Little Known Benefits of a Vegan Diet

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Most people are aware of the various physical health benefits of eating a plant-based diet. You see articles all the time about it’s ability to prevent and treat heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, even cancer. You can lose weight, slow the effects of aging, etc. These are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the benefits of veganism. There are so many other surprising perks that come along with this change that I never really hear people talking about. Even other vegans I know don’t seem to mention it unless I ask them about it.

One of the most interesting and amazing things I noticed after my first month of a strictly vegan diet is something I have only recently come to understand a bit better. My post yesterday was a very brief synopsis of what I learned about the gut microbiome and how it affects our thinking, decision making, and more broadly, our mental health. Learning this really helped me connect the dots. So that explains it! By “it” I mean the strange mental distinction I felt between eating animal products and eating plants.

It’s been a long time since my first vegan month, but I still remember that milestone like it was yesterday, because of how it caught me by surprise. It felt as though the effects came on rather suddenly. One morning I felt like I had every other day of my life, then the next morning it was like I was awake for the first time. It’s hard to explain, but I’ve always described it as a cloud lifting off of my mind. Now I’ve always been an intelligent, quick witted person. Still, all of a sudden my thoughts seemed to come to me more easily, more quickly, more seamlessly. I guess now having learned the term “brain fog” I would describe my pre-vegan brain as being in that muddled state 24/7. When you’ve lived your whole life that way though, you don’t really recognize it as a problem.

For years, this strange phenomenon that occurred in my own mind, and the mind of all the other vegans I asked, really baffled me. I didn’t understand what exactly caused this shift. But when I read about the way our gut directly communicates with our brain, it finally made sense. After a month of consistent plant-based eating, my gut was producing the metabolites that I needed to be my best. My gut and brain were able to communicate efficiently for the first time in my life.

Another benefit of a vegan diet I wanted to address I believe is also due to the complex interactions between our gut microbiome and the rest of our body. You don’t hear about it often, but a vegan diet is the most anti-inflammatory diet out there. In the beginning this statement didn’t mean much to me. I hadn’t even been aware that eating animal products caused a constant state of inflammation in the body, nor did I understand the health implications of that fact. Inflammation is often the cause of many autoimmune diseases as well as other health problems. But apart from that, inflammation in the body also has an impact on our ability to be physically active.

Contrary to the myths about veganism preventing you from achieving physical fitness and building muscle, it actually assists the body in these endeavors. Without subjecting the body to constant inflammation each time we digest a meal, it is able to perform much more efficiently mentally and physically. Not only are my workouts easier and more enjoyable, my recovery time is also greatly reduced.

Finally, as a vegan, I pretty much haven’t been sick in ten years. When I was younger I used to get extremely sick (usually a stomach bug) at least twice each year. For awhile, I thought it was just because I was a kid. Granted, kids do get sick more often because they are still developing their immune systems. However as an adult, I still see a lot of people who seem to be constantly sick in one way or another. Especially in the winter, everyone I know gets at least one lingering cold. All around me people are coughing and sniffling and complaining of headaches and sore throats.

These mild, but chronic health issues are all seen as normal, just like that brain fog I once hadn’t even been able to notice. No one even considers that things could be different. But they can. All it takes is treating your body with kindness and feeding it what it was designed to be fed instead of anti-biotic, cortisol, adrenaline, puss, shit, piss, and virus ridden dead bodies. Looking back it seems obvious that I didn’t feel my best. I’m surprised our bodies are even able to function with the typical American diet. With veganism, everyone wins, the animals, the environment, and us.

So with January fast approaching, I highly encourage anyone reading this to give Veganuary a try. No need to commit to veganism for the rest of your life, just experiment. Take that one month to try something different. Just to see how it feels. One month was all it took for me to notice a life changing mental shift. It is definitely worth it for many reasons, least of which are all the incredible personal benefits. Let me know if you’ve experienced any noticeable physical/mental changes from a vegan diet. Also feel free to reach out to me if you have any questions or would like some advice for how to make the switch. I’m more than happy to help any way I can.

Cow Hugging Emerges as Latest Wellness Trend | PEOPLE.com

The Mind-Gut Connection

The Mind-Gut Connection featured in upcoming Lunchtime Learning Presentation

The more I learn about the human body and the world, the more obvious it becomes that every little supposedly insignificant thing matters and everything is inextricably connected. The bad news is there is no cheating your way to health or fitness or happiness. But the good news is, although it may seem harder, the tried and true methods of slowly achieving success are always available to us. If we treat both our bodies and our minds well and show them patience and compassion, health and happiness with inevitably follow. A lot of people will find this obvious and uninteresting, but I’ve never been one to base any of my opinions or actions on good faith alone, I usually require a more thorough knowledge of the mechanisms going on behind the scenes.

The emerging science of what’s going on backstage in our own bodies is truly stranger than fiction. Most of us know (although we don’t like to think about it) that our bodies contain lots of microscopic organisms in addition to our human cells. Our skin, our hair, our nails, our eyelashes, and of course our guts are teeming with strange little lifeforms, the majority of which are harmless. It may be a bit unsettling to consider, but the bacteria inhabiting our bodies are actually even more than harmless, they are helpful, even necessary for us to be healthy. Before reading The Mind-Gut Connection by Dr. Emeran Mayer, I thought my vague comprehension of that fact was sufficient. Gut microbes are good for us, case closed. Now I’m discovering that the role these little organisms play in our digestion, day to day life, decision making, and ever our personalities are far more complicated than I’d ever imagined.

