When it comes to easing stress during the holidays, and throughout our lives, “successful ager” Carolyn Boline has some words of advice. At La Jolla Woman’s Club, Boline was the featured speaker at the “Seasonal Celebration & Balance” luncheon Dec. 5, where she shared her tools for aging gracefully and living a long and happy life, with an emphasis on reducing holiday anxiety.
The 75-year-old Florida native was selected by the UCSD School of Medicine Stein Institute for Research on Aging as a “successful ager” because of her positive attitude and healthy lifestyle, according to Maja Gawronska, editor of the Successful Aging newsletter the Institute publishes.
“I’ve learned in my seven decades to find time to enjoy what truly makes our hearts sing, and while there is a lot in life we cannot control, what we can control is how we react to stress and learn what depletes us,” Boline said, and with humor and joy, offered six “tools” to improve health and mental wellness.
As Boline announced that the No. 1 positive lifestyle habit was a healthy diet, hearty laughter erupted from the room, as dessert was just being served. After laughing along at the timing, Boline advised, “During the holidays, we are presented with more sugary options than normal, which can cause our blood sugar to spike and signal the stress hormones in our brains. When that gets triggered, it starts a vicious cycle that causes us to crave more foods that are not good for us. So I encourage you to eat more protein and fiber and less sugar and carbohydrates during the season and always. My suggestion is to stock up on greens and have them handy over the holidays, and try green juices.”
She handed out a juice recipe — a gift to those that paid for the luncheon — and reminded attendees, “We’re lucky that we live in an area that has a juice bar on every corner.”
Before holiday parties, she suggested eating something loaded with lean protein and head for the vegetable tray when you get there, “because if you are somewhat fortified before you get to the party, you won’t be as likely to head for the cheese and crackers,” she said. “Remember, when choosing a dessert, dark chocolate is a good choice.”
Her mantra for celebrating with alcohol: “One glass of water for every glass of wine, or whatever your drink of choice is.”
“I know you think you know how to breathe, and I did too until I started my yoga practice and learned about the controlled breath,” she said. “Our bodies have a whole breathing mechanism available to us, including the lower abdominals, ribcage and upper chest. We want to use that entire breathing mechanism.”
Her step-by-step instruction for a mindful, controlled breath: Sit tall, with your hands in your lap, palms up. Breathe in to the count of four and then release for the count of four. Then take your hand and place it on your lower abdominal to feel how it expands and recedes with four-second inhales and exhales.
“Look at that, you just calmed your nervous system,” she proclaimed. “It’s the easiest way to calm your nerves and your mind because when you take those slow and steady breaths, your brain gets the message that all is well.”
Noted as the “most important tool yet,” she said exercise is a way to reduce stress and burn off extra holiday calories. “Study after study shows that exercise slows aging, lifts our mood, relieves joint pain, and the list goes on. The benefits are real, measurable and almost immediate,” she said.
But perhaps as important as exercise is deciding which method works for each person. She asked: Is it walking along the beach with friends or pets; Tai Chi, yoga or Pilates; or weightlifting?
Boline’s go-to form of exercise is a consistent yoga practice — she is a longtime yoga instructor with a weekly class at the Woman’s Club — because “there is no straining or exercise, no repetitions or quick movements. We do our movements in slow motion.”
“Our bodies need to be deeply rested to live a full and active life and to cope with stress,” Boline said, and offered her favorite way to prepare for a good-night’s sleep: a hot bath with a few cups of Epsom salts before bed. “You can get (Epsom Salt) at any drug store. You need to stay in that hot water for about 20 minutes, but good news, it gives you a chance to practice your mindful breathing!”
Citing research carried out at UCSD and the Stein Institute, she said studies have determined meditation can be beneficial to your overall heath, with benefits including lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol, controlled stress level and anxiety.
“If meditation conjures up images of twisting yourself into a pretzel or chanting unfamiliar words, think again. Meditation can take many forms … and most belief systems embrace meditation in some form,” Bolien said. “There are really only two elements that are necessary: something to focus on, such as your breath or something in front of you, and the ability to bring the mind back when it starts to wander — because your mind will definitely wander. I encourage you to give it a try.”
Especially crucial during this particular time of year, Boline a said social connection is important, and sometimes we need to take the first step to maintain that connection, especially during the holidays.
“You might have to be the one to take the lead, we can’t just sit back and think everything we need is going to come to us. We have to reach out,” she said and suggested inviting friends or family members to any one of the many holiday concerts and events taking place throughout La Jolla.
She added, “This season, give yourself permission to be human. If you feel sadness or anger during the holidays, you are not alone, we all experience longing for closer family ties and other feelings like that. If we don’t help each other by sharing with each other how we made it through tough times, you’ll end up trying to figure out what to do in isolation. And life becomes way harder than it needs to.
Her suggestion? “Balance your emotions every day by finding something you enjoy, I like to look for something three times a day that is going to make me happy such as a sunset, a healthy meal, a smile, a hug. … When I do, I feel the blessings of living fully.”