Dealing with Stress

Due to some discord in my community, I’ve been feeling a great deal of emotional stress lately. It kind of sucks, but it’s also provided me a chance to recognize some of the ways in which I manage stress. These are my instructions to myself, and I thought some of you might find them helpful, too.

1. Keep breathing.

I tend to hold my breath or breathe just at the very top of my lungs when I’m stressed. Taking a moment or two to breathe slowly and deeply seems to help. If I remember, I also add in a couple of metta phrases because—well, it couldn’t hurt.

2. Eat well.

My inclination is to drown my sorrows in a bag of potato chips, a bar of chocolate, and a dry martini, but those foods just accentuate my anxiety symptoms. It’s not as satisfying in the short term, but sticking with fruits, veggies, and other whole and healthy foods leaves me feeling better.

3. Take an e-mail break.

This might not work with every stressful situation, but this particular conflict is playing out largely in a frenzy of e-mail reply-alls, which means I get a phenomenal headache and my left eye twitches every time I look at my inbox. Checking e-mail only during two or three set times each day and logging off the rest of the time has been helping. I do worry that I’ll miss something important that’s unrelated to the stressful stuff, though, so if this lasts much longer, I’ll set up a filter and funnel all of the unpleasant e-mails to a folder I can look at when I feel ready for it.

4. Go outside.

Spring arrived in New England not a moment too soon. I take several walks a day, both with my kids and on my own, and while the sunshine and birdsong and peeping frogs don’t cure my headaches, they sure make them easier to bear.

5. Exercise.

Rather than curl up under a quilt, which is what I want to do, I’ve been getting up at 5:30 every morning and doing an hour of Fitness Blender workouts. Admittedly, I do not enjoy these workouts while I’m doing them, and I curse Daniel and Kelly with every jumping lunge or flutter-kick squat, but I feel deliciously exhausted afterward and ready for a shower and the rest of my day.

6. Keep an open heart.

As much as I want to close up and run away or lose myself in fantasies of moving to Asheville (North Carolina) or Brisbane (Australia), I’m doing my best to keep myself here both physically and emotionally. “Cut and run” is practically my motto, but I suspect sticking around offers me a great chance for spiritual growth and learning.

7. Connect with my senses.

On my walks, I look for rabbits and newly-opened flowers. I take my camera and look for new angles on the same old sights. I tune into my kids, especially when they’re playing harmoniously together. I smell the herbs and spices as I measure them into the soup, and I taste the grapefruit on my tongue. These things ground me.

8. Do something for someone else.

Taking meals to a friend or looking up fun, new dessert recipes to delight my family or surprising my spouse by doing the dinner dishes while he’s reading to the kids at bedtime help me take the focus off of my own stress and anger, fear and self-pity. Hugging people also helps.

9. Sleep.

When I’m stressed, I don’t sleep as well, which means I need to stay in bed longer to get enough rest to function well. I’ve been trying to prioritize an early bedtime over other important but less time-sensitive tasks (like my own pleasure reading). I definitely feel the difference when I’ve gotten a solid eight hours (or more).

10. Keep my family and friends close.

Maybe it’s the oxytocin release of being with loved ones, but it’s been helping to make time in my schedule just to be with my spouse, my kids, and my friends. All of them are precious to me and remind me that I’m precious to them, too, and that helps neutralize some of the negative effects of working through this conflict (even though—or perhaps because?—I rarely talk with them about it directly).

These are the things that have helped me during this most recent stressful time. They don’t erase the stress completely (and I certainly don’t do all of these things perfectly all the time), but every little bit helps.

What do you do to manage stress in your life?

Everyday Blessings by Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn

I borrowed this book from my friend Melanie ages ago (about three years ago, I think). I started it right away after I borrowed it, and while I appreciated the Kabat-Zinns’ perspective, the book didn’t really hold my interest. I’d been through those difficult early years with my kids, and while the suggestions were good, I didn’t really need them anymore. It felt like old news. But there was enough there that I didn’t want to give the book back to Melanie unread, so I put it on my TBR Challenge list for 2015—and actually read it.

This time the book spoke to me, probably because I started 2015 with a view toward more mindful living, which, because I have young children, is essentially the same as mindful parenting. Apparently right now is the right time for me to be reading this book.