Apart from all the implications this information sparks curiosity about in the scientific community, my philosophy centered mind goes straight for the larger existential questions we are now faced with. Who is really running the show? Are we this human form shown to the world, or are we actually the bacteria pulling the strings deep inside our guts? Perhaps we’re just the passive hosts without even realizing it. Or maybe it’s not even possible to make a clear distinction between the human and bacteria cells within us. For now it does appear as if we are one in the same.

Whatever we may be, Dr. Mayer’s book is an excellent example of the way looking deeper into the natural world leads only to more marvel and mystery. The complexity and intricacies of this existence are an endless source of fascination that I don’t think we’ll ever truly be able to decode. However, we have now learned at least a bit more about this magical little world within us. So here are a few of what I found to be the most interesting things laid out in this book:

Personality & Decision making

These bacteria in our digestive organs do a lot more than help us break down our food. They are also influencing our mood, disposition, and the decisions “we” make. We all know that our cells communicate and deliver signals and chemicals to the brain, but what I didn’t know was that these bacteria are doing the same. I was shocked to discover that our gut produces the majority of serotonin in our bodies, not the brain. This is one of the reasons we experience that familiar cozy, satisfied feeling after a good meal. This also explains the way our diet affects our mental health. It’s not just a placebo effect. Eating healthy, fibrous, fresh, unprocessed foods really does make us feel better all around.

One of the most incredible things I learned was from a study that showed transplanting the gut microbiome of one rat into the gut of another causes the latter rat to begin expressing a personality and behaviors more similar to the donor rat. For instance, a shy rat given the microbiome of an outgoing rat, will now begin to appear brave. It’s honestly a bit frustrating to realize what a big role the gut microbiome plays in our mental state. Perhaps one of the reasons I’ve faired so well without my paxil is because I’ve been drinking pro & pre-biotics every day since before I began weaning myself off the drug. It makes me wonder what kind of success, if any, I may have had in my battle with social anxiety if I had known this information before starting an SSRI.

Hunger, Satiety, & Weight

The microbes in our guts also have a big part to play when it comes to our appetite. They have a direct line to our brains with the capacity to influence our hunger signals. What I once thought was a definitive sign that my body needed more calories or nutrients, now may very well just mean that my gut bacteria need more fibrous matter and pre-biotics to snack on. These little buddies also have a hand in our sensitivity to our satiety signals, in other words our cue that we are full and want to stop eating. These bacteria are also responsible for how much of the food we eat is absorbed and stored in our bodies.

Just as in the other rat study I mentioned, the same effect can be observed regarding the physical weight of the rats. Give a skinny rat the microbiome of a heavy rat and it will begin to gain weight and vice versa. This is a stunning insight into just how little we actually comprehend about nutrition and how to influence our own body weight. There really is no “one size fits all” diet when it comes to weight loss or gain, and it’s got a lot more to it than just genetics.

The Best Diet for a Healthy Gut Microbiome

This book also gives suggestions about the best foods for us to eat if we want a gut microbiome that keeps us healthy and happy. The author particularly emphasizes that diets high in animal fat lead to a state of constant inflammation and physical and mental health complications. Not surprising. He also says that diets high in fibrous plant foods lead to more helpful strains of bacteria flourishing in our guts. Now it seems obvious to me that the extrapolation of that information points directly to a vegan diet. No animal fat, tons of plant foods. However, this author is clearly attached to his flesh foods, because based on anecdotal evidence of healthy tribal peoples who eat a mediterranean diet (basically vegan, plus fish) he decided to label that the best diet. He gives no explanation on how the fish part is necessary or beneficial. The actual data he provides seems to say the opposite. So I think it’s safe to say eliminating the last “bad gut” food, would be best, don’t you think?

Unfortunately, he goes on to say that even a drastic change in diet isn’t going to have a huge effect on the types of bacteria living in our guts. However, it will change the kinds of metabolites the bacteria we already have produce for our bodies and brains, which is nearly as good.


In summation, the information I’ve learned from this book has completely changed the way I view my body and even my mind. I fluctuate back and forth between being excited and terrified about this new knowledge and what it means. At the very least, this book shows just how important our physical health is when it comes to our mental health. The two are inextricably linked for better or worse. Really all we can do is work with the gut-microbiome we have. They are as unique and diverse as each individual they are house in. Treat them right, give them lots of healthy vegan foods to eat, and they will repay us in kind.

Autism and Intuition

I’ve been reading a book about the gut microbiome that has led me to some very interesting realizations. In this book, the author talks about the possible connection between different gut microbiomes and mental health diagnosis, including autism. I’ve yet to really reach the part that explains the interaction between the two, but just the idea that there might be some interaction got me thinking. This book also discusses the physiology behind our “gut” instincts. Apparently that is more that just a turn of phrase. We really do receive physical signals from our guts that effect our decision making process. Or at least… some of us do.

