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Human Connections help us heal faster


Human Connections help us heal faster

Having been an expat for over 15 years now, I have missed countless birthdays, wedding anniversaries, engagements, childbirths, christenings, even the funeral of my grandfather. My husband has strong preferences for introversion, so we don't have any couple-friends to go out and share experiences or rituals with. I admit, it's easy to forget how strong and useful the bonds of social structure can be.

Thankfully, I have found an Ersatz-family in my Toastmasters club and a handful of local friends. Three of whom are pregnant right now, so ask me again in 6 months how I feel about baby showers. Still, with my own preferences for Extraversion and all, I couldn't live without them. The research I'm going to share with you now hasn't included specifics on personality types, yet it is suggesting that human connections indeed provide health benefits to introverts and extraverts alike.

1. Janelle Jones and Jolanda Jetten found that "multiple group memberships promote the resilience in the face of physical challenges".

They found that belonging to multiple groups was associated with faster heart rate recovery for novice bobsleigh, luge, and skeleton athletes (Study 1) and that the salience of a greater number of group memberships led to greater endurance on a cold-pressor task (Study 2). Importantly, these effects were unchanged when controlling for individual differences in responses to the challenge, challenge perceptions, and group membership importance. The authors argue that multiple group memberships reflect an important psychological resource from which individuals draw strength when faced with life challenges and speculate as to the mechanisms underlying this effect.

In other words, next time one of your friends or club members is sick, consider the impact a simple phone call or signed card can have on their get-well-being.

2. Barbara Fredrickson cites research in this New York Times Op Ed piece that also suggests empathic connections positively influence our health.

When you share a smile or laugh with someone face to face, a discernible synchrony emerges between you, as your gestures and biochemistries, even your respective neural firings, come to mirror each other. It’s micro-moments like these, in which a wave of good feeling rolls through two brains and bodies at once, that build your capacity to empathize as well as to improve your health. If you don’t regularly exercise this capacity, it withers. Lucky for us, connecting with others does good and feels good, and opportunities to do so abound.

Her studies showed that plasticity extends beyond our brain's neurons. "Lovingkindness", or the art of nurturing supportive and empathic connections, is a skill that can be learned. And as it is learned, it increases your vagal tone (heart-brain connection), allowing your body to better regulate internal processes like glucose levels or even immune system responses. Which in turn feeds back into your capacity for loving kindness.

In short, the more attuned to others you become, the healthier you become, and vice versa.

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The photo above shows Liz Gilbert and Ketut, and she describes her experiences with this medicine man in her book, Eat Pray Love. He encouraged her to meditate, and to learn to smile with her liver. Is that something you think you could do right now? Close your eyes, count to five heartbeats in your next five deep inhalations and exhalations, and smile. You'll feel better, and hey - it's healthy. :-)


Image by Meg Cheng, Flickr, Creative Commons License.



Safety Needs - Security, Surroundings, Health

Thanks Wikimedia Commons People often talk about the difference between our pre- and post-9/11 world, and it’s true: the days where we could walk through an airport keeping our shoes and belts on are long gone. Whether you’re interested in politics or not, when moving abroad it’s a good idea to start watching the news. At least to be aware of the general history, political climate, and belief system, and their impact on the country’s culture.

For security details, you can google CIA fact files for your destination, look through Gallup crime statistics, and research information provided by local police offices.

Depending on your employer, your position, and your destination, you and your family may go through anti-abduction training. Make time in your schedules to take part in them as they may save your life.

Familiarize yourself with your new hometown’s layout and transportation options. Not all taxis may be safe to jump into, and the busses might not run during certain hours. Do you drive? Your GPS device may not always be able to connect, so make sure to carry a paper map. Once you know your way around, you can use it as wall decoration, pinning in every spot you’ve visited.

Don’t underestimate flora and fauna. I made sure I was able to tell a harmless Mexican male Black Widow spider from its more dangerous female equivalent.

This helped tremendously every time I stepped into our garden to water the plants or hang up our laundry. For the first few weeks, we also kept our shoes and boots wrapped in bags, because neighbors had warned us about scorpions nesting in the shoe-caps. Spraying chemical disinfectant at regular intervals around all windows and doors eventually made us feel calmer. This is where my need for safety trumped the otherwise ecological correctness.

All this research can still not fully prepare you for brain shock, aka culture shock. It’s emotionally challenging to live in a place where you are the obvious outsider. On the plus side, you may be more prepared for the culture shock because you are obviously different and come to expect it. It’s a lot sneakier in presumably similar countries, where everyone looks like you, but sounds and acts differently.

