5 Steps to Embrace Uncertainty

I’ve been waiting for a sure thing for most of my life. The sure thing can show up in many ways. The right career. The right spouse. The right house. The right car. The right vacation. The right business. I can remember going to the Brandywine Raceway, a racetrack near my home in Wilmington, Delaware as a kid. I always bet on the favorite horse to “show.” To “show” in horse-betting parlance means to come in at least third. I was always betting on a sure thing. I usually, after some ten or so races, came out a buck or two up by the end of the night. I was very risk averse and wanted to make sure I won. Don’t we all want the sure thing? Don’t we all want to pick the winning horse?

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The truth is there aren’t many sure things. We assume the sun will come up and we’ll take our next breath. The majority of things are unplanned and uncertain. Embracing uncertainty is not easy, not comfortable and not natural for most.

Here are five ways to embrace uncertainty:

  1. Be OK with the unknown

I secretly want to be clairvoyant. I want to know that if I get my degree in Hotel and Restaurant Administration that I will one day run an entire hotel chain. While I received that degree, the closest I ever was to running a hotel was cleaning hotel rooms at the Hotel DuPont. I didn’t know that when I applied to Cornell University.

I was hiking with my boyfriend Roy this past week. We could have hiked two miles, one mile, up to the summit or down by the river. Roy was fine with whatever path we took. He was OK with the unknown. The benefit of the unknown is that it won’t disappoint. It won’t come up short. The path unfolds as it should, whether it be rocky, full of roots, ascending or descending, blocked by downed trees or spectacular views. It is as is should be. The unknown unfolds to become known. Life unfolds the same way with the unknown becoming known. Be OK with the unknown.

  1. Let go of the ideal

For me, perfectionism breeds procrastination. I will put off starting because I am not confident that I can complete it or make it perfect. I started this blog over eight years ago. It’s only been in recent years that I have embraced what Anne Lamont calls the $hitty first draft. I just let it write. I rarely go back and edit. I just write and let what will be, be. If I wait for an idea to fully percolate, fully come together, to become positively perfected, I will delay; I will hesitate. Don’t wait for the ideal time to go for the promotion, marry your soulmate, have a child, start a book, or open a new restaurant. Life is messy. There are rarely times where things will be ideal. Embracing uncertainty means letting go of perfection and accepting the imperfect.

  1. Lean into fear

Fear lives in your amygdala in the back of your head. When you and I are in our amygdala, we can’t do our best thinking, which generally happens in our prefrontal cortex. Fear hijacks our brain. A hijacked brain wants to fight, flee or freeze. Sit with the fear for a moment. Or a day. Or a week. Fear dissipates as you let it rest. As Meg-John Barker wrote for Rewriting the Rules: “During the time of uncertainty we need to refrain from acting however tempting it may be to do so. This may also involve asking others to give us the time that we need rather than giving in to their demands to come up with an answer. Thus, it can also be quite a socially radical thing to do in a cultural context of quick fixes and immediate responses: being prepared to say ‘I don’t know what I think about this yet’ or ‘I’m not sure how best to respond, let me get back to you’.” I think that leaning into fear does not mean “barging into fear” or “freezing into fear” but leaning slowly into fear. Reflecting into fear so that you can use your prefrontal cortex to best understand the uncertainty.

  1. Accept being uncomfortable

I’ve spent most of my life trying to be comfortable. I’ve avoided conflict to stay comfortable. I didn’t challenge that status quo with many of my relationships. Whether it be a spouse, boss or child, I didn’t want to make waves. I didn’t want to assert my opinion and potentially cause friction in my relationships. Even if I avoided conflict, the friction still existed. Avoiding the uncomfortable had no impact on the certainty of my relationships. Just because I’m accepting what is comfortable doesn’t make my future anymore certain. Relationships still fall apart even if you are trying to make them comfortable. As Barker wrote, “Whilst leaning into pain can be incredibly hard, the clearer picture that we gain when we face these things that we are so used to running from can bring a massive sense of relief, once we’ve taken the time to really look at them.” By accepting the pain and getting uncomfortable, it helps reveal the true nature of my relationships. Being uncomfortable sheds light on the uncertainty.

  1. Two beats longer

This idea is from Brendon Burchard’s book, The Motivational Manifesto. Burchard recommended having things last two beats longer. I love this idea because it’s all about being very present in this very moment. Feel the couch you are sitting on, the warmth of the blanket, the breath of your lover, the glint in your dog’s eyes. Be here right now and accept this current moment. Good or bad. Painful or sweet. Being here right now makes what is going on very certain. Certainty is in the moment right now. Appreciate it. Embrace this moment. Let go of what happened and what might be in the future and be here right now, just two beats longer. The present moment is certain. Count two beats longer.

Uncertainty is always present. Moving forward regardless of failure, safety, or certainty is just part of the equation. Letting life unfold is magical and is as it should be. What do you do to embrace uncertainty?

Getting Back on the Trail

Some of the best memories of my life were made outside on a trail. By trail, I mean unpaved, meandering, gravely, dusty, sometimes root-twisted, frequently tree-covered, rock-strewn path. In early May in the year of COVID-19, North Carolina reopened their state park trails. It was glorious. My boyfriend Roy and I headed out early on the Elliott Coues Nature Trail at Fort Macon State Park on May 9th. This trail is like coming home for Roy in particular. He has hiked this trail since it opened and hiked it countless times with a 40-pound backpack to train for his Appalachian Trail Thru hike in 2019. It was the first trail we hiked, when we first started dating some two years ago. It was exciting to be able to get back on our “home” trail.

