Archives for posts with tag: stress

As many of you know, I have been taking pottery classes for the last year or so. I typically throw (make forms using a pottery wheel), rather than hand build. Learning to use a pottery wheel is challenging. I am still learning how to center the clay on the wheel head, consistently. There are all of the steps to remember. Even if one carries out the steps, there are lots of variables that impact how fast the wheel should go at each step, the amount of water that should be added during throwing, the amount of pressure applied by each hand, the positioning of hands and fingers, and the speed at which the hands and fingers should move up the clay. On top of that, the type, size, and hardness of the clay is another variable to be considered. Finally, there are shaping tools that can be use. There seem to be about 5 million pottery tools in existence. One type of tool can have so many variations. People who are very experienced know not only how to use the tools, which requires finesse, but how to select the best tool.

When I first started throwing, nothing really turned out. That is normal, I am not being overly self-critical. Then every once in a while something would turn out and I couldn’t figure out what I’d done differently. I like bowls, so I threw a lot of bowls. I decided I wanted to be able to throw a salad bowl. Clay forms shrink about 7% from the time they are thrown to the final firing so the initial throwing is of a larger than desired piece. For me, a salad bowl is a pretty big bowl, and it certainly was when I was a beginner. Nonetheless, I was inspired by the challenge to throw “a big bowl”.

I had enough success with big bowls to keep me going for awhile. I have to say objectively, I have big bowl-making potential. There were a lot of flops, though, not to mention many bowls that cracked in the kiln. None of my bowls were made with an intention to make anything but a bowl. I do not yet have the skills to plan size and shape ahead of time. Okay, more accurately, I do not yet have the skills to implement the size, design, thickness, etc of the bowl I have planned in my head.

One quarter, after thinking I would just keep realizing my “big bowl potential”, I made flop after flop. I made bowls that were of uneven thickness or that were not round, or that were not level on the rim. I made bowls that looked so so promising as I pulled up the sides to make them thinner and thinner, only to collapse in on themselves on the wheel. More than an hour’s work and all I could show for it was a wet mess on the wheel and sore throwing muscles.

All through the process, I read about bowl-making. I watched Youtube videos on “big bowls”. I watched my teacher’s bowl-making demonstrations, which she typically did once per quarter. Each time, I learned something new and tried to apply it to my big bowl-making. Then I gave in to the idea that had been lurking in the back of my head, which was to make little bowls. They are faster and easier to make. I could focus on my technique. I started making little bowls and my bowls started getting more refined.

Last week, I met with my psychologist, Rebecca. It was the first time I’d seen her in a while. As I mentioned last week, I’ve been dealing with some challenges related to stress and my heart health. I brought Rebecca two of my little bowls as a gift. We had a productive session.  I have some work to do in my life. Physically, my healing from my cardiac event is not an linear as I’d like. There are fits and starts. My diagnosis is undergoing refinement as my physicians are gaining more information. The current working diagnosis is Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection (SCAD) a rare condition, caused by a tear in an artery wall. Some blood flow is diverted to outside of the artery wall, lowering blood flow. Further, blood that gets outside of the artery wall is more likely to clot, which can press on the artery, narrowing it. SCAD is present in men and women, however, when present in women, they tend to be in their 40’s and 50’s, physically fit, and with low risk of heart disease. What causes these tears is unknown.

My prognosis is still good but there is uncertainty as to the length and course of my recovery in the upcoming weeks. I have resumed a practice I started right after my breast cancer diagnosis, five years ago, which is to meditate about 10-15 minutes per day. I’ve had to temporarily cut back on my walking until my heart heals so each day I do the little bit that I can do.

I attended the March for Science on April 22nd. I was also a member of the national Facebook group for the march. The page has a lot of members, from diverse backgrounds. There were mostly very interesting and supportive posts in this group. Some members had beliefs very different from my own, for example, the member who claimed “emotions aren’t real.”

We tend to separate our brains from the rest of our body and our emotions from the rest of our being. Perhaps, emotions are tied to concepts such as spirituality, which are seen to float around and exist apart from us. From a mental health/science perspective, however, the brain is very much a part of the body and emotions are very much a part of the brain and central nervous system.

Stress isn’t an emotion but it is tied to strong emotional states and certain life situations. Stress can be acute or chronic. Stress can be motivating. Stress can harm our bodies when it is excessive.

