Why Giving Thanks Is Important

 

This week is Thanksgiving. Being the most traveled holiday in the United States, like many other families, ours will be converging on our house this week, filling it with children and their spouses and our grandchildren. Controlled chaos is the best way to describe all the hoopla as we cook, make arts and crafts like cinnamon stick Santas and, of course, give thanks.

At the Thanksgiving table, our family has a longtime tradition of holding hands as each of us cites what it is we are thankful for during the past year. When each person finishes their personal prayer of thanks, they squeeze the hand of the next person signaling their turn. As you may expect, most of the thanks is for family, health, good friends and the food on the table. Occasionally, we have a moment of sobering reflection like the year our friend, Bonnie, who had terminal cancer, sobbed, “I’m grateful for another year of life.” The following November she passed away just before Thanksgiving.

Everyone faces adversity. Giving thanks is important no matter what time of year it is. But, Thanksgiving provides a special opportunity to celebrate our blessings. As with Bonnie, who gave thanks for life itself, Thanksgiving affords a moment to concentrate on the positive aspects of any misfortune. Focusing on the good in our lives helps us realize how fortunate we are. Devoting our attention to the gratitude we feel for the non-material aspects of living enhances our joy in life.

Positive thoughts are healthy thoughts. Dwelling on the negative results in negative thoughts. That in turn becomes anger, unhappiness and perhaps even depression. Conversely, expressing gratitude negates the negativity.

As you sit down to your Thanksgiving meal, whether at home or a restaurant, whether a big dinner with all the trimmings or basic fair, whether surrounded by family and friends or by yourself, give thanks for all that is great and positive and wonderful in your life, open your soul and your heart to your gratitude for the everyday blessings of life and immerse yourself in the joy of simply living.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Advertisements

Spanning The Brain

When we retire, our overall health is a huge consideration. Every financial planner I talked to pre-retirement, asked the question, “Are you in good health?” On the other side of that question, you may have to retire due to poor health. Even with Medicare and insurance policies, poor health can become expensive. It can also cost you in incalculable ways such as stress and reduced quality of life. Staying healthy is important no matter what your age.  Toward that end, I recently took the BrainSpan testing.

The test consists of a blood sample measuring:

Omega-3 Index
Cell Inflammation Balance
Carbohydrate Index

The second part of the test is a cognitive function assessment gauging:

Memory Capacity
Sustained & Flexible Attention
Processing Speed

The blood test looks at the chemical makeup of your cells, which reflect your dietary intake for the previous three months. What the test is telling us is whether or not we have any imbalances in essential fatty acids. In many countries, including the United States, we have altered our diet to the point where we are eating more Omega-6 than we are Omega-3 fatty acids. According to BrainSpan, there is mounting evidence from research by the American Medical Association, Harvard and the University of Maryland Medical Center that Omega-3 is essential to the overall functioning of our brain and body.

Many of us have been told by our doctors, including me, to take an Omega-3 supplement. But, what we are really looking for is the level of a couple of fatty acids produced primarily by oily fish such as salmon and mackerel — EPA and DHA. EPA repairs tissue, reduces inflammation in the body and supports a good mood as well as our ability to focus. DHA is the most abundant fatty acid in the brain supporting development, cell structure and function.

According to the USDA Nutrient Data Lab 3 ounces of cooked wild Salmon provides 1564 milligrams of EPA/DHA combined. We need that at least 5 times a week — at the least. When recommending an Omega-3 supplement, my eye doctor told me farmed raised salmon is fed corn, making it high in Omega-6. Wild caught salmon is high in Omega-3. Reading labels both on the fish you buy and any supplements is important! In a study done by Tufts University researchers found that people with higher levels of DHA may lower their risk of dementia by as much as 47%. Be sure you are buying what you think you’re buying. Your longevity and quality of life may depend on it.