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Some of my observations about getting back on the trail:

Fort Macon State Park

Fort Macon is located at Bogue Banks near Atlantic Beach along the North Carolina coast. It is the second most visited state park in North Carolina (after Jockey’s Ridge in the Outer Banks). It has a fort that was built in 1826 and it was the site of the Civil War battle, Siege of Fort Macon, from March 23 to April 26, 1862. Besides the restored fort and visitor’s center, there are both surf side and sound side fishing, nature trails, ranger guided tours, swim areas and bathhouse. It is both a historic site and unique because it has both the intercoastal waterway on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other. The Elliott Coues Nature Trail encompasses marshes, maritime forests, and sand dunes and covers 3.2 miles. It’s a lovely moderately challenging trail with overlooks along its diverse ecosystem.

Ebullient

This is the word that Roy used to describe the many folks we met on the trail on the first day we were permitted access to what he refers to as the “Jewel” of Carteret County. We were both struck by everyone’s mood as we passed what seemed like 20 or so different parties along the trail. There was palpable excitement to be out in nature and free of our computer screens, four walls and monotony of quarantine. Outside of one group of teenagers, everyone smiled and greeted us with what could be described as joy. It was infectious. As one group passed by with eye contact, broad smiles and “good morning”, there came the next. It was almost like a feeding frenzy of excitement and discovery.

Families

It was amazing how many families were out on the trail. I would guess that probably 80% of the groups we passed were families. This is quite unusual on this trail. Most of the hikers we used to pass were either joggers, mountain bikers or pairs hiking together. There were kids in strollers, backpacks and toddlers trying to navigate up a sand dune. There were families of 7 or more with dogs in tow strolling by. Maybe this was because the visitor center and fort were closed, or maybe they were all suffering from the same cabin fever we’ve all had, but it was still terrific to see so many people taking in the nature trail together.

Birds

Fort Macon boasts over 300 types of birds. Having the marsh and estuary on one side and the ocean on the other creates a large diversity of birds. Just on this one morning we saw egrets, ibis, seagulls, pelicans, sand pipers and hawks. I have been trying to improve my photography skills and one particular set of birds was flying overhead close to the end of our hike. When I looked it up later, it was the elusive night hawk. It was amazing to watch these stunning birds swoop and dive high in the air. There is a designated bird nesting area that is closed to the public right along the beach to encourage the migration and nesting of birds from April until September.

Flora

The trail itself is a loop. We typically start on the marsh, sound side of the trail which covers about 1.5 miles through dense thickets of wax myrtle, eastern redcedar, yaupon and live oak. There are boardwalks over the mud and marsh where miles of estuary and smooth cordgrass blankets as far as the eye can see. This is in stark contrast to the last mile and a half of the loop which is parallel to the Atlantic Ocean and is tucked into sand dunes and thickets of cedars. The highest parts of the trail have scenic overlooks of the entire coast down to the eastern tip of Bogue Banks. There are miles of sand dunes and sea oats and shoreline.

I’ve always had wanderlust and, perhaps, what I have missed most during this pandemic, besides seeing my family, is getting out and experiencing the wonder and joy of the unexpected on the trail. It’s never the same experience and I know I will never take it for granted again. What do you love about getting out on a trail?

6 Ways to Boost Your Immune System

I flew to San Francisco the first week of March right as the first cases of COVID-19 were cropping up on the west coast. I hesitated before I flew out. A friend from work recommended I not go. I remember thinking to myself, “I’m a sober, non-smoking, vegan. I really think that my risk of having a poor outcome even if I am exposed, is pretty low.” I felt that my immune system was supercharged; there were many changes I made to my lifestyle to feel that way. I also realize that unless you watch videos by Dr. Greger on nutritionfacts.org or interviews with Dr. Barnard, you aren’t likely to know about some of the science behind boosting your immune system and how increasing your plant intake can improve your health.

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It’s ironic that what has made me feel like a bit of an outcast over the last two years may be my superpower. I’ve ducked out of networking events that had an open bar and ice sculptures laden with crab legs and shrimp. I’ve turned down invitations to barbecues with whole hogs and Miller Lite on tap. Four years ago, I’d have been the first to the bar and had my plate overflowing with succulent roast pig. I admit I smirk a bit when people lament on Zoom or Facebook that they will be drunks by the time we get back to “Normal”. I wonder if it’s a veiled cry for help as we all cope from the stress of cabin fever, strained relationships or isolation.

Here are 6 ways to boost your immune system:

Stop smoking.  I’ve quit smoking several times in my life and I know that it’s incredibly difficult. At this point, I’m close to twenty years without a cigarette and I remember the turning point well. My five-year-old son came out to the front porch where I had my evening smoke to say, “I can’t wait to grow up and smoke just like you.” Yes, to this day, I believe this was orchestrated by family members, but regardless, I quit within a week. For good. As Dr. Michael Ford, an internist, wrote: “COVID-19 is a novel respiratory disease that can damage the lining of the air sacs in the lungs. In severe cases, COVID-19 affects breathing, and patients may even need ventilator support. And those with lung disease are more vulnerable. If you’re a smoker and need a reason to quit, let this pandemic be your reason.” Quitting smoking is the number one thing you can do to boost your immune system as a modifiable risk.

Be Sober Curious.  I love this new phrase on embracing sobriety. I spent many years trying to modify my drinking to no avail. If you’re not willing to drop it completely, try at least reducing the quantity. As written by John Murphy in MDLinx, “Adding stress isn’t the only strike against drinking alcohol during this infectious pandemic. Alcohol use, especially heavy use, also weakens the immune system, which may reduce the body’s ability to cope with infectious diseases and potentially lead to a greater susceptibility to pneumonia (a severe complication of COVID-19).” In home-bound schedule less days, it can be easy to start moving your alcohol consumption to an earlier and earlier start time. Think about alternatives like seltzer and lime or mocktails by Seedlip. Knowing that you are boosting your immune system with each additional hour of sobriety bolsters your health and may motivate you to leave alcohol behind.

