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Farewell to Grasping

"Look relaxed!" she said. And so, I went with that because in the moment, I finally could. An hour later, milk spit up trickling down my blouse as I watched one of my dogs poop on the dining room floor while baby stuck his fingers up my nose... not so much.

"Look relaxed!" she said. And so, I went with that because in the moment, I finally could. An hour later, milk spit up trickling down my blouse as I watched one of my dogs poop on the dining room floor while baby stuck his fingers up my nose... not so much.

In 2017, I learned that we can plan all we want in our attempts to manifest what we think our lives should be, but it's often the serendipitous, spontaneous experiences that bring us to the place we need to be in order to grow, like the seed of a wildflower carried by the wind.

After years of believing that I would never have a family of my own due to endometriosis and ambivalence, my gregarious, funny and fearless little guy entered the world in February, born to two introverted, bookish parents who are still trying to figure out where our bubbly charmer came from. We’d done everything we possibly could to ensure a natural water birth, but after 23 hours of labor, he arrived unruffled by an otherwise harrowing emergency C-section, which somehow set the tone for parenting, my anxieties and neuroticism harshly contrasting the reality of raising such an easy, confident baby.

Here’s how I saw it — I’d be one of those present, put-together moms while expanding Tangram Wellness, writing a book, and working on a doctorate as he napped. I’d strive to be like that gorgeous blonde mom who jogs by my house every morning — she with the perfectly sculpted six-pack, placid wrinkle-free face and Lululemon wunder shorts. I so, so want to be her some days! Now, the reality:

with any significant step forward, there is so much loss. I find that concepts like “balance” and “having it all” as a mother are complete and utter bullshit, that the appearance of perfection means something very different behind closed doors, that holding ourselves up to idealized Instagram standards is yet another form of self-hatred.

So, I chose to scale back Tangram, shuttering it as a full-fledged company and slowly redirecting it back to its essence as one woman, one coach, who simply wants to serve the people she's meant to serve where and when she can. The book, which I’d mapped out to write over six months of baby naps, is looking more like a multi-year project, and the degree that I was aiming to apply for has taken on an entirely new hue, less a necessity and more a high-risk roll of the dice. These days, I’m lucky to get to the gym four times a week. Cardio means a breathless ten-minute stroller run to my favorite coffee shop. And, now that I've been blessed with my son, I've realized that this once proudly child-free woman would probably be happiest with a large family which, at my age, is both an impossibility and a yearning that few of my peers relate to. Nothing, absolutely nothing, has gone as planned.

In 2017, I stopped being a “fixer,” an aspect of my personality that I’d once believed was set in stone. I stopped trying to heal people who have no real interest in feeling good, and I walked away from toxicity cloaked as love, estranging myself from the past after saying a final time in 2016, shortly before I’d conceived, #metoo. 

There must be something in the air—so many women, like seeds, found their roots this year and began to flourish fiercely on the outskirts of a desert beset by predators. Their buds are everywhere now, a variegation of colors and textures sprouting from a once unfamiliar land as if they belonged there, because they do. Me too. We cannot breathe in new life without releasing the weight that pulls us under and that often requires a real fight and then, rest. Rest. 

For all the shifts and surprises, 2017 has been the best year of my life. And yet, the entire time, I haven’t been the one driving, despite all of my planning. God is a tricky topic to write about these days, but for many of us in recovery — recovery from anything — we eventually have to learn to “let go and let God.” I guess I’ve finally realized, after 8 years of sobriety, what that truly means. Cultivating spiritual fortitude sounds like a worthwhile goal for next year, and every year thereafter.

My wish for all of us in 2018 is that we can enjoy “what is” a bit more instead of focusing on what could be — a tall order in this age of achievement, frustration and hashtags, where our will and desires are king and queen. To make ample space for mystery and surprise — to "trust the timing of your life," as the saying goes — is a strange thing for a behavior change coach to advocate but I think, at this point, it’s a strong way forward. Farewell to grasping. 

Ring it in, and bring it on! Happy New Year.

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Reclaiming Your Health & Power After Trauma: The Real Deal

"You may write me down in history with your bitter, twisted lies. You may trod me in the very dirt, but still, like dust, I rise." - Maya Angelou A popular image and quote these days. Photo credit unknown.

"You may write me down in history with your bitter, twisted lies. You may trod me in the very dirt, but still, like dust, I rise." - Maya Angelou
A popular image and quote these days. Photo credit unknown.

Trigger warning: this article deals with the topic of sexual violence and abuse. If you just want resources and solutions to heal, scroll halfway down for a list, beginning with "TOOLS FOR EMPOWERMENT."

As more women come forward with allegations of sexual harassment and assault by Hollywood film mogul, Harvey Weinstein, their collective voice has carried across thousands of miles, encouraging some of us living in the more restrained social climate of Southeast Asia to say, #MeToo. Over a few short days, millions of women and men are now galvanizing to weaken a culture that profoundly impacts countless people not only during the acts of violence, but over the years and decades following their traumas. Admittedly, I broke my “no social media” rule this week after ten months of (mostly) scroll-free living to read through the various headlines and hashtags for some promising indication of change. As a behavioral health professional and another #MeToo, I’m compelled to believe that we have finally reached a point in history where we will no longer tolerate the shame, silence, and predatory environment that has contributed heavily to skyrocketing rates of drug and alcohol addiction, mental illness, and physical pain.

Sexual violence IS a public health issue, and it’s one that coaches, fitness specialists, and medical professionals must be able to compassionately discuss with the people they serve because invariably, all of us in the helping professions will end up working with people who have bodies that speak the language of trauma. 

In Singapore, awareness of sexual abuse and assault is finally growing due to organizations like AWARE, an increase in high-profile cases, a global spotlight on human trafficking in the region, and the brave survivors willing to speak out about their own experiences. While Singapore is comparatively safer than the US, violence and abuse regularly occurs here across all racial and economic backgrounds. Voyeurism, up skirting and the sharing of intimate digital images are commonplace. Assault, rape and child sexual abuse (CSA) are regularly in the news. One study carried out in 2014 surveying young adults in Singapore found that 1 in 3 had experienced sexual violence of some form, “from verbal and cyber-harassment to non-consensual touching and rape.”[1] The Harvey Weinstein’s of the world straddle class, race and economic lines. Many of them— as hard as it is to accept— were also victims of sexual violence and adopted a maladaptive coping strategy of false power to bandage their psychological wounds. That in no way means that they should not be held accountable- quite the opposite. Sexual violence is a cycle, and in order for the cycle to discontinue in our world, we must understand all of the moving parts.

Sexual violence lingers. It’s a toxic mold in the body and a stain on the mind, eventually abrading the fibers of both.

This undeserved experience— one that a third of women and fifteen to twenty percent of men are directly impacted by— manifests in multiple pernicious ways, including:

Time is understanding, and peace comes with time.

Time is understanding, and peace comes with time.

o    Eating disorders: About half of those with anorexia and bulimia have endured some form of sexual trauma. Binge eating and body dissatisfaction are also linked to histories of sexual abuse.

o   Depression & PTSD: Victims of sexual assault are three times more likely to suffer from depression, and six times more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. [2]

o   Obesity: Children who were sexually abused are far more likely to struggle with their weight as adults.[3]

o   Sexual dysfunction: Women and men who’ve endured sexual violence are more likely to experience vaginismus, erectile dysfunction, and arousal disorders. Intimacy becomes a struggle.

o   Self-harm: Adolescents and young adults who attack their own flesh through cutting have extremely high rates of sexual abuse in childhood (CSA). In one group of self-harmers, 93% were CSA survivors.[4]

o   Autoimmune Disorders: The amazing ACE Study— a retrospective study of over 15,000 adults— offers fascinating insight into the link between CSA and various autoimmune conditions, including Crohn’s disease, lupus, fibromyalgia, IBS, and endometriosis. [5]

o   Addiction, particularly to alcohol and opiates, is rampant among people living with sexual trauma. Dr. Gabor Mate, a sage in addiction medicine, found that nearly all of his female patients hooked on heroin had a severe trauma history. Women with alcohol use disorders frequently report instances of sexual violence in their path. And, as much as we don’t wish to admit, alcohol consumption is directly linked to sexual assault. [6]

o   Anxiety and low-self esteem: many people who’ve been violated are then subject to victim blaming, labelled by their perpetrators as liars, crazy, attention-seeking, and bad or evil. This leads to a collapse in self-esteem and self-belief, and may contribute to self-internalizing disorders like anxiety.

