How Do You Stay Healthy While Traveling?

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Once again Nate Green stimulates my thinking and connects my professional and personal dots.  Last week he asked newsletter subscribers this question, and I was surprised at the cascade of subsequent questions it triggered for me:

How do we define “healthy?”

What about travel threatens and/or challenges health?

Is it different depending on the person?  The trip?

What about the trip—Destination?  Duration?  Time of year?  Companions?  Purpose?

How, specifically, is travel different from home?

How do we apply the answers to these questions?

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In my practice, the patients I see travel, I estimate, an average of 35% of the time.  They endure interstate commutes between work headquarters and home, or fly between company sites and all over to meet customers across the country and around the world.  Inevitably these trips include hours sitting in meetings and then the requisite business dinners.  Such meals present the quadruple threat for acid reflux, among other problems:  They are large volume, fatty, and alcohol-laden, and often occur shortly before people go to bed.  Many patients report that they feel badly after business dinners—bloated, sedate, and a little guilty, or at least concerned, about their health.  They feel little agency to change the pattern—fascinating.  We cannot underestimate the business culture of peer pressure that perpetuates our worst habits of self-sabotage, and I see this as the primary threat to my patients’ health when they travel.  Other challenges include jet lag, poor access to healthy food, and disruption of routine, most importantly sleep and exercise.

I have only started to ask my patients Nate’s question.  One patient knew his answer without hesitation: Do not eat late.  I’m curious to see how others answer, and how their answers may evolve over time.  Perhaps I will add this to my standard questions, after my stress/meaning ratio markers.

Nate’s question invites me to consider for myself, as I prepare to travel for the holidays.

How will I define health on this trip?  I will be healthy if I stay active, protect my sleep, and connect with my people.  I will practice intention and mindfulness.  I will read that which enriches my knowledge, awareness, and relationships, and do my best to avoid click bait, sensationalism, and meaninglessness.

What about this travel threatens or challenges my health?  OMG the food.  It’s not just business dinners that are full of fat, sugar, and portions to satiate hippopotami.  Holiday desserts are my crack—one of these days I might just overdose…  I also tend to stay up too late, usually watching movies, and then sleep in and feel guilty for wasting half a day already.  That kills my motivation to do anything very active, much less a full workout—the day is practically over—what’s the point?  Might as well eat, is there any cheesecake left?

Is this different for me compared to others?  Oh, yes.  My husband seems to have no problem controlling his eating, sleeping, and activity anywhere he goes.  Jerk.

Is travel home for the holidays different from, say, conference travel?  Yes.  I think I am more disciplined at meetings.  There isn’t food everywhere whenever I want it, and medical conferences usually offer more healthy options anyway.  I still stay up too late, though.

So what’s the answer?  How will I keep myself healthy this holiday travel season?

Nate included a video by Matt D’Avella in his newsletter, which made some useful suggestions.  Carve out time at the beginning of each day to exercise.  Get outside if possible.  Make the objective maintenance of fitness and routine, rather than progress—slow and steady prevents injury.   I can probably mark time to do some kind of exercise, just not in the mornings—I hate mornings.

Nate suggests making one consistent meal every day of the trip.  Matt made chicken, black bean, egg, and rice burritos every morning in Sydney.  That fueled his morning workouts, simplified food decision making by one meal a day, and allowed him to explore new foods the rest of each day.  I can probably make breakfast my stable meal each day on vacation.  My morning meal has been haphazard the past few months at home, too, so this could be a great opportunity to regain a routine even after vacation.

JAX gym view

Perhaps my central strategy this time can be labelled “Planning for Real Life.”  Whenever I go home I make grand plans to see everybody, cook a ton, hike, shop, relax, read, write, and organize.  For some reason I always leave feeling disappointed that I could not fit it all in, go figure.  There will be multiple families together this year, lots of little kids.  It’s December, and weather can be neither controlled nor fully predicted.  We can make plans, but kids get tired and lose interest, and adults can have meltdowns of our own.  I can look at the calendar and compare it to my task list for the week.  What do I really need to accomplish?  What did I just write here?  Sleep, move my body every day, read a little, and spend quality time with my peeps.  In other words:  Rest, Train, Learn, and Connect.

