Two Simple Tips for Grounding Before Work

I wanted to share two little things that I do with my work setup to help ground me at the start of my day.

First, consider what’s in front of your eyes after your computer boots up? Choose a computer wallpaper to anchor you. Pick a calming scene, one that’s meaningful enough to tweak your emotional state. This is going to be different and personal for everyone. It might be random nature scenes, photos of people you care about, photos from places that you’ve visited, abstract images that you find peace-inducing and the like.

I have this image as my computer wallpaper and imagine how nice it would be to pet her when things at work get rough.

As an example, I currently have the head of a beautiful black panther poking out through lush green leaves as my background. The photo is highly detailed and when I look close at it, I am drawn in by the soft fur around her face, I imagine what it would feel like to scratch her behind the ears and “boop” her on the nose, even imagine her purring in whatever way panthers purr. This wallpaper allows me to slip away into big cat fantasies for a few seconds when I need a break, using all my senses to imagine what it would be like to interact with her.

It’s not just about finding the right image, however. While I currently use this panther as my grounding and relaxation anchor, if I go through a particularly stressful period of time where there’s a lot of anxiety at work, I will change the background to something different after the stress subsides.

Why? Humans tend to be visual creatures and we make strong associations that we’re not always aware of. If you’ve been looking at the same image while you’re close to having panic attacks, it’s time to change the image. Trust me on this one–it has to do with associative learning (think Pavlov’s dogs, except without the salivation).

I did this after going through cancer treatment. Done with chemo? Changed the background. Finished up radiation and herceptin? Changed the background. As much as I liked the backgrounds I was using, it felt great to get something fresh up on my monitors. It felt like a new start and I really needed that.

The second tip I have is equally simple and has the added benefit of being helpful in terms of computer security .

Find a phrase that makes you feel good? Turn it into the passphrase that you type every morning!

Change your password to a passphrase that inspires you or calms you. How would it feel to recite an affirmation or words of encouragement when you log into your work computer every morning? Make it so. It could be an expression of self-worth (iAM-D3$ervinG0fLoVe), a reminder to stretch (r0llY*ur$hou1d3rs) or any other positive phrase (th1s2$hallP@ss-Justbr3@the). It might be that little thing you need to give your day a teensy push in a positive direction.

For additional cyber-protection, stick in a word from another language –perhaps the sanskrit version of your favorite yoga pose?

The above tips are not earth-shatteringly novel concepts, but they are remarkably effective. Give them a try and see if they make your day a little more bearable.

Victims of Our Own Success: Premature Aging in Cancer Patients and What You Can Do About It

So this isn’t the kind of news you want to see. But there’s still hope…

A scientific journal article from 2017 (Cupit-Link et al., 2017, ESMO Open) describes the toll that cancer treatments can take on the patients subjected to them.

After being told you have cancer and deciding to proceed with the treatments that will offer you the best chance of survival…it’s disheartening to learn that many of those same treatments can accelerate aging, causing damage to your DNA, heart disease, hearing loss, cataracts, liver and kidney diseases, brittle bones, lowered immune response and other cancers (!) among other issues, depending on the type of cancer and treatment (see WebMD article).

The treatments that can save our lives from cancer may hasten our demise from age-related factors.

This is a problem resulting, ironically, from the success of treatments and extended lifespan of cancer survivors. Back when cancer was deadly with a low survival rate, no one was too concerned about the state in which survivors were left in; simply surviving the cancer was enough. Now that people are beating their cancers at greater rates, quality of life has become a much bigger issue.

While the most striking detriments are seen in childhood cancer survivors, accelerated aging occurs in most former cancer patients.

Doctors and researchers are taking note. At the time of this scientific article’s publishing in Dec 2017, there was already discussion on how to “de-escalate” cancer treatments as a way to decrease the amount of cellular damage to patients.

On a personal level, I chose an effective drug for my HER2+ breast cancer (Herceptin) over a more effective drug (Perjeta) that carried a risk of greater cardiotoxicity. I made that decision because although I was terrified of cancer, I was also afraid of what lasting effects the drug would have on me once the treatments were over.

Cancer treatments are strong but healthy living can help mitigate their negative effects.

