The Power Of No

We’ve all got friends who seem to be absurdly stressed, all the time.  They’re constantly harried, rushing from one important commitment to another, complaining all the while about how incredibly busy they are.  They’ve got their jobs, of course, but also a number of other activities and obligations piled up on top of their work, occupying pretty much every minute of every day.

Three Signs In Male Fists Saying No, No and No Isolated on a White Background.If only they’d learned to say “no”!

Over the weekend The Guardian published an interesting article about saying no.  The article points out that people who are miserably overcommitted aren’t powerless — they can directly affect their situations by carefully considering their own interests and saying no to things that they really don’t want, or need, to do.  By declining unwanted invitations, and shedding obligations that aren’t really rewarding or essential, they free up time to do what they actually want to do with people they really like.  And, as a result, the stress level goes down and the enjoyment of life goes up.

This recommendation mirrors my own experience.  Some years ago I realized that, with work, charity involvements, and other obligations, I wasn’t enjoying much free time — on weekends, or otherwise.  I looked at what I was doing and decided I needed to lighten my load, and then I went through my commitments and decided which ones could reasonably be eliminated — and then I eliminated them.  When I did that, I felt like a weight was lifted from my shoulders and my free time was multiplied, and I’ve never regretted doing it.

I do disagree with The Guardian article in this sense:  it suggests that most of the over-busy folks are people-pleasers who feel they just have to say yes.  I’m sure there are people in that category, but I think there are two other categories at play.  One is people who want to help and make a contribution, and just find out that they can’t manage all of the obligations they’ve assumed.  The other is people who perversely like projecting to others how busy they are.  The first category just needs to understand the power of saying no.  The second category doesn’t want to say no.

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A Mutually Beneficial Arrangement

Many health care facilities employ “therapy dogs” to help treat people with conditions ranging from cancer to mental illness to post traumatic stress disorder.  The proponents of therapy dogs swear that the presence of the pooches has measurable therapeutic benefits for the patients, and the sheer number of therapy dogs — by some estimates, there are more than 50,000 therapy dogs working in the United States alone — suggests that a lot of people agree with that conclusion.

dog_5_head_injuryBut, how do the dogs feel about their job?  Is working with sick people a stressor?  A recent study tried to find out.

The study looked at 26 therapy dogs that worked in five different pediatric cancer wards and interacted with more than 100 patients.  It focused on generation of cortisol, a hormone that is associated with stress in canines, which can be measured by taking swabs of canine saliva.  (If you’ve ever had a dog, you know they produce plenty of that.)  And, because cortisol occurs when dogs experience both good stress and bad stress, researchers matched the cortisol levels with canine behaviors associated with “bad” stress, such as shaking and whimpering, to determine whether therapy dogs found their work to be stressful.

I’m happy to report that the study concluded that therapy dogs are not stressed by their work, and instead seem to really like it.  Moreover, the study was able to rank the activities that are more enjoyable for the dogs.  Activities in which the patient and dog directly interact, such as a patient talking to the dog or playing with the dog and its toy, are more enjoyable for the pooch than activities in which the dog is more passive, such as when a patient brushes the dog’s coat or draws it.  The findings will allow facilities to shape their programs to make them more enjoyable for the hard-working dogs.

These results won’t come as a surprise to dog lovers, who know that their four-legged pals love to be around the friendly human members of the pack.  I’m confident that therapy dogs really like to interact with patients and that they sense, intuitively, that the patients reciprocate those feelings.  I’m also confident that therapy dogs provide real benefits to the patients, although there are skeptics out there.  The bond between dogs and human beings is real, and runs deep.  If you’re sick, being around a dog may not be a cure, but it is bound to make you feel better.

 

A Harsh Screed On Airplane Boarding

I’ve been doing a lot of air travel lately, and I’ve concluded that the boarding process is broken beyond repair.  Inevitably, it produces delays, irritation, and examples of all that is bad in human nature.   And, it even results in situations where normally even-tempered people (which I thought reasonably applied to me, until last night) end up grinding their teeth and resenting people who claim to have some kind of infirmity or other reason to receive preferential treatment.  I’ve reached the point where I’ve jsut got to unburden myself about it.

