My #MeToo Moment

Yesterday was the one-year anniversary of Alyssa Milano’s tweet prompting her followers to reply with a simple “me too” if they had ever been sexually harassed or assaulted. The response was overwhelming and set off a movement across the country and the world, with the intent of raising awareness about the prevalence of sexual harassment and sexual assault. Many women – and men – came forward to share their stories and they were from all walks of life, not just celebrities but everyday people, willing to speak up and have their voices heard.

I posted “me too” on my Facebook page that day and I will share my story today, publicly, for the first time. For most of the past year, I have watched the #MeToo movement from the sidelines, admiring the women and men who found the courage to share their stories even if it meant painfully reliving experiences they would rather forget. I think for many of these individuals it was a relief to know that they were not alone, that sexual harassment and sexual assault are far more common than most of us ever imagined. We can quote statistics all day long but until you start putting human faces and real-life stories to the numbers, it is easy to deny or ignore the enormity of the problem. I know I personally was surprised and saddened by how many women I know that also posted “me too” a year ago. Given the events that have unfolded in the last year, I think more of us, myself included, are finally ready to come out of the shadows and share our experiences. Breaking the silence and the stigma around sexual harassment and sexual assault is a first step to changing the culture.

My #MeToo moment happened about 27 years ago. So why am I choosing to come forward now, decades later, to share my story? Because I’ve had enough of the victim-blaming and the lack of support for victims who are willing to speak up and share their stories. It was bad enough when the President mocked Christine Blasey Ford after her gut-wrenching testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee (after initially calling her a “very credible witness”). But the straw that broke the camel’s back for me was the recent interview with First Lady Melania Trump, in which she stated that women who come forth with accusations of sexual harassment or sexual assault need “…to have really hard evidence…show the evidence.” News flash, my dear First Lady, but most sexual harassment, sexual assault and attempted sexual assault doesn’t happen out in public. There are usually no witnesses to such events, and no physical specimens to collect if the victim is not actually assaulted. So exactly what evidence can a victim put forth when it’s two people alone in a room and one person’s word against another? It is exactly this kind of mentality – that no one will believe you if there is no proof – that prevents most victims from reporting the event…including me.

My story

I was a freshman in college, excited about my new-found independence, living away from home for the first time. I lived in a freshman women’s suite in a high-rise dorm that housed upperclassmen as well. Within the first few weeks on campus, I met “J”, a sophomore who lived on the floor above mine. We hit it off pretty quickly and started hanging out regularly. We had a little flirtation thing going on – there was definitely some physical chemistry between the two of us. I was pretty naïve when it came to the whole dating scene – I didn’t date much in high school and the one relationship I had was mostly long distance and had ended mutually that summer before my freshman year. So needless to say, I was kind of excited that an older student seemed “into” me.

Up until that fateful night, “J” never exhibited any behavior that would have led me to feel uncomfortable being alone with him. Sure, he was in a fraternity and seemed a little full of himself at times, but he was also pre-med and serious about academics and his future career as a physician. I trusted him as he seemed like a good guy and there were no red flags or gut feelings like I’d experienced with some other guys I’d met around campus. So, I thought nothing of going up to his room one Friday night to hang out after a party. I believe he had been drinking. I had not as I did not drink in college. It got late, and as is common in college dorms around the country, I decided to crash there for the night. Not surprisingly, we found ourselves on his bed, making out. That was as far as we had ever gone before on a few occasions and there had never been any kind of talk about actually sleeping together. I was still a virgin and intended to stay that way.

Apparently, “J” had other ideas as next thing I know, he’s on top of me, trying to pull down my shorts and underwear. I remember feeling scared as he was clearly stronger than me. I said no multiple times and made it clear that I was not willing to have sex with him. I fought as hard as I could and am relieved to this day that he finally relented and rolled off of me. I don’t know what made him stop – I like to think that deep down he was a good guy and his conscious kicked in. Or maybe he was too drunk to keep fighting. Whatever the reason, I am grateful that it ended the way it did – that I can say I was a victim of a failed attempt at sexual assault. I have no idea what turn my life would have taken if he had succeeded.

