The Essence of Enthusiasm

Not one time in my life experience have I completed an interview that my enthusiasm was not mentioned.  As a baby social worker, I loved this! This meant I brought a fresh perspective and excitement to the table; I saw it as strength. Recently, when someone refers to my enthusiasm it has made me curious about how seriously they take me. It is often mentioned with a coy smile or giggle, like the word enthusiasm could be replaced with naivety as if what they truly wanted to say is “just wait until you actually have a glimpse into the real world.” Regardless of my actual level of exposure to the harsh realities of the world, people will continue to draw assumptions and develop their personal opinions.

I recently attended a meeting where the lack of enthusiasm in the room was palpable and painted on (almost) every face at the table. What a bummer of an hour? Trying to put myself in their shoes, I thought well perhaps they are confused, distracted, stressed, or feeling like this hour is a waste of their time. But I could not help but continue to think about the reality that their inability to engage with eagerness would guarantee that they would continue to be confused, distracted, and certainly make meetings like this a waste of their time. This also had me curious about what it would take for someone to serve as a catalyst for change in meetings like this or in the broader spectrum of culture shifts or organizational change. My brain was rapidly firing with….enthusiasm about enthusiasm.

But prior to developing a plan to harness and spread enthusiasm like wildfire the world over, I wanted to learn more about the word enthusiasm. What are the roots of this word and how does the word make people feel?  How do people respond to enthusiasm? What makes people enthusiastic? Does enthusiasm fade?

First…I found connection between children and enthusiasm. Enthusiasm and innocent positivity seemed synonymous to people. In searching “enthusiastic characters in fiction” the first result read “characters who are overly optimistic.”  From the get go, my search demonstrated that enthusiasm is linked to silliness or irrationality.  I found reference to Tigger from Winnie the Pooh who is as annoying to other characters in the Hundred Acre Wood as he is enthusiastic. Goofy was also deemed enthusiastic.  I love these characters, but I am not sure that I find them to be inspiring.

So then I began to dig into the history of the word. Earl Nightingale says, ““The word “enthusiasm” comes from the Greek word “entheos” which means the God within. And the happiest, most interesting people are those who have found the secret of maintaining their enthusiasm, that God within.” Ok, this is more what I was trying to find. Passion, faith, excitement; perhaps unexplained at times, but not silly. God within is certainly more inspiring.

The definition of enthusiasm is intense and eager enjoyment, interest, or approval. Synonyms for enthusiasm include eagerness, warmth, fervor, zeal, ardor, passion, and devotion. The antonym for enthusiasm: indifference.

When I think about fictional characters that I believe depict enthusiasm, I think of Bunga from The Lion Guard. He is small in stature, but brave, confident, fierce, and funny. He is enthusiastic about life and about protecting his land. What he lacks in size he makes up for with grit and enthusiasm.  But he also can crack a joke, sing a song, and make sure everyone is having fun.

So why is enthusiasm in a professional setting so “refreshing.” Why isn’t it the norm? Why aren’t more folks enthusiastic about the work that keeps them away from their families all day every day? Why do you need a third cup of coffee before you can tolerate someone who is passionate or comes to work with fervor?  Why do you dread Monday morning? Why is enthusiasm linked to a childlike mindset?  Why is enthusiasm linked to innocence?

Maybe it is because we have become habitually out of touch with our true, inner selves. Have we gotten so caught up in the ideas of success and status that we take ourselves too seriously? We are focused on titles, recognition, money, tasks, and material possessions that we have lost sight of what it means to be truly fulfilled. I know the days that seem hard to muster the energy and focus to get through are days when I feel distracted by fears of failure or preoccupied with financial stress. When I feel genuinely excited about an opportunity for connection or to make an impact…I get a rush of energy. I am filled with passion and purpose. I am enthusiastic.  Enthusiasm is light, airy, and energizing. It feels good to be fueled by the essence of enthusiasm.

