Glimmers of Joy Amid Grief, Loss and Loneliness

I’ve been quiet on the blog and social media for the last month or so – and for good reason. Starting in mid-September, my husband and I started to get some bad news about the prognosis for our third son’s health and pregnancy outcome. We were devastated thinking about a child being born into a life of pain and suffering, and at the same time, we were mortified of losing him prematurely.

My body had been sending me signals that something was very “off” throughout this pregnancy and I feared for the worst. When I found out it was another boy (I have two sons already), my gut instinctively pulled hard: This little one is not okay. I could feel this truth deep down.

Sure, every pregnancy is different. I was told this countless times. “But this feels really different,” I kept repeating to friends and family, at a loss of what else to say.

As a health professional, who is very in tune with her body, I knew this time was wildly different from both of my other pregnancies. I couldn’t take a deep breath, my lungs struggling against some intangible resistance, and I couldn’t read bedtime stories without my heart racing. Every time I climbed the stairs in our home to retrieve a child from naptime or to help with brushing teeth, I would gasp for air.

In all of my adult life, I’ve never been sidelined from exercise. Not after having either of my other sons and not after being hit by a car. At these crossroads, I carefully scaled back my fitness efforts, focused on reducing inflammation, and moved my body through gentle, therapeutic exercises. During this pregnancy though, I could barely do anything. I felt crippled and perpetually exhausted, like life itself was invisibly seeping out from my pores, escaping me.

I told myself it’s all worth it for a healthy baby.

But…what happens when we don’t get our happy ending? What happens when our plans become undone? Or worse yet, what becomes of us when loss and grief strike with the force of a wrecking ball to the jaw?

 

 

That’s where I landed this pregnancy: At the pit of loss. The valley of the shadow of death. The mysterious somewhere between here and there, the intersection of heaven and earth, the place of struggle between shattered dreams and hope. The great purgatory of life where, at our worst moments, we must find the strength to pull ourselves up and out, despite being exhausted to our bones and filled inside with the stuff of nightmares.

I had already experienced loss with a former pregnancy that took place before the conception and birth of my second son. That miscarriage filled me with sadness and dashed hope, but I managed to put myself back together rather quickly, all things considered, and was soon thereafter filled with a complicated mixture of excitement and anxiety when I became pregnant again.

The impending nature of this loss felt different given what we had learned. It felt anticipated, agonized over, feared, and maybe, if I’m being completely honest, like something that might be the safest thing to happen to our child. This impending loss held implications that our child might not have to suffer from complicated surgeries after being born with a slim chance of survival. It would mean that his big brothers would never shed tears and sob into their parents’ arms about something so traumatic that their little-big hearts would strain to understand while simultaneously feeling it deeply. No parent ever wishes to lose a child. When we found out that we had lost our sweet Jake, we broke apart.

 

 

We prayed over our son’s loss with a chaplain at the hospital before surgery. Funeral arrangements were already in place. We felt a sense of peace in the middle of this loss, strange peace, the variety of which only comes from a greater power in the universe. Leading with a spiritual mindset, I prayed and said one last goodbye to my son as my vision went black on the surgery table.

When I woke up, I saw that the clock on the wall was showing a time that was alarmingly late in the day. I expected to wake up nearly four hours earlier than those glaring, sharp red numbers indicated.

What happened? This isn’t right, I recall thinking.

And I assumed correct: Things were definitively not right. 

While still in an anesthesia fog, the surgeon explained to me that I had experienced rare and unexpected medical complications during what is otherwise a routine and short surgery. Although the medical team thought that everything had gone smoothly, I began to bleed excessively. The doctors tried to find the source of bleeding but faced the grim truth that the bleeding was internal and the only way to get it under control was through emergency abdominal surgery. 

My throat felt tight and dry from being intubated as I regained consciousness and blinked at those red clock numbers. I groggily repeated the same questions over and over again to the surgeon, trying to grasp the reality of what had just happened. The doctor kept explaining to me that an artery and one of my fallopian tubes had ruptured and that I now had stitches from my naval to pelvis, both internal and external. As I looked down at my body I noticed large needles secured into veins on both hands from blood transfusions.

Minutes away from a hysterectomy, they said, but thankfully it was averted at last minute. 

Almost a hysterectomy? Potentially life-threatening blood loss? Emergency open surgery? My mind was in a panic. I tried to sit up straight in the recovery room only to be pulled backwards onto the hospital bed with the unbelievable force of a thunderous headache. 

The complications were so much for me to mentally and emotionally process that I briefly forgot about the grief we had been feeling. When it finally resurfaced, I felt like I might not be able to breathe. It felt like my entire life was ending and beginning, all at once.

My recovery nurse at the hospital said, “We’re going to take it one hour at a time, sweetie. Today is your day one.” And somehow, that’s exactly what it felt like. I was no longer the same woman – not emotionally, physically or even spiritually. I had been stripped down and given the chance to rebuild myself from the deepest parts of grief and loss.   

The rebuilding part is all very fresh and new…and painful. But, as an eternal optimist, I know that I will find a way to rise up from this, bearing in mind what I have learned through the years about the intricate web of wellness and how it steers the healing process. Although it’s a long story, and one I’m not ready to share in detail, there was a period of time both right before and after the surgery when I felt so much connection with the universe; with God; with a higher power calling me to lean into faith and trust. 

I can’t say with any measure of confidence that every bad thing that happens in life has profound meaning or a silver lining. I don’t believe that rock solid faith equates to good outcomes for a person. Sometimes, bad things simply happen to good people and there’s no sense or reason to it. Lives can be derailed and sometimes tragically never get back on the tracks.

But when the busy and self-centered nature of our lives fades to the background, and when all the noise is just so…noisy…that suddenly it sounds far off in the distance…in that place of great tragedy, I have felt that there is a hidden presence. A great comforter. Something – or someone – that is there, despite all logic and denial. And it is enough.   

“How is it enough?” You might ask. 

I can’t claim to have the explanation. It’s something that is simply felt; a raw and honest truth that is born from deep within, whispering to us that we are beautiful. We are loved. We are safe.

Contrary to logic, my husband and I have also felt glimmers of joy in the middle of this season of suffering… Not because we wanted to lose a child or felt relieved of all grief because he would never experience pain. Joy doesn’t come from those horrors… 

 

 

True, unbridled, unexpected joy openly presented itself to us through the love and compassion that we received from those who walked through this tragedy with us.

Thanks to loved ones checking on us, we felt glimmers of hope on the other side of exhausting, anxiety-riddled nights spent tossing and turning in our beds, awaiting whatever the future might hold. Friends who sent thoughtful gifts and messages of support from far and near helped us feel a little less lonely and scared while we sat at the doorstep of loss in the midst of an already-very-lonely pandemic. Because of social distancing no one ever stepped into my kitchen to hug me tightly while I cried, but it felt like they did, just the same. The love was so palpable and tender. So near.

Genuine compassion is rare…and we recognized in the middle of our deepest hurt that what we were receiving from others was one of the truest gifts possible in this short life of ours. For this, we are eternally grateful. Not everyone experiencing grief and loss has a solid support system. I know there are many lonely, hurting people out there in the world. To all of these people, and in particular, to women walking through an unexpected season of child loss from any reason – miscarriage, stillbirth, ending a wanted pregnancy, infant loss, or the death of a child at any age, young or old, I hope you know that a hidden presence exists near your suffering. You’re never truly alone.  

 

 

I’m battling fatigue from all this trauma alongside feelings of anxiety and grief every time that I catch a glimpse of the newly-forming scar in the center of my stomach. I know that there is a lot of work to do; physically to recover, mentally to become whole again, and spiritually to persevere and allow my scar to slowly…somehow…become beautiful. Today, my healing incision serves as a reminder of one of the hardest times of my life. It’s easy to resent the sight of it. But, as one who has recovered from trauma before, I know that pain can become beautiful. It’s peculiar how life can happen like that. And I know that wellness of all kinds is necessary for facilitating the metamorphosis. 

So, off I crawl…

Off I fly.