If you’re moving with a company, their benefits plan will guide your care options. Ideally, you’re not the first expat couple to relocate, so people who have gone before you might be able to recommend doctors once you’re there. If not, ask your colleagues and neighbors for recommendations, google the specialists, look for magazine or blogs’ top 10 lists, and visit more than one before making a decision.

Definitely have a final check-up before you leave, maybe even schedule follow-ups during strategically planned home visits. Depending on the country you move to, you may need vaccines to protect against infections. Be careful with prescription refills; while you may want to take a year’s supply, customs might stop and arrest you for intent to distribute. Investigate the regulations for the medication you use, how much you’re allowed to carry, and what the local equivalent would be.



Keeping your Heart healthy

Our hearts are an important organ, and just like any machine they need to be looked after from a maintenance perspective. You don't expect your Ferrari to run on castor oil (or whatever a useful mechanical analogy would be), so you should only put the best stuff in your body-machine, too. Over the last few years, some scientists started looking into "broken heart syndrome", finding that grief or anxiety can result in stress cardiomyopathy.

This is where the heart becomes the seat of your love, light, and longing.

I thought this week would be great for heart health, so I'll be posting one exercise, one recipe, and one inspiration to keep our hearts healthy all around.



Sign up for a free account on, set the dial to Pitbull, and jiggle it for at least 20 minutes. While you're vacuuming, doing dishes, or on its own. Close the blinds if you're uncomfortable.

Alternatively, find a studio in your neighborhood that teaches ballroom, ballet, belly or whatever music is most up your alley. You can buy DVDs, or go to a Zumba class near you and enjoy making new friends while learning funky dance routines you can use next Saturday night.

Recipe: Roasted Veggies

pasta and roasted veg

  • Preheat oven to 375 Fahrenheit / 190 Celsius
  • In a heat-proof dish, cut up squash, zucchini, mushrooms, aubergine, carrots, peppers, and red onion into the shape of your choice.
  • Add salt, pepper, and other fresh herbs like rosemary and thyme.
  • Fill the bottom of the dish with vegetable broth to prevent sticking.
  • Roast for 40 minutes or until tender and serve over whole-wheat pasta, brown rice, in a whole-wheat pita, or on a whole-wheat sandwich.
  • Tip: add a spoonful of nutritional yeast for extra B12. :-)


Surround yourself with people who make your heart smile.

The more you try to please people who don't, the more you'll lie to yourself e.g. about being able to afford that new dress or starting that diet tomorrow.

This quote has been attributed to Dr. Seuss, and I like it:

Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don't matter, and those who matter don't mind.



International Cold Remedies

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International Cold Remedies

"A family is a unit composed not only of children but of men, women, an occasional animal, and the common cold" ~ Ogden Nash

This is a re-post from 2009, but since I'm sick again, here are some ideas of how families all over the world are trying to fight the cold.

Sore throat, stuffy nose, dizzy head, aching body - anyone here who hasn't had a cold before? Lucky you! There's a lot to be said about prevention, but unless you're a hermit on some tropical island - strike that. The cold virus is going to get you, sooner or later, no matter where you are, no matter how much echinacea you ingest, no matter how many disinfectant wipes you're using. And when it hits you, what do you do?

If you're in Germany, you might be offered hot milk with honey. This is a sweet and tasty drink that might soothe your throat at first, but the dairy will likely build up phlegm and mucus in your bronchi, so you decide between short term relief and long term, well, substantial coughing. I have also heard about the sweat-inducing properties of a bottle of warm beer, but you might not want to give that to your kids. If it's a tickly throat that's bothering you, you can also try wiggling your finger in your ear (something about connecting nerves) or cutting up an onion and leaving by your bedside while you sleep. Smelly, but effective. As are nasal lavages, or letting saline solution flow in one nostril and out the other with the help of e.g. a Neti Pot. Clears your sinuses right up; doesn't have the overall pore-opening effect of steam-inhalations with mint oil.

Mexicans like brewing a tea out of oregano, cloves, cinnamon, garlic, and lemon peel, adding honey for sweetness. In Colombia, on the other hand, you might be offered orange juice with honey and melted butter.

Canadians seem to favor the mustard compress (mustard powder and water on a cloth) on the chest to help free the airwaves. Their US-American neighbors gargle with salt water or drink hot teas made from various onion, garlic, chili, honey and lemon mixtures. Chemical remedies are also easily available in the land of the free.