Back to the original question: How can we harness enthusiasm or create culture shifts where enthusiasm is the norm rather than an outlier state of mind? Now let’s be honest, folks have to buy into the process of creating an enthusiastic culture. But assuming there is buy in, I believe these concepts could create some positive change.

  1. Mindfulness – Without being in touch with your true, inner self, how can you know what will fuel your spirit? What is your calling? What ignites passion in you? What is your soul hungry for? Implementing a mindfulness practice into your day to day life can help you achieve increased enlightenment. Personally, my practice has become very spiritual. My prayer time and mindfulness practice are intertwined. Mindfulness helps to remove the distractions of expectations, insecurity, and stress from my mind and allows me to be still and more in touch with what I value. My ability to be enthusiastic is dependent on my values being protected and engaged in the work I do and the activities I involve myself in. For ideas on how to begin to implement a mindfulness practice, check out my Daily Dose of Mindfulness post.
  2. Trust – Taking ourselves too seriously is a defense mechanism. For people to have the comfort and faith to allow their inner selves to be shown there must be a level of trust. If you have been vulnerable in the past and have regretted this vulnerability either due to disappointment, betrayal, or being made fun of it might be a struggle to allow your true self to be shown. Because I believe enthusiasm is wrapped up in our values, passions, and dreams…I believe that it is vulnerable to wear your enthusiasm on your sleeve. If your excitement is not well received you may develop the need to be guarded. Creating organizational change based on the concept of building trust can be quite the undertaking, a great read to give some ideas about how to make this happen is The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team.  However, that doesn’t mean that individuals cannot do their part to serve as a catalyst for change in day to day activities.  Trust yourself and your instincts. If you have enthusiasm about a meeting, connection, or opportunity share it! Enthusiasm is contagious and your willingness to be vulnerable may be the inspiration for others to peel back their protective layers of status and power. This may not always be true, but the right people will be lit up by your passion…be on the lookout for people who perk up when you are enthusiastic rather than shy away or roll their eyes. Their hesitations say more about their insecurities than your potential.  A brief thought on encouraging enthusiasm in your children…LISTEN. When they are tugging on your shirt tail with excitement to tell you something, try your best to pause for a moment and HEAR them. You can be the catalyst that encourages your kids to listen to their inner voice and act on their passions. I know this can be a challenge when you have limited time and limitless responsibilities, but model being still for them.
  3. Turn Towards the Light – I use this phrase often in my counseling practice in many different contexts. I use it to explain cognitive behavioral therapy and changing your negative thought processes. Turn away from the negative thoughts that weigh you down, make a choice to engage in positive and rational thought processes. I also use this phrase when I talk about toxic relationships. What relationships feel heavy, dark, and foreboding? Choose to surround yourself with people who inspire you and reinforce a positive self-image. I try to focus on the concept of choice in the way we feel, think, and behave. We can actively create scenarios that are more uplifting, positive, healthier, etc. Or we can actively choose or passively exist in situations that drag us down, deplete us, or leave us feeling empty. The idea that enthusiasm is something we can actively choose makes perfect sense to me. We can make the choice to implement practices and activities that light us up. We can engage in experiences that keep us excited about life, work, and our families. We can decide to honor our true selves, our set of values, and our dreams. An article from the Technical University of Munich discusses the concept of phototropism:

The growth of plants toward light is particularly important at the beginning of their lifecycle. Many seeds germinate in the soil and get their nutrition in the dark from their limited reserves of starch and lipids. Reaching for the surface, the seedlings rapidly grow upwards against the gravitational pull, which provides an initial clue for orientation. With the help of highly sensitive light-sensing proteins, they find the shortest route to the sunlight – and are even able to bend in the direction of the light source.  “Even mature plants bend toward the strongest light. They do this by elongating the cells of the stem on the side that is farthest from the light. This type of light-oriented growth is called phototropism,” explains Prof. Claus Schwechheimer from the Chair of Plant Systems Biology at the Technische Universität München (TUM).

