I suspect that I am like many of you these days: weathering a storm of stimulus overload in the wake of COVID-19 preparations. As a practicing family physician, I am being barraged with the need to stay updated on the latest guidelines on testing, treatment and prevention while trying to implement new ways of operating in the office. There are urgent conference calls from our employers, trying to get organized and learn the nuances of telemedicine. I find myself urgently trying to disseminate accurate information to my patients, friends and family. This is on top of the daily operations of refilling prescriptions and tending to my patients’ baseline needs.
As a mother, like many of you, I find myself opening and filing emails from school administrators, detailing plans for their virtual school experience. I battle unhelpful thoughts in my mind, like, “Am I letting them have too much screen time?” Or “Am I paying enough attention to them? Am I doing enough to engage them in stimulating activities while they’re home on furlough?” The time spent on extra Coronavirus planning/thinking/acting is taking up so much of my free time, that I find it stealing from the areas that I covet and value.
I will proudly admit that by the end of 2019, I felt like I had a struck a very good balance of productivity and self care. I had identified the parts of my life that I valued most and dedicated my time to them. I was pouring time into being a great mom, wife, daughter, sister and friend. I was exercising, meditating and doing yoga. I was volunteering and managing my time well. I was going to work and being a compassionate leader and connecting with my patients in a meaningful way. As a health and life coach, I was running my own business, teaching and speaking to groups about mindfulness and I was feeling all-around unstoppable.
And then, COVID-19 hits our world. I feel my attention begin to shift. My pulse starts to quicken. My balance and priorities seem different. Has it knocked me off my game? No, not completely. But I will admit that it feels like I am sitting on a bucking bronco at a rodeo and I am using all my tools in my bucket to stay on. With the information rolling in, it is very easy as a doctor to let my thoughts stray down the darkest of pathways. Fear can set in. The “what if” thoughts begin to creep into my mind. Time management can feel more difficult. Connecting with my spouse can feel harder. My previously sunny, optimistic self feels like a dark cloud of pessimism and despair has threatened to take over. There is a survival mode instinct that wants to kick in and reprioritize all of the balance that I had put into place in 2019.
The good news is that I know where these thoughts come from and how to keep them in check. Fear is not my friend. Chaos and disorganization do not help me. Spinning in my social media accounts only sucks time away from those things that I hold dear. I know that in order to operate at my best and continue to manage stress and anxiety in any environment, I have to stay true to my values as a human being. To let them go at this time of COVID-19 would only make me feel more mixed up, confused and unstable.
As we walk through this life, we all have deeply ingrained personality traits, skills, and modes of operating that are uniquely our own. And although we all have the ability to slip into dysfunctional patterns during times of stress, we also have wonderful strengths that we can display during times of security. For example, when I am functioning well at the top of my game, I am good natured, funny and compassionate. I step forward as a leader. I give lots of hugs. I listen well. I connect and collaborate with friends and peers. I am creative. I express myself through writing and movement. I feed my body with healthy food and self care. I play with my kids. I go on dates with my husband. I feel adventurous and willing to try new things. That is the Jenny I know and love. That is the Jenny that thrives in this world. That is the Jenny that I want to be remembered for.
As easy as it is to slip into deep darkness and fear at times like these, I choose to walk a different path. Through coaching and mindset and connecting with my support system, I choose to operate at the top of my game. I want to look in the mirror and recognize the person that is looking back at me. I acknowledge the fear and choose to move through it, because that is what my higher self would do. I encourage you to do the same.
If you are struggling and want to connect with me, you can email me at: Hello@JennyLaBonteMD.com
Also, if you are a physician and struggling with COVID-19 concerns, please check out all of the FREE coaching resources being offered by the Physician Coaching Alliance here: http://www.physiciancoachingalliance.com/calendar
There are times in our lives when we will all go through periods of extreme stress. It could be on an individual level, like a divorce or death of a loved one. Or it could be on a societal level, such as Corona virus threats, wars, stockmarket crashes or political leadership changes. When these things happen, the worry and fear can become so intense that people often decompensate by stress eating, or numbing out with TV, social media, alcohol, tobacco or marijuana.
Let’s face it: the brain is steering us toward the path of least resistance in order to feel better fast. But in the end, these things only give us a quick lift, and then we often feel worse afterward.