But even if you didn’t have the opportunity to make such a choice, there’s still something that you can do. The authors of that 2017 paper noted that cancer survivors can take back some control over their health by adopting or continuing those healthy lifestyle habits that should sound familiar by now: not smoking, limiting alcohol, exercising regularly and eating a healthful diet.

To that, I would also add, managing your stress levels, the importance of which has been demonstrated on a cellular level, and getting optimal amounts of sleep.

Improving longevity is a hot field for research as scientists work to determine what aspects of one’s lifestyle show the greatest promise in keeping the body young. This topic is complex and new data is coming in on a regular basis, so I won’t delve into details here, but it stands to reason that being sedentary and eating a high-sugar, high-processed diet is not going to do you any favors.

Just as cancer treatments may have a negative effect on overall health, you can win back some lost ground by making healthy, informed decisions on diet and exercise. No one wants to limit their cancer treatment options, so this is one form of insurance that you can give yourself. No matter what else happens, a healthy lifestyle will benefit your quality of life. And that is an improvement that is yours to keep.

Making Space Through Breath: A Visualization

I’ve posted previously about the sensations I’ve experienced in the midst of anxiety, as if the stressor is right in my face, raw and unescapable.

Combatting this feeling has been my number one priority, since anxiety overtakes me before I even know it, triggering my fight-or-flight response. Once my sympathetic nervous system gets going, getting it “back in the box” can be difficult, possibly taking days, depending on the intensity of the stressor.

Anxiety can make us feel like we’re trapped and suffocating.

My current strategy is to create protective distance for myself in a very simple way. And it consists of visualizing an expansion of the space around my body.

It goes something like this: Imagine you are inside a deflated balloon. If you are experiencing tighteness in your head or chest, this serves as an effective analogy, particularly if your balloon is constricting you. Without letting your mind be consumed by the tightness, allow yourself to acknowledge the stressor that surrounds you.

Then, taking a deep breath in, exhale through pursed lips and inflate that space around you. Imagine how it feels to expand the balloon and release that clinging sensation. Feel the fresh air moving against your skin as the space around you continues to broaden.

Maybe you begin with the area around your head first, as if creating a bubble around it allows oxygen to flow freely, then move the expansion towards the torso, protecting and releasing the heart, lungs and other vital organs.

Or perhaps begin with the chest if that’s where the constriction feels greatest. Anxiety can squeeze your breath, so focus on mentally removing that weight from your sternum and ribs, visualizing an expansion of the free space around your chest with a deliberate slowing of breath. This takes some work, a back-and-forth between imagining space expanding around you and your breath taking advantage of the room that it has.

Breathe, expand and feel the space!

If your chest is mired too deeply in anxiety, turn your attention to your extremities, starting with the feet and hands, getting a foothold there and allowing the sensation of space to move slowly towards the center of your body.

The idea is to E-X-P-A-N-D the space around you, dispelling the feeling of closeness and suffocation that results in the wild urge to flee. Note that this is not avoidance of the stressful situation. You are acknowledging its existence…and then creating room so that your brain has space and time in which to think, to know that it’s protected from words and sensations and fearful possibilities. To know that it’s safe in the “now”.

Try this the next time you have a quiet moment. As with many of these techniques, it is helpful to practice in times of calm, to feel into what that sensation of space feels like. The more we practice, the clearer and more familiar that sensation becomes, and we can draw upon that feeling during stressful times.

Putting a Hold on Looking for Trouble

Last year at this time, I feared that I had heart issues based on what I had read about some of the cancer medications that I had been on, so I went to the cardiologist and they administered some tests. When I came back to the cardiologist to discuss results with the doctor, I was told that they had found “something” in the echocardiogram and Holter monitor readings.

But I still had questions, so I had a consultation with the cardiac nurse, who went through everything with me.

In the back of my mind, there’s a fear that my body is harboring serious health problems.

And it turns out that while they did find “something”, it wasn’t really anything out of the ordinary, beyond normal wear and tear. I was assured that my heart was very strong and healthy and I could continue to push through high-intensity workouts.

Still, it was recommended that I get checked out again this year.