Last Thursday afternoon, while finishing up with my last patients of the day, I felt sudden achy pain along my upper back, accompanied by nausea. I was able to finish and then felt the same achy feeling under my arms, and in my chest. Although not the smartest thing to do, I drove myself home. When I walked through the door, my husband looked up, gave his beautiful smile, and said, “Hi Sweetie! How was your day?”.  I replied, “I am not well. Call 9-11.”

The fire department arrived less than 5 minutes later, closely followed by paramedics, the latter of which had a portable EKG machine. I was impressed by the professionalism and kindness of the first responders. They didn’t seem incredibly concerned about the readings but recommended that I go to the hospital E.R. rather than wait to follow-up with my primary care physician in the upcoming days. I agreed.

The achy pains had lessened some with the extra oxygen I had been getting since the firemen hooked me up to an oxygen tank at the house. It was rush hour in Seattle. The ambulance driver expertly dodged through traffic. Fortunately, an outstanding aspect of my city is that drivers are very quick to get out of the way of emergency vehicles.

I was admitted to the E.R. I changed into a gown and my blood was drawn for the first of what would be eleven needle jabs over less than a 48 hour period. They were testing my troponin levels and they were able to do the test bedside, instead of having to send it to the lab. Troponin is an enzyme released by the heart when it is damaged. When my nurse returned to the room, he saw the test results. (The test had been started by a phlebotomist.) He said, surprised, “This is elevated. Is this YOUR test?” He confirmed that it was.

Although no one said this outright until I was discharged, from this point until the following morning, the assumption was that I’d had a heart attack. By 6:30 pm, my pains were totally gone. I had an EKG that night followed by subsequent blood draws, one at midnight, one at 2:00 am, and another at 5:00 am. I was surrounded by kind and skilled medical staff. The night nurse, Lorenzo, was particularly good. He was kind, personable, and knowledgeable. (By the way, one thing I love about my hospital, Swedish Medical Center, is that I’ve always had wonderful night nurses. I’ve heard horror stories about other hospitals.) Lorenzo was also excellent at  communication with me as well as with the other services. Continuity of care is a huge challenge in hospitals and he was excellent in his efforts.

At 5:30 am,  I started having back and chest pain again. It was incredibly small but Lorenzo had told me to report any pain, however minor. It was also in the same location as previously. I was given nitro glycerin and when that did not totally eliminate it, I was given morphine. The pains gradually lessened and were gone by 7:30 am.

Due to the recurrence of the pain and my blood test results (the troponin levels had increased over night as well as another enzyme used as a marker for heart attack), I underwent cardiac catheterization. I was taken to the Cath Lab and the procedure was carried out by a cardiologist and a team of four others. A catheter (small tube) was inserted through an artery in my wrist and threaded up to my heart. Contrast dye was also pumped into my body through the catheter, allowing imaging of my heart and circulatory system. I was sedated, but alert, during the procedure. (By the way, it was not nearly as awful as it sounds.) About midway through, the cardiologist asked, “Has something really stressful happened to your recently?” I told him that something had happened. You see, although he could see that my heart was not compressing normally, there was no evidence of a heart attack or heart disease. As two members of the cath team wheeled me back to my room, they were visibly happy for me.

The cardiologist made a preliminary diagnosis of stress cardiomyopathy, also known as, Takosubo cardiomyopathy or more poetically,”broken heart syndrome”.  This diagnosis was corroborated by the results of an echocardiogram. Excessive cortisol, a stress hormone, can affect the heart muscle, preventing it from being able to contract fully. This results in symptoms similar to a heart attack. Unlike a heart attack or heart disease, the heart damage cause by stress cardiomyopathy typically heals in 1-4 weeks.

I was put on three new medications, two of which can have a blood pressure reducing side effect. My regular blood pressure is about 110/70. It got really low after the medications so I stayed another night at the hospital.

I was discharged yesterday afternoon. My treatment was top-notch but being in a hospital is neither restful nor fun. John had been by my side the whole time, spending nights at the hospital. We were so glad to leave!

It is now time to implement a new self-care program. These are difficult times in my country. I think they are causing chronic stress for many. I know it has for me and I’ve been left with a smaller reservoir with which to deal with new stresses that come into my life. I have left a message with the psychologist I saw during my breast cancer treatment. There are some things I really need to process as well as a need to return to a more consistent mindfulness practice.

Having a caring heart is mostly a wonderful thing but it can also be a burden. Life brings unwelcome surprises like chest pain and welcome ones like looking into a woman’s heart and not finding heart disease and blockage.