Hot cold-remedying liquids in Japan are very likely to contain ginger, green onion, and green tea. The more adventurous prefer sake and an egg. In India, you'll find cardamoms, cloves, basil, pepper, caraway seeds and cinnamon in your chai, and you may be offered to suck on licorice, too.

One of my all-time favorite cold remedies must be the Hot Toddy. Enjoyed in Ireland, Great Britain, and anywhere you have people of Irish or British descent, take a shot of whisky, add hot water, drop in a lemon wedge spiked with whole cloves, add honey or sugar to taste, and down the good stuff as hot as you can before going to bed.

For more organic hot cold-remedying drinks ideas, check out Natural News or eHow.

That's the whole trick, isn't it. Liquids for hydration, vitamins (lemons, oranges, garlic, onion) for speedy cell renewal and extracting mucus, and good old-fashioned rest. Not too many alcoholic liquids, but you get the idea. My ex-boss in Spain used to say, "use the chemical hammer (cold medicine) and it'll last seven days, go to bed and sweat it out and you'll be rid of it in a week." I think I'm going to go for a mixture of the two to get rid of the latest bout of the sniffles I'm battling right now. :-)

Hope these lines find you fit and healthy, or have given you some ideas how soon to be healthy again. If symptoms persist, do see your doctor, and if you have a family recipe sure to cure the common cold, please post it below! Til next week, have a good one.

Image by Sammy JayJay, Flickr, Creative Commons License.


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What are your thoughts on it? Have you experienced stress before? How do you define it? Is there a difference between stressful situations and actual physically manifested distress? How fast does your pulse come down after you've been feeling stressed? Where's the line to anxiety? These and many other questions are running through my mind as I look at the calendar and wonder where the past eight months have gone.

Time's not always a factor for stress though, at least it doesn't have to be. You know why Confucius said, "when in a hurry, take a detour"? Because you don't function well when you're in a hurry. Your mind is racing and you're not paying attention to the moment you're in, because you're preoccupied with how late you are or where you should already be by now. Before you know it, you've rear-ended the car in front, or watered your TV instead of your plants. I wish sometimes that there were more hours in one day so I could get everything done that's needing attention, and there'd be some spare to read a novel without feeling like there's something else I should be doing, something more productive. Alas, time's the same for everyone, last I checked nobody was able to freeze the moments or make them go faster at will. How come some people experience time as if there's plenty, and others as if there's never enough?

I guess in part it has to do with the "should"-ing I mentioned earlier, with expectations we have of ourselves, and expectations others have of us that we want to fulfil. "Early bird catches the worm" and other phrases like it almost make me feel bad for sleeping in even on the weekend, you know? The point for a well-balanced life, though, is to make time for relaxation, before too much stress takes its toll, and your body and mind experience a burn-out. This is when you'll be forced to take a break because you won't be able to do anything at all. Check back next week for more information on burn-out and its stages to see where you're at.

Everything's important, there's always going to be something to do, people to call, letters to write, work to finish. Next time you know your mind is racing and you feel your blood pressure rise, take a deep breath and a moment to reflect on what the actual stressful element is. Maybe once you've identified it you can practice getting things done without rushing. Make the conscious decision not to feel rushed or stressed. Paying attention to the moment, to traffic, to whatever it is you're in the middle of doing. You know if you rush and you're not doing it right, you have to do it all over again anyway, and that'll take even more time. Besides, it really is ok to smell the roses once in a while.

For more information on stress, its symptoms, how to reduce it, how it relates to diseases like cancer, and much much more, check out the American Institute of Stress and pages like Revolution Health.

Til next time! Thanks to Joy Prescott for the image.

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Your health

Last week we looked at the different areas that make up your life. You may not usually think about them at length, so the exercise might have helped you identify all those different balls you're juggling in the air, and which of them are slipping out of your grasp.

I'd like to look at the one that our client wants to improve this week, his health. He's already taking care of the "general requirements", as we might call them. He doesn't smoke, he limits his alcohol consumption to a glass of wine (and maybe a few beers, but only on the weekend when he's out with his mates), he takes the stairs at work and goes to play squash once a week. His diet is balanced; his wife is preparing healthy breakfasts and dinners, and he found out by trial and error that choosing sensible lunch portions at the office cafeteria actually makes him feel less sluggish and more alert in the afternoons. Nonetheless, the client complains about a general feeling of dis-ease and nervousness.