Last night, as I flew home on a Southwest flight, I saw all of the elements of what makes modern air travel so frustrating.  (Of course, Southwest goes by the A/B/C open-seating  approach, but the “zone” approach to seating now seems to be used by pretty much everybody, so the lessons are the same.)  We start by giving preferential seating treatment to anybody who claims some kind of infirmity.  They roll, hobble, or walk down the jetway first, and always take the choicest seats at the front of the plane — inevitably on the aisle, where they can take their own sweet time about getting out of their seats and allowing people to sit in the window or middle seats in their aisle, delaying the people who are getting on behind.  This always causes me to wonder why they choose the aisle seat, knowing that getting up and down, twice, is going to be a very . . . deliberate process

Then the people coming on behind take their aisle seats first, toward the front of the plane.  When people want to sit in the middle or window seats in their aisles, the aisle seaters have to stand up and block the aisle to allow the others through, further delaying people who are coming aboard.  And, as those people queue up, there are always further traffic jams behind as people try to find room in overhead bins around their seats.  On last night’s flight, some inconsiderate jerk shoved his bag into an inadequate space so that it was hanging halfway out of the overhead bin, which clearly couldn’t be closed, then left it up to a busy flight attendant to lug it somewhere else while claiming that he couldn’t do so because he was sitting inside one of the aged who takes forever to rise from his seat.

And, of course, deplaning is equally bad.  The aged and infirm at the front of the plane take forever to leave, and last night one of them decided he had to be a raconteur as he was oh-so-slowly getting off the plane, chatting up the captain and the flight attendants who had to act charmed by his comments while people who just wanted to get home were stacked up behind him like planes in a holding pattern over O’Hare.  I’m sure I’m not the only one who wished the codger would shut his pie hole and have the minimal self-awareness to recognize that he was unnecessarily inconveniencing everybody else.  By the time he and the rest of the aged had shuffled off the plane, the tension level of everyone behind them has reached a fever pitch and blood vessels were ready to burst.

So here’s my modest, politically incorrect, screed-infused proposal.  Can we please go back to boarding aircraft from the rear of the plane forward, so we don’t have the inevitable traffic jams that come from allowing people who are seated all over the plane to get to their seats in random order?  And while I understand the need to allow people who say they need “extra assistance” to get on the plane first, how about making sure that they are seated together and not on the aisle, so we don’t have to wait forever while they rise from their seats to let us by?  And how about adopting a first-on, last-off policy, which says that anybody who claims priority in boarding also agrees to wait until everybody else deplanes before they leave the plane?  This would avoid the wheelchair/walker/standing cane-related deplaning snarls that now occur — and might have the incidental benefit of discouraging people who really don’t need the special treatment to refrain from claiming it in the first place.  And if the seniors decide they need to have a long discussion with the flight attendants as they leave the plane, the rest of us won’t have to wait while they do so.

Air travel has really become unpleasant.  The boarding process is a big part of it.  I know waiting for five, ten, or fifteen minutes while these common issues are worked through, flight after flight after flight, isn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but when you just want to get home every moment seems precious, and I’d rather spend them with my family than listening to Grandpa tell some eye-rolling joke to the co-pilot as he exits the plane at a glacial pace.

The Benefits Of “Forest Bathing”

The Japanese call it shinrin-yoku, which translates into English as “forest bathing.” It has nothing to do with bathing in the normal sense of the word, however.  Instead, the concept might better be described as “forest immersion.”

IMG_1396For some time now, Japanese people looking to reduce the stress of everyday living have been heading to the forest.  Their approach to shinrin-yoku is simple:  go out into the woods, shut off your cell phone, and take in the forest atmosphere to the maximum extent you can, without a specific goal or destination in mind.  Use your senses as you wander.  Breathe in the cool fresh air that leaves your nostrils tingling.  Touch the rough tree bark and the soft moss.  Listen to the wind rustle the leaves, and hear the birdsong.  Sit down on the ground or a fallen tree and smell the humid mix of growing plants, decaying wood, and moist earth.  Feel the tree shade on your skin.

The proponents of shinrin-yoku say that it produces all kinds of health benefits, in addition to stress reduction:  improved functioning of the immune system, reduced blood pressure, improved mood and energy, heightened mental acuity, and better sleep.  In short, regular leisurely, relaxed strolls through the woods can provide the kind of mental and physical health benefits that stressed-out Americans typically try to obtain through prescription drugs or some other artificial means.  Should this come as a surprise?

One of the weirder things about modern America is how resistant some people are to actually experiencing nature.  Every morning, as I’m on my morning walk, I travel past a small health club where people are jogging and walking on treadmills, watching TV —   when they could be jogging around the same park I’m heading to only a few blocks away, where they could breathe some fresh air rather than stale sweat smells, experience the morning quiet, and chuckle at the quacking ducks waddling by.  Why make that choice?  Why do people hop in their cars rather than walking, even for short distances?

I don’t think you need to plan a trip to a primeval forest to experience the benefits of shinrin-yoku.  I think any effort to get out into the natural world, in quiet way, walking at your own pace and listening and looking and feeling, is going to be a good thing on more levels than we can count.

Stressed Out Pooches

Recently we took Kasey to the vet’s office while we went on a weekend trip.  When we returned the vet reported that Kasey had been very anxious during her stay — so anxious that they actually had to give her some kind of sedative to calm her down.  One symptom of her stress was that when the vet’s assistants would try to walk her, she would constantly tug them toward the road, as if she wanted to return home.

