Worry Well About Your Health

Robert H. Shmerling, MD is the senior faculty editor at Harvard Health Publishing; and member of the editorial advisory board at Harvard Health Publishing. He recently published a piece entitled “How well do you worry about your health?” in which he describes how many of us worry about our health, yet a lot of what we focus on poses little risk.

Dr. Shmerling says “it’s impossible (and ill-advised) to never worry about your health” and asks id we are worrying about the right things. Below is a summary of his comparisons which lead him to his advice: “try not to focus too much on health risks that are unlikely to affect you,” he says. “Instead, think about common causes of poor health. Then take measures to reduce your risk. Moving more and adding healthy foods to your meals is a great start.

And in case you’re curious, the average number of annual deaths due to quicksand is zero in the US!

Spring Renewal

Spring has sprung, and in many cultures this is looked at as a time of renewal. While those renewal efforts are often physical, we can also use this period as a reminder to renew our overall wellbeing. Enter Calm’s recent article “10 ways to (re)find joy in life.” Read the full article, or just scan the list below and choose one to try to work on for the next week or two!

  1. Explore new hobbies and activities: Broaden your horizons by trying new things. This can add excitement to your life and help you discover new passions. Make a list of activities you’ve always wanted to try and take the first step towards trying one this week.💙 Take some time to find out what activities bring you happiness and joy. We recommend beginning with the Discovering Happiness series by Shawn Achor, which dives into habits and activities that are destined to make you feel happier.
  2. Prioritize a healthy diet: What you eat affects your mood. Focus on balanced, nutritious meals that fuel your body and mind. A simple first step could be including more fruits and vegetables in your diet and staying hydrated with water or herbal tea.💙 Change your life by prioritizing what you eat and learn about the importance of a healthy diet in The 4 Pillars of Health series. Remember that food is used for both fuel and fun, and incorporating treats into a healthy lifestyle can ramp up those happiness levels, too.
  3. Practice self-care: Taking care of yourself is crucial. This means getting enough rest, managing stress, and doing things that make you feel good. Set aside a few minutes each day for relaxation or a favorite activity.💙 Discover the tools of self-care and create a nourishing practice of reflection and rest in the Radical Self-Care series. 
  4. Stay active: Exercise releases brain chemicals thought to boost your mood. Start with short, enjoyable physical activities that fit into your daily routine, like a daily walk or some stretching exercises. Bonus points for noticing how you feel after the workout and writing it down in a journal to motivate yourself in the future.💙 Lace up your sneakers and head out for a 30-minute Mindful Run (or walk) with Mel Mah and tune into the world around you. 
  5. Build positive relationships: Positive interactions with friends and family can greatly enhance your happiness, so surround yourself with people who uplift you. Reach out to a friend or family member for a chat or a get-together this week.💙 Practicing Empathy can have positive effects on your own happiness, as well as the happiness of those around you. Give it a try and witness how your connections can blossom.
  6. Connect with nature: Spending time in nature can be calming and rejuvenating. Whether it’s a walk in the park, gardening, or just sitting outside, try to spend some time outdoors every day.💙 If you can’t get outside, you can mentally escape to a more tranquil place with a soundscape like High Sierra Lake or Forest Ambience
  7. Cultivate patience: Finding happiness is a journey. Be patient with yourself as you explore what brings you joy, and understand that happiness can ebb and flow. Acknowledge your feelings and know that it’s okay to have ups and downs.💙 Follow along in this guided meditation with Tamara Levitt on how to cultivate and practice Patience.
  8. Reach out for social support: Speaking about your feelings and experiences can be therapeutic, so talk to friends or family members. Consider joining a local support group to boost your social circle.
  9. Perform acts of kindness: Doing something nice for others can boost your own happiness. Try giving a compliment, volunteering, or helping a neighbor this week, and notice how it makes you feel.💙 Learn how to perform Random Acts of Kindness, which are scientifically proven to increase happiness for both the giver and receiver. 
  10. Seek professional help when necessary: It’s important to recognize when you need additional support and to seek it out. Whether it’s talking to a healthcare professional, joining a support group, or simply confiding in a trusted friend, reaching out is a sign of strength, not weakness.