But you know what? I’m not going right now. It felt like anxiety about the scans and then waiting for the results did worse things to my heart than whatever I might have been already experiencing.

I talked this over with my oncologist, who agreed.

The fact is, there are things that you need to get checked out, especially as a cancer survivor. But for other things, especially without a specific indication that there’s something wrong, you are simply looking for trouble. And if you’re looking for it, you’re going to find it.

Our bodies are not perfect. And the older we get, the more aches, pains and abnormalities we have. That doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s anything “wrong” that immediately needs to be fixed.

For now, I’m halting my search for trouble and taking the time to breathe deeply and just live.

Anxiety was the driver for me to get tests run. I was overreading about everything that could possibly go wrong–given the medications that I had been taking–and then rushing out to make sure that it hadn’t yet in the hope that I could rectify any budding issues.

And to be fair, there are still things that I could look at, still specialists I could contact. But perhaps I need to chill a bit…

…but perhaps I need to chill a bit. If it were to progress, would I stop exercising? Absolutely not. So then perhaps it’s best to take a wait-and-see approach for now.

All of this is so different from cancer, which drives us to seek treatment immediately. I am forever primed to worry about what might be happening in my body. But I also recognize this as a psychological side effect of cancer. I can’t let fear take over the rest of my life.

So for me, it’s time to stop looking for trouble, stop fearing for the future and simply relax and enjoy what’s happening in the present moment.

Holding Space: When the Thing to Say is Nothing

On the first day of my Yoga Teacher Training program, we did a curious exercise. Students were instucted to pair up and take turns speaking for about 15 minutes. During that time the speaker was to tell the other about their life. In turn, the listener was to say nothing. In fact, they were to make no facial expressions or give any response to the speaker. They were there simply to be present and witness to what the speaker was saying.

This was incredibly difficult for me to do. My partner was an amazing woman with a backstory that I was so driven to respond to. My usual MO in situations like this is to make little noises like “oh!” and “uh-huh”, and to nod along, raising my eyebrows, smiling…all actions to encourage the speaker. Containing that urge made me feel like I was sending a message to her that I didn’t care. I didn’t want her to think that she was boring me.

Sometimes, the greatest give we can give is our presence and undivided attention.

But the idea behind this exercise made a lot of sense. Too often, we can derail the thoughts of others by interjecting comments. Even when we are encouraging the speaker, we may inadvertantly be sending them off in a different direction than they had planned to go. Additionally, I realized that my need to show that I was interested about what they were describing was actually moving the focus on myself, rather than allowing the other to speak their truth.

This spoke to my own insecurities. In particular when speaking with people in positions of power, I will often watch for body signals and verbal cues that inform me as to what direction I should take my story. I recognize that I lack self-confidence, lost over the years by interacting with people who, in fact, did not value me or my thoughts.

Afterwards, my new friend and I blurted out how much we had enjoyed the other’s story and how difficult it had been to not show appreciation. But we also understood the value of this exercise.

I would not be quite so stone-like with a speaker in a future situation, but I will definitely be more reserved with the interjected “wow”s and allow the speaker to wind their own way through their story, allowing them to fully express themselves, giving them them gift of holding space for what they want to say.

100+ Breaths: Another Back-to-Sleep Option

Another stressful night left me wide awake at 3am again. Not fun when you’ve got a long day of work ahead of you.

I went to my tried-and-true tactic: several guided meditations which usually work to take the place of the worries swirling in my noggin. But this time it wasn’t enough. The voices were soothing but I wasn’t close to falling asleep.

So I came up with a simple impromptu meditation that kinda-sorta breaks the mindfulness “rules”.

So many numbers out there for me to count while I’m not sleeping…

I’ve been taught that one can count the breaths to help deal with the chattering “Monkey Mind”, and this can be done in various ways. For example, count each inhale as one and each exhale as two, repeating with the next inhale as one and exhale as two, and so on, never progressing further.

Or counting each breath cycle up to 10 (or any other preset number) and then start again at one. If your focus is lost at any point, start at one again, working your way back to 10, restarting at one if your mind wanders off again.

