As you read this, we are over two weeks into this thing…social distancing, slow the curve, COVID-19 and it’s all been unnerving and real on physical, mental, emotional, and economic levels. I was a homebody before, but we don’t have an end in sight, the Strand and the beaches are closed, and I miss having my toes in the sand, getting in the water, and playing volleyball. I think about it every day and let the gratitude that I feel for the life I have on regular days sink deep into my bones. As always, there are lessons and silver linings present in every difficult situation if we can find the space in our hearts and heads to sit with the discomfort. Here are my takeaways from quarantine life this week:
Optimal vs. Peak Performance - This is a difficult environment for high achievers. Whether as athletes, students, or parents, we get hooked on the feeling that peak performance brings, but without our usual environments on the court, at school, or in the office, we can’t access flow in our life as easily…everything about our routine feels off. I’ve found that shifting my focus from peak performance to figuring out what optimal performance looks like in times like these, relaxes my mind and improves my response to what is going on around me. It’s important for us to pinpoint what causes our feelings of stress or anxiety, and let go of the things we can’t control, like the stock market or the length of the quarantine, so we can treat ourselves and the people in our households well. In this situation, optimal performance doesn’t look like our daily grind, so embrace it and see if you can let go of the initial discomfort. Optimal may look much different than what you are used to, but I’ve found that it offers deep restoration for our minds and bodies if we can sit with it for awhile. Which leads to my next thought…
Quiet Streets, Quiet Mind - When was the last time the world took a collective pause, never that I can remember. By letting go of the things I can’t control, which is 99% of this situation, I’ve settled into peace that has brought deeper sleep and, with that, a quieter mind. Less hurry, less schedule, more connection, more intention…yeah, I could get used to this. What I know about myself is that my energy is precious, just like yours. I’m looking to maximize what I have efficiently. That process is actually enhanced by downtime, and right now, we have the opportunity to prioritize that like never before. There is time to meditate (try this one), power nap (set your phone timer for 20 minutes and trust yourself to drift off) and sit and talk a little longer at dinner. If these things make you uncomfortable, ask yourself why and go after the answer. I promise you’ll be stronger for finding out why..
Improving > Proving - Are you working to prove yourself or improve yourself? I took this idea from this podcast about overcoming limiting beliefs and it resonated with me. This is an incredible time to work on self improvement. Solitude gives us time to give our egos a break and learn new and different things by trial and error. Curiosity is one of the best antidotes to anxiety so what can you find to be curious about? What have you always wanted to learn? A language, an instrument, how to paint? Try something new for yourself and dance like no one is watching.
Can you feel it? The slow down feels good, deep down into our nervous systems if we let it in. Let the old state fall away and find a new efficiency to life that leads you to your path and purpose, free from the noisy hustle that ended, when we were asked to slow the curve.
Optimism is the foundation of resilience and the outlook that provides maximum energy for our days. On the most foundational level, our routines have been shaken. Our minds and bodies are looking for ways back to normal but there are actually a surprising number of ways we can still find our calm and flow. With much of the business of life being put on hold due to COVID-19, with an optimists mindset, it’s easier than ever to focus on what’s most important to create happiness and flow in our lives. Here are some simple ways to work with your brain and biology (think dopamine, serotonin, BDNF, norepinephrine, and regulating our autonomic nervous system) that are sure to boost our moods and help us find optimism in these unprecedented times.
Start A Mindfulness Practice - Instead of reaching for your phone to grab the first news of the day, either personal or global, find a comfortable place, sit upright with your feet on the floor, and let your thoughts flow. Observe them as they come, but don’t give them a judgment, just let them pass through without attaching to them. Start with even a minute or two and work up to eight (or more!). Science has shown that we start to seeing a lasting benefit at the high minute mark. A mindfulness practice allows us to create space between our thoughts and our emotions. It shrinks the gray matter in our amygdala, the fear center of our brain, and increases the size of our hippocampus making us better learners and improving our long term memory that helps us remember the good ways life has blessed us over the years. When we can separate our thoughts from our emotions, we begin to understand that we have far greater control of the shape of our days than we think. Mindfulness teaches us that everything is a choice, life is not just happening to us.
