Sunday, December 31, 2017

Ten Things You Can Do Right Now to Feel Better

Over the past year or so I have noticed that many people I know (and many that I don’t) are complaining about not feeling well. Aches, pains, and general malaise seem to be chronic. Searching on the Internet for products, procedures, or classes that are designed to promote both physical and mental health is a common approach to solving some of the above mentioned problems. It’s no secret that we love supplements, fad diets, and an array of drugs designed to make us feel better quickly and without much effort. Who wouldn't want to just take a pill or eat a certain food to feel better?

Apart from whether or not these quick fixes actually work, one has to wonder about the problems that we are all trying to solve. Is something really wrong?  I believe firmly in the inherent ups and downs of the human condition, those days of lowness or highness that we can’t escape because that is just how humans are made. We are meant to experience the full spectrum of pain and joy. But, I also think that we are often our own worst enemies. We tend to cause, through our own behaviors, many of the so called “problems” that we experience and then try to fix.

All of the above has given me pause to think about what can be done about feeling “unwell." Excluding actual medical complaints and diseases or emotional problems that fall under a doctor’s or health practitioner’s care, I suspect that what causes us to feel bad or unwell is quite simple.  And since I love simple and straightforward solutions, I have come up with a list of ten very basic things that a person can do right now to start feeling better.

1. Get enough sleep: A scientific study isn’t needed to know that a lack of sleep makes a person tired. Feeling tired all the time can be draining. It can make a person feel sick, like they are coming down with a cold or something.  Sleep deprivation can leave you feeling edgy and at loose ends. It can also lead to impatience, can fuel frustrations and generally make life miserable. And being chronically tired is dangerous both for a person’s health and their safety.

What to do:  Keep a regular schedule. Leave your phone somewhere else. Turn off the TV, eliminate as much light as possible and shut down the computer. (Don't keep these things in the bedroom either.) Drink some calming herbal tea or some warm milk. Make sure the bed is comfortable. This isn’t popular these days but everyone needs their own space to sleep, dogs and children included.  Everyone in the household needs to be on board with this plan otherwise it won’t work.

2. Get enough exercise or activity: The roar of outrage is deafening! There’s no time! The truth is that we are all strapped for time. This problem isn’t likely to go away.

What to do: Make the time, end of discussion.  Any amount of activity will help. Just fidgeting your legs at your desk can help. Take the stairs, walk around a parking lot, walk your dog, play catch with the kids, whatever. At first, these activities may seem minimal and hardly worth the effort. The amount of activity isn’t the point. The point is that there is a conscious effort to do something.  That becomes the starting point, the gateway to more activity.  A conscious effort will help build momentum and could lead to other things.

3. Stretch: Stretching might seem like exercise or activity but really, it is a separate idea. Many of us work at the computer for a good portion of the day or are generally sedentary. We are used to doing the same movements over and over again. Muscle stiffness and a general lack of flexibility can be very noticeable when all of a sudden you do some kind of task that you don’t normally do. For me, that’s gardening or yard work. I really can tell that I need to stretch more because after being in the yard for a few hours, I am very sore that night.

What to do: Go back to school! When I was a kid we had P.E. class where we were made to do basic “calisthenics.” Bend over and touch your toes, turn at the waist from right to left, reach your arms to the sky, etc. Basic moves like this can be very invigorating and help to get the blood flowing. Over time, if done regularly, stretching will condition your muscles and tendons making you less likely to be sore after an activity. It could even reduce the chance of injury.

4. Eat enough but not too much : It goes without saying that too much food at any one time can be problematic.  It can leave a person feeling unwell. It can also lead to skipping meals in an effort to “even things out.” Not eating enough is also an issue. Your body and brain are a kind of machine. Think of your car that wouldn’t run without gas. Same thing.

What to do: Excluding people that have eating disorders, medical issues, or who suffer from food insecurity for whatever reason, there really is no reason to not eat properly and regularly. I don’t mean fast food, convenience food, sodas or energy drinks and candy on the fly. I mean things that are found naturally in nature: fruits, veggies, grains (yes!), nuts/seeds, legumes (look them up) and any kind of dairy you can manage, plant based or otherwise. Specialty and fad diets aren’t on the radar here-just good old plain eating regularly and healthfully.  Many people like to eat small, more frequent meals and that is great. Carrying food with you is a good idea and eating at roughly the same time every day will help. The point is to not eat too much and to not eat too little at any one given time. Don’t wait until your stomach is growling so loudly that everyone can hear it. And don’t wait for your tight jeans to tell you that you ate too much. Pay attention, put your fork down and then take one bite at a time. Get going and refuel.