My curiosity piqued, I decided to look up if there was any correlation between autism and lowered levels of intuition. I was excited to discover that indeed there is! I found many different research articles pointing out this interesting phenomenon. One of which stated: The ASD group produced less intuitive responses, and the degree of ASD-like traits showed a negative correlation with intuitive responses and positive correlation with reflective responses on the CRT. Together, these results are consistent with ASD being associated with reduced intuitive reasoning and greater deductive reasoning.

I was honestly thrilled and relieved to finally have an explanation for my apparent lack of intuition. All my life, the idea of “following your gut” or “trusting your intuition” didn’t make much sense to me. I never quite understood what people were talking about when I heard things like this. Yet it is such a common part of our language, that I kind of just let it go and assumed it was just something people said. One of those things that didn’t really mean anything specific, but had more of a personal interpretation that would mean something slightly different for everyone.

Then in recent years as I got more involved with spiritual practices like yoga, there was that idea of intuition again. Now it seemed to be something more real and tangible that I just wasn’t taping into. I couldn’t understand why I was not receiving any of these gut signals. I honestly can’t recall a single time in my life when I made a “gut decision” on anything. Even then I would hear things insinuating that meant I just wasn’t trusting my intuition. But that never fit me either. It wasn’t that I didn’t trust myself. There was nothing to trust or distrust. It has always been radio silence from my gut. The voice of my intuition has never spoken to me, so how could I learn to trust it?

Understanding that gut instincts and intuition are real things and I simply don’t have them, has changed my entire perception of the world and the way others make decisions. It finally makes sense why many of the people I meet in life make so many decisions that I cannot fathom. They are using an entirely different mechanism than I am. Now I see that while all of my decision are very calculated and logical, because I am solely using my deductive reasoning skills, others have another source of input that is completely alien to me. It makes much more sense now how and why someone could make a decision that, to me, seems utterly nonsensical. They are factoring in information from both their brains and their guts, whereas my brain has always been all I have to go off of.

Not only is this new insight absolutely fascinating to me, it is also rather comforting. Sure, I’m a bit disappointed to know I may never understand this experience, it’s reassuring that it isn’t because I’m not trying hard enough or because I am cut off from myself. People often ask me why I would even want to seek out an autism diagnosis, and this is a perfect example of why. There are so many aspects of myself that I have lived most of my life feeling bad about. I can’t even remember a time where that little voice inside my head wasn’t asking, “what’s wrong with me?” or “why can’t I just be normal?” Understanding the role autism plays in my personality and mental traits, is reassurance that my differences are not personal failings. I don’t have to keep struggling and trying to be like everyone else. I’m not like everyone else. But I am also not alone. There are so many other people out there like me who have the same difficulties. It’s such a comfort to know that there is nothing “wrong” with me. I’m just running on a different operating system. And that’s okay.

Intuition and sixth sense: How to train your gut feeling

Long-term Pessimist, Short-term Optimist

I heard a guest on one of the podcasts I listen to describe himself as someone who is pessimistic in the long-term, but very optimistic for the short-term. He said this in a light-hearted, humorous manner, but it has resonated with me ever since. This is precisely how I would describe myself. I may fully believe that in just a few decades, the earth will collapse from underneath us due to our selfishness and our negligence. However, that doesn’t have to take away from the beauty and meaning still left to be found in the months and years we have before us.

It can be hard to hold these two perspectives in my mind at once, but I’ve been practicing it for a few years now and it’s gotten easier. At first, I only felt cheated and victimized by the current state of the world. Now I see that instead I should be immensely grateful for the life I have been given regardless of the length or the way it ultimately ends. It’s a bizarre frame of mind to be sure, but I am capable of being thankful for where I am and what I have even as everything around me slowly crumbles. I’ve heard before that death is a gift because it forces us to more fully appreciate life. And to a certain extend I view the impending climate crisis in the same way. It has made each small moment that much more poignant and precious to me.

I may not know how long I have left, but I do know that I have been blessed with the most amazing people to share this life with until then. In twenty or more years, the earth may be decimated, but in a few months, I’ll be in the arms of the man I love. I’ve managed to find someone to share my remaining years with, someone who understands and respects my beliefs and opinions. Someone that acknowledges the threats we face as a species, and as a planet. Someone that can hold my hand through it all and face it with me when that day comes. I have a job I love to go to everyday with people that mean so much to me, that help me grow, and that allow me to do something meaningful. I have a family and friends that love and understand me even when I don’t always understand myself. I have three soft fur children that adore me and depend on me, that bless me with indescribable tenderness and warmth each and every day.

In ten years I may not have access to clean water or food, but right now I have everything I could ask for and more. Each week I get to go collect a fresh, vibrant bounty from the store to nourish me and keep me healthy. In a few weeks my entire country will celebrate that bounty and the company of those most precious to us as we brace ourselves for the cold months ahead. I reflect on this miracle each day as I prepare my colorful collection of fruits and vegetables and turn them into delicious meals.

