Appreciating Health (Today's Daily Presence)

Well, I just typed and lost an entire post for the first time so here goes a re-write!

As I noted yesterday, I am feeling under the weather with some sort of respiratory illness. I’m coughing a lot and my voice sounds as though a frog is trapped in my larynx. I selected the teeth and jaw card from my Daily Presence deck, and was shocked to realize these areas of my body are feeling better than they normally do.

I’ve been diagnosed with both TMJ and trigeminal neuralgia. My trigeminal neuralgia has gotten better after having a tooth extracted last year, but a recent visit to the dentist showed me it is still active. She merely manipulated my jaw in her evaluation (no cleaning or dental work) and my pain starting spiking on my drive home.

Today, though, my jaw feels loose and my teeth do not hurt. Simply noticing this feels like a sign that I am living with more awareness. It has been easy for me to focus all of my attention instead on what is going wrong with my body. There are of course times where my pain becomes so severe that I cannot ignore it and during which I need to use additional resources to help myself cope. For me, living with chronic pain has been about learning to work with my body as much as I can.

As I grow to fully inhabit the landscape of my body, my attention has widen and my care for parts that are healthy has improved. This awareness has increased rather than diminished my ability to respond to what my body needs when it is ill. Which parts or body systems are working well for you today? How is your jaw and tooth health? How do you balance responding to your body’s needs alongside appreciating what is working well for it?

Sending Calming Signals (Today's Daily Presence)

Today was filled with stress, albeit good stress because I was challenging myself in positive ways. Even though nothing went wrong and I didn’t feel triggered per se, my body is responding as though I am in danger. My heart is racing, I feel physically numb and my time perception is warped. This is a signal to me that my PTSD reactivity is on high alert, and that I need to spend some time reconnecting to my body. The easiest and simplest way I know to send it a sign that I am safe is to regulate my breathing.

Breathwork is not limited to breathing in and out slowly. For me, it starts by noticing my breath. The act of paying attention to my breath in and of itself soothes me. When I allow my breath to happen only on an unconscious level, I tend to breath in a very shallow and quick manner that leads my body to think it is danger (and which results from the perception of threat). Next, I invite my diaphragm to contract and relax at a slower pace. Finally, I allow for pauses between my in and out-breath.

A multitude of health benefits have been linked to slow breathing. Unhurried respiration eventually lowers my pulse rate. It may also help my heart to beat more efficiently and my oxygen exchange to be fuller. Six to ten breathes per minute is apparently what has been shown to lead to the best outcomes; I haven’t timed myself but ten per minute would likely be closer to where I’m at. Have you checked in with your breathing today? How does your body respond to you noticing your breath? How does slow breathing, if you are able to practice it, affect you?

Bodily Filtration (Today's Daily Presence)

For today’s Daily Presence card, I chose the card focused on the lymphatic system. This is a body system I know little about in terms of how it actually functions. I’ve absorbed snippets of information, but, in investigating further, realized there is a lot I don’t fully understand. In order to pay mindful attention and honor an area of the body, I find more meaning when the biological processes involved are clear to me.

What I learned about the system is that it acts as a filtration setup for lymph, which in itself is a substance made of white blood cells that attack viruses and bacteria, as well as chyle which consists of fats from our small intestines. Lymph nodes are where the response to infections take place, so they swell when we are fighting off an infection because there are more white blood cells being produced. In addition, the lymph system helps to keep our body balanced in terms of fluids. Taken together, problems in these functions can spell trouble in terms of immune capacity as well as lymphedema (swelling) in affected areas of the body.

As I educated myself about how my lymphatic system functions, I found myself wondering how much it affects my experience of chronic pain and my general health and well-being. We can test our cardiovascular system with tools like a blood pressure cuff and pulsometer, but I am unaware of similar products to evaluate how well fluid is being drained or how well our lymph nodes are working to filter bodily invaders out. All I found in looking into this were “contrast MRI’s” and the like, although I’m sure basic bloodwork, with its white blood cell counts and all, gives some insight.

I also spent time looking into how to improve the function of my lymphatic system and was disappointed that there were few scientifically-reviewed practices available. One message I found repeated was the importance of drinking water to keep our bodies hydrated. If there are areas of poor lymph drainage, massage can be helpful but should be performed by someone certified in the process and only if a doctor recommends it based on a person’s medical status. Finally, the cardiovascular system is related to the lymphatic system, so improving cardiovascular health might help to reduce inflammation, which, in turn, may be beneficial to the lymphatic system.