Trauma significantly impacts our physical and emotional wellness, and recovery is often like peeling an onion slowly; each new layer reveals raw memories, sensations, emotions and challenges. The health impacts of an assault occurring in college, for instance, may end up expressing itself as C-PTSD, depression, an addiction or a pain condition when the person is well into her thirties or forties. The truth of the experience becomes visible only when we are grounded and ready to handle it, although it may not feel like that at the time.

This unfolding can be incredibly upsetting, and survivors are often left wondering why they must bear the consequences of someone else’s violence over years and decades. Many have no idea why their bodies are suddenly rebelling or what’s caused a decline in their moods.

Health and trauma are inextricably connected; we simply cannot talk about mental health, disease and addiction any longer without talking about trauma as well.

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Now, the good news. With enduring and healing, we discover an unexpected upside. Thriving beyond abuse means alchemizing hypervigilance into intuitiveness and anger into empathy. It means embodying the truth of forgiveness, unchaining oneself from the offender by no longer demanding something that the perpetrator cannot offer. It means learning to rest in the quiet of your soul instead of racing toward the next distraction. It means being able to believe in and define who you are, rather than handing over your identity to others. With healing and recovery, we’re offered powerful protection against perfectionism, victimhood, narcissism, hopelessness and rage.

Survivor resources are still quite limited, particularly in Singapore. However, I’ve compiled a list of what I’ve found helpful to women who are ready to thrive after sexual abuse or assault. These are not explicit endorsements and I have nothing to gain by recommending them. While our voices are, in this moment, unified, our experiences are all unique. Find what works for you.

TOOLS FOR EMPOWERMENT:

Self-defense
classes can dramatically reduce the potential for future assaults while strengthening one’s ability to identify and avoid potential predators. I’m a fan of the brutal Israeli self-defense system, Kapap, as well as basic survival defense using found objects and tools like tactical pens. If you’re willing to endure a few bruises, Kapap Singapore is run by seasoned martial artist and former psychologist, Master Teo Yew Chye. His protégé, Yunquan, is the first and only martial artist to be conferred by Her Majesty the Queen of England for saving lives through self-defense. She’s also a bodyguard and behavioral consultant, skilled at detecting deception and interpreting body language (and a total badass). Boxing and MMA are two other options, but you’ll want to feel completely comfortable with the coach and class, and a testosterone-fuelled environment can sometimes be a challenge for trauma survivors, although often the best way to overcome our fears is by facing them head on, venturing into the dragon's lair.

Yoga is beneficial in releasing physical and emotional symptoms of sexual trauma while encouraging the practitioner to remain in her body, thereby decreasing episodes of detachment, or disassociation, both during and following the session. Look for trauma-sensitive yoga, which embraces a hands-off teaching style and avoids poses that may trigger a fight-or-flight response, like happy baby pose and downward facing dog. Forrest Yoga is a discipline that emphasizes moving shame out of the body while reinforcing the mind-body connection through what its founder, Ana Forrest, calls “synaptic bridging.” While I’m not aware of any trauma-specific practices in Singapore, a good yoga instructor should be able to tailor the class and offer alternative poses if you’re willing to be open with him or her about your specific needs. At least one yogi in Singapore currently offers Forrest Yoga- check their Facebook page for class information. 

Weightlifting is an exceptional tool for battling depression and PTSD, and an apt metaphor for the experience of moving into thriving. You learn that what you once believed you could not handle becomes easier to carry, and you stop asking for a lighter load, instead strengthening yourself to face whatever may come. In the bodybuilding community, I’ve met an incredible number of women who have healed from eating disorders, addictions and mental health challenges- for good reason! Weightlifting puts you back in touch with your body and builds your strength in multiple ways. There are many options in Singapore, both at gyms and with private coaches. Three excellent fitness specialists in Singapore are Roz Alexander, Yan Huang, and Cheryl Lin. They are supportive, encouraging, and they know their way around the weight room!

Self-Care is an antidote to depression, stress and self-flagellation, reinforcing that one’s needs and feelings are valid and important. Prioritizing your well-being— getting enough sleep and exercise, nourishing your body with whole foods, setting aside time for play, and creating a supportive routine in your life, for example— will help your body and heart cope with the aftermath of trauma, whether days or years after the incident. Self-care is deliberate, scheduled and controlled solely by you- it’s claiming the driver’s seat in your life and honoring your internal messaging system.

Journaling, particularly structured journaling, provides a private space for mental purging so you can move beyond your past and build a purposeful, rock-solid future for yourself. Pen and paper work well for most, and research shows that writing by hand calms the mind while improving memory and creativity. If you’re looking for something with structure and an end goal, Jordan Peterson’s Self-Authoring course is well worth the money and time it will take you to thoughtfully finish it (around 3 months or so to complete).

Meditation and Prayer: Mindfulness has become this decade’s cure-all, and for good reason- it works! However, for trauma survivors in the earlier stages of recovery, a meditation practice can backfire with highly negative results, including re-triggering and the onset of mental illness as well as psychosis.[7] If you’re going to give meditation a try, having a supportive therapist and an experienced mindfulness teacher is a smart idea. Start S-L-O-W-L-Y, no more than perhaps a few minutes per day. The Kadampa Meditation Center offers daily sessions and longer courses on modern Buddhist meditation, and there are several options for Christian meditation in Singapore as well, including weekly classes at Saint Bernadette’s Church. Prayer is another path of healing from sexual trauma, and one of the most powerful— albeit personal— I’ve found. Infusing your life with a daily prayer practice has been proven in numerous studies to heal deeply and profoundly.

THERAPIES AND COACHING:

Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing, or EMDR is a radical and somewhat mysterious psychotherapy approach to alleviate stress and bodily discomfort from traumatic memory by enhancing the processing and forming new adaptive memories. Developed accidentally by American psychologist, Francine Shapiro, EMDR has become a popular yet controversial treatment for PTSD resulting from combat, rape, child abuse, and physical accidents. EMDR tends to work best for single traumatic incidents, but can also be effective for complex PTSD.

Gestalt Therapy is a client-centered experiential therapy emphasizing a focus on the present life rather than interpreting the past, and views people as a “whole” comprised of body, mind and soul. Techniques combine bodywork, drama, dance, role-play, dream work and art as a path to experiencing how something feels in the moment. Because Gestalt respects and supports the individual’s understanding of oneself, it’s particularly well-suited to people who have been told by external parties how they should interpret their trauma, or who are dealing with gaslighting— manipulation to make one doubt one’s sanity and reality— which is a particularly common experience for trauma survivors.

Tension, Stress and Trauma Release Exercises(TRE)  is a system of physical exercises that shakes the muscles to increase body resiliency and relax the nervous system while shedding trauma. This is similar to the natural mechanism to discharge excess energy used by many animals after they’ve encountered a predator. This therapy is also helpful for people in addiction recovery, and those with PTSD.

Comprehensive Resource Model (CRM) is a completely new therapy that, to my knowledge, is not yet offered anywhere in Asia, and helps with the remembering and releasing of traumatic material while re-establishing one critical foundation in Maslow’s hierarchy—  a sense of safety and security. It targets the most primitive aspects of the self through connection to the natural world and reawakens the imagination to new possibilities for the future. Based on what I’ve read, I’m really excited about this approach and hope to one day bring it over to Singapore or adapt it for coaching.

Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) is perhaps the most basic and widely available therapeutic approach to treating trauma, and involves weekly sessions of talking with a trained clinician about your memories, interpretations and feelings, as well as completing short writing assignments. This eventually increases a sense of safety and self-control while encouraging the release of unhelpful beliefs that may lead to self-sabotage.

Sexual Health: Sexual violence can be so detrimental to one’s sexual sense of self and ability to physically connect in relationships. Be gentle with yourself in the healing process and prioritize maintaining an open dialogue with a trusted partner. Conditions like painful sex can be treated through psychotherapy, physical therapy and the use of tools like dilators and pelvic wands. The book, Heal Pelvic Pain, has a series of daily physical "Letting Go" exercises that can also retrain muscular response. Two sexual health coaches in Singapore are Dr. Martha Tara Lee and Christina Low, so if you’re in the region, you may wish to reach out to them.

Coaching for health, life and recovery focuses on values-based rebuilding with an eye toward the future, and draws on the natural strengths and abilities of the client. It’s a motivational and insightful journey of self-discovery, and an opportunity to rewrite the story of one’s life for a more joyful, resilient and meaningful existence. I am, of course, biased about practitioners, so I won’t recommend any particular integrative coach :-). One specialist who works specifically with sexual abuse survivors is Rachel Grant, and she has a worthwhile newsletter and guide on recovery, as well as one-on-one and group programs offered online.