There can also be a tendency in times of stress to go into denial mode. “Maybe if I just ignore it, it will go away”. Many times I’ll hear people tell me that they have stopped listening to the news because it only invokes fear, or that they have tuned out politics because they feel so helpless to make a difference. In an effort to stop the overwhelm, they turn their back and walk away. I’m not going to lie, sometimes we all need a day to mentally check out and turn off the social media feeds, but as high functioning adults, we may also want to stay informed and connected.
I am going to advocate that there is a middle ground that we should all aim for. A place inside of us that I will label as the “healthy zone”. A zone that strikes a balance between social advocacy yet not ovewhelm, meaningful action instead paralysis, concern but not crippling fear, preparation without hoarding, and healthy self care instead of indulgence of cravings.
But how do we get to that targeted healthy zone and stay there? The pull to go in the opposite direction can be so strong. When I think about the zone, I like to use the image of a person bowling. In order to get a perfect strike, we need to roll the ball right down the middle of the lane and aim for the king pin. The king pin is the number 1 pin that if hit correctly, it can cause every other pin to fall. If however, we aim the ball too far left or too far right, we end up in the gutter.
I like to think of the pins as all the things in life that we want to be doing well and the king pin is self care. When we are mastering self care, it has the ability to have far reaching effects on the rest of our life and the lives of those around us. When we take the time to exercise, meditate, eat healthy, get proper sleep, and manage our stress, then we are able to show up in all other areas with a clear mind and renewed vigor. It allows us to be compassionate, loving and generous with those around us. Not only that, but when our stress levels are managed, our immune system can be strong and more effectively fight illness.
How do I manage to hit the king pin in life? Well, to be totally honest, I don’t always hit a strike. I am just like every other human. I end up in the gutter sometimes. But the key here is awareness. I continue to remind myself of the bowling image and when I stray off track, I aim again for the king pin.
For me, self care comes in a whole variety of ways. Some are little, like listening to spa music when I work, or taking a hot shower at the end of a long day. Some require more discipline, like meditating for 10 minutes in the morning or exercising consistently. Some of the best ones are free: like taking a moment to stand with your face in the sun and feel the warm glow on your skin, breathing the fresh air into your lungs. For many people, it may be spiritual, like connecting with their Higher Power. And I never discount the power of a good strong mantra or prayer in the back of my mind, to get me through the day.
Here’s my mantra or prayer for you:
May you find strength, wisdom and peace in the healthy zone
May you continue to aim for the king pin in life
May you be renewed and ready to be a powerful force for good in this world.
As we all try to strike a balance in times of strain or stress, I encourage you to double down on your self care. Model it for your children, your friends and your colleagues. Nourish yourself so that you can go out and nourish others. The world needs you right now.
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I have this great little wooden sign on the windowsill of my office that says “Create Your Own Calm”. It can be hard sometimes to feel calm during times of turmoil. Most of us go around juggling a certain number of balls, but then life can throw you a curve ball out of the blue that threatens to bring them all crashing down on your head! Or at least it feels that way. For me, there is a certain amount of bandwidth that is taken up by the day-to-day responsibilities, and when I am forced to allocate my energy to additional situations, it can feel like my attention is all over the place, giving me a feeling of unsettled chaos. Whether that attention is on corona virus, or other major life events, like a move, the loss of a job, an unexpected illness of a friend or family member, it can leave you swirling in a cloud of mental chaos. When we’re not in control, the brain has a tendency to race ahead, playing out all sorts of scenarios and “what ifs”. This can happen to me too, but I’ve found some tricks that really help to reign it in when the storm clouds like to gather in my mind.
Trick #1: Tap Into Your Senses.
One terrific grounding exercise to focus the attention on the here and now, is to engage the five senses. I often do this while taking a walk. It gives me a chance to breathe in the cool fresh air, feel the breeze on my face, and absorb the warm rays of sun on my skin. I use the power of sight to notice the little things around me: the buds on the trees, the blades of grass, and the colors around me. I listen to music to lift my mood, or sometimes, just listen to the sounds of the birds around me. Occasionally, there may even be a scent in the air. Perhaps I catch a hint of a burning wood from a nearby chimney. Focusing attention on the physical environment around us is a powerful mindfulness technique that helps calms the mind and stop the swirling thoughts.