On the day of the March for Science, I wore a sign demonstrating my ongoing commitment to the importance of fostering caring hearts. Without them, there is no love, no laughter, no curiosity, no passion, and no motivation. We would also not work to protect ourselves from possible harm. Without emotions, there is no humanity.

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During my two years of intensive cancer treatment and reconstruction, I cut some corners in my life.  During this time, I had eight surgeries and, at least, three medical appointments per week.  I also worked in time to deal with what was happening to me. There was also the rest of my life, working, mothering, making healthy lifestyle changes, being a wife, and finding time to take a break from it all.

It is only natural that some things did not get done. In some cases, I learned that whatever I’d taken the time to do before really wasn’t that crucial to begin with. With mindfulness meditation, I found myself taking up less time worrying and not having to take extra time recuperating from worrying. If you haven’t noticed, worry is exhausting.

But there were other corners that I didn’t want to keep cutting because doing so created overwhelming consequences like an overgrown flower garden full of weeds. Slowly, the front and back yard have gotten back into shape. I initially got help from friends and neighbors. Later, I just ended up hiring help a couple of times a year. Recently, I found out that I could get my yards maintained for a surprisingly reasonable price from a local landscaping/gardening business. So I am doing that.

The biggest mess, however, was my home office. This is where I store my patient files. To protect patient privacy, the door is always kept shut with a finger-tip sensor lock. After 15 years of private practice, I had never gone through my files to see what ones could be legally disposed of. I had also not set up my filing system with a future in mind that included storing several hundred healthcare records. They were just all arranged alphabetically and some were just shoved into boxes because I had run out of filing space. When I mean “some” I mean about three years’ worth of files were shoved into letter sized cardboard file boxes. Most of my records are kept electronically. The electronic portions of my records are organized very well. This is because electronic records do not have to be physically moved around to make space for new records. Consequently, it was easy for me to respond to requests for copies of reports or progress notes that I had written. In other words, the impact of my out of control home office was not detrimental to patient care.

However, it was detrimental to me because I knew that I could not sustain this way of doing things. It was just getting worse and worse. I stopped using my office as a work space. It was too stressful to be in there. Since I wasn’t using it as a work space, it quickly became a surplus storage place. Two weeks ago, it was difficult to walk around in that office.

I found aLast week was spring break for my daughter’s school. I decided to take the week off to take on my office. I had also seen it as a time to hit a “reset button” as the previous weeks had been particularly stressful. As it turned out, the job was bigger than I anticipated. It was also mind numbingly boring. But I now have an organized work space, files organized with the future in mind, and a whole lot less stuff that I didn’t need. I also got over my resistence to transitioning to fully electronic files. Some friends had ideas that got around some of the problems I had not discovered solutions to and having spent a whole week dealing with paper and cleaning has increased my motivation considerably.

I had a hard and boring week. Nonethless, I woke up this morning, with the full feeling of the “reset button” having been pushed.

This won’t last forever.

It won’t be the last time that I need to re-set.

Nonetheless, it feels extremely satisfying.

Sometimes I walk into the chaos of my life and I think, “Who is in charge here?”

I look to my left and to my right. Nothing. Nobody. Silence. Just me.

But in the stillness there is clarity.

I can handle loneliness because truly, I am never alone.

I can handle responsibility because truly, I am very competent.

But confusion gives me no direction at all except to spin in a circle.

So today, I am grateful for clarity. I believe that with it, I can move mountains, or at the very least keep my feet solidly beneath me and traveling forward.

 

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I am more comfortable giving than receiving emotional support. Nonetheless, I have found my self being “a friend in need” more than not recently. I have also been working a lot, trying to keep my head down, and keeping myself busy. It worked to a certain extent then it didn’t.

I had also planned a busy summer with lots of fun activities, spending time with friends, spending time with family, and spending time in nature. I was very much looking forward to spending three days with friends from out of town. I knew that it would be fun, they would have fun, and there would be some light and easy times.

And then it happened. I lost track of myself, my fatigue, and my anxiety. The beginning of the visit was marked by my anxiety and the bags under my eyes. I wasn’t fooling anyone. I was tired. I have slept solidly through the night once in the last two months and sometimes I am awake for a number of hours. Not sleeping well takes a major toll on me. I took on more than I could handle comfortably and then life gave me much much more. And I didn’t ask for enough help and when I didn’t do it in the way that solicits a whole lot of empathy.