BOOKS:

“The Body Keeps the Score” by Bessel van der Kolk is a lifesaver for anyone healing from trauma or working in the field, and explains how trauma rewires the brain and alters our capacity to enjoy life, as well as outlining how to reverse those detrimental impacts. This tome is best read slowly with a highlighter in hand.             

“The Gift of Fear” explains the predatory mind in detail, imparting wisdom to help women physically protect themselves from potential attacks. It also tackles the tricky business of saying “no” and is a must read for people-pleasing nice girls. The author, Gavin de Becker is a top expert in personal security and has a company focused on the protection of high-profile individuals and prevention of violence.  

“Women Who Run With the Wolves” is a manifesto for the wild woman archetype and explores feminine expectations and roles in history and mythology. It’s an incredibly empowering and enlightening book for women who are ready to reclaim their true nature and intuition, and shed those cultural norms that perpetuate our victimization and second-class status.

“The Courage to Heal” by Ellen Bass is the Bible for recovery from childhood sexual abuse in particular. I would be remiss not to include this book and it’s particularly suitable for those on the beginning of their journey. However, if you’ve already done some therapy and are looking for deeper healing, it may ring a little basic for you. 
 
“Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma” by Peter Levine explores the trauma continuum through the lens of the animal kingdom, and includes a series of body exercises to reduce unpleasant sensations. This book is applicable to any type of trauma or jarring life event and is somewhat similar to “The Body Keeps the Score,” although more specific and less robust in its content.

“Life, Reinvented” by Erin Carpenter, LCSW is a simple book that addresses how to move beyond sexual trauma and rebuild one’s life, and can be particularly helpful to other supportive loved ones as well. If you’re not ready for therapy, this is a good start. 

And, three bonus books which don’t relate specifically to trauma, but explore setting boundaries and standing up for yourself are:

The Nice Girl Syndrome,” by Beverly Engel provides a 10 point plan to stop being abused by spouses, friends, family members, dates, and dudes on the street. Engel’s an expert in treating emotional and sexual abuse, and has been practicing psychotherapy for 35 years.

“Boundaries,” by Dr. Henry Cloud & Dr. John Townsend is about taking control of one’s life and learning to advocate for oneself- something that too many women really wrestle with. "Boundaries" is biblically-based and filled with epiphanies that challenge “turning the other cheek” in specific circumstances, like abuse. If you’re a boundary-injured Christian, I cannot recommend this read enough. There’s a workbook as well; get them both!

Another Christian-specific book is Battlefield of the Mind by Joyce Meyer, a minister who transformed her CSA trauma and now counsels survivors through her ministry and books. She’s an inspiring figure who’s transcended shame to help thousands, and if you're feeling hopeless about your own situation, look up her life story. She's proof that severe betrayals can be overcome. Rumination and obsession are two after effects of violence, and Joyce does an excellent job of explaining how to overcome that from a Christian perspective. Both “Boundaries” and “Battlefield of the Mind” may not resonate for secular folks or those practicing other faiths.

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GROUPS & HOTLINES:

Support groups can be tremendously powerful for survivors of sexual trauma. As #MeToo proves, we overcome in fellowship and safe, mutual sharing.

I only know of one support group in Singapore that specifically serves adults dealing with sexual trauma, but I’ve found that 12 Step groups (AA, NA, Al-anon) are generally helpful if you’re also wrestling with an addiction and you’d like a space to express abuse-related trauma among others who can empathize.

Two online groups you may wish to check out are Pandora’s “Rape and Sexual Abuse Online Support Community” and Reddit’s Adult Survivors of CSA. Online groups provide some level of anonymity. Remember to proceed cautiously in online communities, as bullies and trolls enjoy targeting the vulnerable online and moderators aren’t always quick enough to protect the group, however hard they may try.

AWARE is a gender equality advocacy group in Singapore that offers several services for victims of violence, including a support group, counselling, a legal clinic, hotline and research-based advocacy.

RAINN is an organization based out of the US and perhaps the world’s largest anti-violence network. They also have a support helpline and offer multiple online resources for children and adults in the US and abroad.


ONLY YOU own your story, your experiences and your path to healing. As more women and men (let's not forget the men here, please) come forward in the weeks and months ahead, you may feel pressured to do the same, even if you’re not quite ready. One of the most important steps in building strength is being able to advocate for yourself while doing what will be most supportive for your soul. If you want to stay silent, do so. If you want stillness over action, embrace that. If you’re feeling anger instead of togetherness, feel that. If you’re not ready to forgive and move forward, don’t. If you feel like shouting your history from the rooftops, go for it! It’s your body, your truth, your walk, and your transformation.

Thanks for reading. If this article has helped you or may help someone else, share it! A few of your connections may appreciate that.

As you may have noticed, I’ve been rather quiet, at least online. I am focusing on my current clients and slaying some goals with my awesome accountability group. Tangram will continue to exist as a platform for advocacy and information, and I plan to update my professional services  early next year. If you’d like to join the next accountability group in April, sign up for the newsletter for more information!


References:

[1] https://www.theonlinecitizen.com/2015/03/31/survey-1-in-3-young-people-have-faced-sexual-violence/

[2] http://rapetraumaservices.org/resources-2/statistics/

[3] https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/12/sexual-abuse-victims-obesity/420186/

[4] https://www.ptsd.va.gov/PTSD/public/problems/self-harm.asp

[5] https://www.americannursetoday.com/long-term-health-outcomes-of-childhood-sexual-abuse/

[6] https://www.teenvogue.com/story/alcohol-most-common-date-rape-drug

[7] http://www.archivespp.pl/uploads/images/2015_17_3/48Dyga_ArchivesPP_3_2015.pdf

 

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The Highly Sensitive Body: Handle With Care

Several years ago, a friend recommended a book that would completely transform my self-awareness and interactions with the world, as well as the way I viewed self-care. Dr. Elaine Aron’s “The Highly Sensitive Person: How To Thrive When the World Overwhelms You” explores the traits of sensory process sensitivity found in 15 to 20 percent of the population. Signs of high sensitivity include:

  • being easily overwhelmed by bright lights, loud noises and harsh smells;
  • feeling rattled by severe time constraints;
  • needing to avoid high-drama individuals, violent TV shows and upsetting situations;
  •  susceptibility to addiction, especially alcohol abuse and overeating;
  • enjoying a complex and colorful inner life;
  • preferring close, deep relationships over a large group of acquaintances;
  • having strong intuitive gifts and future-oriented perceptions;
  • being drawn to spiritual, artistic and helping career paths;
  •  requiring lots of quiet time to process, decompress and reflect, and;
  • being told as a child that they were “too sensitive”, or being a gifted student in school.

Highly Sensitive People (“HSPs” otherwise known as “empaths” in New Age circles or “burden bearers” in Christian discussion- although each of these terms have particular nuances that differentiate them slightly from HSPs) experience the world in high-definition. If they don’t have a keen awareness of their personality type and the skills to manage it, their high-def filter tends to be plugged in all the time.

Highly sensitive people often grow up thinking that something is “wrong” with them because they’re not all that interested in what modern society most values, they tend toward introversion (although one-third of HSPs are considered extroverts), and they attract high conflict people due to their thin boundaries, high empathy, and a tendency to have strong emotional reactions. HSPs are also prone to complex health challenges, including autoimmune illnesses, allergies, chronic anxiety, and burnout. There are a few different theories as to why this is. Findings from research conducted by Tufts University psychiatrist Ernest Harttman and from Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan are compelling. In investigating the connections between boundaries and personality, Dr. Hartmann found that people who score high in creativity have a tougher time separating their everyday reality with their fantasy life, and allow more of their environment to impact them. Jerome Kagan focused on “high reactives”- people who possess a sensitivity to events in the environment that imply a new challenge. Brain imaging studies in this population showed a hyperresponsive amygdala, the region in the brain that decodes fear and acts as the body’s alarm circuit, which makes them far more susceptible to clinical anxiety, PTSD, elevated inflammation, and diseases of aging.

If you suspect that you have traits of high sensitivity, you may be thinking right about now, “this sucks… and it explains a lot!” High sensitivity is a gift to be handled with care, one that can actually contribute positively to your well-being, wholeheartedness, creativity and interconnectedness. However, if you’re not conscious of your exposed wiring and you don’t take the time to build a life that honors who you are, you may soon find yourself sick, depleted, victimized and depressed.

WHAT IS A HIGHLY SENSITIVE BODY?

Simply, a highly sensitive body is one that possesses a hypersensitive nervous system, an amplified stress response and a porous stimulation barrier.  

I have a deep respect for science and tend to steer away from wellness woo-woo. Thus, a little disclaimer: the theories around a “highly sensitive body” and its causes are just that- theories- ones which I strongly ascribe to from personal and professional experience. Commingling physiology and psychology is tricky business, and we’re in an age now where we’re beginning to realize that we still know so little about the delicate relationship between the body and the psyche.
 