I have a home. I am loved. I love. When I am thirsty, I may always drink. When I’m hungry, I may always eat. Each night I lay my head down in my soft, warm bed surrounded by my sweet babies. Soon that bed will even contain my loving partner. I have heat in the winter and cool air in the summer. I have electricity and running water. I have clothing that keeps me protected from the elements and allows me to express myself to those around me. I have a community to teach me patience and teamwork. I have a stable foundation laid beneath me from all the those that came before to ensure that future generations would have plumbing, highways, public services, and a power grid.

Despite the downfalls of the modern age, never before in history has life been so easy and filled with pleasure. When life has given you so many incredible gifts, it isn’t fair to complain when they eventually run out. Someday I may suffer, but the fact that I have never truly suffered in 28 years of life is unbelievable. And I am so grateful for all of these blissful years I have been given, and I am overjoyed to likely still have quite a few left ahead of me. The future may ultimately hold fear, pain, suffering, and uncertainty, but that future will not be here tomorrow, or next week, or next month. And for that I am also grateful.

1,048 Pessimism Illustrations & Clip Art - iStock

Small Acts of Unkindness

Take a moment to think about all the little ways in which you withhold tenderness and compassion from yourself on a daily basis. It may take you a while to even register what those actions might be. We have become so used to disregarding our needs, that we lose sight of how cruel we are actually being to ourselves sometimes. When you stop to reflect, you can begin to see how you might be reinforcing thoughts of unworthiness and self-hatred without even realizing it.

For example, I caught myself being unkind the other night as I prepared my dinner. I was heating up leftovers like I often do after work. As I took the hot plate our of the microwave, I noticed that instead of getting pot holders or making sure I didn’t burn myself, I just rushed to set the plate back down in the other room before the pain became too great. Now this is something I do all the time. I guess I can’t be bothered to add on the extra step of finding something else to grab the plate with besides my bare hands. I don’t know what was different about that day, but as I hurried to set the hot plate down, I realized how unkind I was being to myself in that small, unconscious gesture.

Would I allow a family member, friend, or other loved one to risk burning themselves in that way? Of course not. I would insist that they protect themselves and avoid any unnecessary pain or discomfort. Yet I never felt the need to offer myself that same grace or consideration. How sad, I thought. How unkind I have been. Am I not to be included in the category of “loved one”? Why not? Do I not claim to love myself? Why was I not behaving as if that were true? How had I so easily been overlooking these opportunities to be gentle with myself?

After realizing the subtle cruelty of that common occurrence, I started to wonder in what other ways I had been neglecting myself. I began to notice small acts of unkindness everywhere I looked. There are many times when I’ll force myself to wear an article of clothing that is uncomfortable just because it looks good. I’m also guilty of things like: forcing myself to workout even when I’m feeling sick, biting my nails until my fingers are hurting or even bleeding, aggressively picking at my skin, mentally berating the reflection I see in the mirror, shaming myself for feeling confident, being silly, or even just dancing, etc.

The more I think about it, the more ways I notice I’m being unkind to myself on a daily basis. I’m saddened not only for all these things I’m realizing, but also for how long it took me to realize them. Looking back, I’ve done these things for as long as I can remember. As a teenager I remember not wearing sunglasses or sunblock, white knuckling through injuries in order to keep up with my 8 mile daily run, even performing intentional self-harm. The craziest part is knowing that I would never put up with someone else treating me this way, nor would I stand idly by and allow my loved ones to treat themselves with the same disrespect.

I’m slowly working towards becoming more mindful of these small, hurtful gestures. It helps to imagine how I would feel if someone else was in a similar situation. Then I offer myself the same consideration and kindness that I would offer them. I think without even being aware, a lot of us are the most abusive person in our own lives. What a difference it would make if we could bring a soft, loving intention to the little things we do each day.

The next time you notice yourself experiencing discomfort, anxiety, sadness, shame, etc. Ask yourself, am I contributing to the state I’m in right now? If so, how might I offer myself comfort instead? Instead of thinking “what a pain” when I have to take the time to protect my skin from a hot surface, I will think “here you go, dear, I love you, and I want to protect you.” Just because it’s us doing it to ourselves, that is still no excuse to cause suffering or be neglectful. The way we treat ourselves is just as important, if not more important, than the treatment we receive from other people. What are some of the ways you might offer yourself more love and compassion where you’ve been withholding it? How might that make a difference in the way you feel as you move through your day? Make an effort to be kinder toward yourself in small ways as well as in larger ways. Because you are worth it. And even if you have a hard time believing that, think of it as practice. Practice self-love and self-compassion so that you might more easily be able to extend that same energy to others in your life. Or even better, do it for the people in your life that love you. Treat yourself the way they would want you to be treated.

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Preoccupied with Others’ Perspectives

If you’re a people pleaser like me, it can be hard not to become paralyzed with worries about the way others perceive you. I always catch myself basing my decisions and actions on the way they will come off to someone else, rather than on my own feelings and desires. Not only is this exhausting, but it isn’t even worthwhile. How could I ever possibly hope to know how someone else is going to interpret my behaviors? For all I know, I could be acting against my own wishes for the sake of someone else when they would have preferred a different response anyway.

