Wellness and prevention information from the experts at the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing

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Dealing with stress in our fast-paced, ever-changing world

By Pat Vitale, LICSW

What is resiliency and where does it come from? Are you born with it? Is it a learned response? Can you teach it to someone or build it in yourself? What does meditation have to do with resiliency? These are questions that I often get asked.

Resiliency by definition is our ability to bounce back in the face of adversity. This comes into play when someone experiences a life event that is stressful. That could be the loss of a job, an injury, illness or any major setback.

I think that in today’s world that definition only explains half the story. The other half of the “resiliency story” is one’s ability to adapt to a changing environment with minimal adverse stressful effects.

The second definition refers more to the chronic stressors we experience in our everyday lives that are caused by our fast-paced, ever-changing world. Today, information is immediately available and always changing. Technology is constantly evolving, and jobs are being redefined and morphed every day. We are constantly being asked to learn new things, leaving little time for us to feel masterful.

One of the most powerful stressors occurs when we feel we can’t adjust quickly enough to keep up with this ever changing world. I refer to this as a “chronic world stressor.” This kind of stressor is not often defined as a major life event, so it may go unnoticed and untreated. But it can have a cumulative impact on our health, well-being and overall quality of life.

Take a moment to think about how your life is impacted by the constant bombarding of information, the changing in your routine, or the number of new processes, procedures and policies you have to learn. How about the constant changes in technology … new phones, TVs, computers and even cars? I just got a new car and it has a manual the likes of the Webster dictionary! I am certain I am only using half of my car’s capabilities. There comes a point where you just can’t “download” anymore information.

One of the simplest skills that we can learn to be more resilient to stress is to meditate. Meditation can help us get centered, relax and replenish our reserves so that each day we possess the abilities to start fresh and engage in our ever changing environments from a place of curiosity and not in a way that will overwhelm us. We can improve our ability to learn and be flexible, instead of shutting down with fear of the unknown and rigidity.

Here is a simple meditation you can try called Mind Power for Life™ Technique*:

  1. Begin breathing through the nose, out of the mouth, exhaling twice as long as the inhale (ratio of 1:2). Continue this breathing through out the exercise.
  2. With eyes open, focus your attention on a point in the distance allowing your eyes to relax and your awareness to expand. (Peripheral Awareness)
  3. Begin thinking and saying to yourself, “ I am,” if possible linking it to your breathing.
  4. Visualize your outcome for the moment or day, and let go of the image, while continuing the breathing, saying to yourself, “I am.”
  5. When you are ready to complete the process of the meditation, reverse steps three to one.

This process can be done for as little as five to 20 minutes, once or twice a day. Any one of the above steps can also be done by itself if you are in a hurry or need an immediate de-stressor. Using one part of the technique alone will work better if you are already proficient in the full technique.

Try meditating for at least five to 20 minutes a day. You will see an immediate difference in your ability to manage everyday challenges and to build a reservoir of resiliency.

Pat Vitale is manager of training and development for integrative medicine for the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing.

The Penny George Institute offers Mindfulness Training and other classes to help individuals manage stress through meditation and mindfulness.

*Mind Power for Life™ Technique is a Copyright ©1995, 1996 Neuro-Energetics

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Fitting nutrition and exercise into the school year

By Courtney Baechler, MD

Mom and son eating apples

As fall begins, those of us with school-age kids may feel more pressed for time. Yet we don’t want to sacrifice the health or nutrition of our families. This can be a challenge as more schools eliminate a daily gym class and when we’re faced with less than ideal school lunch options.

