With apologies for any bubble-bursting, amazing health is not going to just magically happen to you. I am so sorry. While your body is almost miraculously designed to preserve health, the modern world is filled with all kinds of toxic nonsense that our bodies are working hard to keep at bay, and it simply doesn’t have the energy to do everything.
Your energy flows where your attention goes, so they say; if you want to recover or maintain your health, it’s simply not happening without investing in some health-engendering everyday habits. But before you abandon this post (“Habits sound too hard! Bye.”) please stick with me -- you don’t need anything outside of your own innate capacity to make empowered choices in order to feel great, no matter what diagnoses or health issues you’re living with.
It took me something like 15 years of banging my head against the wall in resistance before I finally got on board with fully taking care of myself, all the time. Not just when it feels easy, not just when it feels convenient, not just when things are going well, not just when I’m feeling happy and in the flow, not just when I’m symptom-free. My practices and choices are my anchor. They are not optional, not even remotely; they are the minimum requirements for what I need to do for myself, every day, without which my physical and mental health start to quickly unravel.
How we spend our days
Here’s the thing: there is a steady stream of opportunities to make choices that support our health throughout our days. What time we wake up, what we eat and when, whether we exercise or meditate or move or even stand up from our desks at the office. Whose phone calls we return, what websites and Instagram pics we look at. What appointments we make and show up for. Little choices, available for the making, all day, every day.
But, being able to start over on any given day means it feels like we have plenty of future days on which to start over. Which means we don’t have to do it right now, because we are constantly awaiting some nebulous future moment when it will finally feel convenient (AKA never) to, say, start meditating for 5 minutes a day, and that’s actually great because, you know, I’m super busy today, and I don’t really have time or space in my apartment even to sit still, and maybe it looks too hard anyway, and since I won’t be able to do it perfectly why even try?
“I’ll start tomorrow,” says almost everyone, every day, about any important but not urgent life choice.
I’m pretty sure I’ve said that phrase a million times over the years. I used to wait for emergencies to invest in and value my health, and this is not at all uncommon -- in fact, most of us are healthy enough to get by...until suddenly we aren't. Suddenly, there’s a physical or emotional health crisis that cannot be ignored. Suddenly, we no longer have a choice.
This can look pretty dramatic -- think heart attack, stroke, or traumatic accident. But in my practice in New York City, the health crises I encounter more often are things like the onset of autoimmune disorders like Hashimoto’s thyroiditis or Graves disease; chronic pain; Lyme disease; chronic fatigue syndrome; fibromyalgia; IBS or colitis; endometriosis; chronic migraines; adrenal fatigue; or unexplained infertility. It most often looks like things that don’t have diagnoses that involve chronic, persistent fatigue, inflammation, and/or severe digestive issues. Of the effects of long-term emotional stress, care-giving, or grief. The kinds of things where what you thought of as your life has become so disrupted, so overwhelmed by what's happening with your body that you realize, “This is unacceptable; I cannot live like this. How I’ve been living is no longer working. What do I do now?”
In spite of (or because of) the pain, these types of health crises can be deeply meaningful, valuable, powerful openings, because they offer an opportunity to reconnect with what really matters, those core values and priorities that had fallen off the radar and were no longer present in the activities and choices made in everyday life. Changes to food choices or lifestyle choices, which feel like too much work to take on when things appear to be working fine enough, become a no brainer; they are now urgent and important, empowering, even fun, even exciting! You feel like you finally have an excuse to really support yourself, and to ask for support from others, something you've probably been trying to figure out how to do for a long time.
How we spend our days determines our long-term health, and also what kind of reserves we have in place when we’re faced with an unexpected health issue or a period of intense stress. But you don’t need to completely overhaul your entire life -- some tweaks and adjustments to the little things can provide so much support for your health. Consider these:
- 10 minutes of meditation per day
- Standing up from your desk twice an hour
- Vegetables at every meal
- Actually taking your herbs and supplements
Consider -- how would you feel if you gave yourself those gifts throughout your day?
Does this feel like extra stuff you'll have to cross off a to do list in order to get to your actual life? Let's reframe that right now. Consider, instead, that this stuff actually is your life. Sleeping enough, every night, is your life. Eating vegetables is your life. Meditating every morning is your life. All the small things, taken together, make up your life. And there is no other life if your body shuts down in protest.
Just do it anyway
Full disclosure: my needs consist of...
- Food : this is the foundation. For me, lately, I’ve been following a pretty specific anti-candida diet. No compromises here; things fall apart quickly for me if I get lazy about what I eat or don’t eat.
- Herbs + supplements : I use a rotating cast of herbal friends, depending on what’s currently going on with my body-mind-spirit. I am often taking adaptogens (learn more about those here!). I also take a few nutritional supplements -- things I already know I am deficient in and am not getting from my diet.
- Writing : at least 30 minutes each morning, and at least 15 minutes each night before bed. Free writing helps me exist in ways I have no idea how to articulate (so I better keep up that writing so I can figure out how to use my words!).