My hypothesis is that a lot of the mystery health challenges and body breakdowns we face today are the result of maladaptive coping strategies and modes of living which are incompatible with our internal machinery, as well as the result of a societal denial of our true nature as emotional beings who require connection to each other and our environment in order to thrive. Many of these health challenges are also rooted in early childhood due to adversity and trauma, which rewire the brain and nervous system, impact vagus nerve functioning, and set us up psychologically to neglect important signals from our bodies. A wealth of research on disease supports this, and if you’d like to learn more about the connection between health outcomes and adverse childhood experiences, I recommend starting with Dr. Vincent Felitti’s “ACE Study.” 

Highly sensitive people are hit particularly hard due to their porous boundaries, empathic qualities and tendency to shut down as a coping mechanism. A person exhibiting symptoms of chronic fatigue or a thyroid disorder may in fact be holding in emotional toxicity from years of anguish that they have never properly released, and these feelings translate to psychosomatic illness and disorders- pain felt within the body. However, the vast majority of medical doctors will not refer a patient showing signs of a physical dis-ease to a professional who deals with the mind-  a psychologist, counsellor or coach-  and even if they did, many mental health professionals simply do not have the tools to bridge the treatment of mind and body in a way that brings long-term relief to the patient (although this is beginning to change). That’s the other part of the issue- we live in a time where we expect a pill to fix all of our ills, including our mental health challenges, many of which can be rectified or eased through behavioral, nutritional and environmental adjustments. It’s no wonder that the psychopharmaceutical industry is amassing multi-billions of revenue per year.

Somatization, or the bodily communication of psychological distress through physical illness and pain, depletes the body of vital energy. In his brilliant book, “The Tao of Fully Feeling”, psychotherapist Pete Walker explains that somatization often injures the body through the chronic tightening of musculature to avoid feeling. “Muscular contraction against feeling is a psychological form of self-hatred,” he writes. “It’s a vicious way of saying no to healthy aspects of the self. This clamping down on the self not only depletes our energy, but also restricts the blood supply to various parts of the body, making it more susceptible to disease. Many digestive disorders appear to be caused by the stifling of feelings through visceral connection.”

We humans seem to be losing our ability to understand feelings through bodily perception. Instead, we intellectualize our emotions, packing them into neat little boxes and cognitively storing them. Even our language for feelings has been stifled. We’re no longer thrilled, touched, ashamed or stupefied. We’ve traded in our rainbow of options for happy and depressed- perhaps because we’re not sure how we feel anymore. Our bodies have been separated from our minds.

Highly sensitive people contend with  strong forces which have the tendency to either serve them or sabotage them, depending on how those forces are applied. By nature, they’re environmental sponges, soaking up the energy and noise of all they come in contact with and directly absorbing the external stimuli into their bodies. Processing their daily reality requires time and space, both of which are usually in short supply. Lacking the opportunity to thoroughly understand and release whatever has been thrown their way may lead to a toxic emotional buildup not uncommon from what might be exhibited in complex post-traumatic stress disorder or chronic anxiety. Highly sensitive bodies need to cry, to express anger, to speak up, to nap and to retreat into silence on a regular basis if they’re to function optimally. However, the opposite tends to happen. Highly sensitive people learn to adapt by ignoring the messages of their bodies and switching off their internal radar. Rather than self-partnering and honoring the subtle signals within, they’ll happily step outside of themselves in order to focus on others because they feel empowered by their empathy and healing nature… until that eventually backfires.

WHY DOES IT MATTER?

We’re living in a time where the human life span is ticking upward and new advancements in science could dramatically increase our years on this planet. Yet, so many people are experiencing inexplicable body breakdowns in their thirties, forties and fifties, impacting their joy, productivity, and overall quality of life. Conventional medical doctors often seem at a loss to explain why this is occurring, and routinely dismiss conditions manifesting as chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, thyroid disease, reproductive issues, allergies, migraines, and various autoimmune syndromes.

It is beyond evident that so many of our bodies and minds are really struggling to adapt to the world of today, but since we cannot change society or other people, we’ve got to focus on what we can change within ourselves.

This is great news, because it makes our jobs a lot easier (HSPs love to dream about saving the world- a blessing and a curse!). Since the medical community is at a loss for concrete answers regarding many of the illnesses and conditions that impact HSPs, they’re often left to figure out how to save themselves, which is probably why there are now so many forums, coaches, and alternative health practitioners addressing specific conditions that impact millions but that do not receive the proper funding or interest in traditional channels. This is simultaneously helpful and dangerous, so it’s important to remember that at the end of the day, you alone are responsible for your health.

HOW SHOULD I CARE FOR MY HIGHLY SENSITIVE BODY?

There are many things you can do to support a highly sensitive body and encourage optimal health- both physical and mental. While I could write a book on all the specific foods, supplements, activities and behaviors that benefit HSPs, here are six of the biggies.

1. Create Unbreakable Self-Care Routines: One of the many upsides to being highly sensitive is that you’re automatically incentivized to pay close attention to practicing good self-care… because if you don’t, you’ll experience the consequences of neglect quite profoundly. Self-care isn’t just about scheduling time for a massage or an Epsom Salts bath. It’s also about being able to say “NO” to things, asking for help, and taking naps when you’d rather be achieving or producing (I wrestle with the last one myself!) Commit to putting non-negotiable self-care time on your calendar, whether that means 15 minutes of quiet each day, taking an assertiveness class every week, penciling in that daily yoga class, or having an hour before bed each night to read something uplifting. Self-care isn’t selfish- it’s the mark of an adult who respects herself and the people she loves.

2. Emote on the Regular: When I was living in China, I’d be awoken every morning by long and furious shouting echoing from the mountaintops behind my home. Upon investigating, I found out that some of the elders in the town engaged in this practice to support heart health. We have few safe spaces today to cry, yell, pummel pillows with our fists, or dance with glee- it almost seems insane to express our feelings. As FEELING beings (rather than DOING beings), processing and releasing old emotions makes space for new experiences and prevents rigidity in both body and mind. Find a place where you can go to safely express whatever storms may be brewing within you. In cramped, urban settings, this can seem like a tall order, but sometimes a long walk in the evening or a leisurely warm shower can provide you with the privacy you need. 

3. Release Tension Through Movement: Endorphins- brain neurotransmitters that transmit electrical signals to the nervous system- manufacture a positive sense of well-being in the body. These endorphins are compromised by stress, and boosted through exercise. Typically, the modes of exercise recommended most for Highly Sensitive People are yoga, tai chi, and other gentle forms of movement. Others may favor jogging and weightlifting, although the latter can be jarring due to high levels of noise in gyms. If you do decide to engage in regular high intensity exercise, prolong your cool down period- take a good 20 to 30 minutes at the end of your routine to stretch, walk, rehydrate and breathe deeply. If you have a history of trauma or anxiety, trauma release exercises (TRE) and defensive martial arts like Krav Maga might be just the ticket. Don’t be afraid to experiment to find what works for you, and make it a priority to work up a sweat most days of the week.

4. Stick with a Simple, Anti-Inflammatory Diet: HSPs tend to struggle with digestive issues, including IBS and Crohn’s disease, as well as numerous allergies to dairy, nuts, soy, wheat and other grains. A simple anti-inflammatory diet primarily consisting of fruits and veggies, fatty fish, lean meats, and healthy oils can make a massive difference in physical and emotional well-being. Like exercise, you’ll want to test out what’s most suitable for you.  Some HSPs really flourish on a Paleo or FODMAP elimination diet, while others do best as vegetarians or vegans because they feel the suffering that animals have endured before becoming meat.  Processed grains, dairy, sugar and high glycemic foods tend to work against the constitution of a highly sensitive person, and caffeine can also have detrimental impacts. In fact, the majority of HSPs I know are unable to tolerate more than a cup of coffee a day. Five to six small meals a day to keep blood sugar stable is almost always a good idea. You’ll want to avoid juice fasts and skipping multiple meals, which can send out stress signals to the nervous system and kick off a fight or flight response.

5. Make Sleep a Priority: Highly sensitive people tend to walk around in a state of hypervigilance while soaking up external stimuli and the emotions of everyone they come into contact with. By the time nightfall arrives, they find themselves simultaneously “wired and tired”- exhausted from having to contend with the world and yet buzzing with the excess energy they’ve absorbed.
Getting at least 8 hours of sleep will help HSPs reset and release the tensions of the day, although they often need a little help nodding off. You’ll want to steer clear of alcohol and prescription sleep aids, which can leave HSPs with a nasty morning hangover. Instead, consider trying valerian root, melatonin, a calcium & magnesium supplement, or kava kava tea. Based on observation, HSPs usually require more sleep than the average person, perhaps because they sleep less soundly, waking up easily throughout the night. It’s also hypothesized that going to bed before 10pm works better with the body’s circadian rhythms and leads to more restorative sleep. A bedtime around 9pm and an aim for 9 to 10 hours of sleep a night might leave you feeling like a shiny new person. 

