Remember that time when everything in life was perfect all of the time, there was no stress, no bills, everyone loved you (and you loved them), you had everything you always wanted (exactly as you wanted), you never doubted yourself, and felt like everyone on the planet had endless gratitude for everything you’ve ever done?
Yeah, me neither.
Life is like the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books I remember reading when I was younger. At the bottom of each page, you’d get to decide things like:
“If you want Sam to fight the 200 ft snake turn to pg. 17.” or
“If you want Sam to run like hell because at no point is fighting a 200 ft snake a good idea turn to pg 23.”
Our lives are no different. We have choices and decisions throughout that impact what happens next. Unfortunately, many of us can be slow learners, and we don’t learn until we’ve chosen to get our asses kicked by the 200ft snake a dozen times first.
Through my own snake ass kickings, here are the 5 gifts I have learned if I give to myself daily, I can optimize my brain and body functioning, build the capacity to handle everything coming my way, minimize the rollercoaster of highs and lows, and find a balance that works for me.
I have ADHD, so before you skip this section worried that I’m a master meditator and you could never do it, just hear me out.
My mind is a constant high-energy pinball game at best. At worst, think about the most chaotic intersection you’ve ever seen, with maybe hundreds of vehicles, mopeds, bicycles, people, animals, and carts all crossing at the same time with no rhyme or reason. The kind that makes you gasp in horror waiting for someone to get hurt, yet it seems everything gets through. You just met my brain.
So the first time I tried meditating decades ago, a few seconds into it, I was thinking about what I was making for dinner, my to-do list for the week, and wondering why the guy in line at the store was so rude to me. I told myself that maybe I wasn’t cut out for meditation.
I tried it on and off for years with similar results until only a few years ago when Covid hit. I figured I needed to try some “hobbies” for distractions while locked in my small home with two dogs and two increasingly antsy teens.
As every other time, within ten seconds, I was worrying if I was sitting correctly, wondering if it was “okay” to put my hands on my knees, and brainstorming what we could use as an alternative to our almost gone toilet paper.
The difference this time is that I kept showing up to this practice daily, but instead with permission to accept it however it looked for me. I started using Insight Timer (a fantastic free app). I found a zillion guided meditations that were short, meaningful and helped me understand that what I thought meditation was wasn’t really what meditation is.
I’m not going to lie. It was tough initially, and sometimes still is, especially if I haven’t done it in a few days. But I gave myself permission even to do it for a a minute, or five, and that was a victory. As time passed, I realized I had been doing short meditations daily and sometimes multiple times a day for weeks.
The wildest part was that I noticed a difference.
Full disclosure, when I went into this, I thought it would just be a hobby, something to do, while everyone else was making bread during the lockdown. Instead, I noticed I was calmer, more grounded, and appreciated things more. I have ADHD and anxiety, so every day can feel like being on constant red alert. After starting this, that changed.
I have made it part of my almost daily practice. I am still only doing it for usually 10-20 minutes on most days. One of my goals this year is to commit to daily because I notice a difference when I don’t.
Before writing this today, I meditated because my brain couldn’t focus even with the Ritalin and caffeine (another article for another day), but after meditating, writing this is effortless.
Move My Body.
Notice I didn’t say to run 10 miles daily? I would only be setting myself up for failure if that were my goal. I have always valued exercise and have done everything from Crossfit to Shaun T Beachbody. I loved going to the gym to do a class, but time has often been an issue, especially with active kids and teens that have often had activities in the afternoon and evening.
I used to put so much pressure on myself to feel like I had to do an hour of something high-intensity or it wasn’t good enough. But, of course, that always led to, in response, coming up with a zillion different excuses why I couldn’t do anything at all (time, weather, exhaustion), and of course, then nothing would happen.
Coupled with some medical issues, I ended up gaining almost 60 pounds which created more health issues for me. To build something sustainable, I had to let go of some of my perfectionist behaviors and create a realistic plan to simply move my body moderately in a way that brought me joy.
I chose walking, some yoga, and, believe it or not, some fitness games on my son’s Nintendo Switch (Thanks: RingFit Adventure & Fitness Boxing 2) At least five days a week, I walk 4-7 miles, do some yoga movements, or play some games. I have gotten to the point where I have to do this. Otherwise, I feel more sluggish, distracted, and anxious.
Exercising regularly helps reduce stress, improve mood, increase energy levels, and boost our overall well-being. It can also help to reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression by releasing endorphins which act as natural mood enhancers.
The physical benefits of regular exercise can’t be overlooked either. It helps build muscle strength and endurance, improves cardiovascular health and circulation, and can even help you lose weight.
Do Something That Brings Me Joy.
During my most recent massive burnout episode, I realized that my life had been so consumed with work that I had been robbing myself of joy. So much so that when I transitioned from my job into my next chapter, I had to re-learn what actually brought me joy.
I had numbed myself so profoundly by throwing myself into raising kids and working that I had completely disregarded my identity as a fun, playful, funny, and adventurous woman.