Well-being Insights from Unlikely Places

Jancee Dunn has been writing about health and science for more than 20 years, and currently published the Well newsletter for The New York Times, a weekly update on personal health and fitness. Recently, she covered a secret to well-being that may surprise you. You can read the full article here, and below is a summary and some thoughts on how you can adopt her findings into your life.

In short, experts say that toddlers — full of energy, curiosity and laughter — have a lot to teach adults! She interviewed Dr. Hasan Merali, an associate professor of pediatrics at McMaster University and a pediatric emergency room physician, who shares the following:

Try positive self-talk.

Young children tend to coach themselves out loud, a practice known as private speech (such as this popular clip from a 4-year-old snowboarder).

Toddlers aren’t shy about self-talk, Dr. Merali said, and you shouldn’t be, either. Research suggests that for adults, positive self-talk can help with problem-solving, learning, confidence and managing your emotions. I told Dr. Merali I tend to speak harshly to myself, but would try to sub in phrases like “You can do it” instead.

Take any opportunity to move.

Two-year-olds are active for almost five hours a day, according to a review of 24 studies. They move joyfully and instinctively, Dr. Merali said.

Adults can look for ways to move more, even if it’s just for a minute. Take a quick walk around the block, or schedule a meeting on foot rather than sitting down. If you’re home alone, do what Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist at Stanford University, has called “full-body karaoke,” singing and moving to your favorite song. Brief bursts of activity have been shown to increase longevity if they add up to 10 minutes per day. Standing up for three minutes every half-hour can help control your blood sugar, too. You can also find ways to be around young kids, “a happiness that is unmatched,” Dr. Merali said. (The nonprofit Generations United features a national database of intergenerational programs and activities.)

Ask questions.

Young kids are not afraid to pose questions, Dr. Merali said. One study found that they asked an average of 107 questions an hour. (This will not surprise their parents.)

I have written a few children’s books, and my favorite part of library readings was question time: “Have you ever been to the moon?” “Can you turn into a cheetah?”

Adults have been socialized to hold back our questions because we’re often worried about what other people think, Dr. Merali said. But asking questions not only helps us to gain information, it’s also an important way to build relationships, he said.

Fix your sleep schedule.

Toddlers thrive on routine, and having a schedule with consistent sleep and waking times will help you, too, said Alberto Ramos, a sleep neurologist and researcher with the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. If your schedule permits, and if you have the urge, napping also has a host of benefits, including sharper thinking and reaction times and improved memory. As long as you’re not dealing with insomnia, which can be worsened by napping, Dr. Ramos recommended a short nap — 20 to 30 minutes maximum — in the early afternoon.

Look for opportunities to laugh.

Toddlers “see the world as a comedy club,” Dr. Merali writes. One study found that young children laugh six times as much as adults. But we can seek ways to build playfulness and humor into our day. Listen to a comedy podcast or trade silly texts with someone, Dr. Merali said. Research shows you laugh more when you are with friends, so make time for them, he said. “I get a daily dad joke mailed to me,” Dr. Merali told me. “And during my lunch break, I watch videos.”

What does he watch? “Funny toddler videos,” he said. Of course.

6 Tips to Relieve Work Stress

Adapted from Calm.com, read the full article there.

In small doses, stress can motivate you to meet deadlines and achieve goals at work. However, when work-related stress becomes chronic, it can lead to mental health problems like anxiety and depression, and physical health problems such as heart disease and high blood pressure.

Recognizing the signs of work stress

  • Emotional symptoms: These may include irritability, frustration, anxiety, depression, or low morale.
  • Physical symptoms: Signs of stress include headaches, muscle tension, fatigue, and sleep disturbances.
  • Behavioral symptoms: Increased absenteeism, reduced productivity, and withdrawal from work-related activities are a few examples.

What to Do About It

1. Identify your stressors

Observe and reflect on when and why you feel stressed to help you see patterns and develop strategies to cope.

  • Keep a stress diary: Record the moments when you feel stressed. Note the situation, your thoughts, how you reacted, and what could have been done differently. 
  • Analyze your diary: Look for recurring themes in your diary. Are there specific tasks, times of day, or interactions that consistently cause stress?

2. Ask for help

Seeking support is a sign of strength, not a weakness.