Trick# 2: Let the Thoughts Go
In the meditation world, there is an emphasis on clearing the mind and letting the thoughts just pass on by. They are, after all, just thoughts. It’s a way for our mind to make sense of the world around us. But, remember this: our thoughts can affect our feelings and actions, and we can control our thoughts. We can choose to think different thoughts. We can choose to take a step back and let our thoughts float on by without becoming attached to them.
Here’s an example of an exercise I did today while on my walk: I visualized my thoughts being attached to a little card. I then tied the card to a balloon and let it float away. As each new thought entered my mind, I tied it to a balloon and released it. As each one floated away, so did the heaviness in my mind.
Trick #3: Gratitude
Despite the risk of sounding cliche there is a role for gratitude in the battle against overwhelm. As we master the previous trick of controlling our thoughts, we can choose to think thoughts of “what if” or thoughts of “I’m so grateful that…”
This morning as I pounded the pavement and took time to fill my lungs rhythmically with the clean, fresh air, I reminded myself of how glad I was to have a sunny day. That it was warm enough to walk. That I could get out of my house. That I wasn’t feeling ill. That none of my family was feeling ill. That my legs were strong and able to carry me. That my shoes were comfortable. And so on. The more I thought about what was going well, the less I thought about “what if”.
“What if” falls under that big umbrella of Worry. I once heard a phrase that stuck with me that said, “Worrying is like praying for something you don’t want to happen”. So if that is true, let’s focus on what we do want, and be grateful for what we have and are doing right so far.
Trick #4: Peaceful Mantras
I’m a big fan of listening to guided meditations. Especially 10 minute meditations. I love the variety of what I might listen to: from breathing exercises, to guided visualizations, to mantras, sleep meditations, and so on. A mantra, was explained to me as a word or phrase that you repeat in your mind to help you focus.
The other morning, I was listening to a guided Peloton meditation by Aditi Shah. (By the way, some of the best meditations I have ever done are available on the Peloton app). During this particular meditation, Aditi repeated this same phrase over and over and it gave me such peace that I’d like to share it with you:
May you be safe from inner and outer harm.
May you always remember your infinite power to heal.
May you be strong in mind, body and spirit.
May you always remember we belong to one another.
That is my wish for you, my friend. As we all have times of turmoil in our lives, let us remember that peace is found from within. You can create your own calm. You get to choose what you focus your attention on. Go in peace.
If you’re on Facebook, I invite you to like my page and join my group called Intentional Living It’s a place where I will post encouragement and tips to keep you on track.
If you’re interested in working with me one-on-one, click here for a link to a free coaching call and a listing of various packages I offer.
We are now six weeks into the new year and I am seeing a lot of patients in full swing with their weight loss efforts. Many of them are on point with their eating plan, working out regularly and feeling good about the results they are seeing. But a recent conversation with one of them highlighted the challenge for most people….. How do you keep it up? How do you keep the motivation going and make everlasting changes?
I felt compelled to do some research on New Year’s resolutions and find out how many people were able to stick with the new habits they were creating. It turns out that according to a study conducted by the University of Scranton that only 8 percent of people achieve their New Year’s goals! Not only that, but I was surprised to see that resolutions dropped off much sooner than I would have thought. Research from Strava, a social network for athletes, found that most people had already fallen off their bandwagon by the middle of January.
As a doctor and a health coach, I am in a perfect position to cheer people on with their healthy habits, but I also realize that forming new habits involves much more than just setting an intention and making some changes. Our brain and psyche are very happy to press the “Easy Button” and keep us in patterns of comfort and autopilot. The brain is also well adapted to choose the option that feels most pleasurable. So, if hitting the snooze button on a Saturday morning feels more pleasurable than getting dressed and going to the gym, then we will be more likely to stay in bed. Creating new habits that last can be tricky, especially when we are dealing with well-worn patterns of operation, so I’ve come up with a list of 5 steps that will help you with permanent transformation.
