Archive for November, 2016

Well-Being with Whitney: Napping Away Holiday Stress?

Wednesday, November 30th, 2016

The “napping pod” swung gently back and forth while the person inside slept in darkness (wearing a sleep mask over his eyes) and quiet (thanks to noise-canceling earphones). Although the pod looked like a giant cradle, the person sleeping there wasn’t a baby — it was a businessman wearing a suit. I laughed at that sight when I saw it in an airport lounge. But naps are a serious trend right now, fueling lots of new businesses offering customers places to take “power naps” for stress relief and greater well-being. And now, during the holiday season, naps are more popular than ever. Big meals and Christmas cookies tend to make us sleepy because of the way carbs affect our brains, and naps help us manage stress during the holidays, as well.

I have to confess that I don’t usually take naps. When I worked at The Salvation Army’s USA headquarters (which had a designated napping room), I failed miserably every time I tried to use it, because I worried that I’d be late going back to my desk if I overslept, so I could never relax enough to go to sleep in the first place. Not only that, but I still have a lingering sense of guilt about napping whenever I do (rarely) take an opportunity to do so. It just seems lazy, somehow, to me.

But sleep studies say otherwise. According to the National Sleep Foundation, brief naps (those that last only 20 to 30 minutes) can help improve people’s moods, alertness, and performance. So I shouldn’t worry about naps harming my productivity when they can actually improve it.

In fact, Psalm 127:2 dismisses concerns about skipping sleep in an effort to be more productive and encourages trusting God enough to simply sleep when our bodies and souls need rest: “In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat — for he grants sleep to those he loves.”

This holiday season, I’m going to try taking some brief naps from time to time, as a way of trying to manage stress better. I won’t be shelling out money to rent a fancy napping pod (and certainly not one that looks like a giant baby cradle!) but I’ll make some time to relax on my bed during some afternoons at home, set an alarm for 30 minutes, and see what happens.

Do you take afternoon naps? Why or why not? How could you reduce your  holiday stress this year by improving the quality of your sleep?

Well-Being with Whitney: Your Holiday Stress Detox Prescription — Patience

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2016

Warm mineral waters from a mountain spring in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia swirled around my husband Russ and me during a recent visit to the place that George Washington helped make famous as a stress relief destination. By “taking the waters” we were hoping for a fun time together and a stress detox. For centuries, people had raved about the water’s power to relax the soul and cleanse the body of toxins. All thoughts about the current pressures in our lives evaporated like the steam that rose from 102-degree water, even though it felt like we were being boiled like tea or mulled wine for a holiday party.

It took patience to stay in such hot water long enough to experience its well-being benefits. We had to stand up, move around, and drink multiple cups of cold water to stay alert while immersed in the pool. But the healing results were worth the effort. By increasing our blood circulation and making us sweat, the water helped our bodies get rid of toxic chemicals that had collected in our muscles. By lowering our blood pressure and immersing us in a peaceful environment, the water signaled our minds to relax and enjoy the present moment.

Wouldn’t it be great, I thought, to be able to achieve such benefits without having to visit a special place? This holiday season, I’m trying to take home the healing lesson I learned at the famous mountain spring: that stress relief doesn’t really come through quick fixes, but through patiently nurturing good health.

So often during the holidays, I’ve been tempted to think that a quick fix of something fun — like eating another Christmas cookie or watching another TV show — will magically relieve stress. But quick fixes only leave me feeling more broken down by stress.

It’s common to respond to holiday stress in unhealthy ways such as eating too much sugar, drinking too much alcohol, and missing sleep, according to research from the American Psychological Association. For a short while, it feels good to lull on a sofa in front of a holiday movie drinking craft beer and eating chocolate Santas. But once the movie ends, the buzz fades, and the sugar high crashes, you’ll feel worse than you did before. Stress will only surge back when you try to cover it up with a quick fix.

What really works for holiday stress management is the same strategy that works any time of year: patiently taking good care of yourself.

Instead of reacting to the holiday stress that hits you, be proactive by developing a plan to renew your body and soul on a regular basis. Build some margin into your schedule for rest and reflection that will help you stay strong mentally, emotionally, and spiritually during the busy holiday season. Don’t slack off on healthy habits that help you maintain your physical well-being — habits like getting enough sleep and exercise.

Make time to think about what’s causing you the most stress, and then be intentional about doing whatever you can to change those factors. The American Psychological Association research showed that the factors most often causing stress for people included time and money pressures, diet concerns, and family gatherings gone wrong. Let go of unrealistic expectations about these issues and simply try to get through them gracefully. Perfect holidays never actually happen for anyone. But so what? You can still enjoy the season in the midst of imperfect circumstances. Just do your best to reduce stress in advance (like setting a holiday budget, letting go of activities that aren’t really meaningful for you, and enjoying truly meaningful traditions). Then go with the flow for the rest.

Have fun, but in moderation. Instead of having another piece of pie, stop at one. After enjoying some alcoholic punch, drink water for the rest of the party. Go ahead and see a movie, but don’t binge watch several in a row. Make time for enjoyable activities that truly nurture your well-being, such as taking walks, listening to music, and praying or meditating. You can even sit in a hot bath to relax, no mineral springs required (just turn your faucet to a high temperature and throw in some bath salts).

Be patient enough to nurture yourself well. The more patient you are, the more strength you can build to manage stress well this holiday season!

Well-Being with Whitney: What are Your Strengths?