I remember he was pissed, as was I, and so I left and returned to my room. The next day though, I went back to his room to confront him. I called him out on the fact that he almost raped me and yes, he had the nerve to call me a tease. He questioned why I stayed in his room if I didn’t want to sleep with him, accused me of leading him on. Needless to say, whatever friendship or relationship might have been developing ended right there. We saw each other in passing but never hung out again. I warned the women in my dorm to stay away from him.

Did I report this attempted assault to campus police? Sadly, I did not, as I feared the response would be much like his – that I would somehow be blamed or admonished for putting myself in the position to be attacked. I also rationalized my decision not to report based on the fact that he did not succeed – I considered myself “lucky” that I had escaped. I already felt traumatized by the event and honestly, I just wanted to forget it and move on. Can you imagine though if the tables were turned and I was the one that had tried to force him into having sex and he refused? No one would try to blame him for putting himself in a “precarious” position. If anything, he probably would have been mocked mercilessly by his fraternity brothers for NOT sleeping with me.

Hearing Dr. Ford’s testimony has made me think a great deal about my own experience as they were so similar. We were both able to resist our attacker and escape without physical harm. For her, and me, the experience is a memory seared into our brains. Brett Kavanaugh denies it ever happened, perhaps because he was too drunk to remember. I often wonder if “J” remembers that night – or me, for that matter – particularly because he did not think he did anything wrong. Going back to the First Lady’s comments, neither Dr. Ford nor I can produce “hard evidence” of what happened that night. In the end, it’s our word against his. It seems impossible to me for anyone in this type of situation to prove it happened.

I believe Dr. Ford because her story is essentially my story. She had nothing to gain from coming forward and subjecting herself to the public scrutiny of her testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee and the world, really. If she were out for publicity or monetary gain, she would have gone straight to the media from the start. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, the prevalence of false reporting on sexual assault is between 2% and 10%, and those numbers are believed to be inflated due to inconsistent definitions and protocols.  Thus, in the majority of cases, the odds weighs heavily in favor of the victim. So next time someone shares their story with you, believe her or him and thank them for having the courage to speak up.

The Aftermath of Suicide

This is one of the most challenging posts I have had to write, but I believe it is an important topic to address. I am not a mental health expert; therefore, I can’t and won’t speak in depth about the topic. However, I know I have many questions for which I am still seeking answers, so I thought I would share what I have learned in the hopes that it will help others in a similar situation.

Tuesday started out like any other day. I was in “catch up” mode after spending a long weekend in New York with my family celebrating the marriage of my cousin and his new wife. I was working in my home office when I received a text from our daughter’s school, asking us to please see our email for important information. This was an unusual text to receive so I immediately sensed that something was wrong. I pulled up my email to find a message from the Principal, informing us that they had received notification of the unexpected death of a student. The lack of details and the fact that there have been a number of students and recent graduates of this school that have died in the last year or two due to drug overdoses and/or suicide led me to believe that this might be the case again.

Sadly, my intuition was correct. Shortly after receiving the email, I texted my neighbor to share my concerns. She shared that the student was a friend of her daughter and that she had been very depressed. This morning, she confirmed that the student had taken her own life on Monday night. My heart sank and has ached all day for the student; for her family; for her friends, classmates and teachers; for my neighbor’s daughter struggling with the sudden and unexpected loss of a friend; and for my neighbor and her husband, trying to figure out how to help their daughter understand the complexities of a death due to suicide.

There are so many questions swirling through my head:

  • How does a 15-year-old reach a point where she doesn’t believe her life is worth living anymore?

 

  • How does her friend reconcile all the “should haves” running through her head, forcing her to question whether she could have said or done something to change the outcome?

 

  • How to discuss it with my own daughter, who didn’t know the student personally but may be troubled by the loss of a classmate nonetheless?

 

  • What to say or do to help my neighbors and their daughter through this difficult time?

In my search for some answers to these questions, I have found that there are many excellent resources about suicide prevention. (I have listed some key resources below in the event that you or someone you may know needs help.) Obviously, we want to focus our time and attention on helping those in crisis, to let them know there is hope and that they are not alone. However, we also need to provide support to those individuals who are impacted directly or indirectly through the loss of a life to suicide. I found the following helpful suggestions on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website:

  • Accept their feelings: Survivors may grapple with a range of emotions such as fear, grief, shame, and anger. Be compassionate and patient and provide support without judgement or criticism.