The cognitive function portion of the testing is done online with a series of challenging exercises. For example, I was shown 3 numbers, which quickly disappeared from the screen, and asked to repeat them in the exact order on a keyboard as fast as I could. Easy right? Not when it gradually increases to 9 numbers to remember in exact order. I actually did well on this portion of the test. On a scale of 1 to 7, 7 being optimal, I scored an average 6.5 on all three sections. On the other hand, I didn’t fair so well on the blood test. It revealed I was eating way too many carbohydrates (Omega-6) and not enough Omega-3 to be at optimal health. Consequently, I increased my Omega-3 supplement as well as Omega-3 foods and, while we need carbs, too, I am watching the intake of my old boogeymen of potatoes, rice, pasta and bread.

As an incentive to stay on track, I’ll be retested in January. Basically, I feel pretty good about my results, especially my cognitive functioning. As always, it’s a struggle to keep my body in the same shape as my brain. But, my brain depends upon me to take care of my body. I remember seeing a quip someplace in my travels to the effect, “If you don’t take care of your body, where will you live?” I think that pretty much sums it up.

Your Brain On Eggs

This post first appeared on May 21, 2016.  With more research coming out about the benefits of Omega-3, which the egg provides as one of the best sources, I thought it was worth re-posting.  There are other sources of Omega-3, of course, and I will write more on current research on those sources in the future.

 

Your brain on eggs

Eating a balanced diet is important at any age. My mother used to hand me words of wisdom like, “you are what you eat” and “breakfast is the most important meal of the day.” I guess that’s why I was never one to skip breakfast. One of the worst habits at any age, but even worse as we get older, is skipping breakfast. A cup of coffee won’t give you what you need. After all, breakfast is short for breaking the overnight fast.

For years and years I started my day eating eggs. However, after learning about my skyrocketing cholesterol numbers, I changed my eating habits to limit my egg consumption. Because they are believed to raise cholesterol in the body, eggs got a bad rap for many years. At one time, I totally gave up eggs for breakfast for an entire six months. Instead I ate oat based cereals. Anticipating a lower cholesterol number, I was shocked when my doctor told me my number dropped only one teeny-tiny point over my previous six month blood test. I’m no scientist or nutritionist, but that piece of information made me wonder if all the hoopla over eggs was — well, just hoopla.

Despite my questioning, I continued to eschew eggs at breakfast. Instead, I ate cereal or an energy bar. I didn’t feel more energetic. In fact, by 11 a.m. my stomach started sending signals of hunger. I felt depleted, even tired.

Now, along comes a book I’m reading, Rewire Your Brain by John B. Arden, Ph.D. It’s not a new book. The copyright is 2010. It’s been sitting in my to-be-read stack since 2015. While the book has a lot of technical information on how our brains work, Arden also offers up a chapter on “Fueling Your Brain”. Guess who is the breakfast heroine in this chapter — yup, you got it — the egg. There are lots of other foods we need and should eat to fuel our brains, but the morning egg, breaking the fast, carries a lot of weight.

Speaking of weight I, like many people, think about what I eat in terms of feeding my entire body and keeping my weight in check. Until reading Arden’s book I never really gave the specifics for fueling my brain a lot of thought (no pun intended). According to Arden, “A bad diet can have a major impact on the brain’s ability to function properly, making you less apt to think clearly, pay attention, and cultivate neuroplasticity.” As we know, all of these abilities are really, really important for aging well.

Memory is also important for aging well. Arden goes on to say, “One of the neurotransmitters you need for processing memory is called acetylcholine. Your body needs an amino acid called choline in order to manufacture acetylcholine. One source of choline is eggs.” While there are other sources of choline, the egg is the one for getting your brain off to a good start for the day. Remember, it’s been fasting all night long with the rest of your body.

As we age we also lose muscle. Protein builds muscle. Eggs are a good source of protein. Eggs are also a rich source of vitamins, including B vitamins like B12, essential for energy. Other vitamins are A, E and K plus riboflavin and folic acid. Eggs also contain Omega-3 that good for your brain and heart component. Exercise and a balanced diet can help keep our muscles, including our heart muscle, in good working order.