Listen to Your Favorite Music: Music lifts our spirits. It has been scientifically proven that our favorite music, the kind that gives us chills, releases a surge of dopamine in your brain lifting your spirits immediately. YouTube, Spotify, Pandora, Apple Music…pick your stream and keep it playing!
Exercise: Our brains love exercise and release all of the mood boosting neurotransmitters with a good 30-60 minute exertion. Run, walk, find the stream or app with your favorite yoga or at home circuit, or have a dance party. Follow @sohoyoga for the best teachers and at home yoga sequences! Exercise releases BDNF and norepinephrine that fight depression, endorphins that dull pain and enhance your mood, and dopamine that increases your motivation and focus. Just because the gym is closed it’s so important not to miss out on movement!
Be Creative: Color, write, paint…express yourself, let it out. This is something that is often missing from a busy work life schedule, and also something we can do with our kids. Now we have no excuse not to create. Difficult times can shape our perspective for the good if we frame the challenge as an opportunity for growth. Expressing ourselves helps us find ways to do this.
Sleep - Sleep is the foundation of our health, the base of our pyramid so to speak. It boosts immune function, creativity, and our ability to manage stress. With all of the change in routine, it is more important than ever to maintain a regular sleep/wake schedule with proper amounts of REM and Deep Sleep to keep our circadian rhythm on track. During REM sleep things that happened in our day are hard wired into our brain as memories, it’s also where we retain the information that we learned that day. Deep Sleep supports healthy cell regeneration, promotes growth and repair of tissues and bones, and overall strengthens our immune system. I use the Oura Ring to track my sleep and readiness and have learned a lot about why I feel the way I do based on the quality of sleep I get. With the data that the ring collects and gives me every morning, I can see when I’m rundown or even getting sick, even before I consciously know it, based on the readiness numbers, which may be more important than ever right now.
Find Gratitude: In this time of slow down, we need to find joy in the simple things. We can cut flowers from the yard, notice how happy our pets are to have us around, read more to our kids, and use social media as a means to spread positivity, kindness, and love. Gratitude makes it easier for us to make choices from love instead of fear and mobilizes dopamine and serotonin, making us feel happy from the inside out.
Choose News Sources Wisely: There is a fine line between staying informed and overdosing on media that sends our nervous systems into a tailspin. We have phones that will deliver breaking news to the palm of our hand, so it’s important to zero in on what keeps us current in this ever-changing environment, and what is overkill. I have chosen three news sources - one of them being ESPN which takes my mind off things and connects me with my interests and inspiration, and then let WSJ and NPR give me balanced information to bring me the news I need to be informed in this fluid situation. Choose your own news outlets based on your interests, but look for the sources that are leading with optimistic stories as well as hard news on the pandemic.
Focus on Your Strengths - It’s important that we see ourselves as our own source of strength in these isolating times. Positive psychology has been a place that taught me about the qualities I bring to this world that help me be of service and find meaning in my days. When we focus on what we are good at, our self talk, that voice in our head that speaks so loudly, is positive instead of limiting. If you want to learn more about your strengths and the field of positive psychology, take this quiz designed by the father of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, it’s always a good time to learn more about yourself.
Find Ways to Be Helpful - It’s never been easier to be helpful because the simplest things go a long way right now. A smile, patience and space in the grocery store, dropping notes of encouragement via social media or even in people’s mailboxes, and acts of kindness like shopping for others who are immune compromised help the world, but also help us tap back into that positive neurochemical flow, and fill our days with simple purpose.
Breathe - There is an abundance of information out there on how breath work activates our parasympathetic nervous system. I discovered this through yoga, but there are amazing ways we can improve our immune function and bring calm to our minds and bodies with breathing exercises. My favorite exercises are taught by Brian McKenzie @powerspeedendurance. Check it out for ways to regulate your stress response and improve your immune function at the same time.
Optimism is the backbone of resilience, something we find ourselves in need of more than ever today. It’s the only outlook that boosts both our mood and our immune response. Optimists are contributing to the greater good, now more than ever, in a time when we are called upon to be part of the solution. There has never been a better time to train your optimists lens, for yourself and everyone you support from a distance. Sleep, Move, Breathe and this too shall pass.
