Calmer Choice, non-profit organization in Barnstable, Massachusetts Calmer Choice, non-profit organization in Barnstable, Massachusetts

These Are Dangerous Times: We Need to Take Care of Ourselves

Why am I in this handbasket, and where are we going?

It’s an old joke but it feels so appropriate right now. We are all used to a certain amount of stress in our lives, but these past few months have been some ridiculous next level, post-apocalyptic Hollywood movie, previously unimaginable stuff.

The effects on our bodies are real. We can feel it and see it, but how are we handling it? Netflix and Oreos is not the right answer.

Since the 1970s, the concept that stress affects our body has been recognized by the scientific community. The term stress is originally one used in physics and architecture to define the pressures that cause things like buildings and bridges to break. It’s something that human beings have recognized innately since the beginning of time, and now we have science to back that appreciation up.

It’s not simple, because we are miraculously complex beings. It’s many-layered and expresses itself in myriad ways. But we all understand it profoundly. When we are deeply troubled, we are not physically well.

The body’s immune system is affected by stress. The endocrine system, which regulates hormones and blood sugar is broadly affected, creating a whole host of issues. There are inflammatory changes when we are under stress. Even our skin and hair are affected.

So we are more susceptible to infection. Our weight and blood sugar can go crazy. All our aches and pains are achier. And we might even look a mess, with blotchy skin and hair loss.

To amplify this further, the stress we’re feeling now, for some, is merely an extension of generational hurt. When exposed to trauma while still in our mother’s womb, that trauma is imprinted on our immune system and endocrine functions. This is an echo that reverberates throughout our lives. When we have children, the babies inherit some of those changes in the material around our DNA. The science of epigenetics is showing how these ills can be passed along. Just like elephants and birds know migration patterns, we bequeath traumatic injury to our children; patterns of response and behavior and poor health outcomes. Fascinating. Horrifying. Hopeful.

Recent science around our incomprehensibly complex brains also shows that we have the chance to change things. The science of neuroplasticity has revealed that we can literally “change our mind.” We can’t go back and pick new parents. We can’t alter our childhoods. But we can create change from this point forward. It takes effort. It is a practice, like any exercise, that must be maintained.

The hope here lies in the understanding that with some simple interventions, we can shift our minds and our bodies into healthier ways of being. Simple, but not necessarily easy. In her book The Deepest Well, by Nadine Burke Harris, MD, she outlines the things that can make appreciable increases in our well-being. This book goes through compelling research into the harm done by trauma in our lives (and the lives of our predecessors). And spells out what we can do about it now. Good nutrition, good sleep, healthy relationships, regular exercise, good mental health care, and mindfulness are her recommendations.

We know we should eat more fresh foods. We know when we’ve had quality sleep. The recommendation of 150 minutes of exercise each week is easy to measure. Healthy relationships and good mental health care are a bit harder to quantify, granted but can be approached by asking for help. Mindfulness seems to me to be the most vague of these recommendations, which is why I find Calmer Choice such an easy recommendation.

Mindfulness: What does that even mean?

It means paying attention on purpose to the present moment with curiosity. How do we do that? It is intimidating to be told to quiet our minds when we are overwhelmed and our thoughts are racing. How do we even begin to try to harness our anxiety? It seems impossible. It is not impossible.

Calmer Choice has created curricula specific to every age group, from Pre-K to adult, allowing us to explore what that means to us. And step by step progressions into how this can be accomplished. Calmer Choice has provided instruction to thousands of children over the past 10 years. It is a universal approach, meaning everyone is included in this process, not just those considered to be high risk. As has become more apparent to all of us in these trying times, trauma and stress are part of the human condition, with no regard to race or socio-economic strata.

Beyond the impressive amount of experience, Calmer Choice has been joined by leading academic institutions, like Yale, Harvard and MIT, to perform objective research that demonstrates the changes that can be made. The information so far is exciting and promising.

Pandemic and social unrest are creating a bed of anxiety on which we find ourselves and our children every day. The hope, the promise, of being able to change how our minds and our bodies receive and respond to this unrelenting onslaught is in our own choices. Learn more about how our brain tissues go all the way down to our toes, and radiate beyond our skin, literally.

Our thoughts can affect every system in our bodies, can affect those around us and those that come after us. What do you choose to think about? Our focus on tolerance, self-appreciation, and love can make all the difference in the world. And Oreos and Netflix will have to find their small space in this better world.