Lo and behold, after a brief but intense temper tantrum, I got my shit together and focused on having a break from my daily grind, spending time with dear friends and with my husband. I had a wonderful three days. I went to mountains and islands. We talked and laughed. The tight worry in my chest and the cotton in my brain eased. I remembered what it is like to have relaxed joy.

Then I came back to my regularly scheduled program of life. I immediately picked up on the stress and anxiety in my household. Initially, I felt disappointment that I was getting wound up again so quickly. Then I remembered that I have skills. I have things to try. I started using paced breathing, a technique to strong emotions quickly. It worked. Today, I am feeling the anxiety again. And now I am writing, another strategy that helps. My heart is slowing and I am finding myself more and more in the present moment as I type these words.

I am a friend in need and I got the support I needed from both other people and from my own internal resources.

Today, I am grateful for my family.

Today, I am grateful for my friends.

Today, I am grateful for nature.

Today, I am grateful for my tenacity.

 

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When I practice mindfulness, I encounter a paradox of experiencing a greater connectedness with thoughts, feelings, and sensations but also having some kind of buffer. I don’t really know how to describe it exactly. It’s not exactly a distance but it kind of is. No doubt there are individuals far more practiced in mindfulness who have written about this much more precisely and eloquently. I know that the word, “equanimity” is often used to describe this state, a mental composure that wards against imbalance of the mind.

Yesterday morning I was walking and noticing. I do most of my mindfulness practices while I walk. I also do a great deal of contemplation about my life. I was thinking about how much more fun I am having with my family these days and the level of harmony we’ve been experiencing. The sun was out and I could feel it on my skin. The flowers and trees in the neighborhood were beautiful. I felt a great deal of joy. In these times of mindfulness I find that I encounter unexpected thoughts and feelings. The balance that I feel makes this possible, I think.

Yesterday, I felt hopeful, a feeling that is familiar to me. But yesterday it was followed other thoughts and feelings. Hope involves taking mental chances. Hope leaves the door open for good outcomes after a long time of fearing the worst and experiencing very hard times.

Hope can be frightening.

During one of my recent mind adventures, my memory took me back to the old 1960’s television show, The Flying Nun. It starred Sally Field as Sister Bertrille and took place at a convent on Puerto Rico. Due to her small size, the frequent winds, and her cornette (a particular style of nun hat), she could fly, hence the title of the show. After my mind took me to this show, my fingers took me to Wikipedia.

Sister Bertrille could be relied upon to solve any problem that came her way by her ability to catch a passing breeze and fly.

That sentence gave me a good chuckle and I thought, “How could the show’s writers sustain this premise?”

Plot 1: The convent eagerly awaits a visit from the Bishop. After an albatross makes off with the his miter, Sister Bertrille hitches a ride on a gust and saves the day by retrieving it.

Plot 2: Fire breaks out in the convent campanile. After accidentally breaking the tallest ladder in town, Sister Bertrille uses her flying power to reach the fire and put out the blaze.

Plot 3: A little girl’s kitten is stuck in a tree! The fire ladder is still broken. Sister Bertrille flies to the top and saves the day!

Plot 4: Run away kite!

See, not sustainable. Nonetheless, the series lasted two seasons. How did they do it? Also, how did her cornette stay on?

A fictional life needs substance to sustain itself. It can’t be utterly ridiculous.

A real life needs so much more.

Once upon a time, my blog was often humorous. Once upon a time, my blog was mostly about cancer. My blog has changed and my needs have evolved. My husband asked me yesterday, “Do you still think about cancer every day?” I told him, “yes” and I have thought about it every day since May 25th 2012. I mean this literally. Every day.

But thinking about cancer and being actively treated for cancer are different. I think back to what I needed to do during my active treatment and I can’t believe it. The extra work I had to cram into my schedule in order to take time off for surgeries, the number of surgeries, the telling people or not telling people about my health. The changing landscape of my body. The changing energy levels. The changing brain. The major unknowns about even the near future. One of the ways I dealt with the stress and fear with laughing at the ridiculousness of it. That is a coping strategy that is useful to me, it sustains me.

I think about sustainability and capacity a great deal. I want to be a healthy person. It is too easy for an active person such as myself to work too hard and to get my life out of balance.