Thanks for the prompt, Nate!  And Happy Holidays to you!

Talking to the Opposed About Vaccines

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NaBloPoMo 2018: What I’m Learning

Go figure, I’m having conversations about flu and vaccines every day right now.  Today I described my post from yesterday to a new friend.  He stands firmly in the ‘vaccines are good’ camp.  His sister, however, does not.  Her son has autism.  After hearing about my post, he asked me what I would say to her, if she told me she would not vaccinate her child ever again.  It was a great opportunity to think and practice, and I’m grateful that he asked.  I had already thought earlier today about writing a separate post on communication around vaccines.  So here goes!

First I would tell her that I understand why she would not want to vaccinate, if she blames vaccines for her son’s autism.  I don’t know any kids with autism, but I have friends whose kids are autistic, and I see how stressful and exhausting it can be.  As a mom of kids with anaphylactic food allergies, I also know the feeling of absolute guilt for being the one who gave my kids the things that made them sick.  If I were a mom whose kid was diagnosed with autism after receiving vaccines that I consented to, and I were convinced that the latter caused the former, I would definitely want to protect my kid from anything else that might hurt him, especially anything that I have control over.

Some additional background:  We are a lot better at recognizing and diagnosing autism spectrum conditions now than a few decades ago.  That diagnosis is commonly made in the toddler years, also around the time kids have received a boatload of vaccines.  So it’s easy to see a correlation, but causation cannot be proven.  One could argue that it also cannot be totally disproven, but given the number of children who receive all of their vaccines and the very small proportion of them all who go on to be diagnosed, the evidence definitely leans away from vaccines causing autism.  That is little comfort for a family and a child affected with the disorder, who may always wonder.  As humans, we naturally look to assign blame; vaccines are an easy target.  And why on earth would we repeat actions that have previously caused us trauma, real or perceived?

This year I read an article about a mom of three.   She had vaccinated her two elder children as per guidelines.  After her third was born, however, she started to read lay literature online stoking fear of vaccines.  She had no negative experiences herself, but started to wonder, what was really the best thing to do for her family?  She decided to stop vaccinating when her son was 6 months old.  At 18 months, he got pertussis, or whooping cough.  He almost died.  She posted videos of him coughing and turning blue, captioned with a heartfelt mea culpa, urging other parents to vaccinate:

“This is whooping cough,” she wrote. “This is Brody. An 18-month-old boy. Our third child. Our first son.

“This is a mother that sees ‘anti-vaxx’ all over social media and becomes terrified. Unsure whether or not to give vaccines (even though she did for both of her girls). Terrified to ‘pump her baby with poison’ … so she stops vaccinating after six months.”

“This is pure hell. This is guilt. Guilt of putting not only my son at risk, but my community too …This is embarrassment.”

She wanted to impress the fact that she’s not “bashing” the anti-vaxx community – or blaming or judging anyone.

“The decisions I made were MY decisions. Based purely on my lack of knowledge and fear,” she said.

“This is to show the consequences of not vaccinating my child correctly.”

I wonder about her conversations with her son’s doctors.  Did they try to shame her into vaccinating when she initially expressed a desire to stop?  If so, could this have just made her more resistant?  It could easily look something like a conversation that I would bet happened all over our country today:

Doctor:  Have you gotten your flu vaccine yet?

Patient: I don’t do flu vaccine.

Doctor: Seriously?  Why not?  It’s perfectly safe, you know, and tens of thousands of people die every year from flu.  If you don’t get vaccinated, you could pass it on to everybody you know.  Aren’t your parents elderly?  Don’t your kids have asthma?  You’re putting them at risk for serious illness or death, you know that, right?  And you don’t get flu from the vaccine, that is a total myth.  (Insert list of facts and evidence for benefits of flu vaccine here.)  Really, you should get it (suppressing eye roll).

Patient:  No, no thanks.  Can I go now?

I see and hear my colleagues complain all the time about vaccine-resistant patients.  When they are particularly tired or moody, they can get judgmental and even a little mean.  I understand.  It’s frustrating to watch people we care about making choices we think are against their best interests, especially when it also puts the community at risk.  I fear for my kids if their classmates are not vaccinated—both of my kids have asthma that’s triggered by respiratory infections.  Even if our whole family is vaccinated, they are still exposed to hundreds of snotty, sneezy, coughing faces every day at school.  Flu season is essentially six months long, most of it when we are all stuck inside basically slobbering all over one another.  High. Risk.