In the months after my first child was born, I used to pick up the La Leche League staple The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, not because I needed help with breastfeeding—I’d paid the lactation consultants for that and was finally nursing nearly pain-free after six weeks—but because the tone was so supportive. I would dip in after my daughter had nursed herself to sleep but wasn’t ready to latch off yet, and the words would wrap around me. I would feel, for a few minutes, like I wasn’t alone.

Reading Everyday Blessings this month, I was reminded of that feeling of embrace. Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn provide an open and honest look at the challenges and benefits of being present with our children. They don’t offer anything I didn’t already know, but they did offer reassurance. Here were people who had engaged in the same type of parenting to which I aspire, who tried and failed and tried again, over and over, and not only lived to tell the tale, but reaped benefits even from their imperfect parenting. This is comforting to me because, as much as I hope for perfection, there’s no such thing as perfect parenting. I will always make mistakes; I will always have regrets. There will always be times when I’m confused and have no idea how to proceed, but I’ll have to proceed anyway because that’s my job. Everyday Blessings reminds me that this is okay. This is just another part of the process.

Even with all of these warm fuzzies, I found myself dreading the last section, “Darkness and Light,” about the loss and grief inherent in parenting. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go there after being buoyed gently along on the rest of the book, but it turned out that this section pulled everything together well. Here is where they talked about their own fears and failures, and as much as I don’t like looking at those in my own life, it was helpful to see them presented so gently. Practicing empathy for the parenting mistakes of those who share my parenting intentions helps me have more empathy for my own shortcomings.


Organic Gratitude

I’ve not had much luck with gratitude practices. Picking out things to be grateful about feels either forced or redundant, and I end up feeling like an ass when I still feel miserable even in the face of so many blessings in my life. Focusing on the good in a situation or in a moment just highlights the gap between what I expect or desire and the reality. It engages my logical mind to step in with its focus on identifying problems and proposing solutions. And that’s a problem.

I really like my logical mind. It serves me well in many, many situations. It helps me figure out whether to go to the grocery store or the post office first, which math curriculum I should try for my kids, and how many layers of clothing I should wear if it’s -6°F out (trick question; I don’t go out when it’s -6°F). But when my logical brain approaches the problem of my feeling down and sets to work identifying why this might be, the common element is always me. I’m the problem, says my logical mind.

This doesn’t foster feelings of gratitude, and you can imagine what it does to my mood.

Instead, I’ve found that I do better when I ask my logical mind to step aside and let my body and awareness take over so I can just be present for whatever the moment brings.

But my logical mind is tenacious. When it gets its teeth into something, it does not let go without a fight, even if it’s clear it’s losing. So, how do I ask it to step aside?

For me, it helps to shift my awareness from my brain to my body. For example, when I’m feeling anxious, my stomach feels queasy. Because I’m not good with throwing up, feeling queasy triggers more anxiety, which triggers more queasiness, which makes me more anxious. When I was a kid, my mom would say, “Count to ten,” or “Take three breaths.” These are good suggestions, but for me, they just serve as distractions. The underlying anxiety is still steaming away, driving that feedback loop.

To stop the feedback loop, I’ve learned to check in with my body. Sometimes I’m too anxious to bring my awareness directly to my stomach, so mostly I start with more distant body parts. I bring my awareness to my toes and how they feel in my socks, against the bottoms of my shoes, or if I’m barefoot, I feel the air across my skin. Or I bring my awareness to the space between my eyebrows or the space between my neck and my shoulders. If I have time, I do a full-on body scan meditation. (Usually I don’t have time.)

The key is not to think about what my body is feeling; that defeats the purpose. Rather I just bring awareness to the sensations in my toes or my face or my shoulders or my stomach without attaching any sort of judgment or evaluation to the sensations. This doesn’t change the sensations themselves, but it gets me out of my logical mind, which stops the anxiety feedback loop and helps me calm down a bit.

Another way I engage with my body is through motion. This morning I attended a dancing meditation. We began by learning the steps and hearing the lyrics of the songs read aloud to us, which both engaged the logical mind. Then the music began and as we listened and moved through the sequence of steps, I was able to let go of thinking and let my body do the driving. It was a moving experience, both literally and figuratively, and it not only calmed and centered me, but helped all of us in the room feel closer and more compassionate with one another.