All in all, I found myself both intrigued and frustrated by my exploration of the research on this topic as I do not feel as though I gained a full understanding of how it works or how to ensure I am doing what I can to improve its function. Whenever I get a professional massage, I feel queasy and odd for a few hours afterwards. I’m curious as to what my lymph systems “levels” look like after an experience like that. In thinking about my heart health, I will also consider now my immune system and how they interrelate. Finally, I find it highly relevant to how I work as a person to consider that our immune defense has a passive feel to it; to some extent, invaders are allowed to “flow” until they reach the filter, at which time all hell breaks loose and they get (hopefully) destroyed. To what extent do you bring conscious awareness to your lymphatic system? Does it represent anything on a spiritual or energetic level to you? Are there any actions you are taking to improve its function?

Time for Warmth (Today's Daily Presence)

Today’s card chose me more than I chose it! I’ve been having severe neck and upper back pain, which intensifies when I lay down to the point where I am yelling in pain at slight movements. Giving that this issue seems to be persisting, I decided I needed to slow down and spend some time attempting to soothe my neck muscles.

I am someone who is overheated much more often than I am cold, so turning to warmth as a solution to discomfort isn’t my first instinct. I found, though, in using an electric heating pad on my upper back and neck muscles, that this helped the spasms to relax more than the various prescription medications I’ve been taking for the last few days. The most ridiculous part of my muscle dysfunction is that I think my drawing might be the cause of it as it is on the same side as my dominant hand and seems to get worse after an illustration session. Hopefully I can also add in some scalene stretches to mitigate any problems. What activities do you notice causing muscle tension? Which areas of your body are the most affected? Which home interventions work best to release any spasms and reduce your pain?

Raise Your Toes (Today's Daily Presence)

Today’s Daily Presence card invited awareness to my toes. I’ve managed to break more than one of them in recent years, so they could certainly use some TLC. I decided to spend some time conducting toe stretches.

In attempting the stretches I found, the simplest movement–placing my feet flat on the floor and reaching upward with my toes–seemed to help to adjust my toe posture. I discovered I do not have a lot of lateral mobility, especially in the second to last toe, which seems to be the one I’ve injured the most on both feet. I was tempted by the marble exercise but envisioned my dog trying to eat each one so I declined to pursue it.

I was intrigued by focusing solely on my toes as I haven’t done it before in terms of stretches, and I found that it challenged my body in a way it had not been before. I noticed some of my ankle and calf pain and tension unexpectedly releasing as I worked. I’ve lived so long with little awareness of my body, so I feel like I’m discovering new connections each time I slow down enough to attend to it. To whatever extent it exists, what is your relationship like with your toes? If you’ve had any injuries or loss of toe(s), what effect has it had on you? If it was accessible to you and you tried the toe stretches in the link, which one do you enjoy?

When Tears Fall (Today's Daily Presence)

This week has been super unpleasant and triggering. My PTSD is dramatically escalating in response to people acting unprofessionally towards me and I’ve cried more in the last 24 hours than I have in several weeks. It feels appropriate, then, to focus on my eyes for my body scan today.

My eyes swell to an embarrassing degree after I cry. Apparently tears associated with crying come from a certain gland in the eye and are both more abundant and less salty than other eye secretions, which leads to eye tissues (given that they are saltier) pulling them in and puffing one’s eyes! Knowing that my swollen eyes are filled with my absorbed tears definitely makes the entire experience even weirder.

For my meditation today, I decided to close my eyes and to imagine myself floating in a warm sea. I drifted aimlessly through the water as I felt all my tension flowing out of my body into the sparkling deep. I felt the sun warming me and, with my eyes closed, allowed the feeling of nowhere to be and nothing to do to envelop me. All I have to do today is stay afloat. Some days that’s all I can do, and it’s enough to be in the here and now, resting my weary eyes. What comes to mind when you think of your eyes? What self-care do you provide them? How does the idea of floating sit with you?

Habits of the Heart (Today's Daily Presence)

Today’s Daily Presence card focuses on the circulatory system. In bringing mindful awareness to this part of my body, I chose to review habits in which I engage that can affect the health of one’s cardiovascular health. My goal in doing so is to examine more fully the context in which my system is operating and to consider where my energy will best be spent in promoting heart health. Habits are only one piece of the puzzle in regards to how well our circulatory systems function. Perfect habits do not guarantee perfect functioning, but I want to do what I can to mitigate other risk factors.