6. Enforce Strong Boundaries: HSPs have a notoriously difficult time establishing and enforcing boundaries because they’d prefer to keep everyone happy. This attitude is the downfall for HSPs, particularly since they’re prone to being bullied and manipulated IF they haven’t yet developed high self-confidence and found their place in the world. When it comes to boundaries, HSPs are generally better off insisting on iron-clad boundaries until they know they’re entirely fluent in protecting their own space, energy and heart. Don’t be afraid to enlist a coach to help you navigate the complex world of boundaries, or enroll in some assertiveness training, particularly if you’ve got a pattern of being steamrolled by pushy or self-centered people. A word of caution: strong boundaries are often met with strong resistance and anger. Flex your confidence muscles and remember that the people who love you want to see you healthy and thriving- they’re the ones who will honor your boundaries.

These initial suggestions for promoting optimal health in highly sensitive bodies don’t come easily to the HSP and must be learned and practiced regularly. For the past seven years, I’ve enlisted a lot of external support to assist me with some of the areas that I’ve personally struggled with. We all have our blind spots, so don’t be afraid to ask for help! When you're feeling frustrated about your own high sensitivity, remember that it's a true gift which contributes to a life of meaning, friendship and purpose. Our world needs highly sensitive people now more than ever! 

High sensitivity is a superpower once you know how to manage it properly. 

If you’d like to take the HSP test and learn more, check out Dr. Aron’s website.

Another helpful resource is coach Caroline Van Kimmenade’s website, “The Happy Sensitive.”

Are you a highly sensitive person? If so, what are your mechanisms for thriving in the world? How are you protecting and nourishing your body? Leave your comments below- I'd love to hear from you. And, if you liked this article, share it! As always, thanks for reading.

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To Move Out of Self-Sabotage, Get SELFish. Here’s How

Whether it’s an addiction, a bad habit, a harmful relationship, a self-sabotaging behavior or an inauthentic life- we’re often surprised to discover that letting go of the thing which has been dragging us down for so long doesn’t automatically coax out the rainbows and trumpets. In other words, a shiny new life won’t magically appear just because we’ve made space for it.  

The self-destructive mentality that we’ve been operating from for so long dramatically compromises our coping mechanisms and life skills. After we finally stop ingesting poison, we may realize that we don’t know how to engage in nourishing activities like cultivating healthy relationships, setting boundaries, practicing self-care, or supporting ourselves. Our sense of self is shaky, at best, and the shame that has underpinned our negative circumstances and poor decisions may still be running the show. When shame’s the director of our lives, it’s hard to know who we are and nearly impossible to assert ourselves or speak our truth.

No matter what our age, we’re bound to fall back into our intricately designed traps until we make a conscious decision to completely change how we think and relate with the world, and then seek support from mentors who can assist us in uncovering our life-affirming and creative gems from the dung pile of shame. Quitting a harmful behavior, substance or relationship provides us with clarity, but it doesn’t give us the tools we need to move forward in a healthy and wholehearted way.

Recovery teaches us to be of service and to release the habit of indulgent, destructive self-pity. Self-involved thinking is part of what got us into a mess in the first place! However, recovery also requires that we embrace SELFishness and reclaim our power by learning how to respect our own needs and health.

This can be an incredibly foreign concept to many women, who were taught from a young age to be selfless, accommodating and long-suffering- a character lesson passed down unconsciously through generations. Here are five SELFish practices that I recommend cultivating:

1. SELF-PROTECTION

Author Julia Cameron writes, “it is enlightened self-interest to be selfish enough to be self-protective. Being self-protective may not seem nice. We may say no to invitations that do not serve us.” A majority of women who engage in self-sabotage can easily be categorized as “too nice.” They are people pleasers to the extreme, and have little experience in standing up for themselves. No wonder- statistics show that women battling addictions, eating disorders, and abusive relationships overwhelmingly contend with early childhood trauma, which programs them for victimhood and low self-worth down the road. It’s these very same women who become easy targets for violence in their adult lives if they haven’t learned to protect themselves, as they consistently allow politeness and the need to be liked to override intuition and self-preservation. When we learn how to adequately protect ourselves, we gain the confidence necessary to show our true selves to the world while asserting our values and beliefs through our actions.

2. SELF-SUSTENANCE

Making a successful major life change usually requires the support of a trusted circle of people, as well as the humility to accept our shortcomings and ask for help. Being able to financially and emotionally support ourselves in some way acts as a counterweight in this process while preventing learned helplessness in what should be an empowering, freeing journey. Excuses and “I can’t” mantras are detrimental to recovery and, if uttered often enough, will undermine our efforts to improve our well-being. One of the most effective ways to legitimize our power is to make our own money through a pursuit that nourishes us, even if the paychecks are initially barely enough to cover a morning tea at Starbucks. It is the act of reaching toward self-sustenance that matters in those beginning stages. Through working, you are proclaiming, “I am committed to taking care of myself.” Similarly, by learning how to emotionally nourish ourselves rather than relying on external validation, we find our voice, our courage, and our self-respect.

3. SELF-CARE

In any major transformation, regular self-care is the contract we must make with ourselves in order to redirect attention to the parts of us that were once neglected and step into a more awakened way of living.

Initially, something as simple as taking time to meet with a coach or therapist, or read an uplifting book with a cup of soothing tea in hand will open up the space you need to trust yourself again. Self-care faciliates a romance between the body and the mind, integrating our practical needs with our higher desires and providing us with the energy we need to venture out into the world with our heads held high. Often, self-care is a sacred secret, a ritual that unleashes our childlike spirit. By doing something each day that is loving to ourselves, we generate a grounded and joyful energy which attracts supportive people and opportunities into our lives. Through self-care, we radiate the message, “I’m worth respect and love.”

4. SELF-CONTROL

Self-control is central to human evolution as a developmental perk of our prefrontal cortex. It’s also what allows us to move forward as individuals through conscious decision-making and behavioral regulation. No surprise- those of us who have struggled with an addiction or bad habit tend to be low on self-control, and once we’re able to admit this shortcoming, we’re likelier to develop more of it. Just like our physical muscles, self-control must be exercised each day in order to grow and flourish. This can feel painful and tedious at first! Because excessive self-control is tied to perfectionism, this SELFish skill may be the trickiest to master, particularly if you’re overcoming an eating disorder, exercise addiction or any other type of compulsive pattern. Often, controlling ourselves actually means riding the wave and letting go of insisting on a particular outcome. Instead, we focus on the moment in front of us and take actions aligned to our integrity and purpose. Self-control is considered one of the greatest signs of spiritual maturity, and mindfulness and prayer are two great ways to cultivate it.

5. SELF-DISCOVERY

At the heart of addiction is the belief that we should not be “feeling” creatures, that the emotions we label as negative are to be snuffed out and rejected. In our pursuit of non-feeling, we lose the essence of what it means to be human, to connect, and to love. Without a full range of emotions, we’re unable to understand who we are and what our purpose is. Self-discovery is a process of allowing once-forbidden emotions to resurface, and of tuning in to the wisdom of the body rather than processing everything through logic.

Being willing to rediscover the self means rejecting the dictates of our current society, which demands that we plaster on a happy face at all times and become masters at emotional perfectionism.

When we commit to self-discovery, our emotions flow without censorship, and we learn how to befriend them in order to uncover what we’re really about.

Although the world may tell us otherwise, every single one of us is worth self-respect. That self-respect must be generated from the inside first; once we treat ourselves well, we’ll begin to notice that other people show more kindness and consideration to us. When we put these five SELFish skills to work, we begin to refill the once empty well that drove us to self-destructive behaviors in the first place, and we eventually come to a place where we appreciate our lives enough to stop the cycle of self-sabotage for good.

How are you integrating a life of service, purpose and SELF-ishness? What's the most important thing you're doing to take care of yourself? Leave your thoughts in the comments section- I'd love to hear from you! 

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Beating Exercise Addiction & Overtraining for a New "Personal Best"

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Old habits don’t have to die hard! As you age, evolving your exercise habits to keep in tune with your body's changing requirements is vital for optimal health. 