 

After reading all of this, I decided to try Arden’s suggestion of eating an egg (sans saturated or trans fats), a piece of whole wheat toast (sans butter), and a glass of orange juice for breakfast. It took about a week for me to start feeling more energy. I noticed I can go until noon or later without feeling hungry. Since mornings are when I write, I realized I was mentally sharper. And, I sleep more soundly. This is my brain on eggs.

What about the cholesterol? According to the Mayo Clinic, “Most healthy people can eat up to seven eggs a week with no increase in their risk of heart disease. Some studies have shown that this level of egg consumption may actually prevent some types of strokes.” They go on to say, the risk of heart disease is more closely tied to the saturated and trans fats used to cook the eggs than the eggs themselves. As always, you should check with your doctor about your egg consumption as, according to the Mayo Clinic, it is not recommended if you have certain diseases, such as diabetes.

Whether or not an egg a day is good for you is up to you to determine. For me, I’m continuing my breakfast egg routine. Regardless of what you eat in the morning, make sure you do eat to break the fast and fuel your brain and body. That’s essential for living well and aging dynamically.

‘Tis The Season

 

With Hurricane Irma threatening, as most South Carolinians converged on grocery stores last week to buy bottled water, batteries, non-perishable food and the like, I followed the herd. While there, I used the restroom. To my surprise, a woman in the last stall was having a conversation on her cell phone! This is not the first time I’ve shared the restroom with someone using their phone, nor was it the first time I watched them leave without flushing or washing their hands. Ugh! I then observed her cruising the grocery aisles, still talking on the cell phone squeezed between her tilted head and hunched shoulder, as she sorted through apples and canned goods, a vivid reminder that germs lurk everywhere.

What also surprised me was an article in the AARP Bulletin, “Boomers Are Skipping Needed Vaccinations”. I am not one of those boomers.  After two months of bronchitis last winter, I’m super aware of germs and getting vaccinations. My odyssey of antibiotics and inhalers started as a head cold after a shopping trip to, yes, a grocery store just before Christmas. While I always get a flu shot, last year’s ordeal is also a reminder that as we get older, we are prone to complications. A chest x-ray did not indicate pneumonia (whew!), but it was an obvious possibility.

Flu season is now closing in upon us again. According to my doctor, flu season in the United States is October through May. Vaccinations are widely available. If you are working in retirement, your employer may offer vaccinations for free.

In my area a doctor’s appointment is not necessary to obtain a flu shot. My local pharmacist can administer the vaccine. In fact, that’s also how I got my shingles vaccine after seeing a friend with the blistering, painful rash on her forehead. Anyone who has had chicken pox is at risk for shingles.  Even if you have already had shingles, you are at risk for shingles.  That’s right.  Just seeing what my friend was going through, not to mention the ugly sight, was enough to send me running to the pharmacy. Since then, I have known many, many people who have gone through the ordeal of shingles. There is much where I will take my chances, this is not one of them.

Other vaccines to put in your arsenal of staying healthy are the pneumococcal pneumonia and tetanus shots. Until I fell in October 2015 and cut my head open, a tetanus booster was no where on my mind. When the ER doctor asked me when I had had one last, I couldn’t remember. Did I ever have one in South Carolina or was the last one nearly two decades ago in Michigan? If you can’t remember when, that’s a clear indication to get one.

My experience with bronchitis last year is a strong reminder of our general growing resistance to antibiotics, which are used to treat other conditions such as pneumonia. Therefore, according to the AARP article, it is becoming increasingly important to prevent the spread of diseases through vaccinations.

As we age, our bodies do not recover as easily as they once did. Our immune systems may not fight off disease as well as they once did. It is up to us to be proactive about our health. Ask your doctor or pharmacist about vaccinations. Keep track of your vaccinations and get the next shot when it’s due.

At the peril of sounding downright germ-a-phobic I carry sanitizer in my bag and car. I use it when I pump gas, use a cart at the store, a menu at a restaurant or anything that has been touched by the general public. I wash all fresh fruits and vegetables. After all, we have no idea who sorted through the apples before us. I keep my vaccinations up-to-date.  And, of course I use one of the best ways known to prevent the spread of germs — I wash my hands!