But does it really help for me to come at my patients with my ‘advice’ before I understand the origins of their decisions?  What are my assumptions about them when I do that?  Some patients claim science as the basis of their refusal; others admit that it’s totally irrational.  Regardless, how can I best conduct myself?  Here is my current approach:

Cheng: Do you do flu vaccine?

Patient: No, not really.

Cheng: Can we talk about that?

Patient: Do we have to?

Cheng: I would really appreciate it.  I won’t try to pressure you, I just want to understand your rationale.

Patient:  Gives their reasoning.  If it’s like my friend’s sister above, or I otherwise understand that they are resolute in opposition, I thank them for sharing, shift to strategies for illness and transmission prevention (see yesterday’s post), and ask permission to talk again next season.  This happens in a minority of cases, actually.  Most often they say something like, “Well, I just don’t really think about it, I feel like I don’t need it, I think it’s strange that it’s recommended every year, it doesn’t really seem to work from what I hear, and what’s the big deal about flu, anyway? …Do you really think I should get it?”

Cheng: Yes, I really recommend it.  Can I tell you why?

Patient: Okay, sure.

This is when I go through all the evidence that I reviewed yesterday and the rationale above.  If I know something meaningful to them that relates, I make sure to highlight the connection.  At the end I make sure to reiterate that they are free to vaccinate or not; I am honestly unwedded to a particular decision. I invite them to consider and let me know, or just show up to a pharmacy clinic if they decide to get it.  Most people are appreciative of the time spent; many say they learn something they did not previously know.  We end the conversation at least with no hard feelings, and often with positive ones (at least on my end).

It occurred to me this morning, what is my primary objective when I conduct these conversations this way, coming alongside my patients rather than coming at them?  Initially I thought it was to keep people healthy, to prevent death, serious illness, and suffering.  But now I think my primary objective is actually to cultivate our relationship.  I usually have this conversation with new patients, because if I know them already then I know their vaccine patterns and I don’t have to ask, “Do you do flu vaccine?”  If they refused last year I can simply start with, “Can we please talk about flu again?”  When we are new to each other, the way I present sets the tone for our relationship and has an outsize impact on patients’ receptivity to my advice.  The flu vaccine conversation is a prime opportunity to prove that I can listen to, empathize with, respect, and honor their values and autonomy.

On the contrary, when I come at them, bent on convincing them to vaccinate now, what is my primary objective?  Thinking of other times I present this way, if I’m being honest, I’m just trying to prove I’m right and win an argument.  I don’t think that approach has ever really helped anybody.

 

 

What Doesn’t Kill Me

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NaBloPoMo 2018:  What I’m Learning

What does your doctor tell you about flu vaccine?  What about shingles vaccine?  Antibiotics?  This week I have had a series of both unifying and gratifying conversations around these topics.  I thank my patients for sharing their opinions and questions, which stimulate and sharpen my thoughts and expressions, all in service of making us healthier.

People have a lot of reasons for declining flu vaccine.  It’s usually something around not believing it does any good (it does), feeling they don’t need it and are not at risk for serious illness or death (we all are), and a general aversion to ‘putting something in my body that isn’t natural.’   Most people who decline flu vaccine still accept tetanus/diphtheria/pertussis, hepatitis, meningitis, or other vaccines.  I find this interesting.  The rationale behind all vaccines is the same—saving lives and minimizing serious illness and complications, especially for vulnerable populations like babies, the elderly, and people with immune-compromising conditions (pregnancy, cancer, diabetes, autoimmune disorders).  We are contagious before we feel sick—this is the natural genius of viral survival and spread.  So this flu season, cover your face with your arm when you sneeze, wash or sanitize your hands after every encounter with any surface, and don’t share drinks or utensils with anybody.