 

“Wounds don’t heal the way you want them to, they heal the way they need to. It takes time for wounds to fade into scars. It takes time for the process of healing to take place. Give yourself that time. Give yourself that grace. Be gentle with your wounds. Be gentle with your heart. You deserve to heal.” -Dele Olanubi

 

Yours in health and wellness,

Maggie 

 

 

 

 

 

Walking for Weight Loss and Metabolic Health

I recently had the pleasure of joining MyFitnessPal as a featured expert for the fourth time. I’m so honored! The pandemic has proven that nothing beats the medicinal power of getting outside of our homes for fresh air and a brisk walk. Oftentimes, the weight loss potential that can happen with daily walking is underestimated. Check out Your Fail-Safe Walking Formula for Weight Loss to learn how to use this healthy habit to shed pounds and feel great!

8 Reasons Why Running Hurts

More people than ever are turning to outdoor running as a safe option for exercise during the pandemic. Whether you’re new to running or a regular runner, it’s likely that you’ve experienced pain associated with running at some point. This is extremely common. We tend to believe that running is something everyone can and should be able to enjoy since it’s one of the most natural forms of exercise. Unfortunately, the reality is that running without pain is not always the norm. Regular running takes a toll on the body and requires proactive measures for it to remain pain free. 

Below are eight commons reasons that running might cause pain, along with exercises, stretches and actions you can take to keep yourself healthy and ready to hit the pavement.

Please note: I will be posting videos on my IGTV over the next few weeks to help people better understand the exercises and stretches under “actions to take” for each issue. Join me on Instagram for the latest updates.

   

1. IT Band Syndrome

Pain Location: Lateral aspect of knee, top of hip or both

What it is: Overuse of the connective band of tissue that runs from the hip to the knee on the outside of the thigh. Although most commonly associated with overuse from running, the IT band can also get excessively tight from weak muscles in the glutes, hips, legs and low back. If you feel pain or tightness on the outside of your knee when your heel hits the ground during running then your IT band is in need of stretching and/or cross-training for injury prevention.

Actions to Take: A balance of flexibility and strength training is usually key for preventing IT band syndrome. Foam rolling is a great first action to take even though it may feel uncomfortable on the outer thigh if your IT band is especially tight. It will get easier the more you do it. (I recommend a high-density roller by SPRI.) Stretching the IT band can also be done by crossing the tight leg behind the other and leaning the torso away from the affected side. Lastly, strengthen weak muscles and replace a couple days of running with strength training for a while. Two great exercises to start with are clam shells and hip bridges while squeezing a medicine ball, pilates ring or yoga block between the thighs. 

 

2. Weak Transverse Abdominus

Pain Location: Low back, hip flexor tightness, sometimes achilles pain too

What it is: The transverse abdominus (TA) is a muscle that wraps around the core and stabilizes it. Subsequently, it also helps stabilize the pelvis and the spine. When the TA is strong, it helps prevent low back pain and keeps the pelvis in the correct position. When it’s weak, the pelvis drifts into an anterior tilt and places strain on the lumbar spine. The TA can become weak from lack of use, incorrect use or improper pelvic and spinal posture. 

Actions to Take: Physical therapy and Pilates training are both great options for learning how to properly engage the TA. If these options are inaccessible then simply start with supine pelvic tilts, dead bugs, and planks drawing the belly button to spine so that the stomach flattens.  

 

 

3. Large Q-angle

Pain Location: Medial aspect of knee; can result in patellofemoral pain syndrome, chrondromalacia or ACL injuries

What it is: The q-angle is a measurement from the patella (knee cap) to a point on the pelvis. This measurement tends to be larger for women due to greater pelvic width (“them birthing hips!”). The larger the q-angle, the greater the stress on the knee due to the patella tracking more laterally instead of smoothly up and down.

Actions to Take: Although structural width of the pelvis is obviously out of our individual control, women can take proactive measures to strengthen the medial aspect of the knee and to keep the lateral aspect from being too tight. This might include wall squats and glute strengthening for enhanced stability as well as isolated quadricep extension with rotation to target the vastus medialis obliqus (VMO) – i.e. the most medial muscle fiber in the quadriceps group. Stretching tight muscles such as hamstrings, calves and the lateral aspect of the quadricep can also prove helpful.

 

4. Unstable Ankles

Pain Location: Ankle pain or weakness and/or plantar fascia pain. Can also impact higher joints resulting in knee, hip and/or low back pain. 

What it is: Unstable ankles result from weak muscles in the feet and/or lower legs. Core stabilization also impacts how stable the ankles are. If you notice discomfort in the ankles or feet when running then you might need to improve stability, especially if you are prone to ankle sprains.   

Actions to Take: Balancing exercises can be useful for improving ankle stability. It’s easy to get creative with how these are done too (single leg reach, balancing side leg lifts, dancer’s pose, warrior III, and more). Towel grabs and other foot strengthening exercises can also prove useful. Rolling out the plantar fascia with a pin roller or on a lacrosse ball can help release tight areas that compensate for weakness. 

 

 

5. Improper Footwear

Pain Location: Pain usually begins in the foot but higher joints can eventually become painful if footwear is not corrected

What it is: Improper footwear can be the result of shoes that are worn out, tied too tight or loose, or are not correctly fitted to your foot shape, length and/or width. Running shoes that fit properly should have approximately 1/2-inch room after the toe before the end of the shoe. They should not cut off circulation when laced up and also should not slip down the heel. A proper fit for your arch is extremely important too. Whether you have a neutral, high or low arch matters a lot for running comfort and shoes should be fitted according to your individual needs. You know you’re ready for a new pair of shoes when you’ve run between 300-500 miles and the tread of the shoe is worn down. If you’re not sure how many miles you’ve run then a good rule is to replace shoes every six months.  

Actions to Take: I like to tell people to visit smaller, local running stores to get fitted. Most have die-hard, passionate runners working in them and they are often trained in basic gait analysis so they can get you the right shoe.

 

6. Weak Abductors

Pain Location: Weak abductor muscles (think the lateral part of your glutes that stabilize your hips, low back and outer thighs) can result in IT band syndrome, patellofemoral pain syndrome and/or abductor tears. Most of these injuries are from overuse of the muscles while running and/or jumping during sports. Overuse doesn’t always mean that a muscle is strong. As is usually the case with abductors, these injuries stem from weak muscles.   

What it is: Weak abductor muscles can be identified in one of several ways: 1) Perform a squat and note if your knees drift inward. This is a telltale sign that the abductors are weaker than the opposing muscle group (the adductors). 2) Make note of your foot’s arch. Many people who are flat-footed and excessively pronate tend to have weak abductors. 3) Perform a clamshell or side lying leg lift with the leg that is lying on top. If this feels difficult right away or quickly after starting, your muscles may need strengthening.

Actions to Take: Clamshells and side-lying leg lifts are two of the first exercisees I recommend to clients, as well as supervised side lunges with correct form. Once a baseline of strength is established therabands are a great way to ramp up resistance and build on progress. 

 

 

7. Poor Running Gait

Pain Location: Poor running gait can impact any joint or muscle in your body from head to toe depending on what the issue is. 

What it is: Normal running is smooth and not “jumpy” looking. When there is excessive up/down movement that places extra stress on the joints. There should be a brief “flight phase” when both feet are off the ground but it shouldn’t look like a person is jumping rope or doing jumping jacks. Posture should be upright, not slumped, and arms should be bent at roughly 90 degrees at the elbows, staying relatively close to the body and swinging gently forward and back with slight rotational movement. If you notice that you’re bending forward in your torso while running or that your arms swing really low, high or wide then you may experience some upper body discomfort as well as lose energy efficiency in the exercise. Feet should be landing and rolling from mid-foot to forefoot smoothly, not striking hard with the heel first. Lastly, stride length should be appropriate for your size and athleticism. For most people, a large stride length reduces hip extension and causes issues. If you feel that you’re a “heel striker” then correcting your stride length might be the place to start. 

Actions to Take: It’s extremely hard to analyze your own gait. As you may be able to tell, gait analysis is complicated and takes an expert’s experienced eyes and feedback. You can start by filming yourself running outdoors or on a treadmill and seeing if anything stands out as appearing unusual – sometimes you might surprise yourself! But your best bet is to get with a running coach or personal trainer who specializes in running. You could even test your luck at a local running store when you get fitted for your next pair of shoes. Sometimes these stores have treadmills set up so that experts can help offer feedback on your shoe and running gait needs. 

 

8. Poor Running Posture & Thoracic Weakness

Pain Location: To be fair, I already mentioned poor running posture in the last section about running gait, but it warrants more attention. Nearly every week I see a handful of runners in my neighborhood alone who are in dire need of postural help. You may consider improving your posture while running if you feel pain in your upper back, neck and/or shoulders afterwards. Poor posture can translate down your body and result in weak glutes, tight hip flexors and improper foot strike. 