At home, I’ll exercise or dance and sing with my kids or go for a walk. All of these work, but I found the dancing meditation to be much more effective and powerful than my solo endeavors.

I’m not always able to remember to bring my awareness to my body before my mind gets going too fast to stop, but when I can remember, when I can be present without judgment, I find that calm, compassion, and gratitude follow organically.

Gratitude for Imperfection

On the train home from Boston the other night, I referred to my friend’s son by the wrong name.

She was very nice about it when she corrected me. “Now that you mention it, he does look like a Josh,” she said. She was sweet, but I was mortified.

Five hours later, I found myself unable to sleep because I felt so embarrassed about my gaffe. My friend had laughed it off and given me a hug, and the other friend who was with us dismissed it as not a problem at all. “We don’t see each other’s kids much,” she comforted, but still I felt embarrassed, which made me feel even sillier because how silly is it to feel upset about this when no one else does?

While reading Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess with my kids, I was struck by Sara Crewe’s practice of letting an inner sense guide her actions and her attitudes despite her external circumstances. In her case, this meant acting as though she was a princess and treating people with grace and politeness despite the fact that she was being treated like a scullery maid and errand drudge.

I decided I wanted to do something similar, but since I don’t really go in for princess stuff, I cast about for a person or ideal that I could emulate in difficult moments. After rejecting the Dalai Lama because I couldn’t imagine what he would if his kids were yelling at each other, I settled on Dorothea Brooke from Middlemarch.

Dorothea’s not a perfect choice for me, but I like her all the more because she isn’t perfect. She has strong moral convictions and she acts upon those convictions even when it’s unpleasant or uncomfortable to do so. She makes mistakes, but she makes them for all the right reasons.

Acting like Dorothea this week has helped me to get out and do what had to be done—my morning walk, my ten minutes of meditation, getting to bed by 10:00, making dinner—even when I didn’t feel like it because those were the right things to do. Dorothea has even helped me to speak more gently to my children than I might otherwise. (Or at least, she’s helped me speak more gently some of the time. I did some very un-Dorothea-like yelling around mid-week.)

But after my mistake Sunday night I was at a loss. Would Dorothea Brooke have messed up her friend’s son’s name? I can’t really imagine it, but if she did, would she have stayed up half the night worrying about? (Actually, I think she just might have.)

My plan to emulate a fictional character had sort of broken down, but I wasn’t upset with myself for not acting like Dorothea; I was upset with myself for making a stupid mistake and then being upset about it even though no one else really cared.

I’m almost forty, and I’m still waiting to feel comfortable in my own skin.

Feeling comfortable in my skin is going to require either not making mistakes anymore (i.e. perfection) or learning to forgive myself when I do something silly. For decades I’ve tried for perfection because forgiveness just feels too difficult, but in reality both feel equally impossible to me.

My inclination is to tackle both the mistakes and the habit of feeling bad about them like I would any other bad habit—take them by the lapels and shake—but maybe that’s not the best approach.

Our minister gave a sermon that same morning about the challenge of feeling grateful for things that happen that we wouldn’t choose. She was thinking of accidents, life-threatening medical conditions, and chronic illness, but while “goofing up in public” and “overreacting to social gaffes” seem tiny in comparison, they might be a place to begin. Small as they are, they do fall into the category of something about me that I wouldn’t choose.

Maybe if I approached this relatively little thing as a spiritual practice of gratitude and sought out the positives about making mistakes, it would ease the discomfort a bit. And because it’s a spiritual practice, I wouldn’t have the goal of actually feeling grateful, just looking at it with a grateful frame of mind, which takes some of the pressure off.

Maybe by practicing feeling grateful for the small unpleasant things in my life—like persistent eczema and getting lost while driving—I’ll be more ready to feel grateful for the bigger things that I wouldn’t choose to happen (and would prefer not even to name) but that are sure to happen nonetheless.

It seems worth a try. If, that is, I can find something positive about making mistakes.

How do you tackle your mistakes and imperfections? Are you able to feel grateful for both the “good” and the “bad”?

Who Am I?