These types of counting techniques aren’t meant to get you anywhere. The number you reach doesn’t matter. What matters is that you make the breath counts your point of focus, giving the Monkey Mind something to do and keeping anxious thoughts at bay.

But for this particular 3am waking, I decided to try something else: count breaths without a stopping point. Instead of observing the breath without changing it, as is usually done during other mindfulness meditation practices, I counted during the exhale, consciously extending the breath as I thought the number. And as I focused on my breath, I kept track of the ascending numbers. This required a touch more concentration and yet was simple and boring enough to not excite my mind.

Inhale, exhale, eighty-six…inhale, exhale, eighty-seven…inhale, exhale, eighty-z-z-z-z-z-z-z…

Somewhere in the 70s and 80s the numbers started jumbling in my head and I repeated several, not being sure exactly where I was. By the 90s, my monkey brain was muttering. I remember getting to 100 and going past it, but my memory is foggy. Consciousness faded in the one hundred teens, I think.

As far as back-to-sleep methods go, this was not a quick fix, but I was too awake to try anything else. I counted for a good 20-30 minutes. I manipulated the breath, so as I mentioned, this practice didn’t follow the mindfulness meditation “rules”, although it did offer me meditation practice in lieu of spinning my worry wheels.

But in the wee hours of the morning when nothing else seemed to be working, it got me to where I needed to be: asleep.

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When the going gets tough, I’ve found counting to be one of the most effective last-ditch back-to-sleep methods, for me preferable to getting out of bed and going out to the couch to read or something. If nothing else, I get in some effective meditation practice. Additionally, this was not a night with a totally hyperactive Monkey Mind. My monkey was awake for distractible.

Note that as I was doing this, I lay on my side, bolster between my knees, white noise playing through my earbuds (yes, I’ve taken to sleeping with earbuds in!). I was in “sleep position” and keeping still, so the only “moving parts” were my brain and the expansion and contraction of my chest and belly.

When I Can’t Keep Images Out of My Head

When I first started my mindfulness meditation journey, I was taught to use the breath as the point of focus. It is a reliable anchor, always there to return to when you inevitably drift off into thought. It is a stable grounding force that keeps us present.

But there are times when it’s hard to focus on the breath. Perhaps when the mind is especially busy. At those times, I switch to other bodily sensations, such as tingling in my hands or pressure from contact with the surface that I’m sitting on. I wrote a post about moving between two points of focus to help the mind maintain concentration without wandering off. That helps too.

Some days my monkey mind is particularly loud and attention-seeking.

And sometimes my chattering “monkey mind” calls for a switch to an auditory focal point such as gentle music, singing bowls, nature sounds or even simply street noises. Those will keep me present as long as I don’t fall into the trap of making stories about the sounds.

But some days are extra tough.

I tend to avoid meditating with my eyes open. Doing so only reminds me that I need to clean my desk or vacuum the carpet (“guilt-guilt, blame-blame”). However, I am a very visual person with a vivid imagination, and opening my eyes immediately grounds me if my thoughts get too pervasive when my eyes are closed.

Sometimes a thought will trigger an uncomfortable and anxiety-provoking feeling simply because a seemingly-innocuous scene has been associated with a disturbing event. The scene flashes before my eyes andbefore I know it I’m down a rabbit hole. Monkey mind is activated.

While staying with bodily sensations would be preferable, some days there are too many opportunities for my monkey mind to run away with me. It can get exhausting and counterproductive to “dodge” these visuals. Yes, we are “supposed to” let the thoughts pass by us without getting caught up in them. But there are days when they agitate me too much and throw me off track.

Tree!

So I’m cutting myself some slack and turning the “problem” into the solution. On those difficult days, I focus on an image of my own choosing. Something that I can visualize clearly so that it keeps the monkey occupied while at the same time keeping me away from troubling scenes. You could argue that I’m “avoiding” the thoughts. But I see this differently–I’m giving myself a little break from them.

What works best for me? An image unencumbered by potent associations–this is different for each person. A tree, for example, works for me. It might be a thin white birch tree or as majestic and meaningful as Yggdrasil. The tree itself doesn’t matter as much as that I choose it according to what suits me and what soothes me. I can focus on its rough bark, veiny leaves and thick canopy and the sensations that these things evoke to keep away from creating stories.