Plants actively grow in a manner that increased access to life-giving sunlight! If we find the moments that provide that life-giving light, we should actively create increased access to these opportunities. Maybe children are more commonly associated with enthusiasm because they haven’t been tempered by disappointment and expectations. Children are still in tune with their inner selves and naturally turn towards the light.  I hope that each day I have at least one moment that ignites childlike excitement, passion, and enthusiasm in my soul. We should all be so lucky.

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Peace, love, and laughter,

Megan

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Mindfulness and Self-Compassion

I write and speak often about self-care. Self-care is not always luxurious, but it is necessary. I have said before, it may not be a bubble bath with a glass of wine. It might be more beneficial to spend time getting caught up on paying bills or doing laundry. Having our lives in working order is as much self-care as the moments we take to relax and treat ourselves.  A bubble bath will always be way more enticing than laundry, but feeling  caught up or ahead on the many to-do’s that fill my list certainly takes a load off my shoulders.  Self-care is multifaceted and requires intentional effort. Today, I want to talk about the way we speak to ourselves, the truths we tell ourselves, and the way in which we support ourselves in moments of pain.

I saw a post on Facebook once that seems to come to mind often when I am discussing being kind to ourselves. It said something along the lines of, “Make a list of the things you love…how long did it take for YOU to come to mind?” The goal of the message was to help people realize that they did not think about the importance of loving themselves. How often do you think about loving yourself or demonstrating self-compassion? Do you struggle with the concept of showing yourself compassion?

Kristen Neff authored the book Self Compassion, in this (highly recommended) book she describes in detail 3 elements of self-compassion: 1) Self-Kindness 2) Common Humanity 3) Mindfulness. Neff is clear in distinguishing where self-compassion ends and self-indulgence begins. The best metaphor that I can draw on is that of parenting. When we demonstrate compassion to our children, we do not let them go on feeling sorry for themselves, throwing tantrums in moments of distress, or seeking inappropriate or destructive coping skills.  If my first-born Lennon falls down in softball, I check in with her to make sure she is ok. Given there are no major injuries, I acknowledge her pain but encourage her to keep working hard towards her goal of finishing practice or winning the game. I am kind in my approach with her and allow her the necessary moment to check in with herself and make sure all is well. I do not chastise her or yell at her for falling, but I do encourage strength and bravery as she moves forward from that moment.  When I “fall down” or make a mistake at work, as a parent, or as a wife I, at times, do not naturally offer myself the same kindness, patience, and compassion. I often chastise myself or get stuck analyzing why’s and how’s rather than focusing on moving forward in the moments as they pass. I get stuck criticizing myself rather than acknowledging my own pain and fostering growth and learning from those tough moments.  I get stuck in the cycle of perfectionism and shame, which is the opposite of self-compassion.  However, when I cultivate moments of kind awareness when I am struggling or hurting, compassion pours out of me with increased ease. When I slow down long enough to non-judgmentally recognize the humanity in failure and the inevitability of disappointment from time to time, I find it more natural to move forward with self-compassion.

So why and how does this relate to mindfulness? Now I just (briefly) discussed kind awareness and non-judgmental recognition. That is the essence of mindfulness: taking moments to remove expectation and criticism, to simply exist in the moment. Social Workers are trained to “meet people where they are.” We are taught to remove labels and previously determined expectations. We are taught to actively listen and engage in learning with clients as we assess their language, nonverbal communication, and other cues to help determine a treatment plan. How ridiculous would it be for us to not check in or engage in learning to establish their course of treatment? What if we scolded them from the get go and just advised that they just get their lives together? I would be willing to bet they would NOT be coming back for a follow up session.  So why is it in parenting, in marriage, in a work setting we show others kindness and compassion with ease but we face such difficulty in embracing our own needs with this kind of openness and love?

Maybe this lack of self-compassion is driven by perfectionism or shame?  Perhaps our ideas about what success looks like for us are too rigid. We might have ourselves in a box and falling outside of that box confuses us about our identity or image. Maybe we are terrified of failure? Could it be that we just do not put effort into actively loving ourselves?