5. Watch sodium intake: This is advice we hear all of the time. Medically speaking, increased intake of sodium can raise your blood pressure over time, making a person more susceptible to heart attacks and strokes. There are also folks with conditions for whom salt is a no-no. It is hard too because sodium is pretty pervasive in much of the prepackaged and convenience foods available, healthy or otherwise.  It’s been my own personal experience that too much sodium just makes me feel bloated and leaves me feeling crappy. From a practical standpoint, I feel very full after I eat a salty meal and don’t really look forward to the next meal because of that fullness. It interrupts a healthy eating cycle.

What to do: Start with your salt shaker and cooking habits. Be honest here. How much are you really using? One teaspoon of salt contains 2300 mg of sodium. Depending on what resource you use, the recommended dosage of sodium is anywhere from 1500 mg to 2300 mg a day. Most Americans get much, much more than these amounts. Why not just simply start with not salting your food? This does take getting used too but over time, your taste buds become used to a lesser amount and in fact, you will start to notice the presence of salt more, rather than the absence.

6. Take medications properly: Barring any issues with cost and affordability, there is no reason not to take medication as prescribed. Subjective arguments don’t count here. Medication is prescribed for many reasons: to clear up an acute or chronic condition or to keep something at bay. Sometimes the reasons are more dire and complex but there are always reasons, even if those reasons seem spurious or not easily understood.

What to do: Make sure to have a very clear understanding of the medications that have been prescribed for you. Why are you taking them and for how long? What are the side effects and how can they be managed?  Don’t skip any doses and be sure to finish the full course of medication even if you feel better.

7. Drink enough water: There are many rules and scientific studies indicating just how much water is enough. None of that matters if you aren’t in the habit of drinking water to begin with. You actually have to drink water in order to reap its benefits. Not drinking water can leave you dehydrated. Not-falling-down-in-the-desert dehydrated but impaired enough so that you feel tired, cranky, and can experience low energy levels. And more often than not, when a person feels hungry they may just need some water!

What to do: Get used to drinking water. Drink some at every meal and every time you have a snack. Have it available and drink it. No fancy containers or expensive bottled water is needed.  Assuming your tap water is safe (you can have it tested), go ahead and fill up a glass. If tap water freaks you out and you can afford to, buy a water filter.  Take a cup with you to work and fill up that way. Flavor the water with fruit or herbs or whatever. Just drink some water and drink it often. And don't forget to eat your fruits and vegetables which naturally contain some water to begin with.

8. Get some fresh air: Remember when your mother told you to go outside for a while and play? (Or something to that effect!) Fresh air is invigorating. Taking nice big gulps of air is calming and can help to re-center a frazzled mind.

What to do: You are breathing already. Why not take that outside? Stand on your porch, in the parking lot or wherever and take some breaths. One, two, three and then maybe take some more.

Slow down for a minute while you are at it and take a look around. Maybe it is raining and going outside isn’t an option. My former brother-in-law told me to open up the garage door and just sort of stand there for a bit. Snowing? Crack the window for a minute and breathe in the cold snowy goodness. Roll down the window in your car. Whatever will do it for you but just do it.

9. Do something for someone else: One of the better pieces of advice that I have read (and I can’t remember where) is that when you are feeling punky or low in your mind, try doing something for someone else. I have to guess that the act of kindness, whatever it is, takes your mind off of your own worries for a bit. It helps to re-center your thinking.

What to do: Small acts matter. Say please, thank you, and you’re welcome. Open the door for someone or let someone at the grocery store with fewer items in their cart go in front of you. Give someone a smile or a pat on the shoulder. Make the bed for your husband or fold the clothes for your wife. Whatever it is, even if it isn’t your responsibility, see what you can do.

10. Slow down; do one thing at a time: Perhaps this isn’t possible for some people but really, it’s good advice for anyone who can manage it. Multi-tasking can help us to feel efficient, as if we are getting things done. My opinion is that this is illusory. Oftentimes doing many things at once can result in a haphazard job. There is something to be said for doing one task at a time thoughtfully and well. Giving something or someone your undivided attention has merit.

What to do: Make a conscious decision to do one thing at a time. The first thing you will notice is that the world will not come to an end! The next thing you may notice is an actual sense of efficiency. Taking time to fully complete a task in a thoughtful way can produce a sense of real accomplishment. The same thing can be true when you take the time to fully listen to the person in front of you. It may seem kind of tedious or taxing at first but in my experience focused listening can actually make me feel calmer and more connected.

It's my hope that some of this basic and old school style advice helps. As with anything out there, use your best judgment and if you have medical issues seek the advice of your health care practitioner. This article isn't meant to substitute for proper care. And with that said, Happy New Year! I hope this blog post is just one of many to come in 2018.


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