 

  • Refer to the lost loved one by name: Use the name of the person who has died when talking to survivors to show that you have not forgotten this important person. It can also make it easier to discuss a subject that is often stigmatized.

 

  • Be sensitive around holidays and anniversaries: These occasions may bring forth memories of the lost loved one and emphasize their absence.

In addition, I found this helpful fact sheet for friends, family members, co-workers and others who are looking for information on how to help someone who has lost a loved one to suicide. Perhaps the most important thing that any of us can do is listen – without judgment or criticism – and be patient. The surviving loved ones may want to grieve privately before accepting help but be available to them when they are ready to share.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death for youth 15-24 years of age and the 3rd leading cause for 10-14-year-olds in the United States. Given these statistics, I fear that this may not be an isolated incident in my daughter’s high school and college tenure. For this reason, I will work even harder than I have to keep the lines of communication open with her. I want her to know that if she or any of her friends are struggling or feeling overwhelmed, that there is always help available. There is always hope.


Resources for depression and suicide prevention:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (24 hours)

1-800-273-TALK (8255)

www.itsok2ask.com

 

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

www.afsp.org

 

Hopeline NC

Over the phone crisis counseling and suicide intervention

24 Hour Crisis Line: 919-231-4525 (call or text) or 1-877-235-4525

https://www.hopeline-nc.org/

 

Be the One to Save a Life Campaign

http://www.bethe1to.com/

 

The Key to Maximizing Productivity

Prior to my life as a health and wellness coach, I worked in a variety of professional positions in the healthcare arena: project manager, performance improvement specialist, physician practice manager. In each of these roles, I aspired to be a “model employee” with my nose to the grindstone, accomplishing as much as I could within the work day. Prior to having a child, it was easy to work 50- to 60-hour weeks, logging 8+ hour days often by working through lunch to catch up on emails and other tasks at my computer. I found a little more balance after my daughter was born, as I had to leave the office on time to pick her up from daycare…but that fact seemed to intensify the need to forgo breaks and power through lunch in order to accomplish as much I had been doing in a shorter amount of time.

I, like many others, wore this work ethic like a badge of honor. We looked down our noses at (yet perhaps secretly envied) those coworkers who were religious about taking their mid-morning and mid-afternoon breaks as well as the full 30 or 60 minutes allotted for lunch. And those who actually left the office to go out for lunch!? We couldn’t fathom how they were accomplishing as much as we were, scarfing down our sandwiches so we could respond to a few more emails before rushing off to our next meeting.

Doing it all wrong

Turns out, we “model employees” were doing it all wrong, based on the findings from a number of productivity studies published in the last decade or so. Just yesterday, a tweet came across my feed quoting a 2014 article from The Atlantic, which highlighted results from a study suggesting the formula for “perfect productivity”: 52 minutes of focused work followed by a 17-minute break. Where did these specific numbers come from? A social networking company, the Draugiem Group, used the time-tracking productivity app DeskTime, to see what habits set their most productive employees apart. They found that the 10% of employees with the highest productivity didn’t put in longer hours than anyone else. The secret to their success was to take regular breaks and – you guessed it – they took 17-minute breaks for every 52 minutes of work.

Perhaps more important than the fact that these employees took breaks throughout the day is what they did – or didn’t do – on their breaks. The time was spent completely away from the computer or other electronics, so they weren’t checking personal email, or catching up on social media. Some of the most common activities these employees engaged in were taking a walk, chatting with colleagues (about non-work-related topics), or reading a book. This study demonstrates what researchers have been saying for years – that our brains simply aren’t built to focus for long stretches at a time. Rather, the key to high productivity is not working longer, but working smarter by taking frequent breaks.

What surprised, and to some extent saddened, me is that we have known this information for quite some time, but culture in the workplace seems slow to change. The Atlantic article cited research from a similar study conducted by Cornell University’s Ergonomics Research Laboratory in 1999 – that’s almost 20 years ago! The Cornell study used a computer program to remind employees to take short breaks. The researchers found that workers who received the reminders to assume good posture, take short breaks and occasionally stretch did more accurate work and as a result were more productive. Furthermore, the increase in productivity allowed the company to recoup its investment in the software in about three months. I don’t think any employer could argue with that return on investment.

