It’s almost seven o’clock. A new day. Tina fidgets in bed. Ready to get up.
“How did you sleep?”
“Okay. Nothing hurts me. And you?
“As usual. You know me. I got up at 3.”
“You should take something for sleep.”
“I know, but I like to wake up early. I accomplish a lot.”
It’s true. First, I make breakfast from freshly squeezed orange juice, black tea, and a mixture of banana, pineapple, and cashew yogurt. Afterwards, I read or write, go for a one-hour walk, take a shower, and come to bed to arouse Tina for a “pillow talk” and morning meditation.
I have been awake almost half a day and it’s only eight o’clock. How can I stop getting up early?!! Maybe I have to, because as they say, sleeping eight hours is essential for health. What about me? Basically, I sleep for five hours, sometimes six. Always did. The habit of the workaholic insomniac. A routine from medical school days, or maybe when I worked in Vrsac, waking up at four, catching a bus at five, arriving in Vrsac at half past six, walking to the hospital to start work at seven. Like that for eight years. Then, on call duties. Sleeping with one eye open, for years, decades. But it’s over now. My disturbed sleep is the “scapegoat” of a disproportionate life. And the consequence? Who knows?
Chronic stress is an inescapable companion of modern life. It is a signal of an imbalance between the demands we are exposed to and the physical and psychological capacities we have. As I stated, for me, one of the symptoms of stress is disturbed sleep, the presence of adrenaline and the dominance of the sympathetic nervous system that has become so deep-rooted that even now, after so much time, it still manifests itself. In an earlier period of life, work overload was too much. I made the decision to quit a well-paid job and start another one as the best way to stop the “burnout syndrome”. I used a well-known strategy, removal from the stressor. And it helped.
For many of us, retirement, the inevitability of time passage, with all the changes that follow it, can be stressful. Recently, a colleague who is known for his dedication to work sent me a text message with the question: “I am trying to figure out my end strategy/retirement. Tell me, what do you wish you had known before you went through this?” My answer followed: “Thank you for reaching out. I’m glad you’re considering retirement from your daily job. When I made that decision, I was ready especially from the job at the VA. One good thing about the VA is that it is a well-oiled machine regarding retirement process. That was very helpful. I had a detailed plan what to do immediately after retirement; travel to Sedona with a desire of relocation, visiting family in Serbia and Croatia, preparing house in Fargo to be sold, finishing up writing autobiography and manual for residents. I was glad that I stayed busy. Also, I knew that I wanted to work part time when I move to Arizona. I don’t know if this is helpful, but it was relatively easy transition for me. If you want to talk in more details let me know. I wish you a good luck.” He didn’t call.
I had been preparing for this situation for a long time, so I welcomed retirement with open arms, and the feeling that in my work I had achieved what I wanted. It was time for a new phase of life. It helped that retirement farewell party was organized at the workplace. The importance of ritual cannot be emphasized enough, as well as the oral and written communication I established with many during that time.
My wife and I decided to move from “Siberian” Fargo to the sunlit Sedona and the surrounding area, where winter, in the form we knew it, does not exist. This decision was a bigger challenge for Tina than for me. I used to move almost every eight years and live under different circumstances, geographically and culturally, but Tina has always lived only in North Dakota. The relocation process took a little over a year, and she had time to mentally adjust to the idea, and to gradually transition her private practice. The Verde Valley is filled with newcomers who, like us, have made a conscious choice to move to this part of Arizona because of the extraordinary beauty of the red rocks, and swirling centers of energy that are conducive to healing, meditation, and self-exploration. We met kindred spirits, enriched each other’s lives through conversations, lectures, group activities, yoga, qigong, meditation, and in many other ways. The decision to move paid off.
But getting used to the new environment does not stop. The other day, my wife and I were walking down the street in the warm evening hours when visibility was reduced, and nocturnal animals came out of hiding in search of food. Suddenly, Tina stopped moving with one foot in the air. We both heard a loud rattle and hiss, and immediately afterwards saw the curled body of a rattlesnake with its head raised ready to attack. We have never experienced a situation like this, although we have seen rattlesnakes in the vicinity. This one gave us two warning signals that it was ready to defend itself and attack if we continued to approach. I calmly advised Tina to step back and go around the snake from a safe distance. Everything ended well. Another proof that peaceful coexistence in the nature is possible with respect to the limits of what is acceptable.