As a mom, I want to share some tips for keeping a family healthy:

  1. Set it up on Sundays. Do some weekly meal planning on Sundays. Usually, if you plan an extra portion or two for dinner, you will have left overs for lunch. Advanced planning also allows you to start cooking right when you get home, which helps you avoid mindless snacking.
  2. Have your child help plan their lunch. Getting children involved in their meal planning is a great way to educate them about the importance of true nourishment. I often tell my daughter that the best way for a kindergartner to learn how to read is to support her mind with healthy foods. She then picks out which veggie, fruit, protein and healthy carbohydrate she wants for her lunch. Favorites are often carrots and sugar-snap peas, whole grain breads with a nut butter spread, and string cheese. Even at age five, she can help pack these items.
  3. Keep healthy snacks on deck. If your kids are anything like mine, they are hungry and ready for refueling after school. Keep nourishing snacks on hand like non-salted nuts, ideally raw (roasted nuts go old faster). Pistachios, walnuts, almonds, and cashews are all great varieties packed with protein and good monosaturated fats for our brains. Our family buys nuts in large amounts to cut costs. A great fall snack is Honeycrisp apples. One way to pack in veggies is to cut up in advance celery, broccoli, cauliflower, red and green peppers, carrots, cucumbers and sugar-snap peas, and serve them with a favorite hummus. You can get fiber, protein and a variety of important vitamins.
  4. Fit in activity. Think about squeezing in a family stroll or bike ride after dinner in the early evening to enjoy a gorgeous fall day. This is a great way to connect with your family and get some energy out before homework or bedtime routines. If the weather doesn’t agree, have a family dance party. It’s a great way for everyone to let loose, especially if you are trapped inside.
  5. Be creative with a crockpot. A slow cooker can come in handy when you grow tired of doing meal preparation. Throw in ingredients in the morning (black beans, quinoa, and veggies are my personal favorites) and spice it up when you get home ― dinner is served.
  6. Stock your cabinets and freezer with healthy reserves. I keep on hand a variety of beans, durum wheat pasta (cooks in four minutes), lots of frozen fruits and veggies, and tomato sauce. With basics like these, you can easily prepare a meal that nourishes your mind, body, and soul.

I invite you to share your favorite healthy, quick recipes in the comments!

Courtney Jordan Baechler, MD, practices at and is the vice president of the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing.

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Improving mood and stress levels with the sounds that surround us

The right music or sounds can positively affect mood and stress levelsBy Kimberly Spitz Donley, MT-BC

We are surrounded by sound. Some of it we notice, but much of it we experience outside of our conscious awareness. All of it can affect our mood and stress levels – for better or worse.

We experience sound through our entire bodies. Sound waves travel through the air and are perceived by nerve cells in our skin as well as our ears. Messages are then sent to the brain, which activates the central nervous system and our response to the stimuli.

When we are bombarded by a lot of noise, such as jackhammers, traffic or people talking around us, we may become over-stimulated. Our reactions may vary from nervousness and agitation to fatigue and even depression. Your body may become stressed from aggravating sounds. It may even react by pulling energy inward to protect itself, leaving you feeling lethargic and tired.

Even unobtrusive sounds can affect us. Listen to the type of music being played in stores, restaurants and public places. How do you react to it? Is it calming? Energizing? Disturbing?

We can’t always control what sounds will be around us. However, many times, we can change the sounds we’re hearing or we can be more proactive about our responses to reduce stress.

Here are some steps for positively affecting your environment:

1. Be intentional about the sounds you put into your environment and pay attention to the sounds that are already there.
2. Consider how you respond to the sounds that surround you. Do they make you feel relaxed, invigorated, tired, angry, anxious, or something else?
3. If you are bothered by the sounds around you, consider what you can do to change them. Can you mask an annoying sound with more pleasing music or white noise? Can you move away from a sound and still accomplish what you need to? Can you take a break from the sound or reschedule what you’re doing when it won’t be there?
4. Be mindful of the music you choose while driving, exercising, dining, relaxing, working, doing household chores, and more. We often breathe and move in time to music and rhythm in our environment.
5. Look for sounds and music that can help you accomplish a given task. We are very rhythmic creatures and respond to rhythms without even being aware of it. Rhythm often makes tasks easier to do because of the way it organizes the body and brain. Physical exercise is a good example of this. Many people find exercise much easier to do with music because it provides an external rhythm which the body will attempt to match. What kind of sound would you choose for quieter activities, like reading or writing?