Regardless of the hurdles that create a lack of self-compassion in your life, there are steps that you can implement to cultivate increased compassion, kindness, and love in the way you talk to yourself and treat yourself in difficult moments. The first step is to allow moments of that kind awareness that we previously discussed. Meet YOU where you are! How are you feeling in this moment? Receive your feelings with love and let go of judgement.  If you find this kind awareness difficult to achieve, try implementing a mindfulness practice into your daily life. I enjoy guided meditations and use them frequently in my personal mindfulness practice. Having the assistance of a guided meditation helps me hold my focus and set aside certain periods of time where the only goal is presence. The Self Compassion  website has multiple guided meditations that are 5-25 minutes, meaningful, and easy to implement into your practice. I also love The Chopra Center and have purchased multiple meditation experiences that help guide and direct my practice.

The beauty of mindfulness is that it not only allows the space to gain familiarity with yourself it also helps to increase the gray matter in your brain associated with compassion. The Harvard Gazette discusses a study in the article “Eight Weeks to a Better Brain” the findings of an 8 week study of individuals who implemented mindfulness meditation practice into their daily lives. They “found increased gray-matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection.”  We can exercise and enhance our brain’s capacity to demonstrate compassion more naturally and with ease. That is too cool!!!!

I challenge you to recognize the potential impact of mindfulness and self-compassion in your life. As you gain self-awareness, take time to recognize the tone of your self-talk and your tendency to criticize yourself. Make the decision to change your tone and demonstrate increased love and compassion in your struggles. Recognize that you deserve the same kindness that you show to your loved ones and continue to charge down your path with bravery and strength!

Until next time!

Peace, Love, and Laughter,

Megan 🙂

Taking Control of Stress

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!!! St. Paddy’s Day always makes me happy! Green is my favorite color and this day brings to mind fun, family, and faith! All of which I highly value. I love that shamrocks are used to commemorate Saint Patrick’s evangelism in Ireland. (He utilized the shamrock to illustrate the Holy Trinity, fun little fact for you.)  I also love drinking green beer to celebrate Irish heritage. I have been known to dye the noodles of a spaghetti dish green so my kiddos to join in the consumption of green and yummy things! It looked like worms and really has no relevance from a historical standpoint, but they loved it! But today, I cannot help but look for my 4 leaf clover. I have not had a green beer and, to be honest, I am in a bit of a lousy mood.

Which made we want to talk about the reality of self-care, mindfulness, etc. Not every single day is full of joy and exquisite recognition of the beauty in life. Sometimes your dryer goes out, your phone won’t charge, and your gloriously-cyclical, womanly gift of the month joins you in your already stressed existence. Oh and you picked up a Saturday shift to bring in some extra dollars. So St. Paddy’s Day 2018 is not going down in the history books as an awesome day, well not so far anyhow.

So why am I sharing the details of my less than stellar Saturday with you? Because it’s real life. My threshold for whining children, my husband, and cold coffee were not up to par today. Not. Even. Close. But why is that, what is going on in my body that creates a heightened level of irritability, less focus, and leads to poor communication?

If you have time, check out this 14 minute TED Talk by Kelly McGonigal

She briefly discusses the realities of stress and how chronic stress can be harmful. She presents incredible research about the idea that perception of stress can be the key to changing the way our bodies responds to said stress. Fascinating right? Essentially, we decide the power that we give stress. Stress will absolutely create a physical response in your body. The chemical dump that is created from moments of stress prepare us to be faster, stronger, provides increased endurance, makes us more social beings, etc. Viewing this response as preparation to move mountains, overcome, and succeed can change the way our bodies react to stress.

