How to Save Your Own Life

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Some say the holidays were invented to inject some cheer into the darkest days of the year. But the truth is, dark days can hit us any time of year. From natural disasters, business failures, health problems, divorce, job loss, even death, we never know what dark valley lurks around the next corner. As I am bouncing back from a trying time in my life, it still hits me. In the past month, one friend just lost her husband, two friends have lost their mother, another just lost her father, and one friend lost her infant daughter. The technicolor world turns shades of gray and black. And as much as we wish we could take the pain away, these friends suffer.How do we survive through the suffering?

In the past few months, I’ve collected a few reference articles on this topic, not know when the right time would be to share this. But now seems like the right time. Many of us might be celebrating the holiday season, but this also might be a time of great pain for others. I’ll share some insights from big minds like Tim Ferris, Martha Beck, and Sheryl Sandberg.

I met Tim Ferris, author of the 4 Hour Workweek, and several other bestsellers, at a TEDMED conference in 2010. A tech investor and entrepreneur, Tim budded in front of me in the buffet line, explaining, “I’m a growing boy, and I really need meat.” I nodded agreement and mentioned that I liked this book. “There’s more to come!” he said. And indeed there was. I’ve followed his career and writing since then. Last year, I was shocked to read that he suffered from depression and had contemplated suicide. He was saved by serendipity when his mom discovered a book on suicide in his possession. He had kept this secret for many years, but realizing that he might be able to help others, he shared practical tips on how he survived.

During his senior year in college, he went through “the perfect storm,” failing to land the job he wanted, receiving harsh criticism about his thesis and losing a long-time girlfriend. He felt hopeless and prayed for a solution. He thought he’d found it when he stumbled upon a book about suicide. Thank goodness his month discovered what he was researching, and timidly asked if he needed help. He realized he did, and he got help.

I got to meet Martha Beck at her ranch in California. I was part of a woman in medicine group, and we did horse-whispering, spoon-bending, and hiking. We also had long conversations about the future of medicine and our place in that future. Martha has multiple PhDs, a monthly column in Oprah Magazine, numerous best-selling books and is hysterically funny. She has a magical connection to Africa and a non-verbal special needs son. She’s seen many peaks and deep valleys in her life and shares them so eloquently. I’ve never met Sheryl Sandberg but was deeply impacted by her book Lean In. She suddenly lost her husband in 2015 while on vacation, returning home alone with her two young kids. Her post-traumatic insights are poignant and helpful. What follows are some tips on survival from these powerhouse people, along with a few that I’ve learned from friends over the years. Share them if it feels right to you. And USE them and get help if you are having trouble.

1. Keep this number handy. 800-272-8255. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is always on and available.

2. Perspective… look out five years. Will there still be important people and issues in your life? Kids, parents, friends, pets, causes that are important to you? Likely, yes.

3. Think of others. Losing you would crush those closest to you.

4. Get out of your head and into your body. Move daily, even if it is just a 15-minute walk. Fargo’s own Cris Linnares danced her way back from depression. Tim Ferris took up kick-boxing.

5. Have a morning routine that doesn’t involve a screen. Stretch, breathe, write in a journal (see The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron,) and have a cup of tea or coffee.

6. Practice gratitude. Both Martha Beck and Sheryl Sandburg say that gratitude is transformative. Our brains can’t simultaneously experience fear and appreciation. Joe Callahan, a nurse anesthetist I’ve worked with, always greeted me with “I’m awake, and I can wiggle my toes! It’s gonna be a great day!” He always complimented the pearls I used to wear my scrubs.

My son and I listen to books on Audible when we travel. This summer we tried Thank and Grow Rich by Pam Grout. It’s a very fun book with many serendipitous stories. Grant brought up how kind and generous a certain friend was. We’d received many complementary high school theater tickets from this person, and Grant really enjoyed the shows.

7. Eat well, even if you don’t have much of an appetite. Avoid lots of sugar and processed carbs, which induce blood glucose swings that can make you feel unsteady.

8. Avoid alcohol and mind-altering substances. You need all of those neurons for recovery.

9. Prioritize sleep, even though it can be hard. Talk to you doctor if you go more than a week with little sleep.

10. Share your troubles with your doctor. Get a referral for counseling… though you don’t need a referral to get started. Ask friends for recommendations. Don’t be ashamed to seek professional help.

11. Breathe. Intentional deep breathing calms the nervous system. There are many patterns, like in for 5, out for 7, and box breathing… in for 4, hold for 4, out for 4 and hold for 4. Repeat. Check YouTube for tutorials.

12. Always have something to look forward to. Set up dinner with 2-3 friends once a week. Someone I know bought two lottery tickets each week, one PowerBall and one MegaMillion. She did a little dreaming about what she would do with the money, and it was a fun distraction.

13. Always remember, you matter to so many. The sun always rises, and you can get through this. My friend Alexandra Franzen just published a book You’re Going to Survive. Life will regain its color. Life may have a new normal, but yours still has great value.

With Love,

Dr Sue

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