I think a lot of the time I delude myself into thinking I know what other people are thinking or what they want, when in reality I could be completely wrong. I know from my own perspective that what I like or want can change drastically from one day to the next, from moment to moment, or even depending on the person I’m interacting with. For example, you may notice that someone likes hugs, but depending on your relationship to them and the context of the situation, that doesn’t mean they would enjoy a hug from you.

Constantly worrying about the way others perceive you is just wasted energy. It feels like doing this will help me make sure everyone around me is always happy and approving of me, but no matter how hard I try, that will never be the case 100% of the time. For one thing, a lot of people pick up on the fact that you’re just saying what they want to hear and dislike that in itself. I’m definitely one of those people. When I meet someone who is always eager to agree with me or try to flatter me, I get annoyed. It feels disingenuous and gross. It feels like I’m being lied to and manipulated. I’d much rather get to know who someone genuinely is even if who they really are isn’t exactly what I’d prefer them to be.

Always worrying about what other people think of me is also a great disservice to myself. In essence I am saying to myself that I am not good enough as I am, that I have to work to conceal who I really am to please others. Each time I alter my behavior for the sake of what I believe someone else wants, I am reinforcing that idea. It’s important for us to hold ourselves in high enough regard that we can move through the world without wearing a mask. You will surely encounter friction and meet people that don’t like you, but that’s okay. You will find yourself in this position whether you are genuine or not, so you may as well take care of yourself before worrying about others.

Part of the mask I wear in order to please others is also a shield from criticism. If I am not being my genuine self and others decide they don’t like me, I can always fall back on the idea that “well, they don’t know the real me.” However if I am being exactly who I am and someone doesn’t like me, it hurts a lot more. But the reverse is also true in this regard. When I reveal myself for who I am and someone embraces that, I feel truly seen and validated in a meaningful way. Whereas even when my people pleasing works, the positive feedback I receive feels hollow and fake. Inside I still think, “they wouldn’t feel that way if they knew who I really am.”

Another part of people pleasing is the desire to avoid any and all conflict or confrontation. I’ve always been insecure in my relationships, fearful that the slightest disagreement or unpleasant interaction will destroy them. But hiding from conflict only reinforces that fear. I can see in other people’s relationships that not only does conflict not end the relationship, it often serves to strengthen it. We have to believe that the relationships we have in our lives are strong enough to handle difficult moments. One negative interaction or argument isn’t going to be enough to completely change someone’s opinion of you. I obviously don’t write people off for such small, trivial matters. I can see the way other people stay together through far more than I can even imagine. Once again I am selling myself short by believing I mean so little to my loved ones that one false move would sever our bond entirely, even when past experience has shown me that isn’t true.

It may feel safer to always try to be who others want me to be, but at the end of the day, I have no idea who that person even is. I want to learn to like myself enough that my wants, beliefs, and opinions come first and don’t change depending on who I’m talking to. It’s been so long since I’ve considered what I want that sometimes I’m not even sure. It may be scary, but I know it’s worth it to practice being brave and showing my true face to the world and the people I love. Besides, while I might not know what other people want, I can say that when I talk to someone, all I want is for them to be themselves and to trust me enough to share that with me. That’s more than enough.

People Pleasers Anonymous - Home | Facebook

Narrowing Our Focus

If there is one thing I’ve learned from my meditation practice, it is the importance and value of focusing our minds. I’ve gotten to the point where I genuinely don’t think it matters what we decide to focus on. The simple act of focusing itself is what brings us clarity and calm. As someone who is easily distracted, it’s hard not to get caught up on the decision of what to focus on, even during meditation. Should I focus my attention on my breath, my heart space, my connection with the earth, a visualization? There are so many options that it becomes overwhelming. I find myself switching back and fourth a lot of the time, unable to settle on just one.

Until recently, I was under the assumption that breath awareness was one of the simplest forms of meditation. I often get frustrated with myself for having such a hard time with it after so many years. But recently I heard a meditation teacher discuss the challenges of this type of meditation, validating a lot of the recurring thoughts that pop up for me during my practice. For one thing, saying “focus on the breath” isn’t a very clear instruction. The breath is a very complex thing. It is fluid, ever changing, and tied to a lot of difficult emotions.

Another problem with breath awareness is the body image issues that often arise with it. Until hearing this person speak about it, part of me thought I was the only one that struggled with allowing a natural belly breath during a seated meditation. (It’s a little bit easier for me when lying down.) People, especially women, are told to suck in their stomach, to flatten and hide it. Yet now we are expected to allow it to expand fully and breathe deeply into our diaphragm? It’s hard to let go of years of emotional baggage in order to do so. I always get distracted by my feelings of shame and self-judgement while trying to breathe into my belly. Then instead of focusing on the breath, I’m meditating on negative self-talk, which is only harming me.

One thing that I’ve found helpful more recently is to get even more specific with my breath awareness. There is so much going on when we think about our breath. There a lots of different areas we can choose to focus on. For instance, I’ve been narrowing my focus down to the way the air feels as it leaves and enters my nostrils. You might also choose to focus on the way the breath feels in other areas of the body, or the temperature difference on the inhale vs. the exhale. Maybe you’d like to focus on the sounds you make while breathing. There are lots of different things about the act of breathing to pay attention to, if you find the “breath” too amorphous and vague.