Stress is, unfortunately, inevitable and stress is not always the result of negative moments in life. Moving, new jobs, traveling, growing your family, and other touchstone moments of life create stress reactions in our bodies. And then, of course, there are the stressful moments that are simply frustrating and exhausting.  But how cool is it that we can control the manner and degree in which stress impacts our systems? We have a say in whether chronic stress will lead to heart disease, premature death, migraines, gastrointestinal issues, so on and so forth. Stress can be to blame for many of the physical, emotional, reproductive, and really any category of ailments that we are plagued with, but what if we can have a preventative relationship with stress that helps us overcome the potential of being brought down by our exposure to seemingly constant stress?

In case you were curious about the answers to my rhetorical questions…It is SO cool and we totally can! Here’s how…

Adjust the lenses that you use to view stressful situations. Rather than seeing each difficult moment or hurdle as your potential downfall, be rational.  First, remember that your body is built to have a chemical reaction to stress, if you are experiencing an aroused or heightened state, this is your body preparing to conquer and overcome this situation. Then ask yourself: Can I overcome this moment? What are the steps and timeline involved in overcoming this moment? How have I coped with something like this before? The answers to these questions are not always easy, but sometimes these types of questions can help sort out the flat tire moments from the facing foreclosure moments. These questions can help you prevent a broken dryer and cold cup of coffee from taking over your emotions. It helps you put your stress into perspective and avoid allowing unnecessary reactions to commence.

Practice relaxation techniques. Coping skills are key: practicing mindfulness and increased self-awareness aides in my ability to have a healthy relationship with stress. Because I have been able to get to know myself, my triggers, and my signals of dysfunction, I am better able to utilize my coping skills before I allow stress to take control.  Now, let’s be clear, that does not mean that I do not make mistakes and react poorly to stress from time to time. What it does mean is that I can (ideally) change the course I am traveling down in my reaction to stress. The STOP Method, box breathing, yoga are all go to coping skills that allow me to take control of my physical and emotional reactions to stress. Mindfulness can also create symbiosis between your mind, heart, and body! Rather than working against your body or being angry at yourself for reacting to stress, get in tune with your body and develop a level of understanding about how your particular system reacts to stress. These steps put you in the driver seat; you decide the course created by stress. You can decide to be empowered rather than defeated.

Take care of your body. When you are experiencing stress you can benefit from increased water intake. Drinking more water helps your body to flush out the chemicals released when your brain senses stress. Activity or movement also serves as a stress reliever. I mentioned yoga, some people prefer running or boxing. Allowing your body an outlet for the physical reaction to stress can encourage a more healthy relationship with stress.

Don’t take yourself too seriously in the passing moments.  Ok… sometimes we just need to take a deep breath, release our unrealistic expectations, and take a moment to relish in the lighter side of life. Let me give you an example, mornings can be rough. Trying to get the kiddos out of the house and to work on time may sound simple, but that is not always the case. There are a LOT of moving parts that have to fall into place. As the clock ticks closer to 8:00, stress heightens and begins to impact everyone’s mood …the moving parts fall everywhere but into place.  Rather than allow the tension of a failed morning bleed into the rest of our day, we will often have a dance party on the drive to school and we say our daily mantra “I am brave, I am strong, I am kind, I am important” to hit reset. We hug, kiss, and say I love you. We acknowledge that being in a hurry led to a stressful morning and we are not going to let it ruin our day. This same reaction can apply to conflicts at work, missed due dates, speeding tickets, broken appliances, and other moments that are definitely stressful but do not deserve to take over your mindset.

Let me place a disclaimer here…if you have consistent physical symptoms that concern you, please see a physician to rule out any underlying diagnoses. Also, if you think you may be suffering from generalized anxiety disorder or depression, changing your relationship with stress can certainly help mitigate your symptoms, but talking to your physician or pursuing counseling may be necessary.  There are also critically stressful moments that may require additional intervention. However, no matter what your circumstance is utilizing positive coping skills, taking care of your body, and checking your perspective are all beneficial steps to take to aide in stress management.