 

A Recliner and A Bag of Chips

At High Falls

Last week Martin went to see his doctor. Referring to Martin’s bicycling and artistic endeavors, the doctor said, “When most people retire, they just want a recliner and a bag of chips.” I don’t think he’s talking about the people who can’t get around, but the ones who can and choose not to.

Admittedly, Martin is more physically fit than I am. He’s out on a 23 mile ride as I write this. His best time for that route is one hour and four minutes, so basically twenty miles per hour! Bicycling is a lifelong hobby he started in his late twenties. He wasn’t stopping it when he retired. In fact, he looked forward to having the time to do it more often. And, he does.

While I don’t own a recliner and only buy chips once or twice a year, I’m just not that motivated to work out in our modern way. We have a home exercise room complete with a BowFlex, Power Block weights and, of course, a stationary bicycle. There’s a TV mounted on the wall for my viewing pleasure while working out. But…I can’t even motivate my little self to walk through the door.

On the other hand, I also know aging well means continuing to move your body. What’s good for the heart is good for the brain. Neither too much recliner time or chips does anything good for a body. And, if you don’t take care of your body, where will you live?

Stone Steps

My lifelong hobby is gardening. I’m not a putterer. I remember Martin coming home one day to find me on the front bank with shovels, hoe and pickaxe amid a large curve of orange plumbers’ flags.

“What are you doing?” He asked.

“I’m making steps to split the bank. It’s too wide. It needs something to break it up.”

“What’s going on top of the dirt?”

“Natural stone slabs.”

Admittedly, such strenuous projects are few and far between. I compensate with activities like hiking, walking my neighborhood and cutting down dead pines on my property. Martin and I spent a morning this week taking out a dozen or more pines, cutting them up with chain saws and dragging them about 400 feet to our burn pile. Whew! In our South Carolina summer heat, that’s a workout!!!

The week before we hiked three miles at one of our favorite destinations, DuPont State Forest in North Carolina. Just getting to the foot of Triple Falls is a workout. Then, you have to climb back up. Oh, my aching thighs!

Whatever you do in retirement, if you aren’t already, get moving. Keep moving. You know the old saying, “Use it or lose it”. Walk, run, golf, tennis, hike, bicycle, swim, yoga, badminton, bocci, weights, ping pong, paddle board, anything at all. Just use your body. The recliner and chips will be there when you get home.

 

 

 

A Specter Among Us

Aphasia Poster

The big house, the fancy car, the expensive furniture and designer clothes will not make anyone happy. Finding a cure for diseases like dementia will. As I watched the PBS special on Alzheimer’s: Every Minute Counts, I know the feeling of urgency first hand. With the aging of baby boomers dementia is expected to become an economic train wreck taking down the health care industry and with it, the economy.  We cannot even begin to calculate the emotional toll.

While most people are familiar with Alzheimer’s, there are many types of dementia the general public is unaware of. They are just as devastating to the victims, families and our communities. They are even more under researched than Alzheimer’s.

Joey Daly has educated the public about Lewy body dementia through his YouTube chronicles of his mother, Molly as she slips away from him. He calls his efforts Molly’s Movement (https://mollysmovement.com). As NBC Nightly News reported, “Before these videos, you couldn’t explain it to people,” Daley said, adding that he couldn’t watch his mother deteriorating without giving the ordeal some purpose.” The videos are hard to watch. They are painful and powerful.     (http://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/battling-dementia-mother-son-s-incredible-journey-n757196)

Then there are the Aphasias. When you say, “Aphasia” almost everyone says, “What’s that?” To me, it is the most hideous disease no one has ever heard of unless they know someone who has it. The National Aphasia Association defines it as “an impairment of language, affecting the production or comprehension of speech and the ability to read or write. Aphasia is always due to injury to the brain-most commonly from a stroke, particularly in older individuals. But brain injuries resulting in aphasia may also arise from head trauma, from brain tumors, or from infections.” (https://www.aphasia.org)  One form of Aphasia is Frontotemporal Lobar Degeneration (FTD).  It is most likely to lead to Alzheimer’s.