Old habits die hard

So, given that science has shown repeatedly that our ability to perform tasks has diminishing returns over time, why do so many of us find it difficult to stop and take breaks? True confession: I struggled with it even as I was writing this blog post. And I have a Fitbit that reminds me to get up and move every hour, so I really have no excuse! Some days I do better than others, especially when I am feeling the mental fatigue of working on the computer. I think many of us though, myself included, still carry that false assumption that “powering through” will allow us to accomplish more. Perhaps we are not sure how to build the breaks into our schedule – or more importantly, how to hold ourselves accountable to actually take them.

Below are some tips that may help you develop the habit of taking periodic breaks during the day:

  • Schedule breaks into your daily calendar. They don’t necessarily have to be every 52 minutes like the study suggests but aim to take a break at least once every 60-90 minutes.

 

  • Set a timer or alert to remind you when to take your break. The key here is to not ignore the alert – one idea is to have a sticky note or similar visual to remind you WHY it’s so important to take a break.

 

  • If you work outside the home, find a “break buddy” – invite a coworker to take a walk or chat about current events. Hold each other accountable to a certain number of breaks per day.

 

  • If you work by yourself at home and have a pet, consider using your animal companion as a break buddy. Play with your dog or cat for 10-15 minutes. If you don’t have a pet, you can use the time to read, listen to a few favorite songs, or engage in a favorite hobby (e.g., crossword or picture puzzles).

 

Learning to change your work habits will take time and patience, but in the end, it will benefit you and/or your employer. You’ll feel better and you’ll likely accomplish more by working less. Give it a try – I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the results.

 

Gearing Up for Flu Season

As we head into the middle of September, it is not too early to start thinking about getting your annual flu shot. There are many myths and misconceptions about the flu, so here are some basic facts and recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Q & A style:

What exactly is the flu?

The flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses that infect the nose, throat, and sometimes the lungs. It can cause mild to severe illness, and at times can lead to death. (Contrary to public opinion, it is not “just a bad cold.”)

 

What are the most common flu symptoms?

Flu symptoms often come on very suddenly. People who have the flu often feel some or all of these symptoms:

  • fever (although not everyone with the flu will have one)
  • cough
  • sore throat
  • runny or stuffy nose
  • body aches
  • headache
  • chills
  • fatigue
  • sometimes diarrhea and vomiting

The time from when a person is exposed and infected with flu to when symptoms begin is about 2 days but can range from about 1 to 4 days.

 

How might I get sick with the flu?

The flu virus is typically spread through tiny droplets made when people with the flu cough, sneeze or talk. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby. Less often, a person might get infected by touching a surface or object that has flu virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose or possibly their eyes.

 

What can I do to prevent getting sick with the flu?

The best form of prevention is to get a flu vaccine (shot) each year. The flu vaccine has been shown to reduce flu-related illnesses and the risk of serious flu complications that can result in hospitalization or even death. The flu virus strains change every year, which is why individuals need to get vaccinated every flu season.

The other recommendations are to avoid people who are sick, cover coughs and sneezes, and wash your hands frequently to help slow the spread of germs that cause the flu and other illnesses.

 

Should everyone get a flu shot?

The general recommendation is that everyone 6 months of age and older should get a flu shot every season. Vaccination is particularly important for people who are at high risk of serious complications from influenza, such as:

  • Children younger than 5, but especially children younger than 2 years old
  • Adults 65 years of age and older
  • Pregnant women (and women up to two weeks postpartum)
  • Residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities
  • Individuals with chronic health conditions such as asthma, heart disease, and chronic lung disease among others

There are some individuals who should not receive the flu shot, including:

  • Children younger than 6 months are too young to get a flu shot
  • People with severe, life-threatening allergies to flu vaccine or any ingredient in the vaccine such as gelatin, antibiotics, or other ingredients

Individuals with the following conditions should discuss the risks and benefits of flu vaccination with their provider:

  • If you have an allergy to eggs or any of the ingredients in the vaccine
  • If you ever had Guillain-Barré Syndrome (a severe paralyzing illness, also called GBS). Some people with a history of GBS should not get this vaccine

Bottom line: if you have questions about whether or not you should get the flu shot, talk to your doctor or other healthcare professional.

 

Can getting the flu shot give you the flu?

No, a flu shot cannot cause flu illness. Flu shots are currently made in two ways: with flu viruses that have been ‘inactivated’ and are therefore not infectious, or with no flu viruses at all. The most common side effects from the influenza shot are soreness, redness, tenderness or swelling where the shot was given. Low-grade fever, headache and muscle aches also may occur.