Sleep more.  My boyfriend Roy is a sleeping champ. I think he gets 9-10 hours of sleep a night. I get closer to 7 hours of sleep (which is good for me) but it’s made a difference in my ability to cope and, I believe, it’s improved my health. “Sleep is when the magic happens; it’s when the whole system of the body is revitalized, Dr. Ford says. Scientists are still discovering all the ways sleep improves our health, but the REM (rapid-eye movement) cycle of sleep is particularly important. For instance, people with sleep apnea — a disorder in which an individual awakens right before entering the REM cycle of sleep — have higher rates of memory problems, mood disorders, heart disease, and possibly cancer.” Getting enough sleep can boost your immune system.

Reduce stress.  That’s a tall order in the middle of a pandemic. I find that meditating every day helps center me; connecting with friends and family helps ease the isolation. “Cortisol, the stress hormone, reduces the activity of the immune system. Stress can also impact our sleep. When you’re anxious and you’re turning things over in your mind and can’t stop thinking about them, your sleep will be negatively affected by that,” says Dr. Ford. Having a coach is another way to reflect on your anxiety and concerns and reduce that stress. Think of ways to reduce your stress to bolster your immune system

Plant-based. My reflections around feeling like an outcast for being a vegan are not an illusion. Matt Ball of One Step for Animals wrote that “The only group viewed more negatively than vegans were drug addicts.” So you might end up feeling like an outcast, but the upside is your health can improve. Meat and dairy add to inflammation. As Dr. Greger wrote: “Foods that may be especially helpful include apples, tea, cocoa, gluten, kale, and Ceylon cinnamon. Chronic diseases are associated with inflammation and include heart disease, cancer, obesity, and arthritis may be prevented or even possibly reversed by a plant-based diet, whereas chicken and eggs may play a pro-inflammatory role.” I have been able to get off all my medications and avoid statins by embracing a plant-based diet. Don’t feel like you have to take all meat and dairy out of your diet. Start with meatless Mondays or just having it on weekends. I think you’ll find that your tastes will change.

Get outside.  I think this is twofold. Get out in nature and get some movement. “We see that people who are aerobically fit tend to get sick less often than people who don’t exercise regularly,” Dr. Ford says. I know there are some stay at home orders that limit getting outside but at least get some movement indoors. I’m able to kayak, bike and walk where I am and I can tell you that I feel 100% better when I get outside and get active. Even if it’s a 5-minute walk, it’s going to help your immunity.

This is a long list and can be overwhelming in such anxious times. Try just one thing. Smoke one less cigarette today, take a 5-minute walk outside, try a plant-based evening meal or try a 5-minute meditation. It’s all good for you. Your body is a temple. It needs to be honored and can be rebuilt one brick at a time. What do you want to do to boost your immune system?

5 Tips on Motivation While Working from Home

I was able to hear a terrific webinar from Dan Pink last week in which he applied the work from his books, Drive and When. As I suffer through the borderless days of working from home, I found his insights informative and useful. I think it’s important to note that Dan has been working from home for over 9 years and, although it’s the new normal for me, this is old hat for him. His office is in his garage and he is clear that when he enters his “office”, he is there to work.

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It’s comforting to realize that there are thousands of authors, speakers and consultants out there who have been doing this for years. There are best practices we can all take away from their experience to inform our own, as we use the end of our dining room table or our laps on the sofa to be industrious.

 

Here are some of the tips on motivation while WFH:

 

  1. Show up at the same time.  It is so easy to hit snooze, roll over and give it another 10 minutes. After all, you don’t need to deal with the commute or press your blouse. Why not luxuriate in the extra 10, 20, 60 minutes of found time? Dan brings up a good point that the decision of when to get up, to get dressed, to show up for work are adding to your decision fatigue. It slowly starts to exhaust you as you make each decision like, “Well, if I sleep in 15 minutes, I can take a shower by 7 AM or I can save another 15 minutes by not taking a shower and sleep in another 30 minutes and maybe skip breakfast and I can exercise at the end of the day and save another 30 minutes…” Pretty soon, you are running to make that 10 AM standing meeting and wondering why you are exhausted. If you set a time to get up, keep it. Save yourself the decision fatigue and energy of negotiating with yourself all morning as you roll around in bed. Set your wake-up time and your start time for work and make sure to keep it.
  2. Most Important Task.  Dan calls this MIT. He suggests writing it down. What is the most important task you have to do today? Memorialize it by writing it down on paper. I can see why this eliminates some decision fatigue, as it makes clear what the most important task is and keeps you from falling into the trap of distractions. Today, my MIT is writing this post. So far, I have avoided starting the dishes or watching an overdue webinar. I’m clear on my goal of finishing this post. It helps keep me focused on my goal. This reminds me of the book by Brian Tracy called Eat That Frog. Its title serves as a great analogy that you need to bite off and address the biggest, gnarliest task of the day first thing in the morning. MIT or frog, write it down and get to work. When working from home, it’s easy to slide into a thousand tasks; from doing laundry to walking the dog to scrolling social media to signing up for a new online photography class, instead of addressing the most important task.
  3. Pomodoro Technique.  Dan espoused this technique developed by Francesco Cirillo and who knew it would be so useful in the era of COVID-19. As Dan described it, set a time for 25 minutes, work until the bell rings and then take a 5-minute break. As I look back over the last two months, I realize that I was getting overwhelmed when I ran a gauntlet of meetings from 7:45 AM until 9:15 AM without a break. I needed to rest my brain. To use the bathroom. To get a glass of water. To disconnect for just a moment. In the first few weeks of WFH, I felt depleted by 10 AM. Now I understand why, just because I could run the meeting gauntlet, doesn’t mean I should. I conducted an online facilitation yesterday and I made sure we took several breaks to let folks recharge. It’s amazing what a 5-minute disconnection break can do for you. Try the Pomodoro Technique.
  4. Find your purpose.  It is nice to have a life’s purpose. But it’s especially imperative when taking on a new project or writing a blog piece to understand the “why” behind your work. As Dan suggested, maybe you get a picture of the person you are intending to help. I am imagining a friend of mine who is overwhelmed by trying to home school and work full-time remotely. I imagine them reading this post and how it might help them. As Dan said, it’s not about the how, but the why. I can get wrapped up in the minutiae along the way of getting something done, instead of the overarching reason for writing. I want you, my reader, to have a clear takeaway that will help you feel less overwhelmed and motivated to see your tasks through. Whatever that task may be, whether it’s 8th grade algebra, month-end reporting, or  feeling accomplished at the end of the work day from home, find your purpose for taking on the project.
  5. Self-compassion.  I know way too many women who are perfectionists and recently read women are picking up more of the slack. This whole WFH thing is driving them crazy. They are upset because they missed the deadline for completing their budget, their kid didn’t get an “A” on their science project, they’ve worn the same yoga pants all week, they desperately need a haircut or they’ve ordered take-out for 7 out of 7 dinners this week.  It is completely okay to not be okay. The biggest lesson for me over the last two months is to have self-compassion. I like when Dan said: “Treat yourself as you would a friend.” I think of all the self-criticism I can have about the extra weight I’ve gained or the workout I skipped yesterday. We are all just trying to get through this the best we can. Be compassionate with yourself, above all.