What it is: When thoracic and spinal extension muscles such as traps, rhomboids, lats, rear delts, erector spinae, multifidus and more are weak then it becomes difficult for the torso to maintain an upright position during running. As the body slumps forward the lungs close off, making breathing more labored, and the hip flexors take over work that hip extensors should be driving. 

Actions to Take: Strength training several times a week is critical to correct posture so that you can run pain free and so that you can *live* pain free. Posture impacts quite a lot. One of the most important places to start is with thoracic extensions. In other words, teaching your body to isolate and lift tall from the upper back. Trunks lifts from a mat or prone on a bosu ball are great options. Also, it will be important to do full spine extensions from a mat. Quadruped exercises and supermans are great beginner exercises. Dumbbells and weight machines might also come in handy to target the rotator cuff, traps, rhomboids, rear delts, lats, etc. To sum, kick-start a strength training program focused on the back and/or find one to follow along with.

 

Run and be happy (& pain free)!

Yours in health and wellness,

Maggie

 

My Favorite Wellness Products Right Now

I’ve been averse to product pushing for years. I can’t tell you how many pyramid scheme companies and product rep opportunities I’ve turned down – it’s a lot. It’s just not me. I’m a writer and services girl – here for you always if you have fitness and wellness questions or needs! All that said, I recognize the value in trusted recommendations, especially as we collectively seek to improve our wellness and quarantine-life experiences. So, here are my favorite wellness products at the moment…

Molekule Air Filter 

This Molekule Air Filter might be the ideal solution for your seasonal allergy, dust & dander, mold, virus and bacteria concerns. The Molekule is designed to filter *and* destroy these particles, meaning that they won’t get recirculated in your living space. Molekule is designed to help you breathe easier thanks to its Photo Electrochemical Oxidation (PECO) nanotechnology. It even removes things like VOC fumes and odors from the air. The design in the photo below is for 250 sq ft but other models cover larger rooms (for a price). I think this is a really wonderful option for some people, and well worth the price – especially for city dwellers in apartment or condo buildings. 

 

Good Days Start with Gratitude

Five years ago I wrote a deeply personal blog article titled My Diary. Air France. A Happy Ending. It was about losing my self-made version of a gratitude journal in an airport in France and how it miraculously made its way back to me months later. I will confess that I’ve fallen out of the habit of keeping a gratitude journal and have substituted other forms of gratitude practice and self care in its place, but I will be the first to resume the daily habit should I ever find the need….and honestly, that timing might be soon. This Good Days Start with Gratitude journal might be the perfect thing for your mental health too. But feel free to start or end your day with it. As someone who used to struggle with sleep, I found that reflecting on positives at the end of the day helped me the most.

 

Booty Kicker

If you’re interested in sticking to your Barre routine but don’t want to venture away from the comfort of your bedroom then check out the Booty Kicker! My best friend (you know who you are!) is a hardcore Barre girl and swears by the Booty Kicker. It has a rack for dumbbells built in (weights sold separately) and is easy to mount a screen onto so you can follow along virtually with your favorite instructor. It also folds down for easy storage. I’ve found that many group exercise classes are relatively easy to simulate with props at home, with the exception of Barre, but that’s now a thing of the past!

 

Sports Research Collagen Peptide Powder

I guess I’m finally getting on board with the whole Collagen supplement thing. Although collagen can help with skin and hair health, that has never motivated me to use it. I generally find that my skin and hair are healthiest when my nutrition is well balanced and natural. But recently, I learned more about how collagen supplements might help joint pain thanks to helping the body rebuild cartilage. As someone who sometimes struggles from back pain due to an old accident, I’ve often wondered what my old age has in store for me with joint health. Collagen supplements just might be worth the cost! Plus, this Collagen Peptide brand is unflavored so it can be added to virtually any beverage – even hot coffee or tea!

 

SPRI High Density Foam Roller

I have and will always be a raging fan of foam rolling. I do it almost every day and the benefits are tremendous for my physical comfort. Foam rolling helps relax the myofascial tissue surrounding our muscles, reducing areas of restriction, tightness, discomfort, and aches. My favorite style of foam roller is high density like this one by SPRI and it comes in 3 sizes; 12 inch, 18 inch or 36 inches long. If you’re thinking of traveling with it then opt for the 12 inch, but if you want one for the house then I suggest the 36 inch. A long foam roller will allow you greater freedom of movement when rolling out and is a great tool to lie on vertically for chest-opening stretches.

 

URBNFit Pilates Toning Ring

Pilates circles like the URBNFIT Pilates Toning Ring are often overlooked by people stocking up on equipment for their home gyms. I’m here to get this magical prop on your radar! Not only are Pilates rings extremely versatile props but they are also one of a few pieces of home exercise equipment that’s excellent for targeting the inner thigh muscles. The URBNFIT ring comes in 3 colors and includes an accompanying smartphone app that guides both seasoned athletes and beginners through appropriate and effective Pilates exercises. This is a great combo for anyone looking to switch up their home workout routine. 

 

Zyllion Shiatsu Back and Neck Massager

Are you as big of a fan of massage as I am? The fact that two products on this short list of favs include massage-like functions should tell you a little bit about me (and how often I pester my husband for foot and neck rubs). But *this* Zyllion Shiatsu Back and Neck Massager is a dream for anyone who has tight neck and shoulder muscles from uncomfortable work-at-home conditions and/or pandemic-related stress. Not only does the Zyllion massage sore muscles but it also helps them relax through heat. No more need to miss the spa! You can attach it to a high back desk chair or simply lean against it on the couch. Once you return to the traditional schedule of commuting to work you can even put it across your driver’s seat so you can decompress to and from the office! 

 

Fit Simplify Resistance Loop Exercise Bands

Leave it to a pandemic and social media to take resistance bands (which have been around forever) and make them look sexy. Almost everywhere you turn there are so-called fitness influencers using them in exercise video clip tutorials – because they work! These resistance loop exercise bands by Fit Simplify are a popular choice in the sea of options and come in 5 different levels of resistance. The bands are portable and easy to store. They can also be used for a wide range of exercises from physical therapy and stretching to strength training. 

 

What are your favorite wellness brands? Have you found anything to be especially useful or enjoyable during the pandemic? Please drop your favs in the comments so we can all help each other out!

Yours in health and wellness,

Maggie

*Full disclaimer: I will receive a small sales commission for purchases from affiliated links in this post. Any and all proceeds will be used for the blog’s maintenance and future content. 

 

 

How I Managed to Breastfeed Two Difficult Babies

Breastfeeding…ugh. Even after three collective years of doing it, I’m still baffled by how difficult it can be. Breastfeeding is by far and large the most challenging thing I’ve done in my life. Period. And that’s saying a lot for someone who has rehabbed an injured back following getting hit by a car. I’ve run several grueling marathons too. Breastfeeding still takes the cake. Unmedicated labor (I shudder in memory) or breastfeeding? I can’t believe I’m about to say it but yes, breastfeeding. But here’s the thing, through all the self-sacrifice and uphill battles to exclusively breastfeed, I would do it again for the next baby, if possible. It’s one of the things in my life that I’m most proud of. 

 

 

I’m sharing my stories and struggles today to shed light on how hard breastfeeding can be. It’s not always hard for every mom, but it was for me and I know it is for many. If it weren’t so complicated and if moms felt better supported then I imagine that the 4 out of 5 moms who start out nursing their newborns, presumably with the goal of breastfeeding, wouldn’t drop in numbers so drastically and quickly. By 3 months old only 50% of babies are still exclusively breastfed and by 6 months old only 25% still are. If you’re asking yourself,

“Why does it feel so hard, unnatural, exhausting, painful, time-consuming, emotional, lonely, etc. to feed my baby?”

…then you’re not alone. Many moms think this but shame themselves into keeping silent about it because they feel it’s a sign they are “bad moms.”

If you struggle with breastfeeding please hear me when I say:

You are NOT a bad mom.

We are all doing our best. End of story. I hope sharing my personal breastfeeding journey will help some tearful or tired mom out there to feel less lonely. There are many tips and tricks for successful nursing that you can read about on other websites such as KellyMom and United States Lactation Consultant Association, but that’s not my objective today. For now, we’re talking simply about you, mama, and the emotional experience of the whole boob and baby thing.