Exercise

I exercise several days a week by combining strength training, cardio and stretching. I feel that I’ve gotten quite a bit slower/less intense in my workouts in the last year or two, in part due to a shoulder injury and in part due to changing my medications so that my heart races more when I am working out vigorously. Once I get to about 130-140 bpm, I feel that I am not getting enough oxygen and have a hard time maintaining my pace.

Prior to the workout videos I’ve been using for years, I never been able to maintain any set exercise schedule, so I am hesitant to try to make alterations to what I’m doing for fear I will end up not working out at all. I have fallen into the practice of working out right after I eat lunch and then writing my blog post. I wonder if writing before working out would give me more time to digest and would therefor lead me to be able to push myself farther.

Diet

I have an addiction to junk food (I mean addiction here just as seriously as someone might reference an addiction to an illegal substance) and lose control over my eating as soon as I have anything deep-fried or sugary. I have to abstain totally and eat only home-cooked foods to stay on track. I’ve failed at this for several months and have gained 10 lbs, so I am now at least 20 lbs overweight. I feel that this is affecting my ability to exercise. I get my bloodwork checked each summer, so I have some time to hopefully get things on track again. My glucose does not run too high, but my triglycerides and cholesterol are a little over the recommended maximum, which can definitely affect my cardiovascular health.

A particular aspect of my diet I’ve become more aware of in recent years related to my circulatory system is the ratio of water to salt that I’m ingesting. I have orthostatic hypotension when I get dehydrated, which means my pulse rates shoots up from the 50’s to the 120’s when I get out of bed in the morning and I sometimes pass out if I stand up too quickly. I’ve found that I have to constantly drink water as well as have a little salt if I had any IBS flares, as I get imbalanced more easily than I thought I would. I also have to be careful not to overdo it on salty foods as I find my blood pressure rising when I do so.

Stress management

My favorite story (regardless of whether it is true) about Type A people is that heart doctors first investigated the connection between heart health and personality after noticing all the seats in their clinic had the edges worn off because patients were so impatient to get to their appointments. I am extremely Type A by nature and it takes deliberate, conscious effort to override the seat-wearing setting at which my body naturally runs.

All the work I’ve done on my blog the last few months is a testament to my attempts at managing my stress. Simply spending time writing posts like today’s slow me down and allow me to think, feel or behave in ways that reduce my anxiety and reframe my experiences. I still react with intense emotions to stressors, but thoughts such as “this is only one part of my life” or “I will handle this and it will end” are more likely to pass through my mind than ever before.

I will say that I was surprised to learn that everyday stress does not have the same direct link to heart health as the rest of the habits I’ve listed on this post. This makes me feel so much better because I’ve always interpreted my problems with emotion regulation to be horrific for my physical health, but conceptualizing reducing them as helpful but not life-or-death (in this regard) makes me feel calmer.

substance use

I am proudest of myself in this arena as I have not drank any alcohol for over a year. I never had a full-blown alcohol addiction, but I’ve had times in my life when I got drunk every weekend. I gained a lot of weight when this went on and became pre-diabetic, which motivated me to make a change. I am alright at watching my caffeine levels; I definitely have pulse rate issues if I over-indulge.

Conclusion

In sum, my diet stands out as the place where I have the most room for improvement. I at least eat a varied diet, some vegetables and fewer carbs overall than I have in the past, but I am consuming significantly more calories than my body needs and am, at times, eating food that is lacking in nutritional value. For me personally, my weight tracks very closely with my bloodwork and my overall health, so I would like to lose some weight and improve my physical stamina for exercise. I have gained and lost more than an entire person’s body weight at this point in my life, so perhaps I need to look at it as entering a period of healthier behaviors rather than conquering my issues once and for all. What habits do you consider crucial to your heart health? How do you make sense of your behaviors in light of their effect on your cardiovascular health? What changes, if any, would you most like to make?

Winter Skincare (Today's Daily Presence)

For today’s Daily Presence, I’m focusing on caring for my skin. Going on T often corresponds to more breakouts, so I changed my routine last summer and have found my skin is also responding (so far!) better to the cool temperatures than it has in the past as a result. Moisturizing is my main skin self-care secret!

Facial care routine

I start each day washing my face with a benzoyl peroxide face cleaner. Then, as soon in sequence as I can, I blot using a toner. I finish with a light moisturizer with SPF protection. I repeat this process after a hard workout.

In the evenings (when I shower), I use a moisturizing soap in the shower. I repeat the benzoyl peroxide cleaner, and then alternate between a charcoal face wash and one with hyaluronic acid. Finally, every other day, I include Differin gel as the final part of my facial care. All the products I use are available over the counter at places like Target, and cost ten dollars or less individually. The fact that they are budget-friendly is important to me because, although I care about my skin, it isn’t something into which I’m willing to pour tons of money.