So cheers to ☘️St. Paddy’s Day☘️ and driving the snakes out of your mind. Don’t allow negative thought processes to take over and control your relationship with stress. You are equipped to overcome the moments that seem overwhelming.

Peace, Love, and Laughter,

Megan 😊

Mindful Awareness and the 5 Senses

During my counseling sessions, I consistently try to leave clients with a practical tool that they can appreciate the justification and implementation of in their daily lives. Mindfulness feels impossible to achieve in the beginning, but every step towards mastery provides growth and change. I said before, mindfulness is and continues to be a practice for me! I am not a master or a guru. I am simply trying to live my best life and, although, that is laughable on most days…I am still doing my best. I can also tell you that my compassion, awareness, and presence have been forever impacted and improved by implementing this knowledge into my life.

I have previously mentioned the importance of utilizing mindfulness in interactions with my family. One method I use often with my kiddos is to help them tune into their five senses. The senses, like the breath, are relatively straight-forward to tap into when you are seeking a focal point for your mindfulness practice. Despite the seemingly straight-forward nature of using this as a tool, I believe we do not take moments to appreciate what the world may bring before us in this manner. We are horribly distracted.

In a New Yorker article, Joshua Rothman reviews the book “The World Beyond Your Head: Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction” (written by Matthew Crawford.)  He discusses Crawford’s description of distraction as making a choice or taking control. Rather than patiently waiting for the light to turn green, I am going to scroll through social media. These commercial breaks are bumming me out; I am going to check my snaps. I am going to listen to the latest episode of The Bachelor while I work because I am not a slave to my 8-5. Crawford says, “Distraction is appealing precisely because it’s active and rebellious.” It keeps you busy and less affected by the boring, slow, hard, or tough moments that we face on a day to day basis. I appreciate rebellion. I am a rebel by nature; I love autonomy and do not appreciate feeling controlled. When I feel like I have lost my grip on my world, I will go get my hair changed or a new tattoo. I seek out moments to feel empowered and in control of the situation. But the reality is, more often than not, my rebellion is merely a distraction from the uncomfortable path towards healing what has gone awry to make me feel as though I have lost control in the first place. Perhaps we all should meet the tough stuff head on rather than pour energy into the art of distraction?

Rothman also does a great job of discussing Crawford’s idea that our distracted culture could be the result of experiencing emptiness in regards to our spirituality. We are out of touch and disconnected. To fill this gaping hole in our souls, we become busy. We numb our pain with distractions. Crawford says, “Distraction is the opposite of joy, which becomes rarer as we spend more time in a frictionless environment of easy and trivial digital choices.” Again, perhaps it is time that we tune into ourselves, our souls, our nature, our spirituality and make steps towards feeling and experiencing life more wholeheartedly.

I believe our 5 senses can help us achieve a life with more wholehearted consumption of our immediate and tangible surroundings. This practice can aide in actively removing distractions and enhancing awareness. I often refer to a brief walk into work from the parking lot as I began to practice mindfulness. That particular morning I had a few moments to spare before I needed to get in my office (this is rare…do not be fooled, I am running late 99.09% of the time) so I played a brief guided meditation on my Chopra Center app.  As I walked into the hospital, I noticed vegetation and life that I never previously acknowledged. There was beauty that I was missing each and every day. I did not have a desire to disrupt my peaceful walk with mindlessly looking at my calendar for the 20th time that morning, I just allowed myself to relish in my surroundings.

There are so many moments where drawing mindful awareness to your 5 senses can enhance your experience. How often do you truly breathe in the aroma of your meal and take time to absorb the flavors of each bite that enters your body? When is the last time that you took the time to recognize the way that the warm water feels running down your back in the shower? Have you taken the chance to turn the television off and set your phone down so that you can hear your children laugh and play? How many times have you driven somewhere and not seen any of the beauty between point A and point B? We are missing our lives as they pass us by friends. I challenge you to choose moments and embrace the full experience with your whole heart and your 5 senses.

Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Going for a walk or run? Try it without the headphones. Implement a sensory experience in something you already make a priority. What do you hear with each step? Leaves crunching. What is the temperature? How does the sun feel on your face?
  • Grabbing a cup of tea or coffee first thing in the morning? Take time to feel the warmth of the cup in your hands, breathe in the aroma of your refreshing and awakening drink, enjoy the flavors as they are introduced into your body. Take moments to breathe and enjoy these moments of heightened awareness.
  • Time for dinner? Appreciate the appearance, texture, aromas, and flavors of your meal. Mindful eating has various benefits, not only will it make your dining experience increasingly enjoyable it can help you recognize the point in which your body is satisfied minimizing over eating and discomfort.
  • Having a conversation? Remove distractions, make eye contact, observe the person’s nonverbal communication, and genuinely hear their words. This can remove unnecessary misunderstandings and create a more compassionate interaction.

Tell me what practices your implement and find helpful! I am excited to hear from you. Until next time…

Peace, love, and laughter,

Megan

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Sleep…

I tried and tried to develop a pithy title for a post on sleep. Some ideas I had…”Sleep: A Love Hate Relationship.” “SLEEP: The Forbidden Dance for Mothers of Babes.” “How to Enhance your Sleep Life.”  Let’s be honest, at this exact phase of my life, 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep sounds like the most desirable and sought after thing that I can dream of. If I had 8 hours of uninterrupted and blissful sleep, I think I could probably take on the world. I was ALWAYS an awesome sleeper. I could take a nap anywhere and my sleep started the moment my head hit the pillow at night. But then my precious babies (whom I wouldn’t trade for gold) came along, and they need to nurse at night, or pee at night, or have a drink of water at night. When you multiply those needs times three, they can really add up. I give my lack of sleep credit for weight gain, increased anxiety, and memory loss. What I sought to determine was whether or not this credit was due. Was sleep, or the lack thereof, able to cause such palpable symptoms in my journey towards quality of life, mindfulness, and self-care?

In my research on the impact of sleep in our ability to improve our level of functioning and enhance mindful awareness, I came across a “Whole Health Changing the Conversation: Neuroplasticity and Sleep Clinical Tool” created by the Integrative Medicine Program, Department of Family Medicine, University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health in cooperation with Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, under contract to the Office of Patient Centered Care and Cultural Transformation, Veterans Health Administration.  This document is highly clinical in composition, but does an excellent job explaining how the body views sleep deprivation as stress. In my clinical practice, I often discuss the impact of chronic stress on the body. Your body has a natural reaction to what it associates with or as stress. This reaction is preparing you for survival. It dumps chemicals that (if needed) can make you more reactive, faster, stronger, etc. However, when you are not in a situation where you have to run for your life or fight your way to survival, these chemicals can cause damage. These chemicals also keep you awake and alert. So you can understand how stress and sleep deprivation become a cyclical battle. Understanding that your body is equipped this way is fascinating and helps you to understand the importance of stress-management, rest, and healing for your body. This tool also describes why sleep is essential for neuroplasticity:

Neuroplasticity is defined as change in the brain’s structure and function due to experience. The brain was once thought to become immutable after a critical period of development in early childhood. Now we know that the brain is constantly changing in response to experience and disease. Given the fundamental importance of sleep in the biology of all life, it should come as no surprise that sleep has major effects on the brain through neuroplastic mechanisms.

Neuroplasticity is essential for healing, the creation of and maintenance of memories, creating new pathways for information to be processed, and in maintaining overall brain health. Neuroplasticity is what creates the opportunity for a stroke or traumatic brain injury victim to learn to walk again. The brain is literally capable of finding a new route to process information and commands. Can we please take a moment to applaud our incredible bodies and what they are capable of…?

