HOW TO STAY STRONG IN THE STORM
Dan Friedman, a regular Tuesday volunteer at Kitchen Angels, appreciates the repetitious nature of kitchen work. “I can shut my brain off and slice and dice,” he said.
Increasingly, it seems difficult to shut off our brains in the universe of Twitter and daily life demands. A national study last year found that more Americans than ever report that they are anxious, depressed or anxiety-ridden. News media has reported a rise in anxiety in teenagers and young adults. Political divisiveness adds an additional weight.
In Santa Fe, people are finding ways to reduce the almost constant level of anxiety vibrating in their bodies by connecting to their community, focusing on others, cultivating mindfulness, controlling their social media time and choosing to eat healthy food.
Joni Conrad-Neutra cut sweet potatoes into thick slices as she talked about why she volunteers at Kitchen Angels, a nonprofit that delivers freshly made food to people who are homebound due to illness or disability.
“I feel it’s really uplifting to make such good, quality food,” she said. “Good food is joyful. It’s so important to us.”
Volunteering allows her to get to know people she wouldn’t otherwise meet, and it’s a stress reliever. “You’re never thinking about yourself and it’s such a relief,” Conrad-Neutra said with a smile.
Lauren LaVail, Kitchen Angels’ community liaison, who coordinates the work of 650 volunteers, hears that perspective often.
“There’s no pressure here like a lot of people have in their jobs,” she said. “And we are making a difference in the world. Someone is going to bed with a full stomach because of what we’re doing. We are going to save someone’s life because they have healthy food to eat. There’s something about that one simple act that gives your life meaning. I think we’re all searching for meaning and purpose in life, and this is a really direct act toward that.”
LaVail has seen how volunteerism reduces stress, increases connection to community and improves mental and physical health. “Overall it’s really helpful to people personally, and I’ve seen that in action,” she said. “People say, I’ve received so much more than I have given.”
Nurturing body and mind
Lara Bache and Eliza Skye, co-executive directors of the Santa Fe Community Yoga Center, say that yoga and mindfulness can ease our tension on a biological level by reducing our cortisone levels, increasing oxygen flow and stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the rest-and-digest system.
“You can literally retrain your nervous system to stay calm in anxiety-provoking situations through the hardware of your nervous system,” Bache said. “We know when we are stressed, our breath becomes shallow. We can choose to slow the breath, increase our oxygen and have an impact on our nervous system.”
With yoga and mindfulness, you can teach your brain to let go of the to-do lists in your head or the worries you have about your future. “You can consistently retrain your mind to places of the present moment when you are in a room and all you have to worry about is moving your body and breathing consciously,” Skye said. “Then you can start to take it outside of the yoga room.”
Beyond the usual stress of life, Bache and Skye have picked up on a sense of hopelessness related to the national news. The day after the presidential election, Skye created a safe space in her Deep Release class; people there cried out their worries and focused on the strength of their community.
“When we create an environment where people are supporting each other, it’s really healing, especially if people have patterns of trying to impress themselves or others,” Bache said. “It shifts gears to a practice of loving yourself, and that can be so transformative.”
National politics also prompted the studio to expand giving opportunities. These include fund-raisers and karma classes, where students’ fees are dedicated to organizations that support a healthy, respectful environment for everyone.
“It gives that feeling like there are little ways to contribute to the changes we want to see in the world,” Bache said. “That sense of agency is given back to us.”
Fueling body and mind
Feeling like you have more control in today’s overwhelming world can bring more ease according to Francie Healey, a health and wellness expert and clinical counselor in Santa Fe. In her Conscious Wellness practice, she helps clients develop a deeper awareness of how their lifestyle and nutrition choices make their bodies feel. The next step is regaining a sense of control over
“We want to do it in a way that doesn’t involve diets or deprivations but in a way that empowers someone to stay curious about how they feel,” Healey said. “It’s important to allow the desire to feel good to be the driver, rather than from the place of using willpower. It’s really about tapping into that place that feels worthy of feeling good. It’s a kind approach.”
Many of her clients grapple with balancing the desire to be informed with feeling bombarded by too much negative news. If they feel depleted after their social media time, Healey helps them reduce their exposure. Techniques include designating certain times of the day to check social media or news sites.
“Some people look at their phones as soon as they wake up, and it sets the tone for the day,” she said. “Sometimes we work on setting a different ritual that’s doable for them, that reflects their values and affirms they are taking care of themselves.” That could be drinking a glass of hot water with lemon, doing a five-minute meditation or breathing exercise or eating something that boosts energy before they have their morning coffee.
As the author of Eat to Beat Alzheimer’s: Delicious Recipes and New Research to Prevent and Slow Dementia, Healey applies scientific research on how food affects brain health to her work with clients. First she asks people to tune into how food makes them feel and to track their digestion. Are you more sluggish and distracted when you eat processed food? Do you feel better when you eat protein for breakfast?
“Through my research, I recognized that when the brain and body got the right kind of nourishment, we could respond with less overwhelm and stress,” she said. “What the research is showing is that the brain can become inflamed, and often the first symptoms are depression, anxiousness, difficulty focusing — the symptoms that many of us deal with in our daily lives.”
Healey helps clients fuel their bodies and reduce brain inflammation. She recommends good fats, such as the omega-3 fatty acids found in wild Alaska salmon, walnuts, anchovies, chia and flax seeds, mackerel and sardines.
“A little meal planning can save you money and also reduce anxiety about what are we going to have for dinner,” she said. “And it is one of the things we can control in a world that feels uncontrollable. It’s one of the ways we can nourish ourselves and our family.”