There are only (only!) two million people in the United States with Aphasia. Perhaps the most famous is former Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords who was shot in 2011. There are several types of Aphasia. And like other forms of dementia, it is expected to rise in numbers as baby boomers grow older.

June was National Aphasia Awareness Month. When I posted that on Facebook, it received barely a notice. I have no idea if that is telling or not. I do know it’s my personal experience that most people don’t want to consider they may have one of these diseases someday. Sticking our heads in the sand won’t make it go away.

Lobbying our governments to fund more research and as quickly as possible may make it go away. We have spent trillions on wars when the biggest threat to our national security is right here in our own backyard. Write your representatives. Inform yourself. Educate your family, friends and neighbors. According to the Alzheimer’s Association there are about 5 million people in the US today with Alzheimers alone. By 2050 that number will have swelled to a train wrecking 28 million! The clock is ticking. Every minute does count.

 

A Stress-Free Retirement

Ahhhhh…retirement. Free at last from the stress of the workplace. No more stressing over meeting deadlines, competing for promotions or absorbing yet another policy change. No more training sessions for a new job and you better get it right or the boss won’t be happy with you. No more demanding co-workers, supervisors or customers to face every work day. Life will, instead, be a perpetual weekend or better yet, a vacation.

During the last two years I’ve met several people who retired earlier than planned due to the stress of being in the workplace. Stress happens when people can’t take one more thing. As the pressures pile up, they feel a lack of control. Overwhelmed.

Many, many years ago I read how the administrative assistant of the company CEO is under more stress than the CEO because the assistant has less control over their day. The CEO is the person at the helm, calling all the shots, and, therefore, feeling more in control. After all, the CEO gets to tell their assistant and everyone else in the company what to do, when to do it, how to do it. And, the employees aren’t necessarily told why they are doing it…just get the job done! Their perception is a lack of control while the CEO enjoys the perception of control. The idea of leaving all of that pressure behind as you enter retirement is, indeed, enticing. It’s also just another perception as the pressures of work are replaced by new pressures in retirement.

What would we have to stress over in retirement? Well, to the surprise of even those of us who believe we have enough money, the number one stressor is money. That constant feeling of insecurity lurking just below the surface of everything we do, as we check our portfolio, watch the ups and downs of the stock market and ponder our choice of financial advisor, is stress.

A close second to money is our health. Some of us retired due to health issues, which may be the result of stress in the workplace. My doctor told me most illnesses are the result of inflammation in the body brought on by stress. Or you may have retired in excellent health only to be diagnosed with an unexpected condition such as diabetes, heart disease or even cancer.

Then, there are other people. Other people, it seems, is the number one stressor for the population overall and yes, other people are still a stressor in retirement. Heck, you may even find yourself stressed out by your spouse. After spending a lifetime apart during most days, to suddenly be together 24/7 may be overwhelming at first. But, remember, you are ‘other people’ to someone, which means you are someone else’s stressor. And, then, there’s the big question of, “What am I going to do that has meaning and purpose for the rest of my life?”

There is no such thing as a stress-free retirement just the same as there is no such thing as a stress-free workplace or a stress-free life. Toward the end of one Dynamic Aging class, our instructor brought in a stress coach, Donna Donnelly, to talk to us about stress as we aged. An enthusiastic and fun presenter, Donna not only provided lots of insight into the stress conundrum but infused the class with laughter. Laughter, it turns out, along with sex, is a major de-stressor as the extra oxygen produced goes to the brain. Extra oxygen is part of the relaxation response of deep breath from the abdomen, smile, relax.
With the invention of the MRI, we now know these activities light up both sides of the brain. They increase T-cells, which boost our immune system, helping us to fight off disease as we age. Smiling cuts down on stress. The brain knows when you smile because the corners of your mouth turn up and your lips part a bit. Your brain likes that warm fuzzy feeling smiling evokes and releases neuropeptides, which fight stress. If you’re not used to smiling, guess what? According to Donna, if you aren’t a smiler by nature, stick a pencil in your mouth and your brain will register that as a smile! Sound silly? If you imagine seeing people walking around with pencils in their mouths as they go about their day, it probably is, but, then again, just the thought of that image can put a smile on your face…sans pencil.

