This blog will be about life and relationships; mostly, from what I’ve learned from my two companion animals, Dali and Oskar. Sometimes I’ll post other types of resources and anecdotes. I hope what I share is helpful or at least fun.
I remember when Dali first joined our family, we lived in a downtown area. She was about six months old, maybe close to a year and filled with energy. She loved saying hello to people, all people. She would go up to everyone and greet them. And most people responded in kind, although there were always some who were busy or didn’t want to be bothered, which was no problem for Dali. She would just move on to the next person. Though she is nearing 14 years old, she still goes out of her way to greet people and it is clear how happy this interaction makes her.
Social interaction makes a big difference in our health. It is as important as eating healthy and exercising.
In this seven-minute segment, Shankar Vedantam focuses on the health impacts of social isolation for men, but it has good information for everyone.
Researchers Examine What Social Isolation Can Do To Men’s Health
Take time to connect with other people. Say hello to others on the bus or subway. Or when you’re on line. Strike up a conversation with a bank teller or cashier. I know from my experience, though brief, these interactions can boost my mood.
He will stand at the top of the stairs and push a tennis ball to me at the bottom. When I get it, I throw it back – down the hall – so he has to run and get it. He’ll go back to the top of the stairs and wait for me to sit down on the couch and then he will push the ball down the stairs again, so I hear a thump, thump, thump as the ball bounces down the stairs.
As he grew up in our family, and I would give a chew treat to both him and Dali. He would hide his treat when I wasn’t looking and then give me this look like something happened to his chewy and he didn’t know what it was. I was thinking maybe Dali was taking it so I’d give him another. Until one day, I don’t remember why, I thought to look around the house and saw that he was hiding them. When he realized I was on to him, he stopped his prank.
There are other things he does in the moment and I find myself cracking up. I look at him and he has a big smile on his face. We connect over the moment of playfulness and I feel lighter and joyful.
Laughing boosts the immune system and relieves stress, depression, anxiety, pain and social conflict. Be sure to watch a funny video, movie, spend time with friends who make you laugh, or find other things that make you LOL on a regular basis.
I can get very stressed and have strong emotional responses to situations. Over the years, many people have suggested that I meditate or do yoga – neither of which appeals to me. So, I was pleased to come across the work of Ellen Langer, a social psychologist and professor at Harvard University. Her research shows how to be mindful without meditating.
Here are four take-aways from watching her video (below):
Notice new things. When you do, whether it be about a person, a place you’ve walked before, or whatever you put your attention to, is mindfulness. Intentionally noticing new things is being in the present.
Make what you are doing new in some way. Bring your style, perspective, interpretation to it. Even subtly. When musicians in an orchestra were asked to play their part, something they do over-and-over again, in a subtly new way, both the musician and the listener enjoyed the piece much more.
Words and perspective matter. For example, instead of thinking of vacuuming as a chore, think of it as a chance to get exercise. Or, instead of thinking of your friend as “gullible,” think of him as “trusting.” When you change words, you change perspective and you get a change in mindset.
The mind and body are one. Placebos work because of the mind-body connection. Her video has a lot of cool examples of how our mindset effects our health.
I’ve started noticing new things walks with my dogs. One of the things I’ve noticed is how different each tree is from another. They’ve got their own fingerprint. I enjoy the exercise of noticing new things and it certainly get me to be in the moment. And more relaxed.
If you decide to try some of these lessons, feel free to let me know how it goes.
Walks with my dogs help me not only to get outside and get exercise, but also savor the pleasant and interesting things around me. Just this morning, I saw a baby fox looking at us from a safe distance. Often, I take a photo of what I am enjoying (unfortunately, I didn’t get a photo of the fox) which helps me amass a riches of positive feelings. Taking time to stop and smell the roses boosts my positive emotions.
In our daily lives, we are often distracted by our thoughts or tasks at hand, so it is good to purposefully take some time to notice and savor positive things around us. This is one thing we can do to increase our happiness. A trip to the Bahamas or Belize, though awesome, is not needed for us to savor the everyday beauty around us.
If you like, try taking a short walk of about 15 – 20 minutes each day, or however often works for you. Use your different senses to notice some charm in the moment. Feel the cool breeze on your skin. Notice the dramatic cloud formation. Smell the roses. Keeping a written journal or a photographic journal is an additional way to accumulate a treasure chest filled with simple pleasures.
The photos on this blog are some of the visual treats I’ve enjoyed. Most are from walks with my dogs, but some are from walks I’ve taken without Dali and Oskar. Yes, that does happen from time to time. I hope you enjoy.
And if you decide to give this “helpful hint” a try, feel free to let me know how it goes by writing below.
Dali is barking and barking at the top of the stairs. Nonstop. I can’t figure out why. Normally, I offer her “petting time,” which as the phrase suggests, is when I pet her and rub her neck. When I do that, she calms down over time. I call up to her and “Dali, come down for petting time.”