I still remember crying outside my high school gym, my thumb in a cast after surgery my senior year, while everyone else practiced. In the third and last preseason tournament of the year, I dove for a ball and my thumb got caught between my body and the floor and I tore a ligament that required surgery within 48 hours of the tear or I would lose the mobility in my thumb. I missed my entire senior season. That’s just my own little story of loss, that few people remember or know about at this point of my life, but at the time, it felt monumental to me. Life moved on and that injury taught me about my love for sports and movement, especially volleyball. It only made a comeback in my mind this week as I reached for an optimists lens while watching my kids deal with the disappointment that they feel over the cancellation of games, in Lauren’s case the rest of her season, and Kate’s over the loss of two Broadway plays we had tickets for in the next few weeks because of the COVID-19 protocols. We are definitely having a hard time finding our flow around here but they are discovering what means the most to them as individuals on the deepest levels.
Today’s story is one of historic proportions, not just a story from my life. Because of the social distancing and the quarantine feel of the instructions we are encouraged to follow, there is a feeling of collective loneliness that hits hard. I have always kept a running tab of the news stories that have shaped my consciousness, the big ones always pull on the threads of safety and even mortality, but had a way of rallying us together as a nation…I’m confident this one will be no different. My earliest memory was of Reagan being shot, then Libyan air strikes in 1986, the Challenger Disaster, Operation Desert Storm in 1992, and of course 9/11 to name a few of the “I remember where I was when…” historical events that have shifted perspective in my life. Being part of a collective conscious has a responsibility that is still sinking in. It’s easy to be helpful and supportive when things are humming along, business as usual, but how we choose to respond when the deck is stacked against us is the real measure of how humanity comes through difficult circumstances. In a matter of weeks, my mindset has gone from:
“Why is the media trying to panic everyone?” to “This is serious, everyone get on board and lets slow this train down.” The story is so much bigger than the games and events we miss. The optimist in me says that we have the power to change the curve on this pitch we’ve been thrown if we react with proper caution. This was one of the articles that shifted my thinking:
It feels eerie out there. I caught my last yoga class yesterday before the email came in that my studio is closing for a minimum of two weeks. The weekend that looked packed from beginning to end with my own tournament, two high school rivalry games, a travel tournament, and an event with my favorite inspirational author Ann Lamott were all striped from the calendar and suddenly the weekend turned into a sea of nothing with a lot of time to think, but a mind that couldn’t seem to focus…not to mention online learning that starts for all four of them, including a college student, by Monday morning. The uneasiness is sitting right under the surface, so I’ve had to remind myself of a few things that my mindfulness practice and my faith have taught me, but seem a little further from my grasp in some of these moments.
Stay Present: Find calm and rest in the quiet. Let go of the things that are out of our control, and that feels like so many things right now. In this moment, we are ok. We don’t know the answers of how long this will last or how challenging it will get. These are unprecedented times for all of us and we need to work to do the best we can with the information we have, without letting it spin our minds out of control. While I am practicing social distancing, I am also practicing media distancing. I take in news articles and short media segments, but the 24/7 isn’t going on at my house. When I project forward, I feel the anxiety rise up, and that isn’t going to change anything. I’m grateful for the faith I have to catch me in the moments where I feel my calm slipping away. Yes, there is comfort in routine and it is unnerving when that is taken away, but there is greater peace in the present knowing that I am a small piece of a much bigger plan and I’m still more than capable of doing my small part to better a difficult situation. That starts with my own mindset and habits. There is time to focus on the little stuff and in my life, so I’m going to work on getting that right.
Sharpen intrinsic motivation: I’ve always been aware of and grateful for the motivational boost that I get from a solid community. It’s why I enjoy being a part of a team, group exercise, and connection with other people. But this time of social distancing gives us an opportunity to dive deep and see where our own motivation lies, without feeding off of other people and their ideas. With all that has unraveled, and the uncertainty in the air, I’ve struggled this week to tap into that strength in solitude and have had to coach myself to bring it back around. We can’t stop the routine, we just have to find different ways to get it done. That means rolling out my yoga mat at home more often, getting out to feel the sand under my feet alone, and taking the time that has been created by the lack of scheduled events to dive deeper and learn more in the areas where my passions lie, so that when we emerge from this, I will be steeped in greater knowledge for the life comes at me. There is time to read, write, and parent with greater intention, but if we let fear and uneasiness take over, none of those things can happen.