Besides smiling, here are a few other things you can do to reduce stress, many of which you probably know but now is the time to practice them, if you’re not already:

1. Adopt an attitude of gratitude. Keep a gratitude journal, taking time at the end of each day to name the things you are grateful for in that day. It could be as simple as seeing a rose bloom in your garden or taking a walk around the block with a friend.

2. Accept change. If you are someone like myself, who needs the perception of control, use the Serenity Prayer to let go of the things in life you can’t control, which, by the way includes most things.

SERENITY PRAYER
“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
the courage to change the things I can;
and the wisdom to know the difference.”

3. Practice mindfulness. Staying in the moment, actively engaging with your environment of the moment and letting your thoughts and emotions arise and dissolve away, will help you let go of the past and keep you from worrying about the future.

4. Put together your support system. We all need other people, especially as we age. Family, very close friends and community groups all provide support. And, don’t forget pets. They also form part of our support system. My cats always know when something is off. They gather around and hang out to cheer me up.

5. Find stress relieving activities. Yoga, meditation, journaling, gardening, a walk around the block or a hike through a nearby park can all relieve stress. Find your stress reliever and use it as your go to when you feel stressed out by life.

6. Get plenty of sleep. As we age, that seems to be a tough one for some of us. However, it is even more important than ever as it keeps our brains functioning at top capacity. So, aim for at least 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night.

Even though retirement will never be stress-free, it can be a less stress time of life if we focus on the positive and adopt the above practices. Charles Darwin said, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives. Nor the most intelligent that survives. It’s the one most adaptable to change.” Be a person who adapts. And, don’t forget to smile!

The Sleep Challenge

Hoping to find some answers to my on again, off again challenge of a good night’s sleep, my busy February included a two hour presentation by Clemson University Professor June Pilcher on catching some zzz’s. When I worked, getting a good night’s sleep was rarely a problem. Most nights regardless of a bad day or what I may face the next morning, I was able to sleep through the night awakening refreshed. According to Professor Pilcher’s insights, when I left the traditional working world behind, I unwittingly set myself up for sleepless nights.

I’m retired, right? My decades old regimen of going to bed at 10 p.m. and waking at 5:30 a.m. is no longer necessary. I can sleep in if I want. I can stay up late or go to bed early. Everyday is Saturday. Wrong! By giving up my routine, I confused my brain.

When it comes to sleep our brains apparently like a set pattern right down to the very minute. They like us to have a going to bed ritual signaling them to get ready to sleep.  When it comes to sleep, our brains are creatures of habit.  For me, then, the most important advice from Professor Pilcher was going to bed at the same time every night and rising at the same time every morning, just like I did when I worked. Train the brain and you should have a better night’s sleep.

In fact, I learned my 7-1/2 hour sleep from my working years was perfect as it’s divisible by 90 minutes. We go through the five stages of sleep every 90 minutes cycling into REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, the last and most important stage, throughout the night. Getting REM sleep is imperative for waking feeling rested. Curiously, REM sleep is also of short duration the first 90 minutes of the night — as little as 5 minutes. It becomes progressively longer and longer with each 90 minute cycle up to 45 minutes by the last cycle.

Should you wake during REM sleep as with an alarm clock or a pet needing attention, it’s known as ‘waking up on the wrong side of the bed’. You will be off to a grumpy start to the day. It seems our bodies and brains know we need REM. Disrupting it irritates us on some primal level.

During REM sleep our body becomes limp like a rag doll. However, our brain remains active. We dream. Our brain races through some pretty weird stuff at times, little of which we remember upon awakening. Apparently, there are hundreds of books written on the hidden meaning of dreams. However, sleep researchers doubt there is any meaning to our dreams. They believe it is simply a matter of the brain remaining awake and uncontrolled while our bodies descend into our deepest sleep.