There is a giant recalibration taking place for me. It’s the realization that I need to find my new operating system to keep motivated and thrive. In the first few weeks of this pandemic, I just wanted to survive. Now I realize I need to figure out how to thrive. Instead of using popsicle sticks and duct tape to get through, I need to figure out the new operating system that will make me feel empowered to compassionately move forward. What are you doing to stay motivated WFH?

It’s Okay to Not Be Okay

There. Be with that for a moment. I read that line in an insightful post from Marita Fridjhon, the CEO and Co-Founder of CRR Global. She wrote an eloquent piece called “The Case for Taking Space: A Bigger Picture Approach.” I am writing this article in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ve found myself on auto-pilot when friends and co-workers ask, “How are you?” and I, on auto-response, say: “Good. And you?” No. Actually, I’m not good. I’m not okay. I’m getting by. I’m coping. I’m trying to find some semblance of control. I so appreciate when there is permission to not be okay, whether I give that permission to myself or it’s offered by someone else.

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Here are some thoughts on being not okay:

Don’t rush.  Marita writes: “Let’s not rush through to the ‘everything is okay’ stage. Otherwise, the steam is going to continue to build and reactivity is going to direct our choices. Instead, we could take some time to be with this. To process what we’re going through and to grieve what is lost.” This resonates for me. I want to push through to get on to the next step. I don’t want to scrap a trip to visit my mother in her new home on the west coast. I want to wave a magic wand and make this all go away so I can get on an airplane (again) and just go. My absolute fatal flaw is impatience (inherited, ironically, from my mother). I want to skip all the chapters and get to the end of the book and see how this all ends. This is like pushing a rope, it’s frustrating and gets me nowhere closer. Don’t rush.

Feel the feelsThis is not the time for a stiff upper lip. I think of Marita’s analogy of continuing to build up steam. Over the last few weeks, I’ve seen a lot of steam billowing out of people. The steam shows up as anger, frustration, tears, shutting down and stonewalling. Co-workers crying at work (virtually), managers popping off in knee jerk reactions, and directors passive aggressively ignoring urgent requests. Some of us are releasing the pressure while the rest try to keep it bottled up. Let the pressure go. It doesn’t need to be public but don’t be surprised if it is. I was taking a walk two days ago listening to a podcast and suddenly, there were tears streaming down my face. Marita wrote, “Take the pressure off yourself to be super positive and cheery so that you don’t end up feeling stressed about being stressed or sad about being sad. These emotions are understandable and taking space to honor them will help you to eventually shift them into something else.” Let go of the pressure and feel the feels.

You have permission to just process.  You have a hall pass on your exercise regime, starting your book, clearing out your closets, learning guitar, planting a garden, reading War and Peace, and painting. It’s fine if you do and it’s fine if you don’t. Take time to reflect on this experience and see what is present for you. It’s great to invite others to process as well. Marita suggests asking: “What’s been the most challenging thing for you about working from home?” I’ve tried this out and it can have humorous results from, “I’ll be a big fat drunk by the end of this” to “I had no idea my dog was so neurotic” to interesting insights like, “I like these four walls, I just want four different walls.” I need to give myself permission to be lazy. To process. To let go of expectations and be safe.

A step back.  Marita posited, “Before we innovate and create, we need to take space. If we create space to process reactivity, we can choose to respond differently. Instead of letting fear and worry drive the show, we can step in with the response pattern that will best serve us, and others, in the situation.” For me, this is about slowing down and letting things be. It’s allowing what will happen unfold and to be an observer. I let go of my inclination to be the fixer and to have the broom out in front of the mess before it happens. Taking the space to be curious instead of consumed by anxiety and dread. I wonder what career my daughter will pivot too.  I’m curious if my son will be able to compete in Korea in October. I’m curious if world travel will be as accessible going forward and how will my life change if does. It’s about stepping back and responding with an open mind and heart.

Annie Grace wrote an interesting quote, “I’m Okay, You’re Okay, We’re All Not Okay.” There is that comparative suffering where we feel guilt for not being in worse shape. Not exactly survivor’s remorse but close. It’s okay for me to suffer even as there are those who are suffering as well. Process this time in our lives and try not to skim through as fast as possible. Be present. Be safe. Be here right now.

How to Stop Comparative Suffering

Brene Brown has a new podcast called Unlocking Us, which is phenomenal and very timely as the COVID-19 pandemic creeps across the globe. The title of the podcast I listened to was: Brene on Comparative Suffering, the 50/50 Myth and Settling the Ball. Comparative suffering is a new concept to me, although I have been in its clutches for weeks! I’ll feel pouty because I’m suffering from cabin fever on my third week of house arrest…err, stay-at-home order. But then there are the 450 employees my dear friend just had to lay off. How can I possibly have it as tough as she? And what about the employee whose stepfather is in the ICU suffering from the virus in a medically-induced coma? Shame on me for even whining about being cooped up. What Brene made clear was that we are all suffering and that comparing our suffering helps no one. In fact, it hurts us.