Shingles is interesting.  You cannot get shingles unless you have had chicken pox or the chicken pox (varicella zoster) vaccine (though shingles after vaccination is rare).  After the acute illness (and sometimes after vaccination), the virus does not go away.  Like other herpes viruses, it lives in your body permanently and reactivates under certain conditions.  In my experience the most common trigger for shingles (zoster) is stress, either physical (eg sleep deprivation) or mental and/or emotional—often both.  The virus resides in the spinal cord and reactivates usually along a single nerve root, hence the typical pattern of a band of blisters on one side of the body.  For someone who has not had chicken pox or the vaccine, infection occurs through contact with respiratory droplets from someone with either chicken pox or shingles illness.

Here is my best analogy for how vaccines work:

Think of your immune system as law enforcement or a military operation.  Its job is to hunt down offending agents, apprehend them, subdue them, and kill them, if possible.  All such operatives need training to be effective.  Vaccines are like battle simulators.  We deploy them into circulation and trigger a drill response from immune system troops, making mobilization for the real, live attack more efficient and successful.  In the case of flu, offenders are shapeshifters, constantly changing their outward appearance to evade capture.  So simulators must be updated annually to prepare the troops in kind.

For shingles, think of varicella zoster virus (VZV) as the prisoner, your spinal cord as the prison, and your immune system as the prison guards.  Usually VZV breaks and enters when we are young, when our guards are also young, fit, and agile.  Over the years, our guards age.  With age comes sluggishness, memory loss.  The prisoner, however, remains as virulent as ever.  So it looks to escape through one window or another—maybe a left thoracic nerve root this time, a right lumbar next.  Shingles vaccine takes our dad-bod prison guards back to boot camp and reminds them what the enemy looks and acts like, so they may better thwart any escape attempts.  The new shingles vaccine, Shingrix, is recommended at age 50.

So, vaccines are basic training for our immune system soldiers.  I’ve never been anywhere near the military (God bless all of you who serve, and does residency count for something?).  For those who have, do you agree that there may have been times during training when you questioned your likelihood of survival?  And when you did survive, did you not emerge stronger and more confident for the experience?  What doesn’t kill me…

It’s the same for bacteria exposed to antibiotics.  There is no question, we use antibiotics too much.  Now think of bacteria as a horde of enemy invaders.  Our immune military wages war with these throngs at every orifice and mucus membrane of our bodies every day.  Every time we take antibiotics, however, it’s like coming over the battlefield with an imprecise explosive device aimed at the bad bacteria, but that also can cause collateral damage (eg friendly fire on our good gut bugs).  The problem with antibiotic overuse (and, in theory, shortened or incomplete courses of antibiotics) is that the bacteria who were already equipped to survive the blast now make up the majority of the surviving invasion party who can procreate.  They will pass on these survival traits to their progeny, and voila, antibiotic resistance.  The next time you have a respiratory infection, do not automatically assume you need antibiotics.  Talk to and/or see your doctor.  If it’s an uncomplicated viral illness, ask what else you can do to suffer less while your troops battle this transient, non-lethal invader.  Support them by hydrating, sleeping, eating healthy, and avoiding caffeine and alcohol.  Support yourself by medicating for the symptoms.  You’ got this.

What does not kill me makes me stronger.

It works both ways.

Living Large in Seventh Grade

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NaBloPoMo 2018: What I’m Learning

Did you know that Abraham Maslow never represented his hierarchy of needs as a pyramid?  I didn’t either!  To be clear, I have not read the paper I just linked; it was linked in a different article I read today, describing more about Maslow’s work than I have ever known before.  It’s in Scientific American, entitled, “What Does It Mean to be Self-Actualized in the 21st Century?” by Scott Barry Kaufman.

Especially later in his life, Maslow’s focus was much more on the paradoxical connections between self-actualization and self-transcendence, and the distinction between defense vs. growth motivation. Maslow’s emphasis was less on a rigid hierarchy of needs, and more on the notion that self-actualized people are motivated by health, growth, wholeness, integration, humanitarian purpose, and the “real problems of life.”