Some people may still get the flu even after getting a shot. This can happen for a few reasons:

  • It is possible they were exposed to the flu virus shortly before getting vaccinated or during the two-week period after vaccination that it takes the body to develop immune protection. Thus, the person could become ill with the flu before protection from the vaccine takes effect.

 

  • They may have been exposed to a flu virus strain that is different from the virus strains selected for the vaccine each year. Although vaccine manufacturers strive to produce vaccines that have the best “match” between the strains selected to make the vaccine and those spreading and causing illness, there are many different flu virus strains and an exact match is not always possible.

 

  • People can become ill from other respiratory viruses besides the flu, which may cause symptoms similar to the flu even when it is not the flu. The flu vaccine only protects against influenza, not other illnesses.

 

The good news is that even if you get the flu after being vaccinated, it typically leads to a milder case if you do get sick. In addition, getting vaccinated yourself also protects people around you, like babies and young children, older people, and people with certain chronic health conditions.

 

When should I get the flu shot?

The key is to get a flu shot before flu begins spreading in your community. It takes about two weeks after vaccination for antibodies that protect against flu to develop in the body; thus, the CDC recommends that people get a flu shot by the end of October. However, it can still be beneficial to get vaccinated anytime throughout the flu season, even into January or later.

 

Where can I get a flu shot?

Flu shots are offered in many doctors’ offices, urgent care clinics, health departments, pharmacies and college health centers, as well as by many employers, and even in some schools. If you don’t have a regular doctor, you can get a flu vaccine somewhere else, like a health department, pharmacy, urgent care clinic, and often your school, college health center, or workplace.

To find a flu shot near you, visit the Flu Vaccine Finder (you may need to scroll down the page to see it).

 

What should I do if I do get the flu?

If you do get sick with the flu, antiviral drugs may be a treatment option. Check with your doctor promptly if you believe you have flu symptoms.  When used for treatment, antiviral drugs can lessen symptoms and shorten the time you are sick by 1 or 2 days. They also can prevent serious flu complications, like pneumonia.

In addition, if you get sick with flu symptoms, you should stay home and avoid contact with other people as much as possible. The CDC recommends that you stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone (without the need to use a fever-reducing medicine). If you must leave home, for example to get medical care, wear a facemask if you have one, or cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue. Remember to wash your hands often to keep from spreading the flu to others.

For more information about the flu and how to protect yourself, please visit the CDC website.

The Calm before the Storm

Here in the heart of North Carolina, we are knee deep in preparation for the threat of Hurricane Florence. I saw a great quote on Facebook yesterday: “Waiting for a hurricane is like being stalked by a turtle.”  I had to chuckle, but this analogy is spot on. The good thing about hurricanes is we have advanced warning before they strike, so we can prepare for the worst. The bad thing about hurricanes is we have advanced warning, so we can also sit and worry about the unknown for days on end. In some ways, the waiting and worrying seems worse than whatever damage the storm may bring.

For those of you in Florence’s path, this storm is predicted to be fierce so please, please heed the advice of the experts and be prepared. Click here for the Department of Homeland Security’s hurricane preparedness toolkit. If you live in Wake County, you can sign up for emergency alerts here. As with any major storm, things can change up until the last minute so stay abreast of the latest storm warnings via the National Hurricane Center website. I pray for the safety of all of us in the storm’s path.

I chose this topic for both its literal and figurative meaning. As so many of us are distracted by the threat of Florence (as well as the other storms brewing in the Atlantic), I fear that it will overshadow the importance of today, the anniversary of 9/11. For many people, it is just another year that has past since that terrible tragedy 17 years ago. But for the families and friends who lost loved ones at the Pentagon, the Twin Towers and that grassy field in Pennsylvania, it is an annual reminder of the permanent hole left in their hearts. There is often beautiful weather just before a major storm; the same was true on Tuesday, September 11, 2001. If you recall, it was a clear day on the east coast, with bright blue skies…until those skies were darkened by the smoke and ashes from fiery attacks on our homeland. We didn’t have any warning that day, so there was no way to prepare for the events that unfolded before our eyes.