There is also a ‘switch’, as Dr. Pilcher referred to it, in our brains, which turns the body into the limp rag doll at the beginning of REM sleep and turns the body back on at the end. Then, we cycle once more through the first four stages of sleep before entering REM sleep again. When people die in their sleep, they were most likely in REM sleep and the ‘switch’ malfunctioned.

Dr. Pilcher also advised against using sleep aids as they disrupt the body’s natural rhythm, but (disclaimer) mentioned seeing your physician about that. We had a couple of people in the room who are addicted to sleep aids. Another good reason to stick with a natural approach.

In order to train your brain, you may need to go a few days with a sleep deficit. For example, if you go to bed at 11 but wake up during the night, instead of sleeping in the next morning, force yourself to get up at your appointed time for rising. And no afternoon naps! The next night you will, of course, be more tired. Naturally, you should be more apt to sleep better.

If sleep is interrupted and you can’t go back to sleep within 30 minutes, get up. However, no ‘blue’ lights. No TV, computer, cell phone or anything else well lit. Dr. Pilcher advises read a book — the more boring, the better. When you feel sleepy again, go back to bed.

I’ve been working on training my brain by going to bed at the same time and waking at the same time. It seems to be garnering positive results. We’ll see if it continues to give me a good night’s sleep or it’s another case of on again, off again.

Are You A Positive Person?

 

 

We’ve all heard the sayings designed to promote a positive outlook in the face of life’s bumps in the road. “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” “If life hands you lemons, make lemonade.” “You can’t control what happens to you, but you can control your response.” I once believed I should put my negative feelings aside, smiling through any negative situation.

In the 1980’s, while working for a company that espoused a lot of new age thought, I was spoon fed those sayings with the caveat that any negative feelings would not be tolerated.  Every single employee was sent to a weekend of training to help rid us of the negatives preventing true success. If we quashed all the negativity in our lives, thinking nothing but positive thoughts, good karma would surely come our way. The company would benefit.

The problem occurred when we ignored negativity including gut feelings about certain projects. Then when the project didn’t turn out as expected, we continued to smile through the ruins, sometimes throwing good money after bad.

Aging and life experience brought on a new perspective — I believe it’s a lot healthier to acknowledge your negative feelings. (I also believe the definition of success is personal and not necessarily tied to money.)  While we can gain a lot by being optimistic about life, the truth is bad things happen to every one of us. No one is immune regardless of how positive they may be. Bad karma has a way of showing up.

Negative feelings serve a purpose from warning us that a situation is possibly detrimental for us to grieving over a bad situation in order to move on from it. It is not only o.k. to grieve, to rant, to feel down, it is part of the healing process. It’s also o.k. to question why you feel negative about a situation and listen to your gut instead of just your head.

People often call me positive or optimistic. Believe me I have my share of negative moments.  The idea of going around acting like ‘Little Mary Sunshine’ when you are dying inside is putting on an act to the world. It’s like fake news.

What I learned about myself is that pushing the negative feelings down caused them to eventually erupt in a ball of fire. Better to extinguish them when they are just a tiny flicker. Better for me and better for everyone around me.  Meditation or the ear of a good friend help me deal with the negatives and dispel them.

The only thing we can count on in life is change. Sometimes it’s good change; sometimes it’s neutral; sometimes it’s negative. Being open to change and acknowledging our negative feelings helps us come to grips with whatever the situation. Listening to our negative voice may also save us from a bad situation altogether.

While I still try to make lemonade when life hands me lemons, I also take a big sour bite of whatever is gnawing at me. Then I add the sugar and move on.

Coping With Bad News

 

A couple of weeks ago a reader wrote me about receiving a diagnosis of breast cancer. This reader and I have corresponded for the last three years. Although I’ve never met her, I feel like she is a friend. She asked if I had ever written about coping with an illness. I had not. She wrote, “This is not part of our plans!”