Embrace Solitude: As someone who has always valued alone time, this is actually what I have struggled with the most. Single parenting is hard, when things get quiet or your mind is stirring on the right way to address something, there isn’t someone to collaborate with or bounce your perspective off of. The absence of a school community, a yoga community, and social gatherings with like minded people, what used to feel like the gift of solitude starts to feel too quiet very quickly. This takes me back to the slow down, and the lessons I’ve learned on my mat. Bring it back to your breath, feel the calm and let the creativity and ideas flow so we are ready to come back stronger for the next chapter. I have to believe this too shall pass…but quicker if we all find our own quiet corners.
Despite the lack of clarity today and the gaps in leadership, everything in my optimists spirit tells me we will emerge stronger from this struggle we face today. My prayers are that it is sooner than later, with the least amount of health and life taken from this earth. Until then, I hope we can find the calm and collective spirit that I felt at the store as I stocked up this morning. Shelves empty, but people who were calm and settling their nerves by telling their stories. This is how we beat collective loneliness, we are in this together, even if it has to be at a distance.
Fallow: Farmland plowed and harrowed but left unsown for a period of time in order to restore its fertility as part of a crop rotation
When I look at my roots and my path, it makes a lot of sense that my oldest child ended up in Texas playing beach volleyball. It suits her, and me, not that that really matters, but it makes for a great weekend to visit and restore my memory bank. There is nothing better than a college campus on a Friday afternoon. Lauren and I trade country music songs back and forth almost weekly on our family Spotify and she’s been my Stagecoach date since her sophomore year of high school. She has the tenacity and the grounded nature of the heavy clay and the live and let live approach to life that feels like the light sand that we both love to have under our bare feet. She’ll be 20 in July, almost incomprehensible to me, and yet her self awareness and clarity of what she wants from her life assures me that this is indeed the case.
I often marvel at the work my kids put into school and sports. The two who are either in college or college bound have managed to have higher GPA’s than I did and have gotten farther in their sports careers, earning scholarships and awards that of course make me proud. This is sounding like a bragging session but bear with me because I’m getting to a contrasting point. While there is nothing more rewarding than watching your kids succeed, there is something that I want to impart to them about the process, because, as they find their flow in life, I want them to see recovery, whether from failure, or extended periods of hard work, as an integral part of their game. Struggle and grind are a part of the process to achieve flow, but there is an equal need to restore our bodies and minds, and learning to make that a part of life’s best practices is a harder lesson to learn than it sounds.
In the world today, I talk to so many people, from kids all the way to adults, who struggle with anxiety, physical overuse injuries, and overloaded nervous systems, in fact I’ve been there myself which makes it easy to empathize and recognize. There is an ethic built around hard work, one that people of past generations instilled, that, while admirable on so many levels, can cause build up of some pretty intense feelings, symptoms, and inflammation in our bodies that shorten our life spans, lead to addictions, and take away from the joy we feel in the moment when we are living on purpose. When we don’t deal with that tension, we end up using too much energy trying to control things outside of ourselves rather than using our energy to create experiences in our lives that are uniquely meant for us.
The truth is, although we are born to belong, not one of us was born to fit in.
One of the best lines that I learned from Luke when he was still very little and I would be rushing around, unaware of my own heightened and hypervigilant senses was:
“Mom, don’t stress, it’s not going to change anything.”
Wise words from a little one that are far easier stated than practiced. Nonetheless, it was one of my first indicators that I needed to bring my level down and I began seeking out ways to do that for my mind and body, as well as for the energy I was giving off to the people around me. How could I channel more calm?
In farming row crops, as my family has done for 70 years and three generations, it is customary to fallow a field every couple of years. During this time, the field that has produced bountiful crops for the past two or three years gets a chance to rest and restore itself to its fertile nature because the past years crops have depleted its soil nutrients. We are the same. We need time to rest and rejuvenate. For us, that comes in the way of relationships that build us up, mindfulness practices, breathing exercises that bring us out of fight or flight, healthy food, sleep regimens that give our minds and bodies a break, and so many other practices that I employ these days as I work for a life that creates deep meaning, connects people, and makes an impact.