“Who am I?” I asked myself again and again during the weekend meditation retreat I attended in August.

It was the first time I had been away from my five-year-old son overnight. For two nights I slept in a twin bed in a single dorm room, alone for the first time in nearly a decade.

“Who am I without my children; without my husband?”

For a whole weekend, I had no responsibilities except showing up for my one-hour daily “yogi job” shift, washing dinner dishes or chopping vegetables. With everyone else, I listened to the bells telling us where to go and when, and followed the sound. We were encouraged to seek refuge in the buddha, the dharma, the sangha. I’d been seeking refuge but not in any of those things. For a whole weekend, I was not defined by what I spent my time doing.

“Who am I without my roles: wife, mother, daughter, friend, homeschooler?”

We maintained noble silence, refraining from talking, reading, writing, nonverbal communication, and eye contact until Sunday afternoon. I sat silent in a room with 96 other silent people. I walked the grounds with 96 other silent walkers, silently greeting the same holly leaf every time I returned to the hedge. Pacing slowly across the lawn and back, we looked like disoriented zombies.

“Who am I without my voice?”

I sat in hour after hour of meditation, feeling my presence in the breath tickling the back of my throat, in the movement of my digestive tract. In spite of the pain burning along my spine, I fell asleep sitting up. I had moments-long dreams, strange visions that seemed strangely real, and caught myself before falling over. The breeze from the window raised goosebumps along the left side of my body.

Here I am, I thought. But—

“Who am I?”

In my room, a familiar face looked back at me from the mirror above my sink.

“Who are you?” she asked.

I had no answer.

And that was okay.




The post that helped me actually go to my retreat after I’d signed up for it:

The Habit Experiment: July Wrap-up and August Kick-Off

One month of my nine-month Habit Experiment is done as of today. Yippee!

July’s Habit: Mindful Internet Use

To refresh your memory, my goals for this month were…

(cue Wayne’s World dissolve)

1. Restricting my internet usage to morning hours and evening hours for the completion of specific tasks.

2. Keeping a log of the times during the day when I feel a pull towards the computer for a non-planned usage of the internet noting what’s going on at the time and what I’m feeling at the moment.

Goal #1 was moderately successful (I only had one week in which I fell off the wagon entirely), and Goal #2 was successful only in the sense that I still want to keep a log and have a plan for how to implement it more effectively.

I’ve lost about one pound and my crossword puzzle times have remained about the same, but I don’t think either of these has anything to do with my internet use.

Inspired by Charles Duhigg’s How to Break Bad Habits (also in the appendix of his book, The Power of Habit), I have settled on a couple of tweeks for changing my internet habit during August (listed below).

August’s Habit: Exercise Daily

In addition to continuing to reduce my mindless internet use, I will devote August to developing an exercise habit.

I’m not 100% new to this. I’ve been taking a 30-minute walk every morning since April 2013, but I want to add a bit more while remaining realistic (I’m not getting any younger, after all). My motivation is to feel healthier, happier, and more energetic, as well as give me some wiggle room to eat high-calorie foods without gaining weight. In developing my goals for my exercise habit, I realized I could combine them with my mindful internet use habit and perhaps hit the proverbial two birds with one stone.

My goals for August:

1. Walk a minimum of 10,000 steps per day, as measured by the FitBit David Sedaris inspired me to buy. I’ll get this with my morning walk combined with regular daily activity, and perhaps a walk around the neighborhood with the kids. I wanted to go for 15,000 steps per day, but I prefer to under-promise and (hopefully) over-deliver.

2. Do 30 minutes of resistance training each day. Because I have trouble finding a chunk of time to exercise, I’m going to try out exercising in lieu of mindless internet use. Every time I feel a desire to check my e-mail, I’ll do one set of some form of resistance training (push ups, squats, lunges, triceps dips, etc). I’ll keep a list of exercises handy so I don’t have to spend time choosing one, and I’ll alternate upper body and lower body each day. At the end of the day, I’ll finish up whatever exercises I’ve not gotten to. Or so goes the plan

3. Keep a log of my exercise and internet use, à la Charles Duhigg (see the “How to Break Bad Habits” link above for more information about this).

So, I’ve got my measurements on board and my paper day planner at the ready for me to log stuff.