But sometimes we just have to work really hard. Cancer treatment is one of those times. One of the hardest thing about this time as well as during other unpredictable and serious stressors in my life is that I don’t know how long I will have to work super hard in crisis mode. In the past, I used to tell myself that I would slow down once the stressor passed, for example, once I finished my Ph.D., once I got my career settled, once my daughter was older, once we bought a house, etc.

Those stressors never stop. Life is hard and complicated. Fortunately, I appear to be in good physical health and my mental health is strong. I have a safe place to live, a loving family, lots of friends, and a wonderful job. But it is easy to get caught up in moving too fast, worrying too much, and creating needless suffering for myself even in a life that in most respects is an embarrassment of riches.

As I’ve mentioned recently, right now I am focusing on having more fun with my husband. We do something, just the two of us, at least a couple of times a week. We went on a trip. We went to grown up prom. I have also started having more fun with my daughter. I think that the fact that I am more relaxed has had some positive impact on her among other things. Just last weekend she told me, ‘Mom, have you noticed that I am out of my “I hate my mom” teen phase?’ I have learned to accept these lavish gifts with understatement. “Hmm, I guess yes, I’ve noticed. Why do you think that is?” She replied, “I don’t know. I guess I just got older.”

I take these beautiful moments for what they are, moments. And they seem to be threading together into increased maturity. But her growth is not linear; it has peaks and valleys and plateaus. All of our lives are like this, even the most stable of us because there are so many aspects of life that are out of our control.

My family life is still full of unknowns. My husband and I still deal with major stressors and challenges both within our immediate family and in our extended family. We are part of what is called “the sandwich generation“. Sometimes I feel like we are the PB&J left on the bottom of a backpack for a week that ended up getting run over by the school bus.

Nonetheless, we are making time for fun. We have trips or fun visits planned for every month from May and September. My passport is being renewed as we speak. We will see two coasts, mountains, and two states. We’ll travel by planes, trains, and automobiles. We’ll be surrounded by friends, by cities, and by nature. And yes, friends, there will be photos, lots of them.

I am discovering that  I need to make time for peace and enjoyment. One of the least sustainable premises in real life is waiting for life to get easier.

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I am not much of a sports fan most of the time, but I do love watching the Olympics, especially the winter games. One of the most thrilling of the winter sports, at least in my view, is the luge. I watch the athlete careen down the luge run at literally, break neck speed, with their legs held out in hair-pin formation. I think to myself, “Holy crap. That’s crazy.” Yes, they wear head protection but those hair-pin legs and arms are covered in space-age stretchy materials. And what about one’s neck? I know that I am not a physical risk taker, but it looks like a pretty dangerous sport major spinal cord injury potential not to mention the orthopedic horrors that could occur. Mostly, what I see on my television screen, however, is highly controlled chaos. These are highly trained athletes at the most elite level. By and large, they love what they do. They are driven to do it, to take the risk, over and over again. I imagine that mastering the luge feels like becoming a force of nature.

I love the mountains, looking at them, and hiking in them. I dreamed a few nights ago that I was driving to the mountains. There was compacted snow on the road. I was driving really fast and following very close. The car was flying along the road. In the dream I had some recognition that the conditions were dangerous but I was determined to make it to the mountains and uncharacteristically non-plussed about conditions. And I was getting to my destination.

This was not a normal anxiety dream for me. Those are the ones I have when “bad guys” are chasing me or when I am stressed about work, my anxiety dreams involve my finding myself, at my current age, back in college or high school, scrambling with my classes. “Oh no. I’ve had a class I forgot to attend all quarter! I must have failed it!” Because I have evolved, the latter dreams end with my realizing that I have a diploma for a Ph.D. Why would I need to be in high school or college?

This was a different dream. It involved anxiety but it also involved a kind of moving forward in life and enjoying it. I was really enjoying myself in the mountains. It was beautiful. And I don’t really think the dream was about my taking dangerous chances or being an Olympic level snow and ice driver. I think this dream reflects how I am coming to deal with the anxiety of my life.

In reality, I am not a very skilled or experienced snow driver. Seattle may be near the mountains but it is a temperate city, at sea level. I entrust the winter driving feats to my husband, who spent his teen and early adult years either living in Eastern Washington or driving back and forth over mountain passes, to visit his parents there. But I am learning how to drive through life, despite its break neck speed, the dangers, the hidden and out in the open.

I am not a person who seeks out danger. I am not a thrill seeker or a reckless person. The mountains can be a beautiful destination. Sometimes the mountains can be barriers to where we want to go. And some of those barriers are K2’s of our own making, towering anxiety without sufficient basis.