I was intrigued by this piece because I remember so clearly when I first learned about Maslow’s Hierarchy.  It was in seventh grade, and I can’t remember anymore the class or context.  I just recall that it made so much sense, and I felt such a swell of joy at the possibility that something so complex could be distilled and explained so simply.  It would have been fair to predict at that time that I would go on to become a psychologist.  The boy I had a crush on that year (and all through high school, actually) asked me where I saw myself on the pyramid.  I remember looking at the tiers and thinking, very clearly, oh, I’m at the top.  I felt a little sheepish, afraid I would be seen as bragging, but it was the honest answer, and I said so.  “Bullshit,” was his reply.  I can’t remember our verbal exchange thereafter, but I think I was able to convince him that I really felt like I was ‘there.’  And I left that encounter feeling both a bit more self-aware and also proud that I had stood my ground and defended a truth.  You could also have guessed I would later entertain a brief interest in law school.

Kaufman has revisited Maslow’s work, including his hierarchy of needs, and evaluated the components in the context of modern life.  Reassuringly, 10 of 17 of Maslow’s self-actualization characteristics still stand up to ‘scientific scrutiny,’ (not sure how he measured this).  He names the ten characteristics in the article, and you can ‘take the quiz’ to see how self-actualized you are today.  I love quizzes like this.  I have done the Myers-Briggs at least 5 times.  Others I love are Gregorc Mind Styles, Insights Discovery, and the Gallup Strengths Finder.  The most useful ones tell you what you already know about your strengths, and also offer advice and insights on how to manage your blind spots.

But the most interesting aspect of Kaufman’s article to me was Maslow’s interest in self-actualization and its relationship to self-transcendence.  We can understand self-actualization as ‘achieving one’s full potential’ and self-transcendence as ‘decreased self-salience and increased feelings of connectedness,’ (again, not read the paper; it’s linked in Kaufman’s article) or basically subsuming and/or integrating oneself within a greater whole.  At first you may think that these are mutually exclusive states of mind and being.  The coolest thing is that it’s not actually an either/or proposition; it is absolutely both/and:

While self-actualization showed zero relationship to decreased self-salience, self-actualization did show a strong positive correlation with increased feelings of oneness with the world.

Self-actualized people don’t sacrifice their potentialities in the service of others; rather, they use their full powers in the service of others (important distinction). You don’t have to choose either self-actualization or self-transcendence– the combination of both is essential to living a full and meaningful existence.

It reminds me of another subsection of Chapter 3 in Leading Change in Healthcare, wherein Suchman et al discuss holding the tension and balance between self-differentiation (clear sense of individuality) and attunement (deep awareness and acceptance of how we are connected and resonant with those around us).  It also reminds me of Brené Brown’s work on trust; she describes eloquently in Rising Strong how we can neither trust others nor be trustworthy ourselves without clarity and boundaries around who we are and our core values, and living in that integrity all of the time.

Once again, I find encouraging and validating evidence for something I really feel I have known since an early age:  We are all our best selves and our best communities not in competition, but in collaboration.   Cohesion in diversity weaves a stronger social fabric of connections, more flexible and elastic.  But that means we need to know exactly what we as individuals each bring to contribute.  Personal, intrinsic meaning and purpose are foundational for substantive interactions with others and resilient communal relationships.

Our world can meet each and every one of our physiologic, psychologic, and self-fulfillment needs—we can provide this for one another.  We can each strive for our own goals, alongside our peers, and still help each other on the rocky, uphill parts.  We really need to stop with the scarcity thinking and get on with the business of working together, maximizing each of our strengths, and making society better for all of us.

Onward.

Hope You’re Safe in Chicago

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NaBloPoMo 2018:  What I’m Learning

My friend texted me these words at 4:01pm Central Standard Time today.

Tamara O’Neal, an emergency medicine physician just one year out of training, was shot to death by her ex-fiancé.  He then went on to kill two others, and he himself died, though it remains unclear if he shot himself or died from a police officer’s bullet.  She was on her way to work, saving lives for a living, many of them probably victims of gun violence.

Samuel Jimenez, a 28 year-old police officer, also only beginning his career, was killed.  He leaves behind a wife and three young children.  He was doing his job, protecting innocent lives from deadly violence.

Dayna Less, a 25 year-old pharmacy resident, was also killed.  She was still in training, planning to go home to Indiana tomorrow to celebrate Thanksgiving with her family, and planning a wedding next year.