In essence, I enjoy the early morning hours of quietness, loneliness, a caffeine-soaked brain, a sharpened mind, and a humming sound of a computer as I type these words. The day continues slowly. I am not in a hurry, except on Fridays and Saturdays, working days of half-retired life. Deserved freedom of choice five days a week. Sometimes it is not easy to fill out the time. But I’m slowly getting used to this new norm, so I enjoy a relaxed awakenings on Sundays after the end of my work “week”. Delight. Obligation completed. And that’s why I didn’t agree to add another day to my work schedule when I was offered because “patients are piling up and your hours are booked.” The wisdom of the silver hair allows me to say the word NO more easily, which reminds of the name of the magazine with the same name during high school years in which students expressed the attitude of the rebelliousness, the resistance to the situation at hand and demanded changes, both in society and school, respectively. Similarly, the word NO symbolizes my need to put things in place when it comes to balancing environmental demands and my needs and capacities, so in that way I apply another important strategy against the chronic stress.
For more than three years, the New Day has been filled with a more balanced life, less stress, a more relaxed existence with interesting activities that occupy time and feed not only the body but also the soul. By living in Arizona, contact with nature and the sun is more intense, which mentally puts me back to early childhood in Bosnia. Then and now I am in a state of awe and admiration for the untouched nature where harmony is the normal state of affairs and the richness and diversity of life forms is present.
Physical activity, especially outdoors, is a decisive healthy lifestyle component. Our body is designed to move. Our brain also moves along with the body, internally, regulating our thoughts, feelings, emotions, bathed in chemical water filled with positive hormones and neurotransmitters. Connecting with everything that exists, especially with people, creating stimulating intimate relationships, with an attitude of gratitude and positivity, is the best antidote to stress. We all know that in this pandemic time, it is not easy to stay connected. We are witnessing losses and difficulties related to this situation, which seems to have no end. In the last year, I have treated many patients who are sufferers, lost and isolated, in existential nothingness, without physical touch, and close human contact. During that period, my wife and I intensified our virtual connections, with daily group meditation formed, thanks to modern technology, from interested people scattered around the world.
We have the most intimate contact with the environment through the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the liquid we drink. Our bodily mechanisms are able to ingest “material” from the environment and convert it into the energy necessary for body to live in the most optimal way. The problem arises when the mind gets in the way, conditioned by family and cultural customs, and the tendency to become addicted to substances that artificially offer “heavenly bliss”. The consequence is deteriorating health and physical stress caused by inflammatory processes and impaired immunity. The best strategy here is the knowledge and attunement to the signals from our body. It will rebel when exposed to toxins from the air, food, and fluids, so sharpening “listening skills” is a must. It has been determined that the best diet is the one that imitates Mediterranean cuisine of Greece and Italy, where is the custom to enjoy meals with family and friends. It is predominantly a plant-based diet with the main ingredients in the form of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices, beans, nuts, seeds, and olive oil. I mostly eat like that without fish and meat, dairy products, eggs, and alcohol due to the known inflammatory effect and the presence of sugar, which is especially “deadly” in any processed form. Knowledge is very important when it is based on science, not paid, and promoted by the large corporations with a profit motive “sticking out of their pockets” and disregard for the health risks. Hence, I listen to experts like Dean Ornish, Michael Greger, Andrew Weil, Kenneth Peltier, Thomas Campbell, and others.
My wife came up with the formula for a balanced life that minimizes stress. She uses it herself and teaches others that:
I am valuable-nutrition and water
We are valuable-healthy connections
Life is valuable-breathing practices
Squash the ANTS (an abbreviation for automatic negative thoughts).
I am guided by the elements of a healthy lifestyle I always include in my treatment plan with patients, and which consists of regular sleep and rest, stress-reduction methods, physical activity, healthy nutrition for brain and body (spring water whenever possible, unprocessed and plant foods, avoidance of all toxic substances), meditation, meaningful activities and connections with others and the community. I believe that as a health worker who strives to live what he preaches, except for the poor sleep hygiene, I have accomplished a mission when the body and brain are integrated in a smooth functioning, relationships with others characterized by love, gratitude and trust, and the mind oriented to the present and capable of objectively assessing the reality.