As information about the numerous victims became available in the days after the attacks, I learned of the tragic loss of several alumni from my high school. So today, like every September 11th, I pause in remembrance of these individuals who were taken too soon:

Michael Curtin (Class of 1975)

Joanne Ahladiotis (Class of 1992)

Lisa Egan (Class of 1988)

Samantha Egan (Class of 1995)

 

Rest in peace, knowing we will never forget. You have taught us to cherish each day as if it were our last.

JKH 9-11 anniv letter to editor
Reflecting on the 10th anniversary of 9/11

Being present vs. planning for the future?

I saw an interesting tweet the other day that caught my attention. It was shared by Ram Dass, aka Richard Alpert, an American spiritual teacher, former academic and clinical psychologist, and the author of the book Be Here Now. He received the following question from a student: “How do you have plans and goals and still stay in the present?”

This question came up for me a few years ago when I first embarked on establishing a mindfulness meditation practice. I have also received this question from others when discussing mindfulness. I initially recall feeling like there was a contradiction – and as someone who thrives on planning and setting goals, I wasn’t sure how to reconcile the two. However, as time went by, I realized the two concepts can and do go hand in hand.

Ram Dass’ full response was somewhat abstract, but this quote seems to capture the main idea:

“So, I would say that I plan for the future, and then I live in the present, and when the future becomes the present, I live in it, and this is it and here we are.”

That left me wanting a little more, so I did some web surfing to see what others had to say about this topic. Somewhat surprisingly, I had difficulty finding evidence-based articles about this idea. There were a plethora of articles promoting the benefits of living in the moment, including increased happiness and decreased anxiety, but no mention of how to incorporate future planning and/or goal setting. I did, however, find a number of blogs and websites from individuals similar to me, i.e., coaches or other wellness/lifestyle advocates, who grappled with this idea as well.

In reviewing several of these sites, I thought Heidi Hill, Mindfulness Educator and Coach, and founder of Life in Full Bloom, summed it up nicely. She proposes three ways to be present while still planning for the future:

1) Set goals but let go of your expectations.

It is important to have goals and pursue them, but we must recognize and accept that we have limited control over the exact outcome of the goals we set.  To avoid stress, we must try not to obsess about the exact outcomes.

Lori Deschene, the founder of the website Tiny Buddha, also addressed the importance of balancing the present and the future in this quote:

“I want to accept and appreciate what is, while imagining and creating what could be. As beautiful and freeing as it is to immerse ourselves in the moment, we do ourselves a disservice if we don’t devote at least a little time to shaping the ones to come.”

As she points out, we don’t have to make a choice between being peaceful or being productive – we can be both.

2) Plan for the future, but don’t waste your time worrying about the future.

This was a common theme across several sites I visited – the distinction between planning for the future and worrying about the future. As Heidi states, worrying is not planning. The key difference: Planning is intentional. We decide to plan. Worrying is mindless and unintentional. Planning is done in the present, while worry takes us out of the present.

Marie Forleo, a self-described “Multi-Passionate Entrepreneur,” echoes this concept in a brief video about how to be present and still plan for the future, a question she received from a viewer of her weekly Internet show, MarieTV. When we are planning, we are present. When we are worrying, we are not present. However, it is possible to turn that anxiety about the future into meaningful planning for the future. The key is to be mindful when planning. As she states: “Planning consciously for the future is one of the best tools to stay grounded in the present.”

3) Balance planning with action.

More than one blogger put forth the notion that life satisfaction generally requires a balance of being and planning. The key is finding the right balance.  Heidi noted that “Action in the present is what enables our future.” She uses the example of someone wanting to write a book. You can’t just plan to write the book. You have to start writing the book little by little each day.

And finally, I thought Roberto Santamarina with Morphe Life Fitness did a nice job describing how our actions tie back to our goals:

“Mindfulness means that you focus and engage fully with any act that you are performing at the present moment while understanding the long-term intent that inspires that act. If your goal is to lose 30 pounds in six months, then everything you do in service of that goal is an act that you can enjoy, cherish, celebrate, and reward yourself for, so that you may continue to be inspired to perform that act again repeatedly until your goal has been met. …As you focus intensely on the Present, you are at once manifesting your goals for the Future.”

Simply put, being present in the moment and planning for the future are not mutually exclusive. The key is to be mindfully present when you engage in setting goals and planning for the future.