 

Breastfeeding Baby #1: Carter

My first son was born a full month early. As a new mom I was completely bewildered. He was so tiny – his fingers, toes, nose, and mouth. Mouth…mouth…if you’ve ever had pain from a full-term baby’s latch just imagine that pain with a smaller, preemie mouth. According to the Loire Infant Follow-up Team (LIFT) study, only 16% of premature babies were breastfeeding at the time of hospital discharge, an indication of how difficult it is to nurse them. Having a premature baby is overwhelming and taxing in more ways than I can list, and every mom is dealing with unique health challenges and concerns for their child. I got lucky that my son, Carter, didn’t have to spend any time in the NICU but not so lucky for the fact that he had jaundice that required returning to the hospital for a bilirubin treatment amid a colossal blizzard.

Despite everything, I was feeling very empowered about breastfeeding in the first few days of my son’s life…that is, until returning to the hospital and having to place Carter’s wet diapers in a plastic bin to be weighed throughout a sleepless night while snow stacked up over 10 feet high outside. Carter’s scrawny limbs flailed under the bilirubin lights and he wore nothing but a diaper. The urge to snuggle and swaddle him tore me apart. Carter was crying all night and trying to claw the protective eye wear off, despite multiple nurses’ attempts to change the fit and even tape it to his delicate skin. I was confused about how I was only supposed to take him out of the lights once every 2 hrs for 20 minutes when it took him about 40 minutes total to nurse at that point.

 

 

I started trying to pump for the first time (not recommended in the heat of stress and without proper support) so that I could bottle or syringe feed him under the lights. I proudly showed a nurse what I got from pumping for a few minutes and she shook her head and told me that it wasn’t much of anything and that “some moms will pump several ounces from each breast.” I will never forget how deflated I felt in that moment. I was trying my best in challenging circumstances and needed emotional support that was completely absent. In retrospect, I think I actually pumped a normal amount of milk for only a few days postpartum and a premature baby. That nurse should have boosted me up and encouraged me to keep honing my new craft. Instead, as can so often be the case, new moms are made to feel that their bodies are insufficient and can’t be trusted. This is so far from the truth that it brings me to tears.

That night, as my baby flailed under the bilirubin lights, I made a decision based solely on my maternal instinct, and which defied doctors’ orders. I let Carter nurse on/off all night long, with none of the called-for time restrictions, and I swaddled his arms to help him sleep, letting the light shine on his face and legs. I changed diapers under the lights too. Otherwise, and mostly, he was pulled to my breast as I fought off sleep with every weary muscle in my body. In the morning, Carter’s jaundice had improved enough to be discharged. In my most sincere opinion, it was because of the power of breastmilk, not the lights.

Did I mention that Carter was born with a tongue tie? Yes, well…this explains some of the difficulty nursing too, doesn’t it? A tongue tie makes it nearly impossible for a baby to latch and nurse properly, almost always causing severe pain and nipple bleeding for the mom. I can still recall how he would pull on and off, trying to find an effective latch. I had severe letdown pain each time that felt like someone stabbing a knife in my chest. I would practice deep breathing and wiggle my toes until he finally settled and the letdown pain subsided. I burned through so many tubes of nipple cream that first month while we waited for the procedure to resolve his tongue tie.

Those initial challenges were substantial and it was *very* tempting to quit. After the first month, my sore nipples healed and things settled a bit, but Carter being born early meant I needed to keep nursing him frequently through the night instead of letting him dictate the pace. By the time Carter weighed enough to go to on demand at night, he was so habituated to waking frequently that he never slept longer than a few hours until 6 months old when we did some sleep training. Sleep deprivation was and will continue to be the one thing that physically, mentally and emotionally wrecks me.

 

 

All the early struggles were followed by normal breastfeeding hurdles like teething, biting, feeding frenzies, pumping, etc. When I reached my 12-month goal for breastfeeding I was shocked that I wasn’t ready to wean. I kept counting down to Carter’s first birthday but then suddenly, weaning didn’t feel right. Nursing was finally snuggly, “easy,” and something I came to enjoy. Sitting down to rest after chasing a young toddler around and enjoying the sweet stillness together was absolutely lovely, even with toes dancing across my face and hands tangling my necklaces. I couldn’t believe how I had transformed: I turned into a mom who liked nursing and shed tears when the bond reached its conclusion when Carter was around 1.5 years old.

 

Breastfeeding Baby #2: Colby

When my second son arrived right on time at 40 weeks with a great latch from the start (unlike his older brother), I thought to myself: “I’ve got this. I’m a pro by now.” I really tried to boost my ego and relished in staying more laid back than the first time. We took our full-term baby home with no known health complications and celebrated that this time would be “easy.” Oh how wrong we were!

My second baby, Colby, was a content little guy. Except for 15-20 minutes of crying each night at 10 pm that first month, he was happy, slept well and nursed like a champ. Well, so I thought. Colby was gaining weight but not as quickly as the doctor wanted. He slipped a little from his growth curve but there was nothing of major concern. This confused me because I was very engorged at the time and felt I had an oversupply with a strong letdown. The pediatrician anticipated that the stress of traveling with my baby a month after his birth (I was matron of honor for my cousin’s wedding) had taken a toll on his feeding schedule and my milk supply. I worked hard to add nursing sessions when we got back home, even though my baby didn’t seem to demand them. In retrospect, this is when I needed to get with a private lactation consultant. The hospital-led lactation support group I attended was warm and fuzzy but not helpful enough.

 

 

Around the second month of Colby’s life we were told that he needed to be put in a rhino brace for clicking hips. This is protocol for hip dysplasia and although Colby didn’t have full-blown hip dysplasia he was at risk for it, ironically the result of his tight positioning in the womb (which hadn’t been fully stretched in my prior pregnancy due to pre-term labor). I could always tell that Colby’s latch majorly suffered once in the rhino brace, especially on one side due to torticolis that would be soon diagnosed, but I was so sleep deprived and the hip brace was such an ordeal to take on and off all day for diaper and outfit changes that the latch issue slipped to the back of my mind. To this day, I wish that it hadn’t.

By the time Colby’s hip brace was no longer needed he had dropped precipitously in weight and had reached the 3rd percentile, perhaps in part due to increasing reflux that was made worse by the brace. Even still, I couldn’t understand – I know what I’m doing, right? I successfully breastfed another child for 1.5 years already! My dilemma just goes to show how every baby is wildly different, even for veteran moms, and that breastfeeding must be flexible and responsive. I was very grateful that the pediatrician never guilt-tripped or shamed me for Colby’s weight struggles, and she never threw out that ugly term “failure to thrive.” Except for his weight, Colby was thriving beyond my expectations. The feisty little guy was rolling BOTH directions by 8 weeks old and started social smiling at a month old when he first heard “Canon in D” by Pachelbel. His curiosity and energy felt unsurpassed for such a little man.

At the 3 month postpartum mark a talented LC finally came to my home and gave me the rundown of what it would take to get my milk supply and Colby’s weight back up. Let me tell you this: It was NOT easy. Her plan was for me to breastfeed 10x/day, supplementing with donor breastmilk after 6 of the feedings. I was to pump to empty any time my breasts didn’t feel drained and I had to pump after nighttime feedings. Basically, I had zero time for anything except breastfeeding, bottle feeding and pumping. In addition, I took fenugreek and did breast compressions for every feeding. There were times I wasn’t convinced I could do it. It was insanely hard, especially at that point when most moms have the luxury of longer nights of sleep and less rigorous nursing schedules. I felt exhausted and guilty that it was difficult to tend to my older son.

Gradually, I was able to drop the bottle feedings and my son still gained weight (.75-1 oz/day) on my milk alone, even though he didn’t drop from 10 to 8 feedings/day until 7 months old, probably thanks to the introduction of solids. Right as I finally took a big sigh of relief, Colby began teething like crazy, waging nursing strikes, and pulling off the breast any time his big brother was around, eager to play instead of eat. I felt like I might go mad! All my hard work was in jeopardy. We pulled through the rough patch but the exhaustion and emotional toll finally set in. I began seeing a therapist for postpartum anxiety and I’m so glad that I got support. Frankly, I wish I had gotten it sooner.