Let’s go, August!

How is wifi like an epidural? (Habit Experiment Check-In, Week 3)

When I was pregnant with my daughter I would think about my desire to birth without pain medication and couldn’t figure out why so many women had trouble refusing it. The way I envisioned it, the hospital staff would say, “Do you want an epidural?” and I would say, “No, thank you.”

In retrospect, I was a bit naive. I figured this out myself during eight hours confined to a hospital bed with an ever-increasing pitocin drip.

It was way easier to avoid pain meds when I birthed my second child at home where there wasn’t an anaesthesiologist on call. (Replacing the pitocin with a big birth tub also helped.)

Sure, avoiding the internet isn’t really in the same ballpark as avoiding an epidural, but there are similarities. Just as it was easier to avoid pain meds when they weren’t available, it was much easier to avoid the internet when we were spending each day in Boston and didn’t have access to it. (Replacing grammar lessons with carousel rides also helped.)

At home, I lose all resolve. The laptop sits there, beckoning me. “Come on over, Charity,” it says. “You can just look for a few minutes while the kids are occupied. See what your West Coast friends are up to. Click on a link or two. You can totally read that incendiary post and ignore the comments.”

Really, it’s not the laptop’s fault. People tell me that all I need is a little self-control, and I admit, they are totally right (and also kind of jerks). I actually have a fair amount of self-control, it’s just not limitless. I can’t have a bag of potato chips in the house without consuming the whole damned thing, and maybe I can’t have an internet connection without losing myself in it.

I either need to unplug the wifi, or I need to find the secret to ignoring my yen for looking at pictures of the babies of people I’ve never met and finding out what my “old person” name should be (it’s Gladys, in case you were wondering).

Maybe the secret is replacing the habit with something else. Maybe a lap around the house or a glass of water or ten jumping jacks. Maybe I should get myself a birth tub and take a dip every time I feel like refreshing my e-mail unnecessarily.

I’ll figure something out. Maybe next week.

Once more unto the breach, dear friends.

Evading the Still, Small Voice Within

This first week of mindful internet use has been moderately enlightening.

Some of my insights so far:

– When I was away from my computer, I didn’t feel a pull to check my e-mail and social media. I assumed that I would still feel the desire even though I have no internet-enabled mobile devices, but that wasn’t the case (at least not for this week).

– According to the log I kept, I felt compelled to hit refresh mainly in two situations: when I felt bored and when I felt frustrated (or otherwise emotionally charged).

– I felt a huge pull to hit refresh in the hours after I published a blog post or put something on Facebook; I just really wanted to see if people “liked” what I had to say. This one was not a surprise.

The biggest surprise this week was how strong the pull was. The strength of the compulsion was reminiscent of my long-ago days of quitting smoking; I had no idea the pull to hit refresh was anywhere near as strong as the jones for a cigarette.

Most times the compulsion faded by the time I got done logging it in my notebook. Sometimes when it still lingered I would find something else to occupy myself—I’d pick up a book or start some laundry or write out some Latin vocabulary flash cards. I also found myself digging into the peanut butter jar with a spoon rather more frequently than usual.

When distracting myself didn’t work, I tried to just be still and quiet, and that’s when I noticed the fear underlying the compulsion.

Each time I felt compelled to open my laptop, I was looking to escape. I was looking to escape my kids or my emotional discomfort. I was looking to escape my own thoughts and feelings.

It was when I was quiet that I felt this most distinctly. I didn’t want to journal. I didn’t want to be quiet. I just wanted to get away from whatever it was that was trying to bubble up in my mind.

In her book Writing to Wake the Soul, Karen Hering writes:

“Each time we turn to our email inbox or our smartphones for the next newsfeed or text message, we are tuning out and turning away from our inner voice and the conversations we might have with it.”

Feeling bored when I’m with my kids is one of my most persistent mothering fears. It’s been present since before my daughter was born. For some reason, I’ve always associated feeling bored with my kids as a sign that I’m not suited to the life of intensive parenting that I’ve chosen.

This thought is not logical, but knowing that doesn’t make it go away. I can’t think my way out of it, so when I feel it, I try to escape it. Same with the frustration and other strong emotions. There’s this sense that there is something else under the surface, and I feel nervous that if I let that thing up, it’s going to reveal something that is going to necessitate some change that I don’t really want to make.