- Meditation or breathwork : I’ve been doing a rotation of timed seated meditation, listening to guided meditations, and doing breathwork, whether for 7 minutes or 45 each day.
- Movement : whether it’s a full on gym workout, yoga class, biking around, or a super long walk instead of taking the subway. Dancing in my office in between patients also is a thing that happens every day...
- Connection : I need to feel connected to my community. This happens through friend time, talking with people I meet in everyday life, attending workshops and events, and participating in online groups.
- Regular outside support : this can include bodywork like structural integration, acupuncture, shiatsu, energy healing, Feldenkrais, ceremonies, or other healing sessions. I also go to a bath house regularly.
This isn’t rocket science, and this actually isn't even time consuming because all the time I used to spend "just watching one more episode" is now spent writing, for example. But if I miss a day of writing, I’m a little behind. No big deal, right? I’ll just do it tomorrow. But if a few more days pass, I start to notice frustration building, because I haven’t been expressing my creativity. If a week goes by without writing, then it’s likely I’ve also missed a few days of movement, and a bunch of nighttime gratitude journaling. Because it’s all part of the same scaffolding, it all tends to fall down at the same time. Does this happen for you, too?
The perfectionist in me is probably starting to make some noise: “You’re not doing it right. If you’re not going to be perfect at it, then don’t even try.” Before I know it, I have started treating everything like it’s optional, and I’m not doing it anymore because I don’t feel like it. I don’t feel like it because my blood sugar is out of control, my mood has tanked, my energy is unsteady, I feel uncomfortable in my body, and I feel disconnected from myself and other people. The secret, then, for me, is to take away the option in the first place, and therefore take away the opportunity for internal debate, because me on a mediocre or bad day is simply not biologically capable of making a good choice….and neither are you!
There are a lot of things you’ve probably been treating as optional that actually aren’t optional for you. Forget about what works or doesn’t work for other people, because they are not living in your unique body. If you have candida or type II diabetes, then sugar is off the menu for you. If you deal with anxiety and know your mood is smoother and you just feel better when you’re doing yoga 3-4 times a week, then this is not optional for you; this is a requirement for existence. If you know your IBS is always worse with stress, then stress-reducing activities -- like spending time in nature, meditation, breathwork, acupuncture, movement, therapy, avoiding social media -- are not optional for you; they need to be woven into the everyday fabric of your life. If you know your insomnia is worse when you drink coffee in the morning ("Just a half cup, I swear!), then passing on the coffee is not optional for you.
Every Tuesday, I see a patient who is a professional drummer. Her aches and pains never completely go away, because she continues to drum intensively. But if she misses an appointment, her wrists and ankles get much worse, so for her, weekly acupuncture treatments are not optional.
It’s possible to find a lot of freedom in just putting on the calendar and doing anyway those things you know you need, even if they're not so fun in the moment. You can save yourself a lot of time and emotional energy fretting about whether or not you “feel like it,” which, in case you haven’t already read the rest of this post, is going to be -- all together now -- never.
When you try to change any patterns in your life, you are bound to bump into resistance. Maybe. Even. At. Every. Step. Of. The. Way.
Sometimes, you may look around and notice, “I spend 5 times as much time and energy doing things to keep my health on track as normal people.” And underneath that thought is something like “Why do I have to do all this work? Is it even working? Can't it be more flexible? Why does no one else need to do this stuff?” That’s one way that resistance shows up: the story of “it’s so easy for other people blah blah blah and why can’t I just yada yada?!” Well, we really have no idea what’s going on with “normal people,” and, in fact, I think most of them are actually stressed beyond belief and silently dealing with, or avoiding, their own physical or emotional health issues. You just can't know.
Resistance also shows up as:
- All the stories. About how you're not good enough, or healthy enough, or strong enough, or your willpower is weak, or your body is broken beyond repair, or you are broken beyond repair. Whatever is playing in a loop in your mind, distracting you from actually doing the small steps to nurture your health and wellbeing.
- Working all the time
- Excess: staying out too late, drinking too much, not sleeping enough
- Telling yourself it’s too hard / idealizing how easy other people have it
- Wanting to give up and “just go with the flow”
- Spending hours scrolling through Instagram and watching shows you don’t even like on Netflix, and then saying you’re too busy to meditate for 5 minutes per day or sleep for 8 hours
- Obsessing about things: food, other people and their lives, your social life, your relationship or dating life, your kids, and so on
- Not honestly sharing your experience with your trusted friends, or complaining
- Procrastinating, being late, missing things
- Spending your money on things that are not aligned with your values or priorities
Does any of this sound familiar? If so, it's time to simply notice. Get curious about what's really going on. Perhaps these all come from the same place: the wounded little kid inside all of us that isn’t sure we’re ever going to be able to feel better, so it’s better not to try at all than to try and possibly fail. The little kid who didn’t feel like they fit in anywhere, who thinks that making healthier choices will be lonely and people won’t like them anymore. The little kid whose needs weren’t met by adults, and who never learned how to meet those needs themselves.
