By Dr. Mara Karpel
“Don’t die with your music still inside you. Listen to your intuitive inner voice and find what passion stirs your soul.” ~ Dr. Wayne Dyer
How are those New Year’s resolutions coming along? If you’re like most people, you might have already been diverted from the path toward your dreams. It’s easy to get drawn back into “life-as-usual.” We frequently become frustrated by obstacles, losing energy, enthusiasm, and our traction on the path.
In spite of these obstacles, it’s not only worth the effort to follow our dreams, but I believe it’s our personal responsibility. Ben Gibson, founder of YOUvolution, pointed out, when recently interviewed on my radio show, that by following our dreams, we can change the world, bringing joy to our communities, while, on a personal level, it gives us a reason to get out of bed every day. “When we start to live our own story, that’s when we really come alive, that’s when we really start living,” stated Kathy Sparrow, Founder of Writing at Your Edge, when she appeared on the show. Following your dreams can lead to joy and excitement, even when there are disappointments along the way. “Authentic individuality is optimistic and requires courage because, unless you are deluded, you know you will experience disappointments in life,” wrote Joe Hoare and the Barefoot Doctor, Stephen Russell, in their book, Awakening the Laughing Buddha Within.
Below, I offer you a simple map for staying on the path toward your dreams, in spite of the ups and downs, and for finding joy along journey. Some of these tips were inspired by my discussions with guest speakers who have appeared on my weekly radio show.
It’s important to practice relaxation regularly in order to cope with stress, prevent depression, and to have the energy and clarity of thought to move forward toward any goals.
Dr. Scott Stoll, speaker, author of Alive!, and Chair of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Coordinated Health, told us, “Deep breathing decreases the stress hormones: cortisol, norepinephrine, and adrenaline.” These are the chemicals that we produce when we’re experiencing the stress reaction, or the instinctive reaction to fight or flee from what we perceive to be danger, even if this perception only exists in our own anxious thoughts. By reducing these chemicals, we put our body into the relaxation mode. In doing this, our mind will automatically relax because it’s not possible to experience stress and relaxation at the same time, as these are biological opposites.
Try this simple relaxation technique: Sit with a straight back, your legs comfortably crossed, if you’re sitting on the floor, or with your legs straight down and your feet flat on the floor, if you’re sitting in a chair. Breathe in and out slowly and silently recite these words suggested by Thich Nhat Hahn in his book, Peace Is Every Step:
Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment,
I know this is a wonderful moment.
Do this every morning for 5-10 minutes and increase to 20 minutes. Practice for a minute or two several times throughout the day or whenever you feel stressed or discouraged.
Michael Neill, empowerment coach, speaker and author of The Inside-Out Revolution, explained why relaxation helps to get us back on track, “As you get quieter on the inside, thoughts are changing all the time by themselves and they’re moving in the direction of health – moving in the direction of clarity.”
2. Get moving.
Exercise reduces stress and increases stamina and strength, increasing our ability to cope with stressors. It releases endorphins, those feel-good brain chemicals, helping to improve mood and increase concentration. Take a walk, try some tai-chi, practice yoga, dance, or do whatever exercise you enjoy.
Now that the holiday season is over, many of us tend to become more isolated. Social isolation can cause depression. Feeling depressed often leads to the desire to isolate even more, resulting in a further decline in mood. Getting around other people can help break this cycle. Call a friend or relative to talk. Take a class. Exercise with others. Take a dance class. Check out meetup.com on-line to find a meet-up group in your area that is focused on a topic that you’re interested in. Get together with supportive friends and support each other. Socializing with like-minded people, who share similar goals will improve your mood and increase your enthusiasm.
4. Commune with Nature.
Getting out in nature increases our energy, improves our mood and our ability to think clearly. Take a walk in a park or near a lake, river, or ocean. Being near water is very soothing. Plant a garden or bring nature indoors, by growing indoor plants. Stroking or talking to a pet is also very powerful for improving mood and decreasing stress. Over a century ago, one of our greatest American writers knew the importance of connecting with nature. “I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright,” wrote Henry David Thoreau.
5. Laugh regularly.
Laughter has been found to be extremely powerful in, not only reducing stress and improving mood, but also strengthening the immune system to fight off illnesses ranging from colds to cancer. The Journalist for the New York Evening Post, Norman Cousins, documented in his book, Anatomy of an Illness, how he overcame extreme pain from the disease, ankylosing spondylitis, and eventually healed from the disease, itself, by watching hour upon hour of laughter-provoking Marx Brothers movies.
Make it a point to laugh every day. Laugh at yourself, rather than criticizing yourself for your mistakes. Laugh at life’s ironies. Watch a funny movie or television show. Read a funny book. Keep a laughter journal with a collection of jokes and funny stories. Share a funny story with friends. In their book, Awakening the Laughing Buddha Within, the Barefoot Doctor and Joe Hoare reported that, even listening to the sound of laughter significantly reduces stress. You can find laughter apps that are available to download on your smart phone with many varieties of laughter to choose from.