Pets and Your Health

This Saturday, August 11th, is the one-year anniversary of welcoming the feline goddesses, Athena and Artemis, into our home. Given the joy I experience having them in my life, I thought it would be fun to explore what impact pets can have on our health and wellbeing.

My pet history

Growing up, I did not have any indoor pets as almost everyone in my immediate family – including me – was allergic to cats or dogs or both. Several of my close friends had dogs and there was at least one semi-stray cat that hung around the block as the neighbors continued to feed it. I enjoyed playing with these animals and always thought it would be nice to own a pet someday.

Fast forward about 15 years to my desperate attempt to find housing in North Carolina as I prepared to move from New York to start graduate school. Through luck or fate, I was reconnected with an acquaintance from college who was already a student in the same graduate program. She and some friends were renting a house and needed a fourth roommate. The only catch – one of the women had two house cats. Given that my allergy to cats was not severe and my symptoms could typically be managed with over-the-counter medication, I decided to take a chance. I figured it would at least be a place to live temporarily until I could find something else if my allergies prevented me from staying.

I moved in that August and immediately fell in love with the cats. Danny was a big orange tabby who loved to lay on my bed as I studied. Mona was a mischievous little grey tabby who was most often found in the bathroom, waiting for someone to turn on the water so she could play with it. At first, I did experience some allergic symptoms – occasional sneezing fits, watery eyes and a little stuffiness here and there, but I was content to medicate with an anti-histamine. The joy of having these two critters in the house outweighed any discomfort or inconvenience I experienced. They were often a huge source of stress relief during my grueling two-year program.

I was sad to say goodbye to my feline friends when my housemates and I finished school and moved on to new adventures. However, my experience taught me that I could live with cats despite my allergy and I was eager to own a pet of my own. I moved in with my fiancé (now husband) after graduation and a few months later, as I was still struggling to find a full-time job, he suggested we adopt a cat. That was the start of our journey to pet ownership. We are definitely “cat people” although there are several dogs in our extended family whom we love dearly too.

The health benefits of pets

A quick online search revealed a plethora of information regarding the health benefits of owning pets, particularly dogs but cats as well. Here are just a few ways that owning a pet can improve both your physical and mental health:

Reduce your cardiovascular disease risk

  • According to experts at the Harvard Medical School and a 2013 study conducted by the American Heart Association, owning a dog can reduce heart disease risk factors and potentially help you live longer. Experts believe the connection is related to dog owners being more active, since walking your dog can help you meet the recommended daily exercise guidelines. The extra exercise may also be why dog owners tend to have lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

Prevent or reduce allergies in children

  • Much like my experience growing up, the old thinking was that if you came from an allergy-prone family, pets should be avoided. According to WebMD, recent studies have suggested that children growing up in a home with “furred animals,” such as a cat or dog, will have less risk of allergies and asthma. University of Wisconsin-Madison pediatrician James E. Gern has conducted a number of studies that demonstrate having a pet in the home can actually lower a child’s likelihood of developing related allergies by as much as 33 percent. In fact, his published research shows that children exposed early on to animals tend to develop stronger immune systems overall.

Decrease stress

  • Simply being in the same room as your pet can have a calming effect. The neurochemical oxytocin is released when we look at our companion animal, which brings feelings of joy. It is also accompanied by a decrease in cortisol, a stress hormone. According to the CDC, studies have shown that cats provide emotional support, improve moods, and contribute to the overall morale of their owners. Dogs not only provide comfort and companionship, but several studies have found that dogs decrease stress and promote relaxation.

Boost your self-esteem

  • Pets are completely non-judgmental – they don’t care what you look like or how you behave. They love unconditionally and that boots our self-esteem. An article on Health.com notes that research studies have found that pet owners have higher self-esteem, as well as feelings of belonging and meaningful existence, than individuals who do not own pets.

As someone who has been a proud pet owner for almost 20 years, I have experienced many of these benefits firsthand. There is nothing better than coming home after a long day at work and having my kitties greet me at the door. Their playful antics often crack me up and as they say, laughter is the best medicine. And when I am feeling stressed, all I have to do is cuddle on the couch, stroke their soft fur and hear their contented purrs to feel calm again.

Owning pets is a big responsibility, but there are so many ways you will reap the benefits of their companionship. Consider adopting a shelter animal today!