And if this results in greater concentration, I have the option of hopping back to the breath. Or not.

This might not seem like an earth-shattering revelation. There are relatively popular mountain and lake meditations, so this concept is not new. But with all the emphasis on feeling into your breath in an effort to calm the thinking mind, sometimes it’s simpler to not worry about the “shoulds” and instead see what your own self needs to help it let go and settle into peace.

Still Not Stinky: Chemo & Body Odor 5 Years Later

After finishing chemo for breast cancer and noticing that I had no body odor, I decided to write a post about it because the Internet was silent on the topic. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who’d come up empty. A number of you commented that you’d noticed the same thing and similarly found no explanation.

Well, five years after my initial diagnosis, maybe 4.5 years after finishing chemo, I still can’t locate info on the Internet about this.

If I do find the odd article about cancer and body odor, it’s about the exact opposite: smelling bad as a result of the disease or certain medications. Not what I’m looking for.

Hey, Internet! Is there really no one looking into this?

It is quite weird that I can’t even find anything in the US National Institutes of Health PubMed database, so I would suspect that chemo-related loss of body odor is not on the radar of researchers. Well, it’s certainly not on my oncologist’s radar because he said he’d never heard of it and didn’t think it could be attributed to chemotherapy. Personally, I can’t imagine how it could be from anything else.

I’m going to pester him about it again during my next appointment. Usually armput odors are caused by bacteria. As an article from the Cleveland Clinic explains, odor is produced “when¬†bacteria on the skin break down acids contained in the¬†sweat produced by apocrine glands, which are located in the armpits, breasts, and genital-anal area. The bacteria’s waste products are what produce the smell.”

And NPR ran a story on researchers looking into what the worst bacterial offenders are, noting, “When the bacteria break down the sweat they form products called thioalcohols, which have scents comparable to sulfur, onions or meat.” The greatest culprit? Staphylococcus hominis.

So then maybe the chemo stops the production of thioalcohols? Or chemo wipes out the S. hominis living on our skin? I’m surprised that no one is researching this in the context of chemo patients, because it seems like it might have some health implications. We still don’t know all the side effects of chemo drugs and it would be useful to start a conversation about this one.

If you’re experiencing this, please tell your medical team. They might simply not be aware of what’s happening.

I’m not saying that I smell like a bouquet of flowers, but according to my husband, there’s no “sweaty pit” odor.

And you might be wondering what my current experience is, almost five years later. Even though I departed the realm of the completely-odorless about two years after completing chemo, I still have very little body odor. And it’s not like I don’t give it chances to fester since I work up a good sweat when I exercise. Note that my left armpit, which was thoroughly irradiated, exudes almost no noticible odor. My right armpit doesn’t smell very much, but sweat that gets on, say, a sports bra will start making the fabric stink the next day. (Let’s just say that I’ve been testing this out.) The skin in the armpit itself? Minimally, and that’s with no deodorant, although I do wear it anyway.

Certainly, the six weeks of radiation therapy on my left side would likely have an effect, and so it would make sense that there’s a difference in odor between both armpits.

Still, the “natural” (and unfortunately overpriced – yeesh!) deodorants do a very good job of fragrancing my armpits because they don’t have to work very hard.

So the mystery remains. I’m going to keep digging into this as it’s likely there’s a disruption of our skin microbiome involved, and given the popularity of that research (see microbiome and armpit odor info at drarmpit.com), someone may be looking into the connection between chemo and body odor in the future. Until then, I’ll just remain happy and relatively unstinky with fingers crossed that it continues.

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Many thanks to my very patient husband who played along and agreed to smell every place I pointed to. I’ll revisit the odor issue during the summer just in case…

Little Decisions Build Beautiful Things

This is the time of the year that many people make resolutions they hope will catapult their life into a new and positive direction.

So it’s also a good time to encourage people to slow down and consider what they hope to achieve and how they plan to get there.

And they’re off! The New Year fills us with energy to make big changes, but most of that impetus fizzles out as we realize that our plans are not sustainable.