6. Eat well.
Food is very powerful. It can make us sick. It can cause depression and anxiety. On the flip side, food has been shown to, not only heal our bodies, but also heal our “souls,” making us feel happy and energized. According to Dr. Scott Stoll, “The real super heroes of our health are found inside fruits and vegetables. Some of the amazing benefits of eating a plant-based diet: plants reduce inflammation in the body; they fight DNA damage; they extend a part of the gene called the telomere, which has been shown to shorten as we age and, when eating a plant based diet, it actually gets longer, so it extends our life-span; they help to reverse heart disease; they shut down some of the hormones that may allow breast cancer to manifest itself; and they help to cut off the blood supply to cancer cells that are growing in the body.” Numerous studies have found that an increased consumption of fruits and vegetables can result in increased feelings of happiness, calmness, and increased energy.
During the holiday season, most of us have been eating larger amounts of foods laden with fat, sugar, and salt. When we consume these types of foods, they actually create an addictive reaction, causing us to crave more of these types of foods while increasing stress, anxiety, depression, and illness and depleting energy, concentration, and focus. Excess alcohol and caffeine further adds to this downward spiral. Chef Chad Sarno, co-author of Crazy Sexy Kitchen and VP of Plant-Based Education for Rouxbe Online Culinary School, suggested eating a large salad with dark greens and a variety of vegetables, to begin to break this cycle. He recommended that we make fresh fruits and vegetables the main ingredient in our diet for optimum health, energy, and emotional well-being. Nutrition counselor and coordinator of Total Health Immersions, Malissa Schwartz, recommended starting the day with a green drink to curb the craving for sugars and to zap that sugar-craving cycle. Wellness coach, yoga guide, writer and speaker, Quentin Vennie told us about his personal experience with easing anxiety by drinking fresh green juice daily.
Getting enough restful sleep is extremely important for having the energy to follow our dreams and is critical for emotional well-being, concentration, memory, and disease prevention. Sleep helps to repair any cell damage that has occurred while awake and it’s necessary to keep the immune system intact. How much is “enough?” The answer to this is different for everyone, although, on average, the optimal amount of sleep appears to be 7 ½ to 9 hours per night. More important than the actual number of hours slept is how you feel after a night of sleep. If you wake up feeling tired or you feel sleepy during the day, it’s likely that you haven’t had enough “good sleep.” I’ll be posting some tips for getting more “good” sleep in my upcoming blog about sleep. Meanwhile, Tip #1: Follow all of the other recommendations in this blog and your sleep will likely improve because sleep is very sensitive to mood and stress.
8. Become a “glass half-full” person.
Practice substituting positive thoughts for negative ones. Be optimistic about following your dreams, rather than becoming side-lined by obstacles. Sometimes, an obstacle is a sign that we need to step back and be patient. The nature of life is that it always contains ebb and flow. It’s impossible to have constant flow. The time of ebb can be the time to rest and re-energize. At times, an obstacle is a sign that we need to re-evaluate how we are going about pursuing our dreams. In the Chinese language, the character for challenge is the same character for opportunity. A challenge can be an opportunity to learn more about the path we’re taking and about ourselves. Bottom line, life is full of ups and downs and we can choose to accept this and find a way to see the silver-linings, which will help us to ride these waves as smoothly as possible, or we can resist the ups and downs, inevitably causing us to feel like we’re drowning.
9. Find meaning.
By finding meaning and purpose in our daily lives, even while engaging in our day-to-day activities, we will maintain our energy and enthusiasm for pursuing our larger goals. One of the most powerful things we can do to find meaning is to help others. Volunteer. Do a good deed for a neighbor. Make someone who is feeling blue laugh. If we can find something meaningful, something of value, to take even from the most difficult of situations, it will have a dramatic effect on how we deal with that situation and how agile we will be in overcoming the obstacles that we come upon along our path.
10. Have an attitude of gratitude.
This one act is like a life-boat that helps us to maintain our equilibrium even in the midst of a storm. Focusing attention on what we feel thankful for, no matter how small that success or that “thing” might seem when compared to the storm, changes our perspective and even our reality. “What you focus on expands,” states Oprah Winfrey, who has often spoken on her show about her regular practice of writing in a gratitude journal.
Research conducted by Dr. Robert Emmons, at the University of California, Davis, found that people who kept gratitude journals felt better, physically, and had a more optimistic outlook. Try writing down what you’re grateful for every day for one week and see how you feel by the end of the week. “Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough,” writes Oprah Winfrey.
Remember that every day is a new opportunity to begin anew on your path toward fulfilling your goals and dreams, to grow, and to find ways to improve your life and the lives of those around you. What will you do today to begin again on your path?
[For more information, and interviews with expert guests, be sure to join me LIVE every Sunday, 5-7pm CT/6-8pm ET for “Dr. Mara Karpel & Your Golden Years.” Join the conversation by calling in, e-mailing, or tweeting, or you can listen any time on podcast.]