Of course, this news made us feel like crap — nobody wants to hear that the canine member of their family is suffering from anxiety issues — but it also leaves us with tough and limited choices.  Although it is increasingly common for people to travel with their dogs these days, we can’t take Kasey along every time we go on a trip.  We can’t take her everywhere we go, and leaving her alone in a hotel room seems like a recipe for disaster.  We’ve had her stay at our house with a dog sitter who stops by a few times a day for some of our short trips, but that approach often produces accidents.  We’ve taken her to the vet, where the anxiety issues have occurred, and we’ve boarded her at kennels, but those stays seem to leave Kasey sleep-deprived and exhausted.  Kasey is an old dog, and the constant barking you hear whenever you visit one of those kennels seems to really bother her.

People used to talk about “a dog’s life,” as if the leisurely romping and dozing we associate with pooches was the kind of lifestyle we should all aspire to, but researchers have found that dogs in fact deal with lots of issues.  Many dogs have serious problems with separation anxiety when their owners leave the house; others are high-strung and have delicate constitutions thanks to the constant inbreeding needed to produce the latest designer dog.  Some dogs take daily medication for psychological issues, which really makes you wonder:  what does it say when our modern society is to the point where there is a significant issue with dogs being over-medicated for mental conditions?

I’m not sure what we’re going to do with Kasey when we travel; we’ve got a while before we both have to be out of town again.  I do know this:  I’m willing to accept a few accidents on the carpet if that means she doesn’t have to be sedated.

 

Vacation Challenge II — Going-To-The-Sun Road


I love driving, and I love mountains.  So why did driving the Going-To-The-Sun Road through Glacier National Park, heading west to east, leave me in an adrenalin-addled, heavy breathing,  teeth-grinding frenzy by the time we finally got up to the Continental Divide at Logan Pass?

In short, why did the G-T-T-S Road kick my ass?


Well, perhaps it was the fact that the west to east trip leaves you a few feet from sheer drops into vast, yawning nothingness off the side of the road.  Perhaps it was the constant 6-degree grade that takes you thousands of feet up, up, up, from the river’s edge to an elevation where you’re scraping the clouds.  Perhaps it was the point after the Loop, where you look ahead and see only a narrow, ever-ascending two-lane road that is somehow carved into the sheer face of a mountain.  Perhaps it was the absurdly short stone retaining walls that look like they might — might — stop a tricycle moving at a slow rate of speed.  Or perhaps it was the oversized SUVs and pick-up trucks hogging the center line and squeezing you ever closer to the edge of calamity. 

Whatever!  I took the vacation challenge, and I can confidently say that the G-T-T-S Road ranks with Mount Washington and the Amalfi coast as one of my top three white-knuckle driving experiences.  When we reached Logan Pass, and the stress eased off, I felt like kissing the snowy ground. 

The Road, which was dedicated in 1933, is an architectural marvel, and the views it provides are fabulous, but take my advice — take a Red Bus Tour and let someone else do the driving.  You might actually enjoy the scenery!

Time Versus Stress

Lately my commute to and from work has become more and more difficult.  It’s forcing me to make one of those tough choices that often confront modern Americans — between time and stress.

In days gone by I would leave the house a little before 7 a.m., encounter light traffic on 161, see a moderate increase in traffic as I moved onto I-270 and finally I-670, and then cruise down Third Street.  Absent an accident, I made it downtown in about 25 minutes and almost never had to stop on the freeway.

Those days, sadly, are over.  Even though I leave at the same time, traffic has gotten much worse.  I often hit bumper-to-bumper congestion as soon as I merge onto 161 and routinely have to come to a dead stop on I-270 and I-670 as I inch my way downtown.  It may be the increasing number of people who are living in the northeast part of town, or perhaps it’s a change in traffic patterns brought about by the highway construction that has occurred over the past few years.  Whatever the reason, there are many more cars clogging up my formerly free-wheeling route.

The bad traffic means more stress.  People who are frustrated by the gridlock change lanes abruptly.  Some drivers — always the ones in front of you, of course — make no effort to close up gaps between them and the traffic ahead, so cars cut in constantly.  You’re stuck behind a bus or a semi and can’t see what’s going on down the road.  When traffic comes to a sudden stop, you worry about whether the driver of the car charging up to your rear is paying attention or will plow into you because he’s been checking his Facebook page on his cell phone.

Avoiding this kind of nerve-jangling commute is why I started leaving the house just before 7 a.m. in the first place.  So now I’ve got a new choice — leave 15 minutes earlier and beat the increased traffic, or just endure the increased stress.  Today I’ve decided to sacrifice the time to avoid the stress, but I’m not particularly happy about it.