 

 

Colby is now 17 months old and still nursing twice a day, morning and night. It’s mostly comfort nursing, not nutritional, but it’s a snuggly time that we both enjoy. I’m proud that we weathered the storm and can’t believe that I actually went from under supply to over supply around the 1-year mark. Small pumping sessions, getting just a few ounces each time, added up to roughly 150 ounces of breastmilk for my freezer stash. I could scarcely believe it! I have never been one of those moms who pumps a ton so for me, this was a true accomplishment and the result of my tireless efforts.

It was such an honor to be able to donate 100 ounces of *my breastmilk* this summer to a mom who had to leave her 6-month old to go serve our country. I couldn’t think of a more important thing to do with it than pay it forward. Once upon a time, a mom donated to me and now, I get to return that kindness to another mom who needs support. How amazing is that? (Not to mention, free!)

 

 

Takeaways

Breastfeeding is a two-way relationship between mom and baby. Sometimes you do everything “right” and it’s still hard. Some moms have milk that is very fatty and caloric while other moms have milk more like skim milk, packing fewer calories per ounce. Some moms have difficult babies with violent reflux like Colby developed and others have babies that are ravenous eaters like my Carter was, making even congenital obstacles less insurmountable.

Every mom’s set of circumstances is completely different. We have different birth stories, goals, careers, emotional needs, spouses, levels of support, babies of various temperaments, and more. I can’t argue that breastfeeding is going to work out for every mom’s life circumstances, but I can say with some measure of oomph that breastfeeding is a great way to set a child up for wellness which is why, despite every obstacle and setback, I committed to breastfeeding/breastmilk, even when that took another mom helping me out.

I think most women would be surprised to find that casual milk sharing and donations are relatively common. Support does exist but it seldom walks through our front door. Moms and their loved ones must collectively bond and work to support the breastfeeding relationship and the mom’s breastfeeding goals, whatever they may be. Without this support, many women will only know the experience of nursing a newborn and not the complex bond that forms from nursing an older baby throughout its first year (or more) of life.

Even with ample support, there is no one secret answer for making breastfeeding work. It takes grit, perseverance and a lot of self sacrifice. 

Y’all…breastfeeding is hard. End of story. Anyone who commits to it, even for a very short while, deserves a damn medal.

Yours in health & wellness,

Maggie

 

 

A Guide to Using the Gym During COVID-19

Gyms are carefully reopening in some places, taking action under government guidelines to increase cleaning and sanitation procedures. Gyms are also implementing new social distancing measures to ensure members’ safety. Although it’s intimidating to get back into the gym, your health is paramount during this pandemic and exercise bolsters wellness in many ways.  Getting back into the gym is a personal choice that must be carefully considered based on health risk factors, mental comfort, and the extent to which your gym has taken appropriate actions to protect its members.

Here are some things to look for when/if you return to the gym or consider doing so. I’ve included a few recommendations on how to improve your safety from the minute you step into the gym to the moment you walk back into your home. Lastly, check out the tips for how to make the experience time-efficient and effective.

 

 

Considerations When Returning to Your Gym

Before stepping foot in the gym, check its website for COVID-19 updates. There’s a decent chance that your gym will have adjusted hours of operation and updated check-in procedures that you will want to familiarize yourself with. Reinstating your membership may also be a step that you need to take with a membership director prior to walking in for your first workout. This is likely done over email or phone right now while membership directors are working remotely and social distancing.

If your gym doesn’t have clear COVID-19-specific policies and adjustments then I strongly urge you to freeze your membership until it is safe to return or they adopt new policies. Many gyms have responded professionally and appropriately to the new operational challenges because 1) they need to stay in business, and 2) they care about their members. To help with this, many are using advance online registration for group classes and capacity trackers like Club Automation. These capacity trackers use real time data to reflect how busy (or not) the gym or fitness facility is, so you can decide from the comfort of your home whether or not you want to pay the gym a visit.

 

 

Gym Safety Check List

Below is a list of COVID-19 safety measures you should check for at your gym. Please note, this list is not exhaustive.

  • Temperature and wellness checks at sign-in.
  • Masks required in busy corridors such as the entrance/exit, stairwells, cafe, locker rooms and restrooms.
  • At least 6 ft of social distancing required between all members. 10 ft is even better indoors.
  • “Out of Service” signage on alternating pieces of gym equipment to ensure social distancing and/or rearrangement of equipment to create more distance and open space.
  • Encouragement of wearing face masks in areas with cardiovascular exercise equipment (when you’re breathing heavily and fast you expel more viral and bacterial particles into the air).
  • Ample supplies of hand sanitizer at check-in and on the gym floor as well as stocked soap dispensers in restrooms.
  • Limited capacity in any and all elevators on site.
  • No gym towels allowed on the gym floor (reduces spread of germs).
  • Signage asking members to wipe down equipment before and after use as well as ample supply of equipment wipes.
  • Reduced capacity for gym classes and enforced social distancing during participation.
  • More outdoor exercise class options with social distancing when/where feasible.
  • Possible signage and floor markings indicating traffic flow/walking directions through hallways and corridors.
  • Possible reduced overall gym capacity depending on government regulations and directives.
  • Possible upgrades to air filtration systems (can’t hurt to ask if your gym has the ability to invest in one that eliminates viruses and bacteria in large spaces).

Use this check-list to gauge which safety measures your facility of choice is leaning on and let it inform your decision about returning for exercise.

 

 

Gym Childcare – Is it Safe?

This is a really tricky one to answer. Scientists have seen hints that children pass COVID-19 among themselves at a lower rate than adult-to-adult transmission; however, research is fledgling at best. Unfortunately, it may take seeing how transmission rates change once school is back in session in some places come fall (hopefully they don’t get worse). Part of what will weigh your decision about the gym childcare will be:

  • Age of your child; children who are under 2 years old and mobile are likely putting everything in their mouths…which is probably, unfortunately, not so ideal.
  • Age of children who are able to wear masks versus those who are too young, and whether or not these different age groups will be playing in close proximity.
  • Health status of your household and family members.
  • Enhanced hygiene measures of the gym’s childcare; additional temp and wellness checks, modeling covering coughs/sneezes, hand washing upon entering and exiting, routinely cleaning toys and floors, etc.
  • Type of flooring in childcare – for gyms that have wood, tile or otherwise non-carpeted flooring, the facility should be deep cleaning it daily. Unfortunately, gyms with carpeted childcare areas are likely unable to deep clean the carpet every day because of how long it takes to dry. This may affect your choice, especially for parents with babies who are crawling.

Again, as long as safety measures are in place, this must be a personal choice you make. Please note: Bringing a symptomatic child into the gym childcare for the sake of your workout is irresponsible both during a pandemic and otherwise. Let’s all agree on this…please!

 

 

Extra Measures You Can Take to Boost Your Safety

Here are a few extra steps that I personally take when coming and going from the gym. I’ve done most of it since years ago when my oldest son was 15 months old and came down with a nasty case of bronchiolitis that landed him in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit. To see a loved one struggle for air is a horrible experience. I don’t wish it on anyone.

  • Leave wedding bands and rings at home to keep them both clean and safe – bleach-based gym wipes and cleaners can erode certain metals.
  • Bring and wear workout gloves or disposable gloves if you have sensitive skin and/or allergic reactions to the gym wipes, sanitizer, etc. Also not a terrible idea to help reduce overuse of hand sanitizer.
  • While exercising at the gym, consider wearing a face mask for your entire workout, even if it’s not required. Double-layer masks that include some type of air filter sandwiched in the middle and masks that fit snugly (but are breathable) are great options because they offer you a little bit of protection while also boosting safety for others.
  • Store hand sanitizer in the side pocket of your car door or in your hand bag/gym bag in case you forget to wash your hands when you leave.
  • Remove gym shoes before entering your home.
  • Immediately put your reusable gym water bottle into the dish washer or sink for cleaning.
  • If you used your phone during your workout then clean the phone with a phone-safe wipe, cleaning solution, portable UV sanitation device, or PhoneSoap container at home. I like to clean my keys with my PhoneSoap too.
  • Wash your hands for 20 seconds, even if you already used hand sanitizer.
  • Promptly remove your gym clothes and face mask and place them in the washer or laundry basket – then go take a shower!
  • Now take a deep mask-less breath in the safety of your home and be glad you kept yourself both healthy and safe at the gym!

 

 

Tips for Making Your Gym Experience Time-Efficient & Effective

Wiping down equipment before and after use combined with certain machine restrictions will force you to think outside of your normal gym routine. I hope these tips are helpful so that you can have an effective workout on day one. If you have any other tips to offer please drop them in the comments!