My wounded inner child wants yours to know that we are now adults with certain freedoms and agency, and we can meet our own needs. We don't need to rely on others to take care of ourselves. It’s time for us to all really be our own mothers.
Side note: muffins are actually cake / a story about my own resistance
A professed desire for flexibility around health-engendering habits is often just resistance in disguise.
Well over 10 years ago, I had a life-changing session with my health coach at the time, Alice Moore (whom I credit with helping me actually and permanently redirect my life to one focused on empowered self-support. She is amazing. You should definitely work with her!). I arrived at our session totally ungrounded, tired and wired after a long work week at my nonprofit office job. I reported that the week had started out ok, but work had grown more and more stressful each day, taxing my body and my energy. I told her about how I hadn’t been sleeping well; how I had been exhausted every afternoon; how I didn’t have the energy to exercise; and how a disagreement with a coworker about the direction of our shared project had led to me silent crying in the bathroom, feeling totally hopeless about my work.
Alice sat there patiently, taking in my stress, and she said, “That sounds really rough. And what have you been eating this week?” I thought back and told her I had been picking up a vegan muffin and a soy latte from Peet’s Coffee on my way into the office.
“So you’ve been having cake and sugared coffee for breakfast every day.”
“Not cake, a whole grain vegan muffin, and a dairy-free latte!”
“Aimée. We have been working together for months. It’s time for you to stop using euphemisms. I do not care if it’s vegan, I do not care if there are other grains in it; a muffin is actually cake, and if I had been eating cake full of refined sugar for breakfast every day for a week, with a side of sugary soy milk and coffee, my mood and energy would’ve completely unraveled too!”
“But Alice, plenty of people eat muffins for breakfast. I want flexibility; do I have to be healthy all the time? Can’t I just have a muffin every now and then like other people?”
And Alice looked at me and said something I will never forget: “You are not, and never will be, other people, and actually, you have no idea what their experience is, so just forget about it. You're focusing on them so you don't have to focus on you.
You are saying you want flexibility, but what it actually looks like to me is resistance. Resistance to making better choices for yourself. Clinging to old habits that you know don’t work, and then feeling terrible and claiming to be mystified about why.
You’ve been throwing up resistance at every opportunity. I don’t know about “other people,” but it seems pretty clear that you, in fact, can’t just eat a muffin if you want to feel good in your body, have steady energy, and enjoy your work. Do you want to keep resisting that fact, or do you want to finally take care of yourself?”
Touché, Alice. In that moment, the tough love, no more bullshit, real talk finally broke through my resistance.
I wish I could say that was the last time I said something like “Waaaa! I just want to eat a muffin like everyone else!” For example, I also remember signing up for holistic nutrition school not too long after that, thinking “it’s great to learn all this stuff, but I don’t want to never eat a brownie again.” What I really meant was “I hope learning even more about the devastating health effects of refined sugar doesn’t get in the way of me continuing to lie to myself indefinitely about what makes me feel good and what makes me feel bad.” Voila, resistance masquerading as “flexibility.” It’s very persistent.
What best supports you in feeling healthy, vibrant, and empowered in your life? I don’t know, but I'm guessing that if you've made it this far in reading this post, you likely already know *exactly what you need* but have been hesitant or inconsistent about just doing it. I feel you, I know, it's hard to make changes.
I do know that feeling better takes a willingness to gently, compassionately, try out starting over, again, with some new choices for yourself, now, before a health crisis or emergency strikes. And remember -- this stuff can be fun! You might think I'm nuts, but it's true, and you won't get to live in the pleasure of self-care until you actually just do the things, every day. Here are some ideas of things you can choose to use in your life as medicine:
- Grounding practices
- Standing up regularly
- Long walks
- New exercise classes
- Community and connection
- Spiritual practice
- Eating philosophy / food / nutrition / herbs / supplements
- Singing / chanting
Keep in mind that sometimes, the things we do for ourselves don't magically and dramatically cause immediate change for the better. I already mentioned one example, my drummer patient, but Dr. Terry Wahls, whose MS put her in a wheelchair, healed herself using nutrition and supplements. She has a powerful story, which is that, finding herself in a wheelchair, she started following a paleo diet and taking a bunch of supplements, even though this was super challenging for her to consider, as a mainstream medical doctor used to relying solely on Western medicine's offerings. After a couple of months, thinking the supplements weren't working, she stopped taking them. To her great surprise, she started to feel worse and was bedridden within a few days. The supplements were actually working!
It looked like things hadn't changed, because the outside markers she had been paying attention to had remained the same, but without them things were much worse. Sometimes, the things we do for ourselves don't make us immediately better in the ways we hope for or expect; they may work, instead, by preventing things from getting worse. And this means they are incredibly effective and worth doing. This is what prevention looks like. This is how you spend your days, and this becomes your life. How are you spending yours?