its place among even the most traditional among us.  Practitioners are burgeoning, offering a variety of techniques ranging from Healing Touch to Quigong, to Thought Field Therapy, treating a variety of physical and emotional symptoms.bioenergia

Rather than treating the mechanism of the body through the traditional methods of chemical and surgical intervention, energy healing helps redirect the flow of life so that health can be optimized. The subtle levels treated by energy healers include 1.  the meridians or invisible channels within the body through which energy flows to supply the vital tissues and organs and  2.  The aura, or the energies that surround the physical body.

I learned about energy healing through a quirk of curiosity, a desire to seek greater meaning and wholeness for myself, and a heartfelt desire to provide quicker symptom relief for trauma, depression, and anxiety in my clients.  As a dyed-in-the-wool traditionalist, I don’t cotton very well to promises of instant cures that bypass the hard work of learning to know ourselves.  But as another traditional psychotherapist commented to me recently, “Thought Field Therapy (the technique most commonly used by therapists) works.  It’s embarrassing that it works—but it does.”  I resonated with the sentiment.

Energy healing works best when it is used in combination with traditional medicine and/or psychotherapy.  On the physical level, energy work helps to alleviate pain and nausea after chemotherapy, and induces a profound state of relaxation so that the body can devote itself to healing.  Extensive research indicates that energy work can speed the healing time for cuts and fractures by half—and that it enhances the quality of life during the time of recuperation.  My own experience as a psychotherapist echoes that phenomenon; when energy psychology  is combined with traditional talk therapy,  judicious use of medication, and lifestyle changes, my patients report significantly enhanced relief from anxiety, depression, and stress.

 

 

 

Living on Holiday

butterfly

“Staycation” is an over-used word, but being on holiday is a way of life for me. A sense of spaciousness to dream and think, time for gardening and reading and artwork, working out at the gym, cooking and eating fresh vegetables. Day-trips to offbeat and little-known places along country roads surrounding my community. Spending leisurely time with family and friends. . And working in a profession that I love. This lifestyle was a dream that materialized over time. For years, I worked long and grueling hours in an effort to adapt to a world of workaholism and grim duty. I realized gradually that time is more important than money to me, and that work settings too often are hotbeds of anxiety that kill creativity and turn good work into drudgery. Years ago, a friend and colleague suggested that this way of life was possible–even crucial–for me. I didn’t fully believe her, but I held the vision, knowing that my profession required a spirit of playfulness and hope and love of life. Traveling can be fun and enriching and adventurous. But my threshold for pleasure has become gloriously low. Each day is an opportunity to “vacate” a constricting belief in favor of the freedom inhabiting my own life.