When we retire, and especially if we retire early, the last thing we expect is news of a serious illness. In 2014 I met a man who told me when he received his cancer diagnosis, everything important in life came sharply into focus. Much of what he worried about was suddenly trivial. After beating cancer, he continued to center his attention on his newfound vision.

While we may not have received a cancer diagnosis, we all encountered blows of some kind in our life experience. Life has a way of throwing us curve balls. It’s almost never expected, whether we just retired or were at some other juncture in life.

As I researched for this post, as usual, much of what popped up was how to handle a financial set back. With retirement, whether it is preparation or crisis, money takes center stage. It took quite a bit of digging to find information on coping with an illness. In the process, I asked myself what I would do if I received a diagnosis of breast cancer.

If I received bad news, I would re-visit previous life skirmishes asking myself how I coped.  What did I do that worked for me?  What would I do differently now? What lessons did I learn, which could be applied to the present situation?

For the last two years I’ve practiced mindfulness, mastering the skill of staying present. The past is behind us; the future has yet to unfold itself to us. What we have is the present, the here and now. Focusing on the present has reduced the number of times my mind runs headlong into the future on mind spinning mode, creating worst scenario outcomes. Mind spinning often results in our conjuring a bad situation into an even worse situation. In the case of devastating news, staying present can provide calm in the face of the hurricane. Add a few deep breaths.

Fight or flight. I tend to go into fight mode when receiving bad news. Rather than run from it emotionally and mentally, I start gathering as much information as I can. I like to make informed decisions. Knowing what I’m facing also provides a sense of some control in what is potentially an uncontrollable situation. Never one to throw my hands up and say, “there’s nothing I can do about it” instead I dig deep for information. Knowledge is power.

Like the man I mentioned above, there may actually be some good news embedded in the bad news. He had an epiphany about what was really important to him in life. Everything small by comparison just fell away, leaving him with a sense of really living.

Another woman I know forced a rosy outlook during her battle with cancer. She said she didn’t have time to be negative.  The fact is we have emotional ups and downs during any crisis. I meditate.  One of the objectives I appreciate about meditation is letting the negatives into your thoughts, dealing with them, then letting them go. It’s ok to feel down at a time like this. We can’t be up all the time. To me, constantly projecting Little Mary Sunshine in the face of bad news is a stress in itself.

Bottling up emotions may also block others from helping you. If you have a spouse or life partner, it is probably as important for their welfare as it is for yours, to open up and let them in. They are also in pain. Most probably they are worried about you. Shutting them out by pretending everything is still normal may do more harm than good. The situation is not normal. They may need to cry along with you — let them.

Take your partner or a close friend with you on medical appointments. I know many, many people who did not include their spouse thinking they were shielding them from more bad news. If you are really partners, now is not a time to dial back the relationship. They can be an advocate for you, perhaps hearing something from a medical professional you missed. Emotionally, they can hold your hand during any delivery of news, either good or bad. And you can hold theirs.

You both need all the support you can get. Include family and friends with information. Back to the woman who put on the rose colored glasses, she never shared any news of her condition. I always wanted to hug her. She was even resistant to that. I know people who didn’t want their children informed of a diagnosis, robbing them of the ability to support and, in worse case situations, say a meaningful goodbye.

I’m not a psychologist or therapist, but I am an advocate of going to a counselor when needed. Receiving any devastating news may be a time when counseling is in order. Talking to a professional can help clarify positions, direction, actions to be taken, not to mention dealing with the emotional toll. Seek professional help for your mind and emotions just as you are seeking professional help for your body. Attending to your spiritual self by talking with a minister or priest may also help.

This is just my personal take on what I would do if faced with devastating news such as a cancer diagnosis. As always, we have to do what works best for us, as individuals, and our family in any particular situation. It is not easy to retire and receive bad news. However, as in any other moment in life, there are actions we can take to move us in the direction of a more positive outcome.

For the reader who inspired this post and all of my readers dealing with bad news of any kind, you are in my thoughts and prayers.