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There is a new vernacular for this comparative suffering: The Hardship Olympics.  I love this quote from Erica Layne: “So what if we all agreed not to evaluate, dissect, tally, and rank each other’s pain right now? What if we opt out of the Hardship Olympics and make a pact to lead with compassion instead?” What do you say we opt out and embrace compassion?

Here are some suggestions on stopping comparative suffering:

Empathy is not a finite resource.  Empathy is standing in someone else’s shoes and understanding how they feel. This ability is infinite. So, if I can empathize with my friend’s big layoff, I can also empathize with my daughter’s unemployment claim taking more than three weeks; and I can empathize with my co-worker’s fear over her stepfather’s condition. One does not get negated by the other. I think of the practice of Tonglen and how it’s possible to take on each other’s pain and suffering of each situation regardless of size. I can empathize with all of New York City, Italy or the continent of Asia. There are no limits to empathy. There’s no need to dole it out by severity or size. Practice empathy without limits.

Comparison is the thief of joy.  Theodore Roosevelt famously said this. There are so many inherit issues with comparison. First, you rarely if ever know all the facts. Second, it steals valuable time that you could spend elsewhere. Third, there is no end to it…ever. So, if my co-worker vents about working from home while home schooling her three kids, I need to just listen and be present. It’s not the time to bring up your other co-worker with three toddlers or your friend who just lost his six-figure job. Comparing someone’s suffering to someone else’s just makes them feel guilty. I am completely guilty of this and I’m trying hard not to engage in one-upmanship in the suffering department.

Listen to understand.  Stephen Covey posited this many years ago. If your coworker is venting about working until midnight so he can help his son get his schoolwork done, actively listen to him vent. Ask clarifying questions like: “How many times this week did you work until midnight?”, “What sort of support is available right now?” or “What other options have you thought about?” This is not the time to shame them. No need to bring up how many people died in Spain today or how many kids your sister is homeschooling while working for a bank. Just be present and listen. It’s our deepest need to listen and be understood by someone. It’s the greatest gift you can give, and you can even do it remotely, over the phone, video conferencing, or a safe 6-feet apart. Give the gift of listening.

Connection.  Brene Brown defines connection as “the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.” Connection during social distancing and virtual work is an enormous hurdle right now. I’ve been working on this for the last two weeks. I’ve tried and failed to FaceTime with my eighty-five-year-old mother, but we were able to connect “old school” on the phone. I finally was able to FaceTime with my children yesterday and it was terrific to see their faces and listen to them joke with each other. I rarely talk to either of my brothers, but they have both called me in the last two weeks. My boyfriend Roy and I drove to New Bern to sit on his mother’s deck at a safe distance from his sister, brother-in-law and mother. It’s reassuring to see folks. To have evidence that they are safe and sound. To connect with a joke, compare store lines and mask usage at your local grocery, or give Netflix recommendations. Think about ways to connect.

It’s also important to forgive yourself. None of this is normal for any of us. We were used to handshakes, hugging and sitting on the same couch as our relatives. This is just another challenge we need to take on. It’s fine if you aren’t perfect at this and can take just one small step for now. Maybe it’s reaching out to one co-worker, friend or neighbor with an email of appreciation. What step can you take?

8 Ways to Minimize Anxiety Contagion

I didn’t realize that anxiety was contagious until recently. It seems obvious in retrospect, as the shelves in my grocery store remain empty of toilet paper, bread and water from the spreading global virus that is COVID-19. I can remember a month ago when folks at work started reporting that the toilet paper was gone. I thought they were nuts. I heard rumblings of stores being out of items. I said to myself: “Oh, that’s their store, I’m sure my store has it.” Once I ventured into my store with a full grocery list and slid past the toilet paper aisle (I didn’t need any and sure enough, it was empty). Somehow, suddenly, I was panicked. Mind you, I had at least twelve rolls of TP at home, plenty for at least two weeks. But there I was scared into scarcity mode. I had caught the anxiety contagion. I realized it was irrational. I had paper towels, tissues, and as my boyfriend Roy previously suggested, thousands of leaves on the ground outside. Why was I caught by the grips of this anxiety?

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It was about two weeks later, after stores started rationing each customer to one toilet paper package per visit, that I was finally able to purchase one package. I had no idea if I needed it, but there I was throwing a package into my cart. Better safe than sorry. I recently saw a story on CBS Sunday Morning about toilet paper and the reporter said that people want control and by having a stockpile of one item, it’s one less thing to have to worry about. So, there it is. I have a gift of true love. Acts of love amid COVID-19 are not flowers, not chocolate, not champagne…it’s a 24 pack of 2 ply Charmin.

Here are 8 ways to minimize the anxiety contagion:

  1. Soothe with sensations. Sit out in the sun. Make a hot cup of tea. Take a warm bath. Cuddle up in your favorite down comforter. Take a long hot shower. Listen to Barber’s Adagio for Strings (thanks, Susan!) or Echo in the Canyon Soundtrack (thanks, Sandy and Seth) or The Intouchables Soundtrack (thanks, Natalie!). Put your bare feet on the grass. Light a scented candle. Watch Sunrise Earth (sunrises from around the world in real time) on YouTube. Rub your forefinger and thumb together with so much attention you feel the ridges of your finger print. Listen to the birds’ songs or the wind speaking through the branches of the trees. Using your senses dampens anxiety.
  2. Stop checking the news. It’s all the same stuff packaged in short teaser bites to keep you glued to the channel. By the time you read this, I assume the apex will be past us, which will only increase the speculation about when we will get back to “normal.” The news just increases your cortisol level, which is likely the result of and feeds your anxiety. I’m not saying to ignore what’s going on in the world, just be sure to pick the time, the source and limit your exposure. I view the news like radiation. I should only expose myself in small doses. Stopping the news minimizes the contagion of anxiety.
  3. Curate your sources. I have to say that I appreciate that many news sources online have made their resources free during the pandemic. Find a trusted source like the CDC website or covid19.healthdata.org and check it at a designated time. Be sure to know the latest mandates for your area before you head to the store for groceries. I check my state’s department of health and human services website. Be careful listening to friends and coworkers, I’ve heard that the virus could live on metal anywhere from 1 hour to 2 weeks. Make sure you trust your sources.
  4. Get outside! (if you are able). Do whatever is possible under your current conditions. As Dr. Zoffness wrote for Psychology Today, “Research shows that nature – trees, birdsong, sun, sky – improves mood, lowers stress and anxiety, reduces blood pressure, and improves an overall sense of well-being. Stand outside in the sun and breathe fresh air.” I have really missed the ability to take a hike in the state park near my home but even walking to the mailbox or for 2 miles in my neighborhood has made me feel so much better. I try and use all my senses (see #1) to take it all in. The cardinals, the blue jays, blue birds, robins, mallards and cormorants are plentiful right now and I so appreciate their presence. Nature has its own language that it shares with us.
  5. Get a mindfulness practice. There are dozens of apps offering free trials or free versions. Give a few a try. I personally recommend Headspace and Calm, but find the one that works for you. My friend Susannah has free yoga classes online available here. I have personally used the meditation I learned at the Art of Living’s Happiness Program and they now offer that class virtually. Zoffness recommends doing the class twice a day, which is an excellent idea. If you take an anti-anxiety pill twice a day, why wouldn’t you take a mindfulness break twice a day?
  6. Keep or establish a daily schedule. I read James Clear’s Atomic Habits last year. He suggests that one way to add a new habit is to stack it with an old one. So, if you want to add a mindfulness habit, maybe you fit it in as you brew your coffee in the morning. I have about 10 habits that are all stacked with each other that I do every morning. During these uncertain times, even on the weekend, I always do the same morning ritual and I find it to be grounding. Keep your schedule.
  7. Maintain social connection. The worst thing you can do is be socially isolated. As Dr. Zoffness wrote,”We’re genetically wired to need each other for food, shelter, and protection against predators. This is never as true as it is during a crisis. In the presence of others, your brain releases chemicals like serotonin (which raises mood), dopamine (confers feelings of pleasure and reward), and endorphins – your natural pain-killers. So even if you’re avoiding group gatherings, make sure to keep in close touch with friends and family. Figure out FaceTime, Skype or Zoom. There are free versions available. Try to reach out and connect either by phone or video.
  8. Make sure you move. You may be quarantined in your home, a dorm room or hotel room. Take an online yoga class (see #5) or sign up for Zumba class online. Every business in the world is trying to figure out how to be virtual–take advantage of it. As Dr. Zoffness posited, “Our bodies are built to move, and we need exercise to stay healthy and sane. When we exercise, our brains produce important neurochemicals that regulate mood, like serotonin, and our bodies eat up stress hormones like cortisol. This makes exercise particularly important in times of high stress. Go for a run or walk outside in the sun someplace remote.” Try to move at least once a day.

Eight different things sound like a lot but what’s important is that you can do two, three or four at once. Maybe you take a walk every morning outside with your partner (you just did #1, #4, #6, #7 & #8). I feel like this is all about us flattening the curve for anxiety. We all need to do our part to get through this the best we can and be the best we can. What can you do to slow the anxiety contagion?

9 Ways to Take Back the Reins

I’m at end of week two of working remotely. I find it remarkably incongruent. I love my home. I love my dog. I love my boyfriend. I am so comfortable here. It’s my safe little nest. Why in the world do I feel so lost? Why am I so tired? Why am I so hungry? Why am I so distracted? I feel like, regardless of where you are, even the most comfortable, warm, happy place; one still wants to be in control. Regardless of how wonderful my living situation is, this virus is on a rampage and I have absolutely, positively no control over the outcome. Yes, yes, much like voting or washing my hands, I can do my part but whether I wash my hands or wear a mask to Food Lion, it feels like I cannot move the needle on the amount of deaths in New York City.

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This leads me to taking back the reins on what I can control; on what I can do in my very small corner of the universe to feel sovereign over my trajectory. It’s like steering a boat in a raging sea or taking one small step up a steep mountain: I can take back the reins to my reality.

Here are 9 ways to take back the reins:

  1. Make your bed. How long does it take to make your bed? I’m not saying wash the sheets and all the bedding. I’m saying, straighten the covers, the sheets and pillows. I’m guessing this will take about 30 seconds to a minute. That one small step? It makes my day so much better. I’m not staring at a mess every time I’m in my bedroom. Odds are you are going to walk into the bedroom several times a day. You’ll be seeing that bed totally ready for you to slide into tonight. It’s neat, inviting and creates an environment of peace and stability.
  2. Buy an orchid plant. I got into the habit of buying orchids at the grocery store about four years ago. Orchids are incredibly resilient, and they will bloom for months. I used to buy cut flowers once a week (which is still a great idea to bring some color, beauty and scent into your life) but they fade and die after a week. Orchids? Their blossoms last for anywhere from 6 weeks to 4 months. Doing the cost benefit analysis of buying flowers weekly or an orchid once every two months, the orchid wins every time and I feel like I am taking care of myself with a beautiful blooming plant in my space.
  3. Clear the counters in your home. I read the book The Minimalist Home by Joshua Becker a few months ago. It helped me identify many things that were cluttering my home. One of the main areas I decluttered was my kitchen counters. At one time I had a toaster oven, blender, utensil holder and cookbook holder on my counter at all times. Joshua suggested that it didn’t make sense to have something you use once a day or once a week, sitting on your counter taking up space and cluttering your line of sight. I moved everything off the counter and into a cupboard. It’s amazing how freeing space up makes room for new things to happen. I started baking and cooking more because there was a clean slate to work from.
  4. Turn off the news. You can get all your news on a device other than a television. It’s all so sensational now. It hijacks my amygdala which sends me into fight/flight/freeze mode. It’s exhausting. There may be a news conference from your governor, but they publish those advisories on your state’s website. The written word is not as cortisol-inducing as watching a highlight reel of the latest impacts of this pandemic. I feel in control of my news diet this way.
  5. Mindfulness. I’ve been meditating for ten years once a day for fifteen minutes. It really helps me get centered and present, which helps me feel in control of my day. There are other ways to be mindful like yoga or walking. Find what suits you and get back to the present moment.
  6. Be grateful. I’ve been writing a gratitude journal for over ten years. Currently, I write down five things I’m grateful for and one thing I’m grateful I did, like “completing a workout” or “hiking two miles.” It reminds me of all the things that are going right in my life, it helps me reflect on the good and what I am doing for myself (and what I’m in control of).
  7. Get outside. There is no greater cure for being cooped up in a house than getting outside. Most of the stay-at-home orders let you exercise. Our beaches and state parks are closed here in North Carolina but in the last week, my boyfriend Roy and I went kayaking on the Bogue Sound and hiking in the Croatan National Forest (all currently allowable). I have never felt better and more in control than paddling a kayak to where I want to go.
  8. Single tasking. I have found that one of the biggest issues I have with video conferencing is that I will pick up my phone and see if I have notifications, typically while someone else is talking in a large meeting. I end up missing half the conversation because of my habit of picking up my phone. Multitasking is draining and makes me feel out of control. Put the phone down, on airplane mode or in the other room and single task your next meeting. I promise you will feel more in control and present.
  9. Help someone out. Altruism is the cure for almost anything that ails you. Pick up your neighbor’s overturned garbage can, call your friend and see how they are doing, check in with your parent who is quarantined, sew face masks, make donations, see if that nurse you know needs her front yard mowed or offer to pick up a package of toilet paper if Target is restocked (you will be a hero). Looking outside of yourself helps you feel like you have forward motion on the path that you want to be on.

Taking the reins makes me feel like I’m in control. With so much uncertainty in the world, give yourself one small win. As James Clear wrote in Atomic Habits: “Every action you take is casting a vote for the kind of person you want to be.” Take action. One small step towards taking back the reins of your life is empowering during this time of chaos. What small step do you want to take to get the reins back under your control?

5 Steps to Feeling Safe and Sound

I’ve been battling emotional overwhelm, paranoia and unease for the last few weeks as COVID-19 cases in the United States surpassed every other country in the world. I want to feel safe. I want to feel sound. I want to feel all right, right now. I want my kids to be safe and sound. I want my mother to be safe and sound. I want my boyfriend and his family to be safe and sound. I want my brothers and their families to be safe and sound. I want all my co-workers and their families to be safe and sound. I want my friends to be safe and sound. I want all the small businesses in the country to be safe and sound. I want all the unemployed restaurant workers to be safe and sound. Tall order.

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I am very grateful that I work in the insurance industry, which at this moment, is considered safe and essential. I know so many people who are now suddenly unemployed. My daughter in Seattle was recently laid off from a startup and my son in Miami was recently laid off from a restaurant. My mother is quarantined in her room at a senior living center in Washington State. This impacts everyone unilaterally. I can get spun up on all the ways this will impact us in one month, one year, one decade from now. Stop. Breath. Pause. There are ways to come back to yourself and feel safe and secure. To come back to this present moment and know that you are all right, right now.

Here are the five steps to feeling safe and sound:

  1. Be sure

As I write this, it’s high pollen season in Eastern North Carolina. Every time I would sneeze, cough or sniff, I started thinking maybe I was getting sick with COVID-19. A friend of mine had sent me an article about symptoms of COVID-19 and they suggested taking your temperature twice a day. If there is anything that I have adopted in the last week that has brought peace of mind, it’s taking my temperature twice a day. I usually take it once in the morning and once at night.  Today it’s 80 degrees here. I was feeling warm. Prior to COVID-19, I could care less. Now? I take my temperature. 98.2. Fine. I just read an article from Peter Diamandis about a new ring for medical professionals to wear that is called the Oura Ring. What does it do? It monitors your temperature and other vital signs around the clock. I feel so much more relaxed because I’m not wondering if I have a low-grade fever. I am sure that as of right now, I don’t. My suggestion? Get out your thermometer and take your temperature. Be sure.

  1. Know your oxygen level

I was talking to my brother, a retired nurse, and telling him about my temperature twice a day. He said, “Get a Pulse Oximeter.” I asked him why. He said, “It will tell you if you are getting enough oxygen and they are inexpensive.” Sure enough, Amazon had one for $30 and it was delivered in two days. I have a history of allergy related asthma, so knowing if I am actually short of breath or coughing or coming down with COVID-19 is critical information. I don’t need to bother a Teladoc, go to urgent care or stress out that I’m on the verge of pneumonia. It’s comforting to know that I don’t need to venture out and expose other people or be exposed to others to figure out if my health is fine. It’s pretty inexpensive and gives your oxygen level really quickly. Know your oxygen level.

  1. Limit your exposure

I have started mapping out my week. If I went to the store three times a week, now I go once. If I can meet by phone or video, I do. If I can hand off something at a distance, I do. If I need to go to my regular office, I make sure it’s a combined trip where I do multiple tasks all at once. I go to the grocery store early in the day to minimize the amount of people I am exposed to. I have delayed everything like appointments and services (not that I had a choice) for several months. I saw something on social media that asked, if you came up positive for COVID-19, could you retrace your steps over the last 15 days? I can. Limit your exposure. It’s good for everyone.