But she doesn’t come to me and she doesn’t stop barking. At another time, I might go to her, but I have a broken toe and don’t want to get up from the couch. She keeps barking. I think it is on the fourth or fifth time of me offering to console her that she comes downstairs, trots over to me on the couch and then sits next to me ready for “petting time,” whining the whole time, expressing her internal discomfort with something.
She reminds me of how I can get sometimes. Internally upset and having a hard time calming myself down. It is important to have people in our lives we trust and can turn to for support, but I also believe we need to be our own support.
It can take a lot of work to calm ourselves down when we are having a strong reaction to something. It’s good to have a couple of skills to turn to at these times and it’s good to practice these skills at times other than when we are emotionally dysregulated, so we are pretty good at doing these skills.
Here is are some good questions to ask yourself when you are revved up (I got them from getselfhelp.co.uk).
What am I REALLY reacting to?
What is it that is really pushing my buttons here?
What is it that I think is going to happen?
What is the worst (and best) that could happen?
What is most likely to happen?
Am I getting things out of proportion?
How important is this really? How important will it be in 6 months time?
What harm has been done?
Am I expecting something from this person or situation that is unrealistic?
Am I overestimating the danger?
Am I underestimating my ability to cope?
Am I using a negative filter? Is there another way of looking at it?
What advice would I give to someone else in this situation?
Am I spending time ruminating about the past or worrying about the future?
What could I do right now that would help me feel better?
How would someone else see this situation? What is the bigger picture?
What would be the consequences of responding the way I usually do?
Is there another way of dealing with this? What would be the most helpful and effective action to take? (for me, for the situation, for the other person)
These are a lot of questions, probably too many to remember. I recommend writing down about 6 questions that resonate for you and have them handy for when you are feeling emotionally overwhelmed. By taking time to think through the answer to these questions, you can get a different perspective on the situation and that can help you manage your emotions more effectively.
Please let me know if you find this approach helpful or if you have some other strategies that work for you.
Years ago, soon after we welcomed Oskar to our home and before he knew all of our rituals, I took Dali and Oskar to the airport to pick up my husband, Irwin. We were waiting for him in the baggage area and after I received his call, I knew to keep a look-out. When I saw Irwin, I alerted Dali and Oskar: “Who sees Daddy?” Dali looked around, spotted Irwin and started running towards him. She had a goal. Oskar ran along with Dali. He was so much in the moment, simply joyous to be running with his buddy. Oskar was in a moment of play. Running just because it was fun. He ran right past his Daddy.
Sometimes Dali and Oskar will rough and tumble play. Dali doesn’t play as much as Oskar would like and I feel bad about that, but when they do, it is so much fun to watch. It is like they are in their own world. And that is part of play, too. Play participants are in a state of abandon, a zone.
According to play expert Dr. Stuart Brown (what a fun job he has!), play is important throughout our life. There are many different types of play and the basis of human trust is established through play signals. Play helps with our emotional regulation, cognitive and physical development, innovation and creativity, and bonding and closeness. Nothing lights up the brain like play does. All species seem to be able to play and there is a very powerful and deep signaling system that exists between various species.
In his TEDTalk, Dr. Brown gives this example of a polar bear coming upon chained sled dogs. The polar bear is in a predatory approach with eyes fixed, stalking movements, and claws extended. One of the sled dogs gives a play bow and when the polar bear receives the message, everything changes. Their interaction becomes good-natured and trusting.
I’ve certainly experienced this with Oskar. Oskar can be very playful. He can make me laugh out loud. One time, I was at the foot of the stairs calling to Oskar at the top of the stairs to bring the ball-ie. He doesn’t like to bring the ball. He likes me to chase him. I don’t like to chase him. He just stood motionless and so after a couple of tries, I left my post and walked away. Moments later, I hear the ball hitting each step. I started to laugh. Oskar had pushed the ball down the stairs to lure me back, but he found a way to do so without bringing the ball to me.
Although hard to define because it is pre-verbal, play is voluntary, fun for its own sake and seems purposeless. It can be active. It can also be imaginative and inward. Some of my favorite times have been walking in the woods with Dali and Oskar. I explore places and climb in and out of small creek beds I never would if I weren’t with them. And I daydream. I hadn’t understood these times to be a form of play until listening to Dr. Brown.
It is important to bring play in to our lives. It is important for our well-being. Play deprivation results in rigidness, lack of optimism, a negative view on life and depression. It is important for each of us to be true to our own temperament to find the activities of play that fit us best. This will help us be more effective in work and different areas of our life. I recently started painting and found my anxiety decreased dramatically. I love using a lot of paint and because I enjoy the gooey feel I sometimes use my hands to cover the canvas and mix paint. Doing this brought up memories of photos I had seen of myself as a toddler playing in the mud. Perhaps a trait I was born with was to enjoy exploring through a sense of touch and physical movement.
Play is also important in our couple relationships. If we neglect the fun side of our relationship, this can trigger a spiral of distress. Each couple needs to incorporate their ways of play into their lives and so some things together just because it is fun.
The video at the top of this blog post always makes me smile. My mirror neurons probably fire watching the dog and sheep play tag. I hope they and my blog inspire you to find ways to play that fit who you are.