- Know your WHY. Identifying your motivating factors is the first step in making lasting change. For example, imagine that you are in a habit of eating ice cream every night and you’ve decided that you would like to lose weight. After some deeper digging, you discover the importance for losing weight is that you want to be the type of parent that can run and play and role model good eating habits for your kids. Now, when the ice cream dish starts to call your name at 8 pm, you’ll be able to load up this vision of playing basketball with your son and the good vibes that come with being the parent you want to be. You’ll need that emotional connection to your why in order to overcome the pleasurable pull of the ice cream! Remember, the brain is always going to want to choose the more pleasurable option.
- Create a Plan. Take some time to reflect on what has helped you achieve your goals in the past and use that to your advantage. Likewise, are there lessons around previous “failures”? Remember: failure is just a form of feedback. I often will talk to my patients who relapse on their smoking cessation efforts. We carefully identify the factors that led them back into smoking and try to set up systems to ensure they don’t fall into the same trap again. By putting some thought into your goals, you can hopefully avoid past pitfalls.
- Take Baby Steps! I find it helpful to chunk down big goals into smaller steps. Think about it this way: by taking small steps, we’re less likely to set off the alarm bells in our primitive brain that try to prevent us from doing “big, dangerous, scary” things. When we look at our biology, the primitive brain wants us to stay safe and ensure survival. So if we decide to suddenly go from couch potato to running 2 miles a day, the alarm bells go off in our subconscious mind and we may be likely to self sabotage. As you are about to embark on some changes, ask yourself “what is the smallest, realistic change that I can make and sustain right now?” Maybe it is to start with parking the car in the farthest parking space at work, or committing to walk for 10 minutes on your lunch break. Once those new habits become ingrained, you can take the next baby step.
- Set Yourself up for Success. Creating small wins helps a person feel successful and will propel him/her toward wanting more. Here are some simple ways to ensure small wins: First, try to clear out any blockades. Figure out what is currently stopping you from already doing your goal. Is your workout space a place that you want to spend time in? Can you lay out your clothes the night before? Make your lunches several days in advance? Go grocery shopping and prepare meals and put them in the freezer? Essentially, what can you put in place so that following through on your intentions is much easier?
- Set Up Accountability. It’s a scientific fact! Research done by the American Society of Training and Development found that people are 65 percent more likely to reach their goal after committing to another person. If you don’t have a workout buddy, don’t despair! There are lots of ways to set up accountability, including apps to track your progress, joining on-line groups of people with similar goals, writing in a journal, and working with a health coach.
If you’re needing help reaching your goals this year, I’m here to help! Whether it’s weight loss goals, work-related goals, setting boundaries, or creating balance, my extensive training in health and life coaching can help you be in that 8 percent of people that succeed!
If you are local to central Massachusetts, I’ll be giving a free talk at the Greendale YMCA in Worcester on Tuesday, February 25, 2020 at 5:30 pm to go over this exact topic! Not only that, but you will receive a voucher to attend a yoga class immediately following. You do not have to be a member of the YMCA to attend.
Also, if you’re on Facebook, I invite you to like my page and join my group called Intentional Living It’s a place where I will post encouragement and tips to keep you on track.
If you’re interested in working with me one-on-one, click here for a link to a free coaching call and a listing of various packages I offer.
As the year 2020 edges toward us with new hopes, desires and goals, some of you may have noticed that I am switching my tag line “Live your Best Life” (which is a bit of an overused slogan) to “Live your Best Lifestyle and Style your Best Life”. In an effort to align my coaching business and my physician practice, the word “lifestyle” has a real resonance for me; over the past year or two, I’ve been able to explore it’s power both personally and professionally.
In my personal life, I think I’ve always been attuned to healthy habits; but what I have discovered along the way is that we all have certain autopilot habits that we never seem to examine until things start to break down. For me that habit was sleep. Or lack thereof.
You see, many years ago, I had gotten myself into a really dysfunctional rhythm of working late into the night and surviving on about 5.5- 6 hours of sleep per night. I know a lot of people who function on this amount of sleep (or less!) and it all seems fine until it’s not. The brain starts to feel a bit foggy and efficiency starts to go downhill. Emotions are more fragile. Moods are more labile. Resiliency tanks. The immune system is more susceptible. Stress feels more intense. The body’s metabolism starts to slow down. Carb cravings intensify. These things creep on so slowly, one might not even notice it.