Being fit and healthy doesn’t always have to mean slogging it out at the gym or running endless miles. As we go through life our body’s requirements and physiology alter. Therefore, you shouldn’t be afraid to shake up your exercise routines a little to support this. Forcing your body to keep up with its 20 or 30 year old self can be punishing and could in time have massive negative consequences to your overall health.

I’ve exercised for as long as I can remember…literally! One of my first memories is running around our local park behind my dad, trying to get a PB (personal best) which resulted in an ice cream on the way home. As a competitive swimmer I trained before and after school, 4 hours daily. Falling asleep in lessons and stinking of chlorine was pretty normal to me. This escalated to triathlons, marathons and then I made exercise my career. No escape!

I’m not complaining though- I adore exercise! I love the energy and buzz it gives me, the way it clears my mind, keeps me focused and basically makes me feel alive. At that stage of my life I was constantly pumped high on endorphins and always wanting a new challenge. 

I was addicted to exercise and felt sluggish and awful if I had a few days off.

This was all fine for a time. I was young and my body could keep up. I was in my late 20’s and nothing could stop me! However, as I got older, gradually this heavy exercise regime started to take its toll on my body. My muscles constantly ached, and I remember being terribly moody at times as I was so, so tired, my sleep was awful and I constantly experienced bouts of insomnia. I was doing so much exercise that it was difficult to maintain enough nutrition to support it. I wasn’t eating enough to fuel my habit and so my weight and body fat dropped to unhealthy levels. Without knowing it, I was jeopardizing the one thing I’ve always thought my fit and healthy body would provide me with…my fertility.

I was diagnosed with Exercise Induced Amenorrhea. 

This basically means my periods stopped and I was no longer ovulating. With excessive exercise and not enough nutrition to support it, my reproductive system was left with no energy to function properly. It went into a dormant state and stopped producing oestrogen, which is the hormone required for ovulation. Without oestrogen being produced, I had little chance of conceiving.

I’ve always prided myself on being healthy. I’m never sick, I eat a good "clean" diet and exercise regularly. But, can being "too healthy" or exercising too much at certain points of our lives can be detrimental? That's the question I've had to answer for myself and my future.

Since this diagnosis, I’ve had to work on turning my life around, changing up my diet and exercise routines and listening to what my body needs on a daily basis. I’ve had to learn to relax more. My adrenal glands have been worn down by the constant secretions of adrenaline! I’ve had to reset my goals and mindset. I desperately want children and so I need to give my body a rest and provide my reproductive system with the energy it requires to function again as normal. This means throwing out the long distance runs, the high intensity sprints and everything I’ve focused on for so long as those endorphins were causing me exhaustion. 

In some respects this transition has been really difficult. It involves changing a lifetime of exercise habits which I’ve more than enjoyed. Running along the river as the sun rises I would honestly say is one of my favorite moments! But, by focusing on what I really want from life right now, I have managed to change my exercise habits to benefit myself in my present moment. 

Instead of running endless miles to exhaustion, I now practice yoga 2-3 times a week, and I’ve found that I actually love it!

My body doesn’t ache all over anymore which is a strange yet amazing feeling and it really helps calm my mind too. I use bodyweight and light resistance work to maintain my overall body strength and place particular focus on my core muscles.

Strengthening the core muscles, particularly the muscles of the inner core unit, is so important at this stage of my life as I am hoping to conceive. The more work I do now to strengthen these muscles, the less chance I will suffer from Diastasis Recti (should I be lucky enough to fall pregnant). It will also help my abdominals recover far quicker postpartum and reduces my chances of suffering from lower back pain or pelvic floor dysfunction. These chronic conditions are widespread yet often overlooked consequences of Diastasis Recti in new mums. 

As a Pre- and Post-natal Exercise Specialist with Tangram Wellness, I’m helping prenatal, postnatal and women on the fertility journey become more aware of the importance of specific core strengthening techniques which must be included in their present exercise routines. I see so many new mums who have snapped back into old exercise habits too fast, in a bid to lose their baby weight. This usually results in a protruding mummy pooch, a weak and very sore lower back and quite often, stress incontinence. This doesn’t have to be the case- don’t be scared to change your old exercise habits!

It's so easy to get addicted to endless exercise, push your body too much and never change up your routine. I’m urging you though to get more in tune with your body. Are you training with focus or simply pushing yourself to exhaustion each time? Overtraining is a common yet unnecessary problem. Take time to make sure that you recognize its signs and adjust your exercise accordingly before it effects your physical and emotional health.

The most common signs of overtraining are as follows:
 Increased fatigue
 Increased muscle soreness
 Recurrent injuries or illness
 Insomnia
 Lack of motivation
 Moodiness
 Loss of menstruation

It's been really challenging for me not to go running as it’s my passion, but I’ve realized it’s a worthy sacrifice. I’m so glad I’ve finally listened to my body and recognized my symptoms of overtraining and exhaustion. I’m optimistic that my body will thank me for making these changes soon.

- ANNA

Are you also on a fertility journey, and wondering how exercise fits into the equation? Have you ever ventured into the waters of overtraining or exercise addiction, and if so, how did you make the shift? Do you have questions on overtraining? Leave your thoughts in the comments section- we always love to hear from you. Anna Kwan runs several post-natal classes a week, and will be launching a pre-natal class soon. She also works with mothers one-on-one. Email her at anna@tangramwellness.com for a consultation or to book in.

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This New Viral Campaign Message Isn't Doing Women Any Favors. Here's Why.

Organic Valley YouTube commercial 

Organic Valley YouTube commercial 

Organic Valley has just launched a new campaign, “Real Morning Report”, detailing the busy woman’s typical morning routine, while asserting that we ladies actually have no time at all for the airy fairy business of sunrise yoga, journaling, or meditating over our artisanal kombucha cups. Before you give this post a read, I suggest watching the 90 second commercial so you too can have the opportunity to gleefully exclaim “this is awesome!”, which I also did for a hot second before giving the messaging further thought.

At the time of writing this blog, I’ve been receiving an increasing number of inquiries from working women- many of them mothers- who are burned out and physically ill, with concerns ranging from depression and anxiety, adrenal fatigue, thyroid and hormonal issues, and excessive weight gain. A few fellow business owners have recently admitted that the stress of their lives has taken a significant toll on their bodies and energy levels, which I can definitely relate to. And, my decade of burning the candle at both ends may have also caught up to me as I now contend with a suboptimal thyroid. 

Studies show that women are more deeply impacted by stress on a physical and emotional level in comparison to men, due to our body chemistry and our hard-wired impulse reactions. We’re more likely to try and negotiate or “fix” a stressful situation, whereas men respond with fight or flight. And, as more of us make the decision to have it all- kids, marriage, the high-flying career, as well as an enviable hobby or two- stress-related conditions are skyrocketing, including depression, suicide and substance abuse. In the US, women are reporting higher levels of stress at work; in Singapore, the situation is likely similar. From my view as a therapist and coach to many brilliant and successful women, I can tell you that what we’re doing is not serving us. It’s not working for our bodies, our mental health, our families, and our happiness.  My best guess is that we’re putting so much pressure on ourselves to taste those golden carrots that we’ve forgotten how to feed our intuition and thereby tap into what we truly need.  So, why the hell are we celebrating doing more of what is harming us?

Organic Valley is right. Most women won’t have time for a morning routine that allows them to reflect and nurture themselves… unless they actually make it a top priority in their lives.  However, what would happen if we stopped feeding the beast? What if we reclaimed our power to draw hard boundaries, say “No,” and care for ourselves instead of buying into the idea that, in order to succeed, we have to completely sacrifice our own needs? And on that note, why must we continuously subscribe to one definition of success anyway- that success is managing an outwardly perfect family, gaining career notoriety, and skipping breakfast most mornings? I’m sure a few of you reading this would like to push me off a ledge right now. “What do you know about real life- you’re a coach!” you may be thinking. Or, “just shut up, you don’t have kids- you have no idea!” Yeah yeah, you’re not the first. But, the fact is, I used to be that lady in the Organic Valley commercial, the one running to my corporate job in Rockefeller Center, eating my first meal of the day at noon- a deli sandwich and chips- behind my computer, feeling crappy and tired most of the time. And yes, you’re correctamundo- I don’t have kids, and I'm not going to pretend to understand all the complexities involved in raising babies. However, most of the women I work with do, as do many of my friends, and the biggest difference I see between the moms who set their alarm clocks a half an hour earlier so they can do their yoga and the ones who don’t is CHOICE & PRIORITIES.