  • Talk to your supervisor: If workload or a specific task is a source of stress, discuss it with your manager. They may offer solutions or adjustments to your workload.
  • Seek support from colleagues: Talking about stressors with a trusted colleague can provide relief. They might also offer practical advice or assistance.
  • Consider professional help: If work stress is severely impacting your life, seek advice from a mental health professional.

3. Practice mindfulness and meditation

Mindfulness and meditation can help you stay centered and calm.

  • Start with short sessions: Begin with a few minutes of meditation or a mindfulness practice daily. Use guided sessions if you’re a beginner.
  • Incorporate mindfulness into your day: Try to be fully present in whatever you’re doing, whether it’s eating lunch or attending a meeting, to help yourself stay present and reduce feelings of stress and overwhelm.

4. Establish boundaries

Establishing clear boundaries between work and personal life is important for stress management.

  • Set work hours: Define clear start and end times for your workday. Avoid checking emails or taking work calls outside these hours.
  • Create physical or virtual boundaries: Designate a specific area for work and avoid using it for personal activities to help separate work from relaxation time.

5. Take breaks

Regular breaks, even short micro-breaks can help clear your mind, improve focus, and reduce stress.

  • Step away from your desk: Take short breaks throughout the day to walk around, stretch, or do a quick relaxation exercise.
  • Use breaks wisely: Rejuvenate yourself with a few minutes of deep breathing or a brief walk outside.

6. Commit to work-life balance

Ensuring a healthy balance between work and your personal life is essential for reducing stress.

  • Prioritize non-work activities: Make time for hobbies, exercise, and spending time with loved ones. 
  • Learn to disconnect: Physically and mentally disconnect from work after hours. Turning off notifications or setting limits on work-related activities in the evening.

A New Way to Say No

People have the right to ask the question and favors of you, and you have the right to say no.

Some of us are taught early on that saying no to requests from those around us are acts of violation of the relationship but are actually nothing of the sort. It is our right and also our responsibility to draw my own boundaries, rather than expect another person to draw them for me. Author Leslie Jamison learnt this lesson over many years and recently wrote about the art of saying no.

She created a “Notebook of Noes.” On every page, she wrote down an opportunity she had decided to decline: a speaking gig, a magazine commission, an invitation from a friend. Then she drew a line across the page. Underneath, she wrote what saying no had made room for: more time with her partner. More time at home. More time to write. More time to call her mother and ask about her day, and tell her about hers.

What she wound up writing was the story of learning to live a different way. She realized that each time she uttered the word, the world continued just as it always had. The people she had been anxious about disappointing? They were OK. The fear of losing something for good? It often came back, or something else did.

More than anything, however, the Notebook of Noes helped her see absence as a form of presence — instead of lamenting the ghost limb of what she wasn’t doing, she could acknowledge that every refusal was making it more possible to do something else.

Read her full article her, and start your Notebook of Noes today!

Sleep and Mood

While we know poor sleep can be associated with depression, anxiety, and other mental health concerns we often feel powerless to do anything about this. Christina Caron as a writer on the New York Times Well desk where she aims to share expert advice and reputable research in a useful and empathetic, helping others to live better lives. And, while she often write about depression, anxiety and other mental health problems, she also likes to focus on solutions.

In a recent piece she shared that Americans are chronically sleep deprived: one-third of adults in the United States say they get less than 7 hours a night. Teenagers fare even worse: About 70 percent of high school students don’t get enough sleep on school nights. She also shared that an analysis of 19 studies found that while sleep deprivation worsened a person’s ability to think clearly or perform certain tasks, it had a greater negative effect on mood. And when the National Sleep Foundation conducted a survey in 2022, half of those who said they slept less than 7 hours each weekday also reported having depressive symptoms. Some research even indicates that addressing insomnia may help prevent postpartum depression and anxiety. So what do we do about it?

Ms. Caron says “We’ve all heard how important it is to practice good sleep hygiene, employing the daily habits that promote healthy sleep. And it’s important to speak with your doctor, in order to rule out any physical problems that need to be addressed, like a thyroid disorder or restless legs syndrome. But this is only part of the solution. Conditions like anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolar disorder can make it harder to sleep, which can then exacerbate the symptoms of mental illness, which in turn makes it harder to sleep well.”