This connection between recovery and work swam through my brain this morning as I played volleyball and I was having one of those days where movement and vision were in sync and the gratitude I felt for this life felt like it could pierce the pure blue sky above me. Since I was about Lauren’s age, exercise has provided me a place to push my limits, feel strong and accomplished, and exhaust the worry so the 2am demons don’t wake me in the night. I’ve swam and run more miles, lifted weights, spiked volleyballs and poured buckets of sweat in hot yoga to get that endorphin high that is so addicting. But as life and years catch up with me, finding ways to beat fatigue, injury, and inflammation, so I can have as many of these moments of flow in my life as possible, require rest and recovery, and my own human version of fallowing becomes an integral piece of my puzzle.
While I want to teach my kids all about hard work by setting a good example of what that looks like, I also want them to know that its not ALL about the grind, we have to take the time to restore ourselves. Although balance may be an illusive concept for anyone who is trying to squeeze every drop out of life, there is something so rich in the recovery, the fallowing, that can’t be ignored…the question is will we slow down enough to listen and feel the promise of greatness that lies in the stillness.
“Clay holds tight to what is put into it, in its case water and nutrients, but sometimes too tight, not allowing it to drain and the root gets suffocated. Sand retains the least amount of water, is also easily replenished, but often what is important to growth leaches out very quickly, so it needs additions and attention in a very steady supply.” - The Optimists Journal “What Lies Beneath our Feet”, Oct 20
Whether growing humans or growing plants, I believe that most of us try our best to drive toward the light and bloom where we are planted. As people, we have no control where we are born or who we are born too. I remember watching the news as a little kid and feeling this absolute sense of relief that I was born in California, because it looked to me like some seriously scary things were going on in Beirut and the Gaza Strip. Years later as I raised my own kids I started turning off the news because of the terrible stories that activated Matthew’s over active imagination. There are such vast differences in our individual experiences and sensitivities, many things that seem unfair that we have to find a way to make sense of, or choose to move forward even when we can’t, and yet there is so much connection in what we all long for as human beings…to be safe, seen, loved, belong, and be understood for who we are. Before we have even had the chance to step out and begin our formal education process, life has already begun to mold our outlook and our sense of security with situations that were out of our control, but that set us up for many of our decision patterns in life. Early life is spent learning and while I believe that a beginners mind is a key to longevity, later in life it becomes our decision how we will handle the unlearning of some of these lessons that caused us too much pain.
I have been blessed to have the benefit of my roots in the heavy clay of the central valley (on our ground, with the occasional sand strata running through it on the west side of the ranch) and the experience of my toes in the sand which now what feels like a good part of my adult life, based more on perspective and growth than actual years spent here. I see human nutrients as the fruits of the spirit - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control. These human nutrients can also be summed up in every person born on this earth by positive psychology character traits that make up our personality. While life at the beach can seem relaxing, it’s still life, and there are a lot of people living it and, where I happen to be, they are usually living it at a pretty fast pace. When it gets crowded and quick, I have to remind myself to lift my eyes and my smile and still reach out for that human connection, that brings the kindness and compassion to the stories going on around me.
When a farmer has sandy soil, he has to amend it with organic matter to increase its holding capacity for the nutrients that will make his crops grow strong. On the human side of things, there is a shorter four letter word we often use for organic matter…sh#t. These are the things that get flung at us, sometimes that we had a burning gut feeling were coming, and others that blindside the heck out of us. Either way these are the experiences that produce the struggle, and no matter how much we hate it, the struggle is an inevitable and, if we allow it, rich and strengthening part of the journey. More often than not, life’s organic matter looks and smells like sh#t, its the heartbreak, the word no when we want to hear yes, the bruised ego, the fear of the unknown that wakes us in the middle of the night, the hesitation when we know we should act, and the debacle that is caused when we act before we think. I’ve learned that the trick is to let the organic matter, the sh#t of life, allow me to find and hold onto the nutrients that make me grow, like my roots that are planted in the heavy clay. I can let my heartbreak teach me more about forgiveness, my bruised ego foster more perseverance, or a failure manifest optimism that better days are ahead. It’s in this give and take that I can turn struggle into growth and strength and help me see that life is a series of my own choices that end up telling my story… the sh#t is the teacher and my outlook the narrator.