I’m going to guess that most of you reading this are privileged enough to be able to design life as you see fit, to some extent. In Singapore, some of us have the massive bonus of live-in helpers to assist with the cooking, the housecleaning and the childcare. I could still be that lady in the Organic Valley commercial- completely harried, running to the office with a third cup of coffee in hand, pouring all my free time into wine o’clock. But, I made a really tough series of choices. I quit drinking. I got off my anti-depressants. I quit my job. And, I took a long, hard look at the difference between the life I desired having and the one I had been living. While my husband was supportive, I did not have a family I could rely on. I had hefty student loan debt. And, I carried all of the emotional baggage of a woman who operated in survival mode. With tough decisions, came a morning routine. When I began my health & recovery journey, I started journaling each morning, and running. For those first few months, I skipped a lot of days, slept in. But, eventually, my morning routine became a practice, a version of which still directs most of my days- not all, but most- six and a half years later.

Let’s not pit women against each other in regard to their choices. Just because some chick makes time for her tea ceremony or downward dogs in the morning does not mean that she is any better or worse than the one racing frantically to work, extra strength espresso in hand. It just means that she has different priorities, and that she’s designed another way of being. If you’re cheering on this brilliant commercial while simultaneously feeling drained, depressed and unfulfilled, I ask you to simply take a look at your own priorities, without judgement. What are you running toward… or away from? And, what will it take for you to actually make the time to honor yourself?

p.s. and yes, dry shampoo IS one of the best inventions ever.

What's your take? Have you tried to carve out a morning routine? Do you feel like this Organic Valley commercial is on the mark... or completely misses the point? Leave your thoughts in the comments section- as always, I'd love to hear from you. Did you love this post? If so, do share! 

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3 Things You Can Do NOW for a Season of Serenity

I've got a question for you. When you came across your first Christmas tree sighting or holiday sale this month, did you think, "how lovely, tis' the season!" or were you more along the lines of "bah, humbug! Why can't the Grinch just steal the whole darn thing already?"

As we move into the most hectic time of year, a little planning around your physical and mental well-being could make all the difference between merriment and meltdown. Holiday stress puts our health at significant risk while increasing our likelihood of turning to self-sabotaging behaviors in order to cope, such as overeating, reckless spending and heavy drinking. In fact, a survey on holiday stress found that comfort eating increased by over 10 percent among women toward the end of the year, when our perceived expectations are at an all-time high. Let’s face it, we have a tendency to be incredibly tough on ourselves during the festive season! Some women tear their hair out trying to find the perfect gifts for their loved ones. Other women force themselves, yet again, to shove a toxic family situation under the rug in the name of good cheer. And, the comparison trap can feel impossible to escape as acquaintances share updates about travel plans, gifts, and seemingly perfect families. Despite the metaphorical sacks of coal that many of us carry into the “silly season”, this time can actually become a season of SERENITY and a celebration of light, goodness and peace.

Take a minute to think about the roots of any stress you experience around the holidays. Are you agreeing to too much? Are you holding yourself to an impossibly high standard? Are you allowing feelings of guilt or obligation to control you and if so, where are those messages coming from? Do you keep thinking that it “should” be a certain way? Are you resisting what feels purposeful and sacred while holding onto traditions that serve no one? 

If what I’ve written resonates with you, here are three surefire ways to greatly reduce holiday stress starting NOW:

Artist: Rob Gonsalves

Artist: Rob Gonsalves

1. Create the meaningful holiday that YOU desire. “But wait! Isn’t that selfish?” you might be thinking. What’s more selfish: being miserable and dishonest by spending time in situations that are harmful to your health, or joyously spreading holiday cheer by engaging in something that uplifts your soul? If guilt is weighing you down, there are many volunteer work options available during this time, like delivering gifts to children in need through non-profit programs, working with a local soup kitchen, volunteering at a prison or hospice, or signing up for a Habitat for Humanity build. If a well-deserved vacation is more your speed, consider planning something that keeps you active and engaged with others, or brings you to a country that could really use your tourist dollars. This can also be a time of spiritual connection and reflection, and a wonderful opportunity to finally go on a silent or religious retreat, or to experience pilgrimage to a sacred place.

2. Get Off Facebook. A recent study found that people who quit Facebook for a week were 55% less stressed than those who continued with their regular Facebook use. In fact, scientists have recognized for quite some time that Facebook increases depression and anxiety, as well as being a massive time suck, but if you’re on the social network, you probably know that from experience! During the holidays, we’re particularly prone to comparing ourselves with others and losing sight of the bigger picture. Equally, it's a time where many of us feel like we need to put up a mask, which means a lot of photos and status updates in your feed that will definitely not represent reality, as well as added pressure to share your own carefully crafted "highlights." If you're stressing out just thinking about it, consider quitting Facebook for the month of December. The gift of your full attention is one of the best you can give. (I'm on day 18 of my personal social media detox and all I can say is that the freedom of disengaging from something so unreal tastes even better than pecan pie. More on that later). 

3.  Recommit to fitness. If you’ve let your exercise routine fall by the wayside, now is the time to hire a personal trainer or coach, join a gym or yoga studio, and really make a promise to yourself to take care of your body. Exercise can actually be MORE effective than antidepressants for those prone to depression, and by kicking your endorphins up a notch, you’ll reduce stress while distracting yourself from worry. It'll also be easier to maintain your weight and keep your alcohol intake in check by increasing your mindful focus on well-being, despite the many temptations of the season. Don’t wait until you’ve made your New Year’s Resolutions. Encourage a fun and fit festive season by getting your blood flowing and drawing up an exercise plan of action now.

What proactive step will you take TODAY to reduce holiday stress? How will you create a Season of Serenity for yourself and your loved ones? If you think this post would be useful to someone, share it!

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Too Busy Disorder

Something quite terrible has been afflicting many of my loved ones lately. My entire community seems to be down with it, and for a while there, I’d caught it too. In fact, I’m still fighting to overcome it, and the ironic thing is, the more one blindly resists, the more it seems to invade both brain and body. So, what’s this illness I’m talking about? TOO BUSY DISORDER.

You’ll know Too Busy Disorder by some very clear signs. First, your daily calendar is always full, and yet you feel like you haven’t accomplished a thing. Each week is punctuated by meaningless meetings, “networking” events, and tasks that you’ve somehow been roped into without your conscious consent. At any given moment, you’re usually doing several things at once: checking Facebook, changing the baby, downing wine, sending an email, applying mascara, appeasing your boss- all in one breath.  Half the people in your life are wondering how you manage to do it all while the other half seem to be hinting that you should be doing more and the ironic part is, it feels like every single one of them has it out for you in some weird, ultra-competitive, “my busy is more important than your busy” way. You see, Too Busy Disorder is a killer. It destroys your relationships, decimates your dreams, zaps your energy, and eventually, Zombifies your mind.

Other symptoms of Too Busy Disorder include:

·      Being unable to finish a complete sentence without sighing.
·      Using the words “stressed,” “overwhelmed,” “crazy” and “busy” constantly.
·      Becoming BFFs with the word “YES.”
·      Interrupting each thought with a social media check.
·      Facet joint pain in the back of your neck… from staring into your iPhone all day.
·      A sex life from hell (umm… because you’re too busy to have sex).
·      Texting on the toilet, and cuddling up to your devices in bed.
·      Trading in real relationships for Facebook “friends” and Instagram likes.
·      Dreaming about finding that new job… constantly.
·      Experiencing full-blown resentment from always trying to please others.
·      Throbbing aches in your dominant hand, particularly the thumb, from typing so much.
·      Chucking out the notion of pondering questions about the meaning of life because… who the hell has time for that?
·      Prioritizing a pointless appointment with someone you hardly know over having dinner with someone you love.
·      Feeling like nothing in your life is working out; you’re treading water on all fronts.
·      Forgetting what your kids- or your dogs- look like.
·      Inability to focus on one task for more than a minute or two.
·      Exceptional exhaustion, and increased reliance on stimulants like coffee to get you through.
·      Lack of real interest in anything… and obsessive interest in everything… at the same time (yes, it’s possible. If you have a severe case of Too Busy Disorder, you know exactly what I’m talking about).

A few months ago, during a minor meltdown after a demanding week, I decided to take a seat and do one of the things that I love doing- coach. However, I hadn’t seen that particular client in a while. You see, that particular client was me and I had been very busy hiding from certain aspects of myself in order to continue to deny that that the way I’d structured my life just wasn’t working anymore. And, what I discovered during that coaching session with myself has been absolutely invaluable moving forward. All of this “busyness”, all those feelings of obligation and that mysterious pressure to achieve, are completely and totally self-imposed in order so that we may steer ourselves away from the really scary stuff in life- our biggest dreams, our juiciest and messiest relationships, our deepest intimacies, our loudest insecurities.