The New Year’s buzz drives us to dream big and leap high, but with all that emotional energy expenditure, we run the risk of overwhelming ourselves, burning out quickly and falling far short of our lofty expectations. And that may make us feel worse about ourselves.

This year, take a step back and consider: it’s the small changes that you make on a daily basis that determine where you ultimately end up. Consider an ocean liner that turns very slowly. It makes little adjustments in its course, but depending on which adjustments it makes, it can end up in very different places.

The real name of the game is consistency. While the big goal may be the shining light you strive for, consistency paves the way. And mindfulness helps you get there.

Maintain awareness of the present so that you have perspective on what choices you’re making today and their effect on tomorrow.

Focus on what you can do today. Even this hour. Want to increase your activity level? Get up and take some steps right now. That doesn’t mean sprinting around the parking lot for 10 minutes. It means doing something you wouldn’t have done otherwise. Something that won’t give you side stitches and result in wanting to throw in the towel.

Make little decisions to change something. Make them doable. And then make them consistently.

Maintain your awareness, every day, of what you’re doing and why.

And when those changes have become comfortable, do a little more. Keep your eye on consistency, not quantity.

Establish positive little habits the way you’d spread the seeds for a lovely cottage garden. Because here’s the thing: this is not a race. This is your life. You don’t live your life a month at a time–you live it moment by moment. And that’s the way you make changes.

Be like the big ship whose many little changes, made consistently, take it to fantastic places.

Any decision that positively affects you remains yours to keep, like a little jewel in a box. Did you go for a walk among trees after lunch instead of hanging out in your office perusing social media? No one can take that experience away from you. Tomorrow, if you have a meeting after lunch and must stay at your desk, the positive effect of that walk will still have taken place.

It’s like a little brick that you can use to build a palace. You collect one each time you’re consistent with a behavior. Play the long game.

And when you remain mindful of your behavior every day, you can also step back and see where you, the human ocean liner, are headed. This makes it easier to correct your course. A short diversion does not need to take you in an unwanted direction. One small correction and you’re back on track.

And that thing that you might have called a “failure” in past years and just given up because you’d figure you’d “blown it anyway”? It would be a temporary side trip. Because you are mindful of where you are and where you’re going.

And that’s how you know you’re going to get there.

Happy New Year!

Gratitude: It’s Not Just for Big Things

A number of years ago, when my kids were still very small, we lived in an area with brutal winters. That meant sub-freezing temperatures for weeks at a time. Money was tight so we had to keep the thermostat in the 50s overnight and in the low 60s during the day. To make matters worse, our bedroom was in a part of the house that the radiator pipes wouldn’t warm properly, so it was always cold there at that time of the year.

Gratitude for a cup of tea and a quiet moment to write – that is enough.

And by “cold” I mean, the bedsheets would be literally frigid when it was time for bed. So much so, that my joints would ache and I’d be miserable until my body heat could warm them up.

This continued for a year or two until I found an electric mattress pad. The first night that I crawled under the sheets with the heat turned on, I thought I’d won the lottery.

There were so many negative parts to the years we lived there, but going to bed with warmed sheets overwhelmed me with gratitude for the simple pleasure of removing the pain of the cold.

The reason that I’m telling you this is that it’s so obvious to be grateful for the stark changes in our situation. It’s a no-brainer.

But there is no need to wait for something like that. There are simple things that we take for granted that it would be so easy to be grateful for.

Turn your attention to little pleasures and acknowledge their importance in your life. Take some time to sit and bring them to your awareness. Feel into how they lighten your existence. Maybe thinking about them makes you smile. Or maybe the fact that something is simply working properly can be enough to help us realize how fortunate we are to have it at all.

Whatever it is, open up and invite gratitude in.

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Maybe generating gratitude during bad times is exactly what we need.

Those of us who have recently gotten a cancer diagnosis may feel a touch bitter about this concept. Understandably, it may be easier to be grateful when you’re not dealing with a serious disease. And no one would blame you for having a hard time generating a mood of gratitude.

But perhaps that’s exactly when you should look for things that elicit a sense of gratefulness, no matter how small. It may be one of the most important things you can do to maintain a sense of well-being in a difficult time.