  1. Present moment

Being present can be difficult as we all face so much uncertainty. Thinking and ruminating can be paralyzing. I can start worrying about my daughter’s rent, my son’s cancelled weightlifting competition or if my friend’s business will fail. Whether I worry about it or not, it will not change the outcome and it can physically weigh me down and paralyze me. I think of a book I read by Shirzad Chamine called Positive Intelligence, in which he talks about getting back to the present moment by rubbing your index finger and thumb together with so much attention that you can feel the ridges of your finger print. Go ahead and try it. Amazing, right? You cannot be stuck in your head when you are rubbing your index finger and thumb with so much attention. Getting back to present moment helps me be reassured that I am safe and sound right now.

  1. All right right now

Rick Hanson in his book, Just One Thing, asks the question: “Are you all right, right now?” Chances are, you are. I know I am. It’s a beautiful day and my dog is next to me on the coach. Outside of a few aches and pains, I am all right, right now. There is a roof over everyone’s head that I care about and everyone’s health is, on the whole, just fine. I was able to go kayaking this weekend on the Bogue Sound with my boyfriend Roy, and I stopped several times during the one-hour paddle just to take in the air, the birds and the water. To feel the tide. To feel the wind. To smell the sea air. To take it all in for two beats longer. You are safe and sound right now.

Roy says that I am a planner. I want to have every trip planned out for the year with my calendar up-to-date, my plane tickets purchased, and hotel reservations made. There is none of that right now. My future is open. It makes me uncomfortable to know that there is nothing planned for the rest of the year until this pandemic plays itself out. I don’t know where I will be in a year and that’s OK. I’m feeling safe and sound right here, right now and that’s fine with me. Are you safe and sound?

Coping with COVID-19

Perhaps the title should be how I am coping with COVID-19. My current state is that I’m working mostly remotely but I can still go into my office, my boyfriend Roy is still coming to stay with me on the weekends, and most retail stores are open with limited hours. Most importantly, no one I know is ill or quarantined with anyone who is ill. We are all just working to flatten the curve and keep the surge down for all the healthcare workers out there. I have my moments of catastrophizing as both my adult children are unemployed as I write this. It’s so easy to get caught up in the whole whirlwind of “what ifs” but I’m trying to step back from the edge of the cliff and come back to the present moment.

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I think the main underlying theme I have felt over the last few weeks is that as we face all this uncertainty, we all just want some semblance of control. To know that we are sovereign over the country of “me”. There are so many directives coming at us rapid-fire, every day and ever-iterating, it comes down to knowing that we can have control over something, sometimes ANYTHING, to bring us back to self-efficacy.

Here are some ideas on coping with COVID-19:

Breathe

It is amazing to come back to your own breath. I had the occasion to remind a few co-workers and my daughter this week about breathing. I could hear the angst in their voice. The piling on of all the obligations and possibilities as something else came down from some known or unknown authority. A new directive, order or policy. I said, “Can we take a minute?” With relief, “YES.” I said calmly, “Let’s sit down, put your feet flat on the floor and close your eyes. Pause. Now take a deep breath in. Hold for three, one, two three. Now let it out.” We took three deep breaths. I have to say that everyone I did this with in the last few weeks has thanked me. For me, having control over my breath is one of the most empowering things I can do. Give it a try.

Gratitude

The other thing that I can get wrapped around the axel for is focusing on everything that is wrong right now. “My vacation is scrapped, my court date is moved indefinitely, I can’t visit my children, my mother is quarantined, and what happens if my favorite restaurant never reopens!” Easy to fall in that hole and it’s not very comforting. So what is the opposite of all this catastrophizing? Gratitude. After I breathed with my daughter and my co-workers, I asked them to name 5 things they were grateful for. It wasn’t very hard to do and it brings about a whole new perspective. I’m grateful for my home, my loving (somewhat neurotic) dog, my toilet paper-bearing boyfriend Roy, my 86-year-old mother’s health and all the wonderful azaleas that are in bloom! Gratitude points to everything that’s right with the world.

Outside

It’s so great to get outside. This may or may not be possible, depending on your current situation. If you can get out and keep your social distance, do it. There is nothing more grounding than to walk outside. At this point, in Eastern North Carolina, there are hundreds of birds migrating, nesting and singing to each other. The trees are leafing out and the thousands of flowers are starting to bloom. Nature and being outdoors restores me. I think that being able to walk and move unencumbered by the walls of an apartment or home is emboldening. It makes me feel free to go where I please (even if I can’t).

Information

I try to be selective in turning on my hose of information. I quit watching the news several years ago and I have never regretted it. Even today, as each new bulletin from this state or that county or some foreign land comes out, I am selective about reading the headlines or article. I’ll focus on just my county or state’s latest mandate and try to tune everything else out. It makes me feel helpless, when I am overwhelmed by all the news that is available. There is nothing that makes me feel more out of control than when I am being bombarded by information. I’m not suggesting that you shut down. I’m suggesting that you curate what information you are receiving, and then move forward as needed.

Best

It was Brene Brown who first posited that: “All I know is that my life is better when I assume that people are doing their best.” I’ve seen several disagreements and run-ins with several folks the past few weeks. I said to one coworker, “Do you think that maybe we are all pretty stressed about the current situation? We all just want a little control in all this uncertainty.” She agreed. She wasn’t as mad at her coworker. I had one coworker say that they swept off their front porch and that gave him a sense of control. It’s easy to blame others for our state of mind. I try to take back control by doing one thing at a time and giving others the benefit of the doubt. We are just doing our best.

Coping comes down to having a sense of control in the midst of all this uncertainty. Wash the dishes, water the plants, play your clarinet, feed the dog, bake a cake or write a blog post. Bring sovereignty back to your life. One small act at a time. Be here now. Remain present.