Music and sound can be healing, invigorating, relaxing and renewing.  They can also be energy depleting and cause stress.  Be mindful of the sounds around you to maximize the positive effects and minimize the negative ones.

Kim Spitz Donley, MT-BC, is a board-certified music therapist with the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing. She offers care and support to hospitalized patients.

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Nutrition: The benefits of the Mediterranean Diet

 Man enjoying the Mediterranean dietThis article originally ran in the Healing Journal newsletter of the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing.

A recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine earlier this year found that about 30 percent of heart attacks, strokes and deaths from heart attack could be prevented in people if they switch to a Mediterranean style diet. The results of the study were so overwhelmingly clear that the study was stopped early.

“The Mediterranean diet is not a specific diet plan or program,” said Jeannie Paris, RD, LD, integrative nutritionist with the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing. “Rather, it is a collection of eating habits followed by people in the Mediterranean region including Greece, southern Italy and Spain.”

According to Paris, the diet is characterized by abundant plant foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, olive oil and a moderate amount of fatty fish or lean poultry. Some people following the eating style may consume a small amount of red wine with meals. The lifestyle in the Mediterranean region also places an emphasis on being physically active and enjoying meals with family and loved ones. The Mediterranean diet is also known for what it does not include: very little or no
red meat, trans fatty acids from partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, foods high in sugar or processed foods.

“Along with reducing the risk for heart attack, stroke or other cardiovascular diseases, the Mediterranean diet may be helpful in reducing the risk of cancer, obesity, type II diabetes and other chronic illnesses,” said Paris. “The premise is that certain types of foods cause inflammation, including foods high in refined sugars or flours and foods that contain trans fatty acids, which are prevalent in the typical Western modern diet.”

Tips for incorporating a Mediterranean-style diet into daily life:

  • Emphasize plant proteins. Nuts, small seeds and legumes provide healthy protein and fiber. Experiment with new options, such as chia seeds, which are easily added to Greek yogurt or oatmeal.
  • Keep moving. Try to move more throughout the day. It doesn’t need to be an hour at the gym. Short walks spread in five to 10-minute increments throughout the day offer great benefits. Try to aim for 10,000 steps, which you are able to monitor through a pedometer or another tool, such as a Fitbit.
  • Make fruits and vegetables the center of your meals. One of the most important things to do to improve your diet is to shift your thinking from making meat the center of a meal to making plants the center of your meals.
  • Plan your meals around the fruits and vegetables. Aim for a variety of colors. The goal should be seven to nine servings a day of fruits and vegetables, but even five servings a day would make a big difference in improving most people’s diets.
  • Fish and poultry are healthier than red meat. If you include animal proteins in your diet, emphasize fish or poultry over red meat. Red meat is high in saturated fat. Cold-water fish, such as salmon, sardines, mackerel and swordfish, are high in healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Use fruit as a dessert. In the Mediterranean diet, whole fruit is often served as a dessert. This is a much healthier option than our typical desserts, which are high in refined
    sugars. The key is to shop for fruit in season, when it naturally tastes its best.
  • If something is good for you, more is not necessarily better. In the study, participants were not limited on the amount of olive oil they could use and were actually instructed to use at least four tablespoons a day. They were told  to avoid all commercially made cookies, cakes and pastries and to limit dairy and meat. Olive oil, nuts and avocados are rich sources of monosaturated fat, but do provide a high amount of calories in rather small servings. Olive oil contains about 120 calories per tablespoon. To prevent weight gain, it’s important to limit unhealthier food choices when healthier monounsaturated fat sources are added in one’s diet. For olive oil, Paris recommends pouring extra virgin olive oil into a spritzer bottle and then spray your fish or vegetables before cooking instead of pouring the olive oil directly into the pan.
  • Seek expert help. Paris works with clients and offers one-on-one integrative nutrition counseling and metabolism testing.

Olive Oil Dressing

Olive Oil Salad Dressing
A very easy, flavor-filled dressing that goes with any kind of salad.