At least for me, it’s very beneficial to pick something very small and specific if I want to achieve that soothing, flow-state of focus. Even though it’s tempting to bounce back and forth between options, it’s important to commit to whatever you decide to focus on and stick to it. Rest assured that regardless of what you choose, the result will be the same. It’s the act of focusing that we are trying to practice, so the object of that focus is irrelevant.

Racing thoughts are a common part of anxiety. It feels like there are just so many things demanding our attention. It becomes overwhelming. Focusing our minds is a great way to calm ourselves down when we are feeling stressed out. Even if you don’t have time to sit down and do a formal meditation, you can always find a meditative state no matter where you are or what you’re doing. All you have to do is decide on something small to focus on. If you are walking, you might decide to focus on the way the heels of your feet feel when they contact the ground underneath you. If you are drawing, you might focus on the movement of your hand or the sensation of touching your brush or pen to the surface of the paper or canvas. If you are cooking, maybe focus on the way the foods smell as you prepare them, or the sounds of chopping and heating the ingredients. If you’re washing the dishes you might focus on the temperature of the water and how it feels against your skin. Or the sounds of the dishes as they clink against one another.

In today’s world filled with endless distractions vying for our attention, it can be especially difficult to stay focused on anything for very long. If you’re someone like me who has had trouble keeping your attention where you want it, try choosing an even smaller, simpler point to focus on. While it hasn’t made things perfect, it has definitely helped me a lot during my meditation and also when stressful moments arise. Most importantly, practice offering yourself compassion when you’re struggling. I promise you it’ll be worth the struggle. Focus is a muscle that we can build up more and more of over time. The older I get the more I realize just how important our focus is. It genuinely shapes our entire reality. The more we strengthen our ability to direct that focus towards what we want, the more ease we will begin to experience in our lives.

Why Intelligent Minds Embrace the Rule of Focus | Inc.com

Suspicious of Stillness

For the last week or so, I have been feeling overwhelmed with all the things that I want to do that I just don’t have the time for. It feels like this list of “one day”s grows longer every moment, yet nothing ever seems to get checked off. I see it trailing behind me whenever I look over my should like an ominous tail. A tail I feel compelled to measure over and over again to make sure it’s all there and I haven’t lost track of any of it. The most interesting part is, intellectually I know I’m only looking outside of myself in an effort to “fix” something inside of me.

Past experience has taught me that even if I were able to finish all of these things crowding my mind, new ones would easily press in on me to take their place. Not only that, the satisfaction and peace I imagine will be the result of completing my checklist, is never what I expect. In the past it has only been a mere shimmer, a glimmer of contentment, quickly covered again by new concerns and goals to achieve.

You’d think I’d be able to learn from the past, to acknowledge these lived truths. No matter how urgent and overwhelming each item feels, that is just an illusion. Not only that, but that rushed, pressured feeling I seek to alleviate by wiping away all these tasks will not be affected. That feeling is inside of me. Nothing I alter or change in the world outside is going to adequately address that inner turmoil. It may provide a momentary distraction, but it will surely bubble back up to the surface of my awareness.

I was reminded again of that fact yesterday evening. As I was washing the dishes and preparing soup for my lunches this week, a pleasant sense of calm and contentment settled over me. I was enjoying myself. My mind was focused and still. “Everything is exactly as it should be.” Never had that mantra felt more true. I found myself in that delicious flow state, but that nagging little anxiety mosquito would not allow me to rest there. It buzzed by my ears, trying to pick apart that peace.

I caught myself searching for that sense of urgency and overwhelm that I was so familiar with. As if it must still be there somewhere, as if I had misplaced it. I smiled in spite of myself. Why did I feel the need to find my discomfort? Sadly, it almost feels unsafe to be without it. I have learned to trust my feelings of dis-ease more than feelings of peace and stillness. At what point had I decided that the former was more true, a more accurate representation of reality, than the latter? Why did I not feel inclined to do the reverse and seek out that calm state when I noticed myself spiraling?

This was a reminder that even if I were to accomplish every single thing I hope to accomplish and I reach that place of ease I’m longing for, I won’t trust it. I will continue searching for more problems that need solving, and because of that, I will inevitably find them. So when I find myself fretting about all of these random things left undone, I must remind myself that it’s not about whatever I’m fixating on. It’s about the feelings themselves. It’s not a signal that I must act to change the external world. It is a signal that I need to work on trust and surrender.

I’m not sure why, but I’ve always had a dysfunctional relationship with trust. I seem to trust others almost to a fault, never even suspecting that they may be untruthful. However, I can’t ever seem to trust myself or the universe to take care of me. Despite the fact that it always has, that I always have. I’m beginning to wonder if these feelings have something to do with my OCD tendencies.

When someone with OCD performs their compulsions, it is in an effort to dissipate feelings of anxiety. I’ve heard people suffering with OCD say that even though they know it’s not true, they feel they must touch the doorknob five times or walk in a particular pattern across the room to prevent some kind of natural disaster or to protect their loved ones from harm. They understand that this is ridiculous, yet they cannot help but be compelled to continue doing it. I feel similarly about my own situation.