We emotionally numb as a coping mechanism from feeling and dealing with life. It’s a survival instinct our brains engage in disconnecting, and rather than coping and processing, they can hyper-fixate on something else instead. In my case, rather than dealing with stress, I threw myself into my kids and work.
I was exhausted from trying to give everything I had to everyone else. I had no clue who I was and thought, if this is how you feel living life is supposed to be, you’re wrong.
I remember one day making the decision no more. For me, it was crossing a line knowing that I deserved more and was very worthy of living a life doing things that were meaningful and joy-filled for me.
I started trying new hobbies. I took salsa lessons, started a garden, became a plant mom, traveled, tried new recipes, watched comedy stand-up, bought a subscription to Scribd to read my heart out, remodeled my bathroom, made candles, did more patio happy hours with friends, journaled, and continue to every day do one thing that is for me.
Your joy doesn’t have to cost anything nor take a lot of your day, and as Kathleen Morgan Schafler, author of The Perfectionist’s Guide to Losing Control, points out, the key to thriving “isn’t managing our time; it’s managing our energy.”
We have time, but when we burn ourselves out on everything else without using any boundaries, we don’t have the energy to enjoy what we deserve.
Primarily Eat Whole and Nourishing Foods.
One of the things I wish I had learned and understood at a much younger age was the role food plays in health. Of course, I understood from a cognitive level that healthy foods are good and sweets are bad, but I probably didn’t want to hear it either.
There continues to be a growing body of tremendous research connecting gut health to mental health. I am reading new books and writing on this for future blogs because I think modern medicine neglects to give this as much attention as it deserves.
Gut health and mental health are intricately connected. Emerging research shows that an unhealthy gut can directly influence a person’s mental state, from increasing stress levels to even leading to depression and anxiety. Many of these studies also point to a link between gut health and the central nervous system. This connection is believed to exist through various factors, including the microbiome, hormones, and the immune system.
Microbiome has a significant impact on mental health. The microbiome is composed of trillions of microorganisms that live in the body, mainly in the gut. A balanced microbiome is necessary for maintaining good physical and mental health. Conversely, microbiome imbalances can negatively impact mental health, causing inflammation and contributing to depression, anxiety, and stress.
Hormonal changes can also be a result of imbalances in the microbiome. This can lead to increased levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, which further impacts mental health and can lead to depression and anxiety.
The immune system can also be affected by an unhealthy gut, leading to increased inflammation linked to depression and other mental health issues.
I fully support that many people need medications to survive and thrive. I have been on anti-depressants, anxiety, and ADHD drugs on and off for most of my life and, truthfully, will most likely need to be on some for the rest of my life. However, a person with diabetes doesn’t question or feel like a failure for needing insulin, nor does an asthmatic that needs an inhaler, so I don’t either.
That said, our body is a complex, interconnected system. It makes sense that one part can impact another. When we use a holistic lens to our health, while I may need to be on meds to help me thrive, I am all in on optimizing my body as a system to maximize outcomes. The better one part is functioning, the better all parts will function, improving my current quality of life and future health outcomes for me.
Grace and Acceptance of What Is.
I have learned that I’m a thinker, and my middle name should be “control.” I can easily intellectualize most things, but I am learning that sometimes I need to be okay that not everything can be intellectualized. This is an act of letting go of control, including my thoughts and the things I fear the most, such as failure and not being good enough.
In an ideal world, I know that doing these things improves my quality of life and suits me, but I also know that life isn’t always perfect. Some days I don’t meditate, and some days I eat my weight in cake. In the past, I would have berated myself, giving way to tremendous amounts of guilt, which would have only, ironically, made me want to eat more cake and give up.
One of the hardest things I have ever done was start my journey in grace, and that life just is regardless of how much I try to control and fight to be loved or seen. Of course, I can knock myself out trying, but I have learned that spending more time focusing inward on the things I can control and having an obscene amount of grace with myself has changed my life more than anything else.
It’s not perfect, but honestly, I care less about perfection. I worry less about what others think and have started to reframe and embrace how I look at what I would have in the past, called my imperfections. My previous example about the cake wasn’t just to be funny. In the past, I would eat emotionally as a way to respond to stress, which would only make me feel more like a failure and continue to eat.
Now, I still have moments where if stress and some chocolate are in the right place at the wrong time, I will soothe my life’s worries with the cacao sweetness, but this time, instead of criticizing myself, I say things like;
“Damn, this is good. Of course, it doesn’t take the stress away, but I trust myself to know that I can have this moment to indulge without the guilt.”
By permitting myself to accept the moment for what it is, trust me, and engage in self-forgiveness that I don’t have to be perfect, I’m not a failure, and I am worthy, I prevent myself from spiraling into the abyss.
The difference now is being honest with myself to understand why I do it, having a lot of grace, but most importantly, accepting that I am what I am and life is what it is. So rather than trying to push uphill constantly, I am learning to enjoy the ride. It’s a far more fulfilling way to live.
Interested in learning more about yourself and how to unlock the best parts of yourself again? I’m ready to help. Start by finding out your wellness type here!