  • If possible, limit workouts without masks to less than 45-60 minutes since the viral load of COVID-19 is shown to increase in this amount of time in enclosed spaces.
  • Use machines that you don’t have at home; save body weight and mat workouts for home.
  • Instead of rotating weight machines between sets (because machines will be limited and in need of wiping), complete all sets on one machine with short breaks between sets or do stationary exercises like squats/lunges/push-ups/planks in front of the machine during rest periods.
  • Buy a few sets of affordable dumbbells for home and use props like the roman chair, bench press, squat rack, plated machines, etc. while at the gym.
  • Skip the treadmill and save running for your neighborhood – choose the Stairmaster or ARC trainer on an incline for a great low-impact glute workout to switch things up.
  • Set a goal to finish your workout in less than 45 minutes and plan it out in advance. Your determination and effort might surprise you when you’re working towards a time goal.
  • Focus on three main things: Building cardiovascular health, muscle, and a sense of calm. We could all use a bit more of these things right now.

I hope you have a GREAT workout whether it’s at the gym or at home. Remember, staying healthy and well is the only critical component here, and that can happen essentially anywhere.

Yours in health and wellness,

Maggie

 

 

Planning and Optimizing Your Strength Training

I had the honor of sharing my advice for a MyFitnessPal article back in the winter but publication was massively delayed when Covid19 changed the face of the earth as we know it. With gyms shuttered, the article became less timely. Now that gyms are gradually reopening (or perhaps now that you have more at-home equipment to work with), it’s well worth the effort to get acquainted with the basics of strength training.

The reality is that most of us aren’t getting in as much daily activity and movement these days. Focusing on acquiring or maintaining lean muscle mass is perhaps more critical than ever for our metabolisms and overall health.

 

 

The article is detailed and specific – give it a read!

It covers:

  • Strength training benefits
  • Fundamental movement patterns (squats, lunges, hip hinge, push and pull, lateral rotation and carry)
  • Choosing the right equipment
  • Structuring your workout
  • Optimizing your workout

I hope you find this helpful! Feel free to reach out in the comments section or through direct message on my contact page or Instagram for questions. I’m always happy to chat and offer tips!

Other MyFitnessPal “fitness basics” articles include:

Bodyweight Training

Cardio

Recovery

Goal Setting and Motivation

Training Plans

 

Yours in health & wellness,

Maggie

 

What You Need to Know About Wellness in 2020

This year is not going according to plan. We’re halfway through and needless to say, nothing is as we expected. First, a failed impeachment of the President of the United States followed quickly by a novel virus that has brought destruction and changed the way of life around the globe. Most recently, a brand new era for the civil rights movement has taken hold in America and other countries too. Change is in the air. It’s stressful and emotional for everyone involved, but there are promising whispers of a better future, if you listen closely. We are learning and growing every day, but it takes work, time and vulnerability. With our energy pouring out to so many different things right now, we must pause to ask ourselves:

How do I keep myself sound of health in body and mind during such a uniquely difficult time in history?

 

 

Well, here’s the thing…

Wellness can look and feel very different in one person’s life versus another’s. Our self-care routines and preferences all look different. Our spiritual desires and practices greatly vary. Some people love healthy home-cooked meals and invest in all-natural cleaning products while others scoff at spending $20 on a pound of organic wild-caught salmon, or flat-out can’t afford it.

I’m not here to prescribe a list of self care habits for your every day life, nor am I advocating that everyone should start a running program, eat flax seeds every morning, and add collagen to your smoothie mixes. And actually, wellness isn’t any of these things.

Wait, wellness isn’t a routine of working out five times a week? It’s not meditating for 10 minutes right after waking up at 5:00 am each day? It’s not a vegan diet? Or keeping track of my calories and steps with a FitBit?

Nope.

The components of wellness can vary according to person, age, time, place and situation. The only two things that consistently define wellness are flexibility and growth.

Wellness is an ongoing lifelong process, a never-ending journey of balancing mental/physical/spiritual health, and it takes vulnerability to see where we need to grow and change. It requires learning from our past, taking action in the moment, and moving forward with mindfulness. In a lot of ways, wellness is *exactly* the journey we must inwardly take through these uncertain times.

Take me for example…

I spent much of last week pouring over videos and social media posts of the heinous crimes committed against black people. I empathized and grieved every day, often finding myself distracted from caring for my children and full of despair. Like many white people, I finally fully identified my privilege for what it is and ran head first into my ignorance about just how systemic racism is. I can only imagine the tremendous grief abound in the black community given the weight of my small glimpse of it. The enormity of the emotions took a toll on my immune health. Yup, just one week of opening my heart to the raw pain fueling the civil rights movement caused me to go so high on the stress scale that my immune system tanked from excess cortisol, disturbed sleep and, admittedly, a few too many heavy pours of wine in an unhealthy attempt to calm my nerves. To think that some people must live in a high-stress state all the time is gut-wrenching and heartbreaking.

(Note: I do NOT want to make this “about me” nor do I want to distract from black voices and platforms at this pivotal moment in history – please feel and listen with your hearts to the Black Lives Matter movement on matters of racism.)

Has anyone else shared my experience this year? The experience of fight-or-flight, adrenal overdrive, fear, anxiety, pain, confusion, guilt, shame, denial and so many other negative emotional experiences that drive our health off the road and into the gutter? I’m pretty sure most of us have experienced something profoundly hard at one point or another.

 

 

But here’s the invitation we have…

Bend and flex. Open up. Grow.

We can move through 2020 with our heads down, teeth gritted and foreheads stuck in a frown. Or…we can move through 2020 becoming increasingly aware of how to care for our mental, physical and spiritual health so that 2020 becomes a year marked by growth and strength in the midst of what sometimes feels like chaos.

When we look at our flaws constructively, with a vulnerable willingness to change, then we can start to take action on both a societal and personal level to better ourselves and the world around us.

Like I said, too often people define wellness by “the things” that are actually under its umbrella (ex: exercise, meditation, nutrition, sleep, etc) instead of taking a step back to see wellness for what it is; an evolving sense of self coupled with self-love actions.

Hear me when I say…

Your body wants your self-awareness more than it needs another broccoli floret.

Your mind craves peace more than scouring the web for answers to all your problems.

Your soul needs authentic love for growth more than a regimented meditation routine.

I have my moments of feeling anxious and slipping up too (read: too much wine), but we have a choice to move on from the 2020 weight gain and stress spirals. We have the opportunity to live bravely through uncertain times. We have the chance to stay flexible and GROW more than ever before.

 

 

And as a side note, if you want advice and resources for “the things” that fit under the wellness umbrella (ex: workout advice, product reviews, nutrition tips, discounts, etc) then I invite you to hop over here to sign up for my *free* monthly newsletter.

Yours in health and wellness,

Maggie

 

 

 

Calm Your Body and Mind: A Therapist’s Guide for Nervous System Regulation

Before Mental Health Month concludes, I thought it best to bring on board one of my closest friends for some discussion. Please help me welcome Lauren Goldberg (MSW, LCSW), a mental health professional who owns a therapy practice in Colorado called Secure Base Mental Health LLC. Lauren will guide us through how our nervous systems respond to stress (especially amid a pandemic) and how we can become flexible and responsive to our emotional needs through daily grounding practices. Believe me: You should want to read her advice. I’ve already gained some extra wisdom for my wellness journey thanks to the insights Lauren shares here and I’m confident you will too. And now, passing the torch to Lauren (see below)…

 

 

A Therapist’s Perspective

As a therapist, I am often asked my opinion on major current events involving mental health. It makes sense; people want advice, insight, and maybe even answers. They want to feel better. There’s never been a harder event to weigh in on than the COVID-19 pandemic. Why? Because I’m going through it with you.

Generally, there is some space between me, my family, and the major current event, but I am inundated as much as you are with the newest data, often conflicting information, and evolving requirements. Like everyone, I am constantly (daily, hourly, sometimes minute to minute!) adjusting the way I think about the world and how I interact with those around me. It is exhausting spending extra energy navigating tasks that used to be second nature. Plus, I can’t forget the ever-present message that the world is not a safe place. That’s enough to throw anyone’s nervous system into a tizzy!

When Maggie asked me to be a guest on WellnessWinz, I initially thought “what do I know?!” These are such unprecedented times. There’s no context from which to draw on to provide “magical insight.”