I don’t want to live a safe life in my own home. I want to see mountains. I want to enjoy the beauty in my life right now.

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I am a thinker. You may have noticed. I am also a deep feeler. You may have noticed that, too. I am also a fairly reasonable thinker. This last characteristic was later in coming to my life. I had a friend tell me once that I “hid behind my intellect”. Out of context, that sounds a little mean. It really wasn’t meant that way and it wasn’t the way I took it at the time. But I did think, “Are you kidding me? I have worked hard to use my intellect to help me live a less sloppy, crying, worrying life. This is NOT a negative.” (By the way, those comments were made in my mind, to myself, not to my friend.) Our higher brain functions can help us a great deal, like a lot lot. However, there are aspects of our more primitive selves that can come in handy.

Our bodies communicate with ourselves. The nervous system is amazing. Our Central Nervous System (CNS), which includes our brains, is a marvel. Nonetheless, often the fastest of our communications are less than sophisticated.

Case in point, there are fundamental, often called lower brain functions that try to keep us from dying. They are on the alert, vigilant, but also kind of simple. If you have ever seen prairie dogs constantly dark out of their holes and call to each other, you know what I mean. They are trying hard to avoid being food for an animal higher up on the food chain. Vigilance is a type of assessment, a scanning of environments for danger.

But guess what? Like prairie dogs, our CNS is often alarmed for no damned good reason. It is very sensitive to possible problems but makes a lot of false positives. In other words, the CNS can work like a mammogram; it is sensitive to danger but not specific. False alarm! False alarm! False alarm!

These alarms, are compelling and can trick the more reasonable parts of our brains into freaking out. “My heart is racing, I feel scared, therefore there must be SOMETHING REALLY BAD HAPPENING.”

This can also work with anger and with depression. There are parts of our brain that can go to a bad place really fast and if it is compelling enough, it convinces fancier brain parts to follow. “My life is horrible because people are doing bad things to me in a long-term and fancy way. And yes, this is based on mind-reading but I am fancy and know how to read minds. And by the way, why do you all hate me?”

Cognitive therapy was originally based on getting ourselves to be reasonable with ourselves. What is the evidence for our depression inducing thoughts? We are jumping to conclusions. And no, we cannot mind read. There are a group of higher brain tools that we can use to get ourselves to calm the Hell down. And they are very handy tools.

We don’t always have to start at the top, however. We can work our way up by changing more basic and fundamental communication systems. Most of us are familiar with deep breathing techniques as a way to reduce stress and anxiety, as a way to reduce distress. The way we breathe that is the least stress inducing is the way we breathe when we are asleep, when we don’t even have to think about it. Deep breathing, or relaxation breathing triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the state of our CNS at ease, relaxed, and feeling safe. “Fight or flight”, the sympathetic nervous system is triggered by fast breathing, higher in the chest. Breathing this way raises blood alkaline levels. This is the how, by the way, the main characters killed the blood invading aliens in the movie, The Andromeda Strain. It is the perfect breathing for danger but it causes a lot of trouble when we do it when we are not really in harm’s way.

I am learning some more “bottom up” calm down techniques in my class. The latest is the “half smile”. Our facial expressions not only serve to communicate with the outside world, but they also communicate with the inside world. Feeling irritable? Turn the corners of your mouth up, ever so slightly into a half smile. There’s even research on this. It often helps people calm down.

It sounds a little like a magic trick. However, what’s it going to hurt to wear a Mona Lisa smile from time to time. It might feel awkward but not nearly as awkward as when I lose my temper and not only embarrass myself but find myself filled with regret. Not to mention the relationships that need mending.

So I have been trying the half smile. It’s a perfect time to practice. I’ve been working a lot with the move of our private practice. I am frequently annoyed in these kind of circumstances. Stress, when it involves a lot of logistics, has a way of pissing me off.

I can’t say that I am looking like Mona Lisa all of the time but I have to say that I notice a difference and it works many times when I try it. It’s not a permanent solution but it helps get me in a better frame of mind to use other coping strategies. I have also tried doing a half smile on my walks, hoping that this will help associate the half smile with the ease I feel when I am exercising.

I also can’t say that I haven’t felt stressed or overwhelmed at times, with this move. But it is less so than would be in the past, I think. All of the tools I have been using have been helpful.

Try it out and see what you think! It may work and it may not. But it’s free and easy.