It may be a more vague, shapeless sense of dread, but it is still there. I always have this foggy sense that if I don’t stay ever vigilant, if I don’t make sure I keep my life perfectly organized, and accomplish these random things that my reality will descend into utter chaos. I’m not sure exactly how I imagine this will happen, but the fear is always there. I guess I’ve convinced myself of an irrational slippery slope argument. If I start to let things slip through the cracks, for example not keeping up with cleaning my home, then it will continue to get worse and worse until it is unbearable and impossible to set right again. Then expanding upon that unlikely scenario, I tell myself that everything else in my life will start to break apart too. Ultimately resulting in: I will never be happy unless I can take care of all of these tasks I’ve thought of that need done. Even though, like the OCD sufferers, I know it to be untrue, I can’t help but believe it.

Just as with OCD, the only way to alleviate these irrational fears, is to show yourself that the outcomes you fear will not occur. Only through repeated, conscious effort to resist the compulsion can we teach ourselves that we don’t need to be afraid, that everything will still be okay if we let go. The irony of trust is that you’ve got to practice it to strengthen it. Even though those initial efforts to trust seem impossibly scary and reckless. We’ve got to trust that it is safe to trust. Even though that little voice inside is saying: What if it’s not? That is when we’ve also got to trust ourselves to be okay in the event things do go awry. I know that all I can do is try my best to focus on what I am able to accomplish, and practice trusting that the rest will still be there when and if I find the time for it.

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Uncovering Old Emotions

One of the benefits of coming off my SSRI medication is being able to reconnect with the full range of my emotions again. I’ve come to find that this is also a very challenging experience at times. While it’s much easier for me to feel joy, love, and laughter, I’m also more quick to anger and prone to tears. Although this may be unpleasant and uncomfortable at times, I still consider it a positive overall. Because this is the human experience that I had been missing out on for so many years. I may have wanted to numb my anxiety, but I hadn’t realized that in order to do that, Paxil was going to numb everything else as well. Even so, at first that was a trade I was willing to make, but after a while I began to wonder what I had given up and whether or not it was truly worth it.

The first thing I noticed was that I never cried anymore. Obviously in the beginning, I thought that was a great side-effect. Who wants to feel sad? I certainly didn’t. And without those heavy feelings weighing me down, I felt almost invincible. After a few years, though, I genuinely missed being able to cry and experience that release. It began to feel like the pressure of all the sadness I was not allowing to come up to the surface was becoming a dense ball of discomfort deep within my heart. There were many times that I desperately wished that I could cry and let it out.

What I hadn’t noticed was how I also laughed less while on Paxil. It started to seem like I hadn’t laughed genuinely for years. I still found things funny and made tons of jokes, but I never really laughed. I was beginning to forget what that even felt like. Laughter was more of a social obligation than a natural unconscious reaction. It never even occurred to me that this was related to my medication until a few days ago. I’ve realized that that involuntary laughter bubbling up inside of me had returned. I had forgotten how amazing it felt.

So the first things I picked up on were laughter and crying. Both of which I now cherish and am immensely grateful for. However, I’m also being confronted with my ol’ buddy anger. You see as a teenager, I was an extremely angry person. I can still remember the white hot rage I would experience on nearly a daily basis. Rage that seemed uncontrollable and terrifying to those around me and even to myself after the fact. I foolishly believed that had simply faded with age and was also being nullified with my yoga and meditation practice. Although I still felt anger more than other emotions, it was no where near the level of intensity that it used to be.

Over the last few days, I’ve caught myself being overwhelmed with anger more than I have been in years. I thought I had learned to let it go, but in reality that viscous current of adrenaline was just not as strong as it once was. I am feeling it again at full force, and really struggling to cope. I am fearful that I may become the aggressive, angry person that I used to be when I was younger. I forgot how compelling the feeling of anger can be. It is all consuming at times. The phrase “blinded by rage” is quite accurate. That emotion tends to hit me like a freight train. It comes on suddenly and is irresistible. I feel helpless to control my actions when I’m in such a state. Of course, I have never physically harmed anyone, but I am quite good at spitting venom. My tongue becomes the deadliest blade and once I’ve calmed down, I am always mortified and ashamed of my behavior.

If anger is the price I have to pay to keep the rest of my emotions, I will. Especially because it seems to be the only negative change I’ve noticed so far from lowering my dosage to practically zero. I had definitely expected worse. I’m surprised that this anger has merely been lying dormant inside of me all along though. To be honest, I’m a bit disappointed. I really thought I had overcome that ugly side of my personality.

Now the real work begins. I’ve been given all these years to practice and grow spiritually, and I’m being given the chance to use what I have learned. I’m trying to remain curious about those angry feelings when they arise, instead of turning that anger back on myself like I often do. It is quite fascinating, honestly. One thing I’ve noticed is the way I cling onto those violent feelings. My rational mind is useless against such a powerful rage. There is a self-righteousness mixed in that likes to feel vindicated and does all it can to justify my anger. It almost makes me more angry to imagine letting it go. As if that is letting the offending person or situation “off the hook.” It feels like my duty to make sure they don’t get away with it.