It could have been my hospital, or my husband’s hospital.  Or one of the hospitals where my sister or my friends or my mom work.  It could have been my children’s school.  An elementary school a few blocks away was locked down until 5pm.  What must that have been like for the kids and their parents?

I was safe in Chicago—today.  But none of us are actually safe, as long as we collectively continue to do nothing about the public health crisis of gun violence that grips and gags us.  And make no mistake it is a public health issue before it is a political issue.  That said, we in healthcare must continue rise up and call for action in policy.  We must demand more of our elected officials.  They must represent us and our collective public interest first and foremost.  A majority of the American public supports common sense gun laws like background checks, licenses for gun dealers, and restricting gun ownership by known domestic abusers.  This should be reflected in our laws and law enforcement.

Please read about the victims of today’s shooting.  Remember them before you read about tomorrow’s victims.  Look up the people who died in Parkland and Pittsburgh.  Put yourself in their shoes, as events unfolded on what started as just another day in their lives.  Imagine what must have flown through their minds—thoughts of children, parents, spouses, regrets, things they wish they had done, things they had looked forward to.  Imagine the terror, the disbelief, the pain, the utter loneliness, the longing for the comfort of loved ones, the wish for another day to be with them, to say goodbye.

Imagine being their family members now, trudging on each day without them, senselessly, with no justice, no closure.  Imagine caring for patients and their families in the emergency department, the intensive care unit, the neurological rehab hospital.  Imagine looking into the eyes of these people, the remaining years and decades of their lives irrevocably altered for the worse by events that unfolded over a few minutes.  And then imagine, as you continue to gaze into their eyes, telling them sorry, there’s nothing we can do about it, this is just the way it is.

The only way enough of us will be moved to take action is if enough of us can truly relate to the experiences of the victims and their families.  Nobody needs to actually live through such horror to be able to empathize.  The human brain is wired for empathy and connection.  At the same time that we cannot imagine what it must be like, we can absolutely imagine.  But we choose to separate, to disconnect, when things are too uncomfortable, to protect ourselves.  This is how tragedies like Columbine continue to happen, every week, every year, for decades.  Not. Acceptable.

Read the American College of Physicians position paper on reducing firearm injuries and deaths.  Apply a critical and objective eye and mind.  Try to understand its reasoning and look up the citations.  Read the appendix, the expanded background and rationale.

Do you want fewer people to die from gun violence in the United States?

What will you do to help reduce the harm?  Because we all need to help.

 

 

 

 

 

The Feels Are Good

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NaBloPoMo 2018:  What I’m Learning

I’ve been working for many years now on feeling my feelings rather than thinking them.  Rationality and analysis in service of self-awareness and understanding are great, but I have tried too long to will my hard feelings away, or experience them all as anger rather than what they really are—sadness, shame, fear, etc.

With books like The Art of Possibility, Mindsight, and Rising Strong, after multiple readings, along with years of therapy, I have acquired the skills to allow these feelings to emerge, engage, and pass.  I understand much better now the purpose of emotions: they are simply signals.  They are meant to draw our attention to something meaningful in our existence.  This could be a threat, a connection, a relationship, anything.  We modern humans spend a lot of time judging our emotions (and thus one another’s), trying to suppress the ones that make us feel bad, masking them, numbing them, and offloading them.  For whatever reason, we are not good at simply allowing them, learning from them, and letting them go.

I started following Nate Green on Facebook just before he deactivated his page.  He now communicates with readers through email newsletters, and his is one of the few I actually read.  This week he sent a rare second message, linking to his recent article for Men’s Health, “There Will Be Tears: Inside the Retreat Where Men Purge Toxic Emotions.”  If you read nothing else this weekend, read this.

Nate participates in an Evryman retreat in Big Sky, Montana, a project “aimed at teaching men how to access and express their emotions.”  When I saw the headline I felt a squirming in my gut, which surprised me.  We, especially we women, are always urging men to be more ‘in touch’ with their feelings, right?  Don’t we always want our men to be more sensitive and caring, more empathic and expressive?  Don’t we want them to role model all of this for our children, especially our boys?

Nate describes the retreat and its exercises:

My thoughts are racing. I shift my feet. Andrew shifts his. We continue to stare at each other. Finally, Andrew takes a deep breath and speaks. “If you really knew me, you’d know that I smoke too much pot and use it as a coping mechanism. And you would know I’m ashamed of it.”