What’s strange is that I don’t really think there’s a huge, earth-shattering revelation there. I have a feeling that the biggest revelation would be that I could feel bored, frustrated, or otherwise upset and I could be okay just feeling that way. I’m not sure why that’s so scary, but it is. And so I turn to the internet as a very convenient way to avoid feeling that fear.

It’s been funny this week to watch myself do things to avoid feeling the compulsion to hit refresh. Usually I’m fighting tooth and nail for “alone time” on the weekends, which means enjoying a quiet house while my spouse and kids galavant. This weekend, however, I was tagging along with the rest of my family on all of their outings. I watched three movies, including my first theater movie since before we left Utah more than three years ago. I started going to bed earlier (not super-early, but by 10:30 most nights).

And for this week, I have the kids’ and my schedule packed with adventures away from the house. I am so excited to be with them without my laptop looming in the corner! I know it’s only postponing the inevitable—I have to come home sometime, and I expect my compulsion will be waiting for me when I get here.

But maybe after a break I’ll feel a little more ready to hear what that small voice has to say.

Smashing Assumptions

Flute PracticeMy children’s flute teacher retired from teaching last month, and the process of finding a new flute teacher has been fraught. Their relationship with their teacher was so close, the thought of replacing her feels wrong, like we’re reducing our relationship to the mere pragmatics of finding someone to teach the mechanics of playing the flute when it was so much more.

“It’s like trying to find a new brother, or another parent,” my daughter says.

My son is reluctantly willing to play for prospective teachers, but insists he doesn’t want anyone but the teacher he’s known since he was eighteen months old to teach him.

The depth of my children’s connection doesn’t particularly surprise me, but the lessons I’m learning from this process are not the ones I expected. My daughter is quite advanced in her flute playing, so we’ve been focusing primarily on the obvious hard-hitters of the eastern Massachusetts flute scene, which are numerous but often a significant distance from where we live.

During this process, I learned that a fellow homeschooling mom is a piano and flute teacher, and she teaches right here in town. After I spoke with her, I decided we’d consider her for flute for my son or piano for both kids, but I thought she wasn’t high enough caliber to be my daughter’s flute teacher. This might be true, but when I went over my reasons for this assumption, I was really surprised with myself.

Here was a teacher with similar credentials, experience, and mentors as the other teachers we’re interviewing, but I put her at the bottom of the stack because she’s a homeschooling mom.

Like me.

That was a shock. It’s quite possible that this teacher will not be a match for my daughter, but I shouldn’t dismiss her because she’s a mother and a homeschooler. Here I am spending conscious effort every day to change the negative perceptions people have of stay-at-home parents, and I’m applying the same stereotypes I’m trying to fight.

I’m trying to see how positive it is that I even recognized this latent assumption and how it colors how I perceive other women, but at the moment, I’m just ashamed and very, very sad.

What does this say about how I think of myself? Why am I engaging in such self-defeating thinking? I’ve internalized the messages of our culture, that by choosing to focus on motherhood and put career well down on my list of priorities, I’ve relinquished my claim on any expertise I might have. What would the nineteen-year-old me sitting and steaming in Women’s Studies classes think?

How many times have I dismissed fellow mothers and not even realized it? How many other assumptions and biases influence my perceptions every day?

I’m trying—trying—to feel hopeful that this awareness will help me get better at seeing people for who they are in the future, instead of blindly following my biases. I’m starting by scheduling trial flute lessons for my daughter with the homeschooling mom flute teacher. If she’s not a match, she’s not a match, but I won’t be writing her off simply because she’s chosen a path similar to mine.

Introducing: The Habit Experiment

I love routines. I thrive on routines. I could never leave the house without routines.

I also have a lot of trouble developing routines.

Every day, I think, “If only I could make X a habit*, things would be so much easier. I’d have less stress, more energy, and just in general feel happier and more relaxed.”

This is what I tell myself, but is it really true? I don’t know because the first hurdle on the road to habit acquisition is so high, I rarely actually follow through, and if I do, I don’t follow through well enough to form a habit.

So, I’ve decided to change that.

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