As stated in the disclaimer, a coach is not in a position to prescribe medicine or diagnose illnesses. However, in talking with the coach the client did uncover that his last check-up with the general physician is overdue. Also, he's not been to the dentist in a while, and daily flossing before bed, sadly, has given way to a last-minute checking of the basketball scores. The coach also inquired about stress levels, and the client conceded that he hasn't been sleeping well and is always anxious driving to work. In the following conversations, the client establishes strategies how to lower his anxiety and limit the stress.

When was your last check-up? Are you maybe in an age-range that warrants regular checks for cancer, like mammograms or prostate exams? There are many things you can do to prevent major health risk factors, and seeing your physicians on a regular basis is only one of them. As Dr. Oz points out, even things like driving with your seatbelt on and adhering to speed limits influences the stress your body perceives. I invite you this week to take an inventory of your body. Where does it hurt? Which bits are uncomfortable? Talk to your physician about what you can do every day in order to stay well. Take the time to figure it out and get healthy; all the other areas in your life will benefit as a result.

Til next time!

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Opportunity for change No. 3 - the work-life balance

Over time, you find that those after-work habits have taken their toll on your waistline, and one morning you wake up and that suit you put on is pinching you in the side. You vow to start eating better tonight and rush off to work. After that most embarrassing rip while you bent down to pick up the pen your customer has dropped, you make your way hurriedly and crimson-faced to the next department store, buying the trousers in one size bigger. Once again thinking, "tonight I'll get the salad instead of the deep-fried meal", which you've forgotten by the time the youngster asks you what your order is, because those new pants fit so well and they're even a bit loose, so what could it hurt... add a dessert, too.
Over the last fortnight we've concentrated on issues that may arise in a work setting. Time to get to that other part of you - your life! Although admittedly, it's hard to draw a clear line between the two, because they're really quite connected, aren't they.

I bet you never really got it when your grandparents were talking about the good old days until you became an adult. Just imagine what those old times must have been like! No computers, no faxes, no mobile phones, little or no airtravel - hard to imagine, isn't it? True, they didn't have the mod cons we have today, but I guess they didn't have the need for them either. What I'm trying to say, is that so many inventions were born out of the necessity to save time at home so you can spend more time at work.

So, in the old days, the world was turning a lot slower, but nonetheless it was turning. People were not reachable 100 % of the time, and still the work got done. People did not receive instantaneous replies to their inquiries, they had to wait for the mail to arrive, but they didn't die in anticipation and still the work got done. People did not used to travel as much, but somehow everybody knew each other and still the work got done. Yes, they all worked long hours and probably weekends, and surely there were a number of premature, stress-related heart attacks, but I'll wager there were less than today.

Enter the digital revolution. In my imagination, back then people were conscientious and hard-working, but they knew how to relax, too. The office was left at the office, because there was no blackberry to take it home with. Nowadays, with the fast-paced and ever-changing environment all the business magazines talk about, I think real breaks are more difficult to take. How many of us have felt guilty for leaving the office at 6 pm although that's the official end of the working day? How many of us take the laptop home over the weekend just to catch up on the emails we didn't get a chance to read during the week? And, well, while we're at it, we may as well prepare that presentation for next Wednesday? It's commendable to be so devoted to one's profession, but it is dangerous to forget about one's need to rest in the process.

"Mens sana in corpore sano" - a healthy mind lives in a healthy body. A body that works 60+ hours a week and whose diet consists of fast food, coffee, and - dare I say it - cigarettes and other drugs isn't healthy. No wonder the mind goes downhill too, then. You have to be healthy in order to function; painkillers can only take care of the symptoms for so long. Ask yourself what could be the reason, what's the cause, why is your body reacting the way it does? Are you experiencing frequent headaches or migraines? Is your digestive system on the temperamental side? Do you feel irritable, emotional, or tired more than you think is normal? How about bouts of anxiety, panic attacks, insomnia or depression? Could it be that you'd be happier if you worried less about the job or what other people thought of you and spent more time with your family or friends? What are your hobbies? When did you last laugh out loud?

As you can tell, this is a wide field indeed, and there are plenty of opportunities for change simply thinking about how to handle stress, how to manage your emotions, and how to treat your body. For starters, you could take a couple of deep breaths, get that oxygen into every last one of your cells, make an effort to blink more often when you sit in front of a computer screen for long periods, and try to get more water, fruit and veg in. And drop me a line if there's any specific area you'd like to change and find out more about. Requests for post-topics are also welcome.

Til next time!