But what else is there? In addition she came across “Say Goodnight to Insomnia” by Gregg D. Jacobs. The book, which uses C.B.T.-I. techniques, helped Emily to reframe the way she thought about sleep. She began writing down her negative thoughts in a journal and then changing them to positive ones. For example: “What if I’m never able to fall asleep again?” would become “Your body is made to sleep. If you don’t get enough rest one night, you will eventually.” These exercises helped her stop catastrophizing.

It may also be helpful to check out some apps with empirical support for efficacy in treating sleep and mood issues, specifically CBT-i Coach.

Be YOUR Valentine

Valentine’s Day is a day to celebrate love. But for many, the holiday can be stressful, especially for singles, those mourning lost love, or anyone who may be unhappy with the status of their relationship. One way to cope with this is to shift the love you offer this Valentine’s Dat from others back to yourself! The folks over at Embark Behavioral Health offer these 5 tips for shifting the focus back to you today:

1. Celebrate your most important relationship – the one you have with yourself! The relationship you have with yourself will be your longest relationship in life, so it’s important to treat yourself well. If you are not spending Valentine’s Day with a significant other, plan your own night. Think about what reenergizes you. Take a bath, spend some time with a good book or plan your own at-home spa night. Buy yourself chocolates or flowers. Valentine’s Day is a time to feel loved, so show yourself how much you love you.

2. Invest in all your relationships. Valentine’s Day is a day for love, but not just romantic love. Send Valentine’s Day cards to your family and friends, small gifts of love to your nieces and nephews, or maybe bake cookies for a neighbor. Make the day a day of gratitude where the people in your life feel your appreciation.

3. Practice mindfulness. Meditation and mindfulness can be found in a variety of forms. Find a mindfulness app or a free podcast, turn down the lines, and focus your attention on your breath and your emotions. If sitting quietly and journeying through meditation does not sound helpful, consider coloring in a calming book or writing a journal entry. Doing this regularly has been shown to reduce feelings of anxiety and stress and can help you cope if emotions become too strong.

4. Seek support if necessary. If you are really struggling this Valentine’s Day, speak to a trusted family member, friend or therapist, and get the help you need. If you consider harming yourself or others, contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline for immediate support by calling, texting, or chatting 988.

5. Turn off social media. You love to see your family and friends happy, but consider avoiding social media for the days leading up to Valentine’s Day. It can be difficult to see others having something you want and turning off social media will give you time to focus on what’s really important this holiday. Always remember that a person’s social media page is often their “highlight reel,” never showing the full story, and usually finding the best parts of their life to show the world.

Do Good, Eat More Cookies!

Launched in 2017, Girl Scouts of Greater New York’s Troop 6000 is a first-of-its-kind program designed to serve families living in temporary housing in the New York City shelter system.

Each week, Girl Scouts meet in shelters across the city to take part in activities that help them make new friends, earn badges, and learn to see themselves as leaders. All fees, uniforms, trips, and program materials are provided at no cost.

As a permanent fixture of the program, we also established the Troop 6000 Transition Initiative, which supports Girl Scouts and their families as they transition to permanent housing. The average stay for a family in a city shelter is 18 months. Remaining connected to the community and opportunities introduced to them through Troop 6000 can help facilitate a successful transition for girls and young people, and it is essential they continue to receive the financial support that allows them to do so.

For Troop 6000 members, not only does Girl Scouting mean fun, it means consistency and community – a network of supportive peers and adults who, even if they’ve never met before, have similar experiences and are part of the same club.

If you want to support this, and do not have a local troop to buy from, or need an ethically driven reasons to buy even more, you can buy cookies to support Troop 6000 at https://digitalcookie.girlscouts.org/scout/sixk347668/

To learn more about Troop 6000’s expansion to serve recent immigrant and asylum-seeking families, click here.

Rebooting the Resolution

This post will be published on the last day of January. Statistically speaking, many of us have already had to rethink or abandon our resolution for the new year. But is there another way of thinking about this?

Christina Caron, a writer, clinical researcher, and ethicist publishing at the New York Times, recently authored a piece examining why we get stuck and describing 5 ways we can try to get unstuck from common traps that can impede progress toward our goals. You can read her full article at NYTimes.com and these 5 tips are summarized below.