“How did I get here, and what’s gotta give?”, I asked myself. I couldn’t see any way to lessen my workload. I had talked myself into this fallacy that there was no other way to operate.
Fortunately, right around this time, I was starting my health coaching career and I was learning the art of habit change. In order to help others, I first had to take a good hard look at my own lifestyle habits and fix the ones that were not working for me.
Here’s the beautiful thing that happened: as I was able to make small changes to the most basic, foundational lifestyle habits (like getting more quality sleep) I felt so much better, that it propelled me to make more changes. I began to meditate for stress reduction. I then started practicing yoga every morning. I began to drink more water and cut back on sugar. I stopped eating ice cream every night (which is no small feat in the LaBonte household)! That led to a habit of getting more cardio exercise consistently. My stress reduction campaign at the office improved by adding aromatherapy and relaxing music in the background. We even added a meditation room for all of the staff to use. I made it a point to do self-care consistently, whether it was a massage or journaling, or connecting with friends, playing music, or going on a date night.
All of these small changes amounted to big benefits in how I felt. But here’s the thing: each of these changes were very deliberate and intentional. I had to first tackle one small habit. Take it off auto pilot. Examine it. Figure out what the story or lie was that kept the habit in a loop. Then I had to decide what I needed to give up to make space for a new habit to form. (It’s kind of like re-doing your living room. If you want to make a really big impact, you gotta get rid of the old furniture before you bring in the new).
So how does all this habit change relate to Lifestyle Medicine, and what exactly is that? According to the College of Lifestyle Medicine (ACLM), it’s practice involves “addressing the root causes of disease with evidence-based therapies in lifestyle behaviors such as diet, exercise, sleep and stress”. In August of 2018, I was able to go to a nutrition conference in D.C. with my two colleagues and it was put on by the ACLM. It was filled with doctors that believed what I believed: that food and exercise and stress reduction and sleep are medicine. That we can prevent and cure diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, obesity, sleep apnea and hyperlipidemia through lifestyle modification, not by constantly prescribing pills!
Over the years, I had often thought of myself as the “non-medicine doctor”, as it would often pain me to give someone a pill to fix something that I knew could be cured with a change of habits. And now, I had found my tribe! Not only that, but as I continued to research, I found Harvard Medical School has a center for Integrative Medicine (the practice of utilizing both traditional and alternative medicine for the benefit of the patient), and Mass General Hospital has the Benson-Henry Institute which works to integrate mind-body medicine into mainstream healthcare. But the cherry on the top is the gem in my own back yard: Jon Kabat-Zin, the world renowned father of mindfulness, started the Center for Mindfulness at UMass Medical School – my alma mater.
As I come full circle, I realize that my health, my personal life, my coaching and my physician practice are all aligned on the principles of self care. Yes, it’s as basic as 2+2=4. When you get back to these major lifestyle elements: sensible clean eating, exercise, limiting alcohol, drinking more water, getting 7-8 hours of sleep, managing stress, and fostering a sense of community with others, you feel better. You not only feel better, you prevent disease. But it goes even beyond that. When we recognize the importance of the mind-body connection, we can incorporate things such as the relaxation response, breathing techniques, meditation, mindfulness, Tai-Chi, yoga and more into our daily practice to enhance our resiliency and feel even better.
So as I bring to you my new tagline “Live your Best Lifestyle and Style your Best Life”, I blend my personal and professional values all together with a common core belief: Life isn’t about what happens to you, it’s about what you make happen. When you “style” your best life, it’s really about crafting it, choosing it, and creating it. On purpose. None of these lifestyle choices happen by accident. You have to mindfully and intentionally make them happen, But who better to have in your corner than me?
If you’re thinking about making that first small change and you need help with accountability, focus, or getting out of your own way, schedule a call with me. I’d love to talk with you and see how I can help.
For more info on Benson-Henry Institute for Mind-Body Medicine at Mass General Hopsital, check out: https://www.bensonhenryinstitute.org/mission-history/
For Harvard Medical School’s center for Integrative Medicine, check out: https://oshercenter.org/
For the UMass Center for Mindfulness, check out: https://www.umassmed.edu/cfm/