What I quickly realized is I do have insight. It may not be magical, but perhaps it can be useful. After all, the same principles can be applied to navigating a pandemic (wow, that word alone is charging!) as they can be to any stressful situation. There are key concepts that I apply to my work with every client, regardless of their circumstances.

 

 

The Autonomic Nervous System

My approach to therapy is based on the value of safe relationships and developing the capacity for autonomic nervous system regulation. My main goal as a therapist is to help my clients feel safe enough to connect to me and, as a result, connect to their own experiences. Let me break that down…

I’m sure everyone is familiar with the term “nervous system.” When I reference it here, I am referring to the autonomic nervous system (ANS) which responds to cues of safety and danger. It helps us know when it is safe to connect and when we must protect ourselves from a threat. There are three modes (or “neural circuits of regulation” if you want to sound fancy) that our ANS shifts into as it responds to the environment. Two of them are more commonly referenced – mobilization (fight/flight) and immobilization (freeze). Side note: There’s also the “fawn” response if you’re a nerd like me and want to do additional research.

An individual’s nervous system drops into fight, flight or freeze when a threat is perceived in the environment, whether the origin is internal or external. These threats do not have to be acute, life-threatening events but can also be chronic, low-level stressors, such as developmental trauma (i.e. not having basic emotional and/or physical needs met throughout one’s life). Responding to repeated threats of safety without the opportunity to re-regulate can decrease resiliency in one’s nervous system. I’ll explain this more in a bit.

The third circuit that is rarely talked about but just as important is called “safe and social.” This is the mode from which we feel safe enough to connect to ourselves and others. In this regulated state, we have access to logical thinking and can learn, communicate and engage with others.

A healthy ANS is flexible enough to respond to an incoming “threat” and recover quickly. However, many people lack this flexibility and end up spending more time in survival mode than in a safe and social state. Generally, this is a result of upbringing and life circumstances. Our nervous systems are so smart that they can be “trained” to look for threats. This can be advantageous when there are threats, particularly in childhood when we have no choice but to adapt to our circumstances.

 

 

The Disconnect Between Brain & Body

What happens when we logically know our environment is safe but our nervous system is still stuck in survival mode?

This disconnect between our logical brain (i.e. “mind”) and our survival brain (i.e. “body”) causes what we call dysregulation and brings with it some seriously unpleasant symptoms. A person with chronic dysregulation may experience anxiety, depression, fatigue, pain, intensified autoimmune responses, irritable bowel, an inability to problem-solve, difficulty connecting with others, and a myriad of other symptoms.

Amidst the global novel virus pandemic (yikes!), some people are spending more time in survival mode as their nervous systems shift away from connection (safety) and towards protection (danger). The world as we know it no longer exists. Our way of moving through life with relative ease and predictability is now replaced with reminders to protect ourselves, stay vigilant in our interactions with others, and deal with the grave uncertainty of our future, not to mention financial stress, social isolation, and serious illness.

 

 

Mindfully Navigating a New & Stressful World

So what can we do to help ourselves navigate this new world, especially with the number of “danger” cues around us? It is difficult to manage the influx of advice and information and to integrate so many changes without access to critical thinking. Remember, our logical brain goes offline in survival mode. To bring it back online, we must show our nervous system it is safe to come out of protection and get back to connection.

While the concept is simple, it is not easy. It takes practice, but the good news is, the more we practice, the easier it becomes. We can literally show our nervous system a different way to “be,” one small step at a time. Even in the midst of a pandemic, our bodies can be trained to notice safety cues. This does not mean ignoring discomfort in our systems; it means learning how to experience comfort and discomfort at the same time. Mindful practice can help our systems move fluidly between the two. Remember, a healthy nervous system is one that is flexible.

There are certain things we can do to show our system signs of safety and even joy. If we focus on these cues instead of cues of danger, we can build our capacity for regulation. I’ve included some suggestions below. Figure out what works for you. You can do this by paying attention to your body’s response (i.e. “gut reaction”) as you read through them. You may find that you already do many of these things so the key now is to do them mindfully. (Helpful hint: Try them for the first time when you’re relatively calm. The idea is to reinforce and expand any amount of regulation rather than attempt something that feels too hard and end up reinforcing survival mode.)

 

 

Daily Practices to Regulate & Calm the Nervous System

1) Ground in all five senses. I lead my clients through an exercise in which I cue them to notice what they see, hear, taste, smell and feel. This orients them to time and place and reminds their bodies they are safe in the room with me. You can do this on your own, too. I have my clients use this video outside of therapy to continue their practice of nervous systems regulation. If this feels too challenging or if you find yourself in a very escalated state, try focusing on just one part of your body that feels good or even neutral. This can be anything from one toe to the tip of your nose. All you’re doing is reminding yourself there is a place on your body that’s okay. When you focus on the comfort rather than discomfort, you’ll be surprised by the shift you begin to notice!

 

2) Get moving. Any kind of movement or exercise, including dancing, is a great way to connect to your body and remind it of its power, health and strength. Try to stay connected to your experience. Overriding your body’s needs and doing too much will push you back towards dysregulation.

 

3) Listen to music and better yet, sing along. The reason is complex, but engaging vocal cords can do wonders for discharging emotions.

 

4) Put pen to paper. Journaling, especially the good old-fashioned way, can help you get acquainted with and reflect on your experiences.

 

5) Take a shower or bath. Water is grounding. Take the effects up a notch by noticing the water fall onto and off your body. Try integrating aromatherapy. Figure out what smells good to you by experimenting.

 

6) Breathe mindfully. Breathe in through your nose as you expand your belly and out through the mouth. Focus on the exhale, not the inhale. Contrary to popular belief, the exhale is what slows our heart rate. Focusing on the deep inhale can actually have a dysregulating effect. As you breathe out, trust your body will know when to bring air in again.

 

 

7) Cook or bake. These two nurturing tasks can help you focus on a basic human need, and the completion of them can feel so fulfilling.

 

8) Practice self-compassion by connecting to your emotional experience. Such a therapist thing to say, right?  Well, there’s a reason – letting yourself feel your emotions allows them to discharge, and this can have far-reaching effects on regulation. Think about what you do for a kiddo when they’re upset – you acknowledge what they’re feeling before you try to apply logic. This is called co-regulation and you can do the same thing for yourself.

 

9) Take a nap. Rest may be just what your system needs to regroup. If you’re feeling up to it, see if you can tune into the heaviness of your body on the bed, couch or whatever supportive surface you’re using. This will allow your body to fully let go and lead to even more restorative benefits (you can also add a weighted blanket for more sensory input).

 

10) Restorative yoga poses. I am no expert on yoga but I do suggest using certain poses like laying on your back with your bottom all the way against the wall so your feet rest on the wall. Shivasana, child’s pose, figure eight/infinity pose and others that are “cooling” can help rest the body and elicit a parasympathetic nervous system response.

 

11) Connect to nature. Walk barefoot on the grass or sand, put your feet in a nearby body of water, notice the animals, plants and trees around you – really notice and even name them aloud or in your mind.

 

12) Listen to relaxing sounds. I have a playlist of ambient sound that I use as needed. My favorite is waves crashing onto a beach and rain falling. Soothing noises like this can be helpful when it’s hard to connect to your body. Engaging your auditory system provides a nice anchor.

 

 

13) Sunbathe! Good old vitamin D can most certainly aid in restoring vibrancy and positivity.

 

14) Pursue social interaction. There is no better way to regulate than by connecting with another safe person.

 

15) Do something creative, whether coloring, drawing, painting, molding or crafting. This is a great way to connect to yourself and discharge survival mode energy.

 

16) Hang with your pet. Spending time with them can be incredibly grounding. Intensify the grounding effect by engaging as many senses as you can. Notice how their fur feels on your hands, notice their color, the sound of their breathing, how they smell, how they feel if they are sitting on your lap, etc.

 

17) Do a puzzle or another game that supports problem-solving. Engaging your logical brain will in and of itself create space for more connection.

 

18) Watch comedy or light-hearted, feel-good shows. It’s important to screen out overwhelming and negative news. This is good practice when it comes to social media, too. Unfriend or unfollow people that seem to be stuck in survival mode. They will only serve to remind your system it’s not safe.

 

 

19) Visualization. Imagine being in a place that brings you comfort. For me, it’s sitting on the shore of the beach with my toes in the sand and my family nearby (but not close enough to disrupt my peace). Use ambient noise to intensify the visualization. You can find a lot of these on YouTube! As you begin to settle in, notice how your body feels. Don’t worry if your mind wanders. Just notice it is and gently bring yourself back.