DID YOU JUST READ THAT?
Here it is again, in a nutshell: If you have TOO BUSY DISORDER, you can pretty much bet that it’s because you’ve chosen to avoid what’s truly important for what just feels “manageably” important. Except, it’s not manageable, and it’s not really important.

If you don’t believe me, look around. How many relationships do you see disintegrating? How many people do you know who are following their true bliss in life and doing what they are meant to do? How many folks are hating doing what they once loved because they’re just too overwhelmed to see the joy and meaning in it? How many times have you logged onto social media, only to realize that it’s like tuning into a schoolyard of 5 year old children vying for attention (because they’re not cultivating fulfilling relationships offline)? How many new aches and pains and dis-eases are suddenly popping up due to the way we all exist now? And, how many times have you felt like life was personally passing you by, despite your lack of time?

After I’d done a little coaching on yours truly, I turned to my husband and said, “honey, I’m creating a bucket. And, if something’s not in the bucket, then fuck it.” And, that’s just what I did. I made a bucket, and I put all of the things in it that were truly valuable to me, making sure that it wasn’t too heavy or overflowing with ambition. It had to be a bucket that I could easily carry- more like a sandpail for the beach. Here’s what’s in my bucket:

·      Quality, device-free time with my husband.
·      Meaningful coaching with a very small number of clients ( I quantified this)
·      Playing with my dogs.
·      Writing each day.
·      Going on adventures.
·      Meditation and prayer.
·      Time for reading each evening.
·      Creative or enriching activities that will help me serve others or learn something new.
·      Exercise most days of the week.
·      Tea dates with friends.

And… that’s about it.

No more racing around to networking events or uploading crap to Instagram or logging onto Facebook or taking an appointment when I don’t have time. No more reacting to WhatsApp or phone calls or random requests. Those things just don’t fit in my bucket. There isn’t much room for the “YES” word in my pail either, and if it doesn’t make my heart sing, then, well truly, fuck it.

We human beings are just not meant to be spreading our attention so thin, giving to all and no one at once, bargaining for love through a shiny machine. Introverts and sensitive souls especially tap into their power not by throwing themselves in the chaos of the world, but by slowing down and tuning out in order to really tune in.

Since creating my bucket, I’ve discovered a lot more space in my life to do what I was meant to do, and what we’re all meant to do in one way or another- stare fear into the eyeballs and get on with the business of living an impassioned, meaning-soaked, thoughtful and colorful life.  I haven’t browsed my social media accounts in nearly two weeks now, and that feels awesome. I’ve written the first draft of a non-fiction book and started a draft of a novel and that feels- after so many years of denying this piece of me- intergalactically amazing, particularly because I'm simply writing what I wish to. I get to do deeper work through my coaching with a small group of big-hearted, incredible women and I am forever blessed because of it. And, my relationship with the love of my life is beginning to flourish again- we’re diving into projects and adventures together, instead of mumbling, exhausted, over our cell phones. Beyond all of these “DO” things, it’s just so beautiful to have space again, space to lounge around in my pajamas and let my mind dance while I sit with the feeling of this majestic unfolding.

So, here’s to doing LESS, and may we all know the difference between what’s in our bucket and what should be filed under “fuck it.”

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Smartphone-free, One Day at a Time

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If push came to shove, I’m betting that the vast majority of you reading this right now would be able to give up a vice or two for at least a month, be it booze or chocolate or online shopping. I’m sure that some of you already do this regularly, whether for Drynuary or Lent or to fit into a fancy dress. And, there may be a good number of you who have chosen a more mindful and sober life, eschewing things like alcohol, tobacco, processed foods, or pills. But, what if you were asked to give up your Smartphone for at least thirty days?

Where I live in Singapore, we are some of the most digitally addicted people on the planet, boasting the highest smartphone penetration rate on the globe. Nomophobia- the fear of being without one’s mobile phone- prevails. About the size of a tarot card, these inanimate wizards gently pull us out of ourselves and into a shiny, filtered future crafted primarily by strangers we seem to know and trust. Our smartphones offer the ultimate in escapism- conscious and yet unconscious, responsive and yet aloof, continuously shifting its tricks to the tune of our moods. This is precisely why the Smartphone is a potential disaster for anyone susceptible to an addiction… which includes all of us.

I’ve been addicted to something for the majority of my life since birth, beginning with the wrinkled thumb of my left hand, which morphed my two front teeth into diving boards. The thumb sucking eventually gave way to food, cigarettes, love, booze, and benzos, all of which offered velvety rabbit holes of escapism where I could curl up and see the world as what I wished it to be instead of what it actually was. That’s the sucky part about addiction- the initially warm and fluffy den of it all eventually makes you feel like you are ever so gradually boiling to death.

Which is why, when I felt those telltale edges of anxiety creep up six months ago after a strong six years of sobriety, I began snooping around to see what kind of pit I’d fallen into. The first thing I did was make a list of the evidence by asking a simple question: what was I seeking to do in my life that I wasn’t achieving and WHY? There were about thirty things on that list, large and small, with a common theme woven throughout- I was failing at achieving most of my goals due to shortcomings in time management.

Next, I began journaling each morning upon waking in an effort to tap into which emotions were leading me astray. Some of the usual characters began to pop up- fear, insecurity, and dread- but the one that was particularly interesting was “overwhelm,” something I had worked so hard to overturn and which- given how I had reordered my life since exiting the corporate grind- had no place in my being. Finally, I looked at where my time and my emotions were being directed to, immediately realizing that I was gripped by an addiction both insidious and yet acceptable enough to be seen merely as a necessary evil of our era.

My Smartphone, that simple little device I’d used to control the flow of my daily life, was now controlling me. Endless hours were being siphoned into text messages and Whatsapps, beckoning reactions instead of responses as they filtered in with their tinkling, sparkly bells. The enjoyment of a meal or a vacation could only be confirmed upon Instagramming it. Texts like, “what’s better: quinoa or barley?” were suddenly urgent matters; staying on top of emails became a futile game.

By the time I realized what had happened, some of the damage had already been done. I could no longer spend great swathes of hours alone without scrambling to find something to distract me. My thought patterns and language were changing- less rhythm, more sound byte. And, all the things deemed most important were being interrupted continuously by the crude punctuations of beeps, bells and buzzing from something that had supposedly been designed to support daily life, rather than overtake it . So, on June 29th, I removed the heart of my iPhone- its SIM Card- and tucked the deadened device in a drawer, replacing it with a grey Nokia bar phone that does little more than tell the time.

Since then, life has taken on a very different pace, each day marked by flow, trips and slips. I’ve written the first half of a meaty book, poured my evenings into Yogananda’s written works, and spent more time staring into my third eye- as well as the sky. I’ve also overlooked two appointments, missed birthdays and events, and felt the embarrassing pull of FOMO (fear of missing out) each time I’ve logged onto Facebook from my home computer. I’ve lost a few social media friends, perhaps because I’m no longer constantly engaged, and some of my true friends have heartily complained as well.

All the inconveniences are sorely felt- no Spotify on the go, no camera to capture a special moment, no media streams to distract me while I’m waiting in line. But, so are the benefits- the freedom of a wandering mind, a happier husband, feeling less like a servant or a consumer and more like a human being who can once again create something beyond the ephemeral, or just sit quietly with whatever’s going on between the ears.

It’s been nearly a month without my Smartphone and I’m just not ready to rejoin the rest of the developed world yet. I still feel those edges of anxiety boiling beneath the surface which makes me wonder if I can go back to it at all without tumbling into the hole again. Several people have said, “just delete your apps,” or “have more self control” or “leave the iPhone at home,” and I cannot help but wonder if they’re not just other addicts staring down into those tiny panes of glass, those windows of denial.

The truth is, I’m still hooked. I peek over at the shiny apps gleaming from my friend’s Samsung Galaxy, conceptualize a slick photo or video, lament the fact that I’m no longer rowing on those rivers of distraction. I nearly salivate when I think about holding it in my hands again, or tucking it into a pocket with the earphone hanging out, or even scheduling an appointment without having to write it down in one of those silly diaries from the caveman days.

Perhaps we’re all cyborgs now, I wonder. Instead of thinking of it as an addiction, I could consider it an extension, a plug-in with a few major bugs. Here’s the thing- we’ll find a way to justify whatever pulls us out of the listlessness and longing that comes with being human. That’s addiction at its core- a pursuit of self-soothing that eventually morphs its victims into muted, mindless characters enslaved by their fix of choice. Addiction or extension, I’m going to pass on the zombification… at least for now. One day at a time.


Would you ever consider giving up your mobile phone? How about the Internet, or even Facebook? How long do you think you could live without these technologies? Leave your thoughts below; I'd love to hear from you. Did you like this post? If so, please share the love!

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© Tangram Fitness 2013