Outside of understanding the science behind sleep and the brain, I also wanted to start a conversation. Am I alone in the world? Who else has this battle with sleep? Is anyone else out there longing for improved sleep? So, naturally, I asked the question on Facebook. I quickly got a multitude of responses. People expressed that they identify with the struggle. People marketed the products they sell that can promote rest and relaxation. People recommended routines and habits that promote resting well. People expressed that they had found the solution to getting 8 hours of sleep with children. Long story short…I am NOT alone in my ongoing journey towards improving my sleep. It was encouraging and provided me with lots of ideas and set out on a whole new path of research and discovery.

Taking from my Facebook conversation, interactions with friends, my personal experience, and research I wanted to provide you with some tips to improve your sleep.

  1. Consult your physician: I always want to make sure that everyone takes their physical struggles to their family provider. Make sure there is not an underlying reason for your inability to wind down. If you feel concerned about blood pressure, insomnia, anxiety, etc. it is important to implement self-care but also have an ongoing conversation with your provider to be safe and cover all your bases.

 

  1. Develop a Routine: this for me has been the ultimate struggle as a mother. I am spontaneous and disorganized. However, my ability to stay on top of housework, laundry, appointments, practices, projects, bills, etc. etc. etc. has been dependent on creating a doable level of organization and routine. This is crucial at night. Routines create positive habits, but also create signals that tell your body what is coming next. This routine can be as involved as including dinner time, bath time, one cartoon, warm milk, brush teeth, read book, prayers, lay down. Repeat nightly.  Or it could be as simple as spraying a lavender linen spray or rubbing essential oils on your and your children’s feet to create a signal that appeals to your sense of smell then reading a bedtime story. An important term used in my description of routine is Whatever routine you choose to implement must be achievable for the long run. Similar to a diet (or any lifestyle change for that matter) you want to create a realistic opportunity to be successful.

 

  1. Promote the body’s ability to relax: There are so many ways to achieve this. Multiple folks expressed their belief in the impact of essential oils, using oil on their body or diffusing oils in the room (some specific oils mentioned were cedarwood, vetiver, and other blends specific to essential oil companies.) My family and I certainly use oils; I absolutely believe this is a path to promoting relaxation. I have a lavender and chamomile linen spray that I crave at night now. I love breathing it in and my kiddos love it as well. Meditation and mindfulness exercises can also help. Box breathing, the body scan meditation, or certain music enhances your mind’s willingness to slow down and can aide in your pursuit of sweet sleep. Exercise and nutrition can also play a role in promoting rest for your body.

 

  1. Remove sleep disruptions: I shared wonderful dialogue with a dear family friend Jeannie Nichols, who is also a Licensed Spiritual Healer and Raindrop Specialist about this exact topic: the importance of removing distractions that interrupt the ability for our brain to rest.  For instance, falling asleep with the television on is a sleep deterrent. “The light fluctuation is disruptive to sleep,” says Nichols. I also read an informative article regarding blue light exposure and its impact on our sleep written by Michael J. Breus, PhD a.k.a. “The Sleep Doctor.” I recommend reading the article, “The latest on blue light and sleep” in its entirety. Breus summarizes his thoughts by saying, Nighttime blue light exposure is indeed harmful to sleep and circadian rhythms. And taking steps to manage blue light exposure—including using red light sources during evening hours—can make a real difference.”

 

  1. Be open: Life can throw you curve balls and you might have to adjust your routine or day-to-day priorities from time to time to achieve wellness. My relationship with sleep has been heavily impacted by the introduction of those three precious and dependent souls that are my children. One day they will not be as dependent. One day they may not want to snuggle so close. One day they will be headed out to conquer their own version of the world. I will, then, have complete and total access to 8 hours of sleep and my full short term memory capacities. For now, some 2:00 AM snuggles may not be the worst thing in the world. I fully believe that so much of our ability to cope with life’s trials is wrapped up in our willingness to open our hearts, love others, and love ourselves.

 

So, for now, I will mindfully and lovingly meet the needs of my children and give myself grace as I continue my dance with sleep. Sweet dreams until next time friends.

 

Peace, Love, and Laughter,

 

Megan

 

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