Do a ‘friction audit’: The friction audit is one way organizations weed out areas of inefficiency. Individuals can apply the same principles to their own lives by identifying the things that create obstacles and add complications or stress, Dr. Alter said. To get started, try asking: Am I repeating certain patterns that are unhelpful? Are there certain things I do regularly that I don’t enjoy? The next step is to either trim away or smooth out each friction point. Say you dread your commute but feel powerless to change it. Dr. Alter suggested asking yourself: “What’s the part that makes it most unappealing?” What specific changes can you make to address the problem? Will it help to listen to a great podcast or audiobook? If you drive, can you start a car pool with other co-workers? Is there a way to work from home more often?

Reframe negative thoughts: Maybe you engage in “catastrophizing,” or thinking the worst will happen. Or maybe you are overly harsh with yourself and have a case of “the shoulds,” as in: “I should have gotten more done at work,” even when you accomplished a good amount. Persistent thoughts like these can create stress and interfere with your goals, said Judy Ho, a clinical neuropsychologist and associate professor at Pepperdine University. Try to reframe your thinking, Dr. Ho suggested. For example, instead of “I’m going to fail at this project,” you can think, “I’m going to do the best I can, and if I’m struggling I will ask for help.” Finally, she said, aim to evaluate your thoughts objectively: “I’m having this thought. What’s the evidence for it? And what’s the evidence against it?”

Try ‘futurecasting’: “Imagine a future life where you are unstuck,” said Sarah Sarkis, a clinical psychologist and executive coach in Boston. What does it look like? How do you feel? Then think about the specific steps that would help you work toward that vision. Write those steps down — ideally by hand. This helps us commit to them, Dr. Sarkis said. And don’t wait until you feel “ready,” she added. Do at least one step each day if you can — but be kind to yourself if you cannot. If you skip a day or two, just start again tomorrow. “Paint the future that you’re seeking,” Dr. Sarkis said. “Map a plan to get there.”

Share your goal: Telling other people about your plans can also be helpful. Adam Cheyer, the co-creator of Siri and the vice president of A.I. Experience at Airbnb, has said that this was crucial to his success. “Just the force of putting the words into the world now makes you believe — makes you commit,” he told an audience at the University of California, Berkeley. The added benefit is that people may want to help you out. “Somehow, the universe will help you achieve this goal,” he said. “It’s been a huge, huge tool for me.”

Do something meaningful: Spending time on activities that align with your values “moves you forward if you feel stuck in completely unrelated domains of your life,” Dr. Alter said. When he was feeling unmotivated early in his teaching career, he came across a poster at his gym — a group was looking for volunteers to help raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society by running in the New York City Marathon. It felt almost like fate, he said; one of his friends had died from leukemia years earlier. While training, he ended up making several friends. “I felt like a more productive person and it gave me confidence to tackle other areas of my life,” he said. “We need meaning more than ever when we’re feeling stuck.”

Mindful Management of Type 2 Diabetes

Matthew Solan is the Executive Editor of Harvard Men’s Health Watch, and Howard E. LeWine, MD is the Chief Medical Editor for Harvard Health Publishing. They recently collaborated on a piece for Harvard Health Publishing examining how mindfulness practices and similar interventions such as yoga may help people with diabetes control blood sugar. The pair cite a recent analysis of multiple studies, published in the Journal of Integrative and Complementary Medicine, that suggests how and why these might help.

The findings suggest that “those who participated in any of the mind-body activities for any length of time lowered their levels of hemoglobin A1C, a key marker for diabetes. On average, A1C levels dropped by 0.84%. This is similar to the effect of taking metformin (Glucophage), a first-line medication for treating type 2 diabetes, according to the researchers. A1C levels are determined by a blood test that shows a person’s average blood sugar levels over the past two to three months. Levels below 5.7% are deemed normal, levels from 5.7% to less than 6.5% are considered prediabetes, and levels 6.5% and higher are in the diabetes range.”

They suggest that one’s ” “ability to reduce stress may play a big part. “Yoga and other mindfulness practices elicit a relaxation response — the opposite of the stress response,” says Dr. Shalu Ramchandani, a health coach and internist at the Harvard-affiliated Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. “A relaxation response can lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. This improves insulin resistance and keeps blood sugar levels in check, thus lowering A1C levels.” A relaxation response can help people with diabetes in other ways, such as by improving blood flow and lowering blood pressure, which protects against heart attacks and strokes.

You can read the full article at https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/a-mindful-way-to-help-manage-type-2-diabetes-202302062885