Given that I’ve already shown myself time and time again that trying to reason with myself in this state is pointless, I’m trying to employ a different strategy. Rationalizations allow me to still focus on whatever it is that has angered me. My goal from now on is going to be shifting my focus. I want to try to turn that focus inward. Usually when I’m angry, my mind is going a mile a minute listing ways that I am correct to be angry, riling myself up even more, stoking the flames. Rather than letting my mind do that, I’m going to try to focus on the feeling itself, to get out of my head entirely and move into my physical body.

What does anger feel like? For me it feels hot and stiff. My chest tightens, my breath becomes quick and short, my heart beats fast and hard against my ribcage. While these aren’t pleasant sensations to focus on, this is a way for me to work through my anger in a mindful way. Even though I’m finding this experience frustrating and challenging, at the same time I am grateful. I am grateful for the chance to get to know these long hidden parts of myself again. I am grateful for all of these newly rediscovered emotions, even the difficult ones.

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Paxil (5mg)

I cannot believe I have only been taking 5mg of Paxil instead of 30mg for nearly two weeks now. Back when I was around 22 or 23 I began taking this SSRI every day and only recently found the nerve to try to wean myself off of it at 27. There were many times throughout the years when I wanted to do this, but when you read the horror stories about Paxil withdrawal it’s quite intimidating. A big part of my hesitation to give up the medication was also psychological. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to manage without it.

Before I began taking Paxil, I was petrified of most (if not all) social interactions. It was a monumental task to even call my doctor to set up an appointment or to order food in a drive-thru. Meeting new people was always a nightmare, and I had a very difficult time making friends. After a month on an SSRI though, I was a completely different person. I didn’t think twice about making a phone call or talking to a stranger on the street. I felt like the shackles I had been wearing all my life were finally removed. That ever-present fog of fear had finally lifted.

But what if even after years of living in this newfound freedom, Paxil was still the only reason I was able to do these things? What if that old fear came back to overtake me as soon as I stopped? Not only that, I was afraid there would be no turning back for me once I began this journey away from Paxil. There are many accounts online of people attempting to cut back only to realize they desperately need this drug. However, upon increasing their dosage again, they found the medication didn’t work like it did the first time. I was afraid if I was making the wrong decision, I would be stuck with it.

Despite all these fears, with the support of my loved ones and primary doctor, I managed to start weaning myself off my Paxil. I tried not to think too much about it or look for any negative symptoms rearing their ugly heads. Much to my surprise, everything has remained pretty much the same, even now on practically no meds at all. I have only noticed positive changes such as rediscovering my formerly blunted range of emotions. And I could not be happier or more proud of myself.

The other day as I was driving home from an impromptu meeting with my boyfriend and his family, something incredible dawned on me. I can’t believe I just did that, I thought. I just spent the whole day with my boyfriend and his family. I just met his developmentally disabled aunt and elderly grandfather without having any idea I would be doing so beforehand. Wow. This might not sound like anything out of the ordinary to most people, but imagining how I would have handled that situation before Paxil vs. now is like night and day.

At 21 if my boyfriend had sprung meeting these people on me at the last minute I would have been petrified, angry, desperate to get out of the situation somehow. But that day, it never even occurred to me that it was of any significance. I simply shrugged and agreed when he said we’d be going to see them. I had no problem at all talking with them. I feel like I even managed to make a great impression. It actually brings tears to my eyes to say that. (Tears I now feel forming much more often and easily on my lowered dosage.) I am just so proud of myself.

Even though I’ve been through many similar experiences in the years since starting Paxil, this was the first time I can remember doing something like this pretty much on my own, with no significant chemical assistance. I genuinely never thought I would be capable of maneuvering social situations on my own. This incident has allowed me to more fully appreciate the things I’ve continued to do every day with no problem since lowering my dosage. I’ve still been meeting new clients every day at work, making follow-up phone calls, shooting the breeze with my coworkers, etc. All things I have become accustomed to, but had always given all the credit for to Paxil.

So to anyone out there who has been leaning on an SSRI for support, wanting to venture out on your own again, but are too fearful to try, don’t be afraid. You can do it. (With the help and support of a medical professional, of course.) I had hoped that the new pathways I have been building for years inside my brain would be strong enough to stand on their own after so many years of Paxil assistance, but I couldn’t be sure. Now I am. I know I can do this.

In summation, first I was throwing total support behind psych meds, then I was wavering more towards being against them all together. Now I have a better understanding of how to use these tools without becoming dependent on them. SSRI’s are not a miracle cure. They are also not something to avoid entirely. I finally see that they are like training wheels. Paxil gave me the courage and the confidence to gather new experiences, to learn that social situations don’t have to be scary. It gave me the time to practice better coping skills. My brain used to associate small talk, phone calls, meeting people, etc. with terror. Now I have years and years of conditioning under my belt to remind me that I can do these things and be perfectly okay. There is nothing to fear. Paxil has taught me that, and I am so grateful. Now with my new neural pathways in place and the old self-destructive ones faded and withered, I am ready to forge ahead on my own.

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