His gaze lowers, embarrassed. He looks back up and we lock eyes. Now it’s my turn.

“If you really knew me, you’d know that I sometimes drink too much alcohol and it worries me.”

I have never spoken those words out loud before. I instantly feel lighter, like a giant
weight I didn’t even know was there has been lifted. Andrew smiles, happy to not be alone in his confession.

“Thanks,” he says.

“Thank you,” I say.

…To our left and right are 16 other men, paired off just like us. Behind us sits a gigantic log cabin that will be our home for the next two nights. After that, we’ll carry 50-pound packs into the backcountry of Yellowstone National Park, where we’ll walk and sleep among the grizzlies, mosquitoes, and stars for three more nights.

We all met maybe an hour ago.

Yikes.  I’m pretty emotionally confident and open, and this would be hard for me.  Imagine (or maybe you don’t have to) how hard it would be for outwardly strong, independent, and stoic men to do this.  What would it take for you men to go on a retreat like this?  Women, how do you picture the men in your life going through something like this?  How would we react if our men disclosed their innermost fears to us, cried openly in front of us, at home, at work, on the field?

For a long time I did not understand how hard this is for men.  I thought they were all just shallow and simply did not have emotions (other than anger and sarcasm).  In Daring Greatly Brené Brown writes how she learned about the severe threat that vulnerability really is for men.  After one of her presentations she was approached by an older man, a husband and father of her superfans.  He pointed out to her that though we say we want men to show more vulnerability, the moment any man does, he immediately pays a steep price.  I like to think we would welcome it, but I have a feeling many of us would react with shock and dismay, at least initially.  We complain about how women are perceived as weak and ‘hysterical’ when showing emotion, and if I’m honest, I might feel the same or worse about a man doing it.

So our mission should be to make it okay for all of us, men included, to ‘be emotional.’  That does not mean losing control and acting out.  It does not mean using emotions as an excuse for abusive behaviors.  It means allowing and holding space for our common human experiences to affect us at our core, and acknowledging how it feels.  It means helping each other breathe and walk through it all, holding each other up through the hard parts.  In Rising Strong and Dare to Lead, Brown takes us through steps she and her team have developed for working through hard emotions, called the Reckoning, Rumbling, and Revolution.  I’m getting really good at the first step, also known as the Shitty First Draft.

I know I have included multiple links here with minimal explanation.  It’s late.  And you can click and read at your leisure.  Or maybe you don’t need to; maybe you know exactly what I’m referring to and you march with the same mission already.  If so, let’s connect.  Let’s find all of us who understand the profound need for this shift in culture and society.  Let us form a chorus and sing loudly to whomever will listen, and make the world better for all of us—men, women, children—all of us for one another.

 

Less Phone, More BOOKS!

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NaBloPoMo 2018: What I’m Learning

Hi, I’m Cathy, and I’m addicted to my phone.

Last month I finally decided to do something about it, mostly so I could be more present to the kids.  It’s been a fascinating journey so far, and I’m proud to say I’ve already made progress.  First I banned Facebook after 6pm.  That went well until I traveled.  Then I took the Facebook app off of my phone.  The withdrawl continues to spike at times.  I also notice that I use other things to substitute—New York Times, email, Washington Post, email, WordPress Reader, email.  I notice an anxiety, a frustration, a kind of crazed, darting hankering– I crave that dopamine hit.

The awareness of it all, however, and the commitment to get disentangled from my screen, has cleared space for a recently dormant impulse to surface afresh:

READ!