1 tablespoon olive oil
1/4 cup seasoned rice vinegar
3 tablespoons seedless raspberry jam (could use no sugar added jam or fresh raspberries in season)

Combine the three ingredients in a blender or shaker and process until smooth. Store in a jar in the refrigerator. Ingredient amounts can be adjusted for desired batch size and also to individual liking.

Delicious over a bed of spinach or mixed greens with strawberries, blueberries and a sprinkle of sliced almonds, walnut pieces or chia seeds.

To make an appointment with Paris, call the LiveWell Fitness Center at Abbott Northwestern Hospital at 612-863-5178 or the Penny George Institute – Unity Hospital at 763-236-5656.

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Integrative approaches to asthma

By Susan Arnold, RN, BA, CHTP, integrative health nurse clinician

A friend I walk with has severe asthma and reacts to pollen, dust, stress, certain foods and chemicals.

Our first walk was cut short when she started having trouble breathing. Gasping for air and struggling to breathe, she used her ever-present asthma inhaler, and we turned around.

The next time we walked and she became short of breath, I asked if I could hold a specific acupressure point on her hand to help her breathe more easily. Her struggle to breathe immediately changed, and we were able to walk two miles. She kept her inhaler with her. But for the rest of the walk, she didn’t need it, and her asthma symptoms subsided.

My friend was shocked and delighted to use acupressure to help her breathe easier. She felt she had some personal control over her asthma.

Later, I showed her an acupressure pattern for asthma and breathing difficulties from the book, “Acupressure’s Potent Points: A Guide to Self-care for Common Ailments.” Practicing the points faithfully allowed her to use medicines and inhalers less, and to breathe more easily.

The American Lung Association calls asthma a chronic life-long disease that makes it hard to move air in and out of your lungs. While serious, even life-threatening, it can be managed to live a healthier life.

Acupressure and therapeutic breathing are among the holistic approaches that help some people breathe easier, and I will provide some easy acupressure and breathing exercises to try at home.

However, before doing so, I want to make clear the role of acupressure in asthma. It is not meant to be a substitute for medicines or for an inhaler. You should stick to your asthma care plan and maintain the same level of preparedness for any episodes of shortness of breath. Talk with your doctor before making any changes to your asthma care plan.

That said, acupressure and breathing techniques help some people breathe easier, and practicing them before an episode takes place may allow you to use the self-care techniques to enhance your medicines or inhaler.

Acupressure – Asthma Relief Point
A specific acupressure point known in Traditional Chinese Medicine as Dingchuan, or the Asthma Relief Point, is especially helpful along with using a lung-expanding breathing technique.

Here is how you can locate the Asthma Relief Point:
1. Lift one or both arms (above your head or in front of you) and bend your elbows to reach your lower neck. This expands your lung capacity.
2. Lean your head forward and slide your fingers down your neck on the spine bones until you find the large bump (vertabre) at the base of your neck.
3. Move your fingers slightly outward to either side of that bump (EX 17 in the picture below) and press and massage around that bump as you take slower, deeper breaths. This can be done yourself, or ask someone else to press and massage around this point for you.

This technique helps some people reduce asthma symptoms including wheezing, cough, chest pressure, trouble breathing and sore throat.

Asthma Relief Point Graphic

Photo source: “Acupressure’s Potent Points: a Guide to Self-care for Common Ailments,” by Michael Reed Gach.

You can also switch to Butterfly Rescue Breathing:
1. Place your fingers on the Asthma Relief Acupressure point shown above (EX 17).
2. Inhale (breathe in) and expand your elbows back.
3. Exhale (breathe out) and bring your elbows forward.
4. Keep your fingers on your acupressure point while you move your arms forward and back to help you control and slow down your breathing.
5. Imagine the gentle movement of butterfly wings.

Breathing in as you pull back the elbows and breathing out as you draw your elbows forward makes breathing more powerful and engages the muscles, ribs and whole upper body.

Allina Helth offers a variety of other online resources to learn more about Asthma. Among them are: “Signs of an asthma attack” and “With asthma, one size doesn’t fit all.