 

20) Eat! You read that right. What’s more nurturing than a delicious meal, especially one that nourishes your body? It’s also okay to indulge. Just try to stay present while doing so. We run into problems when we disconnect and numb ourselves with food. Notice every bite as it goes into your mouth, notice the texture, the taste, and try to notice when you’ve had enough.

 

21) Pursue therapy. Especially if all of these suggestions feel like a challenge or if you know you’re experiencing symptoms of chronic dysregulation. Most therapists are trained to stay regulated so they can act as a regulating source for their clients. If you are interested in my style, seek out a somatic experiencing therapist. They are specifically trained to attune to the autonomic “conversations” in the therapy room, which can help you reconnect to your body and show your nervous system a more regulated way to be.

 

There are many more options to show your system signs of safety than what I’ve listed here. Do some experimenting! And I can’t say it enough – this is a practice. It’s not supposed to be easy. If it were, I wouldn’t have a job…

Thanks for reading, reach out with questions or comments, and best of luck on your journey to nervous system regulation. ~Lauren

 

*Feel free to contact Lauren with inquires and mental health needs at Secure Base Mental Health LLC.

 

Thanks for reading everyone! Keep nurturing the mind/body connection through daily grounding practices and self care for your mental health!

Yours in health and wellness,

Maggie

 

 

 

Encouragement for Moms Struggling to Lose Weight

As if we needed any reminders that mothering is hard, we now have a pandemic that’s hammering that message into our sleep-deprived mom brains. Caring for babies is an around-the-clock job, toddlers have excessive energy-expending needs and curious little brains (“Why do the scientists say the parks have to be closed?”), and I hear from moms with teenagers that “the moods” are quite real. Our plates are full and our cups overflowing, but often with chores and responsibilities for others instead of ourselves. Of all times in our lives, it’s now officially more difficult to exercise than ever before. Case in point: Me, a fitness professional.

 

 

At the start of this whole thing, my 1-year old was taking an hour nap each morning, allowing me to exercise in the driveway with my 4-year old or plop him in front of an activity or show while my husband worked on his computer and I hit the neighborhoods sidewalks to release all my pint-up energy on a good run. But then my 1-year old entered that dreaded nap purgatory where nothing seemed to work because he wasn’t quite ready for one nap but two naps felt like too much. Plus, hello molars. Enough said.

My morning workouts now start earlier than I’m used to, often before breakfast is fully digested, or they’re shoved into 20 minutes mid-morning while my 1-yr old does “quiet time” in his crib with some books and music. On the occasion that I try to workout with my youngest around, he usually climbs on me during planks, snuggles my face during mat work, and throws balls at my legs during squats. He routinely pulls at my yoga mat and makes it impossible to complete a single set of anything because he is climbing between my legs and onto my stomach as though trying to crawl back into my womb. No thanks, buddy. This whole exercise without childcare thing is really hard. It takes patience and consistency, but also flexibility.

Not only are our exercise schedules and access to fitness equipment different right now, but also our ADLs have changed. ADL stands for activities of daily living. Mine often include running a bunch of errands, shuttling my children to activities and parks (and then chasing after them), house chores, yard work/gardening, and general at-home childcare. With stay-at-home restrictions in place, the first few items on that list have evaporated and in truth, that’s where I burn just as much energy as in the gym.

 

 

Less energy expenditure on a daily basis and low-grade anxiety over the whole covid crisis have caused me to gain back three pounds that I had been recently really proud of myself for losing since they dropped me lower than my pre-pregnancy weight. Three pounds doesn’t sound like much and in the big picture, it isn’t. But if a fitness professional (me) can easily gain weight during times of stress and change, it stands to reason that another woman might possibly gain even more. Full transparency: Those three pounds were gained in the first month of quarantine, so that’s almost a pound a week. You can see how this becomes problematic if it continues, easily turning into 10 lbs, 15 lbs, 20 lbs…etc.

I’m here to tell you a little secret: It’s okay.

I don’t care if you’ve gained 5 lbs or 50 lbs, my message to you is the same: Really, I promise, it’s okay.

We often shame ourselves into thinking we’re terrible people when we gain weight but the shame-and-blame game is tired and unfair. Sometimes, the best thing we can do is address the reality of our weight gain:

I’m having a hard time. Something is emotionally difficult for me right now.

It might be grief, shame, anxiety, sadness, loneliness, jealousy, fear, anger, self-pity, boredom, social rejection or something else. What is on your list of tough emotions?

I’m not trained in Psychology so I’m not here to explicitly tell you how to sort through your emotions but I am here to say that your emotions can be identified and talked about. And they can be separated from your body’s experience, to an extent.

The pounds on the scale tell a story. Once you identify what that story is then you can take the steps towards making amends with your body. Addressing and working through your emotions and life obstacles with a qualified mental health professional might be the ultimate difference maker in your weight loss journey. Self care measures including leaning into your faith, family and friends might free you up emotionally to focus on your health at last.

 

 

It doesn’t matter how much weight you’ve gained, you have control over whether or not it comes off. I know this truth is hard to internalize so let me say it again:

You have control. And if it doesn’t feel like it then take it back for yourself! You deserve it! 

As you work through your emotions and establish self care practices, you will free up your energy to focus on your body’s health without fear or shame – and perhaps you will even start to feel pride and joy!

I’ve seen countless women lose weight only to regain it back. It’s not really because they started eating donuts at the office again or slackened their workout regimen, it’s because feelings of worth weren’t cemented as the foundation of their health. Self worth, love and respect usually need to be in place in order for us to maintain a healthy weight. Losing weight isn’t all that complicated, we just tell ourselves it is because deep down we’re scared of failing or we don’t feel worthy.

But you are. Worthy.

Here are a few of my professional recommendations for losing weight to help you get started. Guess what? None have anything to do with exercise.

 

 

These are measures which set the stage for effective weight loss before lifting even a single hand weight or stepping on the treadmill:

1. Identify emotions that keep you in a weight gain cycle or prevent you from losing weight – this takes courage and being honest with yourself

2. Write a list of 3 daily self care routines you can lean into to help you counter these negative emotions and experiences

3. Consider talking to a professional or counselor, or perhaps confide in a friend or spiritual mentor

4. Increase your ADLS – activities of daily living, or anything you do throughout your daily, weekly and monthly routines that involves movement but isn’t considered “formal” exercise. 

    • Ex: walking the dog, cleaning the house, yard work/gardening, childcare and playing outdoors with children, errands that involve walking/lifting/carrying, caring for a loved one who is physically dependent on you, lovemaking (yup! it burns energy!), cooking dinner instead of ordering, chores, etc.

5. Get enough sleep to reduce inflammation, balance hormones and enable nervous system recovery

6. Start taking steps towards healthy nutrition;

    • Shop the periphery of the grocery store for fresh meats and produce
    • Choose meals you can cook or make at home that are easy and healthy (ex: I do some kind of fish, a roasted veggie and a rice/quinoa/cous cous or sweet potato 3x/week to free up my energy to be more creative for a few other meals)
    • Have healthy snacks on hand (ex: hard boiled eggs, fruit, nuts, yogurt, protein powder)
    • Choose a style of eating you enjoy for your lifestyle. Ex: Schedule snack times if you enjoy eating often or set your “feeding window” if you prefer large, infrequent meals in keeping with intermittent fasting.  No one way is the best way to eat. The “best” approach to nutrition is what will work for YOU.

7. Find a spiritual outlet. I’m a big believer that all people have a spiritual need to connect to each other and something bigger than ourselves in a heartfelt, intangible way. This might be enjoying a traditional religious service, prayer or custom, or it might be selecting a mantra or meditation routine that speaks to you. Omkar chanting, burning sage, placing crystals in your home, striking a Tibetan singing bowl – anything is better than nothing. Honor that place and space within yourself that is already above this world and connected to more.

 

 

Courageously jump-starting a weight loss journey must start from a place of wellness in order to last. We won’t always be able to enjoy our “perfect” workout routine so relying on exercise alone for weight management entails a high level of risk. I hope you can stay encouraged by all the other ways you can kickoff the weight loss process before setting foot in the gym again (because let’s be real…we are stuck in a pandemic that could last a while).

Cheers to your health and its priority during this moment in history! Moms, you deserve the best.

Yours in health and wellness,

Maggie