One of my sister-in-law’s hosts Easter each year. She is a competent cook. She is also able to have people in her kitchen while she cooks. I could say that one reason for this is that she has a large kitchen with places for people to sit at a table, out of the way. I could also note that most of the things she makes are not hot and can be made ahead of time and taken out of the refrigerator. I could also point to the fact that she does not make something that requires the making of gravy. But the fact of the matter is that she is able to concentrate on entertaining people and making food all at the same time.

I am not like this. I can talk to people up until about the last 30 min before Thanksgiving dinner is done. Thanksgiving is the holiday that I host. I have done it for all years except one for the past 10 years. Before the last 30 minutes, I feel relaxed and confident. My apron is typically still clean. I am able to avoid burning myself on the oven’s heating element.

And then half of the food is ready and the other half of the food needs to be finished. The turkey is cooked and needs to be lifted out of the pan to rest on a carving plate. Meanwhile, I place the roasting pan on two burners, pour in alcohol to deglaze it, scraping the fond from the bottom of the pan. I add flour (now a gluten-free blend) and turkey fat and stir constantly. It always gums up immediately and the first worry is that the gravy will turn out clumpy. And it will if I don’t keep my head in the game. I add poultry stock, bit by bit, until I start to see a beautiful brown glistening sauce develop. Then I keep adding stock while I am plating vegetables, side dishes, and heating things up at the last minute. I have to work quickly so that the turkey does not rest too long and become cold. When the time comes, I call my husband to the kitchen to carve the turkey while I finish the last 500 details.

If you are a guest and you ask me what you can do to help, I will ask you to please sit down and enjoy yourself. If you ask me during the last 30 minutes, I insist that you sit down and enjoy yourself. My husband and my mom have both gotten into the habit of running interference for me and helping shoo people out of the kitchen. Even if I am not in the last push of frenzy, my kitchen is small and not a good place for people to hang out to visit with one another. My mother knows this because people congregate in her kitchen when she is cooking, standing in front of the stove or the sink, not realizing that they are setting off her rhythm. My husband shoos people out because he has empathy for me and knows how my brain works.

I love to cook but I am a person who cooks in deep thought. I have a hard time socializing and cooking at the same time. Both socializing and cooking are high interest for me and I have a hard time focusing on anything else when I am deeply engaged in one of these activities. So doing both of them is really really hard. As for those that want to come in to help, unless they know exactly what to do and how to do it, delegating is a chore for me. A chef is a boss of a kitchen and has training to do this. I don’t. I am a home cook with a small kitchen. I have a schedule and a list in my head. I am working at full capacity and the wheels are already in motion. This is also why, if you come to my house with a dish that needs tending to or oven space, I will use my powers of reasoning to tell myself that you have probably not considered that all of the burners and all of the oven space have already been accounted for. I will smile tightly and problem-solve. I may think of the time that friends had a potluck and a mutual friend showed up with a grocery bag full of unwashed vegetables and raw tofu and exclaimed, “Look, I brought stir fry!” That story always makes me smile.

I live my life at a certain pace. I try to live a lifestyle that is not only manageable, but healthy. Sometimes I even think I know what I am doing. I feel relaxed and can coordinate the different spheres of my life. And then there are the times when everything happens at once. I need to be in multiple places to do multiple things, all at once. And the consequences for failure are far worse than lumpy gravy.

I am working my best to be the kind of parent my child needs. So is my husband and so is my child. It seems that we get to the frenzy frequently and often without notice. This is the way our lives have been for the past 4 years. Cancer happened in those years, too. The normal real life bumps and reorganizations have occurred, as well. Last week, I learned that my colleagues and I need to find new professional office space. We’ve been in the same place for 10 years. I don’t like moving. It’s a lot of work. We are working to find the least disruptive and expensive solution to the problem.

During these times when I am racing in my life, I find it harder to talk about the details of my life. Not so much because it is emotionally hard but because my brain is working at capacity. I am finding myself in that mode lately. It is easier for me to organize my thoughts in writing than in conversation but even writing has been hard to organize in the past couple of weeks.

I recently wrote that I was looking forward to this week because I would be able to concentrate on cooking an spending time with my family. And I have done just that. Although I awoke this morning fairly pooped out from entertaining, I think it says something that I am finding writing to be easy again.

Simply live.

I am trying.

George Lakoff

George Lakoff has retired as Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He is now Director of the Center for the Neural Mind & Society (cnms.berkeley.edu).

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