Wednesday, November 16th, 2016

How much more could you accomplish if you focused on your personal strengths rather than your challenges? In a world where disappointing situations and discouraging words from others hit us regularly, finding and using our strengths builds our confidence. It’s never too late to get to know our top strengths and learn how to use them well. In fact, it’s an ongoing process.

Recently, I took a the Gallup StrengthsFinder assessment, which revealed that my top 5 strengths (out of 34 possible options) are: achiever, ideation, input, intellection, and learner. While the results didn’t surprise me (I already knew that I achieve goals well, love to learn, and enjoy working with ideas and information), the report gave me valuable guidance on how to incorporate those strengths into my decisions. Just like others I interviewed for a story on the assessment at George Mason University (GMU), I found that focusing on my strengths helped me make wise choices. Reminding myself of what I most enjoy and am best at doing also silenced the echoes of old thoughts that had made me anxious in the past about my weaknesses. It’s just that kind of empowerment that I love to write about in my work for GMU as writer-in-residence at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being.

We have to be intentional about thinking of our strengths in the stress of our day-to-day demands, which can easily draw our attention to weaknesses that make us feel inadequate. But the more we purposefully focus on our strengths, the more we can do with them.

In the famous Parable of the Talents, Jesus Christ tells the stories of some people who used their strengths well, and some who didn’t. The people who put their strengths to good use got more opportunities to do so. Focusing on strengths opens doors!

Do you know what your top strengths are? If not, take a personality test and talk with people who know you well for clues. Then reflect on, and pray about, those clues to figure out your core strengths. Once you know your strengths, use them as often as you can! Why not enjoy what you do, while making your best contributions to our world in the process?

Well-Being with Whitney: Pursuing Happiness: New Ideas and Walt Disney

Wednesday, November 9th, 2016

Remember the last time you had an unconventional idea that excited you? What happened when you tried to pursue it? All too often, people can discourage those who express innovative ideas, or a lack of opportunities to act on those ideas can disappoint and frustrate them. It’s easy to feel excited by new ideas, but it’s challenging to bring them to fruition. They key to overcome those challenges is persistence. Thankfully, one many who became famous for his unconventional ideas was relentlessly persistent in his efforts to express them: Walt Disney.

Imagine how much less joy there would be in the world without Disney’s pioneering ideas — from beloved animated characters that have entertained generations of children, to the concept of the modern theme park — that have become so popular around the world. I visited the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, California to learn how Disney succeeded — and what his life can teach all of us about pursuing our own innovative ideas.

One of Disney’s most famous quotes is, “If you can dream it, you can do it.” But he experienced his fair share of obstacles to overcome while trying to pursue his pioneering ideas.

Disney had to start over numerous times during his career when he lost progress that he’d made on a project. He was laid off from his first job as an artist, opened his own company but couldn’t find enough customers so went out of business, then eventually earned enough money to invest in a new business — only to lose his first popular animated character (Oswald the Lucky Rabbit) to a dispute with a film producer. Finally, after much determination and persistence, Disney created the Mickey Mouse character and enjoyed some success.

But despite many years of success after that, Disney still had to overcome challenges to bring his innovative ideas to life. There were always difficult circumstances to work around, such as having to explain fanciful ideas to skeptical people and taking on financial debt for new projects.

In the end, though, Disney pursued his ideas because those ideas made him happy, and he believed they would make other people happy — which they did!

Here’s a challenge: Choose one new idea that’s come to your mind recently, and reflect on why it brings you joy and how it can bring joy to other people. Then plan some specific steps you can take to pursue that idea, even if it doesn’t seem practical. Pray for guidance about it, and ask for help from God to turn it into a reality if it’s meant to be. You’ll never know how much joy you can bring into the world until you try!

Well-Being with Whitney: Pursuing Happiness: Creativity and The Silk Road Ensemble

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2016

Searching for happiness? Be creative. Creativity is a major factor in the search for joy. The well-being link between happiness and the creative process was on display powerfully at a concert I attended of the Silk Road Ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma. As Ma commented in the program notes, the group members “find joy in unexpected connections” they create together musically.

A recent research study from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro found that even simple creative activities like cooking meals or drawing pictures lead people to experience joy. The study concluded that “people who reported feeling happy and active were more likely to be doing something creative at the time.”

Sparks of creative energy flew between the musicians as they joyfully played their respective instruments — representing a wide variety of musical traditions from diverse nations — and  listened to each other. The result? They created wonderful music in which they all complemented in each other. Somehow, a Chinese pipa, Galician Spanish bagpipes, and an Iranian kamancheh all blended together to create harmonious music.

The Silk Road Ensemble’s original arrangement of the classic jazz standard “Take the A Train” was my favorite, since they incorporated many unusual instruments (along with more popular ones, like Yo-Yo Ma’s famous cello) and performed with such playful camaraderie. During the song, the joy was evident on each musician’s face, as well as the faces of those of us listening in the audience. The creative, joyful energy pulled me into a blissful state of mind, where I could let go of my inhibitions and join the celebration. So I snapped my fingers to the beat and swayed in my chair to the music (not worrying that my son, who was sitting next to me, told me I looked goofy).

Not only did Silk Road Ensemble members play music; they did so with so much innovation and happiness that they made something new and notable happen. That type of experience is what Yo-Yo Ma refers to when he describes how a good musician “goes beyond knowing and expressing a tradition and becomes an agent of its evolution, creating something new.”

What do you most enjoy doing as a creative outlet? How often have you made time for it lately? What activities can you say “no” to on your schedule to make more room to say “yes” to what truly brings you joy?