I don’t wear any makeup now, so any blemishes and skin imperfections are a lot more noticeable than they used to be. I can feel self-conscious if a pimple makes its home on my face, but I am grateful my daily process at least keeps my face from being extremely oily. In addition, although I’ve written this before, I feel the need to restate that I cannot believe how much more able to “breathe” my skin is now that it isn’t covered in what seems close to paint in retrospect.

Body Skincare routine

The routine for the rest of my body is much simpler. As I write this, I find myself wondering why I give my face so much more attention! I use the same moisturizing soap to wash my body, and a body butter cream on my hands, feet and any other dry spots every night. I also use a standard moisturizing lotion throughout the day, primary on my hands.

I’ve dealt with both eczema and psoriasis before, and winter has been a prime time for flares. I still have problem spots on my knees and the backs of my hands at times, but staying ahead of any drying has helped to reduce my issues. What does your skincare routine look like? Does it feel like it soothes or irritates your skin? What’s your secret ingredient to feeling your best in terms of your skin?

The In-Gathering

As I worked through what I need after feeling invisible, experiencing invalidation or simply having a stressful day, I realized my inner world is best honored by ritual. My spirituality is at its deepest when I follow my own natural rhythms. Whenever and wherever, I can honor each part of myself. I invite you to customize the following for your own practice.

Setting the Scene

Create a space for ritual. This can be as simple as lighting a candle, laying out a special cloth, or brewing a cup of tea. It can be creating an elaborate altar or traveling to a place in nature to which you feel called. All that matters is that it is made sacred by your intentional presence.

Begin by centering yourself on your breath. Invite your senses in, one-by-one. If you having trouble focusing, play calming music or listen to nature sounds.

A Safe Place for All

In turn, welcome* each part of self. Some I chose to honor are the vulnerable, the eager, the nurturing, the brave and the wise. You may have other parts that need representation. Allow each to share with you whatever they want to share, without judgement. Ask the other parts to sit back and grant space while each one shares. Parts may make a request of others, which should be held with care.

Body, Heart, Mind and Spirit

After each part has shared, concentrate again on your breath. Inhabit every corner of your body. Listen to your body as a whole and through its systems, observing what it needs. Focus on what it may want to reveal or release.

Allow your emotions to channel and course through your body. Meet each one with a loving embrace. Notice them shift and dance.

Attend to your mental state. Notice the pattern and pace of your thoughts. Observe them come and go.

Finally, turn to your Spirit. Allow it to reveal itself to you through your senses. Touch the moon and sun cycles, the sky, earth, rain and fire and the season. Let nature guide you deeper into your soul.

Symbols of Love

Breath again, and ask of yourself, all of yourself present, what love looks like here and now. To the best of your ability, provide this love to yourself. Note any hesitancy, and then move through it with care. Embrace yourself.

A Closing Prayer

Finalize your ritual by spending time in quiet meditation, honoring yourself for making time to gather yourself whole and to recognize your worth. Incorporate whatever words and movements feel holy in this moment. Be the prayer your soul needs to feel.

*If you are new to inner/self-work and you hold a trauma history, this practice could be destabilizing. I encourage you to first work with a trusted therapist before engaging in this ritual and to take as slow of a pace as needed. Self-care practices such as spending time in nature, running a gentle bath or settling into your breath may be safe places to start to connect with parts of self.

Deepening the Stretch (Today's Daily Presence)

Today’s Daily Presence card centers on the lower back, a site easily filled with tension, pain and discomfort. When I bring my attention to this area of my body, it feels blocked, so locked in muscular tautness that I cannot sense any communication from it to the rest of my being. I believe that this is more the result of my posture than a holding in of emotions, but, if I’m being honest, it’s never relaxed enough for me to be able to tell the difference.

I chose to honor this area of my body by engaging in yogic stretches to try to loosen it. In doing so, I quickly realized that the lack of maneuverability my hamstrings afford probably contributes to the limited range of motion of which my lower back is capable. This article confirmed my suspicions. So, I added some hamstring stretches and felt at least the lowest part of my back release a bit.

Overall, since I’ve been on T, I have had a significant drop in my chronic pain and have become less consistent in stretching. Connecting the muscle groups as I did today has shown me how easy it is to adjust my comfort level with minimal effort and attention, so I hope I can be more cognizant of what my body needs going forward. How is your lower back today? Does any discomfort you feel there relate to your hamstring or other muscles?