* * *

At the conference last month I was turned on to the idea of complexity (or chaos) theory and how it relates to fixing physician burnout and turning our whole medical system around.  It was positively mind-blowing (for me—most others did not seem quite as lit).  The speaker was Anthony Suchman, my newest hero.  Some highlight ideas:

  • Every system is perfectly designed to get exactly the results it gets. Our current healthcare system evolved to this point precisely from serial and cumulative decisions made over years, even though the current state was never the intent.
  • We think of organizations as machines, with predictable, linear consequences of adjustments in one part or another. This is rarely how organizations (of people) actually work.  Rather, we can think of organizations as conversations, and let go our expectations of particular outcomes, the illusion of total control.  We can let things unfold and go where the outcomes lead us, all while holding to core values and goals.
  • Patterns are (re)created in each moment, and also self-organizing. So at the same time that a pattern (eg culture) seems inevitable and self-propagating, sometimes small, almost imperceptible perturbations can create new and dramatic cascades that lead to transformation (the butterfly effect).
  • Emergent Design thus embraces the approach of “finding answers we are willing to not know,” trusting that we will get where we need to go simply because we are paying attention (or that’s how I interpret it today).

This theory that everything within a system both results from and also contributes to the whole system (a fractal) validates an idea I have been advocating to my patients for years, and that I continue to personally relearn ad nauseam: It’s all connected.  The most concrete examples are Sleep, Exercise, Nutrition, Stress Management, and Relationships—I used to call them the 5 Realms of Health; now I call them the 5 Reciprocal Domains.  Each one is inextricably connected to every other one, and they all move in concert, with subtle or dramatic dynamics.

books 11-2-18

I browsed around my local bookstore a couple weeks ago and came across a colorful title on the shelf: Emergent Strategy by Adrienne Maree Brown.  So of course I snatched it up.  The blurb says:

Inspired by Octavia Butler’s explorations of our human relationship to change, Emergent Strategy is radical self-help, society-help, and planet-help designed to shape the futures we want to live.  Change is constant.  The world is in a continual state of flux.  It is a stream of ever-mutating, emergent patterns.  Rather than steel ourselves against such change, this book invites us to feel, map, assess, and learn from the swirling patterns around us in order to better understand and influence them as they happen.  This is a resolutely materialist “spirituality” based equally on science and science fiction, a visionary incantation to transform that which ultimately transforms us.

Holy cow, YAAAAS!!  I could not wait to read it!  So I bought it, along with Make Trouble by Cecile Richards, What If This Were Enough? By Heather Havrilesky, and The Dharma of “The Princess Bride” by Ethan Nichtern.  I had also ordered Leading Change in Healthcare, coauthored by Dr. Suchman and two others.  That copy arrived last week.

Suchman 1

I feel this as all part of a slow turn, getting off my phone and diving into books again.  I’m so excited.  I have done this before—buy a bunch of books and never read them.  They occupy whole shelves in my bedroom.  But I honestly feel a transformation coming on.  Yesterday I spent a couple hours reading, researching, and writing the blog post, then I turned off the computer and opened Brown’s book.  I read through the long introduction and resonated with sentences like, “Emergence is the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions.”  This is a quote from Complex Adaptive Leadership: Embracing Paradox and Uncertainty by Nick Obolensky (which I have also now ordered).  I also love (ha!), “Perhaps humans’ core function is love.  Love leads us to observe in a much deeper way than any other emotion.”  Also:

all that you touch

you change

all that you change

changes you

the only lasting truth

is change

god is change

That is a quote from Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler.

Then before bed I opened Suchman et al’s book and found these words, also in the introduction:

Complexity theory here is enriched by the focus on relationships [Hallelujah!], rather than the more traditional reference to science.  “Relationship-Centered Care” is a way of thinking that brings love and all that is personal into a world, the world of healthcare, that is mostly interested in more control and more data-based, evidence-based practices.

The point is made throughout that administrators cannot bring real change into their healthcare institutions without going through change themselves.

(The book describes) the relationship-centered social dynamics that are at the heart of Lean and a major source of this method’s success.  Unfortunately, these social dynamics are overshadowed or even displaced by the analytic technique in some Lean implementations, compromising results.

Suchman 2

So I’m learning about new ways to think on change.   It’s changing how I approach trying to change my patterns, how I see my relationship to them, how I see all relationships.  Wow.

All of this to say, I feel a deeply personal, yet global and cosmic impulse for growth, for transformation—a shift into more mindful and intentional use of my time and energy, and how I manifest it outward.  Less distraction, more focus.  Less incidental information consumption, more integrated learning and coordinated application.  Less phone, more BOOKS.

What will be the outcome?  I have no idea, that’s what makes it so exciting and wonderful!  Onward!