Thursday, April 27, 2017

Is Your Anger Under Control Or Are You “Eating Your Heart”?

The ancient Egyptians had a fairly complicated process by which they were allowed  - or not – to access what we might now call “Heaven” after their death. Among other things, they were to approach the gods of the Underworld with a series of negative affirmations: a recitation of all those things they had not done during their lifetimes. Sort of a reverse Ten Commandments as in “I have not killed,” “I have not disrespected my parents,” “I have not stolen.” And one of the negative affirmations was “I have not eaten my heart.”

Certainly they did not mean literally (yuck!), but rather the many emotional or mental ways in which we “eat our hearts.” One of the primary ways being anger.

I was struck by this phrase, as it is scientifically completely accurate. What the ancient Egyptians could not have known by way of modern scientific technology, yet assessed perfectly, is that anger literally “eats our hearts.”

Research shows that “healthy people who are often angry or hostile are 19% more likely than calmer people to get heart disease. Among people with heart disease, those who usually feel angry or hostile fared worse than others.”

It’s easy to see how that works: when you are in the grip of anger, fear, or other powerful negative thoughts and feelings, your heart rate becomes chaotic, irregular, and unpredictable, which means it no longer pumps blood in an orderly manner to your cells. Such a disordered heart rhythm has nasty consequences, such as high blood pressure, which in turn contributes to hardening of the arteries, stroke, kidney disease, and even to the development of heart failure. Not to mention an early demise: according to the CDC, the leading cause of death in the US is cardiovascular disease. Who needs that?

So yes, those ancient Egyptians were spot on: anger does eat your heart. But to be clear, it’s not that occasional “Aargh!!!” that we all experience that eats our hearts. It’s the anger of past hurts you keep fueling day after day with resentment or blame. It’s that slow burn of some perceived injustice that keeps you fuming inside, even though on the outside your happy face is neatly plastered on. It’s reacting too quickly and too dramatically to the ordinary frustrations of life.

Don’t eat your heart. Feel that initial spurt of anger, sure, but as quickly as you can, release it. Express it appropriately, communicate your feelings in as calm and rational a manner as you can, and let it go. Practice meditation or mindfulness to help you navigate life from a calmer place. Do your best to give yourself and others the benefit of the doubt rather than getting yourself all riled up over whatever.

We are all in this together, you know, and as hard as it may be to see sometimes – people (you included) are really doing the best they can in the moment with what they’ve got from where they are. Better to nourish your heart with appreciation for our shared humanity than to harbor anger, which in the end only dims your enjoyment of life, and shortens it.

To give you a visual of the difference appreciation makes to your heart health, here are two graphs, one of your heart rate when you’re experiencing anger, the other of when you’re experiencing appreciation. A picture truly is worth a thousand words!

Monday, April 10, 2017

Doing Good is the Ultimate Stress Reducer

You’re probably aware of the many personal benefits of volunteering, not the least of which is that volunteers tend to enjoy longer, healthier lives. You are no doubt also aware of the already hefty demands on your time: your job/s, spouse/significant other, children, aging parents, relatives, friends, your need to stay physically fit, politically informed, keep up with social media, your boss’s latest mania, etc.

Don’t Put Off Volunteering Until You Have “More Time.” Volunteering may seem to be something uniquely suited to retirees and seniors, i.e., those with lots of time on their hands. Something you figure you’ll do “when I get to those years.” A laudable ambition, for sure. But you’re missing out on a wonderful, easy, cost-free way to increase your health and longevity by deferring volunteering until you’ve run out of things to do.

The misconception is that volunteering requires hours and hours of committed effort. It certainly can, but it doesn’t need to. The essential benefit of volunteering comes from the support that you give to another human being. Someone in need. It’s less a matter of the time involved than it is of the giving of self.

Helping Others Leads to Less Stress. Recent research published in Psychosomatic Medicine (Inagaki et al., 2016), concludes that people who give social support (fancy words for helping others) are less affected by stress. Now, in case you missed the news flash – stress kills. Namely, stress depresses the immune system and can wreak havoc with our cardiovascular system, both of which tend to shorten our life and/or make us miserable. The less affected you are by stress, the more your overall well-being increases.

If the benefit of volunteering comes not from hours and hours of selfless devotion, but from the “giving of self,” how do you do that in practical terms? How do you give of yourself when you barely have time to breathe?

One simple way is to smile. Yes, smiling at people for no good reason is a way to support them, and give of yourself. Smiling at someone to reassure them that things are going to be all right is even better.

Give someone a hug. It doesn’t have to be the love-fest of the century, just a simple acknowledgement of someone’s feeling lonely, or bereft, or upset, a way of saying, “I’m with you, it’s OK.”

Listen. Listen without texting, tweeting or drifting. Listen with your ears, brain and heart. Listen with your eyes. Listening to someone with genuine appreciation or empathy for whatever they are going through or wish to communicate is one of the most powerful ways to support them. Try it with your teenagers, with that co-worker you don’t like, with your partner. even when you’re tired. Listen.

Making others feel better without interfering in their lives, fixing things for them, or enabling their drama – just offering a smile, a hug, your full-on listening – makes them feel supported, not as adrift in whatever upset/unhappiness plagues them. It doesn’t take any more of your time, simply your full attention. In return, you get to feel valuable. You benefit, whether you realize it in the moment or not, from the simple act of supporting someone.

And if you can see your way to giving an hour of your time once a week or even once a month to whatever cause rocks your boat – do it! An hour at the local animal shelter helping out, an hour spent at your local library participating in a children’s reading program, an hour distributing food at the homeless shelter – great! You’ll feel good about yourself, which is good for your mental and physical health, as you do good for others.

Even adolescents benefit from volunteering. Research published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics showed that when Canadian tenth-graders in a recent study began volunteering at an after-school program for children, the high schoolers lost weight and had improved cholesterol profiles as compared to their non-volunteering peers: “Adolescents who volunteer to help others also benefit themselves, suggesting a novel way to improve health.”

You’re may not be that far away from adolescence (OK, several decades, but who’s counting?). Maybe what benefits teenagers in such a measureable manner can benefit you too. It’s worth a try.

If you need inspiration for the long-term benefits of volunteering, take it from Mary Bochanis, 92. She’s the longest-serving Red Cross volunteer in its history. She served for the last 73 years, starting at Walter Reed Hospital (where, as a volunteer, she met her husband, when he was recuperating from a WWII injury), as well as at The Children’s Inn at the NIH for the past 26 years. In 2016, she received the Maryland Governor Larry Hogan’s Lifetime Service Award for her good work. Vivacious, always with a smile, she says that giving just a little bit, one